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.

We don’t know at what moment in the Holocene the first big westward migrations began, out of Asia and then across the Volga and Pontic steppes into the European peninsula. It was probably sometime in the second millennium BC, only much later appearing in the literary record when pastoral nomads of Indo-Iranian and then Turkic or Mongol cultures entered the Black Sea region and then the eastern fringes of the Roman and Byzantine Empires. There followed more than a thousand years in which invading groups or displaced populations from settled cultures pressed ever more tightly into the narrowing fish-trap whose apex was the sea, driven on and compressed by the sometimes ferocious and always land-hungry peoples following on their heels.

Would it be fanciful to suggest that the desperate pressure of human societies crammed and squeezed into the trap’s narrowing Western European tip has something to do with the peculiar intensity of European behaviour, its obsession with change and its capacity to release psychopathic blasts of destructive energy? Well, yes, it would be fanciful: I have offered a 19th-century metaphor incapable of proof or disproof and therefore without scientific interest. Nonetheless, the migrational background of Europe since the Iron Age has left many traces. In the west, the sheer pressure of growing populations combined with a shortage of resources, land above all, has encouraged communities to fuse and cohabit. The old ‘culture-historical’ approach to archaeology was obsessed with identifying supposedly distinct ethnic groups by their material culture. Now it’s clear that they weren’t necessarily distinct at all. I well remember the annoyance of German scholars when a dig near Berlin revealed Slav and Germanic settlers living together using the same gear in the same squalor.

So in the west the pressure of the demographic fish-trap – backs to the sea, nowhere to go – forced incoming groups towards accommodation, hybridity and fusion. Further east, where the land broadened and the pressure was lower, it was different. To this day, you can find settlement patterns which are pointillist rather than solid colour, where the ethnic settlements remain distinct. You can see it in parts of south Russia: a Cossack village here, an Armenian village there, then a small town that was a Jewish shtetl before the Holocaust, then a village planted by Catherine II where the farmers still speak an archaic Swabian, or a settlement of Pontic Greeks returned from forced exile in Kazakhstan. They trade with each other – Armenian vegetables, Cossack vodka – but guard their prejudices. This sort of landscape is hard to understand in terms of the Western nation-state, with its idea of ‘imagined community’ and its anxiety about homogeneity and cohesion. But pointillism is European too.

Europe is something that shouldn’t exist: a quadrilateral with three sides – Mediterranean, Atlantic, Baltic. Europe from the Atlantic to where? Old Konrad Adenauer, as West German chancellor, used occasionally and reluctantly to travel to West Berlin by night train. As the wagons rumbled over the Elbe bridges, he is supposed to have turned over in his bunk and muttered: ‘Ach, wieder Asien!’ De Gaulle, on the other hand, announced that Asia began at the Urals.

It was in the late 18th and early 20th century that this game of denying European identity to neighbours began, as an aspect of modern nationalism. It was to end in the almost comic phenomenon of ‘bulwarkism’. It started at the ocean with the French, who imagined themselves as the defenders of Christian civilisation against the barbarous denizens of the forests across the Rhine. But then it turns out that the Germans also saw themselves as the front-line defenders of Europe against primitive uncultured Slavs, in particular the untidy, untrustworthy Poles. Poland in turn erected a perfect cult of its national mission as the outermost bastion – przedmurze – of Catholic Christianity and civilised values against the brutal Asian hordes of schismatic tsars or Bolshevik atheists. And why stop there? One of the most powerful nerves in Russian nationalism has been the notion of standing as a bulwark protecting Europe against the Asian onrush – Mongol or Chinese.

The strangers come from the East; they want what we have; they are Other. In the early period of westward migration, Otherness often resided in the encounter between settled farmers and nomadic pastoralists, those who had no centre, who were aporoi and constantly in motion across the grassy plains with their herds and wagons. For a long time, it was supposed that mobile pastoralism was an early human phase and that more advanced lands would evolve into settled agriculture. Now it’s clear that the reverse is true: the sort of pastoralism practised on the steppes by great moving nations like the Scythians or the Golden Horde was a specialised way of life which had long ago emerged from even earlier Neolithic farming societies.

