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

The duration and completeness of change resulting from war have varied.  The Reconquista (completed only at the end of the fifteenth century) formally ended the presence of Islam in Spain; but when the Turks retreated from the Balkans they left sizable Moslem elements.  In Western Europe the "wars of religion" of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries gave Catholicism the upper hand in France, but divided Germany between Catholic and Protestant states--a division that has had to be taken into account in plotting the course of German unification.  Protestant Anglo-Saxons in the last century believed that Protestantism was particularly suited to courageous sea-going mercantile peoples.  It was the theme of the American historian John Lothrop Motley's many volumes on the Dutch struggle for independence from Spain.  Yet few would now hold that such affinities were decisive.  Protestantism's southward advance was limited by the military considerations arising from the geographical configuration of the Low Countries.  The political boundary between modern Holland and modern Belgium follows neither the linguistic nor the religious divide.

As with language so with religion: England is the odd man out.  The Anglican settlement has been seen as both Catholic and Protestant, and what was essentially a state church could not expect adherents on the Continent.  Its destiny has proved to be an extra-European one.  On the whole, despite talk of reunion, Protestantism has had the upper hand and has many vehicles outside the established church.  It is therefore not curious that the "Carolingian" streak among the founders of the European Community--the Catholic statesmen, Adenauer, Schuman, and de Gasperi--never appealed to the British.

Besides language and religion, three other elements have to be taken into account in trying to unravel the complexities of Europe's internal conflicts: class, commerce, and ideology.  Economic development has always been at an uneven pace, and this has produced startlingly different patterns of class relationships.  While in Western Europe feudalism and serfdom were on the decline from the late Middle Ages, in Eastern Europe things went the other way.  In Poland and Russia serfdom became increasingly ingrained in the early Modern period, when Eastern Europe functioned as a granary and purveyor of raw materials to nascent Western industrialism.  Modern industrial capitalism profited by the freer labor market to secure a head start in the West, which still endures.

Conquest and patterns of settlement created an overlap between national and class divisions.  In the late Czarist Empire, the western provinces acquired in the partitions of Poland were peopled by a Polish nobility ruling over a Russian, Byelorussian, and Ukrainian peasantry.  In Galicia, a Polish landed class ruled over a Ukrainian peasantry; when the Poles rebelled in 1848-49, their Hapsburg monarchs incited their peasantry to attack them.  German penetration into the Baltics gave rise to a landowning class, the "Baltic Barons," who supplied many important figures in the military and civil services of the Russian czars, right down to the Revolution of 1917.  Similar alignments of class and national divisions could be found in the lands once belonging to the Hungarian Crown; and at the other end of Europe in what is now the Irish Republic, the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries saw the entrenchment of the "ascendancy," a Protestant landlord class ruling over an indigenous Catholic peasantry.

Commerce (and later mining and heavy industry) also made it hard to divide Europe between homogeneous nation-states.  It would seem to be an almost universal rule that ports and other trading centers attract groups of foreign residents.  This was true even of Western Europe--one thinks of the Hanseatic merchants in late medieval London or of the Jews of Amsterdam.  But what was occasional and of modest size in Western Europe--and therefore rarely a source of political complications--was almost the rule in the East.  In Eastern Europe the towns rarely recruited themselves wholly or even predominantly from the neighboring countryside.  If it was a local center of administration, a town would largely be inhabited by members of the ruling nationality--Russians in the Czarist Empire, Germans in much of the Hapsburg Empire.  If it was a center of commerce, there would be Germans or Jews or others alien in language or even religion from the native substratum.

Frederick Jackson Turner succeeded in making the moving frontier so emblematic of American history that it is all too tempting to believe that, while North America was being settled, Europe's population was fixed in place.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Always the movement of people went on--some attracted by prospects of trade or employment; others by the deliberate fruit of political planning, like Bismarck's settlement of German farmers in the once (and now again) Polish province of Poznan.  Wars accelerated movements and produced new ones such as those which accompanied the ebb and flow of battle on the eastern front in World War I, or the subsequent flight of Russians from revolution and civil war.  Indeed, until quite recently the moving frontier of the United States might best be seen as an overspill of movements within Europe itself.

