Memories of Amikejo

Neal Ascherson writes about Europe, its pasts and its possible future

Neal Ascherson on Europe

The death of the contemporary forms of social order ought to gladden rather than trouble the soul. Yet what is frightening is that the departing world leaves behind it not an heir but a pregnant widow. Between the death of one and the birth of the other, much water will flow by; a long night of chaos and desolation will pass.

Those resonant, vatic words come from Alexander Herzen, the Russian democratic exile, and he wrote them shortly after the failure of the 1848 Revolutions in Europe. The old empires had reasserted control. But Herzen knew that 1848 spelled their ultimate doom, even though it was not to come for another seventy years and more. What that doom would be, and what kind of new order would replace the empires, he could only guess and fear.

Like many things Herzen said and wrote in his exile, that prophecy about the pregnant widow seems on the face of it to say more about Russia than about Western and Central Europe. He once contrasted the traditions of the Russian and Polish revolutionary émigrés around him in London. The Poles, he said, looked back for inspiration to countless holy relics. But the Russians had only ‘empty cradles’. Even after the rise and fall of the Bolshevik revolution, whose consequences dominated the short 20th century, even after an enigmatic decade with Vladimir Putin, we still do not know what sort of infant the Russian pregnant widow will finally set in her cradle.

But when I reread Herzen’s words, I can’t help also setting them against the big ‘matryoshka’ Europe which reaches from the Atlantic to beyond the Dniepr, containing a smaller EU which in turn contains an even smaller Eurozone – which may get smaller still. Two forms of social order died in our big Europe during the years after about 1980: the Communist system embedded in the fifty-year continental order of the Cold War, but also the regulated, social democratic welfare order developed in the nations of Western Europe after 1945. One of these deaths should gladden the soul. But the second should trouble it.

‘A long night of chaos and desolation’ to follow? You could hardly describe the last quarter-century in Europe as desolation, except for the losers from neoliberal capitalism. But chaos: that we have in abundance, European and global, from the financial crash to the continuing political upheavals set off by the melting of Cold War discipline. And, twenty years on, as the enthusiasm for free-market deregulated economies begins to wither, we have that Herzen feeling of living in a dimly lit corridor, a transition between orders. The widow’s first painful contractions may not mean that a birth is anything like imminent. But those pains are already felt in Europe and Eurasia.

There’s a story, maybe a fable, about a Displaced Persons camp somewhere in Germany at the end of the war. Red Cross and UNRRA ladies are interviewing survivors from the concentration camps. ‘Well, Mr Lemberger, and where would you like to go now?’ ‘New Zealand.’ ‘New Zealand? But that’s awfully far away!’ ‘Far away from what?’ To me as a wartime child, Europe meant nothing good. It was where the Heinkels and Dorniers came from. It was a hostile place beyond the sea which required Operation Overlord to open it. There was shocking suffering and cruelty there, and also brave Resistance movements, but the word ‘Europe’ stayed ominous for me and for many other Brits for years after the war. In the 1950s, I went to hear Oswald Mosley (that rhetoric – cheap but giddying, like a fairground chairoplane) preaching the need for a United Europe to save civilisation from Bolshevism. Later, vaguely Bevanite, I and most of my friends thought plans for European unity were a plot by Catholic conservatives (most of them, we assumed, wartime collaborators) to revive a German army and pelt the Soviet Union with atom bombs.

But later still, I went to live in West Germany and learned not to sneer when young Germans said earnestly that they felt European, not German. Europe to them meant neutrality, reconciliation, open frontiers. A few years before, some of them had gone to the bridge over the Rhine at Kehl/Strasbourg and set about demolishing the frontier gates in the name of the new Europe; they were immensely surprised when the French guards, instead of embracing them as brothers, walloped them over the head and threw them into police vans. At that time, remembering pictures of jolly Wehrmacht soldiers wrenching down the red and white Polish border gates, I felt quite protective about frontiers. But then I read a Polish novel. An allegory contrived to lull the censor, it described a tiny sliver of land between Belgium and Germany which had been overlooked by the surveyors as they drew new European frontiers after the fall of Napoleon. In this splinter lived a handful of free people, untroubled by military service, identity papers, taxes or censors. Happy, stateless Europeans.

