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Memories of A Tranquil Revolution

ISSUE:  Summer 2003

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 organizations before would not impede the work of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC).

We know that this proposal originated in the French state planning office, headed by Jean Monnet, a habitual crusader for schemes designed to overcome national interest for a greater common good. We also know that Schuman’s announcement had been preceded by discussions in Bonn and by exchanges of opinion in London which revealed that France’s old enemy, Germany, was ready to rejoin the community of free nations in what was to become known as the Schuman Plan. However, Great Britain, the ally in two world wars, would not.

The treaty establishing this unprecedented supranational authority was signed in Paris on April 18, 1951, by six charter members: France, Germany, Italy, and the three low countries, Belgium, Luxemburg, and the Netherlands. These participants agreed to an accord that recognized the urgent need for economic expansion, increased employment, and a higher standard of living. To attain these goals, whose desirability none denied, the community was to provide a stable supply of coal and steel to its common market and ensure consumers of equal access to sources of supply at fair prices.

The European Coal and Steel Community functioned through four institutions: the High Authority, a Council of Ministers, the Common Assembly (now known as the European Parliament), and a court of seven judges that was the final venue of appeal in litigations against violators of the treaty. All of them made decisions by majority vote, even the Council of Ministers was no longer confined to verdicts of unanimity. Members of the Common Assembly, furthermore, did not organize into national delegations, but formed Christian Democrat, Socialist, and liberal groups, thus introducing a supranational collegiality that had never permeated European party politics anywhere before.

A striking aspect of this revolution was its leadership. In modern European history revolutions had always been led by young men. Lafayette and Maximilien Robespierre had been in their early 30’s when the French Revolution erupted. Napoleon was only 27 when he took command of the army of Italy. In the 20th century Benito Mussolini was 38 when leading the spurious “March on Rome,” the same age as Leon Trotski and Joseph Stalin in 1917, while Hitler was barely 30 when joining the minuscule German Worker’s Party two years later.

The European revolutionaries of the 1950’s, however, bore a greater resemblance to Benjamin Franklin than to his contemporary French prodigies. The youngest among them, Jean Monnet, was 63 when he became head of ECSC’s High Authority. His fellow combatants on the national scene had careers that went back to World War I and also sprang from regions where ethnic allegiances were shifting or controversial. Robert Schuman, the French foreign minister, who introduced Monnet’s vision to the public, had been born in Luxemburg to Catholic parents from Lorraine. He grew up in Metz, part of Germany from 1871 to 1918, served as an officer in the German army and represented a district in the department of Moselle in the French Chamber of Deputies from 1919 to 1940. After the successful German invasion of France he refused to join Marshal Petain’s collaborating establishment and was imprisoned by the Germans. He escaped in 1942 and went into hiding. Then, after liberation, he resumed his seat in parliament.

Schuman’s German ally, Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, became the community patriarch at age 76. He had served as Lord Mayor of Cologne, Germany’s third most populous city, from 1917 to 1933, and has always been suspected of sympathizing with French-sponsored Rhenish separatism in the 1920’s. Inactive during the Hitler interlude, tending his rose garden in suburban Röndorf, he emerged as a founder and leader of the predominantly Catholic Christian Democratic Union after 1945.

Another aged innovator to join this postwar Paris-Bonn axis was Alcide De Gasperi, also past 70. Like Schuman, a native of a border region (the Trentino) that was contested by neighboring powers, Austria and Italy, he had entered politics as a member of the Austrian parliament and then represented his home district in the Italian chamber, where he was a conspicuous supporter of the League of Nations. From 1926 to Mussolini’s fall in 1943, he found refuge as a librarian in the Vatican, and then rose to the leadership of the Christian Democratic Party and head of the Italian government for an amazing eight postwar years.

These patriarchal revolutionaries differed from their precursors in other ways. The old men of new Europe lacked belligerence. They conquered by planning and by negotiating. No armies marched for their cause; no executions decimated the ranks of their opponents. Their pacific methods called forth no counter revolution. Charles de Gaulle, no acolyte of Jean Monnet’s supranationalism, might take France out of NATO but never out of the European community. He even chose a disciple of Monnet’s, Paul Delouvrier, formerly ECSC director of finance, to be France’s last governor of Algeria. Thatcherite and post-Thatcherite Conservatives might protect the Pound from the Euro, but initiated no British withdrawal from uniting Europe.

