The European Union: A Worthy Nobel Peace Prize Laureate

Alfred Nobel
Alfred Nobel

The bestowal of the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize on the European Union caused considerable protests and ridicule, not least in Norway. However, in my opinion the Nobel committee’s interpretation of Alfred Nobel’s will was well-founded. «The United States of Europe» was a widely acclaimed long-term goal of the peace movement that inspired Alfred Nobel. For instance, the German peace activist Bertha von Suttner, who suggested the institution of the peace prize to Nobel and who was the first woman to win it (in 1905), supported European union (as appears here).

The Nobel committee writes in the announcement of its decision regarding the 2012 prize that «The [European] union and its forerunners have for over six decades contributed to the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe.» It argues that «The work of the EU represents «fraternity between nations», and amounts to a form of the «peace congresses» to which Alfred Nobel refers as criteria for the Peace Prize in his 1895 will.»

The American historian Sandi E. Cooper, author of a standard work on the European peace movement between 1815 and 1914,  would agree. The last sentence in her book is: «The legacy of nineteenth century pacifism is modern liberal internationalism, most recently adapted in the new European Community, with headquarters in Brussels and Strasbourg» (Cooper 1991, s. 212).

In this posting I survey the close historical interrelationship between plans for peace and schemes for European unity, with a particular emphasis on the arguments over Europe of the nineteenth century peace movement. The posting is a translated version of a comment I published in Norwegian just before the 10 December award ceremony in Oslo.

Peace as a European problem

Until the Russo-Japanese war of 1905, the question of international war and peace was primiarly a question of the relatons between European great powers. Europe dominated the world and thus decided whether there was peace or war. Until 1945 large-scale war mainly hit Europe. That partly explains why in Europe war became a public issue at a very early stage.

However, also Roman law and Christian ideology contributed. The Roman empire based its claim to supranational rule on the benefits of a Rome-enforced peace (pax romana). This notion transformed itself into the medieval idea of a supranational Christendom, with the holy Roman emperor as the secular head and the pope as the spiritual guide. One of their most important tasks was to prevent war among Christians.

Due to the advance of Islam in the southeast, culminating with the conquest of Constantinople in  1453, Islam’s parallel retreat in Spain, and the spread of Christianity in the north, completed by the conversion of Lithuania in 1386, Christendom came practically to equate geographic Europe. The incidence of war in Europe grew with the emergence of independent city states and territorial states. The supranational influence of the emperor decreased. The Church developed a theory of just war, but still claimed for the pope a right to condone wars and mediate between states in conflict.

Internal peace and a common front against Islam were the main concerns of the early advocates of Christian unity across the emerging states in Europe. The French publicist Pierre Dubois (?1250-?1312) is often seen as an early supporter of European union. Dubois argued that the pope should relinquish his worldly powers and the imperial dignity be transferred to the king of France. The king should then head a new crusade to the Holy Land. Also Dante Aligheri, pope Bonifatius VIII and Giles of Rome, publishing between 1280 and 1315, are sometimes considered early Europeanists. However, the discourse of all these writers was still fundamentally Christian. None of their plans used the words «Europe» or «European».

Maximilien de Béthune, greve av Sully

Further political and religious conflict contributed to intensified state-building and advanced a secular, Machiavellian concept of the state.  More people realised that a voluntary federation of sovereign states was necessary to obtain lasting peace. The first modern plan for European union was formulated by the prime minister of the French king Henry IV, the duke of Sully (Maximilien de Béthune, 1560-1641), towards the end of the last confessional conflict (the Thirty Years» War, 1618-1648). Sully’s Grand dessein was modern in the sense that it prescribed a political federation of sovereign and equal states to promote peace and joint prosperity, based on permanent borders, interstate negotiations, a balance of power, religious toleration and free trade.

Enlightenment projects for peace and unity

Increasingly frequent and bloody wars during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries motivated more projects similar to Sully’s. The most celebrated such plans from this Enlightenment period were published by William Penn in 1693, by John Bellers in 1710, and by the abbot of Saint-Pierre (Charles-Irénée Castel) in 1713-1717.

Penn took the (Dutch) United Provinces as his model, whereas Bellers looked to the Helvetic Confederation (Switzerland) and to his own United Kingdom (the English and Scottish crowns were joined in 1707). These democratically inclined thinkers planned a union of constitutionally ruled states. In his Essay Towards the Present and Future Peace of Europe (1693), Penn suggested a European parliament to resolve conflicts. The number of votes of the deputies should reflect the economic clout of the member states.

Penn wished to include the Russian and Ottoman empires in his European union. Sully had dismissed such a possibility, as did most later peace theorists. For them, the Russians and the Turks were aliens, representing «oriental despotism». In his Projet pour rendre la Paix perpetuelle en Europe Saint-Pierre thus invited only the princes of Christian Europe west of Russia to participate. Every member state should have one vote. Disputes should be resolved by an arbitration award to be decided by majority vote.

The polymath Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716) presented plans for European peace and unity too. The Lutheran Leibnitz advocated Christian unity and co-operated with Protestant and Catholic princes as well as the Habsburg-Roman emperor in Vienna. In 1677 og again in 1715 he published tracts advocating a Dantean European «empire» with the Holy Roman Empire as its core, ruled by a council or senate composed of representatives of the member states.

The word «Christendom» more or less disappeared from official discourse during the Enlightenment. It was replaced by «Europe», understood as a community of interest and identity, based on the balance of power, on progress through the free ciculation of goods, services, capital, labour, knowledge and ideas, and on reason.

Émeric Crucé (1590-1648) argued along these lines in his peace plan Le nouveau Cynée (1683), which among other things advocated common measurement standards and a common currency. A permanent inter-governmental assembly meeting in Venice in which even the Ottoman empire should take part, would arbitrate conflicts. Éméric de Vattel (1714-1767) described Europe as «a political system in which the nations […] are bound together by their relations and their various interests into a single body. It is [….] a sort of republic, whose members – each independent but all bound together by a common interest – united for the maintenance of order and the preservation of liberty».

Montesquieu (1689-1755) emphasised the pacifying effect of international trade. David Hume (1711-1776) argued that «nothing is more favourable to the rise of politeness and learning, than a number of neighbouring and independent states, connected together by commerce and policy”. Adam Smith (1723-1790) held that laissez-faire economic policies, free trade and non-intervention were the best means to promote peace and progress.  Especially after the French revolution (1789) liberals and radicals also came to link democracy with peace. William Godwin (1756-1836) thus argued that «democracies are inherently peaceful because the vast majority of common people will always strive to avoid war.»

The emergence of liberal internationalism

Jeremy Bentham
Jeremy Bentham

Notably Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) shaped the emergence of liberal internationalism ( and thus inspired later liberal international theory and neofunctiionalist integration theory). They thought that the propensity of states for war could be overcome by promoting common economic interests, law, communication and understanding among nations. Bentham called his scheme a Plan for Universal and Perpetual Peace (1843). He suggsted a «congress» of states, but ignored the need for supranational authority. Instead he counted on the «tribunal of public opinion» to institute sanctions against states that violated international law. Mill regarded trade as the best measure against war.

Another prominent nineteenth century spokesman of liberal internationalism was the radical free trader and anti-slavery activist Richard Cobden (1804-1865).  Cobden stressed the ability of modern communications to weave people into a web of prosperity and toleration. Cobden and Victor Hugo were among the most famous participants at the third international peace congress, in Paris in 1849, devoted to the creation of the United States of Europe (see below).

Immanuel Kant«s (1724-1804) essay Zum ewigen Frieden (Perpetual Peace, 1795) went further. Kant too believed trade helps advance peace. However, more than the British thinkers he emphasised the political preconditions to peace. According to Kant, perpetual peace presupposed a democratic constitution in every country, international law based on an association of free states, and a «cosmopolitan» or global law instituting «universal hospitality» (respect of the rights of all «reasonable» human beings  as citizens of the world). In international relations, Kant advocated a gradually expanding society of nations (civitas gentium).

Kant was strongly influenced by Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), who in his critque of Saint-Pierre argued that international peace cannot occur until human reason is transformed, educated, un-alienated by a good society and developed to its fullest potential. Rousseau thought that European unity, while desirable, required a revolution that could only be brought about through unacceptably violent means.

