Finest Hour 129, Winter 2005-06
3. From the Canon – The United States of Europe
By Winston S. Churchill, 1938 • Part I
Editor’s note: We publish this long, reflective article not as a prescription for modern times but to shed light on Churchill’s thinking when he wrote it, and on those concepts of his that may be worthy of reflection. It was published in The Saturday Evening Post and in The News of the World on 9 May 1938, under the heading “Why Not ‘The United States of Europe’?” An abridged version, “A Great Big Idea,” appeared in John Bull on the same day. Reprinted by permission of Winston S. Churchill.
Ideas are born as the sparks fly upward. They die from their own weakness; they are whirled away by the wind; they are lost in the smoke; they vanish in the darkness of the night. Someone throws on another log of trouble and, effort, and fresh myriads of sparks stream ineffectually into the air. Men have always tended these fires, casting into them the fruits of their toil—indeed, all they can spare after keeping body and soul together.
Sometimes at rare intervals something exciting results from their activities. Among innumerable sparks that flash and fade away, there now and again gleams one that lights up not only the immediate scene but the whole world. What is it that distinguishes the fortunes of one of these potent incendiary or explosion ideas from the endless procession of its fellows? It is always something very simple and—once the surroundings are illuminated—painfully obvious. In fact we may say that the power and vitality of an idea result from a spontaneous recognition of the obvious.
For instance, not far from the fire there is a rubbish heap, and as the weather has been very dry for some time and the night breeze is blowing in that direction, one single spark out of all the millions has suddenly acquired enormous importance. It has fallen glowing upon the rubbish; and there is the heap beginning to smoulder, smoke and break into flame; and already there is a blaze and everyone can see for himself the rubbish heap and that the spark has set it alight. No one knows how far the flames will go, whose buildings will be threatened or what will happen next. There is no lack of excitement and bustling about and running around, and no one—not even the slowest— has any doubt but that something unusual has happen, or that it all arose from the spark and the rubbish heap coming together in this way. But what to do about it is quite a different tale.
So when the idea of the United States of Europe drifted off upon the wind and came in contact with the immense accumulation of muddle, waste, particularism and prejudice which had long lain piled up in the garden, it became quite evident that a new series of events had opened.
To quit a metaphor before it becomes a burden, never before have some four hundred millions of the strongest, most educated and most civilized parent races of mankind done themselves so much harm by their quarrels and disunion as have the great nations of Europe during the 20th century. Never had they more reason to be discontented with the condition to which they have reduced themselves, and never could they see more clearly at once the cause of their misfortunes and its remedy. They have only to look around to see the fair regions they inhabit starved and impoverished by the greatest of all wars, disturbed by hatreds and jealousies which the conflict has aggravated, and burdened at every point by fetters and barriers they have themselves created and must spend a large part of their income to maintain.
Then comes science, gathering power every day, and stimulated by the stress and fury of the great war. New possibilities of profitable cooperation in industry, compulsive need for wider and more reasonable distribution of productive effort are apparent to the humblest unbiased intelligence. White coal from mountain torrents readjusts the disparity of mineral deposits. Electric cables transmit, or offer to transmit, new sources of energy and wealth in directions and to areas hitherto unconsidered. Aircraft fly in a day across half-a-dozen frontiers.
Lastly there is the economic and financial portent of the United States. Here is a region little larger than Europe and occupied by only a fraction of its population. Here, too, are regions of vast resources and educated inhabitants, but they are progressing, and prosper at a speed and in a degree never before witnessed, and still increasing. Their resources, although better distributed and disposed, are not so much greater than those of Europe; their population is far smaller.
What are the causes which are favouring the New World and hindering the old? The demand of the masses in all countries is for higher economic well-being. Science and organization stand ready to supply it. Knowledge is not confined to one side of the Atlantic Ocean. Why, then, is the contrast between American and European conditions so cruel and their rates of material progress so unequal? To find the answer, we have only to look at the rubbish heap upon which a brisk flame has already begun to crackle.
We must regard this heap a little more closely in the growing light. It has been the growth of centuries, and even millenniums have passed since some of its still-existing materials were deposited. In the main, it is made up of the bones and broken weapons of uncounted millions who brought one another to violent deaths long ago. Upon these, three or four centuries have cast masses of rotting vegetation, and latterly an increasing discharge of waste paper. But in it, mixed up with all this litter, scattered about and intermingled, are some of the most precious and dearly loved treasures of the strongest races in the world. All the history books of Europe are there; its household gods; all the monuments and records of wonderful achievements and sacrifice; the battle flags for which the heroes of every generation have shed their blood; the vestments of religions still living and growing in the minds of men; the foundations of the jurisprudence still regulating their relations one with another—all flung and blended together.
