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Icons and the avant-garde

The avant-garde was banned in the USSR for over five decades. Between 1932 and the end of the 1980s, Soviet artists were compelled to abandon any creative experimentation. The work they had once done, held in museums throughout the country, was hidden away and sometimes destroyed. Yet at this time, George Costakis (Moscow 1913 – Athens 1990) built up a unique collection of avant-garde art dating from the 1910s and 1920s, which he preserved alongside the antique Russian and post-Byzantine paintings he had also assembled.
Today, it is widely acknowledged that the Russian avant-garde made a substantial contribution to uncovering the aesthetic meaning of early Russian icons. Academic studies analysing the icon as a source for the Russian avant-garde are extensively available. In this context, the historiography of Costakis’s collection is of significant historical and cultural interest.
The Miracle of St. George Mid-14th century Novgorod. State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow Anonymous Russian icon painter, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
In the 1960s and 1970s, the collector’s flat in Moscow (which consisted of eleven or twelve rooms) was considered by many as a project for a ‘museum of the Russian avant-garde’. Alongside experimental objects d’art, it displayed traditional Russian icons and a collection of folk toys, while also offering a substantial library and archive. The numerous distinguished cultural and political figures who came to see the exhibits included Edward Kennedy, David Rockefeller, Michelangelo Antonioni, Marc Chagall and Igor Stravinsky. But it was not until 2014 that a sizeable part of the collection was shown to the wider public at an exhibition organized by the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, commemorating the 100th anniversary of Costakis’s birth.
Symbols and connections
Overall, the collection was by no means exceptional, even for its time. The items on display did not bear comparison with the pre-revolutionary collections of Ilya Ostroukhov and Stepan Ryabushinsky, for example. However, for the first time, Costakis’ collection drew clear links between religious iconography and the paintings of early twentieth-century Russian avant-garde artists. Costakis introduced the Russian avant-garde to the West, while also making an important contribution to the study of connections between the icon and avant-garde art generally. He demonstrated how folk art and iconography could enhance the understanding of specific features of the Russian avant-garde in the context of twentieth-century modernism.
Costakis described the beginnings of his fascination with icons in the following way:
I started by collecting icons alongside avant-garde works. Initially I wasn’t particularly interested in the icons. I didn’t understand them and had no feeling for their qualities as works of art. In general, iconography failed to move me. But avant-garde art opened my eyes to the meaning of icons. I began to see that the two were intimately related and profoundly interconnected. I came to recognize elements of abstract painting and suprematism, and all kinds of universal symbolism, in iconography … Over time, I managed to assemble a large collection of icons – about a hundred and fifty painted panels dating from the fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries.
It is clear that Costakis saw icons as an integral part of his collection and, as the owner of a substantial library and archive, he must have been familiar with academic ideas about links between the icon and the avant-garde. He had been collecting literature and documents on the subject since the early 1950s. His library included Alexey Grishchenko’s book The Medieval Russian Icon as an Art of Painting (Moscow 1917), which described, in some detail, the Russian avant-garde’s preoccupation with the icon. The archive also included Alexander Shevchenko’s famous manifesto ‘Neo-primitivism: Its Theory, its Possibilities, its Achievements’ (1913), as well as the catalogue for the Exhibition of Icon Painters’ Manuals and Popular Prints, a display organized in Moscow by Mikhail Larionov in 1913.
Michail Fjodorowitsch Larionow, Self-portrait, 1910 Photo by Ларионов Михаил Федорович via Wikimedia Commons
The sources Costakis trusted most, however, were the surviving representatives of the early Russian avant-garde, who convinced him of the importance of links between their work and iconography. In his memoirs, Costakis devotes special attention to his relationship with Marc Chagall, who had painted works influenced by icons and religious popular prints in the first decade of the twentieth century and, later, completed a series of paintings on Biblical subjects. The two men are very likely to have discussed ‘the icon and the avant-garde’ and corresponded on the subject.
An indirect confirmation of this can be found in Costakis’s account of his relations with the French cultural attaché, Alexandre Kem, who passed on letters from Chagall to him from 1952. ‘We spoke about Chagall’s art,’ Costakis writes, referring to a conversation with Kem. ‘I drew parallels between the icon and his work.’ During his first visit to the West in 1956, Costakis was introduced – through Chagall – to Mikhail Larionov and Natalia Goncharova, in whose art the icon played a vital role.
Natalia Goncharova by Mikhail Larionov (1915) – New State Tretyakov Gallery – Moscow – Russia Photo by Antonio Marín Segovia from Flickr
He also met Nina Kandinsky, who owned Russian folk icons from the nineteenth century, previously belonging to Wassily Kandinsky and now held by the Kandinsky Fund at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. Several icons from this collection were first shown in 2011, at the ‘Chagall and the Russian avant-garde’ exhibition in Paris.
In Moscow, Costakis was in touch with many icon collectors, scholars, writers and art historians. He was not alone in seeing the influence of iconography on the Russian avant-garde – the specialists who advised him on assembling his pieces were equally aware of the link. The most important figures included Russian scholars Nikolai Khardzhiev and Dmitry Sarabyanov, as well as the Western art historian Alfred Barr. Nonetheless, the connections that had a special significance for Costakis were with artists themselves – especially representatives of the so-called ‘second wave’ of Russian avant-garde art in the 1960s and 1970s.
This group of artists saw icons as ‘pure art’, in exactly the way they had been interpreted by the early Russian avant-garde in the 1910s and 1920s. Small collections of icons, housed in the flats and studios of artists such as Dmitry Krasnopevtsev or Vasily Sitnikov, created the impression of a world apart, a free private space, independent of Soviet life with all its restrictions. While Krushchev or Brezhnev were in power, the beauty and reverse perspective of medieval icons seemed to counter the dogmatism and monotony of the Soviet system in the minds of people associated with unofficial artistic circles. At the time, Costakis was also collecting paintings by artists of the second Russian avant-garde, including Dmitry Plavinsky, Dmitry Krasnopevtsev and Vladimir Nemukhin.
Liturgical art and folk primitivism
At the end of the 1980s, as perestroika took hold in the USSR, the history of the Russian avant-garde ceased to be a banned topic. This was reflected in a series of exhibitions on Kazimir Malevich, Wassily Kandinsky, Lyubov Popova and Pavel Filonov, as well as in the appearance of new research on the subject. The writing of Nikolai Khardzhiev, the leading specialist on the Russian avant-garde at the time, was particularly influential. In 1976, Khardzhiev had succeeded in publishing a collection of articles and documents entitled Towards a History of the Russian Avant-garde, which appeared in Stockholm. For the first time, his book offered an analysis of Kazimir Malevich’s autobiographical comments on the icon and concluded that: ‘At the end of 1912, Malevich completed a series of works, in which the traditions of early Russian art and folk primitivism intersect with “metallic” forms derived from Cubism’.
Dynamic Suprematism No 57 by Kazimir Malevich (1916). Photo by Arturo García from Flickr
A significant amount of material in Khardzhiev’s personal archive also confirms the view that Russian Cubo-Futurism was influenced by iconography. Khardzhiev knew many avant-garde artists personally, and at the beginning of the 1930s, while working on his History of Russian Futurism, he asked Malevich to write a memoir for his archive. In his autobiographical notes, Malevich openly acknowledged the influence of the icon on his work: ‘Icons made a strong impression on me, despite my naturalistic training and the way this defined my responses to the natural world. For me, icons seemed to reveal the Russian people as an entity, a whole with an emotional creativity of its own.’
In 1995, Khardzhiev gave an interview to the Russian journal Zerkalo, in which he emphasized once again the significance of the icon for understanding the language of the Russian avant-garde and its specifically national features:
The art of the avant-garde was international, but there was nevertheless a national emphasis. There was such a thing as Russian primitivism – and this is not widely acknowledged in the West. Take Larionov – his work is primitivist: consider a Russian popular print or an icon … The icon is unbelievably monumental. The Russians followed the Greek tradition, but they created their own iconography … The icon and primitivism transformed western artistic influences, their effects confronted Cubism and, as a result, a new form of Russian art appeared – not imitative, but unique and original.
Later, in his introductory article to the catalogue of the Malevich exhibition, shown in Leningrad, Moscow, and Amsterdam in 1988-1989, Dmitry Sarabyanov wrote: ‘To a certain extent, the Suprematist canvases Malevich created gravitated toward the icon. They “aspired to be” reflections on the nature of being, thoughts in “form and colour”.’
The perestroika years also saw the appearance of an early article I wrote on this subject, entitled ‘The Icon in the Russian avant-garde of the 1910s and 1920s’. It was a short piece, but the first specialized publication to focus exclusively on the topic of ‘the icon and the avant-garde’. The article was written in response to the interest in primitivist art and Russian popular consciousness prevalent at the time. It offered an analysis of Malevich’s autobiographical notes, and the way in which they revealed elements of iconographic language in paintings by Goncharova, Larionov and other artists.
Artistic devices from another age
Costakis’ interpretation of the effect of the icon on the avant-garde is also likely to have been influenced by the American art historian Alfred Barr, who saw his collection during a visit to Moscow in 1956. Barr was the leading western specialist on the Russian avant-garde at the time and the former first director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York (MoMa).
