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An American suicide

There was no subject about which David Foster Wallace could not write brilliantly, from politics to

On the evening of 20 October this year a memorial service was held at Amherst College, Massachusetts, for the writer David Foster Wallace. Wallace, who graduated from Amherst in 1985, had hanged himself the previous month at his home in California. He was 46.

Since the publication of his voluminous and extravagantly ambitious second novel, Infinite Jest, Wallace had been widely acknowledged as the finest American writer of his generation. When Infinite Jest came out, in 1996, New York magazine's Walter Kirn declared that the competition had been "obliterated". It was, he wrote, "as though Paul Bunyan had joined the NFL, or Wittgenstein had gone on Jeopardy!". More or less instantly, Infinite Jest became the benchmark against which any ambitious and intellectually curious young novelist would measure himself. And so, when Wallace died, American fiction lost its lodestar. His suicide was a kind of Kurt Cobain moment, a profound generational shock. (Cobain, frontman of the rock band Nirvana, shot himself at home in Seattle in 1994. He was 27.)

Wallace had begun to write fiction while at Amherst, and his first novel, the antic and exuberant The Broom of the System, published when he was 24, was based on his senior English thesis. One of his professors, Andrew Parker, told the congregation at the Amherst service at Johnson Chapel how Wallace had insisted on writing a thesis in the philosophy department at the same time, and had still managed to graduate summa cum laude in both subjects. Sue Dickman, an Amherst alumna, remembered the year Wallace spent there as an instructor after an abortive attempt to start a PhD at Harvard; she recalled how he would come to class with a tennis racket and let his students take breaks so he could smoke.

The mourners also heard from Mark Costello, Wallace's college room-mate in the early 1980s, who implored them not to forget "how painful Dave's day-to-day life was". Wallace had suffered from depression since adolescence, and was hospitalised during his sophomore year at Amherst. Later, he briefly shared an apartment with Costello in Somerville, near Boston. Wallace was drinking heavily and experimenting enthusiastically with drugs, and eventually ended up in McLean Hospital, a psychiatric institution that had previously counted the poets Sylvia Plath and Robert Lowell among its patients. The "power of death", Costello said, was his constant companion, and "eventually it cornered him and killed him".

While he was at McLean, Wallace was prescribed Nardil, a powerful antidepressant that he would take for most of the next 20 years. By the summer of 2007, however, the drug had begun to have unpleasant side effects, and it was decided that he would come off it. Doing so had catastrophic results. "Severe depression came back," Wallace's father, James, told the online magazine Salon. "They tried all kinds of things. He was hospitalised twice . . . and had a series of electroconvulsive therapy treatments, which just really left him very shaky and very fragile and unable to sleep."

By this summer, Wallace hadn't written anything for more than a year. He had been granted medical leave from his teaching job at Pomona College in Claremont, California, and had stopped going to the gym with his friend and colleague John Seery, where they had been the only "skinny-ass egghead types" in the place.

When, in mid-August, his wife, Karen Green, had to go away on family business, Wallace's parents came to stay with him in Claremont. "He was very emotional," his mother, Sally, said. "He was just terrified of so much. We would just try to hold him. He did tell me that he was glad I was his mom." James and Sally Wallace flew back home to Illinois at the end of the month. A fortnight later, Karen came home from a shopping trip to find her husband dead.

News of Wallace's suicide first broke on the Twitter page of the Brooklyn-based writer Edward Champion. By the time the mainstream media picked up the story, Champion was already gathering tributes and testimonials from the "literary community" on his blog, the comments box of which was soon filling up with expressions of shock and anguish from Wallace's fans. The confession of one devotee that "I haven't really cried over the death of someone I haven't met since Kurt Cobain" was typical.

Within a couple of days, Dave Eggers's McSweeney's ope ration had a virtual book of condolence up on its website, and people were posting reminiscences of meeting "DFW" at readings in out-of-the-way branches of Barnes & Noble, of taking writing classes with him and, in one case, of playing tennis against him in fifth grade. (Wallace had been an adolescent tennis prodigy, playing the junior circuit in the Midwest in the mid-Seventies. The first piece of extended narrative journalism he wrote, for Harper's magazine, was about summers spent "being driven through dawns to tournaments all over Illinois, Indiana and Iowa"; and Infinite Jest is, among other things, probably the finest, and certainly the longest, work of fiction about tennis ever written.)

