“War is for the Weak”: Stella Ghervas on the European Divorce between Peace and Empire

by Ferenc Laczó

Stella Ghervas’ major new book Conquering Peace. From the Enlightenment to the European Union is a stylishly written, often stimulating, if slightly unusual scholarly monograph. Inspired, among others, by Robert de Traz’s 1936 publication De l’alliance des rois à la ligue des peuples, Sainte-Alliance et SDN (From the Alliance of Kings to the League of Nations: The Holy Alliance and the League of Nations), Ghervas has penned what she calls “a theatrical dialogue in five acts that portrays Europe’s resistance to empires while trying to keep free of armed conflicts” (p.3).

Through these five acts, Conquering Peace traces the history from the early eighteenth century to our own days of a profound and troubling question: how is it possible to prevent future wars while guaranteeing the liberties of all states in Europe?

The book’s chapters examine five major attempts by “political leaders and political opinions to commune metaphorically with the ideal of perpetual peace” (p.6), all of which were made after geopolitical upheavals marked by the impending threat of a pan-European empire. Conquering Peace thus devotes extended attention to “the Enlightened spirit of peace” in the 18th century; “the spirit of Vienna” in the 19th; “the spirit of Geneva” of the interwar years; “the postwar European spirit”; and “the spirit of enlarged Europe” of more contemporary times. Ghervas discusses the specific historical features and unique complexities of these various spirits – without aiming to define them in a strict manner, let alone build social scientific theories regarding them.

Urgent when it comes to its central concern with repelling imperialism in Europe, Conquering Peace sounds somewhat old-fashioned with its focus on the diverse spirits (esprit) of “engineering peace” in various epochs.

The book nonetheless amounts to a fascinating account of the efforts to make peace durable within the confines of Europe, within its political culture, and amid specific historical contexts – how the continent of Europe became an experimental laboratory for trying out several theories of peace.

Not known for offering high praise lightly, Perry Anderson has recently devoted an elaborate essay to the book in the LRB, calling it “in many ways the most original retrospect of the continent since 1714 that we possess”.

Conquering Peace’s exploration of three centuries indeed reveals in memorable detail how the aim of peace fostered the political idea of Europe and its corollary of unification long before a European bloc came into existence, even before the age of nation states. In other words, Ghervas offers a non-teleological history that shows how, in search of workable formulas for lasting peace, the political idea of Europe grew out of much trial and error. This is a history book that underlines just how essential it remains to distinguish the idea of Europe from its latest and currently most powerful institutional incarnation that is the European Union – without engaging with the question whether the EU might be said to possess imperial ambitions of one kind or another.

Ghervas’ monograph can indeed be read as an erudite interpretation of the changing shape of the triangle Europe, empire, peace – how peace in Europe got divorced from the idea of empire in modern times, giving rise to lofty conceptions of a new political order, even as Europeans were committed to building global empires during the very same centuries. The latter, colonial dimension – which could certainly serve as the subject of a complementary volume – is not ignored on the pages of the book but is admittedly only cursorily treated. It might serve as the subject of further, more global reflections too why Europeans needed, in Ghervas’ apt phrase, to conquer peace – instead of conceiving of the latter, for example, as a naturally given form of harmony.

Explicitly offering a history of ideas while deftly exposing changing realities of international politics, the book employs a pragmatic approach to “the engineering of peace.”

While reconstructing various visions of peace, Ghervas is primarily interested in what has worked toward lasting peace – and does not commit to one overarching theory of international relations or another to explore this question. At the same time, she clearly has a more normative point to make, arguing for a fundamental connection between the value of peace and that of a strong Europe.

One might say she is a historian of peace “who has been mugged by reality” – which appears to have rather confused some of her critics.

When it comes to the post-1945 decades, Ghervas argues that the new European spirit emerged in two waves, the first after 1945, the second around and after 1989. The efforts to reconstruct the continent after 1945 were informed by what was for the first time explicitly called “the European Spirit.” Explicating what was truly novel about the postwar manner of creating a supranational organization in Western Europe – the small-steps approach without a predefined plan to create de facto solidarity and reconcile entire populations accompanied by a remarkable shift from mechanistic metaphors (covenants, constitutions, etc.) to ones from cell biology (such as plants that grow organically and develop ever newer functions) – Ghervas is clear-eyed on the specific historical context. As she writes, “Their [European states’] shared sense of powerlessness and insecurity, as well as their existential fear of oblivion, goes a long way toward explaining the particular turn of this new spirit, which saw redemption only in a powerful federation of sovereign states” (p. 247).

