Part I – Schuman’s Epihany | Part II – The Green Fields of France
“The European spirit signifies being conscious of belonging to a cultural family and to have a willingness to serve that community in the spirit of total mutuality, without any hidden motives of hegemony or the selfish exploitation of others. The 19th century saw feudal ideas being opposed and, with the rise of a national spirit, nationalities asserting themselves. Our century, that has witnessed the catastrophes resulting in the unending clash of nationalities and nationalisms, must attempt and succeed in reconciling nations in a supranational association. This would safeguard the diversities and aspirations of each nation while coordinating them in the same manner as the regions are coordinated within the unity of the nation.”
Robert Schuman, 1949
It isn’t easily done, but in this extract from a speech given in Strasbourg in 1949, the then French president, Robert Schuman, considered by many to be the father of the European Union, managed to sum up the breadth of 200 years of European history in a single thought.
The extent of Schuman’s vision is considerable. Even prior to the end of the war, after 4 years of Nazi occupation of northeastern France, and the further invasion of the “free” French zone in 1944, Schuman was already speaking about the need for structured unity in Europe, which would include Germany.
His analysis of recent European history is strikingly accurate.
In 19th century Europe, the age of divinely invested empires was beginning to crumble away, as subjected peoples began to organise around the concept of a the nation state, in which they found the necessary resilience to endure the painful transition from imperial repression to political freedom.
Having invested so much sacrifice in their infant nations, the peoples of Europe would thereafter defend them with their lives, which provided the necessary foundation for a string of totalitarian regimes to plunge Europe into successive wars between 1914 and 1945.
Nationalism, which had once been the key to unlock so many chains, had become a poison, which Europeans couldn’t get enough of, even when they were dying in their millions.
In was in this context that Schuman’s epiphany occurred.
Put simply, Schuman, who had witnessed German, French, British and American armies roll forward and back across his country 4 times in less than 30 years, conceived that the only way to prevent further war between Europeans was to unlock the “fortress” of the nation state, and replace it with the concept of “supranational” collaboration, the mutual benefits of which would always outweigh lure of aggressive nationalism.
Schuman’s powers of persuasion were such that his ideas began to take hold, and Europe began to unite, through the gradual transition from the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951 to the European Union that we know today.
In that time, no armed conflict has occurred within the borders of the nations who have adopted Schuman’s vision, despite the ever destabilizing threat of the Soviet Union, various economic ups and downs and a terrible war in the Balkans on the very periphery of the European Union’s borders.
Moreover, the political ideology of the European Union has become the gold standard for peoples in other parts of the world who continue to suffer the sort of oppression that Europeans have long since forgotten.
Political, cultural, economic and religious freedom are the hallmarks of European governance, taken for granted by Europeans in a way that would have been imaginable to their immediate ancestors, many of whom lived in fear of being shot on the basis of their ethnicity, nationality or religion of their parents.
By the end of the 20th centruy, the future of Europe appeared to have become uncomplicated. The formula, so painfully unearthed, was beautifully simple: stick together and nobody gets hurt. Or at least, that’s how it should have been.
The complication is economics, in that the economic profile of Europe in the post-war era is very different to that of today.
While Europeans of late 19th and early 20th centuries discovered their love of the nation state, nationalism alone was never enough to plunge Europeans into war. Had everyone had a job, a roof over their head and food on the table, Europeans would have been happy to indulge their nationalistic impulses by waving flags, singing national anthems and following their national football teams.
In the 1930s, in the teeth of the Great Depression, that wasn’t the case, and having successively used their nation states to resist the dynastic oppressors of the 1900s, Europe’s impoverished millions now turned their guns on their neighbours, encouraged at every step of the way by popular dictators who convinced them that their various problems were the fault of people who lived on the other side of random lines drawn on a map.
Hundreds of millions of deaths later, Europe had been destroyed to the point that their was simply no one left to blame, and the US, having realised that if it would continue to suffer by proxy if it continued to ignore Europe’s proclivity to war and dictatorship, decided to rebuild Europe in such a way that economics and nationalism would never again achieve the high-octane mix of the 1930s.
The Marshall Plan pumped billions into rebuild the European continent. Europeans would have the economic security they required to lure them away from handing power to demagogues, particularly ones who sought to convince that joining the Soviet Union was a good bet.
It was in this economic context that Schuman’s vision was able to take hold. In 1949, after a decade of privation, the Marshall billions were giving Europeans a reborn sense of security, and the idea of pooling sovereignty with their former enemies was at least palatable, particularly among political leaders who had seen the horrors of 2 European wars at first hand.
Decades of economic stability followed. Germany, France and Italy became industrial super powers. People bought houses, cars, electrical appliances and went on holidays. Communism, which policy makers had feared would spread organically through western Europe, receded to the east, sustained by the military muscle of the Red Army rather than the consent of voters.
Europe’s leaders, and peoples, for whom the memory of war was fresh and ever present, had done something remarkable. They had created peace in the world’s most dangerous place.
Unfortunately, no one lives forever, and all memory eventually fades.