Memories of a Tranquil Revolution

By Schmitt, Hans A. | The Virginia Quarterly Review, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview

Memories of a Tranquil Revolution


Schmitt, Hans A., The Virginia Quarterly Review


The writing of history encompasses two activities: the reconstruction of past events and the chronicling of contemporary happenings a historian wants to protect from oblivion. As it happened, my first book, The Path to European Union: From the Marshall Plan to the Common Market, was such a chronicle, the result of fortuitous familial involvement in the beginnings of European union.

My maternal uncle, Richard Hamburger, advisor to the Dutch ministry of foreign trade, was recruited by the civil service of the European Coal and Steel Community to become director of that first European organization's antitrust division. This appointment suggested to my wife that I exploit this coincidence and become the recorder of events which we both considered to be revolutionary in scope.

Thanks to a Fulbright grant, my family and I spent the academic year 1956/57 in Luxemburg, the provisional headquarters of the European Coal and Steel Community, where I was able to reconstruct the events that brought Europe to this Rhode Island-sized grand duchy, and watch how this fledgling enterprise set the nations of western Europe on a new course. The LSU Press published the book in 1961 and entrusted its final polish to a rising young editor, Staige Blackford.

I began my work exactly a decade after the U.S. Army had redeployed me home from the European theatre. What I found now was unrecognizable. It bore no resemblance to the sorrowful spirit permeating the continent during the first dismal postwar winter. Resentments, no matter how justified, had been mastered, and traditional enemies were unlocking the mysteries of partnership.

As a vision, or ambition, a united Europe constituted no novelty. In the 17th century, Quakers had apostrophized continental organization as a cure for perpetual warfare between rulers. Philosophes and diplomats indulged similar dreams throughout the Age of Enlightenment, but, as Voltaire concluded, none of these fantasies ever breached the boundaries of imagination. Eventually, the leader who came closest to their realization was a conqueror-Napoleon Bonaparte. Defeats at Europe's geographic extremes-Spain and Russia-put an end to his ephemeral empire, and his nephew Napoleon III-ever willing to outdo his predecessor without taking his risks-preferred to join the Utopians as patron of a League for Peace and Freedom (1869). Another league "for the Union of Europe" remained fitfully active until 1914, also with no practical results.

Woodrow Wilson's project of a League of Nations launched no assault on state sovereignty, and Hitler's short-lived tyranny which sought to Germanize Europe from the Pyrenees to the Urals and from the Mediterranean to the Arctic also withered in a succession of Russian winters. After his fall, fear of another ideological conqueror, the USSR, gripped many European hearts. A renewed search for unity against this threat from the east was certainly one factor that helped persuade central and western European nations to consider burying a past of violent rivalry and supporting one another's economic recovery and political independence. Thoughtful leaders also began to recognize that this could not be achieved by the established conventions of international intercourse.

The single, most important consequence of this pragmatic departure from established practice occurred on May 9, 1950: French foreign minister Robert Schuman confronted this psychological complex of fear, hope, and confusion with the proposal that a new era of European peace be initiated by placing two key industries-coal and steel-under the control of an independent, supranational authority. While the individuals on this body-not international but sovereign-would come from member countries, they could not take instructions from, or represent the interests of, their respective governments. Decisions would be made by majority vote. The requirement of unanimity that had paralyzed international organiza-tions before would not impede the work of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC). …

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