‘Drifting towards great catastrophes’: premonitions from the 1930s

Featured‘Drifting towards great catastrophes’: premonitions from the 1930s

In the years of optimism we would read books and puzzle over why, in the heart of civilized Europe, people had happily abandoned democracy, believed fantastical lies, and stood by or enthusiastically joined in as those deemed to blame for the nation’s ills were murdered in their millions. In these dark days, and on this Holocaust Memorial Day, understanding is beginning to gnaw at our bones like an ague.

In times like these, the message of certain books I have read recently seems to illuminate a simple truth: that authoritarianism insinuates itself into peoples lives without drama, but with a kind of quotidinian ordinariness that slowly dispenses with facts. Continue reading “‘Drifting towards great catastrophes’: premonitions from the 1930s”


Brain cloudy blues

Brain cloudy blues

‘My brain is cloudy, my soul is upside down …’
– Bob Wills, ‘Brain Cloudy Blues’

The sun is molten in a shimmering sky. But we are driving through mounds of snow, banked in drifts along the carriageways and lanes: drifts of Ox-eye daisies. For mile after mile along the North Wales Expressway there are tens of thousands of these gently swaying flowers that seem to thrive – often deliberately planted, I think – turning what would otherwise be an extended wasteland along roadside verges into a summer’s visual delight. When I was a child in Cheshire these flowers – so bright that they appear to ‘glow’ in the evening – were commonly known as Moon Daisies. Continue reading “Brain cloudy blues”

Winter is coming: the new crisis for refugees in Europe

Winter is coming: the new crisis for refugees in Europe

Yesterday we gathered together a few sacks of winter clothing – heavy sweaters, thick trousers, waterproof gear, that sort of thing – and stuffed a donation into an envelope.  There’s a van leaving Liverpool this weekend, bound for Greece, driven by volunteers from Mersey Aid. That heavy sweater I no longer wear because the climate change winters here are always warm may end up on the back of someone like me – a teacher from Homs, or a medic from Damascus. So little we can do as individuals.

Today the Guardian website features a comprehensive and deeply worrying overview of the refugee crisis. In Winter is coming: the new crisis for refugees in Europe, Guardian journalists report on the deepening humanitarian crisis that is unfolding along the refugee trail from the war-torn Middle East as winter sets in – from the Greek island of Lesbos to the Macedonian border and beyond. Continue reading “Winter is coming: the new crisis for refugees in Europe”

From Keleti station, Budapest: one refugee story

From Keleti station, Budapest: one refugee story

Last week, at Budapest’s Keleti station, the Observer’s Emma Graham-Harrison mingled with the refugees hunkered down on the concourse there. In today’s paper she retells eight of the stories she heard from those fleeing persecution and war. This is one of them. Continue reading “From Keleti station, Budapest: one refugee story”

no one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark

no one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark

During the last few days a poem has been cropping up frequently in Facebook posts.  Written by the young British-Somali poet, Warsan Shire, Home speaks with the utmost clarity of the reasons why the many, many thousands now risking their lives on the Mediterranean, tramping through the Balkans, or along inhospitable roads in Hungary leave their homes: Continue reading “no one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark”

Two novels by Jenny Erpenbeck

Two novels by Jenny Erpenbeck

This summer I’ve read two short, critically-acclaimed novels by Jenny Erpenbeck: Visitation, and The End of Days, winner of the Independent foreign fiction prize. I have to say that both books left me a little cold. Continue reading “Two novels by Jenny Erpenbeck”

Summer in the city: poppies and a sense of foreboding

Summer in the city: poppies and a sense of foreboding

Poppies 2

In the last couple of weeks a surprising sight has materialised in the middle of Liverpool: a field of poppies, swathes of red flowers densely massed against a background of green.  It’s a stunning sight, but also one that is, in this glorious summer overshadowed by the storm clouds of war in eastern Europe and the Middle East, inescapably symbolic.

How did this poppy meadow, on derelict land below the Anglican cathedral, get here?  Earlier this year, members of Liverpool’s Chinese community sowed native poppy and cornflower seeds on vacant land stretching from the Cathedral towards the Chinese Arch. The act was part of a project linking local business and community groups with partners in China. The land was sown with locally grown wildflower seed from Landlife, the local environmental organisation that fifteen years ago established the National Wildflower Centre located near to the Liverpool end of the M62.

The poppies have flourished in recent weeks, and after catching sight of them from the bus, the other evening I walked down and captured these shots on my phone’s camera .

Poppies 4 Poppies 3

Red poppies: symbol of hope and good fortune in China

It was a glorious evening (a group of us, old friends from university days, sat outside Camp and Furnace savouring the warmth as darkness fell); so why, as this lovely summer stretches on, have I felt a vague sense of foreboding?

Clearly, the feeling was reinforced by the sight of those poppies with their inescapable associations (at least for the British). But, more than that, I couldn’t get out of my mind – as terrible news emerged from Gaza and eastern Ukraine – the feeling that we might be living through a re-run of another glorious summer, exactly one hundred years ago.  This is Paul Fussell writing about the summer of 1914 in The Great War and Modern Memory:

Although some memories of the benign last summer before the war can be discounted as standard romantic retrospection turned even rosier by egregious contrast with what followed, all agree that the prewar summer was the most idyllic for many years.  It was warm and sunny, eminently pastoral.  One lolled outside on a folding canvas chaise, or swam, or walked in the countryside.  One read outdoors, went on picnics, had tea served from a white wicker table under the trees.  You could leave your books out on the table all night without fear of rain.  Siegfried Sassoon was busy fox hunting and playing serious county cricket.  Robert Graves went climbing in the Welsh mountains.  Edmund Blunden took country walks near Oxford, read Classics and English, and refined his pastoral diction.  Wilfred Owen was teaching English to the boys of a French family living near Bordeaux.  David Jones was studying illustration at Camberwell Art School. And for those like Strachey who preferred the pleasures of the West End, there were splendid evening parties, as well as a superb season for concerts, theatre, and the Russian ballet.

For the modern imagination that last summer has assumed the status of a permanent symbol ofor anything innocently but irrevocably lost. […] Out of the world of summer, 1914, marched a unique generation.  It believed in Progress and Art and in no way doubted the benignity even of technology. The word machine was not yet invariably coupled with the word gun.

Never such innocence again. It appears that I’m not the only one sensing the parallel.  In yesterday’s Guardian, Larry Elliott explained why he thinks the crisis following the shooting down of the Malaysian airliner in eastern Ukraine  will not escalate into a full-scale economic war.  Europe’s energy requirements and economies are too intertwined with Russia:

The European Union will talk tough but fall shy of imposing wide-ranging financial and trade sanctions as punishment for the Kremlin’s alleged role in the attack on the Malaysia Airlines jet. Meanwhile, hopes that Putin is putting pressure on the separatists in Ukraine boosted share prices.

