In a period of general ideological conformity in Western Europe, a pensée unique disturbed but not really discarded under the blows of 2008 and 2020, the once communist states of Eastern Europe have produced some of the most creative and independent minds in the EU and its borderlands. Among these exceptions to the drift of the time could be numbered such different figures as Dmitri Furman of Russia, Gáspár Tamás of Hungary and Slavoj Žižek of Yugoslavia, born in the 1940s; Jan Zielonka of Poland, born in the 1950s; and Ivan Krastev of Bulgaria in the 1960s.1 All save Zielonka were originally trained in philosophy, which – this being Eastern Europe – was no impediment to wider interests: Furman started his career as a historian of classical antiquity, before moving to political traditions in America and then to comparative study of world religions; Tamás too began in classics; Žižek immersed himself in psychoanalytic theory; Krastev gravitated to political science, to which Zielonka remained faithful throughout. Each distinct in style, all would make notable contributions to politics proper, understood as reflections on the course of history in the Europe of their time.
To this male cast can now be added Stella Ghervas, born in the 1970s in a region that was part of Romania before the war, occupied by the USSR in 1940 and re-annexed after the war, and is today the republic of Moldova. As a Soviet citizen, she was trained in philosophy and political science at the University of Leningrad, as it was, from which she graduated in 1992, a year after it became the University of St Petersburg and the USSR disintegrated. By now a Moldovan, she made her way to Bucharest, where she would complete a doctorate in history, and then in 1995 to Geneva, where in 2002 she acquired another doctorate, in European studies. Six years later she published Réinventer la tradition: Alexandre Stourdza et l’Europe de la Sainte-Alliance, a study of the diplomat and thinker Alexander Sturdza – father a Romanian boyar, mother a Phanariot Greek – in the era of the European Restoration.2
Secretary in his twenties to Ioannis Capodistrias, Alexander I’s Greek envoy to the Congress of Vienna, with whom he worked up the tsar’s manifesto for the Holy Alliance, Sturdza went on to play a key role for Russia in the high tide of European reaction after Vienna. In 1818, the year of the Congress of Aix, his call for a crackdown on sedition in Germany caused an uproar when it was leaked to the Times. In 1820 he composed a memorandum at the Congress of Troppau demanding armed intervention by the assembled powers to crush revolutions in Spain and Italy. A year later, Austria implemented the recipe in Italy. But even while the Congress of Laibach (1821), which authorised the dispatch of troops, was still in progress, insurrection broke out in Greece. For Metternich and the tsar, this was the fruit of a Jacobin conspiracy concocted by plotters in Paris. Sturdza, half-Greek by birth, unable to persuade the tsar that it was a natural revolt against Ottoman misrule, gave up his post and retired to his sister’s estates near Odessa. There he drafted an appeal for European intervention against repression in Greece, which the provisional government in Nafplio sought in vain to present to the Congress of Verona in 1822, the last of the great reactionary gatherings of the time, and later sent money and provisions to the rebels in Missolonghi. The rest of his days he devoted to works of travel, faith and charity.
Reconstructing the personal and social context of this paradoxical career, Ghervas cast Sturdza as an anomaly within the typology of leading thinkers of the European Restoration, where his combination of Orthodox piety and Enlightenment influences set him apart from the likes of Joseph de Maistre or Louis de Bonald, as a counter-revolutionary intellectual who nevertheless sided with an insurrection regarded by Metternich – and, at his instigation, Alexander I – as a deadly threat to the stability and peace of Europe. A conservative rather than liberal Philhellene, Sturdza sought a ‘defensive modernisation’ of Russia, loyal to Eastern religious traditions and hostile to proto-consumerism, yet accommodating rather than merely repelling Western ideas; he was an advocate even of the gradual abolition of serfdom. Her book, garlanded with academic honours, earned Ghervas her next position, in Paris. After spells in Chicago and Harvard, she now teaches at the University of Newcastle.
Unlike the other heterodox minds from the Eastern half of the continent, Ghervas is a professional historian, whose polyglot scholarship extends from Russian and Romanian to French, German, Italian, Latin and Greek sources, and from literature to the visual arts. Taking its title from Shakespeare, and its imagery from Tiepolo and Max Ernst, Conquering Peace focuses on the successive attempts to exorcise war in Europe from the 18th century to the present, a theme it develops with unfailing grace, verve and lucidity. For Ghervas, the peace settlements which ended each great outbreak of hostilities that scarred the continent were as momentous as the conflicts themselves, and often longer lasting. Each was inspired, she argues, by a specific spirit of the time: the Spirit of the Enlightenment, around the Peace of Utrecht of 1714; of Vienna, during and after the Congress of 1815; of Geneva, with the founding of the League of Nations in 1920; of the postwar order in Europe after 1945; and finally of the enlarged Europe of 1991, with the end of the Cold War. Connecting all these settlements, she argues, was an ‘Ariadne’s thread’, a quest for the unity and peace of the continent. In her view, even if it was far from being that of all the actors, these were inseparable goals. Against them were pitted successive bids by assorted despotisms – Bourbon, Napoleonic, Wilhelmine, Nazi, Soviet – for a universal empire in Europe. A periodisation of the history of the continent in terms of a sequence of spirits informing its long-term development can hardly avoid falling under suspicion of idealism – not simply in the moral sense of the term, but its philosophical meaning, whose antonym is realism. Yet it is a striking feature of Ghervas’s narrative that, even as the first of these two terms holds good of her work, it is not generally at odds with the second, which more than once finds unconventional and eloquent expression in her writing.