The internet is a uniquely effective mechanism for processing public grief, of course, but there was something striking nevertheless about the sheer copiousness of the reaction to Wallace's death. This was partly because he was the kind of writer who attracts acolytes as well as admirers. The esoteric, self-enclosed quality of much of Wallace's fiction, not least the great thousand-odd-page slab of Infinite Jest itself, tended to inspire unusually fierce allegiance in many of his fans - the sort of obsessive who can tell you the likely effects of putting your head in a microwave (this being how the father of one of the central characters kills himself) because they've checked with a "med-school acquaintance", and who posts elaborate theories about arcane plot points online ("It sounds far-fetched, but check this out . . .").

Just as striking, and much more significant, however, was the reaction of other writers, Wallace's peers. There was spontaneous, unanimous agreement that he had been the best of them. Jonathan Franzen described Wallace as a "huge talent, our strongest rhetorical writer". In Zadie Smith's view, he had no "equal among living writers. He was an actual genius". He was also, everyone agreed, an unusually generous man: as "sweet a person" as Franzen had ever known, "meticulous about putting people at their ease", according to Smith.

Eggers posted a series of anecdotes about Wallace on the McSweeney's website. In one, he recalled the first time they met, in the mid-Nineties, at a diner in New York. While Wallace chewed tobacco, using a teacup in his lap as a spittoon (a habit he would never give up), he and Eggers "talked about how he'd grown up in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, and how I'd gone to college there, how his father taught there, about the pleasures and quirks of east-central Illinois. There's something very strange and uniquely powerful about meeting a guy whose writing you find world-changing but who also comes from your part of the world."

Who else could have written a story about a marketing executive who plans to inject deadly cultures into a snack he’s testing with focus groups?

Wallace was, by his own description, an “infantile transplant” to Illinois from upstate New York: his father had done his PhD at Cornell University and had come west to teach philosophy at the University of Illinois in Champaign. His mother taught English at a local community college. Wallace described the atmosphere of the family home in an essay he wrote for Harper's: “Suppers often involved a game: if one of us children [Wallace had a sister, Amy] made a usage error, Mom would pretend to have a coughing fit that would go on and on until the relevant child had identified the relevant error and corrected it. It was all very self-ironic and light-hearted; but still, looking back, it seems a bit excessive to pretend that your small child is actually denying you oxygen by speaking incorrectly.”

Being raised as an "extreme usage fanatic" by a teacher of composition certainly left its mark on the mature Wallace's prose style. In another of his McSweeney's posts, Eggers remembered the time Wallace sent him a story, "Mister Squishy", together with a note asking that if it was to run in his magazine, it should do so under the pseudonym "Elizabeth Klemm". Eggers agreed ("we were so proud to publish it"), but the subterfuge didn't last long: Wallace was simply "too recognisable to hide, too singular to fool anyone". Who else could have written a 60-page story about a marketing executive who hatches a plan to inject deadly cultures into the "snack cakes" he is testing with a focus group? And all this in sentences of improbable length and fiendish complexity.

Take the passage in which the protagonist fantasises, while briefing his focus group, about how much ricin or botulinus it would take to bring the entire corporate snack industry to its knees. As he is doing so, he is struck by his ability to entertain such fantasies in "total subjective private" and then by the thought that half the people in the room with him are doing the same:

. . . Schmidt had a quick vision of them all in the conference room as like icebergs and/or floes, only the sharp caps showing, unknowing and -knowable to one another, and he imagined that it was only in marriage (and a good marriage, not the decorous dance of loneliness he'd watched his mother and father do for seventeen years but rather true conjugal intimacy) that partners allowed each other to see below the berg's cap's public mask and consented to be truly known, maybe even to the extent of not only letting the partner see the repulsive nest of moles under their left arm or the way after any sort of cold or viral infection the toenails on both feet turned a weird deep yellow for several weeks but even perhaps every once in a while sobbing in each other's arms late at night and pouring out the most ghastly private fears and thoughts of failure and impotence and terrible and thoroughgoing smallness . . .

This is writing of extraordinary syntactic control, and it is characteristic of what Eggers describes as Wallace's "dense, discursive, and insanely detailed style". The sentence continues for almost another page; the paragraph in which it occurs runs over four pages. Eggers says that he asked Wallace to consider breaking up some of the paragraphs before the story was published: "It was as if he were visiting the notion . . . for the first time. He was that kind of genius, whose understanding of the workings of his own fiction was, I think, largely separate from ideas of audience."

