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Why empires fall: from ancient Rome to Putin's Russia

Moscow, to western eyes, does not look much like Rome. But if there is any country in the world where the tug of the Roman ideal can be felt, it is Russia.

Great pretender? Barack Obama seems a modern incarnation of a line of ambitious imperatores whose powers are all too mortal.

When did the Roman empire end? It is still possible to find history books that give a very precise answer to this question. The curtain came down on the Roman empire, so it is usually claimed, on 4 September 476, when a young man by the name of Romulus Augustulus was formally stripped of the imperial purple by a Gothic chieftain and packed off to retirement near Naples. The accident of his name, in this particular version of Rome’s fall, provides the perfect bookend to a thousand years and more of the Roman story. Romulus, after all, had been the founder of the Eternal City, Augustus her first emperor. Now, with the deposition of Augustulus – “the little Augustus” – the line of emperors had come to an end. The light-switch had been turned off. Antiquity was over; the Dark Ages had begun.

In fact, in almost every way that it can be, dating the fall of the Roman empire to a particular day in 476 is wrong. On the most pedantic level, the title “last Roman emperor of the west” should properly belong not to Romulus Augustulus at all, but to a Balkan warlord, named Julius Nepos, who was murdered in 480. Meanwhile, in Rome itself, life carried on pretty much as normal. Consuls continued to be elected, the senate to sit, chariot races to be held in the Circus Maximus. Most saliently of all, in the eastern half of the Mediterranean, the Roman empire was still strong. Ruled from a city pointedly christened the Second Rome, it remained the greatest power of its day. Constantinople had many centuries of life in it yet as a Roman capital.

It turns out, in short, that the fall of Rome is to human history what the end of the dinosaurs is to natural history: the prime example of an extinction that nevertheless, when one looks at it more closely, turns out to be more complicated than one might have thought. If it is true, after all, that birds are, in a sense, dinosaurs, then it destabilises our notion of the asteroid strike at the end of the Cretaceous era as a guillotine dropping on the neck of the Mesozoic. Likewise, the notion of a Romanitas, a “Roman-ness”, surviving into the Middle Ages, and perhaps beyond, upsets the categorisation of the Roman empire that most of us have as a phenomenon purely of the ancient world.

It is important, of course, not to take revisionism too far. Just as a wren is no tyrannosaur, so was, say, the England of Bede incalculably different from the Roman province of Britannia. “Transformation”, the word favoured by many historians to describe the decline of Roman power, hardly does the process justice. The brute facts of societal collapse are written both in the history of the period and in the material remains. An imperial system that had endured for centuries imploded utterly; barbarian kingdoms were planted amid the rubble of what had once been Roman provinces; paved roads, central heating and decent drains vanished for a millennium and more. So, it is not unreasonable to characterise the fall of the Roman empire in the west as the nearest thing to an asteroid strike that history has to offer.

One striking measure of this – the degree to which it was indeed, in the words of the historian Aldo Schiavone, “the greatest catastrophe ever experienced in the history of civilisation, a rupture of incalculable proportions” – is that even today it determines how everyone in the west instinctively understands the notion of empire. What rises must fall. This seems to most of us almost as much a law in the field of geopolitics as it is in physics. Every western country that has ever won an empire or a superpower status for itself has lived with a consciousness of its own mortality.

In Britain, which only a century ago ruled the largest agglomeration of territory the world has ever seen, we have particular cause. Back in 1897, at the seeming pinnacle of the empire on which the sun never set, subject peoples from the across the world gathered in London to mark the diamond jubilee of Queen Victoria. Rudyard Kipling, the supposed laureate of imperialism, wrote a poem, “Recessional”, to mark the occasion – but it was the very opposite of jingoistic. Instead, it looked to the future in sombre and (as it turned out) prophetic terms:

Far-called our navies melt away;
On dune and headland sinks the fire:
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!

Today, in Washington, DC, precisely the same anxieties are being aired – and the example of Rome is often explicitly cited. In 2007, the then comptroller general of the US, David Walker, gave a bleak assessment of the nation’s prospects. America, he claimed, was afflicted by precisely the problems that he saw as responsible for the collapse of Rome: “declining moral values and political civility at home, an overconfident and overextended military in foreign lands and fiscal irresponsibility by the central government”.