The antipathy of settled communities to travelling communities or individuals is still hard-wired into Europe. Anthony Pagden, discussing Diderot’s opinion on this, remarked that his disapproval of travel ‘belongs to an ancient European tradition, one which locates the source of all civility – which is after all a life lived in cities (civitates) – in settled communities, and which looks on all modes of nomadism as irredeemably savage’. The first encounter between Greek urban colonists and Scythian nomads took place on the north shore of the Black Sea from the seventh or sixth century BC. At first, as Herodotus suggests, the Greeks registered this difference as amazing and unfamiliar, but did not express it in terms of human ‘value’. It was the Athenian playwrights during the Persian Wars who demonised non-Greek peoples, attributing to them vices – cowardice, uncontrollable passion, excessive luxury, deceit – that were the inverse of supposed Greek virtues: courage, moderation, austerity, candour. From that opposition emerged the long discourse of civilisation and barbarism, which has never quite been detached – not in northern Europe, anyway – from the discourse about ‘respectable’ farmers and ‘rootless’ clans of wanderers.

When I mentioned psychopathic blasts of destructive energy I didn’t mean large-scale outbursts like the wars the Europeans inflicted on themselves in the 20th century. More interesting is the capacity in Western Europe for what could be called furia – the entry by one individual or a small group into a passion of reckless, murderous violence exerted with what seems to be superhuman strength. At least one of the Cuchulain legends from Gaelic Ulster describes the hero growing to twice his own height as his chariot hurls into battle, his head spinning round on his shoulders with his eyes shooting flame. The word ‘berserker’, as it came to be used, conveys the same image.

Furia, the sudden and shattering use of extreme aggression and cruelty, served Europe well in early ventures into the outside world. The Crusades can be seen as the last of the ‘barbarian invasions’, this time heading south-eastwards into the Balkans and the Levant. But long before ‘Europe’ replaced ‘Christendom’ as a recognised political term, the Crusaders were often able to overawe superior enemies by showing a blind, even crazed ferocity which had little to do with the Lamb of God. A most striking example of furia is the behaviour of Vasco da Gama and his company of Portuguese warriors when they reached the Indian subcontinent at Calikut in 1498 and again in 1502. At first made welcome by the ruler, whose armies far outnumbered them, the Portuguese fell out with him and the local Muslims. To make their point, they set fire to a pilgrim ship, locking nearly four hundred passengers in the hold to burn and then drown. After that, da Gama and his gang hanged and dismembered 38 local fishermen under the ruler’s eyes. Calikut had not seen or imagined anything like this, and the Portuguese got much of what they wanted.

Vasco da Gama also gave the kindly king his first experience of being bombarded by a new European device: the cannon. As time passed and Europe’s military technology outstripped that of its rivals, the need and capacity for furia grew obsolete. It belonged to times when European invaders and indigenous armies could seem almost evenly matched, bows and spears against swords and unreliable matchlock firearms. But why be a berserker when you could simply turn the crank of a Gatling gun? None of this should imply that mass murder and atrocious cruelty were European monopolies. A look into Aztec or Mayan history, or into John Roscoe’s early 20th-century history of the Buganda kingdom, will correct any such error. What seems to have been a specially European capacity, from the early medieval period, was the resort to instant, frantic aggression as ‘shock and awe’ to break an adversary’s will to fight. Remember the Emperor Wilhelm II’s appeal to his German troops, during the 1900 Boxer Rising, to behave like King Attila and his Huns in order to ‘open the way for civilisation’.

So an intimidated world received what Europe chose to bestow. Scottish steamships, German artillery, cotton goods from Lille or Manchester, French electrical engineering, cognac, whisky and the White Fathers. We know all that. But what strikes me, when it comes to the export of institutions rather than hardware and colonists, is the slight but pervasive sense of the inappropriate. To reach the Jhelum or the Zambesi and build a bridge over it to carry the railway – that’s a problem provided with a solution. But to found a girl’s public school in Uganda, to draw frontier fences across southern African plains seasonally crossed by herds and herders, to standardise a confederation of related Congolese peoples into a single ‘tribe’ with a ‘chief’ and impose a single dialect as the only written language for its schools: here we are looking at wandering solutions seeking a hospitable problem. One could say the same about Communism, another European export which has always proved hard to fit over local needs. Fascism, an equally European solution, has occasionally been imitated in style on other continents, but never really found an overseas market.