The arc of her story runs like this. In Europe, the medieval dream inspired by Rome and Christendom, and still strong in Dante, of a united, peaceful empire came to an end with the debacle of the Holy Roman Empire in the Thirty Years’ War. The Treaty of Westphalia buried universal monarchy as a worthy ideal; henceforward it was a foil rather than a horizon for hopes of peace. But in 1648 only a pragmatic modus vivendi between the contending states was reached, not a constructive alternative for establishing a durable peace. It was not until the allied struggle against Louis XIV in the War of the Spanish Succession that schemes for this emerged, taking shape in two forms around the Peace of Utrecht: on the one hand, in the new conception of a balance of power – a phrase inscribed for the first time in the treaty – between the rival realms of Europe, an idea developed in England by Charles Davenant and Jonathan Swift; on the other, in the ideal of a federation of states to secure the peaceful unity of the continent, as proposed by the Abbé de Saint-Pierre in France. The first became canonical in the diplomatic chancelleries of the time. The second inspired philosophers like Rousseau and Kant, in whose writings the term ‘perpetual peace’, hitherto indicating only the non-repetition of a particular conflict, acquired a more literal force. The two conceptions were not of comparable weight: the latter lacking any practical purchase, the field of international politics was left to the former. But far from ending wars, balance of power politics generated a series of them, culminating in the global struggle of the Seven Years’ War.
To the military conflicts of the ancien régime the French Revolution added the still more destructive force of its levées en masse, mobilised in turn by Napoleon for a drive to dominate Europe. His enterprise eventually came to grief when the combined armies of the old order in Russia, Prussia, Austria and Britain united against him, and with their victory restored the Bourbon monarchy in France. Learning the lessons of the conflicts that started at Valmy and ended at Waterloo, the conservative powers that assembled at the Congress of Vienna did not revert to the principles of a balance of power, or to anything resembling the ideas of the Abbé de Saint-Pierre. Neither was altogether absent from the minds of its leading actors: Castlereagh and Metternich were moved by the first to prevent Russia and Prussia from settling matters as they wished in Poland and Saxony; Alexander I was influenced by the second in his vague initial conception of the Holy Alliance as a fraternal union of Christian sovereigns and their subjects without denominational distinction, a notion promptly neutered by Metternich. But the outcome differed radically. The system installed by Vienna was a directorate of the Great Powers (lesser powers were associated only for public relations purposes) intended to protect Europe from the risks of a new universal monarchy and of a return to the nightmare of the French Revolution – or, in de Maistre’s formula, a canaillocracie.
Ghervas, highlighting the role played by Sturdza in the composition of the original manifesto of the Holy Alliance as well as his later account of its genesis, writes with sympathy about what she sees as the liberal ideas informing it, not least its ecumenical embrace of Orthodox, Protestant and Catholic versions of Christianity, scandalising the pope, who denounced it. By then the project of a Christian ‘reunification’ of Europe was not in fact a viable project, but its emasculation paved the way for worse. At the head of her chapter on the spirit of Vienna, Ghervas cites the verdict of the tsar’s one-time Polish friend and adviser Adam Czartoryski: ‘that which, in the middle of the last century was considered only as the dream of a good man, perpetual peace, became the conception of one of the most powerful sovereigns of the continent,’ but ‘diplomacy corrupted this benign inclination and turned what should have been its safekeeping virtue into venom.’
For Ghervas, the poison was twofold. At Vienna divine right rather than popular consent became once more the cardinal principle of legitimacy in Europe, and the territorial map largely reverted to the status quo ante. The effect of these decisions was inevitably to provoke the unrest they were supposed to cancel: national aspirations in Germany, liberal rebellions in Spain and Italy, in due course revolutions combining liberal and national aims in Poland and Hungary – each requiring further imperial repressions to put down. Yet it was not in the end these upheavals that undid the order of Vienna, but its Achilles heel from the start: the exclusion of the Ottoman Empire from the Congress system. The sultan was not invited to join the other crowned heads of Europe in assuring the peace of the continent: a Muslim ruler could have no place in a Holy Alliance. After disabling the tsar’s pet scheme, Metternich and Castlereagh would have liked to associate the Porte with the decisions and guarantees they laid down at Vienna. The tsar, however, vetoed any overture to the sultan unless he agreed to make territorial concessions to Russia, which he predictably refused. There was thus a yawning gap in the European settlement at Vienna. It failed to cover the Balkans. The Greek revolt, which the pentarchy of Great Powers struggled to stifle – like the series of Ottoman crises that followed it – soon demonstrated the consequences of this omission. The compact of Vienna finally fell apart in 1854, when France and Britain joined Turkey in an attack on Russia in the Crimean War.