After examining the items Costakis had assembled, Barr persuaded him to focus as much as possible on abstract painting. Following the encounter, Costakis jettisoned the figurative works by representatives of the Jack of Diamonds movement, and began to collect abstract pieces by Alexander Rodchenko, Lyubov Popova, Vladimir Tatlin and other hitherto forgotten artists, as well as early works by Malevich, Kandinsky and Chagall.
In the 1950s, abstract art had become increasingly fashionable in Europe and American Abstract Expressionism was coming to dominate the art market. Barr’s favourite Russian painters were Malevich and Rodchenko. He had shown their work in his celebrated exhibition ‘Cubism and Abstract Art’, held at MoMA in 1936. Certainly, Barr appreciated the possibility of links between icons and the avant-garde works in Costakis’ collection, particularly the abstract pieces. Barr had first visited Moscow in 1928 and he had seen Ilya Ostroukhov’s private Museum of Early Russian Painting (in existence from 1911 until 1928). His love and admiration for the Russian icon cannot be in doubt.
On the basis of her detailed study of Barr’s Moscow diaries, the American scholar Sybil Kantor remarks: ‘One of the most important reasons for Barr’s trip to Russia was his desire to study medieval icons for his dissertation … In Barr’s diary, there is almost as much written about icons as there is about contemporary artworks.’
We also learn from Barr’s diary that, in addition to Malevich, Rodchenko and the constructivists, he developed an interest in the paintings of Larionov, Chagall and Goncharova: ‘Barr wanted to establish links between the work of these artists living in Paris at the time, and the tradition of icon-painting.’ In other words, Barr’s Moscow diary, as well as letters and articles written in this period, indicate that he was the first western researcher to highlight the connection between icons and the avant-garde.
This context helps clarify the remarks in Camilla Gray’s classic book The Great Experiment: Russian Art 1863–1922, concerning the influence of Russian folk art and icons on the work of Larionov and Goncharova. Gray had consulted Barr and seen Costakis’ collection. She also had access to the store-rooms at the Tretyakov Gallery and the Russian Museum, where she familiarized herself with medieval Russian painting and works by Russian avant-garde artists, banned from public view at the time. In her book, Gray concludes that a rethinking of Russian icon-painting techniques and elements of folk ornament constituted ‘the major independent contribution’ Goncharova made to Russian avant-garde art.
Contemporary scholarship has touched on many aspects of this topic, from the poetics of language and formalist art theory to political, ideological, and philosophical analyses of links between the icon and the avant-garde. The subject became the theme of a special exhibition held at the Museum of Icons in Frankfurt and at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Thessaloniki in 2004 (in 2017 renamed the Museum of Modern Art-Costakis Collection). The show was entitled ‘When Chagall Learned to Fly: From Icon to Avant-Garde’ and publicized as follows: ‘This large-scale exhibition on Russian avant-garde artists, Russian icons and Lubok is a co-production between the SMCA and the Ikonen-Museum in Frankfurt. It explores the spiritual and primitivist sources of European modernist inspirations, stressing the Byzantine influences on Russian avant-garde art and its relations with popular prints (lubki).’
Alongside all this analysis and scrutiny, the history of Costakis’ collection of icons and avant-garde paintings still awaits the serious academic attention it deserves.

I’m not, but all my neighbours are

I’ve never really understood the whole ‘Central Europe’ debate. For a long time, I often felt irritated by attempts to cast my country as central, since it has never really been central in any narrative but its own. I’d be angry for the time and effort wasted on the campaign to extract a particular region from the post-Soviet shadow. I’d show little understanding when others were just as angry about my stance.
Obviously, I’m radically eastern. Growing up in the North-East of Hungary, the reality of life on the Ukrainian side of border was much closer to me than the constantly evoked ‘Austrian living standards’. Cross-border trade was the lifeblood of the region between the collapse of communism and EU accession in 2004. One didn’t even have to smuggle: legal imports of petrol, vodka or cigarettes would, when resold on the black market, sustain entire households. This difference in wages and prices both wrecked and maintained a special local economy.
But this informal economy wasn’t the only way in which the communities on both sides of the border were connected; ethnic, cultural and social ties also ran deep. The historical Satu Mare or Szatmár region, for example, is currently shared by Romania, Ukraine and Hungary. Although Hungarian nationalists have debated for over a century the 1920 borders designated by the Trianon Treaty, the ethnic, religious and cultural composition of the population has long been so mixed and intertwined that it is impossible to tell them apart. In a region like this, any border will be arbitrary – the real question is how people can live with them.
Throughout the 1990s, life here was organised around the border, defined but not dissected by it. But upon Hungary’s accession to the EU, a harder border was introduced, from one moment to another cutting the lifeline for many on the Ukrainian side. It also isolated those on the western side. Hungary’s poorest county was now forced to compete in a west-facing economy and culture, instead of operating in its accustomed geographical place in the East.
My confusion mounted as the slogans of accession told us that we were heading to Europe. At geography class I had been taught that Europe reached to the Urals and the Bosphorus.
Sculpture by Ilya Kabakov Photo by Ikiwaner via Wikimedia Commons. Adaptation: Eurozine logo has been placed.
It was around the same time that I left my hometown for Budapest, the bewildering metropolis where people would not make way for each other on the pavement. My new acquaintances would joke that I should carry a passport for my bi-weekly tours home. I felt more eastern than ever, but still didn’t understand why that should be a problem. Over the years, living in the self-declared ‘Centre of Europe’, I grew suspicious of ‘city folk’, even if I hadn’t held a shovel for a long time. My autoimmune reaction to the prejudice I knew to be toxic made me quite as bitter.
It was first in Vienna, on the brink of my thirties, that I first felt freed from the oriental stigma. Surrounded by all sorts of migrants, many with similar inferiority complexes, I felt safe and understood as never before. My new friends and I would merrily complain about our home countries while also missing them terribly, loving to mingle with a diverse crowd against the backdrop of an actually functioning welfare state – albeit not the most welcoming one.
This experience confirmed my long-held notion that Central Europe consists of one country and one country only: the uncanny abstraction that is Austria. One could also squeeze in Switzerland, if really necessary, just for being another neutral intermediary.
For something I claimed I couldn’t be bothered with, I spent a lot of energy avoiding the subject. The real reason was very simple: my strategy for coping with prejudices against the East was to fiercely identify with it. Debating the category would have interfered with this. But I couldn’t hold out forever.
By chance, a pair of reads now offers fresh insight into the discourse of Central Europe. In the Ukrainian journal Krytyka, Mykola Riabchuk reveals the exclusions coded into Kundera’s pivotal 1983 essay ‘A kidnapped West’. Establishing a ‘Central Europe’, Riabchuk argues, merely reinforces the stigma of the East:
‘Central Europe’ is a discursive life-belt that gives some nations a chance to be rescued on the secure board of the western flagship. But it fits only a few of them – Czechs, Hungarians, partly Slovaks who also hate to be ‘eastern Europeans’, and perhaps Slovenes who loathe being part of the ‘Balkans’.
Others need to extend the term, hyphenating it into ‘central eastern Europe’, like the Poles or Romanians, or inventing something else like ‘Nordic’ for the Balts, or ‘Mediterranean’ for the Croats, Montenegrins and perhaps Albanians. Bulgarians have no choice because the very term Balkans stems from the name of the mountains in their territory. And Ukrainians, Moldovans and Belarusians have to either go to ‘Eurasia’ (the new code-name for Russia and its truncated ‘sphere of legitimate interests’) or become a ‘new eastern Europe’, since the ‘old’ eastern Europe disappeared.
The game might be childish, but the stakes are high – as the example of Ukraine’s struggle for self-determination clearly shows. In this territorial contest, countries and communities are pitted against each other, either political adversaries, or as labour markets competing for capital, as it looks for cheap and insecure labour.
But on the opposite side of the Union, the idea of Central Europe means something rather different. Writing in Dublin Review of Books, Enda O’Doherty is more forgiving of Kundera’s nostalgia for the ‘lost culture’ of the small nations of the former Habsburg Empire:
Whether there is any inherent moral bonus that comes from simply being small, or having had to struggle to assert one’s right to national existence, is perhaps another question. But it is at least plausible to suggest that citizens of states which have been more minor players in European history might be more ready to see a construct like the European Union as a site of fulfilment (‘taking one’s place among the nations of the earth’) rather than as an institution which is valued only in so far as it can be manipulated to serve ‘the national interest’.
O’Doherty reviews the idea of Europe in the work of five twentieth-century writers closely associated with the idea of Central Europe: Zweig, Roth, Miłosz, Kundera and Nooteboom (the western exception). He finds them isolated with their pacifist and pan-European ideas amidst war and persecution, criticized for leaving homelands in search for security, offered moral support but no lunch money. This tension between ideals and their execution persists, even as the European populi, if rarely wildly enthusiastic about the Union, generally consider it in their best interests.
But the competition for Europeanness has its losers. The selling point that ‘I’m not eastern, but all my neighbours are!’ has real consequences, also for the East beyond Europe.
It might be better, then, to do away with the stigma itself. Were it less detrimental to be treated as the East – or as ‘peripheries’, as it is more commonly phrased – rivals might find better hobbies than playing this insane game of geopolitical musical chairs.

The Europeans

The most dangerous world view is the world view of those who have not viewed the world.
