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The summer of European discontent

Fan unrest at Euro 2016 only hinted at far more troubling signs in Europe and the world around it.

PARIS -- The European Championship ended Sunday, with Portugal beating France in the same Saint-Denis stadium terrorists attacked in November. This tournament was played inside a heavily fortified perimeter, with thousands of cops and soldiers, and because of their hard work and vigilance, nothing happened. Some English fans acted like morons, and some Russian fans acted like Rambo, and there were incidents here and there, but mostly, everything was contained by the temporary French police state. The only real incident came Sunday night, outside the Eiffel Tower, where angry fans who couldn't access the fan zone rioted and were dispersed with water cannons and tear gas.

Outside the safety of the football stadiums and fan zones, the past month has been a scary one in Europe, and in the larger world around it. You've probably read about them all and don't need the full laundry list, just the broad strokes: terrorist attacks; a collapse of the British government after the vote to leave the EU; rising populist, right-wing candidates all over the continent; and, of course, violence and stunning political rhetoric across the Atlantic in the United States. You've read or seen these stories, and many have the same tone: The sky is falling. The European Union itself is in question. The future is uncertain, with many possible outcomes.

Will we look back on this tournament as one of the last positive, communal acts undertaken by a unified continent? Or will people forget this time of stress once the economy rebounds and people can focus once more on being citizens in the borderless nation-state of consumption?

Where does Europe go from here?

A college professor and historian named Mario Del Pero met me on my last afternoon in Paris. He's an expert in U.S. foreign policy, the Cold War and European history, so he seemed like a good person to answer the question so many people have been discussing in ham-fisted ways this past month.

Can Europe fail?

"Hasn't it yet?" he shot back quickly.

First, he says, history doesn't repeat itself, not exactly, but it does teach us that every option is always on the table, including worst-case scenarios. This is a dangerous time, and not just because of the easily visible conflicts over immigration and globalization. There is something else going on, more hidden and yet as important.

Every day, more old people die and take with them their memories of World War II. Very few veterans remain, and even those who were children during the bombings of London, and of Dresden, remain alive. The D-Day tour operators say that possibly as soon as next year, and certainly in five years, there won't be a single veteran of the assault healthy enough to visit the beaches. The willingness to indulge far-right political views is directly related, it seems, to the inability to know firsthand what happened the last time those views gained traction.

"We are losing the memory of the war," Del Pero said. "Europe, as a project, was built on the memory of World War II. That's the memory of the war which drives the political ideas and drives the European ideology itself. The ideology of: With true integration, we finally solve those problems that divided and destroyed Europe. If the memory vanishes, the ideological pillar becomes way less solid. Are you following me?"

Del Pero is optimistic that the worst-case scenario -- another continent-wide war -- is unlikely, given popular culture and most countries' defense spending. The young people who'd have to go kill each other aren't scared of each other, or of the changing world that is driving the generations above them to anger. Old people start wars that young people fight, and in the modern world, the divide within countries might not be as great as the divide between generations.

And yet, Europe is in its longest period of peace in the past 2,000 years, which might suggest that what we have imagined as the new normal -- a liberal world of economic codependence and multicultural tolerance -- was just a historical blip resulting from the horrors of World War II, which followed so closely on the heels of the horrors of World War I.

A year ago, Del Pero went to a political workshop in Germany, and one night, he and a high-ranking member of the German government talked about the Greek financial crisis. Del Pero wouldn't name the official, because they'd been talking at an informal event, but he repeated what that official told him: "The Greeks never learn. They don't do their homework. So we need to keep a hammer over them."

That gave Del Pero chills. "There is a poison in the air," he said. "Clearly. You see the kind of political language. It is disgusting. The point is, do we have the antidote?"

Can Europe fail? While the football world unified around Euro 2016, the UK voted to leave the European Union.

On my last morning in France, I walked into a large clearing an hour north of Paris. Two sets of railroad tracks, originally installed to move enormous guns around, remained, along with several monuments. This is where Germany surrendered to France at the end what people called the Great War, so sure that nothing so horrible could ever follow.

Birds chirped, and the place felt solemn. A statue of French general Ferdinand Foch stood watch in a corner of the field, and to the right, there was a museum holding an exact replica of the railroad coach where that armistice was signed. The coach became a symbol after World War I, going to Paris to be viewed by the public, then returned here to live forever, along with a marble monument in the center of the clearing, with the inscription: "Here on the eleventh of November 1918 succumbed the criminal pride of the German empire, vanquished by the free peoples which it tried to enslave."

Twenty-two years after the first war ended, in 1940, France surrendered to Germany. Hitler brought his vanquished enemies back to Compiegne, and his soldiers destroyed the museum, so the railroad carriage could be brought back to the exact spot where it had stood in 1918. The French signed a new armistice and then the Germans built a temporary railroad to load the carriage on a truck and took it back to Berlin. They destroyed all the monuments to their surrender, except the statue of Foch, because Hitler wanted the man to stare for eternity on an empty field, a reminder of what his first victory had cost his nation.

In Berlin, people lined up to see the coach, a symbol of the nation's fall and subsequent rise, and when it became clear that World War II was lost, German soldiers set fire to the railway carriage. Now only a few charred pieces remain, displayed inside this museum in Compiegne, perhaps the clearest talisman to the lengths the world is willing to go to destroy itself over wounded pride. Only about 130 visitors a day come on average, more in the summer. Mostly this is a quiet, forgotten place, commemorating two wars fought against ideas that once seemed defeated for good.

A senior writer for and ESPN The Magazine, Wright Thompson is a native of Clarksdale, Mississippi.


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