Actually, Eggers is missing something here, because Wallace thought more deeply about questions of audience and address than any other American writer of his generation. All that "insane" detail, and the formal strategies he borrowed from postmodernism (authorial intrusions, digressions, footnotes, flash-cutting between scenes and so on), were meant in fact to serve the rather traditional end of saying something about "what it is to be a fucking human being".

Wallace believed that each of us is "sort of marooned" inside our own skull, and that it is fiction's job to "aggravate this sense of entrapment and loneliness and death in people". It was the estranging apparatus of his style - the postmodern rhetorical devices, the hyperextended sentences - that was meant to do the aggravating.

That, at least, was the theory. However, Wallace was tormented by the thought that the “antagonistic elements” in his fiction might in fact just be manifestations of a pathological exhibitionism. He deplored his own “grossly sentimental affection for gags” and weakness for “formal stunt-pilotry” that served no narrative purpose. But he also understood that this predicament was not his exclusively; it was that of an entire generation of writers who, in a sense, had come too late – who had arrived, that is, just as the bold innovations of postmodern novelists such as John Barth, William Gaddis and Thomas Pynchon were being absorbed and neutered by the culture.

Wallace believed that each of us is “sort of marooned” inside our own skull and that it is fiction’s job to “aggravate this sense of entrapment”

This highly developed generational self-consciousness is one reason Wallace was held in such esteem by his peers: he held up a mirror to their own anxieties, and articulated them more clearly and honestly than they ever dared.

Infinite Jest bears the scars of Wallace's parricidal struggle with his influences. He insisted that he had wanted it to be an "extraordinarily sad" book about loneliness and addiction, rather than a postmodern one. And to this end, the novel's two principal settings are a tennis academy, which Wallace depicts as a kind of laboratory of obsession (he writes with considerable feeling about the psychic costs exacted by endless early-morning tennis drills), and a halfway house for recovering drug addicts and alcoholics. However, it is also crammed with set-ups and gags that could have come straight out of the fiction of Thomas Pynchon: a geopolitical agglomeration with the acronym ONAN; a gang of wheelchair-bound Québécois separatists; and a film so entertaining that it paralyses anyone who watches it.

At times it seems as if the novel is conducting an argument with itself - for instance, in a long scene in which Don Gately, a former drug addict who is now a live-in staffer at the half way house, goes to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in Boston. One of the residents in Gately's care is there, too, and complains about the "psychobabbly dialect" that's de rigueur at events like this. Gately admits that the "seminal little mini-epiphanies" routinely experienced by new inductees into AA come embalmed in language of "polyesterish" banality. Then someone else says they also find the sentimental argot hard to stomach - especially the habit the speakers have of saying they are "here but for the grace of God", which phrase, she points out, is "literally senseless", and should be used only when introducing a conditional clause. Wallace is flattering his hip and savvy readers here, inviting them to identify with this sophisticated cynicism. But it is also clear that we are meant at the same time to find something ridiculous and overwrought about someone who is driven to want to "put her head in a Radarange" by a home-spun solecism or two. Indeed, Wallace said later that the scene was designed to get his readers - privileged, educated Americans, most of them - to "confront stuff about spirituality and values", stuff "our generation needs to feel".

Infinite Jest turned out to be Wallace's last novel. He didn't stop writing fiction - there were two further collections of stories, the second of which, Oblivion, contains some of his finest work - but, as Mark Costello observed in his Amherst encomium, something changed: "If you sit down and read his prose from the early Nineties to later, you'll hear the music changing. You'll hear sentences getting longer and longer, with these wonderfully balanced dependent clauses."

According to the novelist and journalist Tom Bissell, who knew Wallace, this was also a shift in "world-view". Bissell told me: "I think the man who wrote Oblivion would not have been satisfied with the cross-dressing leader of a Québécois separatist group whose primary mode of transport is wheelchairs, or with the political acronym ONAN, both of which are kind of silly in the way Pynchon is silly, but not in the way the world ever feels silly. I believe he escaped the anxiety of his influence."