Long before Europe began to export solutions, there was an internal market for schemes to make the continent a safer place. These schemes implied an awareness that its inhabitants could imagine their empires and kingdoms and city-states to be part of some larger unity. Sometimes that unity was ghostly: the thought that the half-remembered Roman Empire had merely gone into recess and could be reconvened. Sometimes it referred to the international reality of the medieval church. The word ‘Europe’ was not widely used as a political reference until the 16th or 17th centuries, when Renaissance and Reformation humanists found it possible to define the continent in new laic ways, independent of Church dogma. In the Strahov monastery in Prague there is a 16th-century map which shows Europa as a woman: Hispania is her brain and Bohemia her heart. She also tells us, through this trope of nations as parts of one body, that the thought of European unity and the interdependence or complementarity of Europe’s Christian nations had already taken hold.

So, can we identify a period when Europe was somehow most truly, authentically itself? Perhaps a devout Catholic historian might chance a date. But most of us would take the question in the ironic, slightly postmodern way Gwyn Alf Williams intended in calling his best book When Was Wales? If European enthusiasts see a Golden Age in the continent’s past, a moment of definition from which all subsequent history has been a decline, what contemporary political needs edged them into such a delusion? And there have been a fair few delusions, many of them archaeological. Euro-exhibitions have suggested that the EU’s ancestor is the Bronze Age, depicted as a time of a single market, no frontiers and busy trade routes carrying amber, gold, furs and ceramics between the Baltic and the Mediterranean. One exhibition, I Celti in Venice, used the la Tène design style from the European Iron age to evoke a continent politically, culturally and linguistically united by its Celtic population.

It’s mostly nonsense, but the ‘Celtic Europe’ myth has taken some demolishing. And, like many sugary myths, it has put on some political weight. A few years ago, visiting the Svet Knihy book fair in Prague, I was astonished to encounter a widespread Celtomania. The stand for Scottish and Welsh writers was sought out by parties of young Czechs in kilts with Braveheart face-paint. Artists showed us paintings of the god Lugh, and invited us to celebrate Beltane at nearby cairns. They explained gravely that the Czechs had never really been Slavs; the language had been forced on them in the first millennium by marauding war-bands. Instead they were ethnic Celts. Roman writers had identified the Celtic tribes of central Europe, including the Boii (Bohemians). Now was the time to rediscover these Celtic roots. At the book fair, shelves were packed with the Dark Age bodice-rippers of Anna Bauerová, bestsellers about Celtic romance and heroism at the court of the kings of the Boii. Tickets for Bauerová’s lectures were sold out.

Czech nationalists in the 19th century had been passionately Slavophile, rescuing and fostering their language to avoid the disaster of becoming Germanised. Russia had been the great cultural protector for generations; many Czechs believed that the Soviet Union would have rescued them from Hitler if Britain and France had stood firm at Munich. But all that ended in August 1968, with the Soviet-led invasion. After 1968, the Czechs – remembering that Bohemia had once been ‘the heart of Europe’ – looked west with a new passion. The Europe they now longed to join, rich and free, seemed to have nothing to do with the Slavdom which assigned its members to the shabby despotism of the East. The Celtic fantasy had always lurked in corners; after the 1989 Velvet Revolution, a section of Czech intellectuals used their freedom to promote it. To be European you had to be Celtic, not Slav. So an identity migration beckoned: the migration of a hermit crab scuttling across the sand from one shell to a new and more comfortable one.

How far the movement will go, I have no idea. Probably not very much further. But the idea that people can opt voluntarily to change ethnicity is very European, very cheering. At a low level, the inhabitants of borderlands have often had flexible identities, depending on which uniform is banging on the door. Villagers in the forest regions between Poland and Belarus, challenged to confess their nationality, used to say: ‘We are tutejszy – from-here people.’ A better answer to that question is another question: ‘Who’s asking?’

