Boris Johnson's latest, headline-grabbing, intervention in the referendum debate has been to compare the EU's unifying ambitions with those of Hitler. He does not directly accuse the EU Commission of building concentration camps, nor has he claimed to spot Angela Merkel donning a sinister black leather uniform and pointing at maps overlaid with arrows. Indeed, he was at pains to distinguish the methods of those running the EU and the Nazis. What makes them comparable, he says, is the aim of unifying Europe which has always ended "tragically".
Humm. Hard to know where to begin on this one. Of course the purpose of his remarks was to make a headline and associate "Hitler" and "EU" in the minds of voters. This is such a disgusting tactic that it is hard to take him seriously any more. Sadly, as he is the MP for my constituency I am stuck with him.
I do agree that when military leaders have attempted to conquer large parts of Europe it has tended to end badly. Equally I assume that Johnson is not saying that all unifications achieved in part or whole by military efforts in the past are tragic and should be undone. If he is then goodbye UK, welcome back the patchwork quilt of tribal areas that predominated (as far as we can tell) for hundreds of years before the Romans knocked it on the head in 44 AD. And the same goes for nearly all of France, all of Germany, great chunks of Italy, slivers of Spain, etc. These countries emerged often from a constrained merger of peoples speaking different languages and with different cultures. And the processes often were tragic - think of the massacres in Southern France of the Cathars or the expulsion of Moors after the conquest of Andalucia.
What Johnson is expecting us to recall is the attempts in modern times to stamp one authority over the continent. This started with Napoleon, was inherited as an idea by Kaiser Wilhelm I and reached its ghastly apogee first under Hitler and then Stalin. But all this bloodshed and destruction was the result of wars between nation states. In each case there was an immediate military conflict between neighbours which developed into attempts to create a continental system. The EU, in total contrast, began after a terrible war had ended and represented a genuine attempt between ex-belligerents to find a new way of living together. Nothing has ever been done like it before. Countries have gradually surrendered sovereignty deliberately to further the project. Whether it will ever end in a United States of Europe is impossible to tell - I suspect the language and culture differences across the continent are too great for that, and the levels of economic development too far apart to assume that the richer countries will happily subsidise the poorer. But the effort to keep the project moving is entirely worthwhile. It takes Europe ever further from the nation state system that has arguably been a catastrophe. It puts Europe alongside the other great powerhouses of the 21st century - China, the US, India (and perhaps Russia). These states are all sufficiently large and diverse to be equivalent to continents that have come together in unifying projects. China's started a long time ago, even before the Romans popped over the Channel, and India's was forced on it after independence from British rule; but this does not invalidate the main thrust of this argument.
We are perhaps half way through the unification of Europe, a process that started under Rome, fell apart around 410 AD and has been stuttering and stop-starting ever since. It has taken 1600 years for Europe's internal borders to be agreed - can you imagine a war starting now over where a border should be (Former Yugoslavian countries and countries bordering on Russia excepted)? Yet such activity was commonplace and regarded as thoroughly glorious no more than a hundred years ago.
I find it amazing that Johnson was unable to articulate any of this right up to the moment he declared his support for the No campaign. These issues are so fundamental that he surely must always have felt that the EU was similar to a fascist dictatorship. The idea that the EU would move in the direction of an "ever closer union" has been established for years. So why did he not say all this last year? Or if it really came down the details of the settlement negotiated by his colleague David Cameron in February, then how he can be so dogmatic about it? - waiting to see the reuslts of that process can only imply that there was a good chance he would have approved the results, and therefore that he does not in any way at all think that his historical parallels hold water.
It is desperately sad that Mr Johnson, forever looking backwards at some glorious imagined past, has not got the imagination to look ahead and visualise a better future for us all, and has used his fine talents as a genuinely popular and charismatic politician to distort history for a short-term political cause that he does not really believe in.