Alexander von Humboldt
In 1983, eight years after he had left communist Czechoslovakia to settle in France, the novelist Milan Kundera published an essay in the prestigious Parisian journal Le Débat entitled Un Occident Kidnappé ou la tragédie de l’Europe centrale (A Kidnapped West or the tragedy of central Europe). Each element of this compound title points to an important lesson that Kundera wants his French audience to take on board.
First, that there is a large geographical, but more importantly cultural, area – ‘not a state, but a culture or destiny’ – to which indeed his own country belongs, which can be called central Europe. Second, this area, which as its name suggests is located between two other Europes, had historically always looked to the West, even if after the advance of the Russian army in the closing stages of the Second World War it found itself ‘kidnapped’ by the East.
There is certainly something to be said for these notions, though it might also be objected that they leave a good deal out – particularly in Kundera’s rather boiled-down version –, but we will return to that. For the moment, there is another idea in the essay that merits being explored, even if it is more suggestive than empirically demonstrable: that the real Europeans, the genuine idealists who have a feeling for Europe’s future and not just their own, are more likely to be found in the continent’s smaller nations than in its larger.
Kundera assumes we all know what is meant by East and West and doesn’t feel the need to elaborate on the concepts. But since ‘eastern Europe’ as traditionally understood is now more than thirty years in the past, let us recap: the East was that area, ruled according to a particular political system now largely disappeared from the world, and comprised of the Soviet Union and its various ‘satellite states’ – Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria etc – which lay between Russian territory and West Germany/Austria.
The West was the part of Europe, extending at the time Kundera was writing from Portugal to Greece and Norway to Malta, where liberal democracy was the dominant form of government. It could also, of course, in what was clearly a non-geographical sense, signify a much wider area characterised by ‘shared values’, stretching from Vancouver on the west coast of Canada to New Zealand. One might add a little more confusion to the picture by adding that while people from Prague or Kraków usually referred to their part of the world as central Europe, the not-so-well-informed (or even interested) citizens of Dublin, London or Paris may have referred to it as eastern Europe.
In Kundera’s mental map, the East (and specifically Russia) is bad and the West (mostly) is good, but the Centre is not, as one might innocently suppose, situated somewhere in between but occupies a higher moral plane than either East or West, platonically representing, or anticipating, what an ideal Europe might have or should have been:
Central Europe sought to be the condensed image of Europe and its rich variety, a little super-European Europe, a miniature model of a Europe of nations conceived on the principle of the maximum of diversity in the minimum of space [unlike Russia, conceived on the opposite principle ‑ the maximum of space and the minimum of diversity].
This vision of a large, pluralist, tolerant multinational state in central Europe in fact ceased to have any prospect of political realisation after the last Habsburg emperor, Karl, was despatched into exile in 1919 –or even five years earlier, when his uncle, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the throne, was assassinated in Sarajevo. Yet it did enjoy an often richly imagined afterlife in the nostalgia of dispossessed liberal-minded ‘Austrian-Hungarians’, who watched, appalled but powerless, the rise of new, turbo-charged nationalisms in the 1920s and ’30s.
The Gloriette at Schönbrunn Palace, Vienna, 1929. Photo via Fortepan / Fortepan
In fear for the nation
The year in which Kundera wrote his essay for Le Débat, 1983, was one of greatly heightened tension between East and West. On September 1st Russia shot down a Korean civilian airliner that had entered its airspace; 269 passengers and crew died. Later that month the Soviet early warning system wrongly signalled the launch of a number of American intercontinental ballistic missiles aimed at Russian territory. The decision of Lt Col Stanislav Petrov of the Soviet air defences to delay notifying the ‘attack’ to his superiors until he had further independent confirmation of it is credited with preventing a rapid ‘retaliation’ and ensuing nuclear war.
Even among those not consumed by fear of imminent annihilation there was, during this dangerous decade, a general feeling – particularly marked among leftish intellectuals – that Europe was being politically neutered, in danger of becoming little more than the docile instrument of the United States and its leader, the happy warrior Ronald Reagan.
Kundera argued, perhaps somewhat tortuously, that it was in central Europe, among the small nations which had already had the experience of being swallowed up by a greater power, that the sense of the existential danger for Europe as a whole was most acute: in this sense, the region’s destiny ‘appears as an anticipation of European destiny in general and its culture … demonstrates an enormous relevance’. As a home of small nations, he argued, central Europe had its own vision of the world, a vision based on a profound suspicion of History with a capital h.
History, this goddess of Hegel and Marx, this incarnation of Reason … is the History of the victors. But the people of central Europe are not victors. They are inseparable from European History, could not exist without it, but they are the inverse of that History, its victims, its outsiders. This unillusioned historical experience is the source of their culture, their wisdom, their ‘intellectual lightness’, which is disposed to poke fun at grandeur and glory.
It is from the intellectual traditions of these small nations then, with their muscle memory of operating the institutionalised pluralism of the Habsburg empire, that one should look for inspiration for the proper functioning of a united Europe.
But what, essentially, is a small nation? For Kundera, it is primarily one whose existence can at any moment be put in question,
…which can disappear and which knows it. A Frenchman, a Russian, an Englishman are not in the habit of questioning the survival of their nation. Their anthems talk only of grandeur and eternity. But the Polish national anthem begins with the line “Poland is not yet lost…”.
This is a sentiment that might perhaps strike a chord in a country whose unofficial anthem for many decades before independence was Thomas Davis’s A Nation Once Again. Whether there is any inherent moral bonus that comes from simply being small, or having had to struggle to assert one’s right to national existence, is perhaps another question. But it is at least plausible to suggest that citizens of states which have been more minor players in European history might be more ready to see a construct like the European Union as a site of fulfilment (‘taking one’s place among the nations of the earth’) rather than as an institution which is valued only in so far as it can be manipulated to serve ‘the national interest’.
I propose here to look briefly at the ways in which Europe and ‘Europeanism’ played out in the ideas of some prominent writers of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries – writers for whom, whether because of their own country’s painful collision with ‘History’ or for reasons of personal inclination, or both, nationality was not a simple matter.
Stefan Zweig was born in Vienna in 1881, the second son of the prosperous Moravian textile manufacturer Mori(t)z Zweig and his wife, Ida Brettauer, who grew up in a wealthy family in Ancona in which German and French were spoken in addition to Italian. It was decided in the Zweig family that the elder son, Alfred, would follow his father into the business, but Stefan too was able to draw a comfortable income from it (without working) until, on his thirtieth birthday, he traded in his allowance for a lump sum that left him a very wealthy young man. This income enabled him to travel frequently and extensively and he forged important friendships with writers in other countries, notably the francophone poet Émile Verhaeren in Belgium and the pacifist seer Romain Rolland in France.
His literary production also increasingly enhanced his reputation ‑ and his income: industrious and versatile, he produced a stream of works including poetry, short stories, novels, plays, popular biographies and histories, and even an opera libretto (for Richard Strauss). Zweig was to be one of the most commercially successful European authors of the interwar period, and one of the most frequently translated.
Politically – if the word can be used at all of a man who insisted he was not in the slightest political – Zweig was a prominent member of what is sometimes called ‘the parsonical tendency’. That is, faced with a Europe in which fascist dictators were locking up the opposition, turning up the volume of nationalist propaganda and preparing the young to be ready to sacrifice themselves in the struggle to come, he told any audience prepared to listen to him that none of this would be happening, all of this could be avoided, if only people would focus on what they had in common rather than what divided them.
Like many others in the 1930s Zweig understood the popular appeal of the dictatorships, and though he could not sympathise with them he wondered if it might not be possible to harness all the noise and colour and movement that characterised their street presence to something more noble.
We should recognize and admire how nationalism, already manipulating the state’s levers of power, flaunts its artistic and theatrical mastery: recall if you will the speech by Mussolini only before 200,000 souls this 1st May on Tempelhof field, or the million assembled on Red Square in Moscow, where some two million workers and soldiers marched in an uninterrupted procession for hours on end; and let us learn from these examples that the masses are most jubilant when they feel themselves visible and can display themselves en masse.
‘If our idea [“the European idea”] is to have any tangible effect’, he emphasised, ‘we must remove it from the esoteric domain [of books, pamphlets, conferences] and devote all our energy to making it more visible and persuasive to a wider circle’.
Zweig may, in his giddier moments, have envisaged serried ranks of marchers holding aloft banners proclaiming the urgent need for ‘Peace!’, ‘Amity!’, ‘European culture!’ but the only practical suggestions he came up with were a pan-European newspaper, a truth ombudsman to combat the lies of nationalist propagandists, a common school history curriculum and a rotating ‘European capital’ – interesting ideas perhaps, but quite unlikely to find anyone to implement them in the mid-’30s, and poor weapons in any case against the appeal of blood and soil nationalism in a struggle that across much of Europe it may have already been too late to win.
If Zweig had any party political sentiments (he didn’t vote, he said) they might have inclined towards Austria’s social democrats, whose internationalism at least he shared. Still, he must have been surprised when in 1934 the police arrived to search his house in Salzburg acting, they said, on information received that he was storing weapons for the social democrats’ paramilitary defence force, the Schutzbund. A few days afterwards, sensing the irreversible drift of Austrian politics towards more severe repression, he left for England.
