Why I am European
Robert Skidelsky
Nexus 70 | Wednesday, August 12, 2015

 My support for the European Union is political. I shared the inspiration of the founding fathers, which to stop the repeated wars which had disfigured Europe’s history, culminating in the two great slaughters of the 20th century. But I was also interested in ‘Europe’ as an attempt to solve a large problem, that of mass killing. After the second world war, Europe, it seemed to me, invented, or rather re-invented, a structure of rule which greatly reduced the incentives to mass killing. We call it the European Union but it might just as well be called ‘voluntary empire’.
Voluntary empire is an attempt to correct the distortions and disfigurements brought about by nationalism and democracy, in whose name so much mass killing has happened. The democratic deficit is not Europe’s weakness: it is its defence against Europe’s re-tribalisation.
Let’s start with the question: why did the 20th century produce so much mass killing of civilians – a phenomenon so terrible and unexpected that a new word ‘genocide’ was coined to describe it? Mass slaughter is nothing new – what is new was its return to the centres of civilisation after two centuries of progress. From Europe it radiated out to south-east Asia and Africa in the wake of the collapse of colonial empire. In Rwanda on 7 April 1994, the Hutus started killing the Tutsis, or ‘cockroaches’ as they were called. They shot and hacked a million to death in three months.
In the film, The Salt of the Earth, the photographer Sebastiao Salgado, on whose images of slaughter the film was largely based, said at one point, despairingly ‘The human race does not deserve to survive’. Killing is evil. We used to explain it by ‘original sin’. But original sin itself cannot explain why certain ages and societies seem more prone to mass murder than others. This is a matter of institutions. We can have politics and institutions which encourage the tendency towards mass killing, and others that restrain it.
The main killing episodes of the 20th century are the Turkish slaughter of the Christian Armenians (one million) in 1915, Stalin's "liquidation of the kulaks as a class" in the 1930s (ten million), Hitler's murder of the Jews in 1941-44 (six million), Mao Zedong's "Great Leap Forward" of 1959-51 (30 million), Pol Pot's Cambodian "killing fields" in 1975-79 (two million) and the Rwandan genocide of 1994 (one million). These are estimates. In Soviet Russia and China, ideologically induced starvation played a central role: if labour camp victims were added, the Russian figure would be much higher. The question is: what, if anything, links these separate outbreaks of mass murder? Are they part of an explicable 20th-century narrative?
War has clearly been a prime incubator of mass slaughter. Industrialisation made possible much more destructive wars, while 20th-century wars were wars of peoples rather than just of rulers and their armies. It was not only that modern weaponry, particularly machine-guns and aeroplanes, made killing on a huge scale technically possible, but that to sustain a war with modern weapons, a war economy had to be built in which every civilian became, in a sense, a warrior. But if civilians were as much conscripts as soldiers, then killing them was as legitimate a war aim as killing soldiers. The slaughter of Christian Armenians by the Turks in 1915, because they were regarded as a Russian "fifth column" in the Ottoman empire, started a chain of wartime civilian massacres that went on through the century. Once killing of civilians for war purposes had become acceptable, it was a short step to detach it from strict military necessity. In the 20th century, mass civilian killing became an object rather than merely a by-product of policy.
The context of war is important for another reason. Since the slaughter of the innocent offends against deep moral taboos, it can occur only when a civilian "enemy" has been identified, hatred against him whipped up and the society sealed off from prying eyes. These circumstances are generally the product of war. Those undertaking the killing also have to be sufficiently desensitised to what they are doing. The Hutu militias who carried out the Rwandan genocide were mostly drunk or drugged, and had been given a licence to rape and torture. This generous mixture of incentives to kill is rarely supplied in peace.
By providing a model political structure for the avoidance of war the European Union sets out a political path to the future which can be followed elsewhere.
However, the necessities and possibilities of modern war do not explain the most egregious episodes of mass killing in the 20th century. What re-emerged, for the first time since the 17th-century wars of religion, was the required degree of hatred, fanaticism and idealism to kill civilians on a large scale apart from war. The 20th century provided, in the religion of democracy, a project worthy of mass killing. In the 17th century, men killed in the name of God. In the 20th century, they killed in the name of the people.
In one of those fertile half-truths for which he is famous, the late British historian A J P Taylor wrote: "Bismarck fought 'necessary' wars and killed thousands; democracies fight 'just' wars and kill millions." “Just" wars can never kill millions. But Taylor understood that the scale of the killing we do is connected with the social order in which we live. There are aristocratic, bourgeois and democratic ways of killing, each with its own motives. The mass killings of the 20th century coincided with the enthronement of "the people" as both subject and object of history. The revolutionary project of secular salvation is the child of democracy. No form of rule in the 20th century has been legitimate that does not at least claim to be based on democracy. Hitler and Stalin were not democrats, but they killed for the sake of the people - to secure them a Thousand Year Reich or the communist millennium. Genocide in Bosnia in the early 1990s started with the onset of democracy.
