The European Union lacks a sense of its own history

The European Union is among the largest economies in the history of the world and the most important zones of contiguous democracies today. What it lacks is a sense of its own history, which creates a surprisingly important opportunity for those who wish it ill, above all in Moscow. Here, a historical perspective is employed to explain what has made the European Union possible, and what will be necessary to defend its future.

Timothy Snyder is a historian at Yale University, specializing in Eastern Europe, totalitarianism, and the holocaust. In his most recent book, “The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America,” he reveals the big picture on how the rise of populism, the British vote against the EU, and the election of Donald Trump were all Russian goals, and how these achievements reveal the vulnerability of Western societies. He is also the author of “On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century,” which explores the everyday ways a citizen can resist the authoritarianism of today. His other works include “Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning” and “Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin.”

This video is part of an ongoing series called ‘Timothy Snyder Speaks’ published online.

  • Date of recording: Tue, 2018-05-29
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Hi, I’m Timothy Snyder. This is the latest of my little talks about current events, it is the 29th of May, 2018.

What I thought I would like to talk about is the European Union. Most of what I have done thus far is talk about Russia or talk about the United States. But the European Union, in some sense, is more important than either. Its economy is bigger than the American economy, its economy is eight times bigger than the Russian economy, at least. It is the most important collection of contiguous democracies in the world and unlike Russia, and unlike the US, it doesn’t really have a clear story about itself and it doesn’t really have a clear profile, at least in the American news.

00:44 History vs. memory - Why does it matter that there is no common European history?

So, what I want to do today is talk about how this notion of ‚Inevitability becoming Eternity,’ or the ‘absence of history,’ how this affects the European Union. Now, if you’re European, you are probably going to get your back up when you hear someone with an American accent talk about how Europeans have a problem with history. But you do. I am stopping myself from saying ‚y’ all do’, which is a code-switch which I won’t use with you Europeans, so: you - plural – do. And the problem has a couple of parts.

The first is that there isn’t a European history that is common, so it just doesn’t matter, not just of historiography but of pedagogy, European schoolchildren going to European schools don’t get anything like a European history which allows them to recognize one another as Europeans. I am saying this on the basis of teaching Europeans at the university level for more than two decades, in the US, but also in European institutions. It is just the case that students from Finland or Portugal or Poland and Denmark or Germany and Greece don’t have a common history. It is actually worse in Europe than in the United States if it comes down to that.

The second way that Europe doesn’t have history is that much like in the United States there has been a substitution over the last 25 years of the notion of ‚memory’ for ‚history’. And the problem with memory is that  - I mean, obviously, remember, we talk about memory when we do not remember anything, it is a classic Freudian type situation where the more you talk about something, the less you have of it - so, when we talk about memory, we don’t mean things we actually remember, we don’t mean historical detail. What we mean is a kind of ‚public culture of remembrance’, or the things that we are ‚supposed to remember’. Now, the problem with that is that ‘memory’ is even more national than history, so Portuguese or Spanish or French or German or Polish or Ukrainian memory is going to tend to be even more contained and even less subject to translation than national history. So, where we are in the early 21st century, is that we have a bunch of national histories that are taught separately and then, on top of that, and in in some sense making matters worse, is the cult of national remembrance.

Okay, why does all that matter? If you have come with me this far - you know, dear Europeans, dear Americans, dear others -, why does it matter that there is no European history? Well, because how we think about the past and how we think about the present and future may be the most important political issue in the world right now. Or, to put it in a slightly pompous way, a pretentious way, the most important metapolitical issue. If you don’t have a sense of history, then you become very vulnerable to the kinds of myths that I have been talking about the last couple of years and have been writing about in ‘The Road to Unfreedom’, the ‘myth of inevitability’ - that everything is going to turn out right -, or the ‘myth of eternity’ - that you are doomed, no matter what you do.

What the ‚Road to Unfreedom’ means is going from a sense of progress to a sense of doom, going from a kind of blithe sleepwalking story about ‚How there are no alternatives and therefore what we are doing is going to turn out okay,’ to a catastrophic story of ‚How everything has surprisingly gone wrong and we used to have a good history and now someone has taken that away from us.’ That shift is common to Russia, it is common to America, but it is also common to the European Union. 

