We all know the story of European integration – first came the Coal and Steel Community, a success story after the fratricidal disaster of the world wars. However, what is less widely known is that an attempt at European unity had been tried once before – and it came surprisingly close to becoming reality.
Many participated in this endeavour: some of them were ordinary people, others great statesmen. We cannot commemorate them all at once – we have chosen the most impactful stories, to give you a glimpse into a Europe that never was, and better celebrate the Europe we do have today.
I – Federalists Between The Wars
Not all soldiers and civilians, whose lives the World War One claimed, nurtured hatred and contempt toward their enemies. The famous Christmas Truce in 1914 (or even earlier examples, like the exchange of food and drink between the German and French soldiers during the Franco-Prussian War) gives us a glimpse of the many stories of friendship and the subsequent more serious efforts to achieve peace, that in many cases were wiped out by the winds of war that shook the “short twentieth century”.
In spite of nationalist attempts to suppress them, some of these stories invariably came to light. The interwar period was prolific for the many early pacifists who survived to the first conflict, and made sure that their voices were heard throughout the continent when the disastrous effects of war were still evident and tangible. Among these voices, some were raised for European peace and unity.
We should remember the efforts of Robert Peereboom, Dutch activist for world peace whose work focused on European citizenship, or his fellow national J.H. Schultz van Haegen, who wanted a future European Federation to adopt the same institutional framework of the United States, and formulated his ideas in a pamphlet titled “Who wants peace should further the establishment of the United States of Europa”. Meanwhile in Germany, one such intellectual was dealing with the nationalist impulses of the military by promoting his pacifist ideals.
The German journalist, satirist and writer Kurt Tucholsky was lucky enough to survive his military service during the First World War. A leftist and a staunch pacifist, he was among the most prominent intellectuals of the Weimar Republic. He paid dearly for his ideas and influence when the fledging Nazi government burned his books and banned him from the country.
Tucholsky is unknown to most Europeanists, but he can be easily considered one of the pioneers of European federalism.
In many of his articles he advocated the establishment of the United States of Europe to avoid another full-scale war among European nations and criticized the postwar treaties that led to the formation of many new states and thus new armies, making another war more likely to happen. His words regarding the Treaty of Versailles, which settled Germany’s price to pay after the war, sound prophetic:
Nesting among the French,
Will give us our nationalists again,
And in another twenty years
New cannons will come…”
The multiplication of new – and often small – states and respective frontiers, Tucholsky argued, would make borders appear as the main dividing line between humans, diverting the attention from social problems like the exploitation of the oppressed, which was a common aspect that affected every European nation.
The absolute sovereignty of states in their “internal affairs” was also rejected by Tucholsky, who came to embrace the newly established League of Nations and its potential as a supranational entity that could prevent future conflicts, but he dismissed its (then)current intergovernmental framework, which allowed every member state to renounce its authority, as the axis powers did in the wake of the Second World War.
Tucholsky’s commitment to a united Europe is uncontested, but contrarily to figures like van Haegen, his actions to achieve an actual federation never went beyond the written words of his articles. He dedicated himself mainly to journalism and pacifism, by warning his fellow citizens of the danger that nationalists and monarchists posed to the Weimar Republic, and by being active in several pacifist associations, like the Ex-Servicemen’s Association for Peace which he helped founding.
With the Nazi Party grasping for power, he was forced to move to Sweden, as some of his colleagues were already beginning to be censored and imprisoned. Tucholsky didn’t see his dream come true, but his story is extremely valuable to us Europeans living in current times: it reminds us that peace is one of the main purposes of a united Europe.
Richard von Coudenhove-Kalergi
While Tucholsky was engaged in promoting internationalism and pacifism, questioning the usefulness of a weak League of Nations and championing European unity, another key figure emerged over the interwar years: Richard von Coudenhove-Kalergi.
Son of an Austrio-Hungarian diplomat and an aristhocratic woman from Tokyo, he is rightfully considered the father of European integration. He was more active than Tucholsky in the political scene, and kept in touch with many important political figures of his time.
The first attempt to bring his idea of unity to the attention of the European political leaders started with the Czech President Tomás Masaryk, who around the 1920 was contemplating the establishment of a confederation of central European countries; due to the president’s skepticism and old age, Kalergi’s attempts to influence Masaryk failed.