Let me be clear. By democracy, I do not mean the limited democracies we enjoy in the west, girded round with constitutional and customary restraints. I am discussing the consequences of carrying the democratic idea to its logical conclusion. Like war, democracy is in principle unlimited: nothing must be allowed to stand in the way of the popular will. The problem is that most people, knowing and understanding little beyond their immediate concerns, can easily be manipulated by propaganda. Without an external limit to the principle of democracy itself, it easily slides into despotism: rule by the people becomes rule over the people. Nazism and Leninism were not perversions of democracy: they were what the democratic principle looks like when carried to extremes. Unless democratic pretension is curtailed, the leader gains unlimited freedom to define the people's project, to identify the enemy that stands in the way of its realisation and to exclude him from the life of society. From this point of view, the limitation of democracy –the fact that its key institutions, the Commission and the ECB, are only indirectly accountable to ‘the people’ - is one of the strengths of the European Union.
The murderous potential of unlimited democracy was increased by its historical and, indeed, logical twinning with nationalism. If you believe in "rule by the people", you have first to select the people. And the most obvious principle of selection is the nation. So it is no coincidence that both creeds were born together in the French revolution. Where the nation already existed in well-defined political boundaries, as in France, the nationalist project was simply to end royal absolutism. In multinational empires, it took a much more aggressive aspect, involving not just wars of "national liberation" but often inventing the nation itself and claiming a geographical territory to house it. National self-determination became a warrior creed.
When in 1918 President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed it as the necessary condition of a just and lasting peace, he did not consider the possibility that it might lead to the war of nations. He did not understand that nationalism implies the re-tribalisation of humanity. It seeks to repack the national pieces of multi-national empires into tight little national parcels, heightening their sense of separateness from each other and making it easier for demagogues to conjure up the spectre of the hostile "other".
Nationalism is the source of that most heinous form of mass killing we know as genocide: the attempted annihilation of a race. It was first used in 1944, with etymological precision, to describe Nazi policies towards the Jews. The UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948) defined it as a policy which aims to "destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group", chiefly by killing, starvation, or preventing its reproduction. Genocide pinpoints the most persistent motive in human history for mass killing: hatred of those who are different. Genocidal tendencies lie deeply buried in the tribal origins of human society. They are reinforced by the political organisation of the world into nation-states and by the almost limitless human capacity for credulity. As Michael Shaw points out, genocide involves "pseudo-scientific, irrational and fantastical beliefs" about ourselves and others - but these are the beliefs most people hold. Under their influence, multiracial societies living together in apparent harmony for decades can suddenly explode into genocidal violence.
The attempt to explain racial hostility in economic terms rarely gets to the heart of things. Economic inequality or injustice can certainly exacerbate racial tensions: it does not account for the common observation that rich foreign capitalists are far more resented than are home-grown ones. It was the Chinese who were attacked, and sometimes killed, in Indonesia when its economy collapsed in 1997. Just as foreign capitalists are blamed for "stealing our wealth", so foreign, not native, labour is blamed for "stealing our jobs".
The connections between democracy, nationalism and mass killing are deeply troubling because democracy and national self-determination are still the official western creeds.. Democracies, we are endlessly told, never go to war with each other. But experience of the democratic idea shows that democracy can only be made safe by limiting the operation of the principle itself. The European Union, for all its bureaucratic lunacies, has diluted both the democratic and national principles in the interests of a wider union of peoples. Those who criticise its "democratic deficit" might reflect that without it, the union would never have been started, still less persevered with.
If it is true that 20th-century mass civilian killing was incubated in war, democracy and nationalism, we need to change our ideas about war and political organisation to avert it in the future.
We have made a start. Total war is unlikely to recur in the centres of civilisation in the foreseeable future. We have learnt to fight "postmodern" wars, which greatly reduce military killing, and restore the distinction between soldier and civilian. Belief in unlimited democracy has also waned; though whether limited, or constitutional, democracy can be successfully exported is an open question. It is challenged by the rise of intolerant religious democracy in the Islamic world. The doctrine of national sovereignty is also in decline: we recognise that it can be inconsistent not just with domestic but with planetary well-being. The "international community" is relearning the arts of "coercive intervention".
Multiracialism is widely seen as the political project best suited to cutting out the cancer of racial and religious hatred. The multiracial society is a noble vision. The question of what is the appropriate political community for such a society is harder to answer. Multiracialism in one country has had a very patchy record. The problem is that the concept of the multiracial state stands diametrically opposed to the idea of the nation-state. As long as the national principle remains supreme, the prognosis for multiracialism is poor.
We have not yet overcome the idea that the world should be divided into national units, exercising their sovereign right of self-government. Yet they are not the only, or necessarily the highest, principles of political life. Empires at their best stood for multiracialism and religious tolerance. They also allowed a great deal of devolution in practice. They foundered in the 20th century, because no way could be found of making their rule acceptable to their subject peoples. Our task is to devise forms of political community that combine the scale of the cosmopolitan empires of the past with legitimate government. The European Union points in this direction. Unless much of the world follows in its footsteps, we cannot write finis to the age of mass killing. That is why every effort must be made to preserve the European Union as a going concern, not to allow it to degenerate into a heap of national units as happened to the Holy Roman Empire. One can only hope its leaders will be up to the task.