The United States of Europe as peace guarantor

Claude Henri de Saint-Simon
Claude Henri de Saint-Simon

The eccentric count of Saint-Simon (Claude Henri de Rouvroy, 1760-1825), an early socialist and trailblazer for sociology and positivism, was more radical. His De la réorganisation de la Societé Européenne, ou de la nécessité et de moyens de rassambler les peuples de l’Europe en un seul corps politique en conservant à chacun son independance nationale (1814) was probably the most ambitious proposal for a federal reorganization of Europe ever.

Saint-Simon’s plan came to influence most of the European peace projects of the next generation.  All of them advocated a federal government and argued that in the modern world war was a cruel waste of resources. But Saint-Simon and his successors insisted that the federation must be a parliamentary federation of democratic nations rather than a confederation of conservative governments such as the Concert of Europe. Now, after the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars, radicals saw internal justice and external peace as two sides of the same coin.

Auguste Comte (1798-1857) and Guiseppe Mazzini (1805-1872) were among those who developed Saint-Simon’s plan further. To Mazzini humanity was not a cosmopolitan world divided into immutable nation-states, but a whole, created by God, uniting peoples in the conscience of a common ancestry and a common future. In 1834, Mazzini founded Young Europe, an international association of progressive nationalists in defense of equality and fraternity among all nations. Its statutes defined a European federation as «a unity that will be free, spontaneous, such as would exist in a regular Federation in which all the peoples sit in complete equality […] each remaining master of its own interests, its local affairs, its special faculties».

Among other continental peace plans inspired by Saint-Simon may be mentioned Pierre Leroux’s Organon des vollkommenen Friedens (1837); Gustave d’Eichtal’s De l’Unité Européenne (1840); Victor Considérant’s De la Politique générale et du rôle de la France en Europe (1840) and Constantin Pecquereur’s De la Paix (1841). By now, the notion of «the United States of Europe» had become well-known.

The organised peace movement

After the Vienna peace settlement of 1815 a number of peace societies, leagues and associations emerged, engaging in a prolonged battle for peace in Europe. Their popularity varied over time. Most governments and newspapers ridiculed them as Utopian. Still, the movement grew, notably towards the end of the nineteenth century, mobilising millions of Europeans and Americans in campaigns against the arms race and nationalist rivalry in Europe. The peace movement paved the way for a many international institutions and organization that have survived to the present day, for instance The Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague and the The inter-parlamentary Union. As I mentioned, Sandi E. Cooper also regards the EU as part of its heritage.

At first the peace movement was dominated by unorthodox Christian pacifists from the United States and Britain, notably Quakers (like Penn). The first peace society was the New York Peace Society, founded in 1815 by the Quaker David L. Dodge. Quakers also founded the British Society for the Promotion of Permanent and Universal Peace in 1816. Gradually, however. liberals, radicals, democrats and also socialists and feminists joined. With members from the moderate right to the socialist left, from Christian fundamentalists to atheists, and from the Unied States to Russia, the movement was bound to be divided by disputes. However, over time there emerged considerable agreement regarding overarching goals, like (more) democracy, human rights, free trade and other free communications between nations, in addition to the extension of international law, compulsory arbitration in conflicts, the establishment of an international court of arbitration, and for the long term, a federation of democratic European states, The United States of Europe.

The early American and British societies made many attempts to mobilise Continental Europeans for their ideas. Especially the «learned blacksmith» Elihu Burritt agitated for a European «congress of nations» on the American federal model. A peace society was established in Geneva by count Jean-Jacques de Sellon  in 1830. But the Hugenot Sellon’s motivation was primarily religious and moral, not political. Most members belonged to the higher bourgeoisie, and tended, like Sellon, to be sceptical towards democracy.

International peace conferences

The European and American peace societies organised themselves locally, nationally and, eventually, at the international level. International congresses were held at uneven intervals from 1816 until the congress planned in Vienna in September 1914 had to be cancelled due to war. After the First World War congresses resumed and continued until the new war in 1939.

The first international peace conference was held by the British and American peace societies in London in 1843. In order to encourage the continental peace movement the next congresses were held in Brussels (1848), Paris (1849) and Frankfurt am Main (1850), when they returned to Britain (London 1851, Manchester 1852, Edinburgh 1853). Still, most delegates to all conferences between1843 and 1853 emanated from the U.S. and Great Britain.

Victor Hugo

The inaugural speech by the French author Victor Hugo at the peace congress of Paris in 1849 has become famous:

«we shall see those two immense communities, the United States of America and the United States of Europe, holding hands across the sea. […] A day will come when you, France – you, Russia – you, England – you, Germany – all of you, nations of the Continent, will, without losing your distinctive qualities and your glorious individuality, be blended into a superior unity and constitute a European fraternity […] by the universal suffrage of the nations, by the vener-able arbitration of a great sovereign senate, which will be to Europe what the Parliament is to England, what the Diet is to Germany, what the legislative As-sembly is to France.»

However, 1849 was the year of the counter-revolution, and few members of the radical peace movement on the Continent favoured a federation in which absolutist princes participated alongside more liberal governments. This was one of the reasons why American federalists like Burritt received little support. There was also scant sympathy for absolute pacifism on the Continent. Most continental peace activists accepted defensive war as well as armed resistance against authoritarian rule.

The Crimean war (1853-56), the American civil war (1861-65) and the Franco-Prussian war (1870) were great setbacks for the peace movement. After 1853, no universal peace congress took place until 1889. The peace activists were surprised that public opinion actually rallied behind their governments» war policies. It seemed like democracy – at any rate the extension of the suffrage – and nationalism encouraged war rather than peace. Many peace activists lost faith in popular opinion and instead stepped up their efforts at influencing governments directly.

The American peace society, regarding slavery as a greater evil than war, supported the northern states in the civil war. By contrast, the British peace society continued to abhor all violence and in 1864 criticised nationalism as a «poor, low, selfish, un-Christian idea [….], fatal not only to peace but to all progress in liberty and good government.»

Frederic Passy


In 1867 two competing centres emerged in the European peace movement, one based in Paris and leaning towards the right and the other in Geneva, leaning to the left.  In Paris the French economist and politician Frédéric Passy (1822-1912) established the Ligue internationale et permanente de la paix. In 1901, Passy shared the first Nobel peace prize with the founder of the International Red Cross, Henry Dunant. Passy’s peace movement was dominated by moralist, religious and anti-military attitudes.

In the same year  in Geneva, Charles Lemonnier founded the Ligue internationale de la paix et de la liberté, inspired by Kant, Saint-Simon and the American Federalist Fathers. Among the reportedly six thousand participants at the founding congress were Victor Hugo, John Stuart Mill and Guiseppe Garibaldi.  The anarchist Mikhail Bakunin argued that «there is only one way freedom, justice and peace may prevail in European international relations and banish civil war from the European family: by establishing the United States of Europe!»  The Geneva congress adopted as its primary goal to campaign for European federation, and the league started publishing a periodical named Les États Unis de L’Europe.

While Passy’s Ligue was politically and confessionally neutral, Lemonnier and his supporters were radical and secular. They saw themselves as progeny of the French Revolution and advocated the replacement of the monarchy by a republic, opposed the influence of the church and favoured democracy and human rights (eventually women’s liberation and gender equality too). At the founding congress Garibaldi called for revolution and French socialists denounced capitalist oppression. Lemonnier’s league was not pacifist on principle.

Christian Lous Lange

The moderate line of Passy made most headway. His main objectives were international disarmament and compulsory arbitration. The Universal Parliamentary Peace Union, established in 1876 with parliamentarians from many European countries as members, rallied behind these demands. Arbitration and peace societies multiplied, emerging in Denmark, Sweden and Norway 1882-3. In 1889 The Interparlamentary Conference for international arbitration was founded, followed by the The Inter-Parlamentary Union and The Inter-Parliamentary Bureau in 1892. The energetic Norwegian Christian Lange (father of the later foreign minister Halvard Lange) worked as secretary general for The Inter-Parliamentary Union in Brussels from 1909 to 1933 (except during the war years, when he was in Norway). Lange received the Nobel peace prize together with the Swedish Social Democrat Hjalmar Branting in 1921.

