Tel. +44 (0)20 7287 4414
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The Bruges Group spearheaded the intellectual battle to win a vote to leave the European Union and, above all, against the emergence of a centralised EU state.
The Bruges Group spearheaded the intellectual battle to win a vote to leave the European Union and, above all, against the emergence of a centralised EU state.

Shame and Disgrace, Greed and Failure: The Roots of the European Obsession

Professor Christie Davies


It is pointless to show pro-Europe Continental intellectuals that the European Union has been a disaster for their countries as well as for us. You may speak to them of the cost of the C.A.P., the regulative tyranny of and corruption in Brussels, the damage caused by the unworkable single currency for countries needing diverse monetary policies, the threat to defence and security stemming from the undermining of NATO and they may well agree to each and every point but still they want a united Europe, a European superstate. It is for them ‘the great idea’, a utopia to which the wishes and welfare of the ordinary person can be sacrificed. They are zealots for Europe not because they love Europe with its distinctive history, culture and traditions but because they hate it. The history of Europe is for them a source of guilt rooted in past unwarranted and savage aggression, risible cowardice, revanche and revenge, arrogance and schadenfreude, and that can only be expunged by creating a new, perfect, fictitious Europe.

This torment is well illustrated by looking at the history of the relationship between France and Germany (the two original big investors in the European idea) in these terms. It is a horrid story of the politics of humiliation and revenge.

Where as in this particular case, the citizens of one or more countries have a national myth that stresses their past humiliation by another country, this is likely to lead to a situation of chronic conflict in which, as the fortunes of war shift to and fro from one generation to another, the winners impose humiliations on the losers, who in turn return the hurt when it is they who are on top. Children are brought up on myths and songs about their people’s grievances against another country and when they grow up to become citizens they answer the call to arms.

The French intervention in the thirty years war (1618-48) led to the annexation by France of Alsace and helped to reduce the German people to starvation (in some areas well over half the population died) and German to a shatter belt of small states. Later Louis XIV, the conceiver of the palace of Versailles, exploited continuing German weakness to annex further territories whose inhabitants were German-speaking. Eventually the balance of power shifted and following the total defeat of France by German armies in the Franco-Prussian war, a defeat long celebrated in Germany as ‘Sedan Day’, the King of Prussia was in 1871 crowned Emperor of the Germans in Versailles, the palace of the same French King who had earlier harassed Germany, a palace which for forty years past had been a French national museum. Nearly fifty years later when the French were again victors over the Germans, a Versailles treaty was deliberately imposed on the vanquished in the very same palace, beneath a scroll that read Le roi gouverne par lui meme. For the French this was a means of imposing a humiliation on their enemy and thus erasing their own, a perverse version of the negation of the negation. Earlier, in the time of Napoleon I the French had occupied Germany and oppressed its peoples to the point where they eventually rose up and drove the French out in an angry war of national liberation. These events provided later German nationalists with a sense of resentment and images of eventual triumph. It was “The Time of Germany’s Deepest Humiliation”, according to a contemporary German pamphlet, which is commemorated in the monument in Braunau-am-Inn to Johannes Palm, the patriotic bookseller executed by the French for selling it. The incident even inspired Hitler, whose birthplace it was; he rants about it in Mein Kampf. After 1870 it was the French who harboured resentment and a wish to grab back their lost German speaking provinces of Alsace and part of Lorraine. French officers would take small groups of conscripts secretly across the German frontier to look down from the wooded hills at the German town of Colmar and tell them “one day this will all be yours”. Here lie the real roots of the First World War. In 1919 the French regained these provinces and imposed on Germany an impossible burden of reparations, which was in turn a direct revenge for the reparations France had had to pay after losing the Franco-Prussian war. When the Germans were unable to pay, the French deliberately occupied the Ruhr with black colonial troops, which, in an era when Africans were seen in Germany as an inferior race, was an extra humiliation. Under Hitler all the illegitimate children of these African soldiers were murdered. For many Germans it was Napoleon’s tyranny all over again and when Leo Schlageter executed by the French for sabotage he became in Germany, and not just for Hitler and his strugglers, the new Johannes Palm. In 1940 the French army ran away and was easily defeated by the Germans. The French rushed for an armistice. At Hitler’s insistence it was signed in the same railway carriage kept in a siding in Compiègne in which the German leaders had surrendered at the end of the First World War. The carriage was then taken to Berlin and placed in a museum where it was later destroyed in an air raid by the R.A.F. The one in Compiègne today is a replica and still full of insulting falsehoods about the Germans .The entire saga is a remarkable and by no means unique several hundred years long example of the politics of cyclically repeated and competitive humiliation and revenge in which yesterday’s humiliation can only be erased by imposing today’s.

