Wij Europeanen (We Europeans)

Author Wim de Wagt (www.wimdewagt.nl), translated from Dutch into English from the e-Book version 2015



Wij Europeanen is a thrilling and educational academic book. Wim de Wagt narrates in detail how immediately after World War I its negotiators began to understand that the 1919 Peace Treaty of Versailles, with its harsh and rigid measures against the defeated Germany, was sowing the seed of a new World War. This book also explains why the League of Nations – established by the initiative of President Woodrow Wilson – was too weak to prevent such a Second World War.

De Wagt sketches how a Europe-wide desire for cross-border unity, co-operation and brotherhood – also supported by countries outside of Europe – was flaring up between 1919 and 1940, the so-called Interbellum. This fire would be extinguished by the brutal violence of World War II. The carnage of World War I offered unprecedented geopolitical renovations within and outside of Europe. They created a stage for statesmen, writers, academics, artists and many activists to disseminate in a diversity of modes the need for a united Europe. Again and again accompanied by the concept of ‘federalism’ as the principal instrument to achieve the goals of European-wide unity, citizenship, co-operation and brotherhood.

This is a literally written academic documentary, though partly fictional, a journalistic description of a fascinating phase in political history. However, De Wagt also offers a frightening mirror of failing political authority between the two World Wars. Frightening because at present – around 2016/2017 – nationalistic-driven politics throughout Europe once again rear their ugly heads the always latent protectionism of European countries. The European Union is insufficiently prepared, unable to eliminate the anarchy – in the sense of the lack of coherent and enforceable cross-border administration – by bridging the Member States fundamentally through a constitutional and institutional foundation.

In reviewing Wij Europeanen I focus on those moments between 1919 and 1940 that highlight sharply the striving for a European Federation as the appropriate instrument for achieving European unity, citizenship, co-operation and brotherhood. Occasionally I shall step aside to accentuate aspects in the context of the conceptual framework of ‘federalism’. If there is one idle and wrongly used concept in the Interbellum it is the word ‘federalism’.

Some key figures

In this book two people operate in the centre. The French statesman Aristide Briand – sometimes Prime Minister, sometimes Minister of Foreign Affairs in the often-changing French Cabinets. And his German colleague Gustav Stresemann, Chancellor and Minister of Foreign Affairs under President Von Hindenburg. Both men received, in 1926, the Nobel Prize for peace.

There is a third person I should mention: Richard, count Coudenhove-Kalergi. Born in the former Austrian-Hungarian empire, he suddenly became citizen of Czech-Slovakia due to changes in several country borders after World War I. He had Dutch ancestors and was politically independent. In the spring of 1920 he conceived a plan: the unification of Europe under the auspices of a new international organization. At the time the President of Czech-Slovakia – Tomás Masaryk – was already establishing a Confederation in Central Europe. Eventually aimed at creating a federal bond of the Danube-states, including Austria and Hungary.

In this episode, immediately after World War I, many movements were whirling throughout Europe: nationalism, federalism, imperialism, orthodoxy, socialism and communism. Tomás Masaryk was of the opinion that the time was not ripe for Coudenhove’s plan for a united Europe. Even though he himself had undertaken quite some efforts to establish the United States of East-Europe, intended as a buffer between Germany and Russia. However, at his old age he deemed himself incapable of starting to work on such an encompassing plan as Coudenhove had in mind. So, Coudenhove-Kalergi went to Briand and Stresemann and managed to enthuse both men for the plan to unite Europe through cross-border administration as the one and only instrument for achieving European-wide togetherness and brotherhood.

De Wagt refers in the third place to a very large group of people who were either directly or indirectly committed to the cause. Among whom the French Prime Minister Herriot, a fervent advocate of European integration. Besides him the Prime Minister of England, Henderson, and the Minister of Finance, Churchill. The latter is presented in the next book by Andrea Bosco as a European federalist, in relation to Charles de Gaulle. Jean Monnet – after World War II advisor of Robert Schuman – also plays a role on that stage. At the end of Bosco’s book review I will address Monnet’s role.

It would go too far to mention the whole list of influential people who were part of this phase of flaring up European unity. I make an exception for two Dutch men.

