Putin’s war and the making of European unity
There is now neither German nor French, Swiss nor Swede...
A few years back we were holidaying in the Vendée, a gentle and family-friendly part of France famous for the horrors of Jacobinism. In one of those deserted French villages where the median age is about 58 and you can feel the demographic death spiral around you, an oldish man started talking to us in good English. Just as Michael Oakeshott was refused permission to go into occupied Europe because he just looked too Anglo-Saxon to not stand out, so perhaps I didn’t quite blend into the surroundings.
He talked about how growing up after the war had made him an Anglophile; just to the south, La Rochelle has long connections with the English and beyond that is the wine-growing region around Bordeaux, which was joined to England for centuries. It would be a tragedy if Britain left the EU, the man said, because of our long-standing ties — but also because we had to stand together to face the threat of Putin.
And then he brought up the Hundred Years’ War, of all things, and how the English had wrecked much of France, launching into a song about Edward III he had learned as a child.
France lost 2 million people in the wars launched by King Edward, a series of conflicts in which ‘the scum of England’, as Desmond Seward put it, rampaged across the country in chevauchée, travelling orgies of violence, rape and burning.
This army of English Orcs included many felons, who might have their sentence commuted in exchange for military service — an old practice now returning in Ukraine — and who committed appalling crimes along the way. They also humiliated France; one hundred miles from where we stood, at Poitiers, the English scored one of their most stunning victories, in 1356, even capturing the French king.
Further horror followed sixty years later when Edward’s great-grandson Henry V, a man with incredible leadership and organisational skills but also a terrifying messianic air, launched a fresh invasion. The mad king Charles was forced to renounce his own son and in the ultimate humiliation the English were able to crown Henry’s infant boy as king in Paris (who also later went mad).
It was in this context that the figure of Joan of Arc emerged, a young woman of immense bravery and determination who turned out to be not only an effective fighter but also a weaver of narrative. Burned by the English, she inspired France to drive out the invaders and in doing so became part of the narrative of its national identity. Centuries later people would still sing songs about the event.
While French national feeling owed much to the Hundred Year’s War, so did that of the English. They were the aggressors but the conflict’s ultimate origins lay in the conquest of England by a French-speaking aristocracy, the Normans, and the suppression of the native people and their language.
That language was now resurfacing: Parliament switched to English for the first time in 1362, and Henry V’s father was the first king of England to have English as his native tongue since Harold II in 1066. The late 14th century also saw the emergence of Middle English as a literary language, with Geoffrey Chaucer and William Langland doing much to create a new national identity against the backdrop of war with France.
National identity is a story, and in most cases it is a narrative forged in war and told in songs; it is one reason why wars are always remembered while plagues are usually forgotten (anyone recall Covid-19?)
Otto von Bismarck’s parents were newlyweds when the French army occupied their home town of Schönhausen, just a few miles east of the River Elbe, behaving appallingly and plundering the village in the process. When Friedrich Wilhelm’s call to arms finally came in 1813, it seemed a liberating and uplifting moment to Karl and Wilhelmine as it did for most people in the occupied German territories.
When Queen Louise tragically died in 1810 at the young age of 34, she became the icon of a German patriotic movement that would pressurise successive Prussian governments to rally all Germans behind a common cause. The image of the young Louise standing up for Prussia and Germany, not afraid to confront the mighty Napoleon, provided a powerful morale boost to her grieving husband.
When Napoleon’s armies at last suffered a major defeat in the winter of 1812 in the Russian campaign, Friedrich Wilhelm finally found the resolve to act. His powerful speech in the spring of 1813 rallied the Prussian people behind their king and a solidifying notion of fatherland. Regardless of class, creed, gender, age or region, many ordinary people responded to his call. They joined voluntary army units, donated “Gold for Iron”, founded charitable clubs and societies and helped look after the wounded.
When the Prussian king made an appeal for men to fight the French, he received volunteers from across the German states. Barely six decades later, his son Wilhelm united them under his rule, something that would have been impossible without the shared narrative Napoleon had created.
The high watermark of nationalism has now long passed, an idea discredited by the tragedy of 1914-1945, for which Prussia bears by far the most responsibility, but also by the inevitably consequences of globalisation, advances in communications and travel, and the spread of global English. But while national narratives have long since been unpicked by academics in the west, they can still be created in the 21st century, and I wonder to what extent Ukraine’s story is still being written now.
Vladimir Putin chose war, for which he bears responsibility, but that’s not to say there were not underlying causes; disputed territory, the use of paramilitaries and a population with mixed sympathies, a situation not completely incomprehensible to people from these islands.