With the collapse of the Vienna system, balance of power politics returned with a vengeance in the second half of the 19th century, ultimately unleashing the First World War. In Ghervas’s account, out of this cataclysm emerged the spirit of Geneva, taking shape in the League of Nations, which had more constructive consequences than the Treaty at Versailles. There, though innocent of the Carthaginian peace guyed by Keynes, the victorious Allies broke the rules their predecessors had observed in 1815. After accepting ceasefires from the defeated powers separately rather than jointly, they not only failed to insist on those countries’ formal surrender and military occupation, but signed separate peace treaties with each – and worst of all, devised no coherent plan for a new map of the continent, compromised in any case by the absence of Bolshevik Russia from the settlement they imposed on it. Wilson, heading the strongest of the winning powers, may have had his flaws, like Tsar Alexander before him, but in Ghervas’s view is entitled to imaginative sympathy. He was no less moved than the tsar by high religious and moral ideals, which in his case found expression in the covenant of a League of Nations he was tragically unable to persuade the US Senate to accept. Yet even as an essentially European institution, the League was far from a failure, Ghervas argues, advancing the cause of peace at Locarno, setting international norms no longer dictated by the Great Powers, and enabling plain speaking about them. It was the betrayal of these principles by leading signatories to the covenant which eventually doomed it, as first Japan, then Germany, then Italy (in collusion with Britain and France) and finally the USSR all proceeded to war or connived at it in defiance of the injunctions of the League, setting the stage for the global conflagration of 1939-45.
This time, no peace conference brought the war to an end. Rather, Ghervas claims, the spirit of Yalta, which presided over its aftermath, inflicted the two great evils on Europe that earlier settlements had sought to prevent: a division of the continent into two opposed military blocs, with a large authoritarian empire in control of half of it, seeking to dominate the rest. Instead of a peace treaty, the trio of incompatible victors, Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin, gave birth to a new international organisation, the United Nations. Designed to avoid the impasse to which it was believed the League had led, it concentrated power in a Security Council where each of the five permanent members that had defeated the Axis had a right of veto – a prerogative then systematically employed by the USSR to stymie initiatives to which it was opposed, condemning the UN for the most part to irrelevance. ‘In retrospect,’ Ghervas writes, ‘the United States might have been wiser to do without a world organisation, rather than coping with one that was ungovernable and that constantly fettered its foreign policy.’ Succeeding to the presidency on Roosevelt’s death, Truman had to accept the UN and its charter. But after experiencing first-hand the belligerence of Moscow, she argues, he had little choice but to return to balance of power principles. In keeping with these, his two great achievements – the nub of the Truman Doctrine – were the creation of Nato as a bulwark against Soviet aggression, and the provision of Marshall Aid that put postwar Europe back on its feet.
Ghervas’s chapter on the postwar order , however, is not titled ‘The Spirit of DC’. Truman’s creations were Atlanticist institutions, not European ones. Something different, which was American neither in inspiration nor origin, would emerge in the Old World, better able to articulate an emergent progressive zeitgeist for the new epoch. Plural and local in its sources, it found expression even before the war had ended with the declaration in 1944 of a Benelux Customs Union. It continued with the creation of the Council of Europe in 1949; took wings with the Schuman Plan of 1950, which gave birth to the European Coal and Steel Community the following year; and expanded with the Treaty of Rome into the Common Market of 1957, creating a European Economic Community which by the end of the 1980s had grown from its original six to twelve member states. The US had no ‘controlling hand in planning, founding or changing’ any of this – commendably so, according to Ghervas, by contrast with the imposition of Soviet institutions and policies in Eastern Europe. Nor was the Western Europe that emerged in the process modelled economically on the United States, with its political classes leaning towards social democracy rather than free-market capitalism. Military necessity required the protective mantle of America in the Cold War, but if the postwar order remained in that sense Atlantic, the aspect that distinguished Europe within it was what might be called – perhaps conscious of not entirely congenial subsequent connotations, Ghervas does not do so – ‘the spirit of Brussels’. Its two great achievements were the extension of the community from the half-dozen signatories at Rome to include the British Isles, Denmark, Greece and the Iberian peninsula, and the permanent reconciliation of France and Germany that was born of the Schuman Plan.
Unlike its four predecessors, the final stage in Ghervas’s narrative does not come in the aftermath of armed conflict, but as the consummation of processes set in motion in the postwar era. The subject of the ‘Spirit of Enlarged Europe’, she explains, is the way ‘the European Union, from its birth as a frail Western European creature, grew to become the largest, most viable political organism ever to exist in Europe.’ The story she tells is, however, at some distance from the official encomium that a formulation of this sort might suggest. Chronologically, it goes back to the Helsinki Accords, and the Organisation for Security and Co-Operation in Europe they created in the mid 1970s. But compositionally it starts, less conventionally, with the tenure of Andropov in Moscow in the early 1980s, and the arrival soon afterwards of Gorbachev, at the head of a USSR staggering under the weight of unaffordable military spending and deepening economic stagnation. Very quickly, to almost universal surprise, Gorbachev announced not only the need for perestroika at home, but a radically new foreign policy abroad. This, he explained, would aim to build a ‘common European home’ beyond the divisions of the Cold War, bringing together unity and peace as organising principles of the continent. With this, as Ghervas sees it, the long-standing but never truly realised goal of divorcing the principles of peace from those of empire, of which Tsar Alexander and President Wilson could be regarded as ancestral figures, was at last within reach.
