Europe, forever staggering

Ivan Štern


“The League of Nations … (assists) as a tribune, and then as an archive for signed documents: nothing more!”, the Paris correspondent Pavel Spiess bemoaned on 10 September 1930 in Peroutka’s Presence (United States of Europe).

The post-war invention of the Versailles Conference, the League of Nations (Society of Nations) was to prevent wars in the future and to settle disputes between nations in an arbitrary manner. By agreement. However, it took only a few years for this brainchild, which was, by the way, painstakingly planned by Foreign Minister Edvard Beneš, to turn into an impotent and cumbersome institution. With a bitterness not unlike that of Spiess, we can only add today that 1930 was not the last time that general embarrassment reigned over a nobly-intentioned community of nations.


Not everyone can be talked into peace

Spiess ironically remarks that “peace is almost in the air, it is written about and talked about only”, not to mention “reconciliation and rapprochement”. All that is needed, he says, is to find a way “to win all people to this idea”. It is enough for the press to go that way, “to put itself … at the service of peace, and there will be peace”. It was not the first time that people had been told that it was enough to talk, talk and talk, and the incredible, as Bohumil Hrabal writes, would come true.


But everything is different. If the unbelievable is to become reality, one cannot just talk about peace or go on about it. This is not only confirmed by Spiess’s experience in the late 1930s. We too can give similar testimonies. We need only recall the mountains of words that German diplomacy has heaped on the past decades, wooing Russia and telling itself that friendly trade cooperation will make Russia more attractive and break off its aggressive spikes. Meanwhile, Russia has dreamed of restoring empire and self-reliance, and Germany has unwittingly served as its “useful idiot.”


I have some understanding of why Germany, burdened by its unfortunate Nazi past, has behaved in this accommodating manner and why it has not believed the warnings of its disillusioned neighbours about what the Russian Empire is or is not. But it could have learnt from the arguments, unburdened by either the Nazi or the Soviet past, with which Richard Coudehove-Kalergi, the founder of the pan-European movement and pioneer of European integration in Spiess’s time, justified why Russia did not belong in the concept of a united peaceful and democratic Europe.


In an editorial for Prager Tagblatt (Paneuropa), published on 17 August 1923, he warned Europeans against Russia. And of the vain hope that Russia would come to their aid in an emergency. Regardless of the regime currently in power, it had no interest other than ‘to conquer Europe, occupy it and establish a military dictatorship in it’. It sees the way out of the risk of falling under Russian domination as mutual ‘self-help, secured by the establishment of a political and economic interest grouping’.


About six months later, on 29 March 1924, in the editorial Paneuropa und Russland, referring to Coudehove-Kalergi, the editor Francis German warned against Russia much more strongly. He was inspired by an article of the same title by Rudolf Hotowetz, secretary of the Prague Chamber of Commerce and Trade, in Prager Tagblatt, published ten days earlier. Both Hotowetz and German warned readers that the simplistic view of Kalergi was misleading. It is flawed in that it does not take into account economic considerations. While he does not question dependence on Russia, he certainly underestimates it. They stressed that ‘even a united Europe will continue to depend on (Russia) for its raw material imports and in this sense Russia will maintain its economic dominance over it’. This threat is all the greater the harder it will be for a united Europe to break free from Russian economic dependence. It is as if both authors anticipated today’s European foot-dragging over the energy crisis caused by Europe’s irresponsibly built dependence on Russian raw materials over decades.


Russia, Europe’s eternal threat

Perhaps Russian President Putin, knowing the German language, read the two quoted articles. I judge this by his chosen method of blackmail. They were certainly not read by the German diplomats and politicians working hard to create the two undersea pipelines. And if they did, they probably didn’t read them all the way through.


For the reader, holding the Saturday 29 March 1924 edition of the Prager Tagblatt, learns that ‘Russia poses an incalculable threat to an united Europe and its culture’. Even in the conditions of a united Europe, if any of the Member States of the Community acts independently with Russia, this poses a greater threat to Russia itself, the more it succeeds in splitting up a united Europe through irresponsible individualism. Russia “embarks on the path of imperialism with all the greater avidity the more fragmented the European states are in their approach to each other and the less understanding they have of each other”. In such circumstances, resisting Russia is an almost impossible task.


