Ghosts of Versailles: Europe’s Past and its Politics

Empires are always difficult to talk about. On paper, we no longer live in their world; we say we live in a world of nations. Though the question of what precisely a nation is continues to be a contentious one. Depending on whom you’re talking to, the word ‘empire’ can conjure up potent images of pain or pride, hatred or nostalgia, violence or civilisation. Long a central focus for academics, the debate on the legacy of imperialism has in recent months taken on a new significance in popular culture. 

The protests in the United States sparked by the murder of George Floyd have energised debates about race relations and equality – including in Europe. These discussions are often heated because empire remains within living memory for many people in countries like France and the United Kingdom. Millions more grew up in the tumultuous context of decolonisation. Comparing the then and now is therefore an understandably attractive exercise. Empire can represent oppression and white supremacy but – just as easily for others – it can signify stability, prosperity, honesty. Qualities that our own age lacks, they might argue; all the more reason to be proud of what was once the order of the day.

The United Nations complex in Geneva, formerly home to the League of Nations Secretariat in the inter-war era.

This brings me on to the topic of this article. A  little over a century ago, the map of Europe was radically redrawn at the end of the First World War in a series of conferences held at Versailles and other suburbs of Paris. Entire countries disappeared and several more were created in a peace settlement that, whilst indisputably crafted by – and in large part for – the victors, introduced liberal notions of self-determination and the protection of minority rights to the highest table in international relations. The man most indelibly linked to this project, which was doomed to failure where the maintenance of peace is concerned, is the U.S. President Woodrow Wilson. An idealist and a man with a background in the academic study of politics, Wilson convinced his country to follow him into the First World War on account of it being a just and noble cause.

There was a deep suspicion in America that the country would end up bogged down in the endless, immoral squabbles between egoistic rulers that had plagued the ‘old world’ for time immemorial. The President aimed to counter this distinctly American fondness for isolationism by claiming that there would be something different about the peace he would secure in Paris. To ensure that the Great War would go down in history as the ‘war to end all wars’ required the establishment of a new order that would suffice to remove the incentives and motives for future conflict. Wilson’s ideas are recognisable to us today because they are the ancestors of those championed by bodies like the United Nations and the European Union. Before the fighting had even ceased on the Western Front, he penned one of the most influential doctrines on foreign policy in recent history, which we now refer to as the Fourteen Points. For Wilson, the stirred nationalist passions of European peoples had paved the way for world war and explained much of its ensuing intensity and ferocity. Naturally, then, something had to be done about the sprawling, multicultural, multireligious empires of the Ottomans and Habsburgs that had dominated much of the continent for centuries.

In recent years, they’d become powderkegs of discontent and violence and appeared not merely unviable but deeply unjust. The spark that set off the conflict in 1914, after all, came from the actions of a group of militant Serb nationalists in Bosnia, then a territory of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. To prevent further bloodshed, a new order appeared necessary, founded on the principle of nationality. But, of course, to ‘rationalise’ in this way a continent that had been predominantly divided into a complex web of dynastic states, where rulers governed subjects and not peoples, was an impossible task.

U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, a champion of the universalist principles of self-determination and international cooperation.

Impossible, that is, if the humanitarian vision of respect for human dignity that Woodrow Wilson espoused was to be upheld in any meaningful way. There would always be minority communities – including those, such as the Roma or the Jews – for whom a country of their own would be deemed politically impossible or unviable. What degree of displacement and forced relocation was to be condoned in the noble pursuit of a sustainable and peaceful Europe?

Furthermore, abstract principles, however attractive they may appear from a distance when applied to lands of which one is near-ignorant, are distinctly less appealing when applied to your one’s country. Wilson had for allies in the First World War two colonial powers, Britain and France, who had struck a secret deal in 1916 to divide up the spoils of the collapse of Ottoman power in the Middle East. Italy stood by, eager to gobble up the spoils of war in the Adriatic and further afield. Try as he might, he proved unable to rein in these unsavoury tendencies. The American President was no strict egalitarian himself either, though, and disappointed opponents of racial segregation in his own country by his domestic and international exploits. The Versailles settlement, as the host of treaties that concluded the war are commonly known, would not be free from hypocrisy or dirty-dealing. For some, it positively reeked of it.

The most obvious consequences of the 1919 settlement are well-known. Germany lost considerable territory to the reconstituted Poland, not to mention all its colonies, and was burdened with large war debts – plus the humiliating presence of a Franco-Belgian occupation force in the west of the country. This treaty alone, however, did not guarantee the rise of Nazism, as any history book will tell you. A whole host of other factors contributed to the collapse of the nascent liberal democracy of the Weimar era, including the fallout from the Wall Street Crash and fatal partisan divisions in the anti-fascist opposition forces.