It took the awakening of the subjects of the Soviet empire, the peoples of Eastern Europe, to make this great emancipation a reality. Recounting the successive upheavals – Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, East Germany – that followed the change in the Kremlin, Ghervas accords special salience to the revolts in the Baltic states within the USSR. There, in August 1989, the two million-strong human chain linking Tallinn to Riga to Vilnius was a more imposing expression of the Autumn of the Peoples than the crowds who breached the Berlin Wall less than three months later. All this occurred without any major loss of life, largely thanks to Gorbachev. In September 1990 came his culminating achievement, the Treaty of Moscow, which ended the four-power occupation of Germany that had been in effect since 1945, permitting its peaceful reunification in October. But as the economic crisis worsened in Russia and opposition to Gorbachev mounted at home, the US showed no sympathy with his difficulties, and a year later he was overthrown. Perestroika, Ghervas writes, was the short-lived ‘bloom of an Arctic summer’. She expresses awe at its daring and dismay at its wreckage.
In Western Europe, the postwar spirit that informed the Schengen Agreement in 1985 and the Single European Act in 1986 lived on to see the transformation of the EEC into the EU at Maastricht in 1993. The newly founded union was soon a political and economic force of a different order, bulked up by another three, previously neutral states in 1995, followed by the arrival of the single currency in 1999, and from 2004 to 2007 by the accession to the EU of ten former communist states – a process officially, but misleadingly, referred to as ‘enlargement to the East’, as if the momentum for it came from Western Europe, rather than from the East. In reality the postwar European spirit and the spirit of enlarged Europe were distinct streams of history, which for a few years converged, before separating again. The last manifestations of the postwar spirit were Maastricht and the extension of the EU to Austria, Sweden and Finland in 1995. By the new century, the enthusiasm born in the time of Schuman had gone, leaving Western Europe with what Ghervas calls a ‘chronic deficit of peace spirit’. The arrival of newcomers from the East, more disorienting than galvanising, did not rejuvenate it. Weariness and old age had set in.
What of the ‘Spirit of Enlarged Europe’ itself? Unlike the moments of Utrecht, Vienna, Geneva or Rome, this was not an affair of elites but an elemental movement, ‘like a massive flood that swept away everything in its path, washing out communist governments as if they were straw huts’. Possessing a sense of drama that had been absent from the postwar European spirit, it was moved by ‘“instinct” rather than reason’, without forethought of long-term consequences, in a joyful rush of allegro con fuoco. Its driving force was not Western liberal thinking, but a bread and butter longing, more emotional than intellectual, for decent living standards and normal freedoms. It was in this very lack of developed ideas that, when it reached the West, its limitation lay. ‘Sadly,’ Ghervas writes, ‘the spirit of enlarged Europe was never able to revive the postwar European spirit.’ Nor did it reach the western Balkans. There its opposite prevailed, the Spirit of Lyssa, goddess of anger, as Yugoslavia broke up and its constituent nationalities, Serbia in the lead, tore at one another in a series of murderous conflicts that in the end were only halted by Nato intervention.
By 2012, then, three ‘worlds’ of Europe – the Western core, Eastern Europe and a Balkan sector – coexisted without coalescing, each with a ‘very different outlook, and set of expectations’. Ghervas characterises these as:
the Western bourgeois nation-states still trudging along their dreary route to European unity, mostly concentrated on deepening their own acquis; the popular Eastern spirit still expecting prosperity and freedom and sometimes venting its frustration that the expected utopian state was not yet a reality in Europe; and an extenuated south-east hoping that the EU would be able to bring them a breath of relief from one and a half centuries of political torments.
The festive music of enlarged Europe had subsided, leaving the disparate states of the continent to ‘face the challenges and frictions of life in common’.
Her history, Ghervas remarks at the outset, can be viewed as a ‘theatrical dialogue in five acts’, portraying ‘Europe’s resistance to empires while trying to keep free of armed conflicts’ as a cumulative learning process. How should the result be judged? Prima facie, any historical account constructed around a sequence of ‘spirits’ is liable to idealisation, as so many hypostases abstracted from the material skein of events. Yet this one is perfectly aware of the constraints of realism, as ordinarily understood. The balance between the two sensibilities is a notable attraction of Conquering Peace. The question can still be posed whether it is evenly maintained across the narrative. Certainly it holds through its first two periods. Ghervas’s treatment of the motives and effects of the systems of Utrecht and Vienna bears comparison with that of their greatest modern historian, Paul Schroeder, in both the acuity of its repudiation of the balance of power as a nostrum for European peace in the 18th century, and its emphasis on the twin dangers that the statesmen of Vienna sought to conjure: the destructive wars between the powers of pre-revolutionary Europe, and the menace of popular revolutions unleashed in 1789. No one has matched Schroeder’s mastery of detailed diplomatic history and his explanation in The Transformation of European Politics 1763-1848 of the dynamic of the inter-state order created at Vienna. Ghervas’s book is not an enterprise of that sort.
But her version of the same epoch has a number of strengths Schroeder’s lacks. Though himself a powerful theoretical mind of a stamp unusual in the profession, Schroeder has never interested himself in the principal thinkers or ideas of the period he had made his own. As an intellectual historian, Ghervas is completely at home in them. Politically conservative, Schroeder has tended to minimise the continuing revolutionary impulses in Europe after 1815 and the weight under the Congress system of counter-revolutionary repression to destroy them, whereas Ghervas gives all this full force. Last but not least, Schroeder’s focus is so firmly fixed on the political calculations and interactions of the Great Powers in Europe itself, that in one of the great epochs of European colonial expansion in the Americas, Africa and Asia, the world beyond the territories at stake at Vienna figures only as so many fleeting sidelights. The one exception, the Ottoman domains, feature belatedly and without structural connection to 1815. By contrast, Ghervas stresses from the outset ‘the evident paradox that the continent which originated a gentle conception of peace and came to reject any empire in Europe was at the same time the heart of colonial empires that ruthlessly conquered the world for 500 years’. She rarely loses sight of the imperialist plunder that accompanied continental peace and war alike, from Utrecht to Geneva and beyond. Unlike Schroeder too, she highlights the blindness of the pentarchs at Vienna to the realities of decaying Ottoman rule in Balkan lands excluded from the precincts of Christendom, and the indifference of the Great Powers of Europe to the fate of its subjects, which had so much consequence in the serial déboires of the Eastern Question: a pointed lesson in realism.
