Downton Abbey is a British television series currently showing on PBS in its Masterpiece Classic time slot. It's been the biggest success the non-commercial arts, news, history and culture channel has had in years.
The series is set in an English stately home, or manor house, on the eve of and during World War I.
In fact, the first season, which aired a year ago, began with the sinking of the Titanic 100 years ago in April 1912. The heir of the fictional Lord Grantham went down with the ship and was succeeded by his heir, a distant cousin and commoner who is now a main character in the series. The first season ended with the outbreak of World War I in 1914.
The episode of Jan. 22 was preceded by a special one-hour documentary titled "Secrets of the Manor House." During the program, at least one historian commented on how the sinking of the Titanic was a metaphor for the sinking of the old order that soon followed as a consequence of the First World War.
As if to emphasize the point, the second episode of the second season brought us up to the fall of the Romanov dynasty in Russia. A European order that had continued for more than a thousand years was crumbling, dying in the battlefields and carnage of the "war to end all wars."
The producers of the documentary could not have foreseen another passenger ship disaster which may herald a similar European upheaval. The Costa Concordia, an Italian cruise ship, hit a reef and capsized on Jan. 13, with up to several dozen passengers and crew members drowned or missing.
Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Bret Stephens highlighted this as another "Titanic-type event, right on the eve of the 100th anniversary of the first one," and asked if it was "a way of prefiguring some great European disaster?" ("What Is Europe Sinking About?" Jan. 17, 2012).
His article came just after the Italian cruise ship disaster off the Italian coast. The death toll was minor compared to the Titanic, but the "tragic-ridiculous shipwreck" seemed an apt metaphor "for a continent in which nine countries had their credit ratings downgraded earlier that same day. Even the biggest ship can founder in calm waters if the captain is negligent. Even a rescue operation 50 feet from shore can turn into a fiasco if nobody has conducted a drill and the crew [members] have no idea how to steer a lifeboat" (ibid.).
It certainly seems an apt metaphor for Europe—a continent that appears to be in danger of sinking! But a new Europe is destined to ultimately emerge.
Will Europe be left to its own security?
In a defense review announced by U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington, Europe got decidedly downgraded in terms of the need for U.S. protection. The Jan. 14, 2012, issue of The Economist stated: "Perhaps the least remarked upon part of the new strategy is the seemingly bleak future for American forces in Europe. It glibly refers to 'most European countries' now being 'producers of security rather than consumers of it' and talks about a 'strategic opportunity to rebalance the US military investment in Europe' following the drawdown in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"The American military presence in Europe, it hints, is an expensive relic of the cold war and it suggests there are no significant threats to Europe's security other than Iran developing a nuclear-capable ballistic missile, which supposedly will be countered by the new missile-defence system American is starting to deploy" ("The Downgrading of Europe").
The article carried the drophead: "Barack Obama's new defense plans neglect Europe at their peril." The point being made in the magazine is that "nearly 80% of the countries contributing troops to the NATO-led coalition in Afghanistan have come from the European region." If America turns its back on Europe, it risks isolating itself and limiting its ability to act internationally.
And there are other factors here for Americans (and Europeans) to consider—history and the Bible.
Lessons from history, warnings from prophecy
It's been almost 70 years since the end of World War II. Following the war, the victorious allies kept hundreds of thousands of their troops in Europe. This included the United States. At the time it was often said the troops were there "to keep the Russians out, the Americans in and the Germans down"! After two world wars started by Germany, nobody wanted to see another.
Through the four decades of the Cold War, the West's focus was on keeping the Russians out, for which there was a need to keep the Americans in. West Germany was quickly turned into a democratic ally. In the two decades since the fall of communism, the Western allies have even lost sight of the need to keep the Russians out—and thus the justification to keep the Americans in.
Through the recent financial upheavals in the European Union (EU), Germany has emerged as its clear and dominant leader. As the EU is the world's biggest single market and most powerful trading system, this makes Germany an economic superpower.
In the past, Germany was willing to take a back seat, due to its infamous past, but no longer. Today the Germans will not let the British or the French dictate to them. At the same time, history shows that a nation that is economically dominant will eventually dominate politically and militarily.
Bible prophecy shows us that another superpower lies ahead—a European-centered union of 10 "kings" (or nations) that are led by a figure the Bible calls "the Beast," a European dictator of whom Adolf Hitler and other tyrants of the past were but forerunners.
This final revival of the Roman Empire will be an even greater threat to world peace than the Third Reich because it will not be tied down through conquest in suppressing other European nations. Instead it will be a voluntary union of European nations, likely led by Germany. This final union of European nations will turn on Jesus Christ to fight Him at His return.