Clearly the burning of the rubbish heap is not so small a matter as it seemed at the first glance. Should Europeans let it burn away and start afresh, or must the conflagration be promptly extinguished and the rubbish heap preserved for the sake of the precious relics and possessions it contains? Certainly if this is the choice, and the only choice, there will be two opinions about the burning, and men and nations and interests and social organizations of all kinds will range themselves on opposite sides. But is there no other course? Is there not a more complicated, but more scientific method of dealing with this pile which cumbers the earth? Has not Europe the wisdom, the strength, the patience, by the same process to rescue its treasures and incinerate its rubbish?
ontinuing to inspect the burning dump, we observe that it is overlaid with a tangled growth and network of tariff barriers designed to restrict trade and production to particular areas. This network is the product of modern times. It has markedly increased since the Great War. In fact, every improvement which science has been given to European communications has been tripped up and rendered largely nugatory by this new and immense apparatus. Nothing like it is to be seen in the United States.
An English member of the House of Commons—an impeccable Conservative—Sir Clive Morrison-Bell, has had the wit and ingenuity to construct a model of the tariff walls of Europe. He mounted a large-scale map and built in imitation brickwork and at their relative heights around the frontiers of the different states the tariff walls which exist in Europe today. The Governor of the Bank of England invited him to place it on view in the bank parlour. Since then it has been exhibited in the parliaments and at conferences in most of the great capitals. One specimen has now reached Washington.
Sir Clive Morrison-Bell claims that his model enables people to “visualize the idea” and that “its presence does not make a fleeting but a lasting impression,” giving “an advantage over the written or spoken word.” This is no doubt true. No European can gaze upon the astonishing spectacle of these internal tariff walls of Europe without being amazed at embarrassments and difficulties in spite of which the peoples of Europe get their daily bread.
This lively impression is stimulated by a glance at the map of the United States and by observing that throughout the whole of that vast territory, possessing within its bounds almost every commodity necessary for modern life, there is no obstacle or barrier of any kind except those which Nature has raised and which science is overcoming. Certainly it would seem that the free interchange of goods and services over the widest possible area or over very wide areas, is a dominating factor in the rapid accretion of material wealth.
But this idea of European unity, so novel to untutored ears, is no more, in fact, than a reversion to the old foundation of Europe. Why should it appear startling to its inhabitants ? Europe has known the days when Rumanians lived on the Tyne and Spaniards on the Danube as equal citizens of a single state. She has dwelt in nearer centuries in the catholicity of Christendom. She has rested her emaciated body upon the venerable structure of the Holy Roman Empire. She has seen, as if it were but yesterday, the sword of Napoleon uplifted in a cause which, cavil how you may, meant and could only mean, in the terms of political science, a revival under Gallic forms of Roman solidarity. And even in the lifetime of living men she has enjoyed the spectacle of united Italy and endured the overflowing strength of united Germany. Everywhere, in every age, in every area however wide, over every grouping of peoples however diverse, unity has made for strength and prosp erity for all within its circle. Why should Europe fear unity ? As well might a man fear his own body.
Upon the petty states, principalities and tribalisms of Europe each intermediate organism had to grow. The majestic Roman scene had passed away. The clammy bonds by which medieval Christendom had mastered anarchy must be torn asunder. The fierce youth, nationalism, was born for this peculiar task. But nationalism is an agent and not an end. It is a champion and not a breadwinner. It is a ladder and not a story, a process and not a result.
The Treaty of Versailles represents the apotheosis of nationalism. The slogan of self-determination has been carried into practical effect. The weaker or less fortunate competitors in the struggle of races have been set free. The old imperial organizations within which they had been compressed have been disbanded or burst. The Treaties of Versailles and Trianon, whatever their faults, were deliberately designed to be the consummation of that national feeling which grew out of the ruins of despotisms, whether benevo lent otherwise, just as despotism grew out of the ruins of feudalism. All the inherent life thirst of liberalism in this sphere has been given full play.
Europe is organized, as it never was before, upon a purely nationalistic basis. The scissors of treaty-making and boundary-drawing have cut sharply through the fringes and across disputed border lines. But in the main the Treaties of Versailles and Trianon represent the fullest expression of national and racial feeling which Europe has ever known.
But what are the results? First of all, there is a gasp of relief and expansion, and immediately thereafter a sense of weakness. The organization of Europe today is at once more onerous and less economically efficient than it was before the war. More than seven thousand miles have been added to her customs barriers. Every new frontier has increased the cost in time and money of the transport of goods. A traveller is forced to descend at stations whose names he cannot pronounce and to justify himself to states of which he has never heard. Professor de Madariaga complains that a journey from Paris to Stockholm—although the distance is less than the diameter of many American states—requires no fewer than six different kinds of coins and stamps, the passage of seven different frontiers and the use of five different languages.