Dedicated to locating specific spirits in their geographical settings, Conquering Peace correctly identifies the narrow strip along the left bank of the Rhine (think Brussels, Luxembourg, Strasbourg) as the area where the postwar European spirit would flourish most conspicuously. This is an intricate part of continental Europe “between Germany and France” which has been discussed in several popular historical books in recent years (see here and here), but one which, we might add, has remained sadly little understood in Central and Eastern Europe – where Germany and France continues to be perceived much more clearly than this critical zone of West European intertwining.

Ghervas makes a similarly sharp intervention in her subsequent chapter where she argues how it is not possible to grasp the recent twists in the story of European unification without acknowledging the crucial role played by the new idealism in the East. The emphasis in her telling, for both historical and biographical reasons, is on Mikhail Gorbachev’s crucial, if rather paradoxical role. As she insightfully observes, protests against Soviet occupation may have molded the conscience of the peoples of Eastern Europe but Gorbachev also decisively fostered “the Enlarged European Spirit” by giving it intellectual justification and legitimacy inside the Eastern bloc (see p. 287). At the same time, Ghervas’ historical panorama remains realistic enough here too to depict how the derelict economic scene behind the Iron Curtain was a crucial backdrop to this emerging spirit of an “enlarged Europe.”

The book’s ample emphasis on East European developments offers a crucial corrective to Western European political discourses that still project the image of a European project that developed from West to East.

The author insists that, from the perspective of social and economic history, it was rather the debacle in the East (a tumultuous flooding caused by the breakup of ice on a frozen river) that created the enlarged Europe we know today, “dragging the political leaders of Western Europe to places they had never dared imagine” (p. 309).

As the author intriguingly ponders, the undeniable force of this new spirit around and shortly after 1989-91 was perhaps always more of an emotional than of an intellectual nature. As leaders of the newly founded European Union still saw themselves acting within the same world order that was forged after World War II, the intellectual labor to meaningfully integrate all the “new Europeans” in the early 21st century inevitably lagged this novel wave of European engagement, even enthusiasm born of collapse and quiet desperation.

If this meant, portentously enough according to Ghervas, that the spirit of peace could no longer stay ahead of the newest treaties, the very aim of peace soon lost its appeal in favor of what she labels “securitarianism” (p. 365).

Though the book’s concluding reflections on how there is a semantic contradiction between the aims of “security” and “peace” are generally convincing, Ghervas’ assessment that “the European conscience—the desire to unify Europe—gave way to its opposite: a paralyzing fear of disaggregation and a desire to protect and defend the newly found acquis at all costs” (p. 364) still sounds rather exaggerated. This is obviously not meant to question that there has been a notable shift in precisely this direction in recent years but rather to express scepticism towards just how encompassing this shift has become. It is at least striking how Europeans have displayed more unity, purpose, and solidarity when launching their newest attempt to “conquer peace” when it comes to the ongoing imperial violence against Ukraine than at the time of the book’s publication last year – even if Russia’s unprovoked aggression has also clearly returned the spirit of war to the continent with many of the larger consequences being largely unpredictable at this point.

In sum, Conquering Peace shows how the occasional sense of direction over the past three centuries of European history – the only “tenuous constant” – has been the drive toward lasting peace, but also how this pursuit of lasting peace should not simply be viewed as a march toward today’s European Union. Second, it demonstrates how understanding the history of attempts to engineer peace requires treating Eastern and Western Europe within the same frame without thereby ignoring their notable differences.

Third and more specifically, the historical arguments in the book can help us reconsider the end of the Cold War and the tragic place where the Eastern borderlands of the continent have arrived today – and why the legacies of the continent’s post-war division continue to haunt Europe.

The just mentioned contributions make Conquering Peace, with all its erudition and sharp insights, including some rather speculative claims, a crucial book to ponder in our horrific moment of intra-European violence. Far from conveying facile optimism, Stella Ghervas’ learned and imaginative book ultimately strikes a hopeful note. She concludes how the precondition to remain strong is to forge ahead relentlessly toward a just and lasting peace based on genuine agreement freely arrived at by equals.

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