Fault Lines and Steeples

Fault Lines and Steeples

Mini Teaser: In a famous passage in a speech to the House of Commons in 1922, Winston Churchill characterized the aftermath of the Great War:Great Empires have been overturned.

by Author(s): Max Beloff

In a famous passage in a speech to the House of Commons in 1922, Winston Churchill characterized the aftermath of the Great War:

Great Empires have been overturned.  The whole map of Europe has been changed.  The position of countries has been violently altered.  The modes of thought of men, the whole outlook on affairs, the grouping of parties, all have encountered violent and tremendous changes in the deluge of the world; but as the deluge of the waters subsides and the waters fall short, we see the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone emerging once again.

Churchill's purpose was to call attention to what he saw as the unique persistence of the antagonism between Catholic and Protestant in Northern Ireland, which had been going on since the original colonization of Ulster by Englishmen and Scots in the seventeenth century.  As Churchill himself would have been fully aware, a similar metaphor would have been apt to describe the parallel emergence in Central and Eastern Europe of many historical local antagonisms, given new scope by the collapse of the Hohenzollern, Hapsburg, Romanov, and Ottoman Empires.  And, as colonial secretary, he had been dealing in the Middle East with conflicts among peoples to whom reference to Biblical times, to the Arab Conquests, or to the Crusades were perfectly natural, and in no sense mere antiquities.  Fermanagh and Tyrone were not exceptions--they were typical.  Human history is like that.

Churchill's powerful metaphor has thus renewed itself in my mind as we have witnessed in the last few years the collapse of the Soviet hold over Eastern Europe, and may be about to witness the collapse of the Soviet successor to the empire of the Romanovs.  For the young it is all very strange; to those whose memories go back beyond 1939 it is all very familiar.  It may be more familiar to Europeans than to Americans.  Americans have tended to see the collapse of Soviet power and the threat to the unity of the Soviet Empire in terms of a victory of free-market economics and liberal democracy over collectivist economics and single-party rule.  Europeans find the demonstration of national rivalries both within the Soviet Union itself and along its Western periphery as a dominant factor in the situation.  In this respect Americans risk renewing the disillusion that followed from accepting Woodrow Wilson's belief that Europeans could be taught to live in pleasant harmony.  Wisdom consists in facing reality.

Europe's history has been shaped very largely by its geographical position as a promontory of the old world landmass.  Its population reflects movements of peoples, mostly from east to west, over the centuries.  They were encouraged by climatic changes and demographic pressure, and were from time to time obstructed or diverted by political and military power, as with Rome.  There have also been some movements in the reverse direction--notably the eastward thrust of German colonization, warlike or peaceful, from the high Middle Ages to the eighteenth-century settlement of the "Volga Germans," now in the process of repatriation to a country with whom only the slenderest ties remain.  There were also the north-south movements of the Scandinavian peoples, largely by sea, but sometimes down the Russian river systems.  A Frenchified element among them--the Normans--carried their conquests further into the Mediterranean world.  Finally, and of particular relevance today, there was the northward thrust of Moslem peoples--Arabs conquering the Iberian peninsula and narrowly failing to establish themselves north of the Pyrenees; and later, the Turkish push into the Balkans and parts of Central Europe, establishing an empire of long duration.

Since the conditions for settlement and the ability of existing populations to fight off invaders were very unequally distributed, the ethnic and linguistic map is inevitably a checkered one with many unexpected anomalies.  The primal legacy was indeed linguistic; more than any other factor it is language that keeps Europe divided.  By the Middle Ages, the main linguistic groups of modern Europe were already perceptible: a Celtic group confined to the northwestern periphery and in retreat; a Latin or Romance bloc extending from the Atlantic to the Rhine Valley and into the Italian and Spanish peninsulas, with an isolated offshoot in Romania; a Germanic-Scandinavian group occupying most of central Europe; a Slavic group including all the lands to the east of the Germans, with its offshoot in the Balkan peninsula where it had to contend, as it still does, with Greek and Albanian.

These broad divisions, each of which in modern times has given rise to specific languages, have within them embedded islets of totally different speech families--Basque, Magyar, Finnish, and the languages of the Baltic peasant peoples.  English itself is hard to classify, since it is a unique amalgam of Germanic and Romance roots.  (Perhaps the English--and Americans--are to be forgiven for their belief that if you have English you do not need any other language.)

Essay Types: Essay