In March 1938 Austria was annexed by the German Reich and Zweig found himself a man without a country. He commented:
It was of little use to me now that for half a century my heart had been beating to the idea of being a citoyen du monde [citizen of the world]. The day I was deprived of my passport I discovered, at the age of fifty-eight, that in losing one’s country one loses more than a little patch of earth surrounded by frontiers.
At the end of June 1940 Zweig and his second wife, Lotte, sailed to America. From there they eventually moved to Argentina, and then Brazil, where they settled in Petrópolis, not far from Rio de Janeiro.
Meanwhile, throughout the summer and autumn of 1940, Britain and Germany fought for air superiority over southern England and the Channel. Had the Germans been victorious – and had Britain then refused to accept terms of armistice – it is likely that the detailed invasion plan Operation Sea Lion (Unternehmen Seelöwe) would have been implemented.
An essential part of this was the Sonderfahndungsliste G.B. (Special Search List GB), a document drawn up by the SS containing the names of 2,820 people – politicians, writers and intellectuals, political refugees from Europe – who were to be hunted down and arrested after the invasion and, one must assume, in many cases murdered. There, on the final page, is the entry ‘Zweig, Stefan, Dr., 26.11.81, Wien (Jude), Schriftsteller, Emigrant’ (Vienna [Jew], writer, émigré), followed by his London address.
In the event, the British escaped invasion and Zweig avoided the fate that would have awaited him at the hands of the Gestapo. But in Petrópolis in February 1942 he and Lotte took their own lives with an overdose of Veronal. A memorial stone (Stolperstein) for Zweig outside his former home in Salzburg reads: ‘Here lived / Stefan Zweig / year of birth 1881 / Flight 1934 / England, USA / Brazil / Flight into death / 23.2.1942 / Petropolis’.
Stefan Zweig’s compatriot and friend Joseph Roth had the good fortune to die of natural causes – or, if you prefer, of the inevitable results of his alcoholism – in Parisian exile in May 1939, just a little over a year before the arrival there of the German occupying army.
He was forty-four and had enjoyed a writing career of little more than twenty years. Included in his work are stories, novellas and about a dozen novels and fragments, of which the most famous is his magnificent elegy for the vanished Austro-Hungarian empire, The Radetzky March. He also wrote hundreds of articles in German-language newspapers, chiefly in the continental European form known as the feuilleton, a usually rather light, freestyle composition on human or cultural subjects which Roth interpreted as an invitation to ‘[say] true things on half a page’.
Roth was born in 1894 in Brody in eastern Galicia, a predominantly Jewish town close to Austria-Hungary’s border with Russia. He attended university first in Lemberg (today Lviv in Ukraine) but was forced to transfer to the University of Vienna when the Russians captured the city in the early stages of the First World War. In 1916 he joined up himself, serving for the most part as an army journalist and mail censor. After the war he returned to Vienna, where ‘[f]or lack of money [I began] to write for the newspapers…My nonsense was printed. I began to live off it. I became a writer’.
Like Zweig, Roth had the experience of ‘losing his country’, though for him this came at a much earlier stage of his life when, in 1918, Austria-Hungary ceased to exist, splitting into its component national parts. He was eventually accorded citizenship of the new rump Austrian republic, though during the protracted application process he had to face much bureaucratic stalling and even hostility, some of it no doubt antisemitic in motivation.
In 1920 he moved to Berlin, where his articles – cinema reviews at first – began to appear in the Freie Deutsche Bühne, then the Neue Berliner Zeitung, the socialist paper Vorwärts and the Berliner Börsen Courier. In 1923, after some time back in Vienna and in Prague, his journalistic career took a turn towards prosperity when he was hired to write from Berlin for the prestigious Frankfurter Zeitung, the leading German liberal paper in the interwar period, which published the work of many distinguished authors and intellectuals including Stefan Zweig, Max Weber, Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, Thomas and Heinrich Mann, Sándor Márai and Alfred Döblin.
After the Nazis came to power in 1933, Roth – like all Jewish writers – found himself excluded from the pages of the Frankfurter Zeitung and abruptly deprived of the quite comfortable living to which he had become accustomed. He left Germany definitively – he had not lived there permanently since 1925 – and spent most of the rest of his life in Paris, a city to which he became very attached. Though his health was sharply deteriorating, he continued to write, finishing The Emperor’s Tomb, a sequel to his masterpiece The Radetzky March, and the moving fable of debt and redemption The Legend of the Holy Drinker, as well as contributing to the émigré German-language press of France and Czechoslovakia; remarkably for such a heavy drinker, his writing remained clear and penetrating.
In his final years his thoughts often turned to the no longer existing state in which he had been born, ‘my fatherland, the only one I ever had, the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary’, which, in contrast with the chaos and threatening barbarism of the 1930s, acquired for him a retrospective glow it may not have wholly merited.
On a visit for the Frankfurter Zeitung in the mid-1920s to the city where he had first attended university, he had recalled its former cosmopolitan charms: Lemberg had been a bustling, polyglot meeting place where Polish, German, Ruthenian (or Ukrainian) and Yiddish could be heard in the streets and markets. Now renamed Lwów, it was governed from Warsaw and was undergoing a Polish purification. Roth certainly had little sympathy for cultural nationalism, writing:
European culture is much older than the European nation-states. Greece, Rome, Israel, Christendom and Renaissance, the French Revolution and Germany’s eighteenth century, the polyglot music of Austria and the poetry of the Slavs. These are the forces that have formed Europe. These forces have combined to form European solidarity and the cultural conscience of Europe. Not one of these forces was bounded by a national border. All are naturally opposed to the barbarity of so-called national pride.
Unlike his friend (and frequent benefactor) Zweig, Roth had no problem identifying himself as political. In his earlier years he made it clear that he was a socialist, though his travels in the 1920s in the Soviet Union cured him of any hopes he might once have placed in the Leninist path. His growing nostalgia for the vanished Habsburg empire led him to eventually adopt a ‘monarchist’ position – a bizarre choice, many will feel, but one that is perhaps not incompatible in a constitutional regime with progressive politics. He also grew imaginatively closer to Catholicism, without ever renouncing his deep sympathy for the world of the eastern Jews from which he had come.
From his Parisian refuge Roth, who in 1923 had probably been the first person to mention Hitler in a work of fiction, never ceased to attack the Nazi regime, urging other European states first to isolate it diplomatically, then to stand up to its bullying before it was too late. By early 1939 he was no longer writing much, preferring to linger in the company of friends and fellow exiles in the café below his hotel.
After his death at the Hôpital Necker, he was interred in the Thiais cemetery outside Paris following a modestly Catholic ceremony (a burial ritual but no mass) attended by a huge crowd that included socialists, communists, Galician Jews and official representatives of the pretender to the Austrian throne, Otto von Habsburg.
Roth had certainly been lucky not to fall into the hands of the Nazis. His wife, Friederike (Friedl) Reichler, who had been a long-term patient in a number of mental institutions in Austria, where she was being treated for schizophrenia, was murdered, in accordance with national socialist policy on the mentally ill, in July 1940.
Czesław Miłosz was born in the final decade of the life of the Tsarist empire: his childhood memories include the manoeuvres of the Russian army, to which his father was attached during the First World War as a civil engineer, and the Bolshevik Revolution. He was raised in the Polish border city of Wilno, now Vilnius, capital of Lithuania, but spent three years of his childhood, from seven to ten, with his grandparents in the Lithuanian countryside where he had been born. The memory of this idyllic period informed his appealing lyrical novel The Issa Valley (1955). The valley in question (actually the Nieważa) was later to disappear off the face of the earth, as Miłosz recounted in an entry in the miscellany Miłosz’s ABC (2001):
Smoke from the hamlets has vanished, along with the creak of the well pumps, the crowing of roosters, barking of dogs, people’s voices. There is no longer the green of orchards embracing the roofs of the cottages – apple trees, pear trees, plum trees in every farmyard, between house, barn, and granary, so that the village streets were framed in trees.
In line with the policy of collectivisation, the farmers (‘kulaks’) were moved out to the Soviet far east, their orchards bulldozed and their holdings ploughed over, leaving only a mournful plain which those who remained dubbed ‘Kazakhstan’.
The coincidence of Miłosz’s rich family heritage (with Polish, Lithuanian, Baltic-German and perhaps even Serbian ancestors) and his coming of age in the kind of frontier city in which nationalism often presents itself in its most intolerant forms produced in him complex but deeply felt ideas about nationality. He was certainly attached to the Lithuania of his mother’s family but came to recognise, with his Polish education and later commitment as a poet to the Polish language, that this was destined to be a road not taken: ‘I am a Lithuanian to whom it was not given to be a Lithuanian’, he concluded.
In the Wilno of his youth, Poles shared a marginal territory somewhat nervously with Lithuanians, Byelorussians and Jews. The state had regained its independence in 1918 (as the Second Republic) after more than a century of non-existence. Established by the military successes of Marshal Józef Piłsudski and later consolidated by international agreement on territories that were home not just to ethnic Poles but to Germans, Lithuanians, Byelorussians, Ukrainians and Jews, Poland spent much time and energy in the 1920s and ’30s debating what kind of society it was or should strive to be.
Broadly speaking, the division was between the political family of Piłsudski (nominally a socialist one), which tended towards an inclusive definition of Polishness – you are Polish if you think yourself Polish – and that of his political rival Roman Dmowski, leader of the National Democrat or Endecja movement, which believed that Catholicism was an essential ingredient of Polishness and Catholic Poles must dominate all other ethnic groups, which were either dangerous to the nation or simply culturally inferior to it.
