What is Europe?
What is Europe?

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What is Europe?

2.2 Europe as a sequence of ideas

Europe has also often been defined in terms of the ideas it is believed to represent and the particular system of values it is understood to embody. In different historical periods, therefore, Europe has been identified as the realm of Christianity and later as the home of science and progress. Different ideas of Europe prevailed during different periods, but they have also left their mark on contemporary conceptions. Europe has often been defined, then, in terms of a sequence of ideas, and not just with reference to what it is now, but also to what it has been in the past.

For the ancient Greeks ‘Europe’ was indeed little more than a geographical expression, and it was the principles of Hellenic civilization extending around the eastern Mediterranean that were paramount. The world of the Romans, too, was a Mediterranean one and the values of Roman citizenship had no need of any ‘European’ gloss. The civilization that began to emerge within Europe after the Middle Ages was emphatically Christian, and it was out of the realm of Christendom that an early ‘new Europe’ began to emerge, although the short-lived empire formed by

Frankish emperor Charlemagne in the late eighth century had also been called ‘European’. Christendom sustained a spirit of unity in the face of conflict with Muslim Arabs and Turks, and it was Pope Pius II – in the fifteenth century – who was the first to use the term ‘Europe’, in the title of a book (Neumann, 1999, p.44). It could hardly claim a single identity after the Reformation and the religious wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, for although Europeans remained mostly Christian they no longer shared quite the same faith.

The emergence of a modern Europe

It was towards the end of the seventeenth century and, particularly, during the eighteenth century that a consciously European identity came to the fore. By 1751 Voltaire could describe Europe as ‘a kind of great republic divided into several states, some monarchical, the others mixed … but all corresponding to one another’. A little later Edmund Burke, often understood to be a spokesman for modern conservatism and the prime embodiment of sturdy British values, affirmed the idea of a common home and maintained that ‘No European can be a complete exile in any part of Europe’ (Davies, 1996, pp.7–8). This stronger European consciousness remained primarily Christian but was now associated with other values, and particularly those of civilization which a rapidly developing Europe of the modernising west was now understood to embody. This in turn evoked principles of freedom (explored by Montesquieu), humanism (in its early sense of shared values formed by a common classical education) and the growing ideas of material progress associated with Adam Smith's discussion of the ‘wealth of nations’ (den Boer, 1995, pp.58–65).

A general idea of progress associated with the mainstream of European development soon began to prevail over the cultural elitism implied by the emphasis on civilization. It took a specific political form in the democratic explosion of the French Revolution and the emergence of a new conception of citizenship. Napoleon's dissemination of revolutionary ideals throughout the European mainland with the aid of a highly effective mass conscript army also led to the formation of a remarkable, if short-lived, European political entity; this was in the form of the Continental System which, for a time, embraced most continental nations (being joined briefly by Russia and supported by marriage ties with the powerful Habsburg dynasty in Austria). Napoleon's brief achievement and subsequent defeat was followed by strengthened emphasis on a broad European identity, but also one that became increasingly politicised and diverse. The conservative alliance that dominated Europe for the first decades of the post-Napoleonic period promoted a reactionary and romantic view of the region rooted in an idyllic mediaeval stability, while the growing group of liberals and democrats directed attention to European dynamism, its diversity and the increasing salience of national cultures.

Europe as an association of states

Political diversity in modern Europe was increasingly expressed in the form of the territorial state, and at a far earlier stage than it did anywhere else in the world (Calvocoressi, 1991, p.244). The close proximity of a number of such sovereign states within a relatively small geographical area stimulated the emergence of an increasingly complex framework for the regulation of relations between them. The idea of a balance of power between the major European competitors thus became dominant in the second half of the sixteenth century in the context of sharpening conflict between the Spanish Habsburgs and French Bourbons for overall European supremacy.

It was more precisely formulated in the Peace of Westphalia, which in 1648 brought to an end the Thirty Years War between the major powers and the internecine conflict between German Catholics and Protestants that devastated the central part of the European continent. The Westphalian order – built on the four main principles of territoriality, sovereignty, autonomy and legality – proved sufficiently durable to sustain the basic form of the European state order for the next three centuries (McGrew, 1997, p.3).

After the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars, however, the international framework was increasingly threatened by the political consequences of the accelerating pace of social change in key areas of Europe. In the second half of the nineteenth century, after the revolutions of 1848 (although their impact on Britain was more limited than that on the continent), a growing European consciousness based on profound faith in progress and common European superiority was, somewhat paradoxically, linked with strengthening nationalism and intensifying political tensions.

These two tendencies were held in precarious balance by the enormous expansion of European power throughout the globe and the rich field this offered for the great variety of its peoples’ energies, and the failure of most emerging nationalities in this period to gain control over the territory they inhabited and to construct their own state. The old European empires, although weakening and subject to growing internal strain (particularly in the case of Ottoman Turkey, but also affecting Austria and Russia), held together until the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. This delayed the onset of a spate of new state formation throughout Europe until after their combined defeat in 1918. The success of the Prussian state in harnessing the power of growing nationalism to create an extended German empire in 1871 was a striking exception to this rule and, indeed, made a distinct contribution to the growing destabilisation of the European political system throughout this period.

The fragile balance that had held through much of the nineteenth century gave way with the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 and a massive struggle between the European empires and their diverse nationalities. On the basis of the extensive conflicts and multiple tragedies of the first half of the twentieth century, it is not difficult to conclude that nationalism gained the upper hand for a lengthy period and ‘Europeanness’ underwent a strong recession (Bugge, 1995, p.146). In the face of the burgeoning totalitarianisms of the 1930s, little progress was made by any alternative responses such as variations on more traditional European values (like a heroism of reason’ or ‘militant European humanism’) proposed by some of central Europe's leading writers and philosophers.

But twentieth-century nationalism and its domination was not just a contradiction of Europeanness. Nationalism grew directly out of the new ideas of modern democracy that arose with the French Revolution (Malia, 1997, p.16), and it was part and parcel of the general tradition of modern European thought as it had developed after the break-up of a relatively united western Christendom at the end of the Middle Ages. Although reflecting the deep divisions that ran through the continent, it also demonstrated a major dualism within the set of European values as a whole that had emerged during the nineteenth century.

Furthermore, early general ideas of European civilization and patterns of social development were not as universal or even pan-European as the thinkers of the eighteenth century had liked to claim. The First World War was also a conflict between different conceptions of what it meant to be European. The civilization that was associated with early ideas of a modern European identity was very much a French construct, and never had quite the same resonance in British society. German views also increasingly differentiated between ‘civilization’ and ‘culture’, the latter being more closely linked with socially unique qualities and national values but also firmly rooted in established patterns of European experience. The First World War was certainly a confrontation between different national interests or military machines, but it was also construed as a conflict between German ‘Kultur’ and the liberal-capitalist ‘civilization’ of the West. (This view is by no means restricted to militarists and aggressive politicians; it is also underpinned by arguments developed by the German philosopher Max Scheler.) At the same time, the war was understood to represent a conflict between Russia and specifically European values represented by Germany and Austria. Apologists for Hitlerism during the Second World War would make a similar case, though less convincingly and at a cruder level.


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