American self-confidence seems to have clawed back at least some lost ground since then. Nevertheless, pessimism remains the default setting at the moment in both the US and the west as a whole. When a country’s capital city boasts a Senate and a Capitol Hill, the example of Rome’s decline and fall is always going to be lurking somewhere at the back of the mind.

Yet those who assume it to be an inevitable fact of nature that all empires, sooner or later, will come to share the fate of Rome need only look at America’s chief rival for the title of 21st-century hegemon to see that it ain’t necessarily so.

The People’s Republic of China, unlike the states of the modern west, stands recognisably in a line of descent from an ancient empire. Three years ago, a professor at the National Defence University in Beijing – a colonel by the name of Liu Mingfu – published a book about China’s future called The China Dream.

The title was an obvious riff on the ideal of the American dream; but the Chinese equivalent, it turns out, is as much about drawing sustenance from the past as about looking to the future. Unity at home, projection of strength abroad, the organic fusion of soft and hard power: these, according to the colonel, are in the DNA of Chinese greatness. How does he know this? Why, by looking to ancient history – and specifically to the example of Qin Shi Huangdi, the so-called First Emperor, who back in the 3rd century BC united China, embarked on the Great Wall, and established a template of leadership that even Mao admired.

Wild warrior of Leningrad: Vladmir Putin is undisputed king of Moscow, the "Third Rome". Image: Reuters/Ria Novosti.

It is as though US commentators, trying to plot a course ahead for their country, were to look to Caesar Augustus as an exemplar. The reason they would never do that is obvious. The US, for all that it has a Senate and a Capitol, is self-consciously a young country, planted in a new world. But China is old, and knows that it is old. Dynasties may have come and gone, waves of barbarians may have washed over it again and again, the emperor himself may have been replaced by a general secretary – but no rupture such as separates Barack Obama from ancient Rome divides Xi Jinping from the First Emperor. The “China dream”, in its essence, is simply the dream that the “Middle Kingdom” will regain what many Chinese see as her ancient birthright: a global primacy, at the heart of world affairs.

There is a taste here, perhaps – just the faintest, most tantalising taste – of a counterfactual: one in which Rome did not fall. That China was able to survive conquest by the Mongols and the Manchus demonstrates just how deep the roots of a civilisation can reach. What about the Romans in the heyday of their empire: did they have the same kind of confidence in the permanence of their empire the Chinese have always had? And if they did – what happened to that confidence?

People in antiquity were certainly aware that civilisations could rise and fall. It is, in a sense, the great geopolitical theme of the Bible. In the Book of Daniel, the prophet dreams that he sees four beasts emerge in succession from a raging sea; and an angel explains to him that each beast represents a kingdom. The fourth beast, so Daniel is told, symbolises the mightiest empire of all; and yet, for all that, it will end up destroyed “and given to the burning flame”. Gold and purple, in the Bible, are cast as merely the winding-sheets of worldly greatness.

The Greeks, too, with the example of the sack of Troy before them, were morbidly aware how impermanent greatness might be. Herodotus, the first man to attempt a narrative of how and why empires succeed one another that did not look primarily to a god for its explanations, bookends his great history with telling passages on the precariousness of civilisations. “Human foundations both great and insignificant will need to be discussed,” he declares at the start of his first book. “Most of those that were great once have since slumped into decline, and those that used to be insignificant have risen, within my own lifetime, to rank as mighty powers. I will pay equal attention to both, for human beings and prosperity never endure side by side for long.”

Then, in the very last paragraph of his history, he provides what is, in essence, the first materialist theory as to why civilisations should succeed and fail. The Persians, having conquered a great empire, want to move from their harsh mountains to a richer land – but Cyrus, their king, forbids it. “Soft lands breed soft men.” It is a perspective that Herodotus has been tracing throughout his account of civilisational vicissitude, using it to explain why the Persians were able to conquer the Lydians, the Babylonians and the Egyptians, only to come to grief against the poverty-stricken but hardy Greeks. Implicit in his narrative, written at a time when Athens was at her peak of glory, is a warning: where other great powers have gone, the Athenians will surely follow.

The Romans signalled their arrival on the international stage by fighting three terrible wars with a rival west Mediterranean people: the Carthaginians. At the end of the third war, in 146BC, they succeeded in capturing Carthage, and levelling it to the ground. This was the great fulfilment of Rome’s military aims. In 216BC Rome had almost been brought to defeat by Hannibal, Carthage’s most formidable general – a brush with civilisational death that her people would never forget.

In these circumstances, the destruction of Rome’s deadliest enemy was an exultant moment. Nevertheless, it is said of the Roman general who torched Carthage that he wept as he watched her burn and quoted lines from Homer on the fall of Troy. Then he turned to a Greek companion. “I have a terrible foreboding,” so he confessed, “that some day the same doom will be pronounced on my country.”

There were many, as the Romans continued to expand their rule across the Mediterranean, who found themselves hoping that the presentiment was an accurate one. Rome was a brutal and domineering mistress, and the increasing number of much older civilisations under her sway unsurprisingly felt much resentment of her autocratic ways. Greek traditions of prophecy began to blend with Jewish ones to foretell the empire’s inevitable doom. “Civil tumults will engulf her people,” so it was foretold, “and everything will collapse.”

A century on from the burning of Car­thage, in the mid-1st century BC, it seemed that these oracles had been speaking the truth. Rome and her empire were engulfed by civil war. In one particular bloody campaign, it has been estimated, a quarter of all citizens of military age were fighting on one side or the other. No wonder that, amid such slaughter, even the Romans dared to contemplate the end of their empire. “The Roman state, just like all states, is doomed to die.” So wrote the poet Virgil amid the horrors of the age.

But the Roman state did not die. In the event, the decades of civil war were brought to an end, and a new and universal era of peace was proclaimed. Rome, and the known world with it, were brought under the rule of a single man, Imperator Caesar Augustus: the first man in what was to be a long line of imperatores, “victorious generals” – “emperors”.

Virgil, perhaps because he had gazed into the abyss of civil war and understood what anarchy meant, proved a worthy laureate of the new age. He reminded the Roman people of their god-given destiny: “To impose the works and ways of peace, to spare the vanquished and to overthrow the haughty by means of war.”

By the time that Rome celebrated its millennium in AD248, the presumption that the city’s rule was eternal had come to be taken for granted by the vast majority of her subjects – most of whom, by this point, regarded themselves as Romans. “Everywhere,” as one provincial put it, addressing the Eternal City, “you have made citizens of those who rank as the noblest, most accomplished and powerful of peoples. All the world has been adorned by you as a pleasure garden.”

In the event, the garden would turn to brambles and weeds. Intruders would smash down the fences. New tenants would carve up much of it between themselves.

Yet the dream of Rome did not fade. Its potency was too strong for that. “A Goth on the make wishes to be like a Roman – but only a poor Roman would wish to be like a Goth.” So spoke Theodoric, successor to the king who had deposed Romulus Augustulus: a man who combined a most German-looking moustache with the robes and regalia of a caesar. He was not the first barbarian to find in the memory of Rome – the splendour of its monuments, the vastness of its sway, the sheer conceit of its pretensions – the only conceivable model for an upwardly mobile king to ape.

Indeed, one could say that the whole history of the early-medieval west is understood best as a series of attempts by various warlords to square the grandeur of their Roman ambitions with the paucity of their resources. There was Charlemagne, who not only had himself crowned as emperor in Rome on Christmas Day AD800, but plundered the city of pillars for his own capital back in Aachen. Then there was Otto I, the great warrior king of the Saxons, a hairy-chested lion of a man, who in 962 was also crowned in Rome. The line of emperors that he founded did not expire until 1806, when the Holy Roman empire, as it had first become known in the 13th century, was terminated by Napoleon.

“Neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire,” Voltaire quipped. Yet the joke was not quite fair. There had been a time when it was all three. Otto III, grandson and namesake of the old Saxon king, crowned in 996 and charged with the rule of Christendom during the millennial anniversary of Christ’s birth, was nothing if not a Roman emperor.

He lived on the Palatine Hill, just as Augustus had done a thousand years before him; he revived the titles of “consul” and “senator”. He had himself betrothed to a princess from the Second Rome, Constantinople. His death in 1002, before his marriage could serve to join the eastern and western empires, left hanging one of history great “what-ifs”. Otto III’s ambition of reviving the Roman empire had been the great theme of his reign. Tantalising, then, to ponder what might have happened if he had succeeded in joining it to the eastern Roman empire – the empire that, unlike his own, could trace a direct line of descent from ancient Rome.

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Today, when we use the adjective “Byzantine” to describe this empire, we risk obscuring the degree to which the people we call “Byzantines” saw themselves as Romaioi – Romans. It was not, however, to the Rome of Julius Caesar and Cicero they looked back, but to that of the great Christian emperors: Constantine, the founder of their capital, and Theodosius the Great, who at the end of the 4th century had been the last man to rule both east and west. In that sense, it was indeed the capital of a Roman empire that fell to Mehmet II, the Turkish sultan, when in 1453 he stormed the great walls built by Theodosius’s grandson a thousand years earlier to gird Constantinople, the “Queen of Cities”. It was indeed the last territorial fragment of the Roman empire that was conquered when, in 1461, the tiny Byzantine statelet of Trebizond was absorbed into the Ottoman empire. At last, a story that had begun more than 2,000 years earlier on a hill beside the Tiber was brought to a definitive end by Turkish guns on the shore of the Black Sea.

Or was it? The Turks were not the first to have laid siege to Constantinople. Back in 941, adventurers known as Rus’, Vikings who had travelled the long river-route down from the Baltic to the Bosphorus, had similarly attacked the city. Their assault had failed; but Miklagard, Caesar’s golden capital, continued to haunt their imaginings. In 986, one of their princes sent a fact-finding mission. Volodymyr was the lord of a rough-hewn frontier town named Kyiv – and he had decided that the time had come for him to join the community of nations.

But which community? He had invited Jews to his court; but after questioning them said their loss of Jerusalem was a sign they had been abandoned by God. He had invited Muslims; but was appalled to learn that their religion would not permit him to eat pork or to drink (as he frankly told them, “drinking is the joy of the Rus’ ”). He had sent envoys to the churches of the west; but there, so they reported back, “we saw no beauty”. Only in Constantinople, in the great cathedral of Hagia Sophia, had Volodymyr’s ambassadors discovered a spectacle worthy of their master’s ambitions.

“We knew not whether we were on heaven or on earth. For on earth there is no such splendour or such beauty. We only know that God dwells there among men . . . we cannot forget that beauty.”

So began a commitment on the part of the Rus’ to the Orthodox faith of the Second Rome that was to have enduring consequences into the present. Volodymyr had recently captured from the Byzantines the city of Chersonesus in the Crimea, originally founded as a Greek colony way back in the 6th century BC. He restored it to the emperor; and in exchange, it is said, received baptism in the city, together with the hand of Caesar’s sister. A momentous step. Never before had a Byzantine princess been given in marriage to a barbarian. The precedent it set was one that the Rus’ would never forget. In 1472, almost two decades after the fall of Constantinople to the Turks, the niece of the last emperor of the Second Rome was married to Ivan III of Muscovy. “Two Romes have fallen.” So a Russian monk, in 1510, would gravely tell their son. “The Third Rome, though, stands – nor will there ever be a Fourth.”

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Moscow, to western eyes, does not look very much like Rome. There is no Senate there, no Capitol Hill. No buildings, as they do in Paris or Washington, seek to ape the look of Augustan Rome. Even so, if there is any country in the world where the tug of the Roman ideal can still be felt as a palpable influence on its leader’s policy, it is Russia. In 1783, when Catherine the Great annexed Crimea, it was in pursuit of a decidedly Roman dream: that of restoring the Byzantine empire under the two-headed eagle on her own banner. “You have attached the territories,” Potemkin wrote to her, “which Alexander and Pompey just glanced at, to the baton of Russia, and Chersonesus – the source of our Christianity, and thus of our humanity – is now in the hands of its daughter.” No one, as yet, has written in quite these terms to Putin; but if someone did, it would not be entirely a surprise.

Today, here in the west, dreams of restoring a Roman empire are gone for good. The shadows they cast are too grim. The most recent political philosophy to be inspired by them, and which even took its name from the bundle of rods with an axe carried by the bodyguards of Roman magistrates, was developed only in the 20th century: fascism. With Mussolini and Hitler, the millennia-old tradition in the west of looking to the Roman empire for a model reached a hideous climax – and then expired.

Yet if the First Rome is long gone, and the Second Rome, too, the Third, it turns out, retains an unexpected capacity to lurch up out of its grave. Even in the 21st century, the Roman empire clings to a certain ghoulish afterlife yet.

Tom Holland’s translation of Herodotus’s “Histories” is published by Penguin Classics (£25)

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Why empires fall

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.

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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