And yet. Elliott, too recalls the idyllic summer of 1914, when a little local difficulty in Serbia seemed just a tiny cloud on the distant horizon:

Events of a century ago show that the optimism of markets is not always to be trusted. It was only in the last week of July 1914 – once Austria-Hungary had delivered its ultimatum to Serbia – that bourses woke up to the fact that the assassination in Sarajevo had the potential to lead to a war involving all the great European powers. Up until then, the death of Archduke Franz Ferdinand was seen as merely a local affair and nothing to worry about.

Still, life goes on, the weather is glorious, so we head off to the beach.

Beach 1 Beach 2Beach 4

‘Hot town, summer in the city’: we head for the beach at Formby

The thing about poppies is, they will grow anywhere.

Poppies 1

Europe is ill

Europe is ill

Marine Le Pen

Marine Le Pen’s Front National party came first in France

The European election results reveal clearly that Europe is ill (to borrow the title of an essay by Perry Anderson in the current London Review of Books).  The symptoms of this illness are obvious – but what are its causes?  One prescient diagnosis can be found in Mark Mazower’s Dark Continent, published as long ago as 1998. At the conclusion of his history of Europe in the 20th century, in which he had shown how shallow were the roots put down by democracy in European soil, he wrote this:

The real victor in 1989 was not democracy but capitalism, and Europe as a whole now faces the task which western Europe has confronted since the 1930s, of establishing a workable relationship between the two. The inter-war depression revealed that democracy might not survive a major crisis of capitalism, and in fact democracy’s eventual triumph over communism would have been unimaginable without the reworked social contract which followed the Second World War. The ending of full employment and the onset of welfare retrenchment make this achievement harder than ever to sustain, especially in societies characterized by ageing populations. The globalization of financial markets makes it increasingly difficult for nation-states to preserve autonomy of action, yet markets – as a series of panics and crashes demonstrates – generate their own irrationalities and social tensions. The globalization of labour, too, challenges prevailing definitions of national citizenship, culture and tradition. Whether Europe can chart a course between the individualism of American capitalism and the authoritarianism of East Asia, preserving its own blend of social solidarity and political freedom, remains to be seen. But the end of the Cold War means that there is no longer an opponent against whom democrats can define what they stand for in pursuit of this goal. The old political signposts have been uprooted, leaving most people without a clear sense of direction.

That was written in 1998 – a decade before the crash and the ensuing era of austerity that we are now living through, years in which national governments and European Union institutions have colluded in pouring billions of taxpayers money into bailing out the banks whilst imposing punitive measures on Europe’s citizens.  It’s hardly surprising that the 2014 European election results should therefore reflect disillusionment with and hostility towards Europe’s political elites and the non-elected executors of policy in the European Commission.

Nearly two decades ago in Dark Continent, Mark Mazower observed:

Democracy suits Europeans today partly because it is associated with the triumph of capitalism and partly because it involves less commitment or intrusion into their lives than any of the alternatives. Europeans accept democracy because they no longer believe in politics. It is for this reason that we find both high levels of support for democracy in cross-national opinion polls and high rates of political apathy. In contemporary Europe democracy allows racist parties of the Right to coexist with more active protection of human rights than ever before.

In 2014, I think we can safely say that most voters do not now associate democracy ‘with the triumph of capitalism’.  Austerity, the punitive conditions imposed on those least able to bear them, and the growing gulf between the super-rich and the poor have put paid to that. In his essay for the LRB, Perry Anderson dug deeper to identify three symptoms of Europe’s illness – the ‘degenerative drift of democracy across the continent’, a ‘pervasive corruption of the political class’ and the fallout from the economic crisis unleashed across the West in 2008.

He is scathing about what used to be referred to as the ‘democratic deficit’ in the European Union:

The oligarchic cast of its constitutional arrangements, once conceived as provisional scaffolding for a popular sovereignty of supranational scale to come, has over time steadily hardened. Referendums are regularly overturned, if they cross the will of rulers. Voters whose views are scorned by elites shun the assembly that nominally represents them, turnout falling with each successive election. Bureaucrats who have never been elected police the budgets of national parliaments dispossessed even of spending powers.

But, Anderson argues, the Union is not simply an excrescence on member states that are otherwise healthy enough:

At national level, virtually everywhere, executives domesticate or manipulate legislatures with greater ease; parties lose members; voters lose belief that they count, as political choices narrow and promises of difference on the hustings dwindle or vanish in office.

With this voter alienation has come ‘a pervasive corruption of the political class’ (a topic, he notes, on which political scientists, always eager to discuss the democratic deficit of the Union, are strangely silent).

There is pre-electoral corruption: the funding of persons or parties from illegal sources – or legal ones – against the promise, explicit or tacit, of future favours. There is post-electoral corruption: the use of office to obtain money by malversation of revenues, or kickbacks on contracts. There is purchase of voices or votes in legislatures. There is straightforward theft from the public purse. There is faking of credentials for political gain. There is enrichment from public office after the event, as well as during or before it.

If you wanted to assemble a picture of all this, you could start, Anderson asserts:

With Helmut Kohl, ruler of Germany for sixteen years, who amassed some two million Deutschmarks in slush funds from illegal donors whose names, once he was exposed, he refused to reveal for fear of the favours they had received coming to light. Across the Rhine, Jacques Chirac, president of the French Republic for twelve years, was convicted of embezzling public funds, abuse of office and conflicts of interest, once his immunity came to an end. Neither suffered any penalty. These were the two most powerful politicians of their time in Europe. A glance at the scene since then is enough to dispel any illusion that they were unusual.

And he goes on to provide chapter and verse of other instances of high-level corruption among European politicians, citing Germany’s Gerhard Schröder, French Socialist minister for the budget,Jérôme Cahuzac, Nicolas Sarkozy, Christine Lagarde, former French finance minister who now heads the IMF, Irish taioseach Bertie Ahern – and many more.

But, argues Anderson, corruption is not just a function of the decline of the political order:

It is also, of course, a symptom of the economic regime that has taken hold of Europe since the 1980s. In a neoliberal universe, where markets are the gauge of value, money becomes, more straightforwardly than ever before, the measure of all things. If hospitals, schools and prisons can be privatised as enterprises for profit, why not political office too?

Beyond the fallout from neoliberalism, there is its impact as a socio-economic system:

That the economic crisis unleashed across the West in 2008 was the outcome of decades of financial deregulation and credit expansion, even its architects now more or less admit. […] In the EU … this general crisis was overdetermined by … the distortions created by a single currency imposed on widely differing national economies, driving the most vulnerable of these to the edge of bankruptcy once the overall crisis struck. The remedy for them? At the insistence of Berlin and Brussels …cutting back public expenditure, [and imposing] a fiscal compact setting a uniform limit of 3 per cent to any deficit as a constitutional provision, effectively enshrining a wall-eyed economic fixation as a basic principle … on a par with freedom of expression, equality before the law, habeas corpus, division of powers and the rest.