Wallace's deepening ambivalence about the moral as well as aesthetic legacy of postmodernism is especially noticeable in the non-fiction he wrote in the last decade of his life. In many of his essays, whether the brief was to write about Caribbean cruises or the Maine Lobster Festival, he can be seen grappling obsessively with all that "stuff about spirituality and values".

A good example is a piece he wrote after Harper's sent him back to Illinois to attend the state fair, and to gorge on corn dogs while watching the rural Midwest at play. "Getting Away From Already Pretty Much Being Away From It All" derives all its considerable force from the tension between Wallace's self-acknowledged "East Coast cynicism" and his yearning for a kind of authenticity.

He describes coming across a small hillock that, for some reason, has been covered in artificial grass: "a quick look under the edge of the fake-grass mat reveals the real grass underneath, flattened and already yellowing". Now, the postmodernist debunker in him would have been content to leave that image to stand for the emptiness and shoddiness of the state fair as a whole. But Wallace doesn't settle for simply unmasking the event as a sham; and this is partly because, for all his protestations that he is no longer "spiritually Midwestern", he remains of the place he is describing.

He understands that to be Midwestern is to be "marooned in a space whose emptiness is both physical and spiritual", and that what the state fair provides is a kind of temporary communal respite from that condition. As Bissell, himself from the Midwest, puts it, "in terms of literary persona, [Wallace] was temperamentally speaking a rural Midwesterner, intellectually speaking a high-wire postmodernist, and emotionally speaking an artist-as-priest type. I'm not sure anyone else has really managed to combine those qualities."

Wallace’s best essays are artefacts of this multifarious literary personality, dramatisations of its internal conflicts. Nowhere is this drama more powerfully performed than in the 15,000-word article he wrote for Rolling Stone about a week he spent following John McCain during his Republican primary battle, in 2000, with George W Bush. (The article was turned into a short book this year to coincide with McCain’s second run at the presidency.)

It is unsettling reading the piece now - after a Republican campaign this year conducted mostly from the sewer - to recall that eight years ago McCain represented to many the last, best hope for decency and truth in American politics. Even the most jaded hacks aboard McCain's bus, the Straight Talk Express, were wondering if "humanity and politics, shrewdness and decency" really could coexist. And Wallace finds himself as inspired as anyone: "It's difficult not to feel enthused and to really like this man and want to support him in just about any sort of feasible way you can think of."

Underpinning McCain's promise in 2000, of course, was "something riveting and unspinnable and true": that the candidate had been imprisoned and tortured during the Vietnam War, and spent five years in a box-sized cell at the "Hanoi Hilton". But whatever it was in his character that sustained McCain during those five years was shut away in that box, too. This, for Wallace, was the essential "paradox" of his campaign: the fact that the "box that makes McCain 'real' is, by definition, locked. Impenetrable." Which meant that it was up to the voter to decide whether McCain was "truly 'for real'".

What the essay is really about, therefore, is the "interior war" inside Wallace's own head between the need to believe in something larger than himself and his anxiety that the need to believe might be a sham or a fraud. And "fraud", Mark Costello reminded the mourners at Amherst, "was one of the worst words in his personal vocabulary".

In the end, Wallace took his own life. Perhaps the struggle to believe in something was too great; he had suffered too much. He was the ultimate victim of his own interior war.

Jonathan Derbyshire is a writer and philosopher

The best of David Foster Wallace

1987: The Broom of the System

The metafictional game-playing and sheer verbal inventiveness of Wallace's first novel established him as a successor to American postmodernists such as John Barth and Thomas Pynchon. It is set in the near future in Cleveland, which now stands on the border of the Great Ohio Desert (or GOD), a vast tract of land filled with black sand.

1989: Girl With Curious Hair

The centrepiece of this first collection of stories is "Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way", a 150-page novella set in a creative writing workshop. Wallace said the story was "written in the margins" of Barth's Lost in the Funhouse - the professor running the workshop is the author of a famous story also called "Lost in the Funhouse".

1996: Infinite Jest

The gargantuan novel that sealed Wallace's reputation as the most exciting and ambitious American novelist of his generation. The plot motor of Infinite Jest, which is over a thousand pages long and weighed down with more than a hundred pages of endnotes, is a movie of the same name which paralyses anyone who watches it.

