Why America Should Care About the Collapse of European Unity

The ruins of Berlin in 1945. Hulton-Deutsch Collection-Corbis

In September 1946, much of Europe had been reduced to smoking rubble. Bitter hardship and gnawing hunger were the lot of millions. The curtain had come down on one monstrous theater of violence and cruelty only to have it rise on others. Unnumbered multitudes languished in displaced-persons camps, with millions more living as refugees from their ancestral lands and homes. An immense Soviet Army had brought liberation, but along with it a contagion of rape and the sinister prospect of new Stalinist tyranny lurking like a predator in the shadows, waiting to pounce on the wasted, fragile democracies.

It was against this bleak backdrop that Winston Churchill, no longer British prime minister but nonetheless assuming the mantle of the prophet, addressed the University of Zurich. In a speech not much remembered today but packed with visionary power, Churchill addressed a continent in agonized distress. "I wish to speak to you today on the tragedy of Europe," he began, summoning from his rumbling baritone the deepest notes of grandeur. The only way forward for the shattered continent, Churchill said, was "to re-create the European family"—to make some sort of greater union of the continent's disparate, perpetually warring parts.

Churchill was not alone in this vision, of course. He invoked Harry Truman (and might have added Gens. Lucius Clay and George Marshall) as the indispensable American stewards of a reborn Europe where, in return for economic convergence, ancient nations would trade in a piece of their sovereignty and abandon the zero-sum game of profit and loss that had reigned since the days of Louis XIV. Sketches of a more, if not wholly, united Europe had already been drafted and published even as the war began to turn in the Allies' favor in 1943. Its most active promoters (men like Jean Monnet and Robert Schuman) were engaged in creating a framework for a coal and steel union that would begin this great enterprise by making the Rhine less a stream of contention and more a symbol of the common prosperity flowing through the continent.

It's important to recall these heroic beginnings rising out of the ash pit of disaster, even as we survey what might be the dispiriting spectacle of the undoing of the common European project. On this side of the Atlantic (and perhaps in parts of the Pacific, too), there is a certain amount of unseemly schadenfreude mixed into the apprehensiveness of the markets at the prospect of the unraveling euro zone taking the whole larger common European enterprise down with it. Credit-rating agencies—those ravening hyenas of fiscal trouble—move on from one economy, mutilated by sovereign-debt downgrade, to another, traveling north from the basket cases of the Mediterranean, crossing the Alps in search of freshly fallen game. You might think that the agencies that were the enablers of the subprime calamity and were capable of making a trillion-dollar error in calculating American debt reduction over the next decade would have the decency to go into hiding for just a while before presuming to decree the viability of hard-pressed states to meet their bond obligations. But a kind of reverse Marshall Plan ethos of meanness is at work these days, combining maximum sanctimoniousness about unsustainable deficits with an insistence on precisely the kind of measures least likely to reduce them: draconian public-sector austerity that leaches demand out of the economy, precluding a return to growth, and opportunistically punitive interest rates for sovereign debt bonds that only add to their burden, stoking the fires of political rage.

None of this is to discount the true magnitude of the disaster, but there is a distinct whiff of Mr. (rather than Harry) Potter in the air: the prudent layaways forced to the rescue of the prodigal layabouts. And as resentment mounts, there is a real possibility of a recoil from the assumption of mutual dependence on which postwar European—and indeed Atlantic—prosperity was founded. Many on the right who profess doubts about Darwinian evolution certainly seem eager to see it practiced, with the weaker species left to hang. Message to Athens, the cradle of Western culture: drop dead, and do it soon.

The results will be ugly—a collapse of trade akin to the disaster of the 1930s and its natural concomitant: the rise of snarling, authoritarian nationalisms, in reaction to the failed collaborative project, riding a wave of anti-immigrant and student neo-nationalist belligerence. It could happen in the United States, too, where the presidential rhetoric of "coming together" has failed to soften the rhetoric of mutual demonization.

It's worthwhile, then, in the midst of all this frantic financial mayhem to step back a bit and recall just what (in Europe's case) is at stake, where the idea of unity (now routinely ridiculed as the pipe dream of elite wishful thinking) came from, and what (if anything) in the vision might be worth fighting to preserve.

It was not an accident that the treaty creating the customs-free, borderless European Union was signed in 1957 in Rome. For the ambition of a pan-continental empire of a single legal code and unified administration had been around since the Roman Empire of Augustus and Hadrian. After that empire had fallen to barbarian invasions and its capital moved to the Bosporus, the Christian heirs of the Caesars often invoked the rebirth of Pan-European Romanism as their own mission. Stopping the advance of Muslim armies into Western Europe at Tours made the Frankish warrior-kings the champions of a Roman-Christian imperium that, so the official version ran, unified the sundry nations and peoples of Europe in a single unbroken "Congregation of the Faithful," ultimately accountable to the papal successor of Saint Peter in Rome.