The European myth is that the E.C. and its post-war predecessors provided the cure for this disastrous exchange of winner’s schadenfreude and loser’s hatred. By implication, were the E.C. to be dissolved, it would mean a return to this kind of hostility leading to a never-ending series of vendettas and even wars. Nonsense. The rivalry between France and Germany came to an end because neither country was a great power following the Second World War. Power lay with the United States and the Soviet Union, with the latter occupying a substantial proportion of Germany. Also both countries were demoralized, in Germany’s case by the appalling atrocities committed during World War II by Hitler and his supporters and allies, especially the Holocaust. The French had to live with the uneasy and imperfectly concealed knowledge that on the whole their people had collaborated with the Nazis and many had taken part in their murderous anti-Semitic excesses. At the end of the war lawless French mobs and kangaroo courts had murdered a large number of those alleged to have been pro-German, even if only as purveyors of goods, songs or sex to them, as scapegoats for an entire nation’s complicity and even neighbours against they had a personal grudge – the infamous épuration. Even existentialism is nothing more than a tract to legitimise the killing of those unenthusiastic collaborators who pleaded that they had had little choice. Brutal “ necessary murder” seems to have appealed to Sartre, provided it was directed only against those who did not share his particular ideology. He had “ no choice “ when he choose to conceal genocide in the Soviet Union because it might have disillusioned the French proletariat. But then he was a French intellectual.

The European idea in these two countries is rooted not in any positive wish to expunge the old guilt and shame that is the legacy of this period for both countries. Inside the intellectual who calls himself a proud European there often lurks either a guilt-ridden German or a Frenchman queasy about the past. It is a malady that even extends to the Belgians and the Dutch. In 1995 I was in Doorn in the South of Netherlands, the retirement home of the former Kaiser Wilhelm II when the Dutch were celebrating the anniversary of their liberation by British and Canadian forces from the Germans. The union jack, the maple leaf flag and orange balloons were on display everywhere. A Dutchman dressed as Churchill complete with cigar was driven around the town in an open car giving V-signs to the happy crowds in the street. It was a typically patriotic and pro-British demonstration by ordinary Dutch people. Meanwhile back in Amsterdam the intellectuals had put on an exhibition in which it was pointed out that a very large number of Dutchmen had fought in the S.S., far more than had taken part in the Resistance or in the Dutch armed forces abroad. What the ‘liberal’ intellectuals were saying was true but more to the point it helps us to understand why many of these Dutch intellectuals feel alienated from their own country and its patriotism. They have become good Europeans because they are in one sense or another bad Dutchmen. Like their French and German counterparts when they look in a mirror they see only a skull; it is easier to look away to the remote circle of yellow stars in a blue sky. I often ask myself “What are the stars? What are the stars?” not in wonderment but in disgust.

The key problem on the Continent is that most of its countries have had extreme problems in establishing a stable democratic state capable of containing internal and external violence, again a reason for retreating from the hideous realities of their own past into the utopian myth of Europe. There is no need to speak of Hitler’s praise for his own people’s unique and inherant capacity for creating and sustaining a powerful state, one capable of conquering and dominating the whole of Europe. The consequences are well known and it is easy to see why Germans with a bad conscience about this are content to see the powers of their own country handed up to Europe or down to the Länder. Europe offers them not merely one of the biggest lederhosen sized seats at the top table but also the sense of safety provided by external constraint. The German elite no longer has the power nor the will for conquest (as distinct from bureaucratic power) but they still fear themselves.

For other countries the problem, rather, is that their nation is pitiably weak and divided and their state ineffective. As Pieter Geyl noted in his criticisms of Henri Pirenne, Belgium has never really existed. Belgium is merely a neutral buffer between the once great powers created by inept British diplomacy, a sort of European equivalent of Afghanistan. Belgium has in effect now split into Flemish and Walloon states with only powers over pedophilia reserved to the centre. These fragments will happily accept rule from Brussels as a substitute for rule by Brussels except for those patriotic Flemings who realize that both forms of Brussels rule are a way of suppressing their distinctive and creative culture. It is a case of the people who produced Rembrandt being sneered at by the ones who never rose higher than Simenon. Belgium does not work. It has the highest ratio of accumulated national debt to National Income of any European country. Everyone gets in the trough but no one pays taxes. To borrow and to borrow and to borrow creeps up on Belgium, a united Europe’s prototype.

