Thursday, 28 April 2016

What Would One of France’s ‘Great Men’ Say?
Victor Hugo’s Vision of the ‘United States of Europe’

As fate would have it, on June 23rd at a UK conference I will be delivering a keynote address about what one of the nineteenth century’s most globally recognized voices would have to say about the EU Referendum. Victor Hugo’s popular writing (including the wildly successful novel Les Misérables) and his outspoken political interventions as both a public figure and an elected representative make him a high-profile figure to invoke. Indeed, Hugo increasingly used his celebrity throughout his long and storied life to lobby for a universal republic of European nations that he believed was a natural consequence of the French Revolution’s principles of liberty, equality, and brotherhood. Collective freedom, mutual respect, and lasting solidarity could become the hallmarks of a modern Europe in Hugo’s eyes. He would undoubtedly have been a vocal critic of the EU’s present shortcomings as a political entity, but he equally would have resisted any urge to cut the ties that bind the continent together.  

It was Hugo, after all, who promoted the term ‘the United States of Europe’. He first used this phrase in his inaugural address to the
International Peace Congress in Paris on 21st August 1849, where he imagined an ‘intimate’ union of European countries through cultural and commercial ties alike. A bust of Hugo can still be found standing in front of an extract from this speech in the French National Assembly in Paris, although Hugo had erected a monument of his own on the symbolic date of 14th July 1870 when he planted an oak tree as a symbol of future European growth. Hugo has become something of a public monument himself, of course, receiving a huge State funeral in 1885 and being interred in the Paris Pantheon as one of France’s ‘great men’ who continues to be regarded as a bearded patriarch of the French Republic and its humanitarian values.

My current research explores the cultural influence that Hugo exerted both during and after his life as a grand homme, so it has been timely this month for me to think about his conception of Europe, which was at once hopeful and anxious. While he rarely underestimated the more egotistical aspects of human nature, he remained committed to an inclusive social philosophy that prioritized cohesion over distinction. Hugo was acutely aware of the political tensions that threatened continental stability throughout the nineteenth century, having himself grown up during the
Napoleonic Wars, and so he repeatedly tried to direct attention to the need for greater cooperation across the continent. Simón Bolívar’s proposition of a holy alliance of Latin American nations at the 1826 Congress of Panama had given Hugo a model of opposition against the monarchical grip of old Europe – a model which he believed could reinvigorate the ideals of the French Revolution and productively reorganise the continent.

Hugo began by believing that a single ‘great’ figure like Napoleon would be needed as the driving force behind such a project, but as his conservatism waned he came to prioritize the sovereignty of the people and the importance of their democratically elected governments. Towards the end of the 1840s, he envisaged a multinational European entity whose main goal would be collective prosperity rather than just national security. This Europe was a continent of free trade and movement, bound by a shared sense of history and a collective rejection of autocracy, with military budgets transferred to civilian purposes so as to improve education and technology. Central to this idea of Europe was Hugo’s Romantic worldview, which looked beyond divisive and restrictive lines to stress interconnection and kinship between all things. Open minds demanded open borders in every sense for Hugo, requiring a focus not on nationalist vanity but on fraternal fortune.

When the
Franco-Prussian War broke out in 1870, Hugo’s dream seemed like a farcical fantasy, especially when France herself descended into a bloody civil war between the ensuing Paris Commune and the Versailles government. Yet ‘the terrible year’, as he called it, underlined his belief that the European nations needed to fortify a broadly conceived common ground before any specifically political infrastructure could be put in place. In this respect, Hugo turned to his own country in an attempt to move beyond old partitions. His 1872 poetry collection The Terrible Year stirred uncomfortable memories in order to open up painful national wounds and target France’s failure to overcome the divisive legacy of 1789. Two years later, his final novel, Ninety-Three, picked yet more aggressively at these lesions by dramatizing the civil conflict of 1793’s Reign of Terror so as to confront France’s internal tensions between republicanism and reactionary conservatism, as triggered by 1789 and as sustained by 1871.

Although the tragic ending of that novel reiterates Hugo’s uncertainty towards whether his own generation could ever realize the potential of a united Europe, he continued to stress the futility of conflict between shared interests.
In 1876, for example, when Serbia declared war on the Ottoman Empire in support of Bosnia and Herzegovina, he used the resulting military atrocities to argue once again for ‘the necessity of the United States of Europe’. ‘Let us replace political questions with human ones,’ he pleaded, ‘for our entire future depends on it.’ At a time when the political rhetoric around the EU Referendum is often striking a divisive, even confrontational, tone, Hugo’s voice arguably remains resonant in its call to look beyond nationalistic oppositions and economic self-interest towards ideals of collective prosperity. Them and us, me and you, are ultimately one and the same, so breaking up the Union rather than continuing to work together to improve it would be short-sighted rather than visionary – a step back away from the democratic dreams of the late eighteenth century, rather than forward into the future.

Dr Bradley Stephens, Senior Lecturer in French

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