The press and slogans of the Endecja movement and its allies (many of them clerical), Miłosz wrote, entered his field of vision early:
My allergy to everything that smacks of the “national” and an almost physical disgust for people who transmit such signals have weighed heavily on my destiny.
One way in which that weight was felt was in the trajectory his career took in the immediate postwar period, when he served the state established on the back of Russian arms as cultural attaché in the United States and later France.
Miłosz’s antipathy towards nationalism – as well as his wish not to see pre-war social and property relations re-established in Poland – placed him inevitably on the political left: not a communist but certainly a ‘progressive’. This was a political profile which the authorities in Poland and other people’s democracies found very useful to have on board in the short transitional period – say up to 1947 or ’48 ‑ before it became possible for ‘full socialist democracy’ to be implemented, at which point the services of liberals, socialists or Christian democrats would no longer be required: the communist strategy, as one commentator put it, was that the lion would lie down with the lamb – but only the lion would get up.
In 1951, feeling himself to be increasingly under threat, Miłosz sought and was granted political asylum in France. While this decision may have protected him from arrest, followed by imprisonment or worse, it did not bring him any immediate comfort, either spiritual or physical. He wrote:
Westerners like to dwell in the empyrean of noble words about spirit and freedom; but it is not often that they ask someone if he has enough money for lunch.
Miłosz went through a lonely period, separated from his family, still in the United States. Eventually, it was ‘the beauty of the earth’ that pulled him out of his depression, a healing property in nature that he had already experienced in his childhood in Lithuania and in the open spaces of America; but this time it was different, as Europe gathered him in its ‘warm embrace’:
Europe, after all, was home to me. And in her I happened to find help…[W]hile I climbed the hills of Saint-Emilion, near a place where only yesterday the villas of Roman officials had stood, I tried to imagine, gazing out over the brown furrows of earth in the vineyards, all the hands that had once toiled here…Gradually…I stopped worrying about the whole mythology of exile, this side of the wall or that side of the wall. Poland and the Dordogne, Lithuania and Savoy, the narrow little streets in Wilno and the Quartier Latin, all fused together. I was like an ancient Greek. I had simply moved from one city to another. My native Europe, all of it, dwelled inside me, with its mountains, forests, and capitals; and that map of the heart left no room for my troubles.
The intellectual climate at the time of Miłosz’s defection to the West – or at least the climate among the intellectuals – was strongly disapproving of such a move. His friend Pablo Neruda – both would later be Nobel laureates – denounced him in the communist press as ‘The Man Who Ran Away’. In Parisian left-wing circles, he said, he was made feel as if he had committed a social blunder; only Albert Camus offered him his friendship.
A generation later, after the accumulated effects of the crushing of the 1956 Hungarian uprising, the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961 and the suppression of the reform movement of the Prague Spring by Warsaw Pact forces in 1968, the mood had changed significantly. Intellectuals in conflict with their governments in central and eastern Europe were now known as ‘dissidents’ and quite properly admired for their courage. When Milan Kundera arrived in Paris in the mid-’70s there was no one – or no one who counted – who was going to brand him a traitor to socialism.
‘Love of France’ Miłosz wrote, ‘although not mutual love, characterised the culture in which I grew up’. It was only gradually that he came to realise that
my part of Europe is a blank spot in the consciousness of the inhabitants of France, and that Alfred Jarry was simply confirming this when he set the action of [his play] Ubu Roi “in Poland, which is to say, nowhere”.
No doubt part of his motivation in writing his memoir Rodzinna Europa (1959) was the perceived need to familiarise western – and not just French – readers with that other Europe, that which is Europe too. The book’s English title, Native Realm, does not quite render the meaning of the Polish (‘Familial Europe’ perhaps) and it has been published as Otra Europa in Spanish, La Mia Europa in Italian and Enfant d’Europe in French. But it may be that Anglo-Saxon publishers feel it is best to keep the word ‘Europe’ out of a book title.
Perhaps Kundera, in his 1983 essay for Le Débat, was counting on central Europe still being a blank in French readers’ consciousness, a blank he could proceed to colour in for them with a potted history of his own that seems based more on how he would have liked things to have been rather than how they were.
For a Hungarian, a Czech or a Pole, he wrote, the word ‘Europe’ does not represent a geographical phenomenon; it is rather a ‘spiritual notion’, and, quite simply, a synonym for West. The moment that Hungary, for example, ceases to be European and western it loses its essence, its identity, its destiny. For an eastern European country like Bulgaria, domination by Russia may also of course be experienced as a misfortune, but it is not the same as for Czechs, Poles or Hungarians, for whom it is a question of a clash of civilisations (‘choc des civilisations’).
As regards the Habsburg past, and the squandering of its promise of enlightened federalism, Kundera knows where the finger of blame should be pointed: the Austrians, unable to decide if their future should lie with their ‘central European mission’ or in union with the German Reich, failed to construct out of their empire a balanced state in which all nationalities would enjoy equal rights. Disillusioned, the other nations peeled off and went their own way, thereby creating a number of small independent polities, whose weakness in due course facilitated the conquests of Hitler and Stalin.
The problems with this might begin with the simplifications that inevitably result from a radically condensed account of complex situations and processes; but they do not end there.
First there is the presentation of Kundera’s three chosen central European nations, the Czech, Polish and Hungarian, as virtually identical, highly idealised, entities – in religion Latin, in culture European, in moral character beyond reproach – whose constitutional status and relations to the Viennese centre were effectively the same. In historical fact each was quite different. Only one section of what was to become the Second Polish Republic in 1918 had ever belonged to the Austrian empire: the others had been parts of the German Reich and the Russian empire.
What was to become Czechoslovakia had been ruled partly from Vienna (Bohemia and Moravia) and partly from Budapest (Slovakia). Hungary was not subservient to Austria but its partner: the clue is in the name of the state: Austro-Hungarian Monarchy (Österreichisch-Ungarische Monarchie, or in Hungarian Osztrák-Magyar Monarchia).
And as a partner Hungary got to do its own dominating, treating its clients – Slovaks, Croats and Romanians – with what most historians agree was a greater degree of condescension than that shown by Vienna to its Czech, Slovene and Italian subjects, excluding them from significant power or attempting to assimilate them culturally to ‘Hungarianness’, a process known as Magyarisation.
In the boastful words of Béla Grünwald, an adviser to Hungarian prime minister Count Tisza in the late nineteenth century:
The Hungarian secondary school is like a huge machine, at one end of which the Slovak youths are thrown in by the hundreds, and at the other end of which they come out as Magyars.
Finally, it might be pointed out that Hungary was not, in the Second World War, a victim of Nazi Germany but its ally.
If it seems a little severe to tick Kundera off now for historical shoddiness in an article published nearly forty years ago it might be argued in defence that if we remain wholly ignorant of the historical currents in inter-war Poland or Hungary we are likely to be mystified as to where their currently governing parties can have emerged from.
Cees Nooteboom’s essay collection Wie wird man Europäer? poses the question of how one becomes a European. The initial and fairly simple step is just to be one, as for example Nooteboom managed on his own behalf by being born in the Netherlands in 1933. But that is only a bare minimum: every citizen, he argues, is inescapably a product of his national history, which is a pyramid on whose apex he must, so to speak, balance his head.
To be Dutch thus involves an empathetic engagement with a number of aspects of the national story: one must push back the sea, drain the land, be ruled by the Burgundians, wrest independence from the Spanish, fight the English, buy and sell, build a fleet, establish colonies in faraway lands and – all the while ensuring the home is kept dry – find time to fit in a little painting and invent the microscope and the pendulum clock.
That takes care of being Dutch.
Being European for Nooteboom, he writes, began when he was only a few days old, when certain Latin formulae were said over his bald skull as he was received into the Roman Catholic church, ‘a very European institution despite its universalist pretensions’. Later he was to be taught Latin and Greek, as well as modern languages, by Augustinian and Franciscan monks who told him of the wanderings of Odysseus and the abduction of the princess Europa by the god Zeus disguised as a white bull.
The first foreign language he remembered hearing, however, was that spoken by the field-grey-clad troops of the Wehrmacht, who invaded his country when he was six. After five years and 200,000 deaths – including that of his father – they were expelled by allied British, American, Canadian, French and Polish forces:
Someone had tried once again to unite Europe by force, and once again had failed, for Europe cannot be ruled by a single hegemonic power. Its multiplicity cannot be digested by a single body but must rather be apprehended through a mysterious process of alchemy.
Travelling has been an important part of Nooteboom’s life as a writer. In his twenties he hitched around Europe and sailed to South America as a merchant seaman. In his work as a journalist he covered the 1956 Hungarian uprising, the 1968 ‘events’ in Paris and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. He is best known to many readers as a travel writer, though he is also a poet, translator and author of fiction.
His attachment to the Netherlands and its writers – largely unknown outside that country – is evident but his intellectual wanderlust and appetite is also clear, not just in his life but in his imaginative work. In the Dutch Mountains (1984) reimagines a Netherlands that stretches from the North Sea to the Alps. In the novella The Following Story (1991) the protagonist goes to bed in Amsterdam but wakes up in Lisbon.
