The making of the European mind


Ireland’s presidency of the European Union, which started this week, is certain to focus on tackling urgent practical problems in the economic and financial sectors, problems it has inherited from its predecessor and that it will pass on in some form to its successor.

This time of persisting anxiety for Europe is perhaps not the ideal occasion to suggest revisiting and reacquainting ourselves with the union’s foundational principles, but in the face of insistent questioning (in Britain in particular but not just there) of the value of the project, we might pause briefly to examine in what context this unlikely political construct first arose and with what hopes it was set in motion.

The international agreements that were put together in western Europe from the early 1950s onwards, and that prefigured the EU, were most obviously a response to the recent trauma of war: the initial internationalisation, pooling control of coal and steel, the essential raw materials of modern war, was intended to make a re-emergence of conflict impossible.

There was also, however, in addition to political and economic motives, a quite strongly felt notion that the six original members – Germany, France, Italy, Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg – had a certain culture and history in common.

The new Europeans spoke – dialects and minority languages aside – a limited number of languages, of which English was not one. Historically, the territory covered by what was known to Anglophones in the 1960s as “the Six” was not immensely different from that occupied by the Holy Roman Empire in the ninth century, which comprised Italy only as far south as Rome and not all of eastern Germany, but included present-day Slovenia and parts of Croatia.

In the 1960s, the prosperous core of the European Economic Community was a place of refuge for poor southern Italians, Portuguese and even Yugoslavs, though not for Saxons, who were pursuing their own experiment behind the inner German border. As regards culture, the Europe of Charlemagne at the time of his death in 814 was united, more or less, under the civil and ecclesiastical power.

Whatever languages and dialects were spoken there was a single language of culture, Latin, while in terms of intellectual authority the Roman Church was dominant, almost monopolistic.

Europe after 1945 retained strong Christian features: France, Italy, Belgium, southern Holland, the Rhineland and much of southern Germany were largely Catholic or post-Catholic; northern Holland and northern Germany were Protestant or post-Protestant. But the confidence of the churches had been shaken by 18th century enlightenment and 19th century positivism and science.

They had not gone away, but their mode was now more defensive than magisterial. What could replace them?

Some thought that culture and what was understood as “our common European heritage” could bind us together as religion once had (it had also of course separated us).

But what did this common European heritage actually consist of? Did it even exist? The founders of the EEC were practical men and their predominant concerns were economic and political ones.

And yet there was also a feeling that Europe was a cultural entity or an entity with common values and that it should, from time to time, say something about this.

It may be that the existence of a parallel organisation, the Council of Europe, with specific responsibilities for human rights and culture, for a long time kept the European Union from seriously engaging with the dimension of values.

In fact it was not until the Maastricht Treaty in 1992 that the union formally took on competences in the cultural field.

There has always been something uneasy about the EU’s entanglement with culture, as if this field of human activity sits somewhat awkwardly with the necessarily quantitative bias of institutions based on treaties, regulations and targets. This can be seen in the clunkiness of many official statements or scripts, worthy but ponderous genuflections that seem to quickly run out of steam after the initial ritual invocation of “the Europe of Dante, Shakespeare, Beethoven”.

Is the problem then that there is no European culture, and that the apparent desire of “Brussels” to create one to which we might pay allegiance (along with the Ode to Joy and the European flag) is doomed to remain a somewhat pathetic failure, a pasteurised amalgam of “the good bits” of individual national cultures that has no credibility of its own? Are national cultures the only cultures there are?

In a weekly series, which will run throughout Ireland’s EU presidency, I will attempt to suggest some of the things that a European culture might be or might have been through 26 brief vignettes of historical figures who have contributed something to the continent’s learning, civility, knowledge and values over perhaps 15 centuries.

They will include scientists, writers, musicians, artists, philosophical and religious thinkers and politicians and statesmen.

I do not claim that this selection can present an adequate picture of the variety of European culture; one would need to feature more than 26 people to do that. Nor am I claiming that those I have chosen are necessarily “the greatest Europeans” in the cultural field.