When her tale enters the 20th century, the balance weakens. Ghervas does not recycle standard Entente mythologies, still common currency in the Anglosphere, that present Wilhelmine Germany as a deadly enemy of liberal civilisation defeated by a gallant alliance of Western democracies – at one point coolly comparing Wilson’s use of the Zimmerman telegram in 1917 to Bismarck’s exploitation of the Ems telegram in 1870, as pretexts for instigating hostilities. But she offers no real alternative explanation of the war, though one lies near to hand in the inter-imperialist rivalries of the time; and while acknowledging the retributive logic of Versailles and associated treaties, seeks somewhat half-heartedly to mitigate the character of the peace imposed by the Allies. The reason for the inconsistency is plain. In her eyes, whatever its limitations, Versailles was redeemed by the covenant of the League of Nations that Wilson winched into it. With British helpmeets – Robert Cecil, Walter Phillimore – assisting, it was this initiative that gave rise to the spirit of Geneva. Lauding the League as the first international organisation for peace in which smaller powers set the tone, Ghervas is at pains to clear it of customary accusations of impracticality and failure.
Two background factors are discernible in this endeavour. Switzerland was Ghervas’s first home when she moved to the West. There for a decade she received friendship and support for which she expresses special thanks at the end of her book, giving her an understandable affection for the city where the League was sited and she found her first job. As a small, neutral country, Switzerland was also an example of the freedom from imperial pretentions and ambitions that she believes shaped the character of the League before it was betrayed by the larger powers. Such an optic is not unsympathetic, and is more level-headed than the fantasies woven around the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928 by Oona Hathaway and Scott Shapiro in The Internationalists (2017), which traces the blessings of today’s ruled-based order to the schemes of assorted US bankers and Wall Street lawyers for universal peace in the same years, in a ne plus ultra of empty American self-satisfaction.
But Ghervas’s account of the League is disabling in her own terms. She fails to register how Eurocentric her picture becomes as a result of her decision to ignore Latin American opposition to the imperial presumption of the design of the League, not just the insertion by Wilson of the Monroe Doctrine into its covenant, but the confinement of permanent seats on its controlling Council to the big-power victors of the First World War (apart from the US). Under a Radical government, Argentina refused to take part in the League from the outset, arguing that membership should not be confined to those states which won the war and their associates. Costa Rica, after challenging its consecration of the Monroe Doctrine, left in 1925; Brazil, after being denied a permanent seat on the Council, withdrew in 1926; in 1935, Paraguay followed suit; a year later, Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua pulled out. In 1938, after the League refused to envisage any change to its covenant, Chile abandoned it, followed a couple of months later by Venezuela, and within a year by Peru. This sequence wasn’t an accident. The standard treatise of the period on international law, co-authored by Hersch Lauterpacht, cynosure of human rights lawyers today, explained that ‘the Great Powers are the leaders of the Family of Nations, and every advance of the Law of Nations during the past has been the result of their political hegemony,’ which had now received for the first time ‘a legal basis and expression’ in the Council of the League. So much for the sway of small nations. Ghervas is right to blame the League’s collapse into irrelevance on the conduct of its biggest powers, and commendably includes all of them. But such behaviour was not in defiance of its structure: it was written into it.
Lenient on the League, Ghervas is severe on the United Nations, condemning the Security Council, its stepped-up version of the Council of Geneva: victor powers were this time openly equipped with veto rights. Her criticism, however, reflects a one-sided vision of the origins of the Cold War – blamed on Stalin’s Russia alone – that is contradicted by modern American scholarship on the postwar division of Germany. Moreover, far from being a fetter on US foreign policy, as she suggests, the UN repeatedly became an instrument of it, a convenient façade for military and political operations run by Washington around the world, from Korea to the Congo, down to the current blockades of Iran and the DPRK. Truman is praised for the creation of Nato and the launching of the Marshall Plan, as respectively defensive and constructive contributions to postwar peace, without regard for his jubilation at the obliteration of Hiroshima as ‘the greatest thing in history’ or the clandestine interventions of his administration in postwar Italy and elsewhere. But, much as with her case for Versailles, Ghervas doesn’t press her depiction of these years too far. Even the USSR, she concedes, may have been ‘initially peace-seeking’ before turning into the ‘brutally aggressive empire that eventually occupied half of Europe’, and there is reason to wonder whether the West could have done more to avert the Cold War.
