Europe's Utopias of Peace: 1815, 1919, 1951

London: Bloomsbury Jan 2016

From the Introduction:

The Outline of the Book: the Problem and the Perspective

This book is about what connects our time with the violent time two hundred years ago that followed on the French revolution. The argument of the book is that the connection is a chain of postwar peace treaties under the motto of 'never again' followed by prewar and war and a new cycle of postwar treaty of never again - prewar - war and a third postwar treaty of never again, where the question is whether the third postwar is still a relevant description of our time. This question is, of course, an impossible question, since it can only be answered through the filter of a new war, but nevertheless worth reflection. 

The motto of 'never again' is utopian and the book explains why. Three postwar utopias of peace connect the revolutionary world of warfare around 1800 with our time. The book demonstrates, however, also that there was no necessity in this development, which was full of alternatives. The book confronts the conventional master narrative about Europe as a self-propelling machine fuelled by enlightenment values and belief in progress, but does expressly not outline a negative counter narrative about a continuous European tragedy of fate from postwar to prewar and war. The futures in the past were as open as ours. The book highlights the role and responsibility of human agency. It argues that no solution has been the necessary result of impersonal forces, everything has depended, and continues to depend, on human choice. This is the perspective through which the book wants to contribute to a new narrative on Europe, a new historical understanding of today's Europe, an interpretation of its past that emphasizes the fragility of human projects, the openness towards the future, and the responsibility of human agency.

In the bicentenary sequence 'postwar-prewar-war-postwar-prewar-war-postwar', 'postwar' meant the concerted attempts at European unification under the motto of never again, prewar meant the erosion, and war the collapse of these attempts. The postwar designs were all as the book will show attempts to transcend the nations as the locus of political community. They all aimed at creating a European order or community, in Versailles the goal was even a global international community around the League. The repeated attempts to transcend the nations as organizational principle eschew teleological understandings of Europe. Nationalism replaced in the prewar and war phases the imagery of never again through international cooperation. Nationalism replaced the dreams of European unification.

The book analyses the three peace utopias of 'Never again' outlined in Vienna (1815), in Versailles (1919) and in Paris (1951), under their connection to outlines of a viable political economy for peace. The peace design had in all the three cases an economic dimension based on the insight that sustainable peace required a viable political economy. The link between peace and political economy was also a link between the interstate and the intrastate dimensions of the peace treaties. The European world wars were not only a matter of interstate relations. They were all in the wake of the French revolution driven by social conflict and protests around the national and the social questions, and by the attempts of both ruling elites and usurpers to canalize and control the protests. The wars had a domestic as well as a connected foreign political dimension and the peace designs built on this awareness. 

International relations, IR, the academic discipline which analyses the preconditions of international peace, has often played down or ignored this connection between the social and the foreign and treated states in relation to other states as a series of black boxes with unknown content. The book systematically confronts this bias.

The peace utopias dealt with political stability and predictability.  The thrust of the three utopias of peace was the belief that the peace treaties, the legal framing of international politics could guarantee durable if not perpetual peace. Their utopian nature derived from the belief that law dictates the framework for politics. However, the peace treaties would not serve as the straightjackets for international politics that the peacemakers assumed, but proved to be flexible instruments for creative politics with various possibilities of interpretation. The long-term problem of all three utopias was that international law and politics were not the separate units the utopias assumed. They were deeply entangled. Politics dictated law as much as law dictated politics. Normative prescriptions of future political actions became ex post descriptive legitimation of political decisions more or less disconnected from the legal prescriptions.

The three peace utopias and their eventual loss of suggestive force connects today's global Europe with the post-Napoleonic world two hundred years ago. This connection through a series of illusions and disillusions about the nature of politics represents a different view on the nineteenth and twentieth century than the conventional teleological narrative about fulfillment of the enlightenment promise of progress. 

Günter Grass' phrase in The Tin Drum (1959), the epigraph of this book, that the war had spent itself, and new peace treaties were being boggled into shape that would give ground for more wars, stands as an ex post label of a bicentenary era. This great novel outlines the twentieth century in all its glories and catastrophes, paradoxes and ambiguities, to which the nineteenth century paved the ground. The tough and tardy transition during this period from agricultural to industrial, feudal and corporatist to capitalist, traditional to modern, parochial to cosmopolitan was far from linear evolution. Grass depicts the courages and  discouragements, manias and paranoias, optimisms and pessimisms, cynicisms and idealisms, beliefs in conservative restoration and in social progress of an epoch that struggled to come to terms with experiences of accelerating time and shrinking space, an epoch that 'harmonized chaos and intoxicated reason' as Grass put it. The novel operates with allegories, grotesqueries, and reveries which described reality beyond fiction. Grass reflects on the anxieties and agonies, absurdities and alienations, which were part of the real world and drove humans in their search for solutions to continuously new problems. The most influential impact of the nineteenth century was restoration through conservative concessions.  The twentieth century was totalitarian ideologies trying to step out of history in their absolute pretensions.

Peace was repeatedly proclaimed as postwar of never again with the conviction that the legally binding treaty was robust enough to guarantee lasting peace. This conviction was the utopia. Postwar slipped over into prewar and war. There was a search for a European or global political unification and for a global political economy with the aim to avoid this development, but with the paradoxical outcome that the search also came to underpin it. The search dealt with a political economy for welfare but also for warfare. Welfare and warfare were much more entangled concepts than we want to believe. 

A series of tensions marked the European bi-century since 1815: between economic integration and social disintegration, i. e. between property and poverty, between constitutions legitimizing authoritarian power and constitutions legitimizing parliamentarian power, between geopolitics for military and commercial power and international law for the regulation of the global geopolitical conflict. These tensions dealt with the securing of welfare, the creation of political and cultural community, and the ordering of the world.

The nineteenth century has conventionally been seen as an époque during which the ideas of the French revolution − freedom, equality and solidarity (brotherhood) − began to be implemented. It was in this period that the long, problem-ridden yet irrevocable road from authoritarian rule towards constitutional monarchies and ultimately also parliamentary democracies began. Industrial capitalism spread, transforming poverty to wealth. European empires laid without much noise a web of military, economic and cultural power over the world. Seen in this light, the Vienna peace treaty of 1815 translated the experiences of the French revolution and Napoleon into a century of continental peace and stability. 

The argument of the book however, is that this imagery, connecting fundamental enlightenment values to the present is too simplistic. It offers little insight into the reasons behind the outbreak of two connected world wars and the Russian revolution. Nor does it explain the continental experiences of totalitarianism in the twentieth century. The nineteenth century was far from a teleology of political and economic development from authoritarianism and penury to democracy and general wealth, as the dominating narrative suggests. 

The book seeks to sketch the contours of an alternative, more realistic view on the nineteenth century and its links to the present. The search for a political economy to prevent a new war, often also at the same time to prepare for one, constituted a nexus of welfare and warfare. The search has been precisely that:  a search: a process of trial and error, a learning process of successes and shortcomings in which victors and losers have tried to come to terms with their situation. There was little intrinsic or structural about 1914 but the more of failure of human agency and human imagination. Search stands for preliminary, without any final goal but with many final goals in conflict or overlapping. The search for a viable international political economy seemingly contradicts the utopia of normative stability. 'Search' implies looking for a new arrangement whereas stability implies a rejection of a new ordering of the things. The book sheds light on this paradox, as well as on the compatibility between stability and progress. It is argued that these opposites are not incompatible but instead reinforce each other.