04:20 European storytelling – a fable of the wise nation

What I would like to do in the next few minutes is to show you what it looks like inside Europe. So where do we start? What is the European ‘Politics of Inevitability?’ What is the story that Europeans tell themselves? What is the thing that is believed under the skin? What is the thing which is axiomatic? What is the thing that the Europeans take for granted? The thing that Europeans take for granted is this: I call it the ‚Fable of the wise Nation.’ Europeans take for granted that their nations have been around for a long time, that those nations have had nation-states for a long time, that the nation-states have learned from the past, that the main thing they have learned from the past is that they have learned from the Second World War, that war is a bad thing; Therefore, European nation states chose wisely, on the basis of this wise experience, to form a policy of integration which led to the peaceful European Union of today.

Now, that is an extremely convenient story, because for one thing, it allows Europeans to look at Americans and say: “We have learned from war and you haven’t’,” which is, of course, very comfortable. Another reason why it is comfortable is that it blocks out completely what is actually the truth, or the central truth, of European history, which is that the 20th century, or the ‘long 20th century’ from the 19th to 21st century, is not about the nation-state at all, which hasn’t really existed. It is about European empires around the world falling apart and the fragments of those empires, the European metropoles, what was left after the empire collapsed, those bits, those European bits coming together to form European integration.

Now, let me try to take this a little bit slowly, because the idea that Europeans never had a nation-state is on the one hand factually totally obvious, but, on the other hand, the nation-state is so embedded in European memory and in European pedagogy that it takes a few seconds to try to extract it. So, I am going to take a few seconds to do it.

Think of the big European countries - the big European histories: Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Portugal, the Netherlands, Spain - all of these major European powers with their broad and impressive and very interesting histories have something in common, which is that they were empires. Britain was an empire, the French were an empire, Portugal, Spain: empires; the Dutch: an empire. These are all maritime empires. These are maritime empires built from the 16th century forward, which collapsed in the middle decades of the 20th century - the 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s. There is not a moment in the history of those countries where they were a nation-state, it just didn’t happen. The process of the empire falling apart takes place at the same time as the beginning of the European integration process, or, to put it in a different way, trade all around the world - as it becomes more difficult and as it collapses, is replaced by trade inside the European Union. This happens in Great Britain in the 1960s, Great Britain joins the European Union in the 1970s.

Now you might be thinking ‘Germany was not a big maritime empire,’ and that is true: Germany is the most important case. Germany could not be a great maritime empire, what Germany tried to be instead - under Hitler – was the last frontier empire, the last empire to conquer great amounts of territory. Hitler, very consciously by the way, looking at the American example, thought that he could build up Germany as the last great European empire, but over territory, by conquering Poland, by conquering the Soviet Union, above all, by mastering Ukraine. Now, what this means is that when the Germans fail at that, when they lose the Second World War, the lesson, the most important lesson, is “Empire is impossible - Germany has to be European.” This is, of course, what Konrad Adenauer says, “Germany has to be European, there are ‚no alternatives’, in that sense, left.”

And so when Germany - along with France and Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg - begins the process of European integration, they are just confirming this general lesson: When you cannot have an empire, what you have instead is Europe. So, what the Europeans have done in the last 50 years or so - 60 years now -, is they have brought together the fragments of shattered empires into this thing called the European Union, meanwhile telling themselves that it is ‚just nation-states making a choice’.

That story is entirely false, they were never. Nation-states do not appear on the stage at all, at least in western Western and Central Europe, but it is a very comforting story, it is a story which gives you continuity, it is a story which allows you, in your school rooms, to talk only about yourselves, which is always fun, and it is also a story then - this is making them a serious point – it is also a story which allows you to completely sideline the atrocities and the humiliations of losing imperial wars. The main thing that happens, or, one of the main things that happens in the 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s into the 80s, is that European powers lose wars across Asia and across  Northern Africa. That, we just completely removed from the story, and talk instead about ‚how we learn from the Second World War,’ ‚the nation is wise,’ ‚the nation has made good decisions’ - entirely false, but a good story.