Kalergi turned his attention to the French and German foreign ministers Aristide Briand and Gustav Stresemann, with effects of surprising magnitude, which are discussed below. His dedication to the cause led him in 1922 to co-found, with Otto Von Habsburg, the Paneuropean Union, the first European movement whose stated aim was to unite the continent. The PEU survives to this day, despite being less active.
We know that the Count of Coudenhove-Kalergi and Tucholsky knew each other, but they never worked together to further their common agenda; the German journalist attended a talk given by Kalergi in Paris, in 1925, but he didn’t seem very enthusiastic about his Paneuropean project, and was skeptical of Aristide Briand, with whom Kalergi was working.
Inspired by the book “The economic consequences of peace” (1919) by the British economist John Maynard Keynes, Kalergi advanced the idea of an independent international judicial body, a common market and a single currency, thus anticipating what would have been the European Economic Community (EEC) and the more recent European Monetary Union (EMU). He collected his ideas in a manifesto entitled Pan-Europa, published in 1923 and translated into dozens of languages (Japanese and Chinese included).
His membership in the Austrian masonic lodge “Humanitas” and his positive view of a multicultural society, gave light to conspiracy theories among the far right, which still today accuses Kalergi of being the mastermind of a supposed “ethnic cleansing” that the European Union is secretly carrying out against European natives.
Kalergi didn’t succeed in his project, but he should be remembered for having dedicated his life to a noble cause and having inspired thousands of people. His Pan-European Movement gained the interest of great minds like Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, Thomas Mann and Keynes himself. Maybe what is more tangible of Kalergi’s legacy is the adoption of the Ode to Joy as the hymn of the European Union, as he proposed in 1955.
II – The Briand Plan
The war has taught us one thing, namely, that a common fate
binds us together. If we go under, we go under together. If we
wish to recover, we cannot do so in conflict with each other,
but only by working together.
Gustav Stresemann, 1925
Kalergi began looking for institutional figures who would support his plans, and found many – but he intersected with two statesmen in particular. The first was Gustav Stresemann, Chancellor and then Foreign Minister of the German Reich between 1924 and 1929. The second and even more enthusiastic backer was Aristide Briand, who alternated between the role of Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of France during the 1920s.
While Briand took Kalergi’s ideas to heart and quickly began drafting plans of closer European cooperation and community, Stresemann remained more pragmatic and kept a keener eye on German national interests.
The political tensions and troubles of the coming years, as well as the need to renegotiate the merry-go-round of
loans and reparations between the United States, Germany, France and the UK, meant that Briand could only come forward with his plans in 1929. On July 31st, speaking to the French Parliament, he declared he’d been thinking of “this vast problem” for four years, and that Europe would either become a federal State or head towards social catastrophe.
He went further, saying he would propose to the League of Nations the establishment of a European Federation, because:
“I am of the opinion that there should be a kind of federal bond between peoples who – as is the case in Europe – live geographically next to each other”.
Stresemann expressed his support, although he believed the primacy would rest on economic integration, and that a complete federation would be a matter for the future. To understand Stresemann’s position however we need to look deeper into the seams of European history at the time. In 1923-4 Germany had banked on American involvement to stabilize the German economy in the wake of hyperinflation, and keep France and Britain at bay in regards to reparations.
Germany’s greatest hope was that America would see the underpinning connection between German reparations, and French and British ability to pay their debts to the United States. This “Atlanticist” strategy was dealt a fatal blow when the Young Plan of 1928 didn’t include a comprehensive revision of the Versailles provisions, or even a large-scale reduction in German reparations.
Within hours of securing the agreement of the German government to the Young Plan, Stresemann suffered a series of strokes and died, leaving us with the open question of what he might have achieved as the European and American economies uncoupled. But in the last week of June 1929 Stresemann had made his disappointment clear, telling the Reichstag that Europe was becoming “a colony of those who have been more fortunate than us”.
The time had come in which:
“French, German and perhaps also other European economies must find a way together to counter a competition that weighs heavily on us all.”
Stresemann’s death was a disaster for Germany, greatly contributing to the situation spiralling out of control, and the internationalist agenda in the country lost its more flamboyant proponent, paving the way for ultra-nationalist alternatives. The stock market crash that followed within the same month would make things even worse, paralizing the international market that had made Germany’s postwar recovery viable. But Briand forged on nonetheless.
