The writer is author of ‘Homelands: A Personal History of Europe’
“Do you think there’ll be a generation of 22ers?” a student asked me recently in the German university town of Göttingen. A cohort of Europeans, that is, for whom the full-scale war in Ukraine that began with Russia’s invasion in February 2022 shapes the way they think and act politically for the rest of their lives. It’s an important question.
Today’s Europe has been shaped by four key political generations: the 14ers (with their life-changing youthful experience of the first world war), the 39ers (the second world war), the 68ers (1968, in all its different manifestations) and the 89ers (the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the cold war).
In each case the formative moment comes early in adult life, so there is a significant time lag before the cohort affected comes to power. The 68ers such as Germany’s Joschka Fischer, the UK’s Jack Straw and France’s Lionel Jospin played a leading role in European politics well into the 2000s. The 89ers such as Czech prime minister Petr Fiala and German economy minister Robert Habeck are now at the helm.
A few years ago, our Europe’s Stories project at Oxford university investigated formative moments for today’s young Europeans. Then, there seemed to be no single moment comparable with 1989, 1968 or the two world wars. Instead, we found a shared experience, that of freedom of movement across Europe, and a dominant concern: climate change. There were, however, some specific moments for geographical subgroups: the wars in former Yugoslavia for south-east Europeans; the eurozone crisis for young Greeks, Spaniards and Portuguese; Brexit for Britons and the Irish.
Surely, though, Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine must galvanise a new pan-European political generation. If the largest war in Europe since 1945 doesn’t do it, then what?
People often respond enthusiastically to this idea. I, too, would love to see a new political generation with a sense of shared purpose to drive the European project forward. But neither opinion polls nor my conversations with young Europeans offer any strong evidence that it yet exists.
In Ukraine, I have met many young people for whom the war obviously will be the defining moment of their political lives: a cross between 1939 and 1989. In Poland and Estonia, I have seen a similar effect, although less strongly. It is far less visible, however, in western Europe. Here there is huge sympathy for Ukraine, enhanced by personal encounters with Ukrainian refugees, but the war has become one news story among many.
There are large differences in attitude even between those central and east European countries closer to the war zone. In recent polling done for the Globsec think-tank, roughly a third of Bulgarian and Slovak respondents say the west is primarily responsible for the war in Ukraine. A shocking 50 per cent of Slovaks agree with the statement that “the US poses a security threat to my country”.
The generational breakdown is even less clear cut. In-depth analysis of polling done for our research project and the European Council on Foreign Relations shows that just 46 per cent of 18- to 29-year-olds describe Russia as an adversary, compared with more than 60 per cent of those aged over 60.
In some of the 10 European countries we polled, young people seemed pro-western, in others they were more critical of the west. Only in support of Ukraine’s prospective EU membership are young Europeans generally more positive than the old. Globsec’s analysts tell me they find an equally chequered pattern.
Moreover, these polls don’t establish the relative salience of the issue. My conversations with young Europeans suggest that subjects such as climate change, socio-economic inequality and what they see as their blighted life chances are at least as important to them as this war.
Does this mean the 22ers are just a vape-dream of old 89ers? Or, at best, another of those geographical subgroups? Perhaps, but not necessarily. For obvious reasons, 1989 was experienced more intensely in eastern than in western Europe, yet it still shaped an entire cohort of future leaders. The exhilarating forward march of liberty that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall gave them a lifetime commitment to advancing the goal of a “Europe whole and free”.
Political generations are not born but made. So the question must really be put back to that Göttingen student and her peers. Are you going to create a political class of 22ers, combining the defence of freedom and restoration of peace in Europe with your own generation’s concerns such as intersectional equality and a green energy transition? Old 89ers and 68ers certainly hope so; but it’s up to you.