The empire of the Hapsburgs has vanished. That immense, unwieldy, uneasy, but nevertheless coherent entity has been Balkanized. Poland has escaped from her eighteenth-century dungeon, bristling with her wrongs and dazzled by the light. The whole zone of Middle Europe, from the Baltic to the Aegean, is split into small states vaunting their independence, glorying in their new-found liberty, acutely self-conscious and exalting their particularisms. They must wall themselves in. They must have armies to defend the ramparts. They must have revenues to pay the armies. They must have foundries and factories to equip them. They must have national industries to make themselves self-contained and self-supporting. They must revive half-forgotten national languages just to show how different they are from the fellows across the frontier. No more discipline of great empires: each for himself and a curse for the rest. What a time of jubilee!
In this vale of tears nothing is more disappointing than getting one’s own way. The peoples of Middle Europe, famished by the privations of the Great War, have indulged in a banquet of Dead Sea apples. Even our own pet Ireland has found the task of rejoicing over freedom regained strenuous and bleak. Nationalism throughout Europe, for all its unconquerable explosive force, has already found, and will find, its victorious realization at once unsatisfying and uncomfortable. More than any other world movement, it is fated to find victory bitter. It is a religion whose field of proselytizing is strictly limited, and when it has conquered its own narrow world, it is debarred, if it has no larger aim, by its own dogmas from seeking new worlds to conquer.
The stages of human development press upon one another’s heels and now here, now there, block or trample down one another. Loyalty to the tribe is overtaken by loyalty to the nation; loyalty to the nation obstruct loyalty to the continent; and some day we may see loyalty to the continent a danger to mankind. But nothing is gained by cutting out the int stages. Each must find its place in the procession. Each will have its part to play in the assembly, and from every man will some day be required not the merging or discarding of various loyalties, but their simultaneous reconciliation in a complete or larger synthesis.
I am always twitted with using warlike metaphors. But in my life I have been brought in contact with many wars, small and great, and ever since Armageddon the world is familiar with military modes and phrases. In that harsh school pupils received lifelong impressions. Under the pressure of war, men and nations learn to discard unessential things. They reach out in thought and grasp realities. They mine and countermine among fundamentals. The ordeal is over. Lessons as well as scars have been received. Necessity is the mother of invention, and military organization is the result of intensely concentrated thought. Everyone knows a lot about it. Battalions a nd brigades are gathered together in a division, and the division forms part of a corps or army. The armies are grouped under a commander-in-chief, and finally the commander-in-chief is subordinate himself to the allied generalissimo.
Imagine the ruin which would overtake the army, if there were nothing but battalions and brigades and divisions; if divisional generals sought to meet together in a council of war to settle on every plan, arrange for all the supplies and give their views upon the strategy and policy to be pursued. Imagine, on the other hand, a supreme command which had nothing between itself and the numerous divisions, all marching and manoeuvering independently. Either method has but to be considered to be found mani festly absurd. Why cannot Europe in time of peace utilize a little of the wisdom she has bought so dearly in the crunch of war? Why cannot the civilian realize himself as French, German, Spanish or Dutch, and simult aneously as a European and, finally, as a citizen of the whole world. The flame of war has passed, its hideous losses have been written off. Europe might at least gather such experience from that time of trial as has been left upon the ground.
The resuscitation of the Pan-European idea is largely identified with Count Koudenhove-Calergi. He has conducted his campaign from Vienna. The headquarters are well chosen. The plight of Vienna since the Great War constitutes the bitterest example of the waste and folly of the present system. This forlorn capital, for centuries the seat of an empire, now merely the nodal point of severed or strangulated railways, a London walled in by hostile Irelands, makes its unanswered appeal. It is right that that appeal should be no longer mute. The form of Count Calergi’s theme may be crude, erroneous and impracticable, but the impulse and the inspiration are true.
We have, further, a manifesto issued by the bankers in 1927, stating in effect that Europe is slowly strangling herself and that if her economic policy is not reversed she may find herself utterly impoverished and bankrupt. The report of the Consultative Committee of the League of Nations, published May, supports the bankers.
Finally M. Briand, one of the most powerful and eloquent of European statesmen, has, with the deft vagueness of an experienced parliamentarian, proclaimed to League of Nations his adherence to the cause of a United Europe. He would like to see some “federal link” established between all these different states. “The most important component” of that “federal link” should be “economic agreement.” He branded the European customs barriers as “mountain chains that divided one state from another.” He gained the support of Herr Stresemann and of Dr. Benes. Whereupon the Assembly appointed a committee, under direction to report as soon as may be.
Thus we may exclaim with Zola, “Truth is on the march,” but the time has certainly not come when we can complete the quotation—“and nothing will stop her.” Let her, then, march forward, and let us aid her march. The farther she can get the better. We may be quite sure she will not get far in the immediate future to do anything but good.
Concluded next issue.