What Europe’s past can tell us of its future

by Élie Barnavi Élie Barnavi is Scientific Advisor to the Museum of Europe in Brussels. He is also Professor of European Early Modern History at the University of Tel Aviv and a former Israeli Ambassador in Paris 21.11.2008

Can European policymakers draw on lessons from the past to shape our thinking on the future? Élie Barnavi, one of the driving forces behind the "Musée de l'Europe" project in Brussels, explains why history matters.

On the face of it, the question of whether history matters is banal, and so is the answer. Yes, history understood as the sum of past events matters a great deal. History made us what we are, whether we are aware of it or not (most often not, but that is immaterial). Even the idea of a revolutionary tabula rasa is an illusion. Alexis de Tocqueville showed in his celebrated book "The Ancien Regime and the Revolution" that revolutionary France retained many more features of the old monarchical France than people realised. What was true for France is true for any society, for any nation. And it's true for Europe.

Europe's past leads us to an inescapable conclusion: Out of a patchwork of nations and cultures, and of endless wars and conflicts of interest, history produced a single European civilisation. On the foundations laid by the Greeks and the Romans, Europe as an entity - distinct from, say, Asia, Islam or Byzantium - was born in the Middle Ages. Of course, it was Antiquity that coined the concept; but Antiquity had other dichotomies: Greeks and Barbarians, citizens and slaves, Romans and foreigners. And when mediaeval Europe was born, the Church was its midwife.

The Church was "Roman", not only because the Papal See was located in Rome, but above all because it considered itself the rightful heir to the Roman Empire. And it was "Catholic", that is universal, because it wanted to unify the entire human race under its wing. By blending together the remnants of Greco-Roman civilisation and new socio-cultural realities, the learned men of the Church laid the foundations of a new civilisation: the civilisation of the Christian West and thus the first cultural map of Europe.

The outlines of this map emerged in the Middle Ages: A single, uniform way of worship; a network of religious orders that ignored political or "national" boundaries; pilgrimage and trade routes with their traditional stations - places of devotion in the one case, periodic fairs in the other; feudal society and court life - the tournament, courtly love, the poetry of minstrels; and, of course, the university, perhaps the brightest expression of this unified cultural space. Paris and Bologna, Oxford and Cambridge, Heidelberg, Salamanca and Tübingen, shared the same language (Latin), the same doctrine (Aristotle's philosophy), the same curriculum, the same methods, the same intellectual tools (formal logic based on syllogism), and the same textbooks. Professors, students, ideas and books roved from country to country, from town to town, from university to university. Faculties of Arts - our Humanities - gave generations of students a unique European general culture, a common European background of knowledge and thought.

The monk, the soldier, the merchant, the professor, the student, the pilgrim, the builder of cathedrals traced the map of European civilisation with their feet. It was then that Europe as we know it was born - in opposition to the "Roman" Empire of the East, Byzantium. Here, "Latins", there Greeks; here Catholics, there the Orthodox Church; here a dual political reality (Pope and Emperor), there a caesaro-papism which united the temporal and the spiritual in the same hand. In other words, here the "Occident", with all its cultural, political and ethical implications; there, the "Orient".

The boundaries of the Occident were somewhat vague, but the meaning was quite clear: Poland, Hungary and Bohemia were in; Russia was outside. Sixty years ago, Churchill's "Iron Curtain" cut through these two worlds, but the first outline of a united Europe coincided more or less with the boundaries of Charlemagne's Empire. The great crises that opened the modern Western Age - humanism, the Reformation and the Wars of Religion, the birth of the territorial state - did not affect this striking continuity. They broke the religious and political unity of the Christian West - that is, of Europe - but not its cultural unity: the cultural framework remained what it had been since the Middle Ages. The humanists of the Renaissance cast their values in that very framework, as the neo-humanists of the Enlightenment would do three centuries later. Without Thomas Aquinas, there could have been no Erasmus, without Erasmus no Voltaire. "Historical reality", wrote 19th century Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset, "taught me to recognize that the unity of Europe as a society is no ideal, but an old-established fact."

It took a while for this "old-established fact" to become fully recognised. Two immense challenges helped: one, external, was the threat of Turkish Islam; the other, internal, was the growth of the modern state. From then on, Europe began to take the place of the decaying Christian Republic in the European's heart and mind. For the intellectuals of the Enlightenment, Europe, European civilisation, European cultural superiority, the European unity of fate, were commonplace. A century later, Victor Hugo is believed to have coined the phrase "les États-Unis d'Europe"; from then on, through all the vicissitudes of history, the "European idea" has never left the European agenda. Those are the facts.

But history is more than the sum of past events; it is also an intellectual discipline designed to produce a reasoned interpretation of the past and its projection into the future. In that sense, the question posed by the title of this article is certainly less banal, and much more problematic. For it remains to be seen what "lessons" can be drawn from past events, and how these "lessons" are supposed to influence our decision-making process. It is no easy matter. Even if we consider that the historical facts are well known by leaders and citizens, which is of course a large assumption, two traits of the human soul greatly complicate things. One is hope, which tends to devalue others' experience, or even one's own. The other is our propensity to frame our desires and aspirations in ideological terms. In other words, the "lessons of history" are infinitely interpretable. There are, to be sure, crazy interpretations of historical facts, which distort them. But even if the facts are well established and accepted, there is certainly no single interpretation of these, let alone a clear-cut principle of action to be drawn from them. All we can say is that once the aim is defined, as always according to ideological preferences, action must be founded on sound historical facts. With this in mind, let us go back to Europe.

The founding fathers of today's Europe drew the lesson of recent history and did not repeat the tragic mistake of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles. Out of the ruins of the most terrible war ever ignited on European soil, the victors of World War II had wanted to build a new order with their former enemy - a totally new notion. They also understood that Europe was sidelined by the two superpowers the United States and the Soviet Union, and had lost her dominant position; Europeans therefore had no choice but to unite if they wanted a say in world affairs. But they also knew that the recent and bitter past was only part of the story, the immediate context of their endeavour. They built on the layers of a long-shared past without which the immediate context would hardly have produced a united Europe.

Their making of Europe was an astonishing revolution. It had no historical precedent from which lessons could be drawn. For the first time in the history of mankind, sovereign states freely relinquished chunks of their sovereignty for the benefit of a supranational entity. In that sense, it may be argued that history has nothing to "teach" us, since there are no "historical lessons" available. That may hold true for the shape of Europe's institutions, the depth of its integration and the nature of the link between the member states and its central organs. But the geographical and mental framework within which this revolution is taking place must obey some sort of historical logic; otherwise it is doomed to fail.

The double question of identity and borders needs to be looked at within this framework. For half a century, Europeans put it to one side, sheltering behind the artificial border that cut across the continent. With the collapse of the Berlin Wall, it cannot be avoided anymore. What does it mean to be a European? Who is to be a citizen of Europe and who is to be left out? These are fundamental questions on which history obviously offers some insights. Admittedly, history is not deterministic; it leaves room for human choice, that is, for politics. What has been is not necessarily what will be, or ought to be. But what has been cannot be ignored as if it has never been. Political will must take the past into consideration, if only to shape, as much as possible, the future course of history.

And so, looking to Europe's future also means looking into its past. European education is by definition historical. Those who lament the lack of a "European spirit" need to know that it will not emerge miraculously; it has to be built, just as national awareness was in the 19th century, through history books and textbooks. A common European historiography must not replace national narratives, but run alongside them. Only in this way will generations of young Europeans discover that what they may see as national phenomena - feudalism and state-building, the Renaissance and the Reformation, the Enlightenment and the industrial revolution - were also, perhaps primarily, European ones too. So yes, history does matter when building Europe's future. That is precisely why we are setting up a Museum of Europe in the heart of its capital.


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