Growing nationalism, imperialism and armament in the 1880s and 1890s led to a resumption of the international peace congresses.  The first such congress since 1853 took place in 1889. The Universal Peace Congress of Rome in 1891 invited the European peace societies to make the United States of Europe its main goal. The congress of 1892 called for European federation along the lines advocated by Lemonnier. It established a permanent secretariat, the International Peace Bureau, which still exists.

Four different types of peace societies were represented at the congress of 1892: Anglo-American religious pacifists, secular pacifists, societies modelled on Lemonnier’s federalist Geneva league, and og societies supporting the extension of international law and arbitration, notably the International Arbitration and Peace Associaton of Great Britain and Ireland, founded by Hodgson Pratt in 1880. Many women had by now become involved.

Institutionalising peace 

The establishment of an international court of voluntary arbitration was the main result of the inter-governmental first and second peace conferences in The Hague  in 1899 og 1907 respectively. Disappointed, some peace activists revived radical plans for a federal Europe. Now British liberals took the lead. Sir Max Waechter (1837-1924), a businessman and art collector born in Stettin, Germany (today Poland), embraced the idea of a United States of Europe in 1909 and founded a European Unity League in 1913 (receiving the support of Bertha von Suttner, among others). Declaring its agreement, the British peace society advocated a full merger of national sovereignty. The British Quakers had called for the United States of Europe already in 1910, the British National Peace League doing the same the next year.

But at the same time as parts of British public opinion turned more favourable to European union, continental Europeiske radicals turned against. The issue was whether tsarist Russia ought to join. Democrats and radicals outside of Germany objected.

Towards the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 there was a rapprochement between the liberal, middle class peace movement and the socialist workers» movement. The Second International considered imperialism and militarism and expression of capitalist competition and warned that if employers provoked a war, the working class would refuse to fight. Jean Jaurès defined the proletariat as «the masses of men who collectively love peace and hate war.» The Basel conference of the Second International in 1912 called the proletariat «the herald of world peace» and declared «war on war». Continental Catholic socialists and anarchists, inspired by French intellectuals such as Charles Fourier, Philippe Buchez and Joseph Proudhon, agitated for a decentralised, federal Europe. However, the Second International broke down in 1914 due to its failure to remained united in the face of war. Most of its member parties, like many peace activists, rallied around the national colours of their respective governments.

The war at first led to renewed agitation from the peace movement for a federal Europe. The calls redoubled after the war, when Penn’s essay and excerpts from Saint-Pierre and Rousseau were republished in London. However, the ardour soon cooled, and the peace movement came to support an inter-governmental league rather than a European federation. By January 1917, most European governments too had agreed to the suggestion by U.S. president Woodrow Wilson to create a League of Nations.

The old headquarters of the League of Nations in Geneva, now used by the United Nations

The League of Nations was established in Geneva in 1919 and was the first permanent inter-governmental organisation. The League achieved successes as well as fiascos, but failed in its ultimate objective, to prevent another world war. In 1946 it was replaced by the United Nations, which has become a truly universal organisation. In Europe, the European Union is a regional, more ambitious successor to the League of Nations. As the Nobel comittee argues, it has helped prevent war on the Continent for over sixty years. Just as the nineteenth century peace movement and earlier peace planners imagined.


Cooper, Sandi E. (1991), Patriotic Pacifism. Waging War on War in Europe, 1815-1914. (New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Hay, D. (1957), Europe. The Emergence of an Idea (Edinburgh.  Edinburg University Press).

Heater, D. (1992), The Idea of European Unity (Leicester: Leicester University Press).

Hinsley, Francis H. (1963), Power and the Pursuit of Peace.  Theory and Practice in the History of Relations Between States (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Knutsen, T.L. (1997), A History of International Relations Theory, 2nd edn. (Manchester: Manchester University Press).

Nedrebø, Tore (2010), Past and Present Sources of European Union. A Comparative, Historical-Institutionalist Analysis (doctoral dissertation, University of Bergen).

Pagden, A. (ed.) (2002), The Idea of Europe: From Antiquity to the European Union (Washington: Woodrow Wilson Center Press).

Rougemont, D. de (1966), The Idea of Europe (New York: Macmillan).

Wilson K. and Dussen, J.v.d. (eds.) (1995) The History of the Idea of Europe (London: Routledge).

Surveys of international peace confresses in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: og

The euro crisis: What is really at stake?

Everybody understands that the euro crisis is about much more than the survival of the euro. But I am doubtful about how many understand what German chancellor Angela Merkel meant when she said that the issue is «the future of Europe».

If the euro breaks down, the European Union would lose much of its momentum. Collapse would be the biggest setback ever, and it would take years to recover. A smaller and more integrated euro core and a looser periphery could theoretically be better than the current arrangement. But that is a risky, second best solution. The collateral damage would be great, not least on the world economy. A collapse would most likely bolster the nationalist forces that are waxing in Europe now. It would be a serious setback for democratic, supranational integration, perhaps the most important political idea today.

At the same time a unique historical opportunity to use the crisis to relaunch Europe/the EU on a more dyamic path by strengthening its supranational elements would be lost. Europe as a whole has great potential if acting together (confer e.g. that athletes from the EU won more medals at the London Olympics, and European scientists far more Nobel prizes, than the U.S., China and Russia put together), but risks falling further behind if not. Even member states with strong economies, like Germany, would profit greatly from a «good» crisis.

If handled well, the crisis could spur reform and restructuring and thus the leveraging of Europe’s joint resources to become both more globally competitive and more socially just. The German/Nordic (Protestant) model should serve as inspiration. Jobs would be created, social and political polarisation prevented and Europe be revived.

More generally, successful crisis management could demonstrate the positive-sum rewards of supranational integration. It could also highlight the continued relevance of Europe’s unique heritage of compassionate rationalism, pointing out a sustainable middle way between American libertarianism and Chinese authoritarianism. Europe would have a future, and not just a past.

Productivity and the sociology of religion

Max Weber, a founder of sociology and author of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Photo from Wikipedia
Religious variation may be an important root cause of the euro crisis and indeed of global inequality too.

I have earlier argued that religion, or rather religious culture, has been a major determinant of north-south differences in Europeans» attitudes to European integration. But these days a far hotter issue is the north-south split in Europe over economic policy, spending, debt and the euro. Why is the northern part of the European Union, notably Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, Finland and Denmark, faring so much better than the south, notably Greece, Italy, Spain and Portugal? Why such differences between northern creditor countries and southern debtor ones?

Recently, I stumbled across some interesting sociological pointers (inspired by Max Weber) to this puzzle in an article by Lawrence E. Harrison, director of the Cultural Change Institute at the Fletcher School at Tufts University in Boston. The article is called «Do some religions do better than others?» and it appears in an anthology edited by Peter Berger and Gordon Redding, The Hidden Form of Capital. Spiritual Influences in Societal Progress, Anthem Press, London and New York, 2011. Indeed, Harrison provides important clues to understanding the problem of developmental differences and inequality at the global level.

Harrison has examined the performance of 117 countries, each with a million or more people of whom a majority identify with one of six religions: Buddhism, Catholicism, Eastern Orthodox Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Protestantism, as well as one secular code, Confucianism. He also included one country that is predominantly Jewish, Israel.  Lawrence did this by calculating the 117 countries» score on ten indices: The UN’s Human Development Index; UN data on literacy, UN data on female literacy; UN fertility data; Freedom House’s Annual Survey of Freedom in the World; the chronology of democratic evolution; World Bank per capita income data; WB income distribution data; World Values Survey data on trust; and finally Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index.