World War II saw some drastic tidying up of the European map.  Hitler eliminated the vast majority of Europe's Jews and most of the rest found refuge thereafter in Israel or the United States.  The victorious Allies brought about further movements--Poles moving west in front of the Russians and themselves expelling the Germans from Pomerania, Poznan, and Silesia; the Russians eliminating Germans from East Prussia, the Czechs expelling Sudeten Germans.  The acceptance of the new frontiers, at least for the time being, did not halt the process.  Persecution and discrimination in the Soviet Union, violence and counter-violence in the Balkans have all tended to make people conclude they would feel easier among their own kith and kin, however many generations they have been separated from them.  It has, however, not been a question of leaving lands or cities vacant.  We must assume that when the Russians call what used to be the city of Konigsberg "Kaliningrad" they have in fact replaced East Prussians with Russians.  We know that while the Germans no longer figure in the Baltic states and while Danzig--a historic German city--is now the Polish city of Gdansk, Russians have been settled in large numbers in Latvia and to a lesser extent in the other Baltic states.  Over the years, the names of many other cities have been changed to reflect the presence of new political rulers--Pressburg is now Bratislava, Laibach is Lublijana, Lemberg is Lwow (or, as the Ukrainians would prefer, Lviv).

We should not make too much of these things, but we should not forget them either.  Peoples do forget them.  A striking example of this has been the reaction to the claims for independence of the three Baltic states.  In looking at the issues raised, how many outsiders have reflected on the fact that Estonia and Latvia had had no independent statehood at any time in the past except for the two decades previous to their annexation by Stalin in 1940?  And while Lithuania had an historic past, its most important period had been as part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, not on its own.  In the inter-war period it was a smaller Lithuania, and Vilnius, now claimed as its capital, had been successfully annexed by Poland.  Kaunas (Kovno), its capital between the wars, and Vilnius (Vilna) were in the past very largely Jewish cities and have certainly played a more important role in Jewish culture than in the essentially peasant culture of Lithuania.

Commerce has done more than dictate the location of cities and who inhabits them.  It also carves out routes by which ideas migrate.  For most of Europe's history, trade routes followed either the coastlines or the river valleys.  Railways also followed the river systems.  The links thus forged may be different from those imposed by the politically dominant powers of a particular time.  The possibilities of this approach have been fully exploited in the remarkable book, The Danube, by Claudio Magris.  Written originally in Italian by a professor at the University of Trieste whose academic subject is German literature, the work is itself symbolic.  For Trieste was the outlet to the sea for the Hapsburg Empire in which the Danube provided a vital thread.  Now as the northern parts of Yugoslavia--Slovenia and Croatia--feel ideologically and economically drawn again towards Central Europe and away from their links with Serbia, this past once more becomes relevant.  Nor must one forget that the Dalmatian coast has memories and memorials of a Venetian as well as Roman past.  Whose sea is the Adriatic?  Can it be a bond between the peoples of its littoral?  Even such considerations do not complete the picture of unsolved national problems now exploding in the Balkans as totalitarian governments fall--Albanians caught between Serbs and Greeks; the ultimate fate of the Macedonians.  No map is final.

One cannot omit the different degrees to which modern secular ideologies have supplanted or combined with religious or national adherence.  Most European ideologies, including democracy and socialism, can be traced to the impact of the French Revolution.  From its legacy many different lessons could be drawn.  In many countries, the national and socialistic elements came to the fore; in one sense the Russian Revolution did no more than carry the message to its extreme.  But communism's theoretical universalism was alien to the feelings of the rest of Europe.  The true inheritors of 1789 were the national socialists and fascists who, in the Europe of the 1930s, could be found under various local guises from the Iberian peninsula in the West to Romania in the East, with Germany and Italy as alternative models.  Britain yet again appears as an exception--being very little affected by the Continent's ideological struggles and carrying on a commitment to its own form of bourgeois democracy.  And thus there is yet another reason why in Britain the rhetoric of a united Western Europe has had less appeal than among its neighbors.

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