As someone who found something truly inspiring in the way that, soon after the end of the Second World War, France and Germany overcame their historical enmities to begin the process of European integration, today’s election results not only sadden me, but also make me fearful for what the future may hold in store.  The way forward seems unclear.  Can the institutions of such a huge entity as the European Union be made truly transparent and democratic? Or should we accept that real democracy lies closer to home – not just at national level, but devolved to region or locality?  In fact, one of the founding principles of European integration, embedded in the treaties, is ‘subsidiarity’ – the idea that decisions are taken as closely as possible to the citizen, that the Union should only take action where it is more effective than action taken at national, regional or local level.

Back in 1998, Mark Mazower concluded his Dark Continent with these words:

If Europeans can give up their desperate desire to find a single workable definition of themselves and if they can accept a more modest place in the world, they may come to terms more easily with the diversity and dissension which will be as much their future as their past.

See also

Vikings on the Wirral

Vikings on the Wirral

Recently I went along to an exhibition at the Liverpool Nordic Centre of paintings by three local artists, exhibiting together as part of the Independent Biennial under the title Sea Scapes – Land Shapes.  What drew me particularly was that one of the artists whose work was on display was a former work colleague, local writer and poet Sylvia Hikins. Recently her paintings have been inspired by the wild and mountainous landscapes of Norway and Iceland.

Sylvia became fascinated by culture and terrain of these Nordic lands after learning about their connections with the Wirral peninsula through the Viking settlement of the peninsula in the 10th century. She has travelled extensively in Scandinavia and Iceland, including a flight over the still-erupting Eyjafjallajökull in 2010, resulting in film, photographs and paintings that capture the harshness and beauty of those lands. In 2011, she mounted a solo exhibition in Reykjavik.

Part of her fascination is the tangible link with once Viking Wirral where Old Norse was once spoken: the same language spoken today in Iceland. Her paintings capture the cold, empty landscape which she describes this as ‘huge, wild expanses of ice and fire, mountain and sea’. In oil on canvas, the paintings which include ‘Gathering Storm’ (below) depict, in shades of blue, grey and white, an unforgiving landscape.

It was the first time I had set foot in the Nordic Centre, formerly known as the Swedish Seamen’s Church or Gustaf Adolfs Kyrka (named after a 17th century King of Sweden) – though I had long admired the elegant and energetic red brick building from outside.  It’s a beautiful, light infused building with a high vaulted ceiling and blue painted pews, dominated by the octagonal tower with its pyramidal roof. It is one of only four octagonal church buildings in the UK,  and one of about 30 in Sweden. It was the first Swedish church built overseas, built to meet the pastoral needs of Scandinavian seamen and the growing number of emigrants on their way to North America. It was erected in 1883, at at ime when the number of transient Scandinavian people in the Liverpool area was growing.  By the early 1880s, the annual number of Scandinavian emigrants passing through Liverpool had reached 50,000.

The commission to design and build the church was given to a young architect, William Douglas Caroe, who went on to be a major representative of the closing phase of the Gothic revival in Britain.  He created a unique building, which contains many Scandinavian features, including stepped gables and a concave sided lead covered spire over the entrance.

Today there are still regular acts of worship at the Gustaf Adolfs Kyrka, but the building is now owned and managed by the Liverpool International Nordic Community, and, apart from religious services, provides community events and language courses for citizens and descendants of Scandinavia – Norway, Sweden and Denmark – and their fellow Nordic nations, Finland and Iceland – reflecting the continuing presence of a strong Nordic community in Liverpool.  The story of the fight to save the building is told in this Seven Streets blog post.

While I admired the church interior and studied the paintings, activities were going on all around me – a language class (I know people who have learned Norwegian here), a music group setting up, and refreshments being served.  But my eye was caught by a small library of books on Nordic topics, including a couple devoted to Merseyside’s Viking connections.  I was aware that there was a connection – in place names, for instance, and as the likely location of the battle of Brunanburh  in 937, when Saxon forces of Wessex and Mercia united to defeat combined forces of Norsemen and Celts from Scotland.  But flicking through these books, I realised there was a lot more to learn, and so I ordered the books from my local library.

It’s a fascinating story, different in many ways from the pattern of Scandinavian settlement in eastern and north-eastern England, areas that were pretty much exclusively settled by Danish Vikings. I should say, by the way, that another reason for my interest in the Vikings had been as a result of watching Neil Oliver’s recent BBC TV series Vikings, in which (unless I wasn’t paying attention) he didn’t properly explain why these people from different parts of Scandinavia were all called Vikings.

A lengthy discussion of the etymology of the term at Wikipedia makes clear that it does not refer to any particular people or culture, but instead indicates an activity and those who participated in it – the explorers, warriors, merchants, and pirates from different parts of Scandinavia who raided, traded, explored and settled in wide areas of Europe, Asia and the North Atlantic islands from the late 8th to the mid-11th century.  The Old Norse feminine noun víking refers to an expedition overseas. In later texts such as the Icelandic sagas, the phrase ‘to go viking’ implies participation in raiding activity or piracy, and not simply seaborne missions of trade and commerce. The related Old Norse masculine noun víkingr refers to a seaman or warrior who takes part in an expedition overseas.  In Old English, the word wicing appears first in the 9th century and is synonymous with pirate and a Scandinavian.

One of the highlights of Neil Oliver’s series was his visit to the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo to see the truly beautiful Oseberg ship (above) discovered in a large burial mound from 834 AD.  Elegant this ship might have been, but it was frail and designed only for coastal journeys, not the great ocean-going voyages that the Vikings embarked upon, voyages that took them to the Shetlands, and down the western sea ways to the Hebrides, the Isle of Man and Ireland.

The Vikings who landed on the Wirral actually came from Ireland.  The first to come were Norsemen driven out of Ireland, later joined by fellow Scandinavians from the Isle of Man, the Isles of Scotland and the Viking homelands of Norway and Denmark. In 902 AD a group of Vikings expelled by the Irish from their settlement of Dublin, pleaded with Aethelflaed, Queen of the Mercian English (and daughter of Alfred the Great), for permission to land and settle peacefully in the peninsula.  Granted rights, the settlers established themselves throughout the peninsula.

Some historians have drawn evidence of this settlement from Irish annals and Welsh texts that speak of a Viking named Ingimind leading a party of Norsemen, first to Anglesey, and then, being driven from that place, to the Wirral.  Though these stories are heavily embroidered, the broad outline of the narrative is confirmed by the Norse place names found especially in the northern half of the Wirral – and, most convincingly, by recent DNA evidence.