Demonstrators at an "Occupy" protest in Rome, Italy. Giorgio Cosulich / Getty Images

That unity was irreparably broken by the Protestant Reformation. But even before the Catholic-Protestant schism, kingdoms such as France had gone their own pragmatic way, even going so far as to make tactical alliances with the Turks. It was from the grim prospect of perpetual bloodshed between European states that an alternative ecumenical vision of Pan-European peace was born in polemics like Erasmus of Rotterdam's Complaint of Peace (1521). At first it was no more than the idealism of a humanist intellectual or two, but in an epoch when the dangerously new medium of print could send words across frontiers of states and languages, it had an important impact.

The men of good ideas had few illusions that states accustomed to profit from war and mutually destructive competition could somehow be persuaded, in the name of Christian peace, to dissolve boundaries in a Pan-European confederation. Yet even as armies became more monstrous in size and killing power, they persisted in their vision of an ultimately defanged Europe. Rulers flattered themselves on being "enlightened" and kept philosophers like Voltaire as intellectual pets. Then in 1795, Immanuel Kant, one of those who briefly imagined the French Revolution might usher in an epoch of popular aversion to cannon fodder, published his Proposals for a Perpetual Peace. To read Kant now, noting his insistence that it was the furious ambitions of states to cut a dominant figure in the world and not their professed concern for the welfare of their citizens that serves as the engine of general penury, is to weep at his prescience—and to see that philosophy sometimes has a tighter grip on reality than hard-bitten brokers of money and power who imagine they truly understand the ways of the world.

Even as European battles took more casualties and the collateral damage to civilians became more horrifying, the idealists of European peace persisted. In 1849 the novelist and patriarch of French republican democracy, Victor Hugo, spoke in proto-Churchillian tones to a Peace Congress:

"A day will come when war will seem absurd ... when the only fields of battle will be markets opening to trade and minds opening to ideas ... [A] day will come when ... all the nations of this continent, without losing your distinctive qualities and your glorious individuality, will be merged closely within a superior unit and you will form one European brotherhood."

That "unit," Hugo declared, would be a European Federal Republic, since the monarchies were constitutionally incapable of desisting from perennial warfare. Twenty years later at Lausanne, on the very brink of the Franco-Prussian War that would destroy the French Second Empire and create the second German Reich, Hugo was even more explicit. "Let us be the same Republic, let us be the United States of Europe."

These hopes and dreams perished in the gas-poisoned trenches of the First World War, along with victimized millions in uniform and out. But they did not die off altogether. It was in the 1920s that the seeds of what would become the European Union were first planted. Its great champion was a figure honored by Churchill in 1946 but now wholly forgotten: Count Richard Coudenhove-Kalergi, whose implausible name announced his origins from the multinational heartland of the destroyed "Middle Europe." It was Coudenhove-Kalergi who, from his base in Vienna, recruited not just the likes of Einstein, Freud, and Thomas and Heinrich Mann to the cause of European Union, but also the leaders of the French and German republics—Aristide Briand and Gustav Stresemann—who made a profession of renouncing for the future their ancient, mutually armed antagonism. Another forgotten heavyweight, Labour M.P. Norman Angell, author of the immensely influential The Great Illusion, likewise argued that inevitable economic integration of the European heartland would, one day, make war obsolete. But the year in which Angell won the Nobel Peace Prize, 1933, saw Hitler's rise to the chancellery and with it the destruction of Angell's hopes.

Which was not to say that the aspirations of the founders of Pan-Europeanism are to be written off as utopian fantasies. As usual, Churchill, in his Zurich speech, had it right. The principles of the League of Nations, he insisted, had not been wrong; the fault lay, rather, in their abandonment. And the hard, unglamorous work done since then to build a greater European community likewise should not be contemptuously dismissed as a house of bureaucratic and technocratic cards. It is true that Hugo's ideal of countries that could bond without losing their distinctiveness has had to contend with the modernization of the tribal instinct, deeply rooted in differences of language and social habit. At the same time that Europeanism was coming of age, the Romantic movement was elevating these differences to be the bedrock of national allegiance. Race, blood, soil, the markers of exclusiveness, became the fetishes of ancestral community, reborn as warrior dictatorships. And though fascism has (for the moment) gone, those markers still exert an almost mystical hold on peoples wanting to blame the detested foreigner or the invading immigrant for their misfortunes. Although it's natural in brutally hard times to retreat back to tribal encampments encircled by walls of tariffs and fences against immigrants, this atomization of economic and political purpose needs to be resisted, on both sides of the Atlantic, if we are not to slide into another deep and dark age of violently angry populations and dangerously combative posturing.

Whether we like it or not, we are all—across the oceans and continents—entangled in a common destiny, perhaps more than ever in the entirety of the world's history. We share the same predicament of a physically degraded planet; we are bound together—the Chinese bondholder and the American debtor; the Greek insolvent and the German banker—in the troubles of a common human home. Turning one's back is not an option; it will merely guarantee that one day it will be stabbed by the mischief of history. To let the worst off sink is to make it harder for us all to swim. Better to hearken to John Donne: "No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent ... If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were ...; any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls ..."

You know the rest. Take it to heart.