Writting some 50 years ago, Archduke Otto Hapsburg, the last pretender to the crowns of Austria and Hungary, warned that economic cooperation alone would not satisfy the peoples of Europe and that European unification could not succeed unless it was imbued with an abstract principle. Only something as mystical, he wrote, as the Holy Roman Empire could give people hope, a sense of religious renewal and combat the pernicious effects of local interest, chauvinism, xenophobia and racism.
Today’s European crisis indeed shows that great political institutions cannot be constituted solely on a rational basis or through the bureaucracy and incrementalism of Brussels. The true purpose of the European Union is to bring about peace, prosperity and equality among the diverse regions and groups. Peace has indeed prevailed on most of the Continent, but in the last few years, with prosperity endangered, continued regional inequality has become even more blatant, while radical nationalism has raised its ugly head.
Historic empires provided ideals — whether universal Christian unity or the Marxist-Leninist dogmas of the Soviet Union — in which people were able to believe, no matter how flawed the ruler and how corrupt the imperial institutions. So long as people believe in the principles, the system is likely to endure.
Today’s Europe possesses idealistic institutions like the Erasmus program, which allows student exchange; the European University Institute in Florence; the Jean Monnet program for distinguished scholars; and the Leonardo da Vinci program for vocational education. But these are clearly not enough to overcome regional tensions, bitter north-south divisions and a general indifference to the European project.
When Rome collapsed in the fifth century and Europe sank into a civil war, hopes centered on those who promised to recreate the Pax Romana. One was the Roman Catholic Church with its Latin ritual; the other was the Frankish prince Charlemagne, who had himself crowned emperor in 800. His realm embraced most of what is today the European Union. Charlemagne didn’t have a nationality; only under his grandsons did the first official distinction between German speakers, French speakers and Latin speakers occur.
A new attempt at Christian unity, called the Holy Roman Empire, was marked by its simultaneous partnership and rivalry with the papacy. It caused Europe’s two greatest princes to both fight and support each other. Those in Brussels could draw a lesson from Henry IV, excommunicated king of the Germans and later Holy Roman Emperor: in 1077 he stood for three days under the walls of Canossa — barefoot, hungry and dressed in a hair shirt — to beg the pardon of Pope Gregory VII.
But today, where are those formidable priests and kings whose bloody clashes and spiritual challenges created the foundation of European constitutional practices and whose antics inspired the Europeans to care? Latin-speaking teachers and students once moved as freely between universities as they do today; Erasmus of Rotterdam was friends with Sir Thomas More and the entire European intellectual establishment. The fatal break in the common European Latin culture came when the Reformation elevated the vernacular to a literary level and thus created the foundations of secular, cultural nationalism. It also led to terrible internecine wars. Later empires, like those of Napoleon, Wilhelmine Germany and czarist Russia, mainly served dynastic or national interests.
By 1900, only two genuine multinational empires remained. One was the Ottoman, which was by then in the process of abandoning its traditional religious toleration for Turkish nationalism and even racism. The other was Austria-Hungary, home to 11 major national groups: a paradise in comparison with what it was to become. Its army had 11 official languages, and officers were obliged to address the men in up to four of them.
It wasn’t terribly efficient, but it secured an astonishing degree of loyalty. It also brought rapid economic and cultural progress to an area extending from the Swiss border to what is today western Ukraine. During World War I, Austria-Hungary fielded eight million soldiers commanded by, among others, some 25,000 Jewish reserve officers. Thirty years later, the nation-states that succeeded the empire sent most of the surviving Jewish officers to the gas chambers.
The trouble is that the European Union presently exists mainly for its elites — politicians, businessmen, professionals, academics and top students — who can cross borders with ease. It is not yet the Europe of the vast majority of people who have trouble with languages and for whom finding employment abroad is quite difficult.
Because Latin is dead, a living lingua franca will have to be chosen sooner or later. Today’s Tower of Babel in Brussels costs over a billion euros annually, as professional polyglots translate documents and speeches into the 23 official languages, from Estonian to Maltese and Irish to Slovenian.
Europeans must decide whether they are satisfied with a common market and currency, or whether they want to have common political, legal and cultural institutions. They need a great European Museum and Exhibit, many more pan-European music and film festivals, and the propagation of Europeanism in popular culture to shake off cynicism regarding the European project.
Then, perhaps, Europeans will also understand that despite all their hardships, they are still among the richest and most privileged people in the world. They might even decide that they can afford to have a few children.
A new imperial construct embracing all nations, religions and non-totalitarian ideologies might well be the only alternative to the revival of tribalism with all its tragic consequences. And it will be the sacred task of leaders to make the rest of society see this as an exalted, almost religious goal: a new European faith that belongs to no church.
Istvan Deak is an emeritus professor of history at Columbia and the author of Beyond Nationalism and Essays on Hitler’s Europe.