Though the first Viking settlers on the Wirral came from Ireland, they were part of the great exodus of people out of Norway that seems to have followed the unification of Norway from 880 AD by Harald Harfagre: families forced to leave because they were opponents of Harfagre, or because land became scarce as Harfagre settled his own supporters in the narrow coastal strip.  These were the people who headed westwards, settling in the Orkneys, Shetland, Faroes and Iceland.From there, some headed further west to Greenland and North America, while others headed south to the islands and lands bordering the Irish Sea.

The Mersey Vikings were not only raiders and traders, but also farmers, fishermen, and moneyers with their own representative assembly place or thing. Not all were pagans: though there is some evidence of pagan burial mounds, they were also Christians who built churches.  In the  14th-Century some were still naming their children the traditional Viking way, with name suffixes such as  –doghter ‘daughter of’ and  –sson ‘son of’, as in Iceland today.

It’s the Scandinavian origins of so many Wirral placenames which reveals the extent of Viking settlement along the peninsula, but especially in the northern half.  There is Birkenhead – from birki-hofud, meaning ‘headland growing with birches’; Frankby – from Frankisbyr or Frakki’s village; Irby – from Ira-byr, meaning sttlement of the Irish; Ness and Neston from nes, meaning promintary; Storeton – from Stor-tun, the great farmstead, the same element found in the name of the Norwegian Parliament, Storting, ‘the Great Assembly’; Thurstaston – from Thorsteinns-tun, meaning ‘Thorstein’s farmstead’; Tranmere – from Trani-meir, meaning ‘crane’s sandbank’.  West Kirby derives from Old Norse Vestri-Kirkjubyr, meaning ‘the village west of the church’.  Kirkby, on the other side of the Mersey, has the same derivation.

Viking placenames on the Wirral

Two place names are the most evocative: Meols and Thingwall.  Meols (from meir, ‘sandbank’), was the Viking seaport and shares its name with a place name of identical origin in Iceland (Melar).  Judith Jesch, writing in Wirral and its Viking Heritage, say:

Finds of coins and metalwork from Meols dated to the tenth and eleventh centuries show regular trading contacts with the rest of England, the Irish Sea and beyond.  While Chester was an official port and mint for the (English) kingdom of Mercia, Meols seems to have operated as a trading centre for the politically separate Norse enclave on the peninsula, serving its own local Anglo-Scandinavian community. It has even been suggested a that a mint, producing ‘Viking-style’ imitations of official English coins, operated there in the 1010s and early 1020’s.

The Viking settlement was most probably on the sandbank that gave it its name: a promontory that later disappeared under the waves as the coastline altered.  But in the 19th century, a succession of low tides exposed the remains of the settlement as well as a an ancient forest.  It was then that the major finds of coins and metalwork to which Jesch refers were found by local people searching the beach.  Many of these artefacts can now be seen in Liverpool’s World Museum – such as the axehead, shield boss and bent spear head below.

Thingwall was the site of the Viking assembly field or thing, the centre of Viking administration and decision-making.  Thingwall is a place name that can be found throughout the former Viking areas of the British Isles, as well as in Scandinavia (such as Iceland’s Thingwall, below).

On the other side of the Mersey there’s a Liverpool suburb named Thingwall, and there are additional sites at Whitby, on Orkney and Shetland, and the Isle of Man (where the local assembly still bears the name Tynwald).  Things were usually situated in safe and secure locations: Wirral’s Thingwall (celebrated below by proud locals) was situated right at the centre of the network of Viking villages on the Wirral.

But it wasn’t just the Wirral that the Viking settlers occupied.  Soon large numbers of Scandinavian settlers arrived across the Mersey, establishing themselves in villages and farmsteads throughout present-day Merseyside and then along the coastal plain up to the Ribble estuary.  There is a significant 1945 essay by Frederick Wainwright, The Scandinavians in West Lancashire, (reproduced in one of the books I’ve been reading, Viking Merseyside by Stephen Harding) which suggests that the Norsemen settled mainly on the low-lying, marshy coastlands which the native English eschewed in favour of higher ground.  ‘The distribution of place names’, Wainwright writes, ‘therefore suggests that the Norse settlement was characterized not by dispossession but by a willingness to accept the less attractive districts which had been neglected by the English’.

Merseyside and West Lancashire place names with definite Scandinavian origins

In 2004, an enthusiast with a metal detector discovered a hoard of Viking treasure that had been buried around 905 AD at Huxley, just outside Chester. The hoard (below) is a collection of 22 silver objects, consisting of one small cast ingot and 21 bracelets or arm rings that had been folded flat, probably for ease of burial. Sixteen of the bracelets are intricately decorated with stamped designs using a distinctive type of punch work.

In 2002 a survey was launched looking for evidence for Norse descendants in Wirral and West Lancashire, since the place name and other evidence suggested this area was once populated by Scandinavian settlers. The team sampled the DNA of male volunteers from old families in Wirral and West Lancashire who trace their male line back before 1700.  In this way the researchers could bypass the large population influx since Medieval times.  30% of the men surveyed in West Lancashire and 50% of the men surveyed in Wirral had their top DNA match in Scandinavia.

Tony Tottey from Moreton Wirral had top DNA matches with men in Norway, Sweden and Denmark and, interestingly, is the nephew of the late Gordon Tottey of West Kirkby featured in an article in the Liverpool Daily Post in 1971, The last of the Wirral Vikings.  You can read more about the survey on the University of Nottingham’s project website.

In his short series, Neil Oliver didn’t touch on the Viking settlement on Merseyside.  But there was one story that he told that was a revelation to me: the one about King Cnut attempting to turn back the waves.

Cnut succeeded as king of Denmark in 1015, after just over a century of Viking settlement on Merseyside and in the wake of centuries of Viking activity in northwestern Europe. A year later his forces invaded England; a passage from Emma’s Encomium quoted on Wikipedia, provides a picture of Cnut’s fleet:

[T]here were so many kinds of shields, that you could have believed that troops of all nations were present. … Gold shone on the prows, silver also flashed on the variously shaped ships. … For who could look upon the lions of the foe, terrible with the brightness of gold, who upon the men of metal, menacing with golden face, … who upon the bulls on the ships threatening death, their horns shining with gold, without feeling any fear for the king of such a force? Furthermore, in this great expedition there was present no slave, no man freed from slavery, no low-born man, no man weakened by age; for all were noble, all strong with the might of mature age, all sufficiently fit for any type of fighting, all of such great fleetness, that they scorned the speed of horsemen.

By October 1016 Cnut was firmly in control of England and was to rule England for almost twenty years. The protection he lent against Viking raiders – with many of them under his command – restored the prosperity that had been increasingly impaired since the resumption of Viking attacks in the 980s. The resources he commanded in England helped him to establish control of the majority of Scandinavia too.negotiated settlement made peace, dividing the kingdom between them.