One month prior to these events, in September 1929, the General Meeting of the League of Nations had tasked Briand with formulating a plan for European confederalism, to be submitted by 1931. He obliged, styling it as the Bond of Solidarity between the States of Europe. This plan became French policy on 1st May 1930, under a new title: Mémorandum sur l’organisation d’un régime d’union fédérale européenne. Twenty-six European governments were invited to respond, so that the memorandum could be discussed in September 1930, during the new yearly meeting of the General Assembly of the League of Nations.
While Briand used the term European Federation, his vision was more closer to that of a confederation, or a regional forum, as a sub-unit of the League of Nations. On this model, member States would bring down trade barriers, come together in a spirit of “union, not unity” and harmonize their economies and trade with the aim of creating a continent-spanning single market. The Federation would have its own European Conference devoted to the States, a political committee modeled after the LoN sub-committees, and a General Secretary.
The memorandum received positive reactions from many European nations, including those who considered helping from the sidelines, like the British Empire. Poland, Czechoslovakia and the Balkans, as well as Belgium, were particularly positive about the idea, and the implications it had – preventing future German expansionism in Eastern Europe. Remarkably, Greece asked for Turkey to be included in the talks.
Briand’s plan was discussed at the League of Nations that year. In the post-Black Monday political climate, and with Germany and Austria holding secret reunification talks, the mood had darkened considerably. The invited nations didn’t want to commit in excess of testing the waters, but they did agree to form a Commission of Enquiry for European Union, with the active participation of Germany, France, the British Empire, Finland, Denmark, Greece, Italy, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Switzerland and Yugoslavia.
This Commission was to lay the groundwork for an economic non-aggression pact, and an economic solidarity pact, which would begin the process of European federalization. The Commission remained in operation until March 1932, when Briand died, after which it was put on hold. What happened soon after, as the result of a heated German election, changed everything.
III – The Europe That Never Was
It’s hard to predict what this European (Con)Federation might have looked, had it been brought to the fore. It would primarily remain an economic endeavor for quite some time: the member States were to maintain sovereignty, and they held such a wide variety of governments, ranging from liberal democracy to Fascist dictatorship, that it’s hard to see a normative process taking root early.
Ethnic diversity was far greater as well. Diversity remains a key core of Europe even today, but it should not be forgotten that the peace deals that followed World War Two gave us much more homogenous borders and countries. Resolving friction in the many areas of astounding richness and diversity of interwar Europe was possible, but it would have required considerable political will.
The strategic underpinning that appealed to European statesmen was that it would allow Europe to stem the economic ascendance of the flanking powers – the USSR, the United States, and Japan – whose hand had been considerably strengthened after the war. The proposed members made up an area whose GDP was greater than that of the United States, with considerable military might at their disposal; the exploitation of colonies, and their natives and raw resources, was openly acknowledged as one of the strengths of this union.
This leads to a Europe that looks much different from the one we have today. While the proposal of a free trade agreement with the USSR suggests the aim of peaceful coexistence, if such a Federation managed to remain united, it would still be pretty far from the normative giant of human rights and rule of law that the European Union is to this day, and it’s likely that colonialism would be viewed much differently.
There are, however, lessons to be learned from this endeavor, and the consequences of its failure. Stresemann had gambled. His gamble was that Germany was so fundamental to the wider economy of Europe that it was impossible to curtail it in eternity without also doing great damage to Europe. This was the same logic that allowed West Germany to reconstruct and become one of the primary nations of the world after 1945, which is bitterly ironic. As in 1929, it was the French that came forward with their proposals for European economic and defense integrations, after the war.
To cap it off, Stresemann was only two years older than Konrad Adenauer, the Chancellor of the Federal Republic between 1949 and 1963. Adenauer followed a recipe similar to that of Stresemann, making the rump of his country a fundamental part of the European Community and NATO.
Ultimately, the key issues that motivated Briand, Stresemann, Tucholsky and Kalergi are the same we face today: European countries alone can no longer be relevant in the emerging international environment. Staying together is our only way to remain capable of influencing our own fate. It took another terrible war for Europe to learn this lesson, at great human and material cost. It meant renouncing our role in the world at large, which had its positive side – for example, it meant abandoning colonialism and championing the far more progressive cause of human rights.
9th of May is Europe Day. The story of the Europe That Never Was should serve as a cautionary tale of what we stand to lose – but also a story of what we stand to gain, and why we should make sure that the Union we do have, can prosper and grow stronger in the coming decades.