The principal burden of her treatment of the postwar peace, however, lies not in the Atlantic but in the European institutions created after 1945. She stresses the distinction. The Cold War, it’s true, involved armed conflicts across the Third World, in which the United States was not guiltless. But the European Coal and Steel Community and its successors, which developed out of the Schuman Plan, formed a ‘Western system of peace within a global system of war’, whose growth was independent of the military shield of Washington, and even accelerated when the US brought the Suez expedition launched by Britain and France in 1956 to a peremptory halt. Not only did the political inspiration of the founders of European integration – Schuman, Monnet, Marjolin – owe little or nothing to American pressure, but the economic form that integration took, shaped by values of solidarity and equality rather than simply those of a free-market capitalism, remained remote from American example, objectively competing with rather than replicating it. Ghervas cites de Gaulle as eloquent witness to this distance from the US. But his actions and pronouncements – the UK barred from the EEC as a ‘Trojan horse’ for America – indicate the element of overstatement in this view of Washington’s irrelevance to internal European affairs, as would the short life of his policy of défense tous azimuts (all-around defence) and the return in due course of France to full participation in Nato. Foreign policy can rarely be separated altogether from domestic politics, and once de Gaulle was gone, the lack of any real European independence in the former – all too evident since the end of the Cold War – could not but have its effects in the latter.
The final chapter in Conquering Peace gives the best illustration of its sui generis combination of idealism and realism, their balance fully recovered. What is the spirit of enlarged Europe? It encompasses, of course, the double unification under the sign of peace that came with the end of the Cold War – geopolitical with the disappearance of the Iron Curtain dividing the continent, and institutional with the extension of the European Union to the borders of the former Soviet Union. The originality of Ghervas’s reading of this transformation begins with its temporal and spatial demarcation. Temporal: the chapter opens, not in 1989 with the fall of Berlin Wall, but in 1982, with the letter of a ten-year-old American schoolgirl to Yuri Andropov, then general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party. Spatial: the book’s definition of Europe is neither that of Brussels nor of the once ‘captive nations’ of the Warsaw Pact. It is atmospheric: Europe is the width of ‘the land-mass on the European continent placed in the “westerly wind-belt” reached by the winds of the Atlantic Oceans, and the rain they bring the year round, with their precipitations, beyond which lie the drier plains and plateau of Asia, chilled by Siberian air masses’, on the other side of the Urals and the Caucasus mountains. In other words, it includes a portion of Russia that comprises 40 per cent of the land area of Europe and contains 80 per cent of that country’s population.
It would fit the construction of the trio of chapters with which the book begins if the Treaty of Maastricht were taken as the starting point of the spirit of enlarged Europe, since like Utrecht, Vienna and Versailles, it was signed at the end of a long war – cold rather than hot, yet just as strategic a struggle as its predecessors – and an even more ideological contest. Ghervas avoids such easy parallels. While paying due tribute to the processes of monetary union and territorial extension that Maastricht set in motion, not to speak of the symbolic resonance of the subsumption of a community into a union proper, she does not hide her mixed feelings about the yet more cumbersome machinery in Brussels to which it gave birth: a ‘spiritless automaton’, antithesis of the vitalising ferment to the east. It could be said that the reserve she shows towards the institutional complex governing the EU isn’t influenced by what most of its critics have decried, its lack of accountability – the democratic deficit of so many charge sheets. Here, regional background needs to be remembered. Democracy is always, in one way or another, a relative value, and for those who escaped its radical absence in the Soviet bloc, its shrunken presence in the EU could still be lived as an emancipation.
All the more so because of the spontaneous energies discharged by the Autumn of the Peoples itself. The delicacy and warmth of the pages Ghervas devotes to these surpass any other part of Conquering Peace, both in her admiration for the dreams and desires of the peoples of the Eastern Bloc, and in her perception of where their limitations lay. The feelings to which they gave expression were deep; their horizons were narrow. There could not help being something superficial about a world simply conceived as turned right side up overnight, but this was scarcely the fault of those who wished it so. They had lived through what complacent historians in the West like John Lewis Gaddis called the ‘Long Peace’ of postwar Europe, but which for them was an unbroken long war of fifty years, starting with the Soviet invasion of the Baltic states in August 1939, before Hitler attacked Poland, and ending only with the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989.
In renouncing Warsaw Pact interventionism, Gorbachev offered an enormous gift to the West, which the US would repay by extending Nato into former Soviet territory. After ushering in European peace and unity together, this time without the repression of Vienna that had bred more violence, Gorbachev met the cost at home, as national fires were lit there too, at the expense of the democracy he sought to introduce to the USSR rather than in aid of it. Trapped between opposite forms of reaction – one trying to impose a return to communist rule by force, the other aiming to impose capitalism by shock therapy – he was toppled by their successive blows in 1991. Was his fall inevitable? Ghervas hesitates to give a categorical answer. Mistakes he undoubtedly made, but might the ultimate derailment of his project have nevertheless been the outcome of a set of accidents? What is certain is that it was a tragedy, like the ensuing disintegration of the Soviet Union itself. Enabled by Russia, the spirit of enlarged Europe touched that country too, but in the end was extinguished where it originated.
