In Praise of the European Union

“Surely never before was so great a responsibility laid upon a generation of men and on its thinkers and leaders as now when the war is drawing to its end.” With those words, Ernst Juenger, the controversial German writer, philosopher and soldier, began The Peace, an essay contemplating the cataclysmic finish of the Second World War and what must come after. With the expansion of the European Union today, The Peace offers some perspective on what should be understood as a genuinely historic moment — a great and shining day not only for Europeans but for all who dare to hope.

What makes The Peace so remarkable, aside from Juenger’s crystalline prose, is its humanistic vision and the circumstances in which that vision came to be. The Peace was not, contrary to what its opening may suggest, penned amid the rubble and sorrow of 1945. A first draft was actually written in the fall of 1941, when France lay broken, Britain was sinking into the ocean and German armies were surging to the gates of Moscow. Its final form took shape in the summer and autumn of 1943. Juenger was a captain in the Wehrmacht, stationed in occupied Paris, and although the Germans had by then suffered devastating defeat at Stalingrad, most of Europe still lay in the palm of Adolf Hitler.

Juenger must have been mad. Not only could the essay have gotten him shot — he shared it only with carefully selected friends, including senior officers plotting to kill Hitler — but he was taking as a given the defeat of the Nazis. More absurdly, he imagined that out of the misery of war — a time when “the young grew up in hells, in realms fit rather for the habitation of demons than of men” — something beautiful could come: Europe would be united, peaceful, prosperous and free.

“The desire for unity is older than the crown of Charlemagne, but it was never so burning, so urgent as in our time,” he wrote. There must be no vengeance, no clinging to ancient hatreds and bloody memories. “It is important both for the vanquished and the victors that solid and enduring agreements be reached, dictated by reason and not by passion. … Europe can become a fatherland, yet many homelands will remain within its territory,” Juenger wrote. “Within this framework, the nations large and small will flourish more strongly than before. … There cannot be too many colours on the palette.” Absurd. Impossible.

And yet, 63 years after the first draft of The Peace was written, the impossible is real from Portugal to Finland and Malta. From the Thousand Year Reich to today’s European Union. From Auschwitz to Maastricht, war to peace, slavery to freedom, starvation to plenty, nihilism to hope — in less than the three score and ten years the Bible allots to the life of a man. This is an immense human accomplishment. It is the wonder of our time.

If the European Union is not often recognized in such extravagant terms, that may be in part because history is an optical illusion. Looking backward, we see what happened and cannot help but feel it was somehow inevitable. Surely, we think, Europeans stood in the devastation of their cities and realized they had no choice. They had to see the continent’s ruin as proof of the folly of nationalism and militarism, and so it was inevitable they would respond by building a united, peaceful Europe. There was no other way.

All an illusion, as Ernst Juenger’s own life demonstrates. Juenger was born into a bourgeois German family in the halcyon days at the end of the 19th century and, like the rest of his generation, he was thrown into the infernos of the First World War. For four years, Juenger was a frontline lieutenant leading men in savage combat, earning decorations and suffering more than a dozen wounds. No human being has ever known war more intimately.

According to the dogmas of our day, that experience should have opened Juenger’s eyes to the tragedy of war and made a pacifist of him, as it did the British poets we revere. It did nothing of the kind. On the contrary, Juenger relished combat and saw in it a metaphysical awakening. In 1919, he published Storm of Steel, an autobiographical ode to war that became a massive best-seller.

It was Juenger, not the pacifist poets, who spoke for his time. All across Europe, veterans of the savage slaughter that had killed nine million people went home burning with tribal hatred and bloodlust. Whole nations rejected Europe’s humanist traditions in favour of ideologies promising utopia through destruction.

Juenger, the hero of Germany’s far right, was offered any prize or position when the Nazis took power in 1933, but there was too much of the humanist in him, too much of what was best in Europe. He spurned the Nazis and spent his time in what he called “internal emigration.” Shortly before the war, he wrote his masterpiece, On the Marble Cliffs, a dream-like allegory about power and tyranny. Then with the war, he penned The Peace.

Juenger understood that nothing was inevitable. “Two roads are opening up before the nations,” he wrote in The Peace. “One is the road of hate and retribution, and it is certain that on it, after a brief period of exhaustion, the struggle will flare anew and more fiercely than before, to end in universal destruction.” Juenger knew this road. He and Europe had set off on it in 1919. “The true road, on the contrary, leads to unity; the forces which consumed each other in deadly opposition must unite for the new shape of things, the new life. Here alone are the sources of true peace, of prosperity, security and strength.”

At the end of the Second World War, some urged the first road, but many other men and women of conscience and vision — including the American secretary of state George Marshall, French foreign minister Robert Schuman and German chancellor Konrad Adenauer — chose the second. The expansion of the European Union today, much of it taking in countries that wore Soviet chains a mere 15 years ago, is testament to their wisdom.

Among North American commentators, particularly conservatives, it has become fashionable to mock the failures of the EU or even to deride the whole project. It is undemocratic, they say. It doesn’t pull its weight on defence. It has failed to integrate newcomers. It is hyper-bureaucratic, micro-managing, sclerotic. There is some truth in all these complaints, though the grotesque language so often used by some conservatives more effectively exposes the arrogance of the critics than it does flaws in the EU.

But whatever the failures, it must never be forgotten that the EU has also brought prosperity to countries, such as Ireland, that have known little but poverty, and freedom to others, such as Spain, long beaten down by dictatorship. In less than one human lifetime, the European Union has resolved ancient animosities, brought tribes together, and abolished war across most of a continent that has been divided and torn since the fall of the Roman Empire. And it has accomplished this mighty work with nothing more than discussion, debate, negotiation and agreement.

“Europe must be created out of its separate members,” wrote Ernst Juenger in occupied Paris such a short time ago. “Then will come new life, freer breath, a more spacious era.” That era is now.