Mussolini once boasted that Italy was a real nation unlike Belgium, which was a mere aggregate. He was right about Belgium but wrong about Italy. Italy was and is an unstable aggregate of Sicilians, Calabresi, Lombards, Tuscans and Venetians…. and Austrians. There are no Italians. The rise of the Northern League is almost the equivalent of England seeking to secede from Scotland, Wales and Ulster knowing that it will take with it the political and economic power of the United Kingdom. Also whereas England, Scotland and Wales have behind them two hundred and fifty years of successful and effective collaboration within a single nation state, Italy has nothing and Italians have no horizon beyond the campanile. The Italian state is a kind of mini Europe, something to be plundered but not to be loyal to. Europe is the Italian postal service writ large. What does it matter to the Italians if all power moves to Brussels? Everyone knows that the unification of Italy was a mistake. Italian politics have lurched from corruption to threatened red revolution, to Fascism to military humiliation, to the rise of a huge communist party (initially at least, willing to accept Soviet hegemony) to more corruption and now to fragmentation. All roads lead away from Rome.

It is because Italy has never been a nation that Italian armies have always had a strong propensity for running away. It is not a new phenomenon for it was noted by Erasmus, Machiavelli, Montaigne and Rabelais in the sixteenth century and again in the nineteenth century both before and during unification when there was no Italian nation state. After unification there was an Italian nation state in form only, a post-colonial ragbag of areas of recent or distant occupation by the Germans, the Spaniards, the Austrians and the French, a terminal moraine of people who could not possibly have any sense of responsible allegiance to their country, their government or their army. The Italians ran away again in Ethiopia in the 1890’s, at Caporetto in the First World War when they had to be rescued by the Allies and once more in the Spanish civil war. Their finest hour was in World War II when they tried to stab France in the back only to find that their knife rebounded, This was followed by their invasion of Greece when the mandolin playing makaronas were quickly routed by a country one sixth of their size. When they tried to advance in North Africa a British and Allied army of 30,000 men took 130,000 Italian prisoners. When Bardia was taken the British discovered large stocks of white flags which the Italians had prepared ready for surrender when the enemy should arrive. Itali sunt imbelles. It is not that Italians are cowardly as individuals for they make excellent gangsters, terrorists and francs tireurs, merely that they have nothing to fight for. Such a history makes it difficult for the Italians to create triumphalist military museums of the American kind. It is curious that their most significant military display is in the Italian naval museum at La Spezia which concentrates its attention almost entirely on their courageous attacks on British bases by midget submarines, tiny boats crewed by a couple of heroic individuals. There is little mention of the large Italian fleets that failed at Cape Matapan and Taranto.

Given that even today national solidarity is visibly reinforced by the rituals, parades , and commemorations of the victories of a nation’s armed forces, what are the Italians to do? Italian military history is no feather in one’s cap. Pro-European Italian intellectuals looking into the mirror of their recent history see a retreating nothing. Better to join the new European army where everyone will run away together. Europe after all is a re-run of the fragmented Italian nation and the failed Italian state. What House would fight for a Europe without King or Country?

Most of the European enthusiasts are drawn from continental peoples damaged by and seeking to escape from trauma. The sense of shame and disgrace of the core nations of Europe is matched by the desperation of the Spaniards to get away from a history of political instability, followed by Civil War, followed by dictatorship and isolation. Anarchists murdering priests and nuns, Communists murdering anarchists, Fascists murdering liberals: that is the entire history of modern Spain. To become European is to retreat from this Spanish nightmare, to make amnesia possible. The Spaniards have now lost their national and religious identity to the point that they are even thinking of renouncing their patron Sant Iago lest his commemoration offend the Moros (the same Moors who bombed Atocha) and enter into a quite unSpanish Euro-feebleness.

All of this has nothing to do with us. It is not part of our collective consciousness. It all happened a continent away to them, to the others. L’enfer, c’est les autres though in a rather different sense than the author intended. We need to know these things only in order to understand and undermine the Continental Europhiles. When the Euroenthusiasts mock our fears of a loss of identity if we are sucked into Europe it is worth rubbing their noses in their own secret selbstheiss.

By contrast the broad masses, the great part of the ordinary people of the nations of Europe do not dwell on such things and feel at home in and proud of their own country. These are sentiments we should foster in their interests as well as our own. There is no point in drawing contrasts in their presence between our lucky experience of continuity and solidarity and their cruelly damaged pasts. It is bad form to mock to their faces those who have not had the advantages in life that one’s own country has enjoyed, except of course when it comes to Europhile politicians and intellectuals.