You can read about this in Revelation 17: "The ten horns which you saw are ten kings who have received no kingdom as yet, but they receive authority for one hour [a short period of time in the context of human history] as kings with the beast. These are of one mind, and they will give their power and authority to the beast. These will make war with the Lamb [Jesus Christ], and the Lamb will overcome them, for He is Lord of lords and King of kings" (Revelation 17:12-14).
Parallels with conditions before World War II
It seems strange to talk of a revived Roman Empire in Europe at a time when the European Union, founded by the 1957 Treaty of Rome, seems to be falling apart.
This is where some knowledge of European history is helpful.
In 1930 Europe was falling apart. Less than 10 years later, Germany, Austria, Italy and some other lesser allies were able to conquer most of the continent and pose a serious threat to the peace and prosperity of the rest of the world. In alliance with Japan, the Axis powers inflicted a six-year conflict on most of the world.
What brought this about? Economic problems brought on by the 1929 Wall Street Crash, trade wars and the Great Depression, which resulted in one third of Germans being unemployed.
In turn, this led to the rise of extremist parties, including the National Socialist (Nazi) Party. The Nazis came to power in January 1933. By 1936 the country had rearmed significantly enough to defy the League of Nations and send troops into the Rhineland. By 1938 the whole of Europe was fearful of the Nazis, including Great Britain, whose Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain went to Munich to meet with Hitler and came back promising "peace in our time." One year later the nations were at war, leading to tens of millions of dead.
Germany in the driver's seat
Of course, things are different today. Germany is a prosperous, Western democracy that plays a leading role in Europe and other parts of the world. Any visitor to Germany is struck by the country's apparent prosperity, its culture, its cleanliness and its sense of order. Germany today, with a population of almost 82 million, exports more goods to other nations than any other country, including the United States with 320 million people. That's how good German products are.
Because of the sobering lessons of hyperinflation in 1923, the Depression of the 1930s and the collapse of the economy immediately after World War II, Germans have a reputation for fiscal discipline second to none. Whereas the United States continues to buy its way out of recession by printing more money, Germany follows a tight fiscal policy, refusing to inflate the economy with heavy borrowing or the printing of more euros.
This has had a bad effect on some other members of the eurozone who want to be able to spend more, but it's also had the effect of putting Germany in the driver's seat—the Germans have the funds to bail out the other nations, thereby giving them more clout than anybody else.
When the Germans and the French issued an ultimatum to other European countries in December, every single European Union member except the United Kingdom supported them—even Denmark, which has historically always been supportive of the British, who liberated them from Nazi rule at the end of World War II. Denmark and Britain joined the EU together in 1973.
"For the Danes, life in the EU has often required finding a balance between Germany, their neighbor and biggest trading partner, and Britain, their soul mate and historic market for butter and bacon. Few were more dismayed than Denmark by Britain's bust-up with its EU partners in December . . . The split was 'the worst-case scenario for Denmark', says Bo Lidegaard, editor of Politiken, a daily. 'It's not in our interest to have our close friend and our biggest market drift apart'" ("To Opt In or Not to Opt In," The Economist, Jan. 14, 2012).
Troubling signs in Europe
Germany has emerged as Europe's leader and is flexing its financial muscles. But the last quarter of 2011 showed that even Germany is slowing down at a time when Europe seems headed for a more serious recession. Could this lead to a repeat of the 1930s?
A whiff of the 1930s is certainly in the air. The current financial wind affecting European nations could easily become a hurricane, heralding the return of an economic climate more reminiscent of the 1930s.
Ironically, after writing this article, I saw this sobering article on Jan. 23 in the London Daily Telegraph: "Market Crash 'Could Hit Within Weeks,' Warn Bankers" (Harry Wilson and Philip Aldrick). Insurance on the debt of several European banks has now hit historic highs.
"The problem is a shortage of liquidity—that is what is causing the problems with the banks. It feels exactly as it felt in 2008," said one senior London-based bank executive. "I think we are heading for a market shock in September or October that will match anything we have ever seen before," said a senior credit banker at a major European bank" (ibid.).
Not many things in life are sure. But Bible prophecy is sure. The prophesied resurrection of the Roman Empire is not likely to come about merely through an evolutionary process from the European Union. It seems more likely to be formed out of the floating debris of today's EU following a financial shipwreck and a return to the dramatic changes of the 1930s—changes that transformed the continent and ultimately the entire world.