Ukraine has a relatively young national identity, which is why some Russians dispute it. But if Putin wanted to help forge a stronger sense of nationhood there surely couldn’t be a better way to do it than this.
Every tale of heroism needs an antagonist and a protagonist. National stories need national heroes, and Ukraine has found it in Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the comedian-turned-politician who has become that rare modern phenomenon, a heroic war leader.
The PR war may be overblown by western social media users. If Russia captures Kiev and crushes the opposition, perhaps it doesn’t matter how many likes the Ukrainians get on Twitter. Yet we shouldn’t forget that narratives of war have lasting consequences, and sometimes narratives of defeat can be even more powerful in the long term.
Not only is Zelenskyy helping to write Ukraine’s national narrative, he’s also doing so for Europe, too. The swiftness and unity of the European response to Russian aggression has been perhaps more surprising than the invasion itself. Germany has not armed a country at war with another state since 1945, and even a month ago the idea would have seemed outlandish, a monumental taboo. Now it is not just intervening in the Ukraine, if indirectly, but now poised to re-arm significantly for the first time since that great tragedy 77 years ago.
In a further break with post-war convention, Finland and Sweden may join NATO, while even Switzerland has frozen Russian assets, a quite unprecedented move for a country which is famously averse to taking sides. The European Union, which has never been able to agree on a military role, is now arming another European country at war.
Even the rancour of Brexit, aside from a handful of monomaniacs and bores, has evaporated as the differences between Britain and its neighbours have disappeared (it seems trite to say it, but we surely wouldn’t have voted for Brexit in these circumstances, either). Europe is as united as it ever been in history. It finally has a meaning. When the Ukrainian president addressed the European Parliament, it felt less like a bloated talking shop and more like an assembly of the people for once (although I suspect this feeling won’t last). ‘United in diversity’ may be the EU’s quite vapid motto, but in reality it’s adversity that makes for unity.
Not far from where that elderly Frenchman told us about the menace from the east, yet another important battle had once taken place, centuries before the Hundred Years’ War. In 732, facing an invasion from Islamic Al-Andalus, the Frankish leader Charles had gathered a force to oppose the onslaught of the vastly-superior civilisation of the south. They won a famous victory, ending any hope of Muslim conquest beyond the Pyrenees, and Charles’s grandson Charles the Great would go on to become the first Emperor of the West, Europe reborn out of the ashes of antiquity.
Recording this great victory, the Latin Chronicle of 754, written by an unknown Catholic priest in Spain, coined a new term to describe the victors — Europenese. The various peoples of the West, sharing a common adherence to Christianity, spoke a mixture of Germanic and Latin dialects but they had something in common. They were Europeans.
In 814 Agobard, Archbishop of Lyon, described a new identity emerging, paraphrasing St Paul when he wrote: ‘There is now neither Gentile nor Jew, Scythian nor Aquitanian, nor Lombard, nor Burgundian, nor Alaman, nor bond, nor free. All are one in Christ.’
Modern Europe was forged in war too, the catastrophe of 1914-45, except it is a story of which no one wanted to sing (except Britain, which has always made it an outlier). Out of that disaster, Europe’s leaders aimed to build a new common identity, one in which nationalism itself is taboo and diminishing numbers believe in Christ.
It has proved a struggle, building an identity based on liberal, universalist principles in which tribalism is suppressed. That tribalism cannot be bred out of us has been illustrated the past week, with many modern, progressive westerners filled with energetic support for the Ukrainian cause; finally permitted to express a belligerent nationalism that makes them feel uncomfortable when it involves their own country.
This post-modern identity has always proved weak because collective identity is defined by opposition to something else, an outside threat. Historically, from the Battle of Tours onwards, Europe — Christendom — has been defined by its relationship with Islam. But this has become harder to articulate in the post-war era not just due to declining religious observance but the establishment of large Muslim minorities in western countries. Europe could not be defined by its opposition to Islam because, being post-Christian universalist liberals, that would be discriminatory. It would be paradoxically against what we stand for. (So we’re told.)
But now we have an outside threat; in a reversion to historical norms, Russia’s tsar is the ogre of European liberal opinion, and the continent has an enemy that unites its most conservative and most progressive states, from national populist Hungary and Poland to Blue State America’s cultural-cringe colonies in Britain and Ireland.
The ambiguity of modern Russia is what makes it the ideal other. It is European enough to make an enemy (or to use the language of American progressivism, Putin has white privilege). But it is alien and dangerous enough to fear too. It is historically Christian, but not of the western tradition. In Putin’s Russia, post-war Europe has finally found its unifying figure, its Napoleon — and he has done more for European Unity than all the EU’s founding fathers combined.