In the first place Robert Peereboom, chief editor of the Haarlems newspaper. After World War I he became an activist pro world peace, though his approach did not fall on fertile grounds during the General Meeting of the League of Nations in 1931 in Geneva. That is why he began to focus on the component elements of European citizenship. He adopted an action from The News Chronicle (UK), which encouraged its readers to support the upcoming disarmament conference in Geneva in February 1932. Peereboom began a petition in the Netherlands. No less than eighty-four newspapers followed. He collected 2,438,908 signatures of a population comprising hardly 4,5 million Dutchmen older than eighteen years. Carrying seventy boxes he went to Geneva.

The second one is J.H. Schultz van Haegen, former leader of the Dutch department of the International Union of Young Europe (Geneva) and secretary of the ‘Association to further the establishing of the United States of Europe’. He was a fervent protagonist of a European Federation after the example of the United States of America. He dared to step forward, pleading European federalization in accordance with the constitutional and institutional principles of America. For instance by issuing the pamphlet ‘Who wants peace should further the establishment of the United States of Europa’.

Schultz van Haegen was aware of the federal plans of Coudenhove-Kalergi and Aristide Briand. He understood perfectly well that such plans would only be feasible if built from the bottom up: “The urge has to come from the bottom up, only a powerful public opinion can achieve this.” However, De Wagt tells us that Schultz van Haegen did not succeed in gathering more than two thousand members for his Association furthering the United States of Europe.

Treaty of Versailles, League of Nations, many new European countries, rising nationalism

The 1919 Treaty of Versailles contained harsh measures against Germany. Soon the drafters of the treaty realized that it would be the source of a new war. Hence the need for additional political measures to mitigate Germany’s pain. Including less reparation payments to the allies and the withdrawal of allied troops from occupied German territory.

At the same time the League of Nations was established. Though initiated by President Woodrow Wilson, America did not become a member, due to a new period of American isolationism. This fact, and the fact that the League was a confederal bond of a very light kind, made it a rather powerless organization.

France and Great Britain focused on their own economic and political interests. Europe began to crumble, due to the Treaty of Versailles. De Wagt writes (p. 56):

“The mighty Austrian-Hungarian economic zone no longer existed, but was rather fragmented into a puzzle of autonomous states with their own custom borders and currencies. In addition, with the territories that had once belonged to Germany and Russia, but that had now evolved into independent states, Europe had acquired no less than eleven new countries. Ethnic minorities living on the ‘wrong side’ of the border – about thirty million people – felt rootless and marginalized.”

Fertile soil for the rise of two nationalistic and populist operating men: Hitler and Mussolini.


In this context Coudenhove-Kalergi travelled through Europe with his plan for European unity; he found a willing ear in Aristide Briand and Gustav Stresemann. However, the first one had limited power due to the fact that French Cabinets changed rapidly. And the second one was operating in the midst of the administrative weak Weimar Republic. They had to derive their power and energy from themselves. Which led in Stresemann’s case to an early death.

It was Briand who – based on the thoughts of Coudenhove-Kalergi – developed plans for more unity within Europe, while Stresemann confined himself to analysing and testing these ideas in the context of the German interests – specifically aiming at mitigating the rigid measures of the peace treaty.

What did Coudenhove-Kalergi create? He was no member of a political organization. Thus he was able to establish an international organization independently of any political influence. An organization of hope and reconciliation. The aim was to create a Pan-European Union with an independent international judicial court in order to settle conflicts between nation-states.

Coudenhove-Kalergi drew his ideas from The Economic Consequence of the Peace (1919) by John Maynard Keynes. Keynes pleaded that rich countries should help the poor ones with international measures of solidarity. However, political reality showed that only reparation payments from Germany and the financial debts of France and Great Britain to the United States were paid. De Wagt (p. 63): “He [Keynes] prophesized in his book that – due to the patchwork of new states, all maintaining their own borders and custom barriers – the negative effects on the international economy would not stay away. A large part of the continent would be condemned to wage new trade wars.”

What the Versailles-negotiators had not understood was – through Coudenhove – well understood and activated in France by Édouard Herriot, the left-liberal Prime Minister around 1924. He knew very well that (p. 73) “Everything, yes everything, is moving in the direction of uniting”. That is why he titled his 1930 book The United States of Europe. Herriot embraced Coudenhove’s vision and pleaded on January 29th, 1925 in the French parliament in favour of a united Europe. Stresemann, at that moment no longer Chancellor but Minister of Foreign Affairs, did not react and kept waiting for things to come. Well, Coudenhove came. He persuaded Stresemann to write an article in a newspaper, in support of Herriot’s speech.

