The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 16 No. 1 (Spring 2014)

Europe’s Elusive Identity

Marcello Verga

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 16.1 (Spring 2014). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Spring 2014

(Volume 16 | Issue 1)

A succession of tragic events extending from the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the bloodletting on the killing fields of World War I through the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Soviet empire brought European governments and public opinion to the realization that it was necessary to reflect deeply upon Europe and its destiny and to arrive at a formula for some scheme of peaceful coexistence.

The idea of Europe, the French historian Marc Bloch wrote during the 1930s, was a kind of “notion of crisis, a notion of panic.” But from those “fears,” he added, “good Europeans can be born.” Writing in 1944, Bloch’s colleague Lucien Febvre observed that Europe could be—and indeed was—an idea of refuge for those who, in the aftermath of the destruction and disgrace of the world wars, still believed in a society respectful of human and civil rights and a peaceful system of nation-states. Hope for such refuge, at least among the well educated, lay in the prospect of finding in shared European “roots” a compelling reason for living together.

It was therefore natural that the years following the Second World War saw the revival of a debate concerning European identity that had its roots in the works of the great philosophers and historians of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, from Voltaire and Edward Gibbon to François Guizot and Jakob Burckhardt. This postwar debate derived urgency from the plan of “Western bloc” countries to bring about a system of economic and political integration in the context of the appeasement that became the status quo with the closing of the Iron Curtain, yet without relinquishing the eventual goal of a Europe united, in Charles de Gaulle’s formulation, “from the Atlantic to the Urals.”

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Marcello Verga is professor of modern history at the University of Florence. He is the author of Storie d'Europa: Secoli XVIII-XXI (History of Europe: Eighteenth to twenty-first centuries), published in 2004, and, with Mario Rosa, Una storia europea: Dal Medioevo ai nostri giorni (A history of Europe: From medieval times to the present), published in 2010. This essay was translated from the Italian by Silvia and Christian Dupont

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