Europe’s diversity is what strikes us most in our own times. But Perry Anderson, in his indispensable, shrewd book The New Old World, shows this was not always the case. Enlightenment critics, unlike us, were excited by resemblances and symmetries between European nations. They thought of Europe as one body, much like the green lady in the Strahov library. The limbs of the body were nicely proportioned, a coherence made possible by broadly similar religion, manners, customs and laws. Voltaire spoke of Europe as ‘a single republic divided into several states’, with a balance of power not to be found elsewhere in the world. Gibbon thought that the balance fluctuated a bit, but remained beneficial. From Edinburgh, William Robertson described the nations of Europe as a single community with a general resemblance and a ‘great superiority over the rest of mankind’. Only Rousseau, nastily but perceptively, choked on this invention of the universal European. ‘Nowadays we have only Europeans,’ he wrote in 1770,

all with the same tastes, the same passions, the same mores, all speaking of the public good and all thinking only of themselves; all affecting moderation and wanting to be Croesus … what do they care which master they serve, the laws of which state they obey? Provided they find money to steal and women to corrupt, they are everywhere at home.

The French Revolution, or more correctly the Napoleonic Wars which followed it, changed the old Enlightened perspective sharply. No natural balance in this postwar Europe: after Bonaparte, schemes for unity were usually also alliances to contain any overmighty and expansionist state. But the 1815 settlement endured precisely because it was an alliance composed of Europe’s overmighty and expansionist states, committed to dynastic absolutism and to the suppression of all kinds of revolution, social or national. Vienna allowed tiny le Moresnet to appear, but paved over most of the space where an independent Poland had once stood. Intellectuals and some politicians continued to sketch plans for European union, but now – in contrast to their 18th-century predecessors – they generally took the disparities of Europe, rather than its symmetries, to be its virtue. François Guizot, the most effective politician in 1830s France, thought in a quite dialectical way that the clash of these disparities was the source of Europe’s collective energy. Jakob Burckhardt and Leopold von Ranke were among German-language historians who took a similar line: Burckhardt wrote of Europe’s ‘unprecedented variety of life’ since the Renaissance; he was well aware of the continent’s capacity for annihilating violence, but insisted that ‘history should rejoice in this profusion’ of conflicting ideas, individuals and nations.

These were all broadly conservative figures. The European left was also to enjoy dreams of a United States of Europe during the 19th century, but here the emphasis of republicans and early socialists was on unity – or federation – as a way of preventing war. The catastrophe of 1914-18 gave fresh force to this pacifist strand in the left’s European thinking, an element so prominent and passionate that it obscured debates about what the economic and social policies of a united Europe should be, and distracted practical plans for bringing it about. There was no shortage of vast federalist visions ‘between the wars’, but it was the French government which took positive action at the League of Nations in 1929 to propose a European union.

Nothing came of it at the time. But it had at least three elements that were retrieved from the rubble after 1945. The first was that a European union’s political strategy must be to construct an international framework – which would include Germany – to contain German strength. The second was that any union had to start with some deal over economic and industrial integration between France and Germany. The third, that ‘the construction of Europe’, institutional and economic, would have to be a top-down affair carried out by international technocrats under political protection. The notion that ‘the people of Europe’ should play an active part or be consulted was not entertained. After all, a European people did not exist. Maybe one day it would, making possible a true American-style federation based on democracy. But there was no point in waiting for that.

Anderson traces this ‘technocratic line’ back to the work of Saint-Simon in the early 19th century. As Anderson writes, ‘it was enough that Europe itself should be secured from war, and devoted to the growth of industry and the progress of science, for the well-being of all its classes.’ Whatever its ancestry, the assumption that European integration could only be imposed from above won out when projects for a united Europe emerged again after the Second World War.

Rather than reciting the history of the EU, from Monnet to van Rompuy. I want to bring up three contentious, revisionist ideas about that history, only one of them mine.

The first is that historians of 20th century Europe have lost a whole distinct episode. You could call it the ‘Resistance Spring’. It was an upsurge not just of defiance against fascist occupiers but of hope and idealism for the future. It mobilised men and women in nations all over the continent. It produced programmes for social justice and change, at first strikingly similar in different countries. Its texture, or context, was national-patriotic, and for that reason it quite clearly belongs in the sequence of national upheavals which began with 1848 and culminated – for the moment – in 1989. The Resistance Spring could be said to begin in about 1943 and to peter out – or be overlaid – in about 1948. By then, the Cold War was taking shape and forcing new allegiances. The Soviet Union directed Western Communists to end wartime solidarity and break with their comrades in social democratic, liberal or Christian Democratic movements. The Americans, concerned above all to keep Soviet influence out of West Germany, also wanted those links broken.