This is one of the many examples, sketched by De Wagt, clarifying that Stresemann believed in Coudenhove’s Pan-European Union and that he was prepared to fight for it, but preferably behind the scenes. Moreover, looking at this Plan from the viewpoint of economic co-operation, not in the sense of a political union.

While the group of Coudenhove’s supporters grew with people like Thomas Mann, Stefan Zweig, Maria Rilke, Albert Einstein and many other famous people – even with many political parties – the left-wing French Cabinet went down after some months in 1925. Thus, Coudenhove went to Geneva, trying to tempt the League of Nations to take the lead in establishing the Pan-European Union. This failed because the Secretary-General of the League, Sir Eric Drummond answered (p. 80): “Please don’t go too fast”. This made Coudenhove understand that getting France and Germany behind his idea would be his primary goal. But first he went to London to ‘test the water’ there. He met with some resistance, except by Leon Amery, the Minister of Colonies, who foresaw that Europe’s destiny could only be a voluntary co-operation of autonomous states, however, without establishing a central authority.

In addition, De Wagt mentions that Coudenhove went to the United States for some months, where he managed to attract much attention for his Pan-European ideas. Attention by isolationists, as well as by people who embraced an international level of thinking.

After returning to Europe in January 1926 Coudenhove had a meeting with Prime Minister Aristide Briand, who had just finalized the Treaty of Locarno (1925): a revision of the Treaty of Versailles, with mitigated measures and the creation of new borders in Western Europe. Matters of great importance to Germany, France and Belgium. Briand confirmed Coudenhove’s assumption that he, Briand, would support the idea of a Pan-European Union. Not only in words but also in concrete actions. Briand understood that Coudenhove had a strong position due to the fact that already in many countries Pan-European Committees had been established. Thus, Coudenhove did not knock on his door with an empty plan, but with the proof that this manner of thinking about Europe had already received large-scale support.

In October 1926 Coudenhove organized – in Vienna – the first Pan-European Conference, with no less than two thousand participants from twenty-eight countries. Joined by political key-figures from those countries. However, despite the euphoria this conference did not proceed further (p. 116) than adopting a program that aimed at eliminating national borders, the establishment of a confederation, reconciliation between states as a precondition for sustainable peace, liberty and welfare. Added by a call to the League of Nations to begin with the establishment of a European Customs Union through the instrument of an economic conference. This was all meant as the first step towards a united Europe.

Though this result was meagre, Coudenhove was pleased with the fact that the conference appointed him chairman of the desired but still future Pan-European Union. Even though there was an unmistakable societal foundation for the creation of such a Customs Union, this was not yet supported by broad and solid co-operation on the European political level. De Wagt (p.119): “The politicians hesitated, waited, turned their heads the other way, were deaf or flat-out against such a Union. In the meantime passionate speeches flared up in smoky bars, salons, meeting rooms and coffee shops. Meetings lasted until deep in the night. Wise men, freethinkers, students, activists, professors and businessmen wrote articles, letters, books, programs and reports. Daydreaming individuals sharpened, sitting at patient bureau desks, their manuscripts. This all encompassed one huge promise: the new Europe. However, what would this look like?”

The basis of European society valued a united Europe, but the leading political top did not respond to that wish. Except for strong support from the Netherlands, by Prime Minister Colijn, the influential business man Van Beuningen in the port of Rotterdam and Anton Philips, the founder of the Philips Company. But all in all Coudenhove did not move forward with any speed.

Then Aristide Briand came up with a sensational plan. At the end of 1928 he promised Coudenhove to put the theme of Pan-Europe on the table at the occasion of the next – tenth – General Meeting of the League of Nations in September 1929. On July 31st 1929 he told the French parliament that he would propose to the League of Nations the establishment of a European Federation. He wanted to launch the United States of Europe. De Wagt (p. 157): “Because I am of the opinion that there should be a kind of federal bond between peoples who – as is the case in Europe – live geographically next to each other”.