Now, if you are an East European, you might be saying, “Wait, we did have nation states!” and that is true, you did have nation states, but this is the exception which confirms the rule: Poland, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, the Baltic states Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and a few others, these were indeed nation states, in the 1920s and the 1930s, and this confirms the rule. These nation-states lasted for around two decades. All of the new nation-states created after 1918, every single one of them, collapsed in the late 1930s to early 1940s. All of them were overcome by larger powers - the Nazis, the Soviets, in some cases both - and as soon as these places emerged from communist rule in the late 80s, early 90s, the first thing that their leaders said - because their leaders understood at that time their own history - the first thing their leader said was, ‚We have to get into Europe.’ The process of forming a state was the same thing as the process of going into Europe.

11:00 The European Union – a process of integrating failed empires and failed nation-states

Which is where I want to now go in the 21st century. There was a tremendous confusion in the European Union about the relationship between the European Union and sovereignty. From a neutral, objective, cold historian’s point of view, what the European Union seems to have done is permit sovereignty; What it has done is, it has taken all these imperial fragments, the metropoles of the old, failed, West-European maritime empires, and the weak, threatened nation-states that emerged from the Soviet empire after the 1980s. It has taken all these fragments, all these bits, central or peripheral, as the case may be, and it has put them into something which has actually allowed enough trade and enough economic prosperity and enough general contentment - everyone measures that - to permit sovereignty, whether it is British sovereignty, Portuguese sovereignty, or Polish sovereignty.

Or, to put it more sharply: The main myth inside the European Union is that, ‚Well, we would be a sovereign nation-state, except we gave some of our sovereignty to Europe.’ I think it is actually the other way around: If it were not for Europe, there is no particular reason to believe that any of these places would be sovereign. And the reason why a historian suspects that, is, a historian looks back at the history of Eastern Europe and says, ‚The sovereign nation-state existed briefly and collapsed,’ or looks at the history of Western Europe and says, ‚The sovereign nation-state never actually existed.’ The European Union, in both cases, is a kind of rescue mission for sovereignty.

So, the way that Europeans are vulnerable to shifts in time, vulnerable to illusions about history, is that they have a politics of inevitability which says, ‚We have a nation-state, it was old, it was wise, it made good decisions.’ If you think that is true, if you think you have a nation-state, if you think the nation-states has been around for a long time, if you think the nation-state makes decisions, then you misunderstand what the European Union is about and you can think, ‚Well, since we decided to go in, all we have to do now is decide again whether we are going to go out.’

13:10 Britain has (always) been an empire, never a nation-state

The problem with that is that then the whole discussion of whether to be inside the European Union, whether this is not about Brexit, or about any other member of the European Union, the whole discussion gets warped. In Brexit nobody - and I mean literally, nobody, there are more than 70 million British subjects, or more than 80 million now, I think - not a single one of them said, ‚Hey, wait, we have never actually been a nation-state.’ I think it is fair to say that nobody said that, and that seems to me a critical point in the debate. The debate was about‚ ’Should we be inside Europe, or should we be a nation-state outside Europe?’, but nobody pointed out that Britain had never been a nation-state. The whole discussion was‚ ’Well, if we leave Britain, then we can return to some warm familiar sense of being Great Britain’, that is nice, that is comfy, that is appealing. But it is totally mystical, it is not actually based on any historical experience. Great Britain has never been a nice, comfortable, intimate nation-state, it has never happened. Great Britain was a world power, it was the greatest power in the world, it was a maritime empire, it won the Second World War - all true. But as an empire, not as a nation-state. It has never been a nation state. As it lost its imperial possessions, it integrated into the European Union.

So Brexit - and I am just using Brexit as the most important example- is not some kind of loop back into a comforting past. There is no such thing as a loop back to a comforting past, as nice as the idea is. It is instead a step into the abyss, because nobody knows what a British nation-state would look like, there is just no history of a British nation-state. And therefore, there is, in my view, no presumption at all that after Brexit, a British nation-state would exist. Why should we think that it would, when it never has?  Is it not more likely that, after leaving the European Union, further changes involving Ireland, or involving Scotland, or even involving Wales, would then ensue, leaving us with a whole bunch of different nation-states? And why would we expect that Britain would be more sovereign outside the European Union than within the European Union? If the historical function of the European Union has actually been to guarantee – and, in my view, to magnify - sovereignty, it is, I think, lazy mentally, to just assume that as soon as we get out of a relationship, we are going to be stronger. It seems much more likely that after Britain leaves the European Union, it will A: cease to be Britain and B: the England that is left over will be much less strong vis-à-vis the United States, vis-à-vis China, vis-à-vis Russia, and, by the way, vis-à-vis the European Union. Because you are much stronger vis-à-vis Europe inside the European Union than you are outside the European Union.