Nooteboom’s reach is extensive not just in space but in time. In the essay Musings in Munich (1989) in the travel collection Nomad’s Hotel, he writes of himself (or rather of ‘the traveller’) as someone who has never felt particularly comfortable in the here and now, always seeing it as tinged by the past. And yet, he observes, most people seem to do very well without the past and entire countries seem able, when circumstances require, to forget it completely.
But was it really true that he had never felt at home in the present? That would be romanticism and a trifle childish. It was more a question of not feeling at home between people who felt at home exclusively in the present, who pinned all their hopes on it.
Nooteboom is aware, in Munich, that he is in – or very close to – central Europe, or Mitteleuropa, a region which seemed, in his lifetime, to have been torn away from the continent. This is March 1989: still overcoat weather, not yet spring: the legalisation of Solidarity in Poland will come in April, the Berlin Wall will be breached in November and in December the Czechoslovaks will elect a non-communist government. Nooteboom feels the tug of the past,
the hermetically sealed world of Poland and Czechoslovakia…Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia and Trieste…the twice-lost worlds of Isaac Bashevis Singer and Vladimir Nabokov, of Kafka and Rilke, Roth and Canetti.
In France or in Italy, or in his own country, the past seemed to have arrived, by more or less organic processes, at the present. But further east, it was different: ‘Here that other part had not made it, had got stuck, bogged down, torn away. But it still existed, perhaps it was waiting’.
It is far from uncommon for writers commenting on society to express the view that, culturally speaking, we are living in the end times. This tendency towards morosity can be partially explained by their perception that they are radically undervalued, while others of scant merit – the professional chatterers of the newspaper columns and airwaves for example – are overvalued, and certainly overpaid. It is of course hard not to agree with this. But cultural pessimists of all ages have tended to feel that the times they happen to be living through are uniquely decadent. Forty years ago Milan Kundera thought culture was all washed up. In the Middle Ages, he wrote, Europe was united by a common religion; then, in the early modern period, this ceded its place to culture (art, literature, philosophy); and now culture too had ceded its place. To what? Technology? The market? Politics? Kundera was not sure:
I really have no idea. All I know is that culture has already given up its place. And so, the image of European identity recedes into the past. A European: someone who is nostalgic for Europe.
One does not, however, have to believe that either culture or Europe have vanished from the face of the earth to acknowledge the value to humanity – the irreplaceable value – of the past and the traces it leaves in the present. In an essay published in 1944, TS Eliot deprecated what he saw as a new provincialism, ‘a provincialism, not of space but of time: one for which history is merely the chronicle of human devices which have served their turn and been scrapped, one for which the world is the property solely of the living, a property in which the dead hold no shares’.
Kundera is not wrong in identifying ‘the European idea’ with a certain tendency to nostalgia: the intellectuals and scholars of the seventeenth century who kept up a voluminous correspondence (in Latin) across barriers of religious difference and national rivalry looked back to a time when ‘Christendom’ was one. The tolerant virtual Europe sans frontières to which they dedicated themselves they christened the Republic of Letters. Others remembered the pax romana, the benefits of Roman infrastructure, the reach of Roman law.
Versions of this idealised Europe of the spirit – of which Stefan Zweig is a quite typical example – made frequent appearances throughout the middle decades of the twentieth century, though many of the names associated with the movements in which they expressed themselves are now forgotten. Among the 750 delegates present at the grandly named Congress of Europe, held in The Hague in 1948, were, in addition to large numbers of former and future ministers from several countries, the philosophers Étienne Gilson and Bertrand Russell, the writer and diplomat Salvador de Madariaga, the sociologist Raymond Aron, the musician Sir Adrian Boult, along with many journalists, historians and church leaders. Aron, a sympathetic yet sceptical observer, recalled: ‘I followed the debates without taking part, unable to motivate myself to join in these tournaments of eloquence. We had been mandated by no one; even those who were delegates of a movement or party represented only themselves’.
It was not to be the Hague Congress which was to launch European construction, though it did lead to the creation of the Council of Europe, a body which still exists and which has responsibility – in a rather nebulous way – for matters of values and culture in Europe. Today’s European Union on the other hand grew out of the European Coal and Steel Community, an eminently down-to-earth and practical body sponsored by the French politician Robert Schuman and the public servant Jean Monnet, strongly supported by various, chiefly Christian Democratic, European statesmen. If some of the pères fondateurs of Europe came from traditions that were marginal in their own countries – Konrad Adenauer, a Rhineland Catholic, the Luxembourg-born, German-educated Schuman representing France, the Austrian-educated Alcide de Gasperi for Italy – the Coal and Steel Community’s main selling point was that it squarely addressed the essential national interests of continental Europe’s two major powers: France’s desire to control German industrial-military muscle, Germany’s desire to be readmitted to the concert of civilised nations. The countries in between – Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg – wished for a mechanism that would qualify the national egoism of both. But smaller nations would only really make their voices heard in the course of the EEC’s later progressive enlargements. For Charles de Gaulle, not the most enthusiastic of Europeans, all that counted was France and Germany: the others, he said, were merely the vegetables.
Some of us may find Miłosz’s broad historical vision of deep Europe appealing, or Nooteboom’s feeling for the continent’s inexhaustible cultural multiplicity (in German: Vielfältigkeit) – and of course some may not. It is not compulsory. Europe has had its visionaries and its doers, politicians, bureaucrats, servants of the public. While the former certainly have their inspirational role it is the latter that we are more inclined to rely on. For Nooteboom, the votary of the past, the future is something one can safely leave to ‘normal people’. But there is a somewhat skittish humour at work here, as indeed there often is with Nooteboom. We would, as most of us realise, be very foolish not to consider the future, or to ask economists and scientists (which is to say experts) to consider it on our behalf.
As a coda it might be worth mentioning the strange use which contemporary Eurosceptics are making of Stefan Zweig’s rather disembodied ‘Europeanism of the spirit’. John Gray, who provides a foreword to the Zweig essay collection Messages from a Lost World, purports to find his subject’s fears more convincing than his aspirations,
especially so today, when Europe seems to have reverted to a historical mean of chronic crisis. With a resurgence of nationalism in many countries and the inability of European institutions to come up with any coherent response to the migrants who are fleeing to the continent in search of safety, Zweig’s hopes of European unity are remote from any realistically imaginable future.
This is sophistry, but really only to be expected from a polemicist whose highly marketable brand of scepticism now seems to extend to almost any form of purposeful human activity. Gray shakes his head sadly at a European Union ‘[s]uspended between unrealizable ideals and unmanageable realities’, but are these ‘realities’ – the everyday problems of politics everywhere – any more manageable at national than international level? It would seem not from reading our newspapers, which in every country ceaselessly remind their readers of the latest failures of government. Whether from Brussels or from Dublin, we are governed in prose: failure, or a perception of failure, is our daily bread. It is of course our democratic right to be dissatisfied and ask for better, but we might also occasionally remember the nature of the world we live in. Ideals can certainly be useful things to have, but it is not normally in their nature to be realised.
British Eurosceptic propagandists in particular have been predicting the collapse of the European Union for ten or twenty years now, sure that the scales would eventually fall from the citizens’ eyes and they would realise it was all an impossible dream (or a system of oppression wrapped in a dream). But the citizens continue to disappoint them – seldom, it is true, wildly enthusiastic but apparently more solidly convinced than they have ever been that they are better off with Europe than without. For those whose positivity about the project goes beyond this simple cost-benefit calculation there is nourishment to be derived from European thought, art and culture, and there is of course territory to explore. Some of us might even, had we the means, wish to emulate Cees Nooteboom, who until recently divided his year between Menorca, Amsterdam and Berlin, when he was not setting off again in search of his ideal patria, ‘the mountains – the watershed of Europe – where the languages, the states, the rivers flow in all directions’. An enticing prospect, though for the moment of course all our voyages will have to remain virtual.

The European solution to ‘Macedonian question’

In March 2020, the Republic of North Macedonia became the thirtieth member of NATO, having changed its name from the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia in 2018 to overcome Greece’s veto. A long-delayed invitation to start negotiations for membership of the EU was expected to follow. On 17 November 2020, however, Bulgaria blocked the negotiation framework because of disputes over history, language and policies on ‘national identity’.
The US Department of State expressed its disappointment, as did EU representatives and leaders of member states. All appealed to the two countries to resolve their bilateral issues. But no quick and easy solution can be seen on the horizon.
The Bulgarian government’s decision was not surprising, given its populism and the history of similar examples involving North Macedonia. But in terms of the goal of long-term stability in South East Europe, it was astonishing. This goal will be impossible before the issue of North Macedonia has received a sustainable solution.
It is not Kosovo that poses the highest risk for the region, but North Macedonia. Kosovo was a Serbian ‘province’ and although the problem is acute, it involves only two countries. The case of North Macedonia, on the other hand, has multiple regional implications.