Though Briand spoke about the usefulness and necessity of a European Federation, from a conceptual point of view he meant a confederation. This can be derived from many observations with which he argued the necessity of this European Federation. Amongst others: “It is clear that such a bond should especially regard the economy; in this field of policy lays the most urgent need. I belief that success might be achieved on this terrain. However, I am convinced that a federal bond can also be fruitful from the point of political and societal view. Europe will not live in peace as long as the peoples do not find ways to co-operate with one another”.
Briand, as well as his political colleagues, always assumed that from co-operation between countries somehow a federal system would evolve. Quod non. Some people knew that a federation is constitutionally and institutionally quite different from a confederation, but also those people were thinking that a confederation after a while would automatically evolve into a federation. Even Herriot, protagonist of a European Federation, held that view, thinking that starting with economic co-operation a political union would be realized after a while. Not the other way around. This point of view is still alive; it is the assumption that the present EU-intergovernmental administration system will or can evolve – sooner or later – into a federal system. An assumption which makes no sense due to a system error within intergovernmental administrating, a fact that was envisaged already at the end of the 18th century by the founding fathers of the American federation.

Briand was supported by Streseman, who had no reason to question the visionary ideas of Briand. However, he did not go any further than pleading for economic integration of Europe by establishing a Customs Union. In his opinion the confederation should primarily be an economic matter, much later also political. P. 165: “In the future there might be the possibility of the United States of Europe”. This raises the question: how far have we proceeded anno 2017, thus eighty-eight years later?

The September 1929 General Meeting of the League of Nations gave Briand the assignment to work out this plan and to present its result in May 1931. He called it the Bond of Solidarity between the States of Europe. While busy with this elaboration he received support from Churchill who wrote in the Saturday Evening Post of February 15th, 1929 an article titled The United States of Europe. Though without England. Being head of the Common Wealth of Nations Great Britain did not have any interest to become member of the United States of Europe. Then Stresemann died on October 3rd 1929. Aristide Briand stood alone.

Briand’s plan for a federal bond became official French policy. It was published on May 1st, 1930, under the title Mémorandum sur l’organisation d’un régime d’union fédérale européenne. Coudenhove considered it the Magna Charta for a future united Europe. The twenty-six European governments were asked to react before July 15th, 1930. Their reactions would be the subject of discussion during the General Meeting of the League of Nations in September 1930. This publication came at the same time as the second Pan-Europe Conference that Coudenhove held in the capital of Germany. Intended as a signal to the rising nationalism that they – European federalists – meant business with the striving for a united Europe.

Briand’s Mémorandum contained many typical non-federal elements: only co-operation between countries, each remaining absolutely sovereign, politically completely independent. At that time they were unaware that in a Federation the Member States share their sovereignty with a federal authority (see the video’s in the Section ‘Strong with Europe’). Peoples who know the American constitutional history recognise in this sketch of desired European unity the picture of the American Confederation from 1776 until 1789: weak, not co-operating, ready to start a fight when confronted with a presumed breach of sovereignty.

From an institutional point of view Briand’s plan did not go any further than the suggestion of a periodical conference like the Assembly of the League of Nations. This conference should receive the task of designing an administrative structure. Furthermore there was the idea of establishing a permanent political commission as the study- and executing organ of the Union. With a different chairman each year. Finally a third organ was proposed, a secretariat to support the political commission.

However, Briand’s Mémorandum contained a curiosity. Briand claimed that the desired co-operation would only be feasible by merging the national economies. Which would only be possible by bringing that field of policy under joint political responsibility. This was federal thinking. Apparently Briand was jumping from one leg to another. His words were of a confederal nature: co-operating in just one field of policy. Yet for the execution of the desired economic co-operation he saw the necessity of a political union. Germany would not accept this.

The French government supported Briand’s plan. Moreover he had been smart enough to bring the execution of his plan under the auspices of the League of Nations. Thus he acquired support from countries outside Europe. Even from America, even though America was no member of the League.

The international press understood that thinking in terms of a united Europe was no longer the utopia of daydreamers, but had reached the level of political decision-making. For Coudenhove, though, it did not go far enough. Being an independent thinker and doer, he launched his own plan for a Pan-European Treaty (p. 219): “….. a federal confederation in which the peoples would co-operate politically, economically and spiritually, while remaining completely sovereign. All citizens of the joint states would be European citizens”. His plan contained a sketch of the institutes that should carry such a confederation.

Coudenhove – and with him many others in that period – talks about a federal confederation. This is a contradictio in terminis.

