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The State of Europe

In our first post of 2016, Martin Conway thinks about the past and future of European nation-states.


When will the historians of twentieth-century Europe accept that their century has ended? The violent attacks in Paris on the night of 13 November serve to confirm what we should already have known: that the populations of Europe have moved on from the politics of the twentieth century, and it is time for the historians to do so too.

Of course, in the aftermath of traumatic events, historians delve rapidly into their store-cupboard of analogies and precedents. And there are many which can be drawn upon for such purposes. Violence by small militant groups composed predominantly of immigrants from specific ethnic backgrounds has, after all, a considerable lineage in twentieth-century Europe. The various revolutionary and counter-revolutionary movements that proliferated in the former territories of the Habsburg and Tsarist empires at the end of the First World War, the militant Jewish Communist groups who played such a role in the anti-fascist movements and the wartime Resistance groups in the 1930s and 1940s, and the FLN militants of Algerian origin who were active in France in the 1950s and 1960s, are all examples of how political violence has often been generated in Europe by marginalized ethnic and religious minorities, who derived their legitimation from the perceived repression by state authorities. And yet none of these models really has much purchase for understanding the various incidents which, from the train bombings of Madrid in 2004 to the events in Paris, have become part of Europe’s contemporary present. In part, of course, this is because European history is no longer, if it ever was, self-contained: this violence draws its inspiration from elsewhere, and from different histories. But there is also a broader and more disconcerting reality. The radicalized militants who have generated this violence feel no affinity with these precedents. Indeed, one suspects that they know little or nothing (and care even less) about Europe’s past history.

This is a cause for some modesty on the part of historians. We inhabit a present which owes little to “our” past. The twentieth-century history of Europe has come to an end. Everybody can choose their terminus date of preference, be it the reunification of Europe after 1989, the impact of the neo-liberal reforms of the 1990s, or the attacks on the Twin Towers on 9/11 and their subsequent imitators in Europe. But, wherever you choose to stick the frontier post between past and present, it is impossible to ignore the sense that European history has not so much ended as turned into a new configuration. For contemporary historians, to misquote J.P. Hartley, the present is another country, and they do things differently there.

Quite why that should be so is a question which probably demands an answer on a rather grand scale. But the more immediate challenge for historians of Europe is to develop frameworks for understanding the evolutions of the present, which are more relevant than reworkings of our all-too-familiar stories of the crises of the 1930s and 1940s. The history of the twenty-first century has to start somewhere, and the events of the last year have given us plenty of raw material to work from. War in Ukraine, the rise of new populist forces of right and left (or both), the demands for revision of national sovereignty, the arrival of large numbers of migrants fleeing war and economic deprivation, and the impact of new forms of political violence constitute a formidable agenda which demands a response more substantial than the overused language of crisis.


27 October 2015, Migrants are led by German Fedeal Police to an emergency accommodation centre in Wegscheid, southern Germany (Armin Weigel/ dpa via AP)

Crisis is of course a term that historians conventionally deploy to describe the demise of the old and the difficult birth of the new. The first is certainly highly visible in present events, as manifested by the collapse of a certain way of managing Europe, as well as the retreat of pre-existing political elites in the face of economic pressures and the demands of angry and exasperated voters. Of course, they will not go quietly. The logics of austerity economics and of national security justified by the supposed internal and external threats to European populations provide plenty of means for state authorities to seek to impose their discipline on their populations. But state authority is not what it used to be. One of the more tangible consequences of the last twenty years has been the hollowing out of much of the former trappings of state power and of national politics. In an era when communication has become primarily electronic, and national borders have become largely notional, state authority no longer has the same centrality in the history of twenty-first century Europe.

Part of the challenge of a history of the present is therefore to appreciate, if not fully to understand, the fluidity of boundaries of any kind. We inhabit a new cosmopolitanism, as reflected in the global character of many of Europe’s major cities, but also in the flexibility of identities, be they national, political, ethnic, or indeed religious. Journalists investigating the backgrounds of the authors of the Paris attacks have appeared surprised to discover that they were products of the banlieux of Paris and of Strasbourg, who amidst the chaotic years of their early adulthood travelled without any great sense of purpose to Syria, from where they returned equipped with a cocktail of animus, bravado and perhaps a superficial understanding of some elements of Islam. And yet that surely is what one would expect: militants are made not born, and the manner of their making well illustrates the fluidity of identities among those many Europeans whose lives have been rendered fragile by economic changes, the dislocation of social structures, and the retreat of structures of state provision.

In order to understand this, the most appropriate template is not the twentieth century, with its explosion in state power and totalizing ideological visions, but its predecessor. Looking at Europe’s present-day cities, one cannot but be reminded of the chaotic immigrant cities of Europe in the nineteenth century, and their worlds of neighbourhoods, ethnic self-help structures, and an almost total absence of state authority. Zola, it seems, has never been so topical; but other aspects of Europe’s present-day history seem also to recall the Europe of the mid-nineteenth century. The impact of vast economic forces beyond the control of any public authority, the pressure of migrant masses on a pre-existing population, and sudden surges of political support for charismatic individuals or for rhetorics of national liberation (and of xenophobia) smells much more akin to the Europe of the 1840s and the 1850s, than it does to the Europe of Adenauer, de Gaulle, Thatcher, Kohl and Mitterrand.

However, to replace one set of analogies with another borrowed from the previous century is not sufficient. A history of Europe’s twenty-first century has to identify the building blocks of the new. Some elements of this are incontrovertible: the new precariousness of living standards caused by economic change and untrammelled market forces, and the consequent replacement of the disciplined interaction of socio-economic interest groups by a new and much more volatile politics of economic opportunity and grievance. But other elements appear much less clear-cut. Is Europe moving left or right? Will the migrants of 2015 be integrated into a new and more multi-cultural Central Europe, or will they provoke a descent into forms of ethnic essentialism?

Above all, where, in the end, will state authority be discovered to reside? One of the most striking features of Europe since the final decades of the twentieth century has been the demise of those hierarchical organizational charts of government which used to characterise political-science textbooks. Power is now more dispersed and also more opaque, shared between a plethora of regional, national and supra-national institutions, but also secreted away in institutions such as central banks and security structures that are impervious to democratic control or even public scrutiny. None of that means that we are about to experience new forms of authoritarianism; the populations of Europe have, one suspects, moved beyond the stage when they would submit to the disciplines of states of emergency and military coups. Moreover, for all of the seriousness with which leaders have gathered to consider Europe’s overlapping current crises, one of the most striking features of their discussions has been the relative absence of effective tools of power. Military force – other than the spectacular acts of aerial bombing in Libya, Iraq and Syria – has almost disappeared; national economic policy-making has been transferred to central banks and the power of the markets; and even the routine ability to keep track of the movements of populations appears to have been largely eroded. From the streets of Molenbeek to the beaches of Lesbos, it is the limits of the capacity of the state which has been more apparent than its strength. Perhaps that presages a new 1848, but more significant is the way that the state has lost, or surrendered, its twentieth-century role as the grand manager of European life. What will replace it forms part of the still uncertain nature of the history of the European present.

Martin Conway is Professor of Contemporary European History at Balliol College, Oxford.

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