The magnitude of Conquering Peace as a vision of the last three hundred years of European history comes, without question, from the background it so authoritatively describes. Ghervas writes, she says, as ‘a child of perestroika’. Gorbachev’s idea of a common European home ‘left an indelible mark’ on her. In the interwar period, Carl Schmitt could write of Central Europe, in a memorable phrase: ‘We live sous l’oeil des russes.’3 Reversing the implication, the formula could be applied to Ghervas’s project. Here, it might be said, is the recent course of European history creatively reconceptualised from Russia. Given her origins, that would not be entirely accurate. Moldova was one of the constituent republics of the USSR when she was born. Entering what is today the University of St Petersburg at the age of sixteen in 1987, she became a student at the zenith of Gorbachev’s fame and popularity, and finished her degree soon after his fall. But although Russian was her primary language and intellectual world, she was from a borderland of the Soviet Union two-thirds of whose population spoke Romanian, much of whose intelligentsia hankered for reunion with Bucharest, and which alone of post-Soviet republics put a Communist Party that continued to define itself as such into power at two successive democratic elections. Her work on Sturdza came out of this very particular, off-piste setting; her new book, she explains, was inspired by a Swiss book of the 1930s which she found on a Parisian quay, linking the Holy Alliance Sturdza had served with the League of Nations in Geneva, where she had taught. Moldova is today the poorest and most neglected state in Europe, ranking in per capita income beneath the basket cases of the western Balkans, and unlike them barred even from the waiting room of the EU. It is an appropriate irony, of history and geography, that it should have produced what is in many ways the most original retrospect of the continent since 1714 that we possess.
Of her predecessors from Eastern Europe, Ghervas is in background and outlook closest to Furman, though the differences between them are clear. Thirty years younger, she is a professional historian where he was self-taught. His principal field was comparative sociology of world religions; hers has been international relations in Europe. With two exceptions at the beginning and end of his career, the bulk of Furman’s writing was a series of brilliant essays; hers, large ideational narratives. The leitmotif of Furman’s concluding work was democracy; of Ghervas’s ongoing project, peace. Both looked towards Europe with favour early on, but for Furman it was mostly a foil to his essential concern, which was Russia, while for Ghervas it has become the overriding object of her attention. That said, they share a formation in the Soviet Union, and a deep respect for what Gorbachev attempted to make of it, which in each case became the pivot of their political engagements, to which they brought a similar temperament: left-liberal in a sense rare if not unknown in the West, what each would describe as social democratic, with none of the dire connotations of the term in the lands of Blair and González, Hollande and Schröder.
Ghervas ends her book with a question mark. ‘Quo Vadis, Europe?’ is the title of her conclusion: a substantial coda which springs a surprise on the work. The conception of the continent at the core of her inquiry, she explains, is not to be confused with the structure that today appears to embody it. ‘It is more essential than ever to distinguish this Idea of Europe from the European Union,’ a construction potentially subject to an indefinite series of referendums like Brexit. The EU is only the latest, and not necessarily the last, institutional incarnation of the longer-term hope of a perpetual peace. Ideas, whether they create institutions or are suppressed by them, typically outlast them. The idea of an enduring peace founded on a stable unity of Europe has inspired successive attempts to engineer it into being, learning lessons each time from preceding failures, even if the goal has still to be fully secured. To trace this drive, she notes, is not to subscribe to the belief that history has an end, in either a terminal or a directional sense. That is ‘a misguided idea’: such a peace could be unreachable. There is an affinity here with Furman’s conception of the lawlike-ness – zakonomernost’ – of historical progress towards democracy, which he abstained from asserting was unstoppable, even if he implied it. Ghervas is philosophically more categorical, but the emphasis on the diuturnal elements in history that links the two thinkers is strong.
There is more to history than ideas and institutions, of course. Both can be overtaken by subterranean forces, either slowly transforming or seismically erupting, great metamorphic processes Ghervas describes as if emerging from the Earth’s crust. In the new century, Europe has been subject to a series of shocks from just such forces. In registering their impact, Ghervas joins those other thinkers from a once communist world – Zielonka, Krastev, Tamás, Žižek – who are primarily concerned with the lands of the present European Union rather than the fate of the former Soviet Union. The euphoria surrounding the enlargement of the EU did not last long, she observes. Within a year of its final collective episode, the accession of Romania and Bulgaria in 2007, the blow of the global financial crisis had struck, followed by the wrenching economic adjustments imposed across Southern Europe, from Portugal to Cyprus, with especially devastating effects in Greece. Next came successive waves of refugees from conflicts in Africa and the Middle East, to which EU reactions were even less enlightened than to the troubles of the single currency, increasingly converting Europe into a fortress designed to drive off unwelcome newcomers. The continent, Ghervas writes, is now cut in two by a wall against migration that stretches from Narva to Edirne, the Baltic to the Aegean, like a latter-day version of the Iron Curtain.
Such policies have not remained external. Within the EU itself, surveillance has become ever more intensive and widespread, as security becomes a ubiquitous system and a pernicious ideology in its own right, a ‘security culture’. Even before Conquering Peace, Ghervas was acutely aware of the logic of such terminology. Writing on the Vienna system, she pointed out that French makes a distinction lost in our all-purpose English word, between sécurité, denoting the subjective condition of feeling safe, and sûreté, the objective operations of the police: the former encompassing welfare systems, in popular language today la sécu; the latter indicating repressive agencies of the state, in popular language principally les flics. In the service of its systems of police invigilation and military suppression, the discourse of the Restoration made no great difference between the two, and its postmodern descendants in the EU, with their militarised airports, authorised wiretaps, electronic frontier controls and the rest, little more.