What I hope to achieve through my selection is to indicate some of the currents that have moved through Europe over the centuries, currents that I think suggest we have often had, in addition to our separate national stories, significant elements of a common story shaped by a common culture: not a homogenous culture but a richly multiple one, sometimes an oppositional one, which has been based on both faith and science, driven forward by rationalism and restrained by tradition while being enriched by impulses that are variously intellectual, aesthetic and ethical.

I will also be indirectly posing the question of where Europe begins and ends. Where is “non-Europe”? Who does not belong?

I expect to find that Europe has not always meant what it means today, that it has no particularly obvious or self-evident borders and indeed that we do not know what it will mean in the future – if we are fortunate enough to see it survive.

If it does indeed survive, that may well be because we have come to realise that retaining a sense of common purpose may require more than merely economic bonds.

Carriers of European  culture: Charlemagne

Charlemagne (otherwise Carolus Magnus, Charles the Great and Karl der Grosse) was born we do not quite know where some time in the 740s and died in 814 in Aachen (otherwise Aix-la-Chapelle, pictured above).

Charles was the son of the Frankish king Pepin the Short. He himself became king in 768 and was crowned Holy Roman Emperor by Pope Leo III in Rome on Christmas Day 800.

The Franks were a Germanic people who over a few centuries moved out from their central territory of Austrasia (Belgium, eastern France, Rhineland Germany) to dominate, by the late eighth century, all of France save Brittany, the northern half of Italy and much of present-day Germany and Austria.

Charlemagne’s expansion of his empire met with considerable opposition in Italy, on the borders of France and Spain and, particularly, in Germany, where the pagan Saxons, resisting forcible conversion to Christianity and led by their chieftain Widukind, inflicted a costly defeat on the Franks in 782 at Süntel. Charlemagne, by way of reprisal, had 4,500 prisoners executed.

A few years later Widukind surrendered and he and his people became Christian. When it was judged necessary to present to later generations a more perfumed account of these dramatic events, Widukind was transformed into a spiritual seeker who as a result of a vision came over to the light. The feast of Blessed Widukind is celebrated on January 6th.

The Saxon chief belatedly became a hero of another sort, however, to the National Socialists. In Edmund Kiss’s 1934 play Wittekind, alien Catholics are seen as conspiring to destroy German freedom. Thousands of Teutonic maidens have been rounded up to be forced to breed with Jews, Greeks, Italians and Moors unless Widukind/Wittekind submits. It is only to avoid this horrific fate that the chieftain and his people allow themselves to become Christian.

As with the Pax Romana and the Pax Britannica, the peace that Charlemagne brought came only after opposition had been extinguished by violence. But the peace itself was genuine, and fruitful. Charlemagne promoted literacy, inviting the learned monk Alcuin of York to his palace school at Aachen. Alcuin, somewhat unusually for the time, apparently did not believe in forced conversions and may eventually have had some restraining influence over the king in this area.

Charlemagne promoted schools and scriptoria, where books were copied by teams of scribes, and endowed cathedral and monastery libraries. At a time when literacy was virtually the exclusive preserve of clerics, he also built up a state bureaucracy on the model of the church, with a corps of lay civil servants and administrators now educated to read and write in the universal language, Latin, which became the lingua franca that bound together a sprawling empire speaking scores of languages and dialects, from northern Spain to the Elbe.

The emperor himself, it seems, never mastered the skill of writing, though he could converse in Latin and Greek as well as his native language, Frankish. But what “nationality” was Charlemagne? If you walk down the right hand side of the long main street of the pleasant Dutch town of Vaals, you will notice, just after you pass the pizzeria La Frontiera, that the shop names have changed to German. You have in fact just left Vaals and entered Aachen. If you don’t go quite that far along the street but swing right down Randweg, seven or eight minutes’ drive will bring you into Belgium. In this corner of Europe where three countries meet, the notion of nationality can seem a little insubstantial.

Charlemagne’s Frankish was a Germanic dialect that nevertheless gave many words to the French language, including the word France. One theory holds that the future emperor was born near the city of Liège, 40km west of Aachen: perhaps he was that most European of things, a Belgian.