Mosaic by Petar Mazev in Memorial ossuary and museum of fallen fighters in the National Liberation War in Veles. Author: Dristovski. Source: Wikimedia
The ‘Macedonian question’
In a textbook published in 1977, Macedonia at the turn of the twentieth century was described thus:
The population was divided into nine distinct groups: Turks, Bulgars, Greeks, Serbs, Macedonians, Albanians, Vlachs or Kutzo-Vlachs, Jews and Gypsies … The Bulgarians used linguistic arguments to demonstrate that the Macedonian Slavs were indeed their brothers. Serbian anthropologists argued that their slava festival, also found among the Macedonians, made them Serbs. The Greeks sought to demonstrate that anyone in Macedonia under the authority of the ecumenical patriarch was Greek. Each nation thus used every conceivable argument to back its claims, and each could effectively be challenged … Bulgaria, Greece and Serbia all wished to acquire Macedonia or a major portion of it for three main reasons. First, it would enlarge the state and incorporate more nationals within it. Second, the acquisition of the Vardar and Struma river valleys and the railroads through them would have great economic advantages. Third, and perhaps most significant, whoever controlled Macedonia would be the strongest nation on the peninsula. For the great powers, this last concern was certainly the most important.
This description is an accurate account of how Macedonia was viewed and assessed at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries. During this period, the discourse on Macedonia produced what has since been referred to as the ‘Macedonian question’. At the turn of the twentieth century, Macedonia appeared not as a self-standing whole with its own political project, but as a space defined by the intersection of external viewpoints, first and foremost the political attitudes of its neighbours.
According to this discourse, the surrounding nations believed that Macedonia was a natural addition to their own completion; questions about history, language, ethnicity, and so on supported territorial ambitions. At the same time, Macedonia was seen as being imbued with special significance by the ‘great powers’ such as Germany, Russia, Austria-Hungary and Britain. Whoever controlled Macedonia, they believed, could exercise control over the entire region.
Today, the idea of altering state borders is anachronistic. There is also no reason to assume that North Macedonia has preserved the strategic importance it was once supposed to have. And yet its neighbours’ attitudes are still reminiscent of the old discourse. Today, the neighbouring states challenge North Macedonia’s language, its history and all kinds of national symbolism.
What a full satisfaction of these claims would look like is hard to say. If such demands were met, North Macedonia would have territory and state institutions – but no language, no culture and no history. This would be a very exotic construct, and truly absurd. Yet this fantastic image has direct political and security implications for the region.
A divided body politic
A second set of risks results from the tensions between the Slavic and the Albanian communities. The Albanians disputed their status under the ethno-nationalist constitution of 1991 and for many years demanded changes. The constitution had given them a secondary political rank as a community that was not ‘constitutive’ of Macedonian nationhood, as was the case for the Slavic community. This ethno-constitutional arrangement led to a series of other discriminatory laws, political decisions and practices. In 2001, the conflict escalated into a short civil war. The Albanian communities did not, however, support a territorial separation and limited their demands to equal constitutional status.
It is fair to say that the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia avoided territorial disintegration because of the moderation of the Albanian communities. The state itself was weak and incapable of imposing a central political will. The conflict was resolved through international mediation led by James Pardew, dispatched by the US Secretary of State Colin Powell, and the EU representative François Léotard. The result was the Ohrid Agreement in 2001, a large-scale reform of the existing constitution.
Since then, FYROM/North Macedonia has experienced a succession of political crises. At times, these have developed along ethnic lines, as was the case in 2017, when an ethnic Albanian was elected as speaker of parliament. But other factors have also played a role, such as corruption, discrimination, traditional hatred, political radicalization, lack of control on immigration from Kosovo. This combination was responsible for the Kumanovo clashes in 2015, involving an armed Albanian group calling itself the National Liberation Army. The clashes led to dozens of deaths on both sides, many injuries to the police and subsequent terrorism trails.
More often than not, political crises have involved high-level political and institutional corruption. In 2015, an EU investigation pointed out ‘electoral fraud, corruption, abuse of power and authority … blackmail, extortion … criminal damage’. Ever since 2001, FYROM/North Macedonia has been on the brink of state failure or collapse, but has survived against all odds. North Macedonia is also in a difficult economic situation, with up to 20 per cent unemployment and a large informal economy. This economic crisis has only been deepened by the pandemic.
Finally, for the last twenty years the country has been sliding down the steep slope of nationalism. This symbolic war has diverted valuable social energy into transforming Skopje into a national museum. This kind of state propaganda goes on not just in the architectural space of the capital, but at all levels of policy, education and the media.
Museum of the Macedonian Struggle in Skopje Photo by Тиверополник, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
These factors mean that the state continues to exist as a divided and problematic political form. State collapse is not an imminent danger, as in 2001, but is a perpetual risk. Ad hoc diplomatic missions cannot produce a sustainable stabilization. Yet another Ohrid Agreement, or amendments to the constitution, or even a new constitution altogether, would not be sufficient. Something essentially different is needed.
Beyond Balkanization
It is in the interest of all the neighbouring countries to detach themselves from the ‘Macedonian question’ and start thinking in terms of the overall stability of the Balkans. The entire region needs to take the scenario of Macedonian disintegration very seriously. If that were to happen, the result would be two unviable semi-states or two stateless communities. Such a development would produce an immediate domino effect. None of the neighbours could avoid serious damage.
The redrawing of boundaries in this part of the Balkans has been periodically suggested by some western politicians, such as David Owen, former British foreign secretary and negotiator during the Balkan wars of the 1990s. However, no country in the region has the capacity to integrate large portions of North Macedonia’s population, economy and society, even if they wanted to, and even if the main international actors agreed, which currently seems improbable.
The risks can therefore be minimized only by North Macedonia’s accession into a large, regulated community. In the past, the Ottoman Empire and the Yugoslav Federation provided security guarantees and prevented outside forces from posing occupation rings around Macedonia – even if they also involved repression and assimilation policies. NATO provides defence guarantees but little in terms of societal stabilization and development. Full EU membership is the only way to open the path to a stable North Macedonia.
International mediators, leading EU members states and US missions should make a strong effort to convince Bulgaria to support North Macedonia’s integration process. This is not an easy task, since the current policy finds massive support among Bulgarians, rather like Greece’s demand that Macedonia change its name.
But it is not enough to force Bulgaria’s government to submit to outside pressure. Instead, international facilitation should promote a radical change in the language with which neighbours talk about North Macedonia. Both the Bulgarian and Macedonian governments must be persuaded of the simple truth that international integration is about guaranteeing peace and security, not about history, symbols, memories and popular emotions. Both governments should take it as their duty to replace the language of romantic remembrance by a pragmatic language of international security.
Giving North Macedonia a real chance for European integration would be a crucial achievement in dismantling the reality of Balkan balkanization, which finds a powerful expression in the highly questionable ‘Macedonian question’.

Ecology starts at school

Green European Journal: Your book Dessine-moi un avenir (Actes Sud), co-authored with Rodrigo Arenas and Nathalie Laville, starts from the assertion that the original political project behind school education in France has had its day. Why?
Edouard Gaudot: Our analysis of France’s school crisis is that it’s not just about funding, staffing or training, but stems fundamentally from the obsolescence of its original project. The republican model of education that exists today in France was devised at the end of the nineteenth century, when the Third Republic and the construction of modern France were underway. The main aim of this republican school was, on the one hand, to consolidate the universalist mission of the Enlightenment, which it claimed to be furthering human and civil rights, emancipation through culture, knowledge, understanding and, of course, reason.
On the other hand, it also contained a vital political project: to embed the Republic in the nation and defend this Republic against its enemies within (the Church) and without (Germany). School education in France remains based on this model, despite demographic change, the democratisation of culture, European integration and globalisation, and the composition and maturity of French society.
Students clean up during the climate strike in Gap, FrancePhoto by Cocosea, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Education is increasingly recognised as a political cleavage. How are the polarisation of French society and the widespread disdain for elites, as highlighted by movements like the gilets jaunes, related to problems in the French education system?
There is a paradox that lies within the success of modern education. The great success is that we have reached a level of general knowledge that is unprecedented in human history – this doesn’t just apply to France but to all of the developed world. Today, even the least educated have a higher level of knowledge than they did in times past. This intellectual emancipation means that more people are thinking ‘by themselves’, even if, at times, it leads them to believe nonsense like the Earth is flat. When kids come out with conspiracy theories found online, they’ve taken the same approach as ‘scientists’: they’ve gone looking for knowledge, even if the source is contaminated.
One factor behind the crisis of trust in institutions is definitely school-related. As citizens, we no longer collectively take authority at its word. We doubt institutions and government. This is both a very good thing and something extremely problematic, because when you question authority, you must be able to replace it with either your own authority, or with alternative authorities. But alternative authorities could turn out to be a mullah online, a spiritual guru, or an online conspiracy. Here it gets interesting. School, in part, has fulfilled its mission by giving us tools to find knowledge but it hasn’t been able to prepare us for the next mission, which is to be autonomous in our authority.
The polarisation around education is also related to the cultural emancipation of elites from the rest of society. Demographic studies show that today, a third of society educated to university level exists in a sort of privileged bubble. If school no longer provides equitable dissemination of knowledge, it’s because part of society has, in a sense, seceded.
The gilets jaunes show – as do other movements – how part of the population feels despised and neglected by those who hold education, knowledge and power. And they aren’t wrong. They have enough education and knowledge to notice this difference and they regard it as an affront to their dignity. But they do not have the political and cultural means to close this gap.
This implies that the promise of education – the idea that everyone will receive an education which will equip them for success – has been broken.