1997: A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again

Wallace's first collection of extended non-fiction contains some of his most celebrated essays: the titular record of a comically awful Caribbean cruise; a paean to the genius of David Lynch; and "E Unibus Pluram", his account of the way the "rebellious irony" of postmodernism was co-opted by television.

1999: Brief Interviews With Hideous Men

In the title story of this second collection of shorter fiction, several unidentified men describe their sexual proclivities - including one who can't help shouting "Victory for the Forces of Democratic Freedom!" when he is on the point of ejaculating. Another story, "The Depressed Person", with its extravagantly long sentences, footnotes and abundant psychotherapeutic jargon, is typical of Wallace's later fictional style.

2004: Oblivion

Oblivion has several of Wallace's finest stories, notably "Good Old Neon" and "The Suffering Channel". The former is narrated from beyond the grave by a high school acquaintance of "David Wallace". In the latter, a journalist on a hip New York style magazine travels to Indiana to profile a man who developed an ability to shit perfectly rendered sculptures while on latrine duty during the first Gulf War.

2005: Consider the Lobster

When Gourmet magazine sent Wallace to the Maine Lobster Festival, he came back with the title essay of this collection, in which he asks whether it is morally acceptable to boil sentient creatures alive (short answer: no).

2008: McCain's promise

This short book about John McCain was published this year to coincide with the US presidential election. Originally published as a long narrative report in Rolling Stone magazine under the title "Up, Simba!", it is an account of a week spent following the McCain's campaign during the 2000 Republican primaries. Wallace admired McCain the man, if not the politician, and was fascinated by his years in prison in Vietnam. He did not live long enough to see the outcome of this year's presidential election.

the death of Kurt Cobain

Whatever the cultural significance of Kurt Cobain's suicide, his reasons, as with David Foster Wallace, were first and foremost personal. Struggling with heroin addiction, various medical problems and facing an impending separation from his wife, Courtney Love, the lead singer of Nirvana shot himself at home in April 1994. Yet when news broke, the public outpouring of grief among teenage fans in his home city of Seattle resonated around the world.

To many, his death represented a clash between conflicting value systems: the counterculture from which Nirvana had emerged, and the corporate world of MTV and major record labels that transformed them into global rock stars just months after the release of their 1991 album, Nevermind. Cobain's suicide seemed like an admission that these two worlds could not be reconciled. "The worst crime I can think of would be to rip people off by faking it and pretending as if I'm having 100 per cent fun," he declared in his suicide note. The irony is that this exit only pushed Cobain deeper into music-industry mythology.

But it is a mistake to see his death as an artistic gesture. Cobain had come adrift in his life, which is something he shared with the increasing numbers of young men who kill themselves every year. In England and Wales, for example, suicide remains the second most common cause of death for men under the age of 35. If you really want to know something about the hopes and fears of a generation, understanding these everyday tragedies is as important as unpicking the famous ones.

Daniel Trilling

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2008 issue of the New Statesman, How safe is your job?

ANDRÉ CARRILHO
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The Great Huckster: Boris Johnson’s reckless distortions of history

As a scholar of Churchill, Boris Johnson could have articulated a constructive vision for Britain and Europe. Instead, he wilfully manipulates and distorts the historical record.

This month, 76 years ago, the defeated British Expeditionary Force was making for the Channel ports. Thanks to the ferocious resistance put up by the garrison at Calais, and Hitler’s hesitation, the bulk of the men were safely taken off the beaches at Dunkirk to fight another day. Whatever their private feelings during those terrible hours may have been, most of them knew even then that they would return to Europe to finish the job.

Their forefathers had been intervening in Europe for as long as anyone could remember. From Shakespeare’s Henry V through to Elizabeth’s support for the Dutch revolt, the Second Hundred Years War against Louis XIV, the French Revolution and Napoleon, and the First World War, London had always been profoundly invested in the continent. Defending the “liberties of Europe” and thus British freedoms was what Englishmen and Britons did. It was part of what they were.

In early June 1944 – on D-Day – the British, Americans and Canadians hurled themselves into northern France as their ancestors had done since the late Middle Ages. At least one British officer tried to inspire his men that morning as the landing craft approached the strongly defended beaches by reading out Henry V’s speech before Harfleur, in which Shakespeare has him exhort the men, “once more unto the breach”. The film version of the play was released that same year, dedicated to the “commando and airborne troops of Great Britain”. In the popular mind, these Englishmen and their North American descendants were part of the continuity of a European story that went back to the medieval English empire in France.

