As we re-think and re-define our relationship with Europe following the Brexit vote, its become increasingly apparent that everyone has a different view of what Europe is for. I've been investigating the role that British writers played in advocating for and defining our role in Europe after World War Two.
How did they envision Europe, what did they hope it would achieve and why did they want a united Europe after the war?
What I've found is that, beyond the economic and political associations of the E.U., the cultural and emotional origins of this Europe can be found in the work of writers like George Orwell, Storm Jameson and E.M. Forster, whose ideas informed the cultural imaginary of Europe as it was being forged in the crucible of postwar Europe.
The idea of Europe itself, had of course, been around for centuries. For historian Pim Den Boer, 'the term "Europe" has a long history, but the idea of Europe is a recent phenomenon' dating back to the nineteenth century. The term is thought to date back to the Enlightenment, when it was linked to the idea of a republic of letters that operated transnationally across the continent. Europe as a supranational entity in its current form really started with the formal economic Union formed when the Treaty of Rome was signed in 1957.
But writers like Orwell and many others had been advocating throughout the interwar period and into World War Two for a united Europe - not a Europe of economics but one of political and culture union. This was symbolised, for them by a literary community, based around the porosity of borders and the free movement of ideas. They felt that it was this cultural (and political) community, rather than its economic equivalent, would offer the opportunity to build better and fairer nations following the war. For many writers, a culturally and politically united Europe formed a crucial part of their fiction and non-fictional work during the war years.
Orwell comes to the conclusion in his essay 'Toward Europe Unity' (1947) that the only way to avoid nuclear annihilation or development of totalitarian super-states post-World War Two, was the establishment of a 'socialist united states of Europe' in which democratic principles could be safeguarded and upheld. Although his hope for Europe is described chiefly in terms of a group of states to practice what he terms 'democratic socialism', this is combined with an equal belief:
'that it is only in Europe, if anywhere, that democratic Socialism could be made a reality in short enough time to prevent the dropping of the atom bombs'.
This Europe is about shared values of equality and internationalism but it is also about peace. For Margaret Storm Jameson, a successful novelist from Yorkshire, this idea of Europe is also based on socialist values, in which the problems of poverty, inequality and aggressive capitalism would be alleviated. Jameson hoped that Europe's 'spiritual heritage' what she called 'the genius of Europe, its old traditions, its old habit of growth and discovery, its young energy, [would] lift us out of the shadows' of war. She, like Orwell, saw these traditions of democracy and justice as antithetical to the unrestrained capitalism which she thought had brought Europe to war. For her, a united Europe was a challenge to capitalism and a tool for social progress and political transformation.
This is all, of course, highly ironic in light of the view of many within the contemporary Left of the E.U. as an instrument, not of socialist progress but of capitalist greed. Nonetheless many writers at this time felt that Europe's great value was as a literary and cultural entity and were passionate about saving this legacy, rather like the American soldiers depicted in the George Clooney's 2015 film The Monument's Men. But these writers were not defending priceless works of art, but Europe's literary works and the writers who produced, and would go on producing, them.
For others, like E.M. Forster, books were the ultimate weapon against fascism because:
'books have troubled the Nazis most because of their tendency to comment on contemporary life, even when they were written years ago'
He viewed the freedom and continuation of the European republic of letters as crucial in defeating fascism. Forster, like many others, believed that Europe's books, its shared literary traditions, held the key to its survival.
Imagining a new postwar Europe was a task, then, which fell to writers, who channelled into it their own fears and aspirations, political and literary. They believed that it was Europe's shared cultural heritage which would hold it together and which would inform what it became during the postwar period.