For forty years, I thought this was a sentimental fiction. Then I discovered that it wasn’t, and last month I went to see the sliver. Now securely part of Belgium, it has had a lot of names. The one I most fancy is ‘the Akwizgran Discrepancy’. More often, it was called ‘le Moresnet neutre’ or Kelmis or La Calamine. The name it wanted to have was ‘Amikejo’.

The Polish novelist wanted the place to be a pure discrepancy – one of those map-drawing mistakes which leaves a little white triangle where lines should meet. In reality, the Prussian and Dutch diplomats chopping up Napoleon’s empire at the Congress of Vienna couldn’t agree who should have a nearby zinc mine, and declared its fragment of countryside to be ‘neutral’. In 1830, the Kingdom of Belgium was created. The four territories – Prussia/Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and le Moresnet neutre – all met on a forested hilltop, where their frontier pillars still stand.

Not much bigger than Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens combined, the triangular Discrepancy is covered by pretty green woods in summer, with the small, drab town of Kelmis/La Calamine in one corner. For a century, the inhabitants lived mostly by smuggling booze into the Netherlands, especially after the zinc mine gave out; the little strip contained seventy bars and cafés. In time, as refugees and fugitives from other European countries arrived, the population grew ten times larger. Dr Wilhelm Molly, a whiskered physician, issued a set of postage stamps in 1886, an initiative squashed by the Prussians and the Dutch, who ruled that the Code Napoléon, under which postal services were an imperial monopoly, was somehow still in force in the enclave seventy years after the empire’s collapse.

In 1908 Dr Molly and friends declared le Moresnet an Esperantist state, to be named Amikejo (‘Friendship’), and the inhabitants set to learning the language with enthusiasm. Soon there was a flag and an anthem. But by now imperial Germany was raising claims to the territory, making its point by recurrent severing of electricity and telephone lines. In 1914 German troops invaded le Moresnet neutre on their way into Belgium, allegedly shot some Esperantists, and annexed Amikejo to the German Empire. After the war, the Versailles Treaty awarded the place and the districts around it to Belgium, ending a century of furtive independence.

Today, hardly anyone there remembers that lost freedom: no souvenir Amikejo flags, no reproduction postage stamps, nothing. The inn where the inhabitants took their solemn decision for Esperanto became the Skyline Disco, which is now a rain-filled hole in the ground. Only the stone border markers in the woods survive, topped with snow and laced with dead brambles. There’s a reason for the amnesia. This corner of Belgium is a patchwork of linguistic communes, Francophone or Germanophone, where the traffic signs can change language every kilometre. Kelmis, or La Calamine, is bilingual, though most people speak German. But in contrast to the bitter feuds between French and Dutch-speaking areas of Belgium, there’s no strife here. In the friterie on the Liège road, they say: ‘Nobody cares what you speak in this place.’ They want it to stay that way, and history might not help.

Yet there’s European significance in this story. It proved that a tiny Europe could exist sans frontières, or at least without enforcing them. It says that there was a time when nation-states did not abhor a vacuum or panic about sovereign discrepancies. In the 20th century, the Discrepancy whispered that Europeans living in tyrannies could dream of slipping away to a no-man’s-land between the armed camps where they could live miniature but authentic lives. And le Moresnet/Amikejo was also a wormhole through time into our Europe of the Single Act and the Maastricht Treaty. No customs barriers, no closed frontiers, military conscription almost a memory, no national currency, no danger of arrest for playing bizarre identity politics.

But in the mid-20th century the last airholes in the European pressure-vessel were sealed up, and the heat turned up high. Fortunately the vessel burst before it could reduce everything, all our cities, all our persecuted peoples, to ash. And yet even now, in diligently humane times, Europe is a place in which pressures, some creative and some destructive, repeatedly build up.

Visualise Eurasia, that enormous, shaggy outline beginning in the space between China and the Volga but narrowing towards an untidy mass of tentacles protruding into the ocean. Think of a fish-trap, a conical wicker one as plaited by a woman from the Mesolithic Danube or Victorian Orkney. She secures it across the path of the shoals and soon it’s filled with flashing, struggling creatures, the fish nearest to the apex thrashing most frantically as the force of those behind thrusts them against the barrier.

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