Some of those liberating Europe thought that they could not simply return to “business as usual” after the war. One of them was the later Conservative prime minister Ted Heath, the man who took Britain into the European Economic Community in 1973. He first defended Liverpool as an anti-aircraft gunner and then took the fight to Hitler as an artillery man during the campaign in north-west Europe. Over the course of the next 11 months, Heath and his comrades fought their way across the traditional battlefields of northern France and the Low Countries, including the Walcheren swamps in which their ancestors had been mired in Napoleonic times; and through western Germany into the centre of the Reich. They were to stay there, at the heart of Europe, for some 60 years. They created a stable European order, based on Nato and what was to become the European Union, which remains with us to this day.

Now the Brexit stalwart Boris Johnson, my fellow historian, claims that it was all in vain. “The European Union,” he says, “is an attempt to do what Hitler wanted by different methods.” Worse still, the EU is a German plot, whose currency, the euro, was “intended by the Germans” to “destroy” Italian manufacturing and generally grind the faces of its unfortunate members. Johnson has also invoked the spirit of Churchill in support of his arguments. He has since doubled down on his remarks and has received support from other members of the Brexit camp, such as Iain Duncan Smith, though not apparently from more informed figures such as Michael Gove. Unfortunately, Johnson’s claims are as historically wrong as it is possible to be, comparable in their crassness only to his predecessor as London mayor Ken Livingstone’s suggestion that Hitler supported Zionism.

Far from supporting European political unity, Hitler was violently and explicitly opposed to the idea. This was partly because it was proposed by his opponents on the “left” of the Nazi Party, such as the Strasser brothers. They belonged to the “anti-imperialist” wing of the Nazi Party, which wanted a pan-European front against the Jews and the British empire. Hitler’s hostility to the European project was also in part due to a racial antipathy to the half-Japanese Richard, Count Coudenhove-Kalergi, the author of the widely discussed book Pan-Europa (1923). One way or the other, Hitler condemned the Pan-Europa movement as “a fantastical, historically impossible childishness”, which would be no more than a “Jewish protectorate”.

Nor did he hold back with his alternative view of what the continent should look like. “The solution,” he wrote, “cannot be Pan-Europa, but rather a Europe of free and independent national states, whose spheres of interest are separate and clearly delineated.” Comparisons involving Hitler are usually odious but if one is going to draw parallels, his view of European integration then was much closer to that of the Brexiters today than that of the advocates of the European Union.

Moreover, the European project did not originate in the Nazis’ attempt to mobilise the continent on their behalf but rather in the resistance movement against Hitler. Take Sicco Mansholt, who hid Dutch resisters on his farm during the war, at great personal risk. He subsequently became the Dutch minister for agriculture and one of the fathers of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). Take Altiero Spinelli, the Italian anti-fascist who spent ten years in Mussolini’s prisons. It was there, in June 1941, at the height of Hitler’s power, that he secretly wrote his draft manifesto For a Free and United Europe.

Take Paul-Henri Spaak, later prime minister of Belgium, first president of the Common Assembly of the European Coal and Steel Community – the forerunner of the EU – and secretary-general of Nato. He was forced to make a daring escape from wartime Europe in the false bottom of a lorry in order to carry on the struggle against Hitler in exile. Indeed, across Europe there were thousands of men and women who fought, died, were imprisoned or tortured because they believed in a free and united Europe. To suggest that they were trying to achieve the same thing as Hitler by different methods is an outrageous slur on their memory. If Johnson ever makes it to the top of the Conservative Party, and thence to No 10, he will have a lot of explaining and apologising to do in Europe.

***

As if all this were not bad enough, Boris Johnson’s invocation of Churchill flies in the face of everything we know of the great man’s attitude to the European project. To be sure, he began as a Eurosceptic. When army reforms were proposed in 1901 to support the creation of a substantial land force on the continent, the young Winston Churchill was one of the few MPs to oppose them on the grounds that the navy, rather than the army, was of crucial importance to British security. Writing in the Morning Post, Churchill argued that “history” and “geography” showed that the British empire was “essentially commercial and marine”, and had been defended by armies of foreigners.

