The blogosphere and the media are filled with commentary and reporting about the Brexit vote. There is a lot commentary by economists, political science people, diplomats, and the British. While I don’t have much to add to the remarks of these experts and locals about the immediate effects, I have some thoughts, wearing my amateur-student-of-history hat.
That hat’s brim shades my eyes and allows me to see into the future and the past. It is my view, by the way, that hindsight is not 20/20. Looking into and understanding the past is almost, but not quite, as difficult as seeing the future.
A long view of European history, I think, shows that Europeans have trouble getting along with each other. From the distant past until World War I, dynastic squabbles provided plenty of excuses for soldiers to march about, stabbing, bludgeoning, blowing up and shooting one another and bystanders too. Consider, just to pick one example among many: The War of Spanish Succession, a major international conflict that lasted from 1701 to 1714. The belligerents included, on one side, Spaniards loyal to Charles of Aragon, the Holy Roman Empire including Austria, Prussia, and Hanover, England and Scotland, the Dutch Republic, the Duchy of Savoy, and the Kingdom of Portugal, and on the other side, Spaniards loyal to Philip of Castile, the Kingdom of Naples, the Kingdom of Sicily, France, and Bavaria. I’ll go out on a limb to suggest that few residents in Hanover had any issues with the residents of Naples, or even felt threatened by them. They may not have even had a clear idea where the south of Italy might be. Yet the rulers of these monarchies (except for the Dutch) brought the European continent to war to decide who would rule Spain.
As these dynastic struggles tended to recede, as absolute monarchy gradually passed from the scene and nationalism rose as a powerful European force, wars’ causes and purposes changed to. The vast struggles of the Napoleonic era, fought between immense armies of tens of thousands and even hundreds of thousands of men, had to do with French nationalism mixed with typical dynastic struggles. I might say that World War I was the last major fight that involved powerful or absolute monarchs: Tsar Nicholas II, Kaiser Wilhelm II, Emperor Franz-Joseph, and Mehmed V. The French and British at that time were a republic and a constitutional parliamentary monarchy. That terrible war ended with the destruction of the Russian, German, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman Empires, putting an end to the major monarchies and to their dynastic struggles. Various governments, many of them democratic, replaced them as an outcome of the Versailles Treaty and other treaties, but over the next two decades most of them fell into authoritarianism or worse.