The Duc de Sully’s ‘Great Design’ for an all-Christian universal republic not only excluded the Ottoman’s but also Russia, unless it converted to Catholicism, Lutheranism, or Calvinism. Less than a century later William Penn envisaged both Muscovy and the Turks as being part of his proposal for The Establishment of an European Dyet, Parliament, or Estates. The concept of Europe as a community of Christian states designed to ward off all attacks by non-Christians was obsolete. The eighteenth century also saw the extension of the European idea outside the physical confines of the continent as nation states sought to determine the extent of rival’s overseas possessions as well as territorial and political arrangements in Europe proper.
The establishment of the Concert of Europe following the Napoleonic Wars ushered in a period where an aristocratic, elitist construct of the community of the powerful sought to maintain their own interests while ensuring a balance of power between European states. The nineteenth century further saw European settlement or colonial control expand from thirty-five per cent to eighty-four per cent of the Earth’s land mass. Europe’s share of world manufacturing grew from twenty-eight per cent to sixty-two per cent, and her share of global Gross Domestic Product from forty-nine per cent to nearly ninety per cent. Imperialism marched hand in hand with concepts of the cultural, and racial, superiority of European civilization, itself a term that first appears in the sense of representing a civilized condition in France in 1772.
The growth of nationalism and the unification of Germany fundamentally altered the nature of inter-state relations within Europe. The Franco-Prussian War (1870-71) ended the continental dominance of France and ushered in an era characterized by the formation of alliances such as the Triple Entente and Triple Alliance, arms races, and an increased expectation of large-scale confrontation that was realized in the first phase of a European civil war between 1914 and 1918. The intervention of the United States of America and the revolution of Russia in 1917 may be seen as among the first signs that the balance of world power was beginning to shift outside Europe.
The Treaty of Versailles was undoubtedly harsh on Germany in economic terms. More significantly the creation of new states from the ashes of Austro-Hungary did little to resolve the inherent potential for conflict in Europe. Three of the four major powers in Europe, Germany, Italy and Russia, were left unsatisfied by the status quo and viewed the new nations on their borders as future conquests to be seized at the first opportunity. The post-war structure lacked solid foundations and the absence of genuine economic integration failed to compensate for political fragmentation in an era increasingly marked by political and ethnic nationalism.
Lack of European unity and common direction exacerbated the effects of the Great Depression as narrow nationalism saw states retain economic barriers whose removal could have speeded up European recovery in the inter-war years. Some smaller states acted to ameliorate the impact of big power rivalry on their economies. In 1922 Belgium and Luxembourg formed a limited economic union and linked the exchange rates of their currencies. The Netherlands, Denmark, Norway and Sweden agreed the Dutch-Scandinavian Economic Pact in 1930 to co-ordinate tariff policies and promote trade. This was closely followed by an agreement between the four members and the Belgium-Luxembourg Economic Union not to raise internal tariffs without notifying and consulting the other members.
As practical as these economic unions may have been they did not represent a desire to promote European cooperation per se, but rather a response to the Great Depression. As a polity Europe offered little to its major powers. Britain remained focused on its Empire, Germany did not really consider herself a member, France, haunted by the spectre of German resurgence, was intransigent, while Italy’s adoption of Fascism divorced it from the European project. Grand ideas for the unity of Europe remained strictly in the realm of the theoretical. Richard Coudenhove-Kalergi and Otto von Hapsburg founded the Pan-European Union in 1922, calling for political union as the only workable guarantee of peace. Their manifesto, PanEuropa, attracted the attention of contemporary and future political leaders, among them Thomas Masaryk, Winston Churchill, Konrad Adenauer, Georges Pompidou, and two French prime ministers, Edouard Herriot and Aristide Briand. Herriot promoted the idea of a United States of Europe in 1924, while Briand distributed a plan for a European federal union in 1930 to include a common market and the development of trans-European transport networks.
The aggressive national self-determinism embodied in the doctrine of fascism swept aside any such ideals as nationalist governments rose to power in Spain, Italy, and Germany. Conservative’s and many in the professional officer corps in France, Britain and other countries often regarded Hitler as preferable to a more moderate socialist. As the French often put it, “rather Hitler than Blum”, the moderate leader of the French socialist alliance the Front Populaire. Nazi Germany’s doctrines of lebensraum and the unity of the German people combined with the self-justification of righting the wrongs of Versailles and Hitler’s self promotion as the champion of a new supranational order led directly to Europe’s bloodiest civil war. Between 1939 and 1945 continental Europe from the Pyrenees to the Don was laid waste in the bloodiest conflict fought on European soil.
The end of the Second World War left Europe financially bankrupt, physically shattered, divided into two ideologically opposed camps, and saw an end to European dominance in world affairs leaving its members subject to either the hegemony of America or the Soviet Union. Europe faced the need to rebuild economies, political systems, infrastructure and social relations while protecting itself from poverty, economic insecurity and cold war division.
Research from the Defence Studies Department, King's College London
Contemporary Artist, Leicestershire UK
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