As the German threat loomed large, however, he changed his mind. Churchill, then first lord of the admiralty, told the Australians and New Zealanders in April 1913 that Europe was “where the weather came from”. It was the terrible storm of the First World War that caused Churchill not only to believe in the centrality of Europe but in the need for European – or at least continental European – unity.

In May 1930, the president of the Pan-Europa Union, the former French prime minister Aristide Briand, made a formal proposal for a “European federal union” based on a “European conference” with an executive to co-ordinate economic and military co-operation. The British government of the time rejected the surrender of sovereignty involved but many were sympathetic to the idea of continental European union under liberal auspices. The arch-imperialist Leo Amery, secretary of state for the colonies and later a powerful critic of appeasement, was a strong admirer of Coudenhove and his projects, which he regarded as the extension of Anglo-Saxon principles to the continent.

Likewise, Churchill, then chancellor of the Exchequer, told parliament in June 1925 that he hoped that one could “weave Gaul and Teuton so closely together economically, socially and morally as to prevent the occasion of new quarrels and make old antagonisms die in the realisation of mutual prosperity and interdependence”. Then, he continued, “Europe could rise again”. Churchill did not believe, however, that Britain should be part of any continental political union. “We are with Europe, but not of it,” he wrote in 1930. “We are linked but not compromised. We are interested and associated but not absorbed.”

In mid-June 1940, however, as western Europe buckled under the Nazi onslaught, Churchill went a step further. He made an unsuccessful offer of union with France – involving joint citizenship and a common government – designed to lock the French into the war effort against Germany or, failing that, to secure their fleet. The Nazi threat was so existential, in other words, that it justified the surrender, or at least the pooling, of British sovereignty.

When the threat of invasion passed, Churchill returned to the theme of continental European integration. In October 1942, he “look[ed] forward to a United States of Europe in which barriers between the nations will be greatly minimised. He “hope[d] to see the economy of Europe studied as a whole”, and the establishment of a council of “ten units, including the former Great Powers [and thus presumably Britain], with several confederations – Scandinavian, Danubian, Balkan, etc, which would possess an international police and be charged with keeping Prussia disarmed”.

Churchill returned to the subject immediately after the war, as the Soviet threat menaced Europe. In a speech at Zurich University in September 1946, he urged the continent to “unite”, with Britain supporting the project from the outside. Once again, including the Germans was central to his conception. Churchill urged no less than the full political union of the continent in a “kind of United States of Europe” under the “principles embodied in the Atlantic Charter”. He again praised the work of Hitler’s bugbear, Count Coudenhove-Kalergi’s “Pan-European Union”.

Churchill demanded an “act of faith”, beginning with “a partnership between France and Germany”, assembling around them the states of Europe “who will and . . . can” join such a union. Its purpose was clear, namely “to make the material strength of a single state less important. Small nations will count as much as large ones and gain their honour by their contribution to the common cause.”

Moreover, Churchill argued, “The ancient states and principalities of Germany, freely joined together for mutual convenience in a federal system, might each take their individual place among the United States of Europe.” In short, the new polity was designed to solve not merely the European question but the German problem, the two being one and the same. Once again, Churchill conceived of this United States of Europe alongside but not including the United Kingdom and the British “Commonwealth of Nations”, that is, the empire. Instead, he believed that Britain should be one of the “sponsors of the new Europe”.

Churchill’s attitude to continental European union was, unlike Hitler’s, highly positive. For Johnson to suggest, therefore, that he is donning the mantle of Churchill to prevent the current European Union from achieving Hitler’s aims through other means is a complete travesty of the historical truth.

Far from being intended to promote German power, the European Union was designed to contain it, or at least to channel it in the right direction. Contrary to what Johnson suggests, the euro was not planned by Germany to subjugate Italian industry or any other European economy. It was insisted on by the French to decommission the deutschmark, which they described as Germany’s “nuclear weapon”. Likewise, the Germans are not incarcerating the Greeks in their European prison: Greeks are desperate not to be released back into the “freedom” of the drachma and the corrupt national politics that they joined “Europe” to escape. If there is one thing worse than being dominated by Germany in the European Union, evidently, it is not being in the EU at all.

Boris Johnson may not have known the details of Hitler’s attitude to European integration, or the European sympathies of many resisters, but he is very well informed about Churchill and Europe. His ignorance is thus not just a matter of making mistakes; we all make those as historians. Nor is it simply a matter of these mistakes being, like bank errors, in favour of one’s own argument. To say that Johnson knows better is not a figure of speech: he has shown in print that he does. His recent book, The Churchill Factor, contains a very balanced account of Churchill’s position on Europe, including most of the statements listed above.

