Thursday, March 13, 2014

“The year 1870, so eventful before its close, bade fair to commence in a perfect calm.  There was no political question in Europe under discussion”.  (Lord Augustus Loftus – Reminiscences – page 258)

I would have to respectfully demur to the Honorable Lord Loftus’ assessment.  He was, it must be remembered, a diplomat, accustomed to calming things down and casting oil on troubled waters.  But in 1869 at least five separate, but intertwined matters provoked discussion. 

1.      Religion was in ferment, turmoil, almost anguish. 

2.      The independence of Italy set men against each other from Calabria to Tuscany and beyond.

3.      The desirable shape of a united Germany became more and more heated a question with each stein of beer consumed in the kellers of Wittenburg, Munich and both Frankfurts (Am Main und am der Oder). 

4.      The place of the French Empire in Europe had been the subject of heated riots in the streets and squares of every major city in France and nowhere more heatedly than in Paris.  The usual conflict was disagreement on the correct way to defeat what looked to become a united Germany.  The partisans of Napoleon III fought openly with the Republicans, whose memories of the 1789 Revolution, the June Days of 1830, the epidemic violence of 1848 and the ascension of Napoleon III to the Empire in 1852 conflicted directly with the Bonapartist dreams of Jena, Austerlitz, Marengo and the heady first days of the advance into Russia in 1812.

5.      Throughout Europe, riot and supranational revolution were whispered about and then shouted over depending on the lateness of the hour.  Young restless men and old cynics shook their fists and laughed sarcastically at the prospects for attaining some plausible utopia where the young worked only when they wanted to and the old cynics could enjoy the fruit of someone else’s labor.  Their utopia has come to pass but satisfaction is not a state they would recognize or agree upon.

The root of all these disputes was the relation between men and their governments.  One might say as well, men and their societies, their cultures.  For the relation of a man to his culture is an essential aspect of his relation to his government.  Religion, ethnicity, language, history, all have their little effects, and sometimes great effects, on how various groups within society relate to some force or power purporting to rule that group.

Grand combinations of language, ethnicity and religion marked the great nation-states that emerged from 1870.  But these combinations contained the seeds of their own destruction.  As two feuding villages may have resorted to a large castle when the barbarian army approached, these entities were held together only by fear and greed. 

The management of a large state is a thankless task.  The danger is that when the threats dissipate, the internal conflicts will come to the fore.  We see that happening all around our world today, from Western China to France, even Britain.  The European Union holds itself out as the guarantor of peace through unity and conformity. 

 But, from Wales to Moldova (and don't forget Trans-Dniestria!) to Catalonia to Macedonia, Europe is falling apart, unmanageable, uninspired.  For that is the basic problem.  No one feels a part of Europe.  It has no identity.  The Welsh sing, the Greeks dance, the Germans drink beer.  What particular thing do the Europeans do?