Nosemonkey's EUtopia

In search of a European identity

A shift in focus: History and Culture

You may have noticed that over the last few months the rate of posting here has declined. It’s a combination of over-work and lack of interest in the current political goings-on, and has inspired a slight shift in focus in an attempt to get me posting more frequently.

In the UK, we’re in that dull mud-slinging period prior to an election almost certain to see a change of government (that may not arrive for another two years), much like the interminable years of party fervour of 1990-97. The Labour v Tory rivalry always bores me – especially when everyone gets so het up about it all. But sadly the golden age of cross-party unity over a hatred of Tony Blair has ended, and petty squabbles are again on the rise.

When it comes to the EU, we’re in yet another period of stagnation caused by the rejection of yet another tedious and uninspiring treaty, much like the interminable last seven years (or more) since the Treaty of Nice singularly failed to achieve what it was meant to. I’ve already written so much on the Lisbon Treaty and Constitution that I’m not sure if I can handle churning out any more attempts at constructive criticism, soothsaying or analysis. At least, not for a while.

Elsewhere in Europe, there’s not a great deal of excitement among the domestic politics of the various states at the moment either, from what I can tell. Even Berlusconi’s being entirely predictable since his return to power (engineering a grant of immunity from prosecution and spurting out broad, brainless populist nonsense at every opportunity). The only thing that does spark an interest is the ongoing threat of Russian energy dominance, a new phase of which was hinted at over the weekend with suggestions that the Kremlin might be using oil supply to the Czech Republic to try and force the Czech government to backtrack over the proposed US missile defence shield.

But this is not meant to be one of those semi-regular “blogger announces he/she’s going to quit blogging in an attempt to garner praise from readers before swiftly posting more than ever” posts.

Clio, The Muse Of History And Song, 1758 - Francois BoucherInstead, I’ve decided to start writing about things that still interest me when the political goings on are getting tedious. Keeping in with the general theme of this place – and giving an excuse to make that little piece of paper with “MA Modern History (Dist.)” and those three years working on a history magazine seem worthwhile – what better than European history and culture? After all, I know my stuff moderately well, am always reading to find out more, and in recent months have most enjoyed writing posts like the Eurovision liveblog and overview of wannabe European states – the political ones have more often been a chore. Blogging should be fun, not dull.

I’ve been pondering this shift in focus ever since the last redesign, but decided for certain this weekend, while browsing through a couple of books. First, Tony Judt’s excellent Postwar, from the Preface:

“The whole of Europe (excluding Russia and Turkey) comprises just five and a half million square kilometers: less than two thirds the area of Brazil, not much more than half the size of China or the US. It is dwarfed by Russia, which covers seventeen million square kilometers. But in the intensity of its internal differences and contrasts, Europe is unique.”

Swiftly followed by this, from the Prologue to Geert Mak’s gloriously engaging In Europe:

“Do we Europeans have a common history? Of course, everyone can rattle their way down the list: Roman Empire, Renaissance, Reformation, Enlightenment, 1914, 1945, 1989. But then one need only look at the enormous differences in the way that history has been experienced by individual Europeans: the older Polish truck driver I spoke to, who had been forced four times in his life to learn a new language; the German couple, bombed out of their home and then endlessly driven from place to place throughout Eastern Europe; the Basque family that fell apart one Christmas Eve arguing about the Spanish Civil War, and never spoke to each other again; the serene satisfaction of the Dutch, the Danes and the Swedes, who have usually avoided catching the full brunt of History. Put a group of Russians, Germans, Britons, Czechs and Spaniards at one table and have them recite their family histories: they are worlds unto themselves. Yet, even so, it is all Europe.”

Because, of course, though Europe has more than its fair share of diversity in history and culture it still has plenty of common ground – be it Saint George acting as patron saint of England, Moscow, Portugal and more, the similarities in old myths and legends (like Zeus and Odin, Tristan and Lancelot), or the flow of artistic motifs (from the use of the eagle in heraldry Europe-wide to the symbolism of the star in art, architecture and the EU flag). Perhaps by focussing more on these areas I’ll be able to track down that elusive, impossible to define quality of what it means to be “European” – the thing that unites us all, from Ulster to the Urals, Nordkapp to Nicosia.

It may turn out that Bismarck was right, and all we have in common is geography. But I prefer to turn to Churchill – a fine historian (if not so fine a politician), with a strong (if frequently misunderstood) idea of Europe:

“I wish to speak about the tragedy of Europe, this noble continent, the home of all the great parent races of the Western world, the foundation of Christian faith and ethics, the origin of most of the culture, arts, philosophy and science both of ancient and modern times. If Europe were once united in the sharing of its common inheritance there would be no limit to the happiness, prosperity and glory which its 300 million or 400 million people would enjoy.”

But the major reason is just to have fun with blogging again – so don’t expect a structure or a plan to emerge for a while. This will be more a miscellany. Slices of little-known or forgotten history. Profiles of persons of interest. The occasional book review. Overviews of key events and ideas. Quotations. In other words, random bits and pieces that interest me – sometimes tied to the overriding theme of European identity or current affairs, sometimes just curios. And all the while heeding Hegel:

“Rulers, Statesmen, Nations, are wont to be emphatically commended to the teaching which experience offers in history. But what experience and history teach is this – that peoples and governments never have learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it… Amid the pressure of great events, a general principle gives no help. It is useless to revert to similar circumstances in the Past.”

When it comes to politics, history is both ignored and useless. What could be a more perfect focus for a political blog, that most ignored and useless of all contributions to the public sphere?