The consistent elements in Resistance postwar thinking were two. First, that the prewar order in these nations – forms of liberal capitalism – had failed to defend democracy or national independence. Their collapse was partly due to the corruption, verging on treason, of the prewar elites; indeed, some of their members had collaborated with the Nazi occupiers. So liberation must involve sweeping institutional and social change. Second, the Resistance programmes from Poland through Italy or Greece to France or the Netherlands framed those changes in statist, welfarist forms of democracy which were ‘socialistic’ but far from the Soviet model. There would be plural political democracy, with all the ‘bourgeois liberties’ guaranteed. There would be steeply progressive taxation, a planned economy, public health insurance and widespread nationalisations of industry, finance and transport. (At the founding congress of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Party in 1947, the Ahlen Programme declared that ‘the capitalist system has failed to meet the national and social needs of the German people,’ and called for part-nationalisation of heavy industry.)

On a postwar united Europe, the Resistance leaders and the London governments-in-exile were more ambiguous. After all, their followers were fighting and dying in order to destroy a United Europe, Hitler’s new continental order. Pro-European passions were mostly heard from people who wanted to join the Waffen-SS Nordland Division or the Légion des Volontaire Française to defend ‘Western European civilisation’ against the Bolshevik hordes. The Resistance movements certainly hoped for a fraternal, anti-fascist continent, including Britain, in which rebuilt nations could live together in peace and prosperity. But their institutional visions for it were vague.

It would be nice to think that the boys and girls in the forest were dreaming of a European economic community as they waited for the next parachute-drop of weapons. But they weren’t. They were fighting to liberate their countries. Old-fashioned patriotism drove them, the longing to free and then cleanse and rebuild their violated nations. And that brings me to my second contentious, revisionist idea.

It comes from the late Alan Milward, iconoclast of recent European history. His book The European Rescue of the Nation-State (1992) knocked the wheels off conventional accounts of how the European Community arose, and it is still angrily argued over. Milward derides the received idea that the saintly founders of this Europe set out to overcome and transcend the nation-state. Just the opposite. The purpose and the effect of the early EEC was to rescue, re-equip and restore legitimacy to the nation-states so damaged physically and morally by the last war. Supranational institutions were a means to those national ends – not an end in themselves. Milward writes:

Far from renouncing the nation-state as the foundation of a better European order, they [the founding fathers] achieved prominence and success because they were among those who developed an accurate perception of the positive role it would play in the postwar order, and who also recognised or stumbled upon the need for those limited surrenders of national sovereignty through which the nation-state and Western Europe were jointly strengthened, not as separate and opposed entities, but within a process of mutual reinforcement.

I’m sure this is right. The priority for the post-liberation governments, as it had been for Resistance fighters, was the nation, the need to restore a discredited state with a better one which could regain legitimacy in the eyes of the public. And that went also for the People’s Republic coalitions in Eastern and Central Europe, in the year or so before full Sovietisation was imposed by terror. But to fulfil even the basic requirement of legitimacy – getting food and clothing into the shops, repairing shattered transport networks – international pooling of production would be needed.

So it went on. Jean Monnet didn’t organise the European Coal and Steel Community because he had a dream of union. Whatever he and his admirers said later, he did it to keep the French steel industry going, and to give France some purchase on German production. And it worked. Economic and political integration over more than fifty years has restored a multiplying pack of mostly confident and stable nation-states nourished by a spindly Brussels bureaucracy.

So do the 27 states of the EU, most of them healthy until hit by the swine flu of sovereign debt, really need the institutions of union any more? Milward thinks that the EU’s wide-screen historical boasts are largely bunk. Yes, in the ‘trente glorieuses’, the thirty years or so which ended in 1975, Western Europe enjoyed the longest period of peace and soaring real incomes in its history. But how much of that peace and prosperity do we owe to the old Community? ‘We made war between European nations unthinkable,’ they said, but wasn’t it the Americans and Cold War discipline that ensured it? Prosperity? The dismantling of tariffs and the free movement of goods, money and people were certainly a precondition for the boom. But Brussels, if Milward’s deconstructive furia is to be believed, directly contributed very little. The investments and the risks belonged to those restored nation-states.

