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Feb 2007 Journal

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Lightening the February gloom

Is it really true that we live in a world of unparalleled insecurity, threatened by wars, crises and political confrontations between nations, religions and races? For those of my generation in Britain and Western Europe, born at the end of the Second World War, the decades of our lifetimes have, on the contrary, been a period of unprecedented peace and prosperity. We are the first generation of the twentieth century whose menfolk have not been called up to fight in a major European war. Our grandfathers suffered and died in the trenches of 1914-18, our fathers fought in the war against Hitler or fell victim to murderous Nazi persecution, but I vividly recall my relief at learning in my early teens that conscription was to be abolished: my generation of young men would not more or less automatically become cannon fodder for the next European conflagration.

If one looks back to the supposedly optimistic and rainbow-hued era of the 1960s, one sees a world where two armed blocks were kept from conflict only by the roughly equal balance of their nuclear arms, sufficient to destroy the world many times over. The principal division - the Iron Curtain - ran right through the heart of Europe, while the enclave of West Berlin, surrounded by East German territory, twice brought the continent close to war, during the Anglo-American airlift that broke Stalin's blockade of the city in 1948-49 and during the erection of Ulbricht's Berlin Wall in 1961. During the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, only exceptionally adroit conflict management by the Kennedy administration led the Soviet Union to abandon its attempt to base nuclear missiles in Cuba without sparking armed conflict between the superpowers. The Vietnam War further disfigured the decade.

Now parliamentary democracy has spread across Europe. The collapse of Communism and the resulting reunification of Germany, far from setting in train a resurgence of the German Drang to dominate Europe, has instead resulted in the entry of the countries of Eastern Europe into the comity of European democracies, so diluting German preponderance that Germany now has less than a fifth of the population of the expanded EU. In 1960, by contrast, secure democracies were in short supply: Britain, America, a scattering of West European countries, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. West Germany and Japan were still developing democratic systems, while Spain, Portugal and (from 1967) Greece lay under authoritarian or fascist rule.

Democracy is taking root beyond Europe and North America - and as democracies have a record of not making war on each other, so the risk of conflict is receding across the world. In Latin America, the death of General Pinochet reminds us that not a single right-wing dictator remains in power, and that there is only one left-wing dictator, Fidel Castro, in Cuba. In South and South-East Asia, too, rapidly increasing prosperity has underpinned the development of democratic institutions or at least promoted the abandonment of the worst excesses of undemocratic rule, with isolated exceptions like Burma and North Korea. Who would have thought in 1966, at the outset of Chairman Mao's Cultural Revolution, that by 2006 China would have become one of the engines of world capitalism, more interested in exporting consumer goods than world revolution?

On the negative side of the balance, the perilous situation facing Israel and the entire Middle East alarms us all. Africa, too, stays stubbornly immune to all efforts to improve the lives of its population, though South Africa's transition from apartheid to multi-racial democracy in the 1990s was a triumph for peace that few would have predicted. The surge of Islamic fundamentalism is making itself felt in Western Europe, and the fear of terrorist outrages in our cities helps fuel a widespread sense of insecurity, as, more amorphously, does global warming. But, looking back on my youth in the 1960s, I see a political situation much improved over the decades.
Anthony Grenville

previous article:In memory of Herbert Sulzbach
next article:Mother's help