I recall being taught at primary school the story of how Cnut set his throne by the sea shore and commanded the tide to halt and not wet his feet and robes as one that demonstrated overweening pride.  But, as Neil Oliver pointed out in a portrait of a wise ruler who had tremendous influence and authority across Europe, the story has an opposite meaning.  Failing to halt the waves, he king said: ‘Let all men know how empty and worthless is the power of kings, for there is none worthy of the name, but He whom heaven, earth, and sea obey by eternal laws.’ He then hung his gold crown on a crucifix, and never wore it again.  The story reveals Cnut’s kingship skills: a demonstration of his piety and allegiance to the Christian church and a rebuke the flattery of his courtiers.

Oliver presented Cnut as  an early adopter of European monetary standardisation, minting coins that were accepted right across Europe, fuelling trade and prosperity. Oliver argued that Cnut was drawn to England in the first place because, for several hundred years since Offa’s reform of the coinage, there had been a well-organized monetary system in England, unlike in Scandinavia.

Silver penny of Cnut, minted in Bath

Cnut took over the Anglo-Saxon system of coinage, minting coins like the one above which shows him wearing a typical helmet of the type worn by Anglo-Saxons, Normans and Vikings in the eleventh century. Contrary to the popular myth about Viking helmets, they had no horns.

Returning to the Wirral: for several years stories have circulated about the discovery of a Viking longship under a car park at Meols.  It’s a story that is rejected by Liverpool Museum here, but in 2013, the largest ever reconstruction of a Viking longship will sail across the North Sea to the Wirral.  Work to construct the 114 foot boat has been under way in Haugesund, Norway for the last 18 months.  The vessel is due to be launched in June and will embark on its maiden voyage in summer 2013.  The project – coordinated by Wirral’s Viking expert, Stephen Harding – aims to consolidate the growing links between Wirral and Scandinavia.


The books I read before writing this post were:

  • Viking Merseyside by Stephen Harding
  • Wirral and its Viking Heritage by Judith Jesch
  • Viking DNA by Stephen Harding, Mark Jobling and Turi King

See also

The Love of Books: A Sarajevo Story

The Love of Books: A Sarajevo Story
Ruins of the National Library of Bosnia and Herzegovina in Sarajevo
Ruins of the National Library of Bosnia and Herzegovina in Sarajevo

The siege of Sarejevo began on 5 April 1992 and lasted for nearly four years, until 29 February 1996.  In that time nearly 12,000 civilians were killed or went missing in the city, including over 1,500 children. An additional 56,000 people were wounded, including nearly 15,000 children.  The siege, by Bosnian Serb forces of the Republika Srpska, whose President was Radovan Karadžić, constituted a crime against humanity as the the International Criminal Tribunal determined:

The siege of Sarajevo, as it came to be popularly known, was an episode of such notoriety in the conflict in the former Yugoslavia that one must go back to World War II to find a parallel in European history. Not since then had a professional army conducted a campaign of unrelenting violence against the inhabitants of a European city so as to reduce them to a state of medieval deprivation in which they were in constant fear of death. In the period covered in this Indictment, there was nowhere safe for a Sarajevan, not at home, at school, in a hospital, from deliberate attack.

As people died, buildings burned and the city was reduced to rubble, a parallel atrocity took place: the total destruction of the irreplaceable National Library of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the central repository of Bosnian written culture. Among the losses were 700 manuscripts, and a unique collection of Bosnian publications, some from the middle of the 19th century Bosnian cultural revival.

The Love of Books: A Sarajevo Story, broadcast on BBC 2 earlier this week, is an outstanding documentary film that, using interviews, original footage and dramatized scenes, tells the story of how over 10,000 manuscripts and rare books belonging to the Gazi Husrev Beg library were saved during the siege of Sarajevo.

Gazi Husrev Beg, the provincial governor of Ottoman Bosnia in the first half of the 16th century, was the greatest benefactor of Sarajevo. He funded the building of the mosque that bears his name, a madressa and many other buildings. A generous endowment was given to found the library that bears his name. Over time it grew to house thousands of manuscripts and old books.

In this powerful and moving film, directed by Sam Hobkinson, we meet several individuals who worked for the Library during the siege –  including the director, an academic who was translating key texts from Turkish, the Congolese night watchman, and the cleaner.  They tell the story of how they saved the Library’s entire collection from destruction in recent interviews that are intercut with dramatisations of the events they describe, performed by actors.

Dr Mustafa Jahic was Director of the Gazi Husrev-Beg Library, happy to have been appointed to be in charge of a priceless collection of 10,000 hand-written books and Islamic illuminated manuscripts hundreds of years old. He and his co-workers risked death many times over to protect the books.

When the siege of Sarajevo began, the city came under bombardment from shells, and its citizens risked being shot by snipers when they went out into the streets to seek food and water.  Jahic feared for the safety of the library and decided to move its contents to a safer place.  The books were packed into banana boxes and carried box by box through the streets of the city by Jahic and his colleagues. Breaking cover to cross a street, death from a sniper’s bullet could have come at any moment.

The helpers including the library’s cleaner and the night watchman who had come to Sarajevo from the Congo: he could have chosen to flee but his devotion to the library was such that he stayed. The books were moved not once but twice: the second time into the basement of the fire station. But, as the siege dragged on, Dr Jahic still feared for their safety, and so microfilm equipment was smuggled into the besieged city, and the arduous work of copying the manuscripts began.  Often film was destroyed during power failures, and the job had to be done all over again.

The most remarkable part of the story concerns one particular manuscript, A History of Bosnia, hand written in Turkish in the 19th century by Sallih Muvekkit. Shortly before the siege began, Dr. Lamija Hadžiosmanović had borrowed the four volumes and taken them home to begin translating them. In the spring of 1992, warned by her Serbian neighbour in the middle of the night that she was on a death list,  she fled her home, taking with her only a few personal belongings. The manuscript was left in her flat and Grbavica, the part of town where she lived, soon fell to the Serb nationalist army.

A page from the manuscript of A History of Bosnia

When the war ended,  Jahic had succeeded in bringing the whole collection safely through the war – except for the History of Bosnia.  With the siege over, Dr. Hadžiosmanović returned to her home to find it had been wrecked by Serbian soldiers. Her favourite dress was riddled with bullet holes. Almost nothing remained intact. And yet, in a heap of books, she found the manuscript. The very next day she returned it to the library. When the Director saw it he cried.

A manuscript from the Gazi Husrav Beg collection

Here I will note some of the events which have taken place in the city of Sarajevo. For as they say, what has been written endures and what has been remembered fades.

Those are the opening words of Sarajevo Diary (1746) by Mustafa Baseskija, one of the irreplaceable books saved by the library workers during the siege.

The Love of Books: A Sarajevo Story can be viewed in its entirety on YouTube.  I recommend it highly.