For Ghervas, the European ruler whose manipulation of such official paranoia has been most blatant is Macron, vociferous with ‘declarations of war’ on Covid as on terror, as if language of this kind – like talk in the past of ‘keeping the peace’ while ramping up repression – did not debase war and peace alike. Yet the current bluster that risks turning Europe into a ‘securitarian bloc’ will achieve nothing because contemporary migrations ‘belong to the class of metamorphic movements against which resistance is futile’. Even more so because in such large part they are driven by undeclared states of war along the eastern and southern borders of the EU: in the ‘belt of battlefields and frozen conflicts’ in Ukraine, Turkey, Syria, Israel, Palestine, Libya and elsewhere that are fuelling ethnonationalism within Europe itself.
Financial instability, immigrant pressure and proximate war are not the only subterranean shocks to unsettle the Union. There are two others, of potentially comparable magnitude. One is the deep change that the passage of generations is likely to bring, as a youth no longer haunted by memories of the Cold War, or buoyed by the illusions that followed it, develops a new agenda of social equality and care for the natural environment. The other is the deterioration of the physical climate that threatens life everywhere. The two intersect in a growing passion among the young for a cause that scarcely had any popular traction in the 20th century, the preservation of the planet. Gradual changes like these have already started to act as counterforces to the follies of unbridled speculation, fears of uncontrolled immigration and contagions of civil war. For Ghervas, balance of power principles, and the needs of military defence, retain their validity against any would-be empire. But the gains of the lasting peace Europe has achieved should not be compromised by them.
It makes an impressive finale. Only the truly numbed could fail to respond to the blend of unorthodox idealism and clear-eyed realism in Ghervas’s vision of Europe, and the imaginative sweep of the unfamiliar combination they generate. That said, few endings to a story are perfect, and hers, as she would no doubt be the first to admit, is no exception. It is enough to indicate one of its limitations here. While there is no hint of vulgar anti-Americanism in her book, it is clear she is not an uncritical admirer of the United States since the end of the Second World War. Neither its brand of capitalism nor its record in foreign policy are spared some sharp asides. Missing, however, in her treatment of 20th-century history is an acknowledgment of the reality that if there have been candidates for the category of universal empire, it is the two Anglo-Saxon powers that have in turn fitted the bill. In 1914 the British Empire was in a class by itself: so vastly superior to any European rival that the imbalance it represented was manifestly an underlying cause of the First World War. As early as 1773, in the wake of British victory in the Seven Years’ War, George Macartney, who twenty years later led an eponymous mission to the Qing court, could vaunt his homeland as the empire on which the sun never set. What of its American successor? Superseding colonies after the Second World War, it acquired military bases and the hegemony accompanying them in at present more than eighty countries around the world: a grid of political power exceeding in reach and depth anything Britain ever enjoyed. This enormous construction, always far more extensive than its Soviet antagonist, is AWOL in Conquering Peace.
True, the book’s concern is with Europe, not America. But its theoretical framework depends in good part on the notion of universal empire, from which the US, as many Americans themselves now accept, can scarcely be exempted. Also, as Ghervas tacitly if not explicitly admits, from 1945 onwards, European peace was always, as it remains, a function of the American machinery of war. Decolonisation did not cleanse Europe of imperial predation, it merely changed its role from commanding to adjutant status in overseas operations – overt or clandestine – under US leadership. It is enough to recall European participation in the attacks on Yugoslavia and Iraq, Libya and Syria, and most unanimously of all, in the invasion and widespread destruction of Afghanistan; as too in the sanctions inflicted on all these countries, and on Iran and elsewhere. Today, the modern equivalent of the eight-power expedition of 1900 to crush the Boxers has ignominiously failed. But amid a torrent of media coverage of Afghan sufferings under the Taliban, and widespread complaints that Washington pulled out too hastily, scarcely a doubtful peep is to be heard in the EU or the US over the confiscation by Washington of the country’s reserves of $9 billion, even as half its people face starvation after twenty years of Western occupation. Revenge by any other name is as sweet, no matter what the cost to the innocent.
There can be little doubt of Ghervas’s horror at spectacles like these. Everything in her book, save what it doesn’t say, speaks against them. Involuntarily, its title may hint at what is left unsaid. What authorises the boldness of the oxymoron Conquering Peace? Three lines from Henry IV, Part II: ‘A peace is of the nature of a conquest; for then both parties nobly are subdued/and neither party loser.’ Fine lines. The speaker and context are not supplied, but cast another light on the quotation. They are uttered by the archbishop of York, Richard Scrope, conspirator in a rebellion against Henry IV, on hearing the false news that its demands have been met – in fact a trick to get the rebel army to disband. Once it does so, the archbishop is arrested and executed. The play, based on historical fact, ends with touching scenes of reconciliation between Henry IV and his elder son and heir, the heroic Henry V who will defeat the French at Agincourt in a blaze of triumphalist English rhetoric. Naturally, patriotic flattery of the House of Lancaster has no scruple over treachery with its foes. Rather than the dignified celebration of an honourable peace, the archbishop’s words are the gullible prelude to his slaughter. No epigraph is on oath to be true to its context, and Ghervas is not to be reproached for using it as she does. But the facts of the play, and of history, are worth remembering all the same. Ghervas plans to write her next book on the ‘grey zone’ excluded from the Congress of Vienna, where, as she rightly pointed out in a recent interview, the ‘Eastern Question is more present than ever’: in the military conflicts, flowing or frozen, around the Black Sea in Ukraine, Crimea, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan; beyond them, in Cyprus, Turkey, Syria and Kurdistan; Israel, Iraq and Iran. In a return to the scene of her origins, the epigraph could acquire a darker meaning.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.