Those thirty years were the epoch of the social-democratic consensus: strong interventionist states with large public sectors, committed to full employment and the redistribution of wealth. As the late Tony Judt insisted, we should not remember the 20th century only for its horrors. The stability and social justice achieved in postwar Western Europe was one of humanity’s triumphs.

But there followed three very different decades of neoliberal dogma, now withering, which landed us in the mess we are in. Obviously enough, nation-states lost hard-won legitimacy as they privatised the public services which affected people’s lives. Voters lost interest in the democratic process as the state withdrew from them. Only now are European governments trying to rebuild their authority. And, significantly, one of the ways they do this is by increasing, not reducing, the pace of supranational integration.

My own sense of the Europe we have is that it’s like a sponge, a living sponge of squashy texture and uncertain outline, a rich and beautiful collective creature into whose open pores countless visiting organisms swim or stay to breed. It will never be a clanking metallic superstate, capable of instant peace and war decisions. It will always, in reality, be dependent on someone else to defend it. The legal philopher Samuel von Pufendorf described the Holy Roman Empire as ‘monstro simile – “like unto a monster”. Seek not to understand, only to preserve!’ Centuries later, Pufendorf’s phrase was often used to describe the mad honeycomb of rules and exceptions which was the legal status of West Berlin. This gentle European monster of ours has some pre-modern precedents. One was the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the old Rzeczpospolita. Although it was eventually murdered by authoritarian neighbours at the end of the 18th century, the Commonwealth lived as an ill-defined, inefficient, hospitable, decentralised, rather tolerant federal and multicultural realm for nearly four hundred years – for much of the time, the largest state in Eastern Europe.

Its own democracy – or distaste for authority – helped to bring it down. The Polish Sejm worked by unanimity: the Liberum Veto of one member was enough to block any bill or indeed to cancel all the previous work of the session. As we know all too well, this is also how the main organs of the European Union work – monstro simile. The point was pounced on by Radek Sikorski, the Polish foreign minister, in the extraordinary speech he gave in Berlin last December. The Commonwealth, Sikorski warned, had left reform too late to stave off partition. In the Eurozone crisis, the European Union must act at once. As he said, he was the first ever Polish foreign minister to admit that he feared German power less than he feared German inactivity. The choice for the EU was now between deeper integration and collapse, and his choice – speaking for a country outside the Euro but committed to entering it – was full speed ahead for a federal, integrated union.

It’s a cavalry charge of a speech. I don’t agree with the bold Radek about everything – he’s still a passionate neoliberal, for example – and I don’t foresee a Brussels army which would frighten anybody more than its own accounts department. But I believe he is right about further integration. That’s why the Euro crisis will get much worse but then find a solution: Europe without a common currency has become unthinkable. And a suggestive part of Sikorski’s speech takes him close to Milward’s sense that European Union and the nation-state are not antithetical but complementary. ‘The more power and legitimacy we give to federal institutions,’ he says, ‘ the more secure member states should feel that certain prerogatives’ – he means the whole field of identity, lifestyle and culture – ‘should forever remain in the purview of states.’ Odd that a free-marketeer should say that, because it implies that closer integration will once again help elected governments depleted by twenty years of small-state claptrap to regain their self-confidence and find their way back to their own citizens.

What about Britain? Everyone in the EU – well, almost everybody – is mournful about British semi-detachment. But it seems to me now that the Union and the Eurozone would both be better off without Britain. The partner they need is another country: England. Scotland would easily find its own small-nation place in the EU and in a reformed currency. But England, stripped of its Great British pretensions, its archaic view of sovereignty and its Special Relationship delusions, might eventually find its way to a leading European destiny.

It’s more than thirty years since that old Cold War, social democratic order began to die. But at last Herzen’s pregnant widow is feeling some warning contractions. A new birth of so-called ‘reformed capitalism’? An unexpected litter of small brothers and sisters as old states subdivide? Or a European order of rediscovered liberty, equality and fraternity in which, to take Tony Judt’s words, ‘we can remake the argument about the nature of the public good’? I’d wave an Amikejo flag for that.