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What is Europe?
What is Europe?

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2.2 Europe as a sequence of ideas (continued)

Europe and political extremism after the First World War

After the long period of relative peace during the nineteenth century, the First World War was a traumatic shock to Europe as a whole and offered a fundamental challenge to what had been regarded as its core values (Waever, 1995, p.151). The guiding principle adopted towards the end of the war by the victorious allies (led by US President Woodrow Wilson) in terms of national self-determination was intended to create democratic stability throughout the continent. But the conviction that European stability would be achieved through the satisfaction of national aspirations contained the seeds of further major conflict, not least because the defeated Germans were not fully covered by its provisions for self-determination. Nationality was an unpromising principle on which to base European peace or processes of stable recovery. Nationalist values in themselves had not been discredited; it was the means by which they were pursued that were most deplored.

The monumental barbarity of industrialised warfare had indeed shaken most established values of European civilization, but there remained a conviction (among many of those on whom the solution embodied in the provisions of the post-war Versailles Treaty was imposed) that existing goals could be achieved by new, modern means. In the eyes of many Germans, defeat in 1918 did not occur on the battlefield but on the home front, through various forms of betrayal. Fascism, first formulated in an equally disillusioned Italy, and Hitler's Nazi movement embodied new principles of leadership that gained strong support in Germany and many other countries as a means of pursuing what were understood to be traditional European values. Fascism, too, was by no means the same thing as nationalism and was in part itself a pan-European movement responding to the decline of the traditional nation state. The main consequence of both movements was the development of yet further disasters for Europe as a whole in the context of the Second World War.

Whatever the views now taken of Nazism and the near-universal condemnation of its actions, it remains an uncomfortable fact that not only did it emerge in Europe but also that it was closely associated with values of superiority, progress and a certain kind of civilization that were highly European. At the same time, Nazism resurrected practices such as slavery (in terms of labour camps and the general treatment of the subjugated nations of the east) that modern Europe had turned its back on and which (like the mass murder of European Jewry) were profoundly shocking to those imbued with the values of western civilization. In this sense it represented a reversion to barbarism and the abandonment of what had come to be understood as European values. But, as reflected in the title of his book (Dark Continent) and argued by Mark Mazower (1998, pp.xii, 405) in a recent history, it is also highly misleading to regard ‘Europe’ as a repository of all good things and imbued with unimpeachable values. Whatever the contradictions and underlying complexities involved, there can be little doubt that nationalism dominated as a fundamentally divisive force and often as an agent of widespread destruction, and prevailed over other European values for much of the first part of the twentieth century. The way in which such strands of European thought were worked out, and their physical consequences, led to the destruction of many millions of European lives, and came close to undermining any idea of Europe itself. It might well be concluded on this basis that if modern ‘Europe’ was best understood as a system of values, it was one that was inherently self-destructive and hence, perhaps, did not have any lasting meaning.

Such a pessimistic conclusion appears less convincing at the end of the twentieth century. It nevertheless took two world wars (and, arguably, a Cold War) to work out the major contradictions in the value-structure evolved in Europe during the nineteenth century. The Cold War was rooted in the superpower rivalry that grew in intensity from 1946 and lasted in some form until the end of Soviet claims over eastern Europe in 1989. While less aggressive in relation to the west European nations, the form of totalitarianism that developed in Russia appeared as a further threat to peaceful European development, and its final collapse was another condition of the new Europe that emerged in the 1990s.

Soviet communism had also emerged out of the defeat of one of the old European empires during the First World War. The collapse of Russia in 1917 (then led by a western-oriented Provisional Government) could credibly be attributed to its socio-economic backwardness as much as to military weakness, and for this the country's new Bolshevik rulers worked out a ready answer. Under Lenin's leadership, this involved the establishment of a powerful Communist Party and the adoption of a programme of action to accelerate (supposedly established and scientifically validated) processes of progress. It was a prospect that attracted many adherents in Russia and elsewhere. While different from fascism and the German Nazi movement, communism also had its roots in early modern European values and sought to develop the belief in scientific progress that emerged in the Enlightenment as a movement of contemporary social transformation.

Its outcome was ultimately no more successful than that of inter-war fascism. It took the eventual defeat or collapse of both Nazi and Soviet totalitarian orders erected on such premises to produce a perspective on some form of coherent European development free from these ideological preconceptions. It was claimed that the combined outcomes of the Second World War, the Cold War and the eventual collapse of European communism were to dissipate virtually all faith in ideological solutions and overtly irrational forms of political action (Stokes, 1991). The actions of the Nazis created fundamental doubts about the existence of any meaningful European values and led directly to the establishment of universal human rights at an international level. The record of Stalin's Russia was little different with respect to such values, but the Soviet Union emerged in 1945 as one of the victorious Allies and much could be condoned on that basis, leaving it some forty or so years to work out the contradictions implicit in the principles by which it operated. It was only a few years prior to the eventual demise of the Soviet Union in 1991 that the countries conquered by Stalin in the 1940s could contemplate their ‘return to Europe’, and the Russian leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, could with some conviction look forward to his country becoming fully anchored in a ‘common European home’. When something like this common home emerged in 2004 with the yet further enlargement of the EU, though, it was not one that lacked an ideological framework. This time it was the dogma of the free market that had come to prevail (in association, of course, with the global supremacy of the United States), and in a situation where considerable numbers within Europe itself expressed disquiet at the development.

Activity 2

I suggest you take a breather here, and see how far you have got in terms of ‘defining Europe’. What progress have you made towards constructing an answer to this deceptively simple question? Look back over the discussion of Europe as a geographical area, as a sequence of ideas, association of states and set of values and see if you can reach any general conclusion.

You may well have decided that it is not really possible to reach any definitive conclusion as to what Europe ‘really’ is. Geographical boundaries to the east and, to some extent, the south have been fluid and remain so at the current time. Ideas of Europe as the homeland of civilization and progress also received a decisive check in the twentieth century with the breakdown of the traditional balance-of-power system, massive military conflict and experience of widespread social repression. It was only after the defeat of Nazism and collapse of communism that a new, and more hopeful Europe, reappeared as an inclusive concept. The apparent primacy of the idea of Europe by the end of the 1980s, and the emergence of a new (western) Europe in the form of a strengthened EU during the 1980s (examined in greater detail in Section 3), nevertheless took place in a situation of continuing confusion and uncertainty about the values any such Europe represented. We shall now turn to examine what these values might involve.