Aachen is the disputed birthplace and favoured winter residence of Karl der Grosse (c. 747 – 814), more popularly known as Charlemagne in the English speaking world, whose kingdom at its greatest extent included all of modern France, the Lowlands, much of modern Germany, Austria, and Northern Italy. The 16th Century French jurist and political philosopher, Jean Bodin, described Charlemagne as the first true monarch to rule uncontested over a civilized European empire, while during his lifetime he was described as Carolus Magnus, ‘Charles the Great’, and, on the eve of his coronation as Emperor, as rex Pater Europae, ‘father of Europe’. Medieval monarchs revered him. Otto III opened his tomb in 1000 to honour Charlemagne in the expected year of Christ’s return. Frederick I Barbarossa had him canonized in 1165. In chivalry he joined the mythical King Arthur and the historical Godfrey of Bouillon (c. 1060 – 1100) the first ruler of the Kingdom of Jerusalem as one of the three Christian princes among the Nine Worthies of the World (Hector, Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Joshua, King David, and Judas Maccabeus were the other six).
Both the French and the Germans have hailed Charlemagne as the father of their nations. Though some Nazi historians disparaged him as the oppressor of the Germanic Saxons, others saw him as the heroic original ancestor of Hitler’s united Germanic continent. Following the Second World War the concept of Charlemagne as a European figure was invoked as a symbolic figure that represented the common ground and inspiration for unity between the ancient west and east Frankish wings of Charlemagne’s empire. Today the city of Aachen awards an annual prize, the Internationaler Karlspreis zu Aachen, to the individual the awards committee thinks has made, “the most valuable contribution in the services of Western European understanding and work for the community, and in the services of humanity and world peace. This contribution may be in the field of literary, scientific, economic or political endeavour.” Prize winners have included many of the leading politicians from the EU countries with a leavening of academics, institutions, two religious in Brother Roger and His Holiness Pope John Paul II, the Euro currency, and the People of Luxembourg for being convinced Europeans from the outset.
The first recorded instance of the term, ‘Europeans’, occurs in a description of the mixed forces under the command of Charles Martel, grandfather of Charlemagne and de facto ruler of Francia, at the Battle of Poitiers (732) as europeenses. To ancient Greek geographers, like Anaximander and Hecataeus, ‘Europe’ was simply a geographical concept that initially described non-Greek lands to the west and north, but soon came to include mainland Greece. According to Herodotus, Europe’s border to the east was the river Phasis, the modern river Rioni in Georgia. Roman authors took the Tanay, the Russian Don, as Europe’s border. The modern frontier along the line of the Urals was first proposed in 1730 by the Swedish officer and geographer Philip Johan van Strahlenberg in his book, Das Nord-und Ostliche Theil von Europa und Asia, the research for which had been carried out whilst working for Catherine the Great. Russian claims for the extension of Europe to include the Duchy of Muscovy were soon adopted and by 1833 with the publication of Volger’s Handbuch der Geographie, the idea of a Europe that stretched from the Atlantic to the Urals had gained general acceptance.
The political concept of Europe is much younger than the geographic one. Its roots may be seen in the description of the Franks, Burgundians, and Bretons at the Battle of Poitiers as europeenses. Itself a battle that may arguably have determined the path of European history and western civilization with its defeat of the forces of the Umayyid caliphate under Abdul Rahman Al Ghafiqi, Governor-General of Al-Andalus. Islam did as much, possibly more, to define Europe than its clear physical western, northern, and southern geographical boundaries, by determining the ideological and physical limits of Christendom along the lines of the Pyrenees, the Mediterranean coast, and the Bosphorous. National figures like Rodrigo Diaz El Vivar, El Cid, Richard I, Couer de Lion, and Vlad Țepeș, Dracula, all owe much of their fame, or notoriety, to their interaction with the Islamic world of their day. To the north and east paganism long persisted after the conversion of Constantine the Great c. 312, surviving formally until the fourteenth century in Lithuania. This sense of the other on the periphery of Christian Europe helped define both the concept of Christendom and the nascent idea of Europe as an entity, rather than just a geographic region.
The first concept of a politically united Europe appears in the 1306 treatise De recuperatione terrae sanctae by the Norman royal lawyer, Pierre Dubois. Aimed at ensuring peace among Christians, reform of the Church, and the reconquest of the Holy Land, it envisaged the creation of a commonwealth of Christian rulers dedicated to the recovery of Jerusalem and a reformed papacy, all, naturally, under the power, influence, and control of the French king. Despite such calls for unification in response to external threat the internal interest of Europe’s kings and states did not favour actual integration.
In 1598, Maximilien de Bethune, Duc de Sully, Superintendent of Finance to Henry IV of France proposed a confederation of European states in which there would be freedom of commerce and supreme control to be vested in an elected senate of sixty-six members, with a certain number of representatives assigned to each member state. The senate would make law, settle disputes, preserve peace, and manage a composite army and navy on behalf of the confederation in the pursuit of the objective of expelling the Ottomans from Europe. Like Dubois before him, Sully’s ‘Great Design’ was primarily in the interests of France, requiring as it did the reduction of the Hapsburg Empire to Spain, the seizure of Spanish overseas territories, and the redistribution of Hapsburg territories in the Low Countries, Germany and Austria.
The sixteenth and seventeenth century wars of religion that raged throughout Europe, and claimed the life of Sully’s master, and the increasing secularization of Europe under the influence of Renaissance and the Enlightenment saw a movement away from the universalist religious focus and an increased interest in the individual, in personality, and the scientific revolution. Over a century of bloody religious strife destroyed the core of European civilisation’s identity. The concept of Christendom ceased to be come relevant and the idea of Europe as a community of states began to take hold. From the Treaty of Westphalia (1648) ‘Europe’ became a common term of reference constituting the base of political projects aimed at achieving peaceful organization of the continent. By contrast the Treaty of Utrecht (1713) was the last occasion by which European leaders were referred to as the princes of Christendom.
Research from the Defence Studies Department, King's College London
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