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Not another book on Europe! Every new crisis prompts historians to reconsider previous attempts to develop the idea. For many Europeans, the issue of sovereignty, in the sense of control over one’s own political body, remains marred by contradictions. Can Europe’s internal differences be preserved in an age of growing continental and global economic entanglements? Perhaps it’s time to backtrack a little. When, if ever, did Europe become an imagined community?

European Elites and Ideas of Empire, by Dina Gusejnova.
European Elites and Ideas of Empire, by Dina Gusejnova.

Historians of the twenty-first century are as split on these issues as European society was in the twentieth, thinking of the World Wars, the Holocaust, and the Cold War. The continent was more often divided than united, and even 1989, that promised ‘end of history’, turned out to be a kind of fake, as the wars in Yugoslavia and Ukraine have shown.

We are left with a double, or even a multiple persona: Europe seems to be a good idea with a terrible life history, a Jekyll and Hyde sort of continent. As an essentially contested concept, it is both a dark continent, and a progressive scheme with democratic potential.

Today, thinking about Europe often takes the form of binary decisions such as ‘Yes’ or ‘No’, ‘Like’ or ‘Dislike’, ‘In’ or ‘Out’, right and left, and a choice between European bureaucracy and insular ideas of national sovereignty.

Authors cannot choose when exactly a book sees the light of day, of course, but as they work on them they remain embedded in daily attempts to rethink the past. It’s useful to remember that books take years to write, and (from the point of view of a reader) a day to publish. When I started working on some of the core themes of my book, European Elites and Ideas of Empire, it was the year 2005, and the European Union faced its first constitutional crisis since the founding of the European Economic Community in Rome in 1957. In 2005, two EU member states, France and the Netherlands, said ‘no’ to the idea of a European Constitution in their referenda. After much back and forth, the EU governments resorted to a compromise: a so-called Reform Treaty instead of a Constitution, now known as the Lisbon Treaty, which has now replaced the original Rome Treaties on Europe’s economic integration of 1957 and 1958.

From today’s vantage point, that crisis of Europe around the years 2005-2008 seems tiny compared to the European debt crisis which erupted around the bankruptcy of Greece in 2009, a new war in central Europe in 2014, and the migration crisis of 2015. The black and white nature of this debate distracts our attention from fundamental issues facing Europe: voters’ alienation from European politics on all levels, shown in a declining turnout for most elections; growing economic inequality in Europe and other parts of the world; and the persistence of a specifically European form of racism in Europe and parts of the world influenced by European ideas.

My book shows how after imperial decline, between 1914 and 1920, intellectuals and political activists who formed part of transnational elite networks furnished their contemporaries with elements of their own supranational mentality. It was their vivid memory of multiple empires – including Austria-Hungary, Russia and Germany – that gave the idea of Europe wider traction. 1

At the same time, Europe experienced a process that involved at best an incomplete process of the continent’s internal decolonisation. Some Europeans tried to adapt to new ideas of national, ethnic, or class-based self-determination. Others looked for alternative forms of empire as sources of power. Historians have written much about imperial revival on the extreme right, such as the Italian fascists, the Nazis in Germany, and their global associates, and those who used to be called the extreme left – the Bolshevik builders of Soviet imperialism.

However, there were also other, more reluctant imperialists, often with liberal and even socialist sympathies, who emerged as critics of national or class-based ideas of democratic sovereignty. This latter group revived imperial notions of sovereignty in order to reconcile their own sense of a multicultural as well as aristocratic identity against a rising current of German racism and Soviet doctrinal anti-elitism.

They believed in the possibility of reaching a gentleman’s agreement with their more radical contemporaries in the Soviet Union and Nazi-occupied Europe. While this group seemed to have clearly lost power by 1939, arguably, the idea of a compromise between democracy and imperialism regained its vitality in the aftermath of the Second World War.

We Europeans cannot vote ourselves in or out of this heritage: all we can do is decide what sort of situation we want to be in in the future. I certainly hope that some of my ideas will inform current thinking on Europe. Revelling in myths of national sovereignty or cosmopolitan internationalism whilst ascribing ‘evil’ characters to an imagined ‘other’ such as ‘Germany’ or the ‘Nazis’ is an infantile strategy, like beating the table from which we normally eat but on which have just hit our head. Instead, we should look at the past as a laboratory of ideas and social experiments of which some went awfully wrong and others deserve a second look.

I’ve contributed to such debates before, including writing a blog post and signing a letter. However, I would not suggest using this book to support causes – even those I generally agree with. 2 I do not believe that historical arguments invite any direct conclusions for political decisions. Europe’s past ought to be discussed separately from thinking about its present. Deciding on its future takes more than a signature, and more than a local ‘yes’ or a ‘no’. Take this as an anti-ad, if you like. It’s summer. Let’s step out of the Republic of Letters, and go to Calais, to Thessaloniki, to Kiev, to make up our minds there and then. You can still read my book on the way.

Dina Gusejnova is a Lecturer in Modern History at the University of Sheffield. Her research interests include twentieth-century intellectual and cultural history, and the history of Europe in global contexts. Her new book, European Elites and Ideas of Empire, 1917–1957, is now available fully open access at Cambridge University Press, with launches at Blackwell’s Sheffield on 15 June (4.30pm) and at Hatchard’s St. Pancras on 29 June (12.00-14.00).


  1. My book approaches the genealogy of Europe by recovering the history of Europe’s vanishing empires as a social and intellectual process.
  2. Such as this recent letter which fellow historians recently signed in support of a pro-Europe vote in Britain.
Tags : BrexitEU ReferendumHistory of Europetwentieth century
Dina Gusejnova

The author Dina Gusejnova

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