So, I give Brexit as an example of a general problem:  all throughout Europe, whether it is France with the ‘Front National,’ or whether it is Germany with the ‚Alternative für Deutschland’, or whether it is the governing parties of Poland and Hungary - we have this idea that somewhere back in the past 1930s and 1940s, usually, we were a nation-state and perhaps we should go back in that direction. This is a temptation, and, in my view, it is a dangerous temptation. And as I have talked about in chapter three of ‚The Road to Unfreedom’ or as I have talked about elsewhere, the one country that truly understands all this is Russia. And so the way that Russia plays Europe is by appealing to this subjective sense that ‚Yes, there was this comforting past, perhaps you should go back to this past as a nation-state,’ which is why Russia supported Brexit with bots and otherwise. It is why Russia supports the ‘Alternative of a Deutschland’ in Germany with bots. It is why Russia loans money to the ‘Front National’ in France, and it is why Russia supports, by way of the internet and other means, the forces in Central Europe which are pushing against the European Union. Because the Russians understand just what I am talking about, they know that the European Union does not have a history of nation-states, they know that it has a history of empires, they know that this is all a trap, and they are pushing Europe back towards what I call the ‚Politics of Eternity.’ They are just taking a ball which is already spinning, and spinning it just a tiny bit more.

As with the United States, what they do is they see a subjective or a psychological weakness inside Europe which is already there for its own reasons, and they just nudge it in a particular direction.

17:43 History as a form of political security

So what does this mean for Europeans or what follows from this? Can I do something besides just criticize? I will briefly, and then I will be done.

The first thing it means for Europeans - and this is very simple, and I have been saying this for 25 years: It would be really good to have a European history. For all kinds of reasons: for Europeans to recognize one another, for European leaders, when there is a moment of crisis, not to fall back on appalling national stereotypes which is what happens all the time. But, finally, as a kind of form of political security. If you do not have history, something else rushes in to fill the gap, something else will, some myth of progress, a myth of doom. So, history is a kind of political self-defense. So why not have a common history, why not just have European high school students read a book which is a good book, why not have them read Tony Judt’s ‚Postwar’, for example, why not pick out a text which is good and critical and have all high school students read it their second year in high school? Why not?

The second thing which the European Union has to do is that it has to have some idea of the future. This may seem paradoxical since I have been talking about history the whole time, but since there is Europe’s ‚Politics of Inevitability’ - this notion that ‚everything is always going to be fine, because the nation is wise’ – and because that is not true, because the ‚Politics of Inevitability’ is never true, you cannot count on it, right? It will eventually break, people eventually become dissatisfied, their faith in the future will eventually dissipate – that is happening now.

You have to have some vision of the future which appeals especially to the younger generation. You can not just say ‚Europe is going to go on, you know because we were a wise nation and we learned from the Second World War’, because, A: the young generation doesn’t care, and, B: that was never true in the first place anyway. So you have to have some idea of how Europe is going to be appealing, and you have to have some measures - like exchange programs, whatever it might be - whereby young people associate their current lives and their future lives, their families, the children they are going to have, the jobs they are going to have with Europe. Not some grand story, necessarily, but measures which help people between 15 and 30 think of their lives in European terms.

Of course, it’s encouraging that some European leaders like Macron, for example, seem to be thinking in those terms.

Okay, so thanks for your patience. What I have been trying to do here is explain how this general shift from inevitability to eternity is, indeed, general, it’s not just about America, it’s not just about Russia, it’s also about Europe; and also try to explain how Europe is threatened and what Europeans might be able to do to rescue the good things which integration and the nation-state have brought them. Because those two things go together. Thanks a lot.