As of late, it has become common to seek out the similarities between our own age and the 1930s. The unhealthy polarisation, the economic climate ranging from unease to despair, the targeting of minorities, the sense of powerlessness and loss of status – all are factors that we can note in 2020 as easily as in Continental Europe some ninety years ago. And no doubt, some of those marching down streets, offering punditry on television and YouTube, holding elected office, are real fascists. But reducing our analyses of political movements or personalities we may not agree with to the question of whether or not they are the ideological heirs of Mussolini or Hitler is untenable.

Winston Churchill surveys bomb damage in London during the height of the Blitz. The ‘Blitz Spirit’ is often invoked in British politics today.

Fascism was just one political project to emerge from the aftermath of the First World War. Just as that vile ideology was not destroyed by the Second World War, we would be wrong to claim that the events of a century ago are irrelevant to the political landscape of Europe today. A century is just enough time for events to be beyond living memory and hence open to reinterpretation, but close enough to our own times to inspire passion and polarisation. Every country tells itself stories about its past glories and tragedies; the ‘Blitz spirit’ of defiance in the face of adversity is often invoked by British politicians in an attempt to invoke a feel-good, can-do spirit. We’ve seen it pop up in the discourse around Brexit and the UK’s ‘battle’ against the COVID-19 pandemic this year.

Similarly, in other countries, the lingering sense of bitterness and trauma stemming from defeat in the First World War continues to inspire politics today, in often unusual ways. Turkey’s authoritarian president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, governs a country that only emerged in 1922, from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire. Many of the battles in contemporary Turkish politics date from that period, when Mustafa Kemal orchestrated a decisive break from the Ottomans’ Islamic, imperial past to forge a secular, Western-facing country that he hoped would come to feel itself an intrinsic part of Europe. Amongst his reforms were enforced changes to clothing, religious expression and the adoption of a Latin alphabet. But for many, particularly devout Muslims in Turkey, these changes proved alienating and bred resentment.

Fast-forward to 2020 and Erdogan has emerged as a champion of Islamic-conservative policies in the secular country. Originally heralded for his reformist policies aimed at bringing Turkey in line with EU standards in preparation for accession, as well as measures that went some way to heal long-standing internal ethnic tensions, Erdogan has since undergone a dramatic change in tone. A flagship measure in recent months was the reversion of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul to use as a fully-functioning mosque.

Kurdish protestors march in London, against the Turkish state’s invasion of Syria.

Beyond its provocative impact on neighbours such as Greece, this move should be read as a clear nod to Erdogan’s religious base, for many of whom the Ottoman era presents much of positive value, such as a sense of prestige and integrity that Turkey’s secularist overtures to Europe over the past century have done much to erode. It would be no exaggeration to claim that the ruling AKP party has embraced a vision of politics heavily based on the legacy of the empire, which exerted in its prime influence far beyond its heartland in Asia Minor and occupied a position of leadership in the Islamic world. In the last year, Ankara has intervened militarily in neighbouring Syria and Libya, both formerly parts of the Ottoman Empire, and made overtures to countries far further afield, like Malaysia and Pakistan. Turkey has not been so impactful on the world stage for decades, but this is to the detriment of its relations with the West.

But it would be a mistake to assume that Erdogan is simply a traditionalist. Along with blunter moves such as packing higher educational institutions with government affiliates and clamping down on editorial independence in newspapers, he’s promoted a new wave of Turkish filmography that revives shadowy figures from the Ottoman era. The president’s recommended TV viewing includes a recent dramatisation of the life of Sultan Abdülhamid II, widely regarded as the last ruler of the Ottoman Empire to exercise effective control over the country.

A similar phenomenon is going on in Hungary, ruled since 2010 by the right-wing populist Viktor Orbán. A former student of sociology who wrote his thesis on Antonio Gramsci, Orbán has sought to construct a cultural and political hegemony founded in large part on the complex, tragic history of his country in the last century. For him, and many Hungarians, the end of World War One represents an eternal trauma.  In the ensuing peace treaty, Hungary lost 72% of its land and 64% of its population in what was called a national catastrophe. The decades that followed, featuring such sequences as Hungary’s alliance with Nazi Germany during the Second World War and the authoritarianism of over forty years of communist rule did little to paper over the cracks of 1920. In the 21st century, Orbán makes the case for an ‘illiberal democracy’ that must stand firm in the face of interference from Western Europeans unfamiliar with the intricacies of life in Central Europe, in Hungary. As far as culture is concerned, the ruling party has thrown its weight behind such spectacles as a rock opera based on the aforementioned Treaty of Trianon.

Budapest’s royal palace is seen across the Danube from the contemporary parliament building. The events of a century ago weigh heavily on the politics of Hungary.

Irrespective of whether figures like Orbán and Erdogan succeed in their political projects, one thing is certain. As William Faulkner famously wrote, “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.” This is not just a cliché. History will continue to be appropriated, interpreted and adapted for our own age. That the events of a century ago continue to haunt us is a testament to the power that tradition, the sense of being part of something greater and older, continues to have on our politics.

Written by: Jacob Grech


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