Translated by Greg Johnson
What is Europe? What is a European?
From the geopolitical and historical point of view, Europe is defined by its boundaries. The center, the European core, is formed of nations that, though often in conflict, have experienced a common history since the High Middle Ages. Essentially, they are the nations resulting from the Carolingian Empire and its environs, those that constituted with the 1957 Treaty of Rome the Europe known as “the Six”: France, West Germany, Italy, Belgium, The Netherlands, and Luxembourg. Beyond, one sees taking shape a second circle including the Atlantic and septentrional [Northern] nations, as well as Eastern Europe and the Balkans. Lastly, a third circle of privileged alliances is enlarged to Russia.
I am absolutely not speaking here of a political project. I speak only as a historian pointing out a series of realities.
One could mention others. The Danubian Empire of the Hapsburgs was a reality. Baltic Europe equally so, although it is no longer true of the Mediterranean, which has ceased to be an axis of European unity since the Arab-Muslim conquests.
But Europe is something quite different from the geographical framework of its existence.
The consciousness of belonging to Europe, of Europeanness, is far older than the modern concept of Europe. It is apparent under the successive names of Hellensim, Celticness, Romanism, the Frankish Empire, or Christianity. Seen as an immemorial tradition, Europe is the product of a multi-millennial community of culture deriving its distinctness and unity from its constitutive peoples and a spiritual heritage whose supreme expression is the Homeric poems.
Like the other great civilizations—China, Japan, India, or the Semitic East—ours has deep roots in prehistory. It rests on a specific tradition that crosses time under changing guises. It was formed of spiritual values that structure our behavior and nourish our imaginations even after we forget them.
If, for example, simple sexuality is universal, just like the act of feeding oneself, love is different in every civilization, as are the representation of femininity, pictorial art, gastronomy, and music. They are the reflections of a certain spiritual morphology, mysteriously transmitted by blood, language, and the diffused memory of a community. These specificities make us who we are, and not someone else, even when our awareness of them has been lost.
Understood in this sense, tradition is what shapes and prolongs individuality, founds identity, gives meaning to life. It is not a transcendence external to oneself. Tradition is a “me” that crosses time, a living expression of the particular within the universal.
The name of Europe appeared 2,500 years ago in Herodotus and in the Description of the Earth of Hecataeus of Miletus. And it is not by chance that this Greek geographer classified the Celts and the Scythians among the people of Europe and not among the Barbarians. This was the age when European self-awareness first emerged under the threat of the Persian wars. It is a constant of history: identity is born from the threat of otherness.
Twenty centuries after Salamis, the fall of Constantinople, on May 29th, 1453, was felt as an even worse upheaval. The whole Eastern front of Europe was open to Ottoman conquest. Hapsburg Austria remained the ultimate rampart.
This critical moment brought the blossoming of a European consciousness in the modern sense of the word.
In 1452, the philosopher George of Trebizond had already published Pro defenda Europa, a manifesto in which the name of Europe replaced that of Christendom.
After the fall of the Byzantine capital, cardinal Piccolomini, later pope Pius II, wrote: “The Eastern part of Europe has been torn away.” And to communicate the full significance and pathos of the event, he invoked not the fathers of the Church, but, higher in the European memory, the poets and the tragedians of ancient Greece. This catastrophe, he said, means “the second death of Homer, Sophocles, and Euripides.” This lucid pope died in 1464, despairing at his inability to mobilize an army and fleet to deliver Constantinople.
All of history testifies that Europe is a very old community of civilizations. Without going back to the cave paintings and megalithic culture, there is not even one great historical phenomenon lived by one of the countries of the Frankish sphere that was not shared by all the others. Medieval knighthood, epic poetry, courtly love, monarchy, feudal liberties, the crusades, the emergence of the cities, the Gothic revolution, the Renaissance, the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, the expansion beyond the seas, the birth of the nation state, the secular and religious Baroque, musical polyphony, the Enlightenment, Romanticism, the Promethean universe of technology, or the awakening of nationalism . . . Yes, all that is common to Europe and Europe alone. In the course of history, every great movement in one country of Europe immediately found its equivalent among its sister countries and nowhere elsewhere. As for the conflicts that contributed so long to our dynamism, they were dictated by the competition of princes or states, never by oppositions of culture and civilization.
Contrary to other less-favored peoples, Europeans seldom had to raise the question of their identity. It was enough for them to exist: numerous, strong, and often victorious. But that is finished. The terrible “century of 1914” put an end to the reign of Europeans, who have since then been plagued by all the demons of self-doubt, albeit mitigated somewhat by a provisional material abundance. The artisans of unification crap their pants in fear at the question of identity. But identity is as important to a community as the vital question of ethnic and territorial borders.
Extract from Dominique Venner, Le Siècle de 1914: Utopies, guerres et révolutions en Europe au XXe siècle
(Paris: Pygmalion, 2006).
For Michael O’Meara’s review of this book, click here .