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Visions of Europe in the Napoleonic Era

By Robert Steuckers, Translation by Alexander Jacob

Visions of Europe in the Napoleonic Era, excerpt from Chapter 2 of  The European Enterprise: Geopolitical Essays

 

The European Enterprise

The visions of a unified and autarkic Europe do not date from Locarno and Aristide Briand, nor from the Second World War, nor from the founding fathers of the European Communities. They have had antecedents from the age of the philosophy of the Enlightenment. A good number of conceptions were specified in the Napoleonic era.

Europe in the view of the Enlightenment is:

  • • A space of “civilisation” and “good taste”.
    • A civilisation marked by decline and maladaptation (due
    to rising industrialisation).
    • A civilisation where reason is in decline.
    • A civilisation marked by Gallomania and destabilised by
    the national reactions to this omnipresent Gallomania.

The philosophers of the Enlightenment already considered Europe to be stuck between Russia and America. They were divided into Russophiles and Russiphobes. All however considered America as a New Europe begun on the other side of the Atlantic and where multiple opportunities were waiting to be cultivated.

The Enlightenment and Herder

Within the framework of the Enlightenment and the ubiquitous Gallomania, Herder developed a critical vision of the intellectual situation in Europe and reflected deeply on the significance of the historical individuality of collective constructions, the fruits of long maturation defined and fashioned over time. He posited the bases of a positive critique of Gallomania as an artificial cult of imitated Greco-Roman styles to the exclusion of all others, particularly of the mediaeval Gothic. Rousseau agreed with this view and saw history as a harmonious dialectic between the nations and the world but esteemed that Europe in decline, behind the neoclassical façades of the 18th century, was morally condemnable because it was perverse and corrupt. Herder wished to re-establish more rooted popular cultures, revive autochthonous cultures which the processes of urbanisation and rationalisation typical of civilisation had marginalised or thwarted. For him Europe was a family of nations (of peoples). Contrarily to Rousseau, he esteemed that Europe is not condemnable in itself but that it should consolidate itself and not export to Russia and America an abstract Europeism with a Greco-Roman veneer, the expression of a rootless artificiality permitting all manner of manipulations and engendering despotism. Herder knew Europe physically and sensually having travelled from Riga to Nantes, peregrinations about which he has left us a diary teeming with observations relating to the attitudes of the 18th century. He compares in detail the regional cultures of the countries that he travelled through, poses a series of diagnostics combining assessments of decline with hopes of recovery – the recovery of a people through the resurrection of their language, their traditions and the roots of their literature. On the basis of this lived experience he wished to make of the Baltic countries, his homeland, and the Ukraine (along with the Crimea) the workshop of a renovated Europe which would be respectful of both the classical Greek models (but especially Homeric; Herder fully rehabilitates Homeric Greece providing an impetus to later philological researches) and faithful to its non-Greek and non- Roman, mediaeval and barbarian (Slavic and Germanic) ones.

This renovated Europe will be forged by the intervention of a new system of education much more attentive than its predecessors to the most ancient roots, of legal entities, of the law, the physical history of peoples, etc. In this sense, the Europe hoped for by Herder must be not a society of states constituted of persons but a “community of national personalities”.

After the troubles and upheavals of the French Revolution, after Napoleon’s accession to power, many European political observers began to view Europe as a “Continental Bloc” (Bertrand de Jouvenal published a work on this subject). With the continental blockade the idea of a European economic autarky progressively took shape. It has had especially French proponents but also many German partisans like Dalberg, Krause or the poet Jean Paul80 (whose direct descendant in the 20th century would be another poet Rudolf Pannwitz).

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