The European ideal is essentially destructive of Europe, a continent whose glory and creativity flourished best in the most recent era of competing nation states (much as it did in Ancient Greece). The wars, turmoils and atrocities of Europe have been no greater than those of the great Chinese empire and cannot be blamed on our disunity. Why throw away European tradition because of the memory of and fears generated in the West by thirty one years of horror during the first half of the last century?

The smaller nations of the periphery of Europe such as Portugal, Greece or Ireland did not join the E.C. in order to flee from inner nightmares. They were desperate to join for a more creditable reason – they were paupers who wanted to get their snouts in the Eurotrough. The new recruits to the E.C. from Eastern and Central Europe are likewise hopeful that it will provide a transfer of income and capital from the wealthier countries to themselves. It is not going to happen. France has more clout and a bigger snout. To use two cynical American phrases about the porcine qualities of government there are now more pigs than teats and the county pork barrel is exhausted.

No one should sneer at their indigence and desperation for ultimately this was also were real if deluded reason for Britain’s joining the Common Market. Macmillan and Wilson alike merely saw it as a solution to Britain’s immediate economic problems; only Edward Heath was sufficiently stupid and unpatriotic to wallow in Eurorhetoric.

It is France not Britain that had lost an empire and needed to find a role in Europe. First there was France’s loss of Syria and the Lebanon the French mandates invaded in World War II by British and Australian forces (including a unit led by Moishe Dayan who like Nelson lost an eye fighting for the British) in order to forestall a Vichy-Nazi attack on Iraq to support the fascist and anti-semitic uprising of Rashid Ali. No wonder the French even today have strange views about Iraq. Thanks to Churchill’s later threat to throw the French out of Damascus altogether these countries gained their independence from France. Then there were the disastrous French military defeats in Vietnam and the French failure in Algeria that nearly led to civil war in France itself. It really did mean that the Gallic cock needed a new Euro-sandpit in which to strut and sharpen its claws. By contrast Britain remained on friendly terms with most of its former colonies whose move to independence was not traumatic for Britain in the way it had been not just for the French but for the bone-headed Dutch, Belgians and Portuguese.

Britain’s crisis, Britain’s shame and Britain’s cowardice in the 1960s and 1970s were not national but economic. The country that had once been the world’s workshop, merchant and banker was by 1960 the sick-man of Europe lying on his ottoman in pain. Britain was characterized by low growth, failing industries, high inflation and a chronic balance of payments problem in a world of fixed exchange rates. It is a story as disgraceful in its way as the inglorious fall of France in 1940, for we too ran away from our difficulties. Macmillan’s unwillingness to allow his Chancellor Thorneycroft and his Treasury ministers Enoch Powell and Nigel Birch to impose stricter monetary controls on the economy in the end led inevitably to inflation, to an over-valued currency and to dictatorship by the trades unions. It was here that Enoch Powell gained his reputation for rectitude, a rectitude that he later displayed again in the struggle against Europe. Heath and Barber made all the same mistakes as Macmillan. Their failure to privatise the crumbling heights of the economy and allow market forces to work, to allow incompetent metal bashers to go bankrupt and to prepare thoroughly and cynically to cut the unions down-to-size were the post-war Conservative equivalent of Stanley Baldwin’s unwillingness massively to rearm against Hitler. Britain entered the Common Market as a supplicant hoping to hitch its obsolete wagon to their fast train and join their supposed economic miracle. That was also what swung Harold Wilson’s referendum. Joining did Britain no good whatsoever. The miners’ strikes, 25% inflation and the winter of discontent all occurred after Britain’s entry into the E.E.C.

That Britain is now the world’s fourth largest economy with low inflation, low unemployment, strong growth and a strong currency owes nothing to Europe and indeed belonging to Europe retarded the transformation. In joining the Common Market/ EEC/EC we shackled ourselves to a corpse. Our more than ten year long boom dates from the day in 1992, when thanks to Norman Lamont, we broke out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism and cut our monetary ties with Europe. We were then able to float alone. It was a decisive moment when we truly put the economic interests of the British people first and discarded a policy, the policy of the stampeding Hurd, of subordinating these interests to the economic appeasement of foreign politicians. It is now time to get out of Europe altogether for the same cynical if ill thought out reason that we joined Europe in the first place – to seek economic advantage for own people. Unlike many Continental nations we have no reason to subscribe to a Euromyth to escape from past infamy; rather that time was our finest hour and the source of most of our best situation comedies on television. History is for us pride and nostalgia not the depressant of the intellectuals.

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