In making his arguments, Johnson is not appealing to the baser instincts of the electorate; it is far worse than that. The deeply ingrained British instinct to fight European tyranny is not base but fine. What Johnson and those who defend his rhetoric have done is to take something virtuous and pervert it. The European Union is not, as we have seen, the continuation of Hitlerism by other means and to suggest so is blatant manipulation.

The shame of it is that there is a perfectly plausible Eurosceptic argument on its own merits. It was well stated by Michael Gove at the start of the campaign. It insists on the historical distinctiveness of the United Kingdom, whose history does indeed set it apart from the rest of the continent. It makes the case for a reform of the EU. It rejects the scaremongering of “Project Fear”, on the cogent grounds that the United Kingdom has the political, economic and military weight to prevail even without the stabilisers of the EU. It scorns President Obama’s impertinent warning that Britain would have to “get to the back of the queue” for a trade deal after Brexit, with a reminder that Britain and her empire defied Nazi Germany for two years before the Americans joined the fray, when Hitler declared war on them (not vice versa). One does not have to accept every detail of this discourse to feel its force. Uniquely among the democratic European powers, the United Kingdom can “stand alone” if it must or wants to.

The Achilles heel of the Brexit campaign, however, is that it has no viable vision for continental Europe. Even Gove falls down here, as his idea of a British departure unleashing a “democratic liberation” of the continent is pure fantasy. It seems odd to have to explain this to Brexiters but Britain really is special. Casting off the bonds of Brussels will not emancipate mainland Europe but let loose the nationalist and xenophobic demons tamed by the integration project. This is clear when we look at the rise of radical anti-European parties in France, Hungary, Austria, Germany and many other parts of Europe as the European project fragments. These developments should not surprise anyone who knows the history of mainland Europe before the mid-20th century and to a considerable sense beyond.

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Most of continental Europe had failed before 1945 and even now the European Union is only failing better. Unlike virtually every other European state, which has at some point or other been occupied and dismembered, often repeatedly, England and the United Kingdom have largely – with very brief exceptions – been subjects of European politics, never merely objects. In this sense, too, she is exceptional. Yet this should not be an occasion for British triumphalism. Whatever the outcome of the referendum on 23 June, the European Union is not an enemy of the United Kingdom. It should best be understood as a modern version of the old Holy Roman Empire; hapless and officious, perhaps, but not malign. It needs help. The failure of the European project and the collapse of the current continental order would be not only a catastrophic blow to the populations on the far side of the Channel but also to the United Kingdom, which would be
directly exposed to the resulting disorder, as it always has been.

In short, the Brexit camp in general and Boris Johnson in particular are missing a great opportunity in Europe. A student and partisan of Winston Churchill, the former mayor of London was qualified to articulate a constructive vision for Britain and the continent. He has failed to understand that the only safe way that Britain can exit from the European Union is not through Brexit – whose consequences for mainland Europe would be dire – but through Euroexit; that is, a Churchillian political union of the continent in close co-operation with the UK.

Instead, in addition to their distortion of the historical record, Johnson and the Brexit camp are committing the cardinal sin of making a decision before they need to. The European Union is not, sadly, a United States of Europe, even though it needs to become one to survive, and is becoming less like one every day. If and when it musters the strength for full political union, there will be plenty of time to leave. Meanwhile, the EU needs all the support that Britain can give it from within.

In 1940, the British forces had been defeated and retreat was the only option. The situation could not be more different today. This is no time to head for the beaches in what will be a legislative Dunkirk of epic proportions, with incalculable consequences not so much for Britain as for the rest of the continent. Unlike in 1940, the United Kingdom is not being forced out of Europe. It has hardly begun to fight there, unless shooting oneself in the foot through Brexit counts as combat. The battle in Britain today is a distraction from the great struggle on the mainland. There is much work to be done in Europe. It is time the British stop tearing themselves apart and return unto the breach once more.

Brendan Simms is a NS contributing writer. His latest book is “Britain’s Europe: a Thousand Years of Conflict and Co-operation” (Allen Lane). He is president of the Project for Democratic Union

This article first appeared in the 19 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Huckster