The Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group
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28 Jun, 2014

1914: The true “Nullstunde” of Europe


In the self-understanding of the European Union, the history of European integration is linked with the end of World War 2 and post-war reconstruction. May 8, 1945 is considered as Europe’s “Nullstunde” or zero hour. However, the June 28, 1914 is better suited to mark the start of today’s European project. But the 28th June is a difficult, more uncomfortable date: If ‘Europe’ started on 8 May 1945, so it can be understood as a story of economic success, political stability and progress. Although by invoking the concept of the EU as a ‘peace project’, one recognizes World War Two and the destruction of Europe as the backdrop for European integration, this easily overlooks the importance of the period between 1914 and 1945 for the construction of Europe today. Without 1914, and the disintegration of the old order, the emergence of European integration would have been impossible. 1945 is not only year of fractures, but also of continuities. Thus, 1945 was not only a zero hour, but also a continuation of many policies of the time of World War Two.

After 1945, peace did not return to Europe immediately, but the politics of the war continued, whether in the form of civil wars, e.g. in Greece or some Western region of the Soviet Union, whether by expulsion, not only of Germans, but also of Poles and Ukrainians, or pogroms against Jews, as well as the collective punishment of real and alleged collaborators. The economic rise of Europe began later and from the perspective of 1946 or 1947 could hardly be foreseen that democratic states could arise that recognize the value of human life, after the regimes of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union and their allies had for many years valued  human life very little.

The Europe after 1945 was also a product of the policies of Hitler and Stalin, as Timothy Snyder and Tony Judt argue in their masterful studies of the blood lands and post-war Europe. A majority of the Jewish population was murdered during the Holocaust and as a result of pogroms and the hostility of European majorities, many survivors had left Europe. Millions of other minorities were expelled during and after the war. The Europe that emerged after the war was characterized by homogeneous nation-states. It would be simplistic to argue that it was these nation-states without “disturbing” minorities that made it easier to cooperate than among the states during the interwar period with large minorities and the irredentist policy of the neighbors. However, it is not without irony that the “foundations of an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe,” as stated in the Treaties of Rome in 1957, were laid on the ground of severely reduced European diversity and complexity.

The European agreement in any case does not form an optimistic project, such as the ‘American dream’ based on the belief in (almost) limitless possibilities. The European unification had the destructive nature of humanity in mind. States and ideologies had reduced people to objects, whose fate was determined by the all-powerful state. The EU was founded on the basis of acute awareness of human potential for destruction. It is basically characterized by pessimism. Its biggest success is not what it achieved, but what it managed to avoid: war.

The reason why the understanding of European integration as a peace project has become a cliché, is because the wide understanding of the EU’s zero hour is not 1914, but 1945. But why pick 1914, and not another date, such as 1939, the beginning of World War Two?

When Gavrilo Princip fired those fatal shots in Sarajevo on 28 June, he had no idea what the consequences his act would have. The assassination of Franz Ferdinand was only the trigger that should bring down the old European order (and it would take four years of war to do so). Until the beginning of European integration in the 1950s, no new European structure emerged that offered stability and predictability. Thus began in 1914 a destruction of Europe in two ways, which extended over the following 31 years. First, the balance of European powers failed due to a dangerous mix of fears of encirclement and  great power fantasies, and less than two decades later, Europe was destroyed by national socialist Germany on a hitherto unimaginable scale.

The debates around the beginning of World War I in this anniversary year to show how controversial and politicized the causes of war continue to be. The origins of World War Two and the responsibility for the war are largely uncontroversial. In contrast, national and nationalist interpretations are still palpable when it comes to interpreting the beginnings of World War 1. The commemorations in Bosnia and Herzegovina these days are symptomatic for this. In addition to the domestic politicization with commemorative events both in Sarajevo, as well as in Andrićgrad in the Republika Srpska (I have written on this a few months ago), the European embassies have made their own contribution to politicize the commemoration. The French embassy sought to interpret the commemoration as an event of reconciliation—with some deliberate ambiguity as to whether reconciliation of Europe in the context of World War One (that did not come for decades after 1914) or of Bosnians in regard to the 1992-95 war is meant and established a foundation “Sarajevo, the heart of Europe” with the Bosnian state and European partners. The concept of reconciliation, of course, fits poorly for the beginning of World War One, as this has caused neither reconciliation in Europe, nor in Bosnia, or even promised to do so. The concept of reconciliation displaced instead, a critical examination of the causes of war and present and past were linked through the term of reconciliation. Instead of jumping from 1914 to the 1950s, we have to incorporate the causes of the war and the behavior of European powers into our understanding of later European integration.

When we think about the future of European integration, we do not have start in 1945, but three decades earlier, in 1914. However, this year is not a symbol for reconciliation but for destruction, which has enabled or rather necessitated European integration decades later. Christopher Clark wrote in his much-praised, but also controversial, especially for his rather Balkanist view of Serbia book Sleepwalkers, that the process of European integration, with its complex and multinational structure, look more benevolently at the Habsburg monarchy, as this might have been the case in the era of nation-states. Similarly, Robert Cooper, a former British diplomat and adviser to Catherine Ashton has drawn parallels between the Habsburg Monarchy and the EU. This of plays down the voluntary and democratic nature of the EU versus the conservative and largely undemocratic monarchy, as Cooper notes himself, but also neglects the fact that the diversity of the monarchy was not just do to the many languages spoken in its different lands, but also its diversity within its lands. As such, it was much more diverse—the embodiment of the diversity destroyed between 1914 and 1947 across Europe, in particular Central Europe.

However, it is not necessary to refer to similarly complex polities to bridge the gap between 1914 and today. If we set the zero hour of European integration in 1914, we are more aware of the arrogance of the great powers, war crimes, mass murder and the failure of hermetic isolated nation-states. These are the counter-models for future unification process in Europe. The hundredth anniversary of the beginning of the First World War offers no easy catharsis or catchy phrases to understand the present. But can it can serve as an opportunity to re-define the starting point and actual value of today’s Europe as one looking into the future project. Thus, 1914 provides us with giving the concept of the EU as a peace project a new lease of life. Not as an easy narrative of cooperation for a better future, but as a product of a bitter lesson of Europe’s destruction.

Florian Bieber

Florian Bieber is the Coordinator of the BiEPAG. He is a Professor of Southeast European History and Politics and Director of the Centre for Southeast European Studies at the University of Graz, Austria. He studied history and political science at Trinity College (USA), the University of Vienna and Central European University, and received his Doctorate in Political Science from the University of Vienna. Between 2001 and 2006, he worked in Belgrade (Serbia) and Sarajevo (Bosnia & Herzegovina) for the European Centre for Minority Issues. He is a Visiting Professor at the Nationalism Studies Program at Central European University and has taught at the University of Kent, Cornell University, the University of Bologna and the University of Sarajevo.
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