This brings us to the preliminary talks of the General Meeting of the League of Nations on September 8th, 1930. On the table was Briand’s plan for an economic Union. But the circumstances were not favourable for establishing a European Customs Union. The 1929 Wall Street stock market crash required its political toll. There was support for a periodical European Conference with its own Secretariat, but the idea of a separate Political Commission was rejected. Thus, again no political support for establishing a coherent political co-operation. They did not want to go any further than establishing a Study-Commission to elaborate on proposals for a possible European federation. Briand was very disappointed. Some days later – at the occasion of the General Meeting itself – he put a resolution on the table (p. 236) “…. containing the opinion that close co-operation by the European states on each international aspect was of the utmost importance for preserving the peace”. Pro’s and con’s of closer European co-operation were exchanged vividly, ending with Briand’s acceptance of the Study-Commission. He became its chairman. The aforementioned Sir Eric Drummond, the League’s Secretary-General, became the Commission’s secretary. The first meeting of the Study-Commission was scheduled on September 29th, 1930, followed by an intergovernmental conference in November.

The reader should notice that this whole process developed, as of the start, within the context of intergovernmental thinking. Though its participants continued to use the word ‘federation’ they did not go beyond the concept of a confederation. For Stresemann a confederation – thus co-operation by governments in fields of policy – was the ultimate goal of European unity. It is somewhat ironic that Germany is now a real Federation, and quite a remarkable one.

When the Study-Commission was about to start, Briand invited the Dutch Member of Parliament Hendrik Colijn (at that moment no Prime Minister) to deliver a speech. Colijn was a fervent protagonist of free trade, fighting protectionism, and enjoying on this terrain an international reputation. On January 16th, 1932 Colijn strongly attacked – in his speech to the Study-Commission – all European politicians who refused to co-operate in eliminating tariff walls. This behaviour made an important part of the League’s work worthless. But the addressed politicians did not move. Only France maintained its opinion of the supremacy of politics over economy. No other country shared Briand’s idea of a political bond to cover economic co-operation (though, strictly speaking, that idea did not possess a correct federal nature). Germany made a deal with England, which forced France to back off.

Under this pressure the Study-Commission tried nevertheless to gain results. It came with a proposal before the General Meeting of the League of Nations on September 7th, 1931: a L’Union Douanière d’Europe Fédéré, or in German a Europaïsche Zoll-Union. In English a European Freetrade Zone, but in the Netherlands the Federale Europese Douane-unie. This institute would gather every three months in a big conference of government leaders (a typical intergovernmental feature, comparable to the present European Council) in order to prepare an economic zone without tariff walls on the inside. Again it was stressed that this would be a form of economic co-operation, no political bond. The goal was to end national economic protectionism and the introduction of a free flow of goods, people and products. Later on also of labour forces.

And then Briand died on March 7th, 1932. His Study-Commission carried on, though on a lower level of performance. After some years of studying, the Assembly of the League of Nations granted permission to begin with the preparation of a single currency. That was finished on January 1st, 1940. From that moment on twenty-six countries would receive – in the context of an economic Union – a single currency; except for England. That country maintained its Pound Sterling. At the same time the entire European banking sector – again without England – would be subordinated to a new financial authority: the Central European Monetary System. The name of the Union was changed to L’Union Fédérale des Nations Europèenne Souverains. World War II made an end to all these endeavours.

Let me make an observation with respect to the altered title of the Union. We see here again this artificial addition of the word ‘sovereignty’ in order to avoid the impression that the participating nation-states would be prepared to give away even one inch of sovereignty. Completely ignorant of the fact that the Americans, as early as 1787, had invented the primary constitutional element after Aristotle’s concept of popular democracy, namely the invention of the sharing of sovereignty through the introduction of a vertical division of powers. I refer to the Series ‘Federalization’ in the Section ‘Strong with Europe’ for a detailed explanation of this concept.
By inserting the word ‘federal’ they could sell this Union as a product deriving from the visionary ideas of Aristide Briand about a European Federation. And by calling the participating countries ‘sovereign’ Germany could agree because that aspect came from Stresemann’s endeavours. Anyhow, this system was not allowed, whatsoever, to resemble the United States of America. That is why the word États was not used but rather: Nations.

The Study-Commission carried on working until 1938, though without further results. In 1938 Coudenhove-Kalergi fled to America. In 1972, the year he died, the Council of Europe honoured him for all his efforts in favour of a federal Europe, by affirming his proposal (made in August 1955) to have Beethoven’s 9th symphony Ode an die Freude as the European anthem.

This concludes the review of Wij Europeanen.

Part 1, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, John Jay, The Federalist Papers

Part 3, Andrea Bosco, June 1940, Great Britain and the First Attempt to Build a European Union

Part 4, Guy Verhofstadt, Europe’s last chance

Part 5, Frans Timmermans, Broederschap. Pleidooi voor verbondenheid

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