One thing is certain:

“It will be very difficult for Europe to keep Russia at arm’s length. If Europeans cherish their culture, which consists not only in technical and economic achievements, but above all in the way of thinking that has made these achievements possible, then it is true that Europe will only retain its culture if it has the backing of its pan-European political unification. Only then will the moment arrive when closer ties with Russia can be established without fear.” Both authors concluded by lamenting, but at the same time expressing hope that “perhaps it is not too late”.


In the meantime, nearly 100 years have passed, and we are again nursing the hope that it is not yet too late, confronted with a debilitating war in Ukraine and a hybrid war, facing a desperate Russian fifth column, supposedly fighting for our national interests. Are we not showing how unteachable we can be and how unteachable we really are?


Consensus – a would-be noble idea

One more reason why Paul Spiess in The Presence considers the existing Commonwealth of Nations to be flaccid and incapable of substantive action.


“The League of Nations today is unfortunately too cumbersome an organism to be able to do anything (decisively); it is not a parliament where a simple majority of votes would be enough for a proposal to be accepted or rejected. Each participating state retains its complete sovereignty, and a single vote against, a single veto, is enough to bring down a proposal otherwise accepted by all.”


While the comparison here is somewhat lame, the Union being more of a precursor to today’s United Nations, a certain parallel can still be drawn:


Like the Union, the European Union has relied on the idea of consensus in its decisions from the beginning. It is a noble goal, after all. The parties involved are forced to negotiate until they find a consensus, until they arrive at a result reflecting compromise positions, friendliness towards each other and restraint towards themselves. The outcome, because it expresses the inner convictions of the negotiating parties, then offers the hope that as a decision it will be easier to turn into reality.


While majority decision-making is an inherent part of the democratic rules of the game, it nevertheless carries the risk of hollowing out democracy in the form of the ‘tyranny of the majority’. The national democratic state can cope with the “tyranny of the majority”. Sovereignty is not only based on majority decision-making, but also on a constitutional system and an independent judiciary. It can pacify an outvoted minority. If it is outvoted in violation of the constitution, it has the means to finally put it right. The risk that this may not happen within the Commonwealth is considerable. Each of the member countries jealously guards its own sovereignty, except that which it has voluntarily surrendered through parliamentary adoption of an international convention, and is very reluctant to have a say in its internal affairs. The European Union’s many years of essentially fruitless wrestling with ‘recalcitrant’ Poland and Hungary is a case in point.


The road to majority decision-making is a quadruple circle

As long as the community of European nations consisted of six, or at most twelve, members, the method of decision-making by consensus had its justification. The probability of agreement was high. The cultural homogeneity of the member countries spoke for it.


The enlargement of the Union to include countries once part of the Soviet (Russian) empire was, why deny it, a cultural shock to the existing ‘Europe’. Suddenly, nations with a completely different historical experience appeared in the Union. It stemmed from the oppression they had been subjected to for decades by Russia. In turn, it was brimming with unrealistic illusions about the West. The disillusionment after the bump into each other has spread on both sides and, together with a certain mistrust arising from it, does not constitute an optimal starting point for changing the way decisions are made. Europe must reach a majority by consensus. If it succeeds in doing so, it will be the first in the world to break the square circle.


The Union of Nations virtually disappeared after fascist Italy and Nazi Germany abandoned it. The United Nations, that hope that was born after the Second World War, is today a more suffering organisation. The European Union still has some hope. It has been played by the conflict with Russia. Even today, however, it is still true that Russia ’embarks on the path of imperialism with all the more avidity the more fragmented the European states are and the less understanding they have of each other’.


Despite the adage that every crisis is a challenge, the outlook is more gloomy than hopeful.

This article was translated from the Czech original published at Přítomnost.

published: 17. 10. 2022

Datum publikace:
17. 10. 2022
Autor článku:
Ivan Štern