But – not far from the now-restored Gazi Husrev Beg library, stands a building that tells another, sadder story.  On the night of 24 August 1992,during shelling by the besieging forces from the hills surrounding Sarajevo,  Bosnia’s National Library – a repository of 1.5 million volumes, including over 155,000 rare books and manuscripts, the country’s national archives, copies of all newspapers, periodicals and books published in Bosnia, and the collections of the University of Sarajevo – was set ablaze.

Low water pressure made extinguishing the flames impossible, but braving a hail of sniper fire, librarians and citizen volunteers formed a human chain to pass books out of the burning building.  Though they carried some 100,000 books from the burning building, almost 2 million publications – 90% of the library’s archives – were lost, including more than 150,000 manuscripts and rare books.

Bombarded with incendiary grenades from Serbian nationalist positions across the river, the library burned for three days.  It was reduced to ashes, along with of its contents.

Among the books rescued from the Museum was one of Bosnia’s greatest cultural treasures, the 14th century Sarajevo Haggadah. The work of Jewish calligraphers and illuminators in Islamic Spain, the manuscript was brought to Sarajevo 500 years ago by Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition. It had been concealed from the Nazis by a courageous museum curator during World War II.

Vedran Smajlović playing in the ruins of the National Library in 1992

The destruction of the National Library was not an isolated casualty of war. All over Bosnia, books became the target of nationalist armies. In Sarajevo, 15,000 manuscripts from the Oriental Institute were destroyed, along with 50,000 books in the Franciscan Theological Seminary Library. In each case, the library alone was targeted; adjacent buildings stand intact to this day. Serb nationalist leader Radovan Karadic denied his forces were responsible for the attacks, claiming the National Library had been set ablaze by the Muslims themselves, ‘because they didn’t like its architecture’.

A student in the reading room at the Gazi Husrav Beg Library

Here is an irony: Gazi Husrev-Beg, who built the mosque which houses the library bearing his name that is featured in the film, also built the Hüsreviye Mosque in Aleppo, Syria, between 1531 and 1534.  I wonder what state that building is in at the moment?

Another irony: some of the money which financed the restoration of the Gazi Husrev-Beg library came from Syria.

In his last will and testament, Gazi Husrev-Beg said:

Good deeds drive away evil, and one of the most worthy of good deeds is the act of charity, and the most worthy act of charity is one which lasts forever. Of all charitable deeds, the most beautiful is one that continually renews itself.

The restored Gazi Husrav Beg mosque

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The state we’re in: journal entry 1,054

Towards the end of The Four-Gated City, the final volume in Doris Lessing’s Children of Violence sequence, Martha Quest starts to collect newspaper cuttings that reveal what, to her, are signs of an impending apocalypse:

local catastrophic occurrences – the poisoning of a country, or of an area; the death of part of the world; the contamination of an area for a certain period of time. These events will be the development of what is already happening…. All kinds of denials, evasions are made.  It can be taken as an axiom that all governments everywhere lie.

In these days, too, stories in the news seem to carry the same portentous inference: catastrophe and contamination, denials and evasions.

  • Item: ‘As the US suffers the worst drought in more than 50 years, analysts are warning that rising food prices could hit the world’s poorest countries, leading to shortages and social upheaval’. (Guardian)
  • Item: ‘The worst drought in a generation is hitting farmers across America’s corn belt far harder than government projections and forcing them to a heart-breaking decision: harvest what’s left of their shrivelled acres or abandon their entire crop’. (Guardian)
Illinois farmer gazes at a pond that used to water his cattle.
  • Item:  ‘If average temperatures increase, so will temperature extremes. As temperatures increase, so will evaporation. As evaporation increases, so will precipitation. As tropical seas get warmer, so will the increased hazard of cyclone, hurricane or typhoon. Nine of the 10 warmest years on record have occurred in this century. Last year was the second rainiest year on record worldwide; the winner of this dubious derby was 2010, which, with 2005, was also the warmest on record. …  Some of the most catastrophic floods and lethal heatwaves ever observed have claimed many thousands of lives in the last decade, and the increasing probability of such extremes has been predicted again and again: by the World Meteorological Organisation; by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change; by the UN’s inter-agency secretariat for disaster reduction; and by researchers at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany who have listed the 19 hottest, wettest or stormiest ever events, all in the last decade. There are other, less direct indicators. The northern hemisphere growing season has expanded by 12 days since 1988. Sea levels are rising. Higher sea levels make storm surges – and consequent catastrophic floods in estuaries, flood plains and coastal cities – more likely, more costly and more deadly. The signals are clear enough. Climate is changing, and local weather patterns are responding. Conditions that seem bad now may be regarded as relatively benign in decades to come…. Weakened by successive disasters and a mix of ugly reasons that include corruption, civil war and endemic poverty, governments are less able to respond. The long-term forecast is not promising’. (Guardian editorial)

  • Item: ‘[The Arctic] is home to a quarter of the planet’s oil and natural gas reserves, yet humans have hardly touched these resources in the far north. But in a few days that could change dramatically if Shell receives approval to drill for oil in the Arctic. … Exploiting the Arctic’s vast oil reserves is just one cause of environmental unease, however. The far north is melting and far faster than predicted. Global temperatures have risen 0.7C since 1951. In Greenland, the average temperature has gone up by 1.5C. Its ice cap is losing an estimated 200bn tonnes a year as a result. And further rises are now deemed inevitable, causing the region’s ice to disappear long before the century’s end’. (Observer)
Arctic melting is a clear sign of global warming: temperatures have risen faster than elsewhere on the globe.
  • Item:  ‘The former head of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, Antonio Maria Costa, posited that four pillars of the international banking system are: drug-money laundering, sanctions busting, tax evasion and arms trafficking.  The response of politicians is to cower from any serious legal assault on this reality, for the simple reasons that the money is too big (plus consultancies to be had after leaving office). Herein … lies the problem. We don’t think of those banking barons as the financial services wing of the Sinaloa [Mexican drug] cartel. The stark truth is that the cartels’ best friends are those people in pin-stripes who, after a rap on the knuckles, return to their golf in Connecticut and drinks parties in Holland Park. The notion of any dichotomy between the global criminal economy and the “legal” one is fantasy. Worse, it is a lie. They are seamless, mutually interdependent – one and the same’. (Ed Vulliamy, The Observer)
  • Item: ‘This week evidence emerged that HSBC abetted massive money laundering by Iran, terrorist organisations, drug cartels and organised criminals. By this point, should this surprise us? Selling defective mortgage securities during the housing bubble; creating and selling securities to bet on their failure; bringing the world to the brink of collapse; colluding to manipulate interest rates; hyping your failing company while secretly selling your own stock; cooking the books; assisting Bernard Madoff. For many people in banking, it would seem, securities fraud, accounting fraud, perjury and conspiracy are just another day at the office’. (Charles Ferguson, director of the best documentary in this decade, Inside Job, in The Guardian)