While stressing a number of caveats, Harrison draws nine broad conclusions from the data (as summarized by the editors in the book’s introduction):

  1. Protestantism has been far more conducive to modernization than Catholicism, above all in the Western Hemisphere;
  2. The Nordic Countries are the champions of progress.
  3. Confucianism (a surrogate for Chinese culture, which includes several other currents including Taoism and ancestor worship) has been far more conducive to modernization than Islam, Buddhism or Hinduism.
  4. The most advanced Orthodox country, Greece, was the poorest of the European Union members prior to the 2004 accession. There are some parallels between the Orthodox Christian and Catholic countries. But there are also some apparent residues in Orthodox countries from the Communist experience.
  5. Islam has fallen far behind the Western religions and Confucianism in virtually all respects. There are some significant differences between Arab and non-Arab countries.
  6. Hindu India’s democratic institutions have held up well, and it has experienced rapid economic growth during the past two decades. But it has been very slow to educate its people, particularly its women, and it does poorly in the Corruption Perceptions Index.
  7. It is difficult to generalize about Buddhism, but the data suggest that it is not a powerful force for modernization.
  8. Traditional African religions are an obstacle to progress.
  9. Close parallels among the values propagated by Protestantism, Judaism, and Confucianism suggest the existence of a universal culture of progress. All three promote the values of control of destiny, achievement, education, diligence/work ethic, merit, saving, and social responsibility, albeit in different degrees. And those values tend to persist even in the face of secularization, as the Nordic countries demonstrate.

Instead of «spiritual capital», Harrison prefers the expression «cultural capital». He concludes that «by focusing on the values, beliefs, and attitudes widely shared in a society, [the notion of] «cultural capital» can illuminate both the sources of human and social capital and, most importantly, the avenues that offer the possibility of progressive cultural change».

The Forty Days of Musa Dagh

I recently read the great novel Forty days of Musa Dagh by Franz Werfel. It contains the dramatic story of the five thousand Armenians living in the north-eastern corner of the Mediterranean who in 1915 fled up the mountain Musa Dagh («Moses» rock») to avoid deportation and probable death at the hands of the Ottoman authorities. The Sublime Porte (government) in Istanbul was then proceeding with what has later been called the Armenian genocide. Recognition of what happened as a genocide remains politically controversial in many countries today. So is the academic discussion over the Ottoman Empire’s treatment of the Armenians. 
The map shows the ethnic composition of the Ottoman Empire about 1911. As can be seen, most Armenians lived in the east. Musa Dagh is located on the northern side of the bay that the eastern tip of Cyprus points towards.

(This is an English rendering of an earlier post published in Norwegian.)

The story

The «forty days» of Musa Dagh is the time it took from the seven Armenian villages fled their homes until those who survived were saved. The central figure in the novel is the aristocratic academic Gabriel Bagradian. In early 1915, after many years in Paris, he returns to the family estate at the foot of Musa Dagh together with his son Stephan and his French wife, Juliette. Bagradian understands that the Ottoman government is planning new massacres of Armenians (massacres also took place in 1895-96, 1908, 1909 and 1912) and persuades the seven villages closest to his estate to flee. Thanks to his leadership and experience as an officer in the Ottoman army, the Musa Dagh Armenians manage to withstand three Turkish attacks.

The attackers sustain heavy losses, but eventually mobilise machine guns, mountain artillery and troops to the extent that the Armenians are clearly doomed. They are also starved after all supplies have been exhausted and the Turish soldiers have made away with their cattle. But at the last minute a French naval cruiser emerges on the horizon. After a few warning shots, the Turks withdraw from the attack. The approximately four thousand survivors are taken aboard the cruiser and three other French and British ships. They are then brought to safety in Port Said in Egypt.


The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, which first came out in German in 1933, is based on a true story. Gabriel Bagradian’s real name was Moses Derkalousdian. In real life it took 53 days before the rescue came, but the Jewish-Austrian Franz Werfel changed that in order to recall the biblical Moses» forty days on the mountain and the forty days of deluge. Werfel’s description of the five thousand’s destiny and the Armenian genocide proved to be a prophetic warning of the Jewish Holocaust during the Second World War.

But even if Werfel clearly sympathises with the Musa Dagh refugees, the novel is not a completely one-sided story. There are many psychological, political and religious nuances. The refined intellectual Gabriel Bagradian is torn between his twin identity as a European and an Armenian. He shows himself to be a man of action by taking command of his countrymen against an outside threat, but succeeds militarily because of his European rationality and planning ability (in addition to his experience from the Balkan war in 1912).

His ambiguous identity also influences his increasing alienation from his socialite, impractical French wife and ditto infatuation with the young Armenian girl Iskuhi. All three have their lives destroyed by the forty dramatic days on Musa Dagh, despite the eventual rescue. Bagradian’s son Stephan has by then succumbed. We understand that his French upbringing had made it impossible for him to survive the brutal stresses of Asian «barbarism.» In the end, Gabriel realizes he has lost everything and decides not to be rescued.

So it is finally Europe (in the shape of French and British warships) that saves the seven Armenian villages of Musa Dagh, in what was perhaps the first humanitarian intervention in world history. The story also features a representative of European «civil society», the Protestant pastor, Orientalists and humanist Johannes Lepsius (a historical figure), who appears to be the only European who really cares about the Armenians» fate. His attempt to convince the German Foreign Ministry to take action founders on great power politics, but Lepsius manages to collect large sums of funds for the Armenians. He is also rejected by the Sublime Porte, but gets help from a group of Islamic traditionalists. They condemn the regime’s Young Turkish nationalism in favour of the idea of ​​a supranational Islamic umma in which Christians and Jews can practice their religion as long as they pay taxes and otherwise adapt, just as they had in the old Ottoman Empire.

Aftermath and interpretations

Turkish authorities have stubbornly refused to accept that there was  an Armenian «genocide» in 1915-1916. Several times, they prevented Hollywood from making a movie about Werfel’s book, which had become an international bestseller.

The American historian Donald Quataert argues that only Armenians in eastern Anatolia were displaced. Armenians living in the Balkans or in western Anatolia were not. The reason may have been that the Sublime Porte thought Armenians sympathized with Russia, which crossed the border into eastern Anatolia in 1914.

Quataert also refers to numerous government documents ordering local authorities to take good care of the displaced Armenians during their eastward march. Yet he admits that Ottoman officers, troops and officials murdered a great number of Armenian civilians, including women, children and elderly people.  Approximately 600,000 individuals perished in this way, according to Quataert.

Quataert therefore rejects Turkish nationalism as the reason for the massacres. Nor does he believe that nationalism caused the Ottoman Empire’s demise in 1922. The vast majority of citizens, Armenians, Bulgarians, Serbs, Arabs, Kurds, Turks, etc. as well as both Christians and Muslims, would in his opinion have preferred the old multi-national and multi-religious empire to survive.

According to Quataert, nationalist movements were mobilised by a small number of people who sought political and economic advantages they could not achieve in the setting of the traditional Ottoman Empire. Crucially, they gained support from the western powers. France and Great Britain indeed eventually took control of large, formerly Ottoman areas, especially in the Middle East. If this is right, it gives a slightly different perspective on Europe’s role during the Ottoman end game than the one Franz Werfel provides.

Quatert appears to be an impartial and respected historian. In 2006, he resigned as chairman of the American Institute of Turkish Studies after the Turkish ambassador had threatened to stop financial support because Quataert had called for continued study of the Armenian «genocide».

The revisionist Israeli historian Efraim Karsh however deplores the «politically correct» notion that every problem in the Middle East is the fault of the Western powers. He claims that the Sublime Porte’s decrees to take good care of the Armenians during the 1915-16 deportations were window-dressing. According to Karsh, many Armenians in the Balkans (Thrace) and Western Anatolia, including Istanbul, were also displaced and killed. All those who held public office or worked for the government also lost their positions. Karsh cites estimates of up to 950,000 fatalities.

Karsh moreover argues that the Ottoman government itself was responsible for the dissolution of the empire in 1922. Despite insistent requests for neutrality from the entente powers Britain, France and Russia, the Sublime Porte decided to enter the First World War on the German side. According to Karsh, the driving force was a Turkish nationalist-Islamist dream of a revitalized empire. Therefore, the British army crushed the Ottoman Empire and a new state system appeared in the Middle East.

Franz Werfel: Forty days of Musa Dagh. Norwegian edition, 1965
Donald Quataert: The Ottoman Empire, 1700-1922. Cambridge University Press, 2000.
Efraim Karsh: Islamic Imperialism, A History. Yale University Press, 2006.


Whence Europe? Past and Present Sources of European Union

I have now updated my 2010 doctoral thesis in comparative politics at the University of Bergen and optimized it for publication as an e-book: Whence Europe: Past and Present Sources of European Unification.

My research question was why continental and southern Europe historically has been more favourable to European integration than the north. At the outset, I argue that this is an important problem for two reasons. First, because the fact that there are more and less Europeanist member states has been and remains the most basic political constraint on European integration. Second, because exploration of the problem may add substantially to our theoretical understanding of European unification and its historical interplay with nationalism and the nation-state.

European polity-building

Inspired by the Norwegian comparativist Stein Rokkan, I interpret European integration as a case of polity-building comparable to other instances of state- and nation-building in history. Thus I assume that integration is a fundamentally political process with power, or more precisely sovereignty, as its core issue, and that the regionally differentiated pattern of attitudes to European union reflect territorially distinct, historically evolved ideas of sovereignty. I differentiate between what I call the locus and scope of sovereignty. The ‘locus’ dimension concerns opinions about where sovereignty rightly belongs, most basically whether it descends from on high or ascends from below. The ‘scope’ dimension expresses opinions on whether the community over which sovereignty is exercised should be universal (potentially the whole world) or particular (divided into separate sovereign communities).

This dichotomisation yields a two-by-two table defining four basic polity-ideas – normative ideas about a legitimate political order – that structures the study’s comparative-historical analysis: universalist-descending (whose historical expression has been empire); particularist-descending (kingdom); particularist-ascending (nation-state); and universalist-ascending (supranational/cosmopolitan union/federation).

The clash of paradigms

I argue that each polity-idea is associated with a particular discourse, ideology or paradigm. Furthermore, I contend that the main cleavage in the post-1945 European debate has been between what I call the national-liberal and the Christian-democratic paradigms of integration. The former is basically particularist and intergovernmentalist and based in northern, Lutheran or Anglican Europe. The second is inspired by Christian universalism and Stoic cosmopolitanism, favours a federal or unitary Europe, and has its mainstay in continental and southern, Catholic and Calvinist Europe.

On this basis, and in order to identify theoretically possible sources of Europeanist attitudes, in Part 2 I examine existing integration and international relations theory as well as general political science theory. This discussion concludes with a working hypothesis based on Rokkan’s notion of the European ‘city-belt.’ Could, as Rokkan himself explicitly suggested, the city-belt, stretching roughly from Central Italy to the North Sea and representing the historical core territory of the Catholic church and the Holy Roman Empire, be the home base or ‘primary territory’ of a European ‘nation’?

The historical strength of universalism

While conceding that his perspective is indeed valuable and relevant, my historical discussion in Part 3 criticises Rokkan’s notion of the city-belt for national-liberal reductionism (see also my separate discussion of this here). The Rokkanian thesis neglects the ancient and medieval tradition for unity and universalism espoused by the Roman Church and the Holy Roman/Habsburg Empire and underrates the continued influence of these institutional agencies even after the 1648 Peace of Westphalia. Moreover, the thesis is too structuralist, implying that the European Union emerged more or less by default. Like intergovernmentalist and neofunctionalist integration theory, Rokkan underestimates the role of ideologically aware, but also reasoning human agency. Hence I argue that Rome, represented by the Roman Church as well as by successive Roman empires, is a more important territorial and historical source of Europeanism than city-studded Central Europe.

The rise of nationalist discourse

Part 3 further discusses how the ascendancy of particularist, or nationalist, discourse resulted from the fragmentation of unitary medieval Christendom into a modern Europe dominated by autonomous states. State-builders propagated the notion of territorial sovereignty, which eventually turned into the hegemonial particularist-ascending idea of national sovereignty. Here France and the Protestant states of north-western Europe were the pioneers, their kings’ control of national churches being an important factor. Anglican and Lutheran Protestantism was particularly conducive to particularism, which notably in the German context turned exclusivist and eventually racist.

The particularist paradigm survived two World Wars in its more benign, North Atlantic form. I submit that this is an important factor accounting for the natural inclination of national-liberal, Protestant Britain and Scandinavia to advocate retention of as much national sovereignty as possible in the nation-state.

Catholic Europeanism

But on the Continent the Papacy as well as the Holy Roman/Habsburg empire continued to represent a strong counterweight to particularist discourse even after the Reformation and the ensuing religious wars. The Papacy came to terms with the modern, secular nation-state and national mass politics only with difficulty, criticising nationalism as a political religion. However, in the late nineteenth century Catholic parties emerged that enabled Catholics to participate in secular, national politics. But they continued to look beyond the nation-state.

The final Part 4 of the study narrates how transnationally networked, Christian democratic parties of Western Continental Europe jointly formulated a Europeanist-ascending programme for European union after World War II. The European Union was launched on its supranationalist path when these parties, led mainly by statesmen from Carolingian-Lotharingian Europe, dominated the governments of the six founding states from about 1945 to 1965. Their discourse was dominated by ideas and ideology rooted in the universalist European legacy, whose mainstay remained Catholic, continental and southern Europe.

Whither Europe?

In conclusion, I raise the question whether the traditional pattern of support and opposition to European union is fundamentally changing as a result of the fall of communism and subsequent enlargement towards the east. The rejection of the European Constitutional Treaty in the 2005 referenda in France and the Netherlands certainly suggests so. Moreover, new member states in Central and Eastern Europe do not have the same historical stake in union as the founding members. These and other developments may seem to strengthen nationalist discourse.

On the other hand, the possibility of Turkish membership and the growing presence of Islam in Europe could conceivably be reawakening an old sense of European identity that could boost ideological Europeanism. However, also these factors now seem rather to feed old-fashioned nationalism.

For historical reasons, the European Union remains fundamentally a modernist (liberal and secular) project, and is increasingly post-modernist (infused with multiculturalist and multireligious ideology) too. Its legitimacy has become gradually less dependent on ideologically, historically and culturally determined commitment to Europe per se and rests increasingly on its ability to deliver tangible benefits to citizens through rationalist, positive-sum co-operation.

For several years now the European project has been in crisis, arguably because of a showdown between Europeanist idealism (represented by the euro) and nationalist realism (the persistence of the national right to veto treaty changes that may give the common currency an adequate political backbone). But also nationalist or national-liberal «realism» is highly ideologically charged.

I think that to the extent that the European project survives, it will be more for negative than for positive reasons; more due to the costs of backtracking than to ideological Europeanism. Real progress would require a political leap that would significantly strengthen the universalist-ascending paradigm in Europe, but on a more rationalist footing than before. Still I doubt whether European (or any other) polity-building can succeed in the long term on the basis of just grudging rationalism.

City-belt Europe or Imperial Europe? Stein Rokkan and European History

Stein Rokkan
Stein Rokkan’s idea of «City-belt Europe» has influenced many political scientists’ and sociologists’ sense of European history. However, Rokkan exaggerated the significance of the cities and underestimated the role of the Holy Roman Empire and of European great power politics in his analysis of the emergence of modern Europe.  

(For a Norwegian version of this article, please see here.)

The Norwegian professor of sociology Stein Rokkan (1921-1979) is internationally recognized as a pioneer of the discipline of comparative politics. Rokkan analyzed the interplay of politics, economy, culture, and territory in the emergence of modern Europe. His original interest in the development of political participation expanded to encompass the evolution of Western European party systems and nation-states in general.

Rokkan’s «great paradox»

Rokkan found a “great paradox” in the history of European nation-building. He was puzzled that the modern nation-state did not emerge in the middle of Europe, where it could have followed in the footpath of the ancient Roman Empire, as it were, but rather in its immediate periphery. According to Rokkan, the Italian and German territories in the centre remained fragmented and dispersed until the nineteenth century, whereas the modern, centralized state was forged centuries earlier in France, England and Scandinavia (Rokkan 1999: 128, 145, 159).

The explanation, Rokkan argued, was the existence of a large number of strong and autonomous cities in the middle area stretching from central Italy to the North and Baltic Seas. He called this territory the “city-belt” (or sometimes “trade belt”, “middle belt”, “city-studded centre”, “city-state Europe”, “heartland” or “dorsal spine”). Rokkan thought there were simply too many and too strong cities in the middle of Europe for any centralizing prince to succeed in establishing a territorial state there.

According to Rokkan, the main source of the city-belt’s strength and autonomy was the increase in trade between northern and southern Europe in the High Middle Ages. Trade and communications within the city-belt was facilitated by roads built by the ancient Romans, by Roman law, by the network of the supranational Roman Church, and by the common script of Latin. Later the city-belt deteriorated as a result of the growth of regional Northern European and Atlantic trade.

The situation in the “periphery” (the areas north and west of the city-belt) was different. Here the territory was less urbanized, the economy more agricultural and the church and script more national, especially after the Reformation. This eased the kings’ promotion of one predominant city, the future capital, from which they could conquer the countryside and establish a centralized, territorial state, the future nation-state. The notion of the city-belt is central to Rokkan’s thinking about European state- and nation-building, and is probably also the single idea with which his name is most often associated.

There is less awareness that Rokkan also argued that the city-belt was the nucleus of what is today the European Union:

It is no accident of history that the Roman Law countries were the ones to take the lead [….] in the struggle for a supranational Europe. The conflict over extension of the Common Market is very much a conflict between the economically cross-cut city-belt at the centre and the culturally distinctive territorial systems in the peripheries of this Roman Europe (Rokkan 1999: 167-168).

However, it seems that Rokkan’s idea of the city-belt has not yet been thoroughly scrutinized (see note 2 below). In this article I will first evaluate Rokkan’s notion of the city-belt against historians» views of medieval European cities. Concluding that its empirical basis is weak, I propose an alternative explanation of “the great paradox” and thus also of the historical roots of the European Union. Here I emphasize the intertwined development of European international relations and of the Holy Roman Empire. A federal empire sustained by the European balance of power in my opinion accounts for the late emergence of the nation-state – and early emergence of the European Union – in what should be called “Imperial Europe” rather than “City-Belt Europe”. Not by coincidence was the EU founded mainly by Catholic politicians from the regions of the old Empire.

City-belt Europe reconsidered

As the Norwegian historian Jens Arup Seip pointed out in 1975, Rokkan operates at a high level of generalization and with considerable conceptual fluidity (Seip 1975). Also he was constantly revising his theories. This inevitably raises questions about historical accuracy as well as theoretical consistency. Rokkan’s notion of the city-belt, so central to his whole theoretical edifice, is particularly vulnerable to such questioning.

Rokkan was not too specific about either the timing or the territory of the city-belt. He does not define it exactly, only describes it variously as “city-state Europe”, “a closely knit string of cities, first within the Roman, later within the German-Roman Empire [along] the decisive trade routes northwards, from Italy across the Alps to the North Sea and the Baltic” (Rokkan 1999: 156), “cities of the trade route belt from the Mediterranean to the North Sea and the Baltic”, a “south-north […] city-studded centre”, “a network of strong and independent cities” (Rokkan 1999:159).

It is unclear what Rokkan meant by “city” in this context. What should be the size of an urban concentration in order to qualify as a city? How autonomous did the cities have to be to qualify for the role he assigns to them? When and to what extent was trade between cities, and notably long-distance trade between Italy and the North Sea and Baltic cities, extensive enough to ensure the autonomy of the city-belt? If we explore these questions, it emerges that there were several south-north trade routes in Europe, but they can hardly be said to have sustained a “belt” pattern of trading cities along their different paths (Kinder og Hilgemann, 1977; McEvedy, 1992: 103; Mackay og Ditchburn, 1997: 130, 133; Bagge, 2004: 230).

The larger towns of Europe 1100-1300. Source: Mackay and Ditchburn, eds., Atlas of Medieval Europe, London 1997, p. 133.

Moreover, overland trade between north and south was probably significantly smaller than Rokkan seems to have thought, and the extent of maritime trade proportionally greater. From the end of the twelfth century an increasingly lively trade in textiles, skins, furs and spices gradually emerged between Northern Italy, Spain, Sicily and North Africa in the south and The Low Countries in the north. Goods were shipped partly along rivers and partly carried by mules across the Alps. At first, exchanges took place mainly at six annual fairs in the autonomous county of Champagne (Mackay og Ditchburn, 1997: 129–131; Le Goff, 2005: 113–114).

For various reasons the Champagne fairs declined at the end of the thirteenth century. A growing share of commodities was then transferred to ocean-going ships that were able to round the Iberian Peninsula. This led to the golden age of Bruges. The river cities of Cologne, Frankfurt, Geneva and to some extent Lyons turned into new centers of overland trade between south and north. Still, the main reason for the growth of cities in the north was regional economic and political development, in addition to overseas trade in and around the North and Baltic Seas. The size and characteristics of urban centers along the north-south axis varied considerably.

Towards the end of the thirteenth century most major cities had between 10 000 and 20 000 inhabitants. Northern Italy had the greatest number of cities, but urbanization was well advanced also in Flanders and Sicily. Estimates are uncertain and variable, but the greatest cities in Europe, with populations between 50 000 and 100 0000, were probably Palermo, Florence, Venice, Genoa, Bologna, Milan, Barcelona, Cordoba, Ghent, Bruges, Cologne and London. Paris was in a class of its own, with up to 200 000 inhabitants (Mackay og Ditchburn, 1997: 132; Bagge, 2004: 229; Le Goff, 2005: 102). Except for Cologne, the German inland cities had fewer than 10 000 inhabitants by 1300. Most of them were not primarily hubs of long-distance trade, but for ecclesiastical or secular administration and local trade. It is difficult to see any “belt” pattern of cities or trade in this picture.

Rokkan saw Roman law as an important precondition for the «city-belt» because it facilitated the trade that was so important for its existence (Rokkan 1999: 129, 167-168). However, in reality Roman law seems to have played a minor role as a basis for mercantile law. Mercantile law was rather based on commercial custom. According to the legal historian Peter Stein (1999), merchants preferred to have their disputes settled not by local courts but by informal panels of their fellow merchants, which were set up at the periodical fairs held in various towns, including seaport towns where merchants congregated. Thus the mercantile community developed a body of commercial custom that transcended national frontiers. These customs were codified in two French commercial ordinances, one for land trade and one for maritime trade, at the end of the seventeenth century. These codes came to be accepted as an authoritative statement of commercial practice not only in France but also elsewhere in Europe, including England (Stein 1999: 106).

The Empire strikes back

If the empirical basis for Rokkan’s notion of the city-belt is weak, what can explain his “great paradox”? Why did the nation-state emerge comparatively late in Germany and Italy? This is when we should examine the interrelationship of European international relations and the Holy Roman Empire. Rokkan paid little attention to either. True, he does refer to the “geopolitical structure of Europe”, but only to highlight the strength or weakness of the cities in various parts. There is mention of “international system”, but only in passing, without any substantial discussion. Rokkan never uses concepts like international relations, great powers, the European states system, the balance of power, or other terminology related to the study of international relations.

Rokkan’s comparative, sociological approach probably accounts for his neglect of international political dynamics. He emphasized economic, religious and domestic political structures, not international relations. As far as agency is concerned, Rokkan focused on classes, cities, churches and kings. Apparently, he hardly considered the Holy Roman Empire an agency at all. His most explicit discussion of the Empire is the following sweeping statement:

The resurrection of the Holy Roman Empire under the leadership of the four German tribes did not help to unify the territory; the Emperors were prey to shifting alliances; many of them were mere figureheads, and the best and the strongest of them expended their energies in quarrels with the pope and with the Italian cities. […] The fragmented middle belt of cities and petty states was the scene of endless onslaughts, counter-moves, and efforts of reorganization during the long centuries from Charlemagne to Bismarck. (Rokkan 1999: 146)

Thus to Rokkan, the defining feature of the Empire was fragmentation and absence of central political authority. He saw cities, but nothing like a state. For good measure, when Rokkan does make a point of the significance of the “imperial heritage” (Roman, Carolingian, or Habsburg) for late modern Europe, it is presented negatively. He interprets the legacy of the Empire as a “crucial” cause of the breakdown of democratization and growth of fascism in Germany, Italy, Austria, Spain, and Portugal in the twentieth century (Rokkan 1999: 237-242).

In Rokkan’s mind, “empire” seems to have been the equivalent of reactionary repression of small nations; indeed the anti-thesis of the democratic, liberal nation-state as it emerged in France, England, and Scandinavia. This image of empire reflects the influence of what may be called national-liberal thinking (Bakka 1998; Nedrebø 2010). This is the tendency to assume that the nation-state is the natural end-point of history; to suppose that democracy can only be legitimate and workable within the sovereign nation-state; indeed to identify the nation-state with the progress of modern (Western) egalitarian civilization in general.

The national-liberal paradigm can be traced back to what some historians call the “Borussian” interpretation of history (Wilson 1999: 4). Borussian historiography was established by mid-nineteenth century Prussian historians with a nationalist agenda. They regretted that Germany had been unable to establish a nation-state in the early modern period, when the great rivals France and England first did so. Lutheran Borussian historians presented fragmented sovereignty, decentralized political power and supranational Catholicism as fundamental weaknesses of the Holy Roman Empire.

However, recent historiography has done much to dispel such misconceptions. Historians now tend to accept the Holy Roman Empire as a viable polity in its own right, not as a failed attempt to create a centralized nation-state (Wilson 1999; Axtmann 2003). If we take the Holy Roman Empire seriously, a resilient empire rather than Rokkan’s city-belt appears as the main reason for the late arrival of the nation-state in Germany. The Empire survived for so long because the emperor, his estates (including the cities) and the neighboring states had a common interest in maintaining a functional, if decentralized, Empire in the middle of Europe. A common imperial ideology and identity also played a role.

The Holy Roman Empire in 1648

From Christian universalism to Central European federalism

The notion of “Holy Roman Empire” goes back to Emperor Constantine’s adoption of Christianity in the fourth century. The Christianity of the Roman Empire was confirmed in 380 when co-emperors Theodosius I and Valentinian II made Christianity the “catholic” (from Gr. katholikos: universal) and thus official, imperial religion. In 391 all pagan cults were proscribed. Henceforward, Christianity was integrated into the structure of the Roman Empire and progressively Romanized. The orbis terrarum (temporal world) became the orbis christianus (Christian world), which, in turn, soon developed into the Imperium Christianum (Christian Empire) (Pagden 1995: 24).

The last western Roman emperor was deposed in 476. But the remaining, eastern part of the Empire, ruled from Constantinople and posthumously known as the Byzantine Empire, survived until 1453. Charles the Great, king of the Franks, and Pope Leo III jointly established a new Western Roman Empire on Christmas Day of the year 800. Europe north and south of the Alps was again united under one ruler, Charlemagne, with Aachen as the temporal capital and Rome the spiritual centre. To Leo, this was probably a declaration of independence from Constantinople and a move in a strategy to build a new, loyal congregation in the West.

After Charles’s death the empire was divided into Western, Middle and Eastern Francia, and the imperial title eventually fell vacant. But Charlemagne’s successors, helped by the popes, continued to nurture the idea of a new western, Roman and Christian empire. The Saxon king Otto resurrected the Empire when Pope John XII crowned him emperor in 962. Otto I’s Empire united the German and Italian kingdoms as well as considerable parts of Middle Francia (Burgundy and Lotharingia).

The medieval universalist notion of Christendom emerged successively from this background. Both popes and emperors propagated the idea of the Christian empire, or Christendom. Due to the conversion of eventually all European pagans and the expansion of Islam in Asia and Africa, Christendom in the later Middle Ages became confined to, and thus equated with, the territory of Europe. The signatories of the peace treaties of Westphalia in 1648 still conceived of themselves as members of Christendom. In international legal discourse the idea that Christendom constituted a single polity survived well into the eighteenth century (Hinsley 1986: 182).

However, already in the tenth century a divisive struggle for ultimate authority within the Christian empire emerged. At first the emperor and the pope were the main contenders and Italy the main battlefield. Control of Italy, and especially the ancient capital and See of St Peter, Rome, would mean political, economic and ideological preeminence in Christendom.

The emperor lost this battle, known as the Investiture Contest. But the Capetian kings of West Francia also came to claim the Carolingian legacy. By the thirteenth century the king of France was strong enough to challenge both the Empire and the papacy. Like his English counterpart, but unlike the German Emperor, he was able to amass a contiguous territory of hereditary possessions from which to build a territorial state. From now on, Germany became the main prize – or balancer – in the struggle for universal monarchy in Christendom, or for hegemony in Europe, if you prefer the international relations jargon. The cities of Northern Italy (the Lombard League) gained autonomy through the 1183 treaty of Constance, although the Empire continued to claim suzerainty over territories south of the Alps until its demise in 1806.

Even north of the Alps it was now clear that the emperor was not going to be able to establish a centralized, proto-national state. Instead, a Central European federation was emerging. The Golden Bull, a constitution promulgated in 1356 by Emperor Charles IV of Luxembourg, impressed on the Empire a federal structure it retained to the end. It confirmed that emperors, unlike other princes in Europe, whose position had by now become hereditary, should continue to be elected. Most importantly, the Bull ended the subjects’ right to appeal to the Imperial Court against the territorial princes.

Still, the emperor retained authority to call out the imperial forces as well as to control common facilities such as fortresses, roads, and rivers. Moreover, about 300 secular and ecclesiastical lords, some 2000 knights, and 85 “free” or imperial cities scattered from the Baltic to Switzerland remained directly subject to the emperor’s jurisdiction (van Creveld 1999: 78-79).

In further reforms from 1495 to 1512, the Reichstag was consolidated as the forum for national debate; more manageable regional subdivisions were created within the Empire by grouping the territories into ten Kreise (circles); and two imperial courts of law, the Reichskammergericht and the Reichshofrat, were established. At the same time Roman law was introduced as the jus publicum (common law, or gemeines Recht) of the whole Empire. Especially lesser territorial princes and the free imperial cities continued to rely on the institutions and laws of the Empire for their legitimacy and security.

The Reformation and the subsequent religious upheavals encouraged further fragmentation. Still, the 1555 religious peace of Augsburg demonstrated that emperors were able to deal with structural stress through consensus politics, facilitation and power brokering (Wilson 1999: 26). The settlement, which legalized Protestantism along with Catholicism and became one of the fundamental laws of the Empire, was largely the work of archduke Ferdinand of Habsburg (emperor 1558-64). Catholic as well as Protestant princes backed imperial institutions and the Emperor. The common view was still that the Holy Roman Empire was the most eminent of the European monarchies as successor of the Roman Empire and the last of the four universal monarchies prophesied by Daniel in the Old Testament (Asch 1997: 18-19).

«Important to all, but dangerous to none»

The Bohemian revolt of 1618 and a subsequent constitutional crisis triggered the Thirty Years War. Contrary to conventional Borussian wisdom, the outcome of the war, the 1648 Peace of Westphalia, did not spell the functional end of the Empire. Rather, it marked its Europeanization and further federalization. On the one hand, while it stayed together, the Empire became more decentralized. On the other, it became part of the emerging, modern system of European governance.

The rights of the estates vis-a-vis those of the emperor were reinforced, and the independence of Switzerland and the northern Low Countries was confirmed. But the estates and the foreign powers knew it was not in their interest to weaken the emperor and imperial institutions too much. The estates had learnt from the war that none of them was strong enough to survive on their own in the brutal reality of modern European power politics. Moreover, the war had advanced an emerging imperial patriotism. At the meetings in Münster and Osnabrück, the German estates demonstrated “a deeply felt sense of loyalty to the Emperor, and a patriotic pride in the Empire’s institutions” (Osiander 1994: 32).

To the emerging European great powers, the Thirty Years’ War confirmed that if they had one interest in common, it was to prevent «universal monarchy», or hegemony by one power. This meant that the emperor must not be allowed to become too powerful relative to the princes; but neither should any other ruler be allowed to control Germany. As guarantors of the Peace of Westphalia and thereby the imperial constitution, the French and Swedish king made sure of this. So did the three foreign powers that because of their imperial estates were represented in the Imperial Diet: Sweden, Denmark and, after the Hanoverian succession in 1714, England (Axtmann 2003: 132; Osiander 1994: 42, 78-79).

By contrast to the territorial sovereignty that was emerging elsewhere, in the Empire sovereignty thus became shared, internationally as well internally. At the same time, because of the foreign influence and because the Treaty of Westphalia gave the estates separate foreign policy rights, the Empire as such was effectively neutralized in European politics. Similar to Switzerland, the Empire survived as an inherently non-aggressive entity because this was in the interest of its constituent parts as well as of its neighbors. The Göttingen historian Arnold H.L. Heeren was therefore right when he explained why the Holy Roman Empire survived the Thirty Years’ War as follows:

[…] this wonderful state maintained itself partly through its own power, partly through certain fortunate circumstances, but above all through a conviction soon shared by all that the survival and freedom of the Empire was a precondition for the same for the whole European states system. How could this system have emerged without such a central state, important to all but dangerous to none? Did not even German and thus also a considerable part of European culture depend on this polity? (Heeren 1809: 18. My translation).

Habsburg cosmopolitanism

Heeren wrote this three years after the disappearance of the Holy Roman Empire. However, the consensual, cosmopolitan-federal and non-aggressive imperial tradition survived, represented mainly by Austria (but also by the “Third Germany”, German lands outside Prussia and Austria). The German Confederation of 1815 re-established Austrian pre-eminence within a framework exhibiting many similarities with the old Empire, including a federal diet and a system of collective security.

These and other features reappeared in modified form in both the Prussian-led successors to the Confederation; the North German Confederation (Norddeutscher Bund) of 1867 and the German Empire, or Second Reich of 1871. The constitutions of the inter-war Weimar republic as well as of the post-war Bonn republic incorporated a federal system of checks and balances, and devolved power to states (Länder) that were the direct successors of the old, consolidated territories. These later federal Germanys, like the old Empire, are associated with non-aggressive foreign policies, unlike the centralizing governments of nineteenth-century Prussia and the Nazi Third Reich (Wilson 1999: 72).

Also the Habsburg empire, which survived until 1918, depended on the politics of accommodation. The Habsburg dominion in multinational eastern Central Europe had indeed been established not mainly through war, but by dynastic policy and diplomacy. A sense of Habsburg, Catholic community emerged in the joint defense against the Ottoman Moslem attacks on Christendom. After some three hundred years this imperial expansion from the east was finally halted at the gates of Vienna in 1683. Catholicism remained a critical source of legitimacy for the emperor until the very end (Rémond 1999: 87).

The cosmopolitan Habsburg “corporate identity” was further developed through enlightened policies in the eighteenth century. For instance, the Habsburg systems of education and justice became models for the rest of the continent. It was arguably the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars that forced the Habsburg emperor and his government to suspend controversial domestic reforms and generally to repudiate progressive Enlightenment ideas (Ingrao 2000: 218-231).

Still, the Austro-Hungarian empire of Francis I and Metternich remained progressive by contemporary standards. Local nationalisms indeed challenged the integrity of the monarchy, but arguably did not pose a vital threat even as late as 1914 (Sked 2001). Austria and Metternich were the chief props of the nineteenth century Congress system of European governance. Metternich originated in the Rhineland (in the “Third Germany”) and spoke of Europe as his fatherland (Kissinger 1994: 86).

Not by coincidence, between 1848 and 1918, Habsburg lands proved fertile ground for authors of projects for multinational federation (Bugge 1995). The founder of the Pan-Europa Movement in 1923, the Austrian Count Richard von Coudenhove-Kalergi, descended on his father’s side from a noble family with roots in the Netherlands, Belgium, Bohemia and Poland. Like the two other European “empires”, Germany and Russia, the Habsburg monarchy arguably succumbed mainly because it lost the First World War.

In short it seems that Imperial Europe, including Germany, the Low Countries, Switzerland and the Habsburg possessions in the east, was structurally disposed towards the politics of consensus, compromise and accommodation both internally and at the European level. These parts tended to become federally organized, consociational (cf. Lijphart 1968), multiconfessional and, notably in the Swiss and Habsburg cases, multinational. Rokkan (1999: 210) to some extent recognizes this.

The parts of Imperial Europe that did not become neutral or part of the Soviet sphere during the Cold War also became pioneers of European unification. The European Coal and Steel Community was established in 1951 mainly by Catholic politicians from the regions of Imperial Europe, notably Konrad Adenauer from the Rhineland; Robert Schuman from Luxembourg and Lorraine; and Alcide de Gasperi from Trentino. Transnationally organized Christian (mainly Catholic) democracy, today with the European Peoples’ Party as European superstructure, has remained the chief party political driving force of European integration (Kaiser 2007).

The fate of Italy 

What about Italy? The main difference between Italy and Germany was that in Italy there was no state formation at all before the unification 1859-1870. Partly as a result, national identity was far less developed in Italy than in Germany. Italian only became the national language after the unification, at which time it was still spoken by very few. Until the Risorgimento, the sovereignty of what is now Italy was split between the pope, the French, Spanish and Austrian crowns and independent kingdoms, duchies, city-states and republics. National unification was brought about mainly by the conquest of the rest by the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia. It was backed by various European great powers, but had little popular support.

Political unity on the Piedmontese model was foisted on a country practically without national traditions. “We have created Italy; now it remains to create Italians”, the nation-building statesman Massimo d’Azeglio famously quipped in 1867. Like in Germany, centralizing nationalism in the long run facilitated an authoritarian and imperialist development. As David Gilmour indicates in his recent history of Italy, fascism was «a logical consequence of unification’s failure to be a moral revolution supported by the mass of the people» (Gilmour, 2011: 332). [Gilmour has an interesting analysis of present developments in Italy here].

Thus in Italy, city-states did to some extent retard national unification. But even here the universalist agencies, the papacy and the empire, as well as other European powers had a decisive influence too. Historically, an Italian nation-state was not a necessary or even natural outcome. Today, the regionalist tradition remains strong in Italy, and Italians are still aware of their dependence on – and contribution to – Europe. These are probably important reasons why Italy became a driving force for European integration after the Second World War.


My conclusion is that there is little empirical basis for Rokkan’s notion of city-belt Europe. There was no city “belt” and the cities were not nearly as politically important as he thought. On the other hand, the Holy Roman Empire and European international relations have been far more important for the history of European nation-building than he recognized. Indeed, Rokkan’s bias in favor of the nation-state is a reminder that history is always written in the light of present-day concerns.

Today, when the European Union is again demonstrating the significance of universalist and cosmopolitan traditions, European history again needs to be reconsidered. In the new narrative, what I prefer to call Imperial Europe rather than City-Belt Europe must have its proper place and the role of the nation-state be toned down. In the discipline of comparative politics, the interrelationship of regional, national, international and supranational political development should be emphasized more. Stein Rokkan’s work will still remain relevant and a great source of inspiration.


  1. This post is a translation and slightly revised version of an article I published in the peer-reviewed Nytt Norsk Tidsskrift no 3, 2011 (published on this blog here). That article in turn was based on a lecture I held on the occasion of my doctoral disputation at the University of Bergen on 10 June 2010.
  2. Neither Flora (i Rokkan 1999) nor Bakka (1998 ) scrutinize the idea of the city-belt as such. Nor did Tilly (1990), Therborn (1995), Bartolini (2005) or Seip (1975), who criticized Rokkan’s interpretation of Norwegian political history, discuss the concept critically. Searches in JStor and Google indicate that no critical and empirical discussion of the idea exists. A long-time collaborator of Rokkan, Professor Stein Kuhnle, Department of Comparative Politics at the University of Bergen, confirms this impression in an email to the author dated January 5, 2011. On the other hand, a research group headed by the French geographer Roger Brunet has recently emphasized the role of the urbanized region Rokkan calls city-belt Europe as an economic, scientific and technological center of gravity in European history. This region is described as “the blue banana” or “the European backbone”, but without reference to Rokkan. I thank Jan Petter Myklebust at the University of Bergen for this information.


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