When I arrived in Luxemburg, Europe’s future was far from assured. The attempt by the six members to organize a European army had been rejected. Jean Monnet had resigned as president of the High Authority in 1955 to organize a powerful European lobby. His pressure group played an important role in what came to be known as the second launching of Europe, culminating on March 25, 1957, in the signing of the Rome treaties creating a larger common market for all goods and services. The revolution seemed, therefore, saved as I concluded my research in ECSC records, footprints of a community that had no secrets. The documents of the High Authority remained unclassified; the Common Assembly worked in public, as did the Court. Officials proved accessible and talked readily and willingly.

As luck would have it, Jean Monnet was visiting friends at the High Authority in September of 1956, and my uncle arranged for me to spend an afternoon with this unpretentious missionary. Had this opportunity arisen at the end of the year, I could have asked Monnet more questions. As it turned out, however, I discovered in the course of my Fulbright year that interrogation yielded more from the low-level functionaries who were not in the eye of the public, worked closer to the heart of the community, and were less self-conscious in their utterances. What I got from Monnet, however, was a quiet, first-hand assessment of what had happened since 1950 and what he expected from the future. When we spoke the Rome treaties had not yet been signed, but the setbacks of 1954 and 1955 had not shaken him. He remained convinced that success was inevitable. I remember asking him specifically about Britain’s future relations with Europe, and he replied with a smile: “When they see us succeed they will join us.” If one can conceive of a calm, soft-spoken evangelist, one has an accurate portrait of Jean Monnet.

As time went on I designed an itinerary from expert to expert in search of whatever technical information I happened to need for my chronicle. Their answers became a vital part of my book, but they have also left memories of conversations straying from the subject.

I still see before me the furrowed countenance of Paul Finet, another contemporary of the Community’s founding generation. Former metalworker from Charleroi, he became president of the Belgian Federation of Labor and then headed the International Conference of Free Trade Unions before he joined the High Authority. He now sat among the hauts bourgeois of the executives, the only one among them without a resplendent university diploma. As I sat before him I sensed a certain defensiveness in his conversation with me, a “professor.” As that uneasiness waned, he began to reminisce about the unique role the labor movement had played in the history of his country. He recalled the tumultuous year 1936 when he became head of its national federation after widespread strikes had forced a government of national unity to launch a program of economic and social reform. Nor had he forgotten that the election of that year had brought 21 fascists into the chamber, and that Belgium had at the same time denounced its alliance with France and returned to a controversial policy of neutrality. It was a dialogue from which I learned more than I had expected when knocking on the door of his office.

Visits to sessions of the Common Assembly, convened in Strasburg, provided their share of memorable interludes. I remember a long conversation with the leader of the Socialist faction, the German Social Democrat Willi Birkelbach. A functionary of the Socialist Youth Organization in 1933, he had spent all 12 years of the Nazi era behind barbed wire, and lived to tell about it. His face, resembling a death mask rather than a human physiognomy, still exhibited the marks of his epic ordeal. I had great difficulty to get him to talk about his role in the Common Assembly. What preoccupied him passionately at the time was the rearmament of Germany. He wondered what possessed American policymakers, John Foster Dulles in particular, when they chose to revive an army bound to be led by men whose service had begun under Hitler.

Another member of this first European parliament whom I sought out was Michel Debré, then a French senator and not just a follower of, but a worshipper of General de Gaulle. Debré considered Monnet a sinister influence in French life and was also known to dislike Americans as much as his mentor did. Still, I decided to beard this passionate patriot because his was the only voice in Strasburg volubly opposed to supranationalism and European integration. A peculiar circumstance came to my assistance: I had written my dissertation on a French writer and Catholic activist, Charles Péguy, who was killed in the first battle of the Marne in 1914. From these investigations I knew that Péguy’s circle of friends included a young, eventually famous pediatrician named Robert Debré. I used this knowledge to ask the senator whether he was the son of “this friend of Charles Péguy,” and thus broke the ice at once. The younger Debré eventually became the drafter of France’s current constitution, the Fifth Republic’s prime minister and key political manager during the General’s stormy tenure of his country’s presidency. Despite his many high-level preoccupations, we stayed in touch because Debré tolerated the adverse views of a student of Charles Péguy. An autographed copy of his memoirs attests to that.

These are some of my memories of a uniting Europe. The founding generation has, of course, passed from the scene. But its principles have survived in spite of a new generation of Europeans engaged in a favorite pursuit of bureaucracy: continuing growth of offices and functions. I repeat, the European revolution left no victims, celebrated no conquests, and avoided the temptations of violence. How to cope with a growing influx of new members remains the European community’s most nagging problem. In that context historians may today see the European Coal and Steel Community as an all too modest beginning. In the end, however, its consequences reveal that the essence of its work did not consist of production statistics but of innovations in the area of human relations, the work of intelligent, rational men driven by reason and civility for a greater common good.


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