Meritocracy is the promise. It’s like Catholic paradise: if you don’t rock the boat, you do what you’re told and you respect authority, then through your work and achievements, you will be able to better yourself. Yet experience, sociology and common sense teach us that this is false. This meritocratic promise, which was deceptive even in the 1960s when there was full employment and growth, has hit the wall of inequality today.
That’s what school is up against. School tells pupils to work to get a qualification or find a job, while the economic situation and immediate experience of many kids shows that this promise is false. They see their parents unemployed or in meaningless jobs for which they’re overqualified, they see discrimination, they know perfectly well that they don’t go to the Louvre like young middle-class Parisians. They know that, even if they do as well as they can, they’ll never catch up with those who had a head start.
So, school’s political project is obsolete and its promise of meritocracy is not being delivered. You start the book by quoting Greta Thunberg, who reminds us of perhaps an even greater promise, that of the future. Greta asks: why go to school if there’s no future? Your book says that education and school can provide a way out. How?
What we call ‘school’s identity crisis’ stems from the fact that, collectively, our society never asks the right question about school. When it comes to reform, everyone tries to adapt school to a new environment, while keeping the same structure and grammar. We argue that it’s not just a matter of adapting school, but rebuilding it to introduce the questions that the world asks us today.
We must ask the question that Greta asks: Why go to school if there’s no future? What are we going to learn at school? A trade? Socialisation? General knowledge? Today, with the universal library that is the internet, knowledge can be acquired anywhere, not just at school. School must above all prepare our children to face a world that is nothing like the one their parents knew.
There are three elements around which we believe it is necessary to rethink education. The first is the living world. Today, you can no longer study biology or geography without acknowledging the collapse of the living world and the upheaval of climate change. But you can’t deal with this by simply adding a chapter to natural sciences or geography and history textbooks; it’s more profound. It requires thinking our whole relationship with the living world. To take a concrete example, we’re convinced that school should also teach gardening: not to grow geraniums, but to understand the energy and science that connect seeds, soil, climate, patience and time, conditions for growth – and the ecosystem.
The second fundamental element is digital technology. We call this ‘the virtual’ in the book. Digital technology is a language and universe that is neither distinct from nor similar to the one we live in. Instead, there is a continuum between offline and online. The virtual is shaking up our relationships with other humans, the world, democracy, public space, and education.
Our fear is that all that school does is turn out lackeys for the ‘start-up nation’: a handful of people who succeed in getting ahead in this new economy, while many more are left behind and will find themselves working for Deliveroo, driving Ubers, or cleaning the offices for the new masters of the economy. If we are unable to anticipate the digital upheaval in the world of work, politics and human relationships, we will end up with even more polarisation, division and inequality.
The third element is interdependence, ‘connections’. Today, libertarians are the only ones who still say that you don’t need society and that you can go it alone. The myth of the self-made man, that’s all finished. We must replace this myth with another, that of connection; in other words, a description of our interdependence. And we must also learn about this interdependence at school, not just between countries, but between the virtual and the living world, between us and others – it’s a prerequisite for learning respect.
What are the implications for teaching methods? Understanding the virtual world isn’t just learning HTML. Learning about the living world isn’t just about learning gardening.
The change in teaching content necessarily entails a change in teaching methodology. When you learn about the living world, you no longer learn biology, geology, geography or chemistry. Instead, you learn about the links between all of these things and your relationship with the subject changes. The same goes for coding. Like Bernard Stiegler, who wrote the afterword to our book, we’re ardent advocates of teaching coding in school.
Then, there are obviously major things to change. The first is the way we recruit our teachers, because that will change teaching methods too. In France, teachers are recruited through a competitive examination system. Selection is based on erudition and academic study. There is often a gap between the level of subject mastery acquired by teachers and the level required in the classroom.
We must therefore change recruitment and pay teachers – who are very badly paid in France – better; we must organise their career so they aren’t prisoners of school and are instead teachers who have real life experience. Our teachers must be far more than just experts of the curriculum: they must be genuine guides – Heidegger talks about ‘shepherds of being’.
Where do new teaching methodologies fit into all this?
Although they are important for increasing awareness, new teaching methodologies like Montessori or Steiner are simply reactions to the rigidity of the system. So it isn’t just a competition between the traditional system and new teaching methodologies: we need to rethink our relationship with children.
In our western society, children are ‘little savages’. They’re either Rousseau’s ‘noble savages’ who must be left to be themselves, to live and to find themselves, as advocated by alternative teaching methodologies. Or children are savage creatures who must be tamed and civilised à la Emmanuel Kant, who hugely influenced the republican model of school education.
But children are neither noble nor ignoble savages: children are people. Only by changing our relationship with children and seeing them as people who have rights and who need to learn (and adults need to learn too) will change be possible. Ending the disconnect between childhood and adulthood, even with the prolonged period that is adolescence, means changing the organisation of school: the way that classes are organised, the way discipline is administered, even changing school buildings which, at times, resemble barracks.
What role would there be for children, parents, and all the people around school who aren’t necessarily teachers?
The educational community is a continuum. In remote societies, the village community shares responsibility for education – whether it’s hunters teaching how to hunt or cooks teaching how to cook. Our school is the product of our instinct for separation. We have a culture of disconnection: between private and public, secular and religious, nature and culture, children and adults, men and women, right and left. Education should work to bring them together.
That’s why we don’t want to ‘bring school into the twenty-first century’: we want to bring the 21st century into school. The twenty-first century means the environment, a different relationship with oneself, with society, with the world, with men and with women, and we want to bring all of this into school. We want school to change and become a privileged place, in other words, a place that’s protected to some degree, in which different influences can exert themselves. Obviously we can’t have parents turning up in the classroom; but neither can we have teaching staff or administrators dismissing parents by telling them ‘let us get on with it’.
The different parts of the educational community need to be connected so that education isn’t just a stage in life but continues throughout life. Everything that we’re saying about school and education policy amounts to a political revolution. This isn’t a book about education methodology, it’s a political book about school.
In The Fifth Sacred Thing, Starhawk describes a system in which school happens mainly out in the field, amidst nature, as well as in other significant places. We believe we need an education system that combines both knowing and doing, which doesn’t just teach theory and technique, but actually brings them together.
Photo by Archives du Jardin botanique de Montréal, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Regarding the political dimension, I’d like to draw a parallel with the United Kingdom. There, reforms that have given communities and parents greater opportunities to manage and even found schools have been associated with a sort of stealth privatisation. Does bringing communities into school, and thereby weakening school’s republican and universalist political project, run the risk of outside influences further reducing equality and opportunity?
Absolutely, but this is already the case. We’re already seeing the end of French republican universalism. The difference with Britain is that we’re not seeing this in terms of school autonomy, but rather decentralisation of education policy. Today, there is already very significant inequality between a school in the centre of Paris, Bordeaux or Lyon, and one on the outskirts of the city or in a rural area. The demographics are different, the socio-cultural environment is different, and so are the material conditions. Parents will sometimes try to circumvent the catchment area. And if they don’t succeed, they’ll seek excellence and meritocracy in the private sector, which today is often the answer to the failure of the republican promise.
The private sector means two things: private schooling or the tutoring market. The pandemic and the lockdown have laid bare and exacerbated the differences in cultural capital and technological wherewithal between families. We’ve seen an explosion in private tutoring in recent years because parents feel overwhelmed. They want the best for their children, but they can’t keep up with their children’s studies. They’ve also got their job to do and home to run. It’s privatisation as Chomsky describes: when public service are defunded and no longer work, people turn to private services.
By acknowledging these trends, your book has started a political debate around the meaning of education. Why has this debate has been absent until now?
School is a long-term project that can’t adapt to short-term political posturing. An education policy today shouldn’t be for the next five years, but for the next twenty years. Yet most reforms are tweaks, even when they are framed as ambitious reforms. That’s why we insist on having a political debate about school – not about ‘how to save school’ but about how to make sure that school prepares our children for what the world will be like in twenty years’ time.
There are few political movements today that have a real educational project. Reactionaries have one. They advocate for the return to tradition: teachers with authority, discipline and uniform. But their dream for the militarisation of school is an anti-educational project.
In our opinion, the only political family that still has an educational project are ecologists. But they have a tendency to neglect it, mainly for reasons to do with the history of political ecology. They built their educational project in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s on the rejection of authority, on alternative teaching methodologies, on liberating children, and some of it is outdated. In some cases, they went too far, on sexual liberation, for example. Ecologists have yet to rethink their educational project.
While they were once very insightful on school, Greens have increasingly become experts on the fight against climate change, energy transition, or participative democracy. But they’ve barely developed their technocratic vision for school. When they get into power, they often have very little involvement with education. They know and say that education is vital for the future. But there’s a disconnect between the green project and the way in which it is expressed in the institutional sphere.
Can school be a way for the Greens to achieve their political project in the twenty-first century?
We’re convinced that it can be. That’s why the working title for our book was ‘L’école-logis’ . Ecology is the future. And it’s the future of education too. Greens must redouble their focus on school, and not just teach children to recycle their rubbish. They must make school one of their pillars, their foundations, their core values – and a battering ram for bringing society into the twenty-first century.
The decarbonisation of the economy will happen with or without the Greens. The challenge isn’t the economy or the energy transition. It’s our relationship with ourselves, with others and with the planet. Ecology has a plan for that and it’s up to Greens to develop it. And it starts at school.