  • Item: ‘A global super-rich elite has exploited gaps in cross-border tax rules to hide an extraordinary £13 trillion ($21tn) of wealth offshore – as much as the American and Japanese GDPs put together – according to research commissioned by the campaign group Tax Justice Network’. (Observer)
  • Item: ‘Interest rates on Spain’s 10-year borrowing rose to the highest since the euro was created … following fresh bad news about the financial health of the country’s regions. … What began as a Spanish banking bailout looks to be moving rather quickly towards a possible sovereign bailout. Overlay that with increasingly negative news on Greece and you get a fairly negative mix. …The cost of bailing out Spain would dwarf the packages already agreed for the three smaller eurozone countries – Greece, Ireland and Portugal – and would heap pressure on monetary union’s third biggest economy Italy’. (Guardian)
Protest march in Madrid against the Spanish government’s austerity measures

John Gray the philosopher (who once wrote, in Straw Dogs, ‘humans … cannot destroy the Earth, but they can easily wreck the environment that sustains them.’) gave an provocative response to the question ‘what would Maynard Keynes do in the current situation?’ in his BBC Radio 4 Point of View essay last week:

We do not find ourselves today struggling with the aftermath of a catastrophic world war. Yet the situation in Europe poses risks that may be as great as they were in 1919. A deepening slump there would increase the risk of a hard landing in China – on whose growth the world has come to depend. In Europe itself, a downward spiral would energise toxic political movements – such as the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn, which won seats in parliament in the last election in Greece. Facing these dangers, Keynes’s disciples insist that the only way forward is through governments stimulating the economy and returning it to growth.

It’s hard to imagine Keynes sharing such a simple-minded view. As he would surely recognise, the problem isn’t just a deepening recession, however serious. We face a conjunction of three large events – the implosion of the debt-based finance-capitalism that developed over the past twenty years or so, a fracturing of the euro resulting from fatal faults in its design, and the ongoing shift of economic power from the west to the fast-developing countries of the east and south.

Interacting with each other, these crises have created a global crisis that old-fashioned Keynesian policies cannot deal with. Yet it’s still Keynes from whom we have most to learn. Not Keynes the economic engineer, who is invoked by his disciples today. But Keynes the sceptic, who understood that markets are as prone to fits of madness as any other human institution and who tried to envisage a more intelligent variety of capitalism.

Keynes condemned Britain’s return in 1925 to the gold standard, which famously he described as a barbarous relic. Would he not also condemn the determination of European governments to save the euro? Might he not think they would be better advised to begin a planned dismantlement of this primitive relic of 20th Century utopian thinking?

I suspect Keynes would be just as sceptical about the prospect of returning to growth. With our ageing populations and overhang of debt, there’s little prospect of developed societies keeping up with the rapid expansion that is going on in emerging countries. Wouldn’t we be better off thinking about how we can enjoy a good life in conditions of low growth?

Keeping Quiet by Pablo Neruda

And now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still.

For once on the face of the earth
let’s not speak in any language,
let’s stop for one second,
and not move our arms so much.

It would be an exotic moment
without rush, without engines,
we would all be together
in a sudden strangeness.

Fisherman in the cold sea
would not harm whales
and the man gathering salt
would not look at his hurt hands.

Those who prepare green wars,
wars with gas, wars with fire,
victory with no survivors,
would put on clean clothes
and walk about with their brothers
in the shade, doing nothing.

What I want should not be confused
with total inactivity.
Life is what it is about,
I want no truck with death.

If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.

Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems dead
and later proves to be alive.

Now I’ll count up to twelve,
and you keep quiet and I will go.

In the closing words of The Four-Gated City, Martha Quest struggles to come to terms with our predicament on this planet:

 Now the voices and the sound of movement were gone, and the stream could be heard running quietly under its banks.  The air was full of the scent of water and of flowers.  She walked, quiet… She walked beside the river… She thought, with the dove’s voices of her solitude: Where? But where. How? Who?  No, but where, where …Then silence and the birth of a repetition.  Where? Here.  Here?

Here, where else, you fool, you poor fool, where else has it been, ever?

See also

Neal Ascherson on the idea of Europe: past and possible future

Postcard 1900: Germany, Belgium, Holland – greetings from the three countries border

Recently, Neal Ascherson spoke about Europe and its history in a lecture for the London Review of Books at the British Museum.  The full text is published in the current issue of the London Review of Books, and is also available, as text or  podcast, on the LRB website.   Ascherson called his lecture ‘Memories of Amikejo’, referring to a tiny sliver of land between Belgium and Germany which had been overlooked by the surveyors as they drew new European frontiers after the fall of Napoleon. In this splinter about the size of Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens combined, says Ascherson, lived a handful of free people, untroubled by military service, identity papers, taxes or censors: ‘Happy, stateless Europeans’.

The area, also known as Neutral Moresnet or ‘the Akwizgran Discrepancy’ was a separate territory between 1816 and 1920. It came into existence after the demise of the Napoleonic empire, and was sandwiched between the United Kingdom of the Netherlands and the Kingdom of Prussia. When in 1830 Belgium gained independence from the Netherlands, a four-country point (Vierländerpunkt) came into being .  Today it is part of Belgium, but the position of its borders are marked on a paved area around the present day three-border point (Drielandenpunt). The residents themselves, who became the citizens to adopt Esperanto as their national language, preferred to call their enclave ‘Amikejo’ (‘Friendship’ in Esperanto).

German postcard, 1905, shows the Dutch, Belgian, German and Neutral areas, and the ‘Vierländerpunkt’.
German postcard, 1905, shows the Dutch, Belgian, German and Neutral areas, and the ‘Vierländerpunkt’.

Reading Ascherson’s account of the ‘Discrepancy’ I recalled that it was the subject of a Channel 4 documentary, in a series called Borderlands back in 1992 which looked at six areas of Europe that challenge the meaning of the nation-state, including this multilingual corner of Belgium.  I used to show a video clip of the programme to European Studies students exploring the theme of diversity in Europe.  It’s not without significance that the treaty which established the European Union and paved the way for the euro was signed that year in Maastricht, the town which stands just a few miles to the west of the Drielandenpunt.

The four-country-point identified near Vaals in an old school atlas
The four-country-point identified near Vaals in an old school atlas

There’s a wider European significance in this story, argues Ascherson.  It proved that ‘a tiny Europe could exist sans frontières, or at least without enforcing them’.  Amikejo is also  ‘a wormhole through time into our Europe of the Single Act and the Maastricht Treaty. No customs barriers, no closed frontiers, military conscription almost a memory, no national currency’.

For the bulk of the 20th century that dream was crushed by nationalism – the ‘game of denying European identity to neighbours’ – and by the Cold War division of Europe, both of them historical forces which led to the strict enforcement of borders and the crushing of ‘discrepancies’.  In the years after 1980, Ascherson goes on to argue, two forms of social order died in Europe: the Communist system embedded in the fifty-year continental order of the Cold War, but also the regulated, social democratic welfare order developed in the nations of Western Europe after 1945. ‘One of these deaths should gladden the soul’, he asserts. ‘But the second should trouble it’.
Ascherson’s lecture examines how the idea of Europe has shifted over the centuries.  He visualises the western end of the Eurasian land-mass as a ‘fish-trap’, the ultimate destination of waves of western-bound migrations where ‘the sheer pressure of growing populations combined with a shortage of resources, land above all, has encouraged communities to fuse and cohabit’:
In the west the pressure of the demographic fish-trap – backs to the sea, nowhere to go – forced incoming groups towards accommodation, hybridity and fusion. Further east, where the land broadened and the pressure was lower, it was different. To this day, you can find settlement patterns which are pointillist rather than solid colour, where the ethnic settlements remain distinct. You can see it in parts of south Russia: a Cossack village here, an Armenian village there, then a small town that was a Jewish shtetl before the Holocaust, then a village planted by Catherine II where the farmers still speak an archaic Swabian, or a settlement of Pontic Greeks returned from forced exile in Kazakhstan. They trade with each other – Armenian vegetables, Cossack vodka – but guard their prejudices. This sort of landscape is hard to understand in terms of the Western nation-state, with its idea of ‘imagined community’ and its anxiety about homogeneity and cohesion.
That passage reminds me that in 1995 Ascherson published an absorbing cultural and ecological history of those lands to the east, Black Sea: The Birthplace of Civilisation and Barbarism.  The argument of the book was that the Black Sea – its peoples and coasts, its fish, its water and its immeasurably deep history – is a single cultural landscape. ‘No part makes sense when separated from the others’, Ascherson wrote. ‘And yet no quality is more essential to the Black Sea than continuous change in all those parts. This has never been a stable, ‘etemal’ place. Its peoples have been in movement for at least five thousand  years’.

Especially in 20th century nationalism, says Ascherson in his lecture, ‘strangers come from the East; they want what we have; they are Other’. This antipathy of settled communities to travelling communities or individuals is still hard-wired into Europe, he argues.  Yet the notion that identityis rigidly defined by place or custom is not always the case. Ascherson ruminates on how Europeans, especially the inhabitants of borderlands have often had flexible identities, depending on which uniform is banging on the door:

Villagers in the forest regions between Poland and Belarus, challenged to confess their nationality, used to say: ‘We are tutejszy – from-here people.’ A better answer to that question is another question: ‘Who’s asking?’

Yet at the same time Europeans have come up with schemes to make the continent a safer place, schemes that imagined empires and kingdoms and city-states to be part of some larger unity.  In earlier times there was the dream that the Roman Empire could be raised from the dead. Some dreamed of unity under the medieval church, and some look back longingly to a continent supposedly unified culturally and linguistically through its Iron Age Celtic populations.  But the word ‘Europe’ was not widely used as a political reference until the 16th or 17th centuries.

Ascherson considers how the current technocratic model of Europe came about, impelled by the disasters of two wars and the Holocaust.  Three key ideas were retrieved from the rubble after 1945:

The first was that a European union’s political strategy must be to construct an international framework – which would include Germany – to contain German strength. The second was that any union had to start with some deal over economic and industrial integration between France and Germany. The third, that ‘the construction of Europe’, institutional and economic, would have to be a top-down affair carried out by international technocrats under political protection. The notion that ‘the people of Europe’ should play an active part or be consulted was not entertained. After all, a European people did not exist. Maybe one day it would, making possible a true American-style federation based on democracy. But there was no point in waiting for that.

But, Anderson argues, historians of 20th century Europe have overlooked or forgotten a whole distinct episode, which he calls the ‘Resistance Spring’. The European Resistance was an upsurge not just of defiance against fascist occupiers but of hope and idealism for the future:

It mobilised men and women in nations all over the continent. It produced programmes for social justice and change, at first strikingly similar in different countries. Its texture, or context, was national-patriotic, and for that reason it quite clearly belongs in the sequence of national upheavals which began with 1848 and culminated – for the moment – in 1989.

Indeed, while the technocratic model of the European Union derives from the wartime vision of men like Jean Monnet and Robert Schumann, the wartime resistance movements adopted a far more radical vision of a postwar federal Europe.  That vision originated in a document drawn up on the Italian island of Ventotene by three men, Altiero Spinelli, Ernesto Rossi  and  Eugenio Colorni, who had been interned on the island along with some 800 others opposed to Mussolini’s regime.

Italian Fascist Ministry of Interior ID card of Altiero Spinelli

Spinelli  was a lifelong advocate of European federalism. A journalist and a vigorous opponent of fascism, he was arrested in 1927 and spent 10 years in prison and a further 6 in ‘confinement’ on Ventotene. In June 1941, Spinelli and a small group of federalists completed the Ventotene Manifesto which was written on cigarette papers and concealed in the false bottom of a tin box.  After being distributed in mimeographed form, a clandestine edition of the Manifesto appeared in Rome in January 1944.

The manifesto began by arguing that fascism had developed from the ideology of national independence and capitalist imperialism. However, the defeat of Germany would merely allow the British and the Americans to restore the nation-states in their old form. This must be resisted at all costs: federalists must seize the opportunity presented by the turmoil and uncertainty that would accompany the end of the war to establish a ‘European Federation … a free and united Europe’:

The ideology of national independence was a powerful stimulus to progress. It helped overcome narrow-minded parochialism and created a much wider feeling of solidarity against foreign oppression. …

The absolute sovereignty of the nation states has caused each one of them to try to dominate the others…The problem which must first be solved is the final abolition of the division of Europe into sovereign national states…People are now much more in favour of a federal reorganisation of Europe than they were in the past…

The question which must be resolved first, failing which progress is no more than mere appearance, is the definitive abolition of the division of Europe into national, sovereign States. …

Altiero Spinelli, Ernesto Rossi and Eugenio Colorni and others departing Ventotene
Altiero Spinelli, Ernesto Rossi and Eugenio Colorni and others departing Ventotene

During the lifetime of one generation Europe has twice been the centre of a world conflict whose chief cause was the existence of thirty sovereign States in Europe. It is a most urgent task to end this international anarchy by creating a European Federal Union.

Only a Federal Union will enable the German people to join the European community without becoming a danger to other peoples.

Only a Federal Union will make it possible to solve the problem of drawing frontiers in districts with mixed population. The minorities will thus cease to be the object of nationalistic jealousies, and frontiers will be nothing but demarcation lines between administrative districts

Only a Federal Union will be in a position to protect democratic institutions and so to prevent politