HomeMiscellaneousThe Idea of Europe: A Critical History

The Idea of Europe: A Critical History

Book Review of ‘The Idea of Europe: A Critical History” by Shane Weller (2021). Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-1 108 47810 6

The book titled “The Idea of Europe: A Critical History” was written by Shane Weller and released by Cambridge University Press in the year 2021. The author has made an effort to illustrate how Europe came to be, beginning with the ancient Greek myth of Europa and continuing all the way up to the foundation of the European Union, in order to demonstrate how Europe has played an important part in the history of the world. In addition, the history of the concept of Europe is in no way the history of a solely political conception, despite the fact that in modern times, the term “Europe” is sometimes confused with, and even considered to be synonymous with, the term “European Union.” Even if the concept of Europe is constantly and inevitably political, it is also, in a more general sense, geographical, religious, economic, ethnological, philosophical, literary, and cultural, which has been thoroughly discussed by the author in the introductory chapter of the book.

The book is divided into 10 chapters, each of which focuses on a particular chronology of the development of the concept of Europe throughout the course of time. It is essential to discover how the chapters have represented and formed the idea of Europe in order to obtain an understanding of what the author has tried to convey in the book:

In chapter 1: “Myths of Europa: From Classical Antiquity to the Enlightenment” the author focuses on the development of the concept of Europe from ancient times to the Enlightenment era. Around two and a half thousand years ago, the idea of Europe was first developed in ancient Greece. Europe shattered into multiple kingdoms in the fifth century after the fall of the Western Roman Empire. Europe as a concept with broad significance returned in response to an external threat. The Muslim army headed by Tariq ibn Ziyad invaded Spain in 711. At the Battle of Tours in 732, the Muslims were defeated. This triumph revived the concept of Europe as a geopolitical body, setting a precedent that would last for quite some time. A common enemy would thereafter be used to mobilize and fortify the European vision.  Europe was not fully Christianized until the twelfth century. The Crusades helped shape modern notions of Europe. At the Council of Clermont in 1095, Pope Urban II called on the assembled Christian armies to battle the Turks. After the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople under Mehmet II in 1453, external danger was seen as more immediate than ever. The Islamic danger wasn’t the only thing shaping the concept of Europe between 1453 and 1529, when Vienna was besieged. That happening happened in 1492, when the New World was discovered. The meeting with the inhabitants of the Americas immediately led to musings on the contrasts between these indigenous peoples and Europeans. Maps conveyed the idea that Europe is the best continent because of its heritage, culture, and potential for growth. The disastrous Thirty Years’ War led to the deployment of the political notion of Europe in the Treaty of Westphalia (1648). One of the primary conceptual triggers for a new, Enlightenment conception of Europe was a proposal for a European Parliament made half a century after the Treaty of Westphalia to resolve disagreements between nations without resorting to war. This new secular idea of European society marked the start of the modern history of the idea of Europe. In this chapter, how an external threat from the Muslims paved the way for unity among the European nations seemed very interesting.

Picture 1: Pope Urban II calling the European monarchs and their subjects to launch Crusade against the Muslims for recapturing the holy city of Jerusalem in 1095 AD.

Chapter 2: “A Great Republic of Cultivated Minds: 1712–1815″ examines the development of the concept of Europe throughout the Enlightenment of the seventeenth century. The ancient Greeks were the first to consider the idea of Europe, but the European Enlightenment intellectuals of the eighteenth century were the first to deal with the concept on a large scale. In the discourse of the Enlightenment on Europe, European culture was consistently deemed superior to all other civilizations. In the eighteenth century, the idea of Europe played a significant role in achieving peace settlements between European nation-states. The Peace of Westphalia in 1648 brought an end to the religious wars. This extensive history of interstate conflict inspired numerous attempts at a new political structure that would avoid future conflicts. Abbé Charles-Irénée Castel de Saint-Pierre was one of Europe’s eighteenth-century peace theorists (1658–1743). Abbé’s idea for such a European society mirrored a federation of European nations governed by a Christian Enlightenment. Abbé’s Project influenced Immanuel Kant’s Perpetual Peace (1795), which reintroduced the concept of a “pacific federation” of European powers. Kant made it quite apparent that this federation must not be a European global government. Voltaire believed that the only way to create permanent peace in Europe was to embrace tolerance. Voltaire also advocated for “universal tolerance,” which would embrace all non-Christian civilizations. Montesquieu adopted an apparently less Euro-universalizing stance. Montesquieu saw the Europe of the eighteenth century as the only civilization in human history without equivalents. Rousseau had been a supporter of ethno-national particularism. The Enlightenment discourse on the concept of Europe was dominated by French thinkers such as Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Rousseau.  The French Revolution of 1789 highlighted most blatantly the severe limits of the European Enlightenment. Following Napoleon’s ascension to power in the latter part of the 1970s, the Napoleonic Wars of 1803–1815 contributed to developing the idea of Europe as a grouping of states. Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in 1815 made his ideal of a European system impossible for the near future. In this chapter, the contribution of the enlightenment scholars to emphasize on an unified Europe is wonderful.

Picture 2: French Revolution from the storming of the Bastille in 1789 to the beheading of King Louis XVI in 1793 changed France and later Europe forever, giving rise to popular democracy.

Chapter 3, “Nationalism and Universalism: 1815–1848,” looks at the complicated relationship between nationalism and universalism in the Romantic period. The 18th century was dominated by French ideas about Europe, while the 19th century was dominated by German ideas. The Enlightenment concept of Europe founded a new way of thinking about Europe, especially in the German tradition. European Romanticism supported nationalism in politics, business, and culture. This nationalist spirit was also seen in the efforts to create national literatures across Europe. Medieval Europe ignored events like the Hundred Years’ War (1337–1453), the crusades, and the Black Death, a 14th-century pandemic that killed between 50 million and 100 million people. Europe was based on religion, not scientific knowledge. In fact, one of the most important jobs of the church has only one person in charge, the Pope. As Protestantism grew in the 16th and 17th centuries, religion became constrained within nation-states. Germany was moving ahead of the rest of Europe in a slow but steady way. German culture was more representative of Europeans than any other culture, and it was up to German culture to shape a new Europe. In German Romanticism, people believed that national culture was the concept of Europe. This led to a Euro-universalist view of European civilization. At the Congress of Vienna, the Holy Alliance and the Nations fixed Germany’s role in building a new Europe. They said that Germany should be the better authority figure for resolving disagreements. Germany took on this role because of its location, its government, and its culture. So, in the decades after the French Revolution, the Enlightenment idea of Europe, which saw Germany as the model for all of Europe, became more popular, especially among German intellectuals and politicians. In this chapter, the key take away is that the German thinkers tried to fight against the universalist ideas of the French Enlightenment, but they stayed mostly Eurocentric, Euro-supremacist, and Euro-universalist.

Chapter 4, “The Russia Question” examines the controversial issue of Russia’s relationship with Europe in the eighteenth century. The issue of where Russia stood in respect to European civilization grew in significance after Napoleon’s defeat. Russia was seen as being in desperate need of the Enlightenment that had swept across Western Europe in the 1800s. Russia was an outcast country sandwiched between Europe and Asia. Through the course of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, Western European authors, philosophers, and political theorists came to see the United States and Russia as the world’s two greatest civilizations. Thus, European observers throughout the nineteenth century and for most of the twentieth century saw Russia as the biggest foreign danger to European civilization, surpassing the Ottoman Empire. In the latter part of the nineteenth century, Russia was still seen as a danger to European culture, with many believing that the country was barbarous, Asian, dictatorial, and eager for expansion. In the Crimean War, Russian troops were defeated in 1856 by a coalition of European powers, including the United Kingdom, France, Sardinia, and the Ottoman Empire. Marx saw Russia as the key to any meaningful political reform in Europe. The concept of Russia as Europe’s savior in political, cultural, and spiritual manifestations did not die out with the end of the nineteenth century, and it survived both World War One and the Russian Revolution. Russia shielded Europe from the “Mongol hordes” for a long time after the Russian Revolution and before the Civil War (1917–1922). During the interwar years, Western Europeans who had been actively considering the concept of Europe were generally worried that European civilization had entered a terminal decline and that Russia, like America, was waiting to obliterate it. The chapter has been brilliantly portrayed the notions of ‘otherization’ depicting the disagreements about where Russia fit in with the rest of Europe.

Chapter 5, “Homo Europaeus: 1848–1918,” concentrates on the time between 1848 and the First World War, when an ethnological view of Europe began to shape European national identity and colonial rule. Between the years 1848 and 1914, when Europe was increasingly seen as a place for nationalist expression, Marx and Engels advocated for a more universal, cosmopolitan conception of Europe. When the nineteenth century was coming to an end, Friedrich Nietzsche wrote extensively on Europe and the “good European” in particular. Christianity, Nietzsche said, posed Europe’s gravest danger. Europe has been mapped increasingly in ethnic terms since the advent of race theory in the second half of the 20th century. The required “war of annihilation” against “savage races,” “inferior races,” “black races,” etc., race-based terminology, had been prevalent in discussions about Europe. Even more so than the so-called “Homo Europaeus,” the “Aryan white race” was considered to be the most superior racial group. The racial theory that emerged in the nineteenth century and influenced people’s perspectives on Europe centered on the belief that there were two sources of racial danger: inside and beyond the continent. Jewish people in Europe were the primary target. Homo Europaeus was a concept that was used to contrast Europeans with the “inferior races” of those same European colonies, particularly in Africa. When European extermination tendencies were aimed at a supposed “non-European” population inside Europe, the groundwork for the Holocaust was established. Eurocentrism’s full-fledged racial manifestation may be seen in the concept of Homo Europaeus. Such a racist view of Europe led naturally to the Nazis’ “master race” of Aryans. Nietzsche’s idea of the good European was one of many that coexisted with ideas about race, Jews as the true cosmopolitans, anti-Christianity, and nihilism. This chapter has wonderfully explained how ideas of cosmopolitans, anti-Christianity, and nihilism would eventually lead to a new view of Europe and a new European order after World War I.

Chapter 6, “The European Spirit: 1918–1933,” puts emphasis on the years immediately following the First World War, especially the search for a European spirit. Even when the First World War was in full swing, intellectuals were already pointing to the concept of Europe as the remedy to the nationalist rivalries that had led to disaster in 1914. In the years before World War II, this view of the European spirit received attention. The European spirit, has the potential to go beyond physical boundaries. In the 1920s, the term “European” came to mean the highest cultural and spiritual triumphs of European countries. However, after the war, Europe started to come together on a greater scale. The reason for this is obvious, as both Russia and the United States, both located to Europe’s east and west, now provide Europe with an overwhelmingly non-European population. Hitler said in Mein Kampf (1925–26) that Jews were not European people and posed a serious danger to the importance of country and race. As the only people Hitler considered to be “real Europeans,” were the Aryans, there was a political collapse in Europe after World War I (1914–18). It is impossible to imagine a successful twentieth century for a Europe that is not unified. There was an immediate need to construct a “new Europe” in response to the continent’s collapse in political, economic, and cultural influence after World War I and the rising possibility of another nationalist catastrophe. In a nutshell, the goal was for Homo Europaeus to evolve into Homo universalis. French President Édouard Herriot proposed a unified Europe in October 1924. Thus, the nationalist-Europeanist debate proceeded with the restoration of political, economic, and cultural norms.  The chapter has represented how, from 1918 until 1933, the European spirit was a source of strength for Europe as a whole. Yet, with Eurocentrism, Euro-supremacism, and Euro-universalism continuing to contaminate the Europeanist discourse, it was difficult to justify preserving European ideals like democracy, individual freedom, equality, and plurality.

Picture 3: Nazi Germany led by Adolf Hitler terrorized Europe for 12 years despite its short existence from 1933 till its final defeat to the Allied powers in the World War II.

Chapter 7, “A New European Order: 1933–1945”, now moves to the 1930s, when people still tried to find a uniquely European spirit, but nationalism was winning. Despite efforts to appeal to a pan-European sense of solidarity throughout the interwar years, nationalism rose sharply across the continent. Europe’s foundational beliefs are rooted in the nation-state paradigm and are based on a variety of Eurocentric, Euro-supremacist, and Euro-universalizing ideas. The 1930s were a time of rising European depression. As a result, in 1931, the vision was a new European order based on an ideology that was anti-democratic, anti-Semitic, militaristic, expansionist, and Euro supremacist. The failure to fully eradicate nationalist sentiments prevented the creation of a unified Europe or European system. The crises that befell Europe during the interwar years and his conception of the “European man,” or Homo Europaeus, had far-reaching political ramifications. Politically right-wing perspectives on Europe in the 1930s pushed for a spiritual revival via nationalist movements. Europe’s way of thinking was profoundly affected by the period of the League of Nations, during which internationalism was politically disputed. Nationalism was destroying “European universality,” and by 1934, Nazi Germany was the most severe example of nationalism. Clearly, Nazi Germany at the time posed the biggest danger to European ideals and civilization. It was the racist policies of National Socialist Germany that helped spark World War II. After Operation Barbarossa was launched in 1941 against the Soviet Union, the German army proclaimed that the elimination of Jewish and Bolshevik dominance in Europe’s political and cultural spheres was the campaign’s primary objective. The concept of European humanity as superior to the “lower races” in the colonial period reflected the racialist Nazi vision of Europe. In this chapter, when we look at how people talked about Europe during the time between World Wars I and II, we can see how hard it was to think about Europe and the European spirit without getting caught up in nationalist bias, Eurocentrism, Euro-supremacism, or Euro-universalism.

Chapter 8, “Unity in Diversity: 1945–1989”, looks at the years right after World War II, when the vision of a politically united Europe finally started to come true. Western Europe’s postwar efforts to redefine Europe were affected by the traumas of the two world wars and the Holocaust. Nationalism and the Nazis’ racialist ideology caused Europe’s catastrophe. Western European academics and politicians are devoted to a unified Europe after such a tragic past. A politically unified Europe, a shared European identity, and a common European culture were greatly influenced by Enlightenment concepts in Western Europe. However, one of the first notable contributions to postwar discourse on Europe focused on a cultural unity built on nationwide diversity within a shared Christian civilization. France was essential to European politics and culture. Napoleon and Charlemagne were two of history’s most prominent visionaries of a unified Europe. At the 1946 conference on the European spirit, most speakers urged for a revival without Eurocentrism and Euro-universalism. The interwar movement of economic and political power away from Europe was evident in 1946. Russia and America were the two superpowers. This history taught that only a federal model that embraced cultural variety could create lasting unification. Churchill said on March 5, 1946, that the world’s stability required a new unity in Europe from which no country should be eternally excluded. In May 1948, the Congress of Europe in The Hague took the first steps toward European unity. On May 9, 1950, the Schuman declaration took place. Jean Monnet, an economic and political unifier of Europe, wrote this proclamation. The European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) was established in 1951 as the first step toward establishing the European Union. After the 1992 Maastricht Treaty, the European Community (EC) became the European Union (EU), uniting Eastern and Western Europe. The making of an unified European oragnization for political and economic cooperation has been depicted in this chapter.

Picture 4: The European Union or EU is considered “sui generis” or one of a kind; it is the only supra-national entity in the world that has a common currency and open border system dedicated to promoting free trade amongst its member states.

Chapter 9, “Other Europes” takes into account some of the ways in which the idea of Europe could be rethought in terms of what exists beyond its boundaries, pointing east and south. Western European thinkers saw Europe as Western Europe, with Central Europe as an extension of a less European Eastern Europe. Europe’s greatest obstacle was Western Europe’s refusal to see its essence in Central European culture. Christianity maintained Europe’s unity during the Middle Ages. Since the Enlightenment, European literature and philosophy have retained such cohesion. In the postwar era, Western Europe saw Central Europe as a component of Eastern Europe, a “different” Europe with no cultural or spiritual ties to Western Europe. Eastern Europe has long been seen as less European. This attitude demonstrates that Eurocentrism, Euro-supremacism, and Euro-universalism have been mostly Western European, with the underlying assumption that Western European culture is superior. Europe has been defined by Western Europe. Eastern Europe is neglected. Islam was Europe’s religious, political, and cultural “other” from the eleventh century until the twentieth century, when the Ottoman Empire collapsed. Even today, founding fathers of the European Union from Western Europe, such as Robert Schuman, and Konrad Adenauer, believe Christianity is “central to European identity.” In spite of the fact that populist parties in Europe are not Christian, their reaction to Islam cannot be readily differentiated from Christian civilization. Europe as a whole civilized the “savages.” Even today, many pro-Europeans do not see European colonialism as a disgrace. After World War II, proponents of European unity advocated colonialism as the propagation of good Europeanism. Instead of democracy, freedom, and human rights, Europe’s international leadership was characterized by “cynicism and violence.” In the post–World War II period, the “European game” came to an end. Europe is best understood in a way that doesn’t put it on a higher or lower level than other cultures and civilizations. The key takeaway from this chapter is the illustration of what makes Europe what it is, is the impact and influence of things that are usually thought of as “non-European,” and ideas like “anti-Europe” and “non-European” need to be studied carefully.

Chapter 10, “Europe Against Itself: 1989 to the Present Day” examines current criticisms of the idea of Europe and the European Union. The liberation of Eastern Europe from Soviet authority in 1989, German reunification in 1990, and the establishment of the European Union at the Maastricht Treaty in 1992 were celebrated by many Europeans as the realization of their dream of a unified Europe. Europe had violent conflicts after the end of the Cold War, with the Yugoslav Wars (1991–2001) being the most notable. The European Union has been the target of national populist criticism, with most of the attention being paid to how the EU is at odds with the Islamic world. At the same time, another critique of Europe has emerged, one that rejects American culture and celebrates European high culture while opposing Eurocentrism, Euro-supremacy, and Euro-universalism. The impact of immigration on the European Union is criticized. Europe is too generic to accommodate a wide range of cultures and national identities. Western European history has been the only history of Europe. All EU member states have either lost or abandoned their “democratic standards” to the EU as a whole, notwithstanding the prerequisite of a democratic political system for EU membership. The promise of a United States of Europe after World War II has not been fulfilled by European economic unity. In an article published in March 2019, Emanuel Macron said that he wished for a United States of Europe but also desired “stringent border limitations” for Europe. Europe is too shallow to accommodate a wide range of cultures and national commitments. The long and complicated history of the idea of Europe brings up the main question of whether or not it is possible to support the idea of Europe at all. This question is still important today, when the European Union is put up against ideas of Europe.

In the concluding chapter, the author talks about a new way of thinking about Europe to reorient the discourse on Europe away from the Eurocentrism, Euro-supremacism, and Euro-universalism that have troubled it for such a long time. If there is one thing, we can learn from how the idea of Europe has changed over time, it is that European identity has been seen as a privilege and that the idea of Europe as a western civilization full of enlightenment and progress is not without its share of darkness. We can only think of a new Europe if we recognize the darkness and understand how important it is to the idea of Europe.

Looking at the content covered in each chapter, it can be said that this fantastic book, ‘The Idea of Europe’ by Shane Weller, offers a comprehensive account of the evolution of the concept of Europe from ancient times to the current time. It has depicted beautifully how European ideas for a unified Europe from the age of enlightenment have failed to see beyond their own national identities and have separated themselves from a Eurocentric vision of Europe. The chapters of the book have been presented serially from ancient history to the modern day, so that the readers can get a hold of the whole picture of when the idea of Europe came into being and has gradually evolved in due course of time. In the chapters, there is a lot of detail about the bloody wars in Europe. After that, the Enlightenment called for Europe to be united, but German romanticism kept going. The book highlighted how Russia was seen as a pariah state, and even European Jews were excluded from being identified as European. The superior ‘homo Europaeus’ was regarded as the pure Europeans who excluded the others based on religion and even barbarism. The failure of the unification of Europe in the Enlightenment era kept boosting the nationalist spirit of Europe, ultimately resulting in two world wars. But even after the two world wars, it wasn’t easy to create the European Union. Even now, the process of otherization is still going on in Europe because the EU has strong control over border controls, immigration, and won’t let non-Christians into the Union.

This book is helpful in gaining an insight into the nature of political power and how these political changes influenced the connections between European states as well as the ties between European states and other non-European states. The analysis of European history helps us connect with intellectual, political, economic, and social processes that played a significant role in forming the society in which we live now. This is an extremely beneficial outcome of reading this book. This book is an excellent investment of time to do two things at once, i.e., analyze and evaluate the idea of Europe and learn a new method of picturing the European continent that does justice to its complex history and the present-day scenario. It shows how Europe came to dominate the world in the centuries following 1500 A.D, mostly as a result of advances in technology, the political formation of states, and a culture that was dominated by Christianity. This book by Shane Weller focuses on a number of closely related paradoxes, such as those between internationalism and nationality in European countries, heterogeneity and unification, as well as the numerous efforts to transcend such perceived difficulties. The book is a triumph in many respects. It shows how the idea of Europe has changed since ancient Greece. It also lets us think about all of Europe’s problems and challenges, as well as how we might be able to avoid the dangers of eurocentrism, euro-supremacism, and euro-universalism. This book is a must-read for students of International Relations since it is associated to the course “European Affairs” a major IR course. The book is definitely worth the time and attention as it will provide students with an understanding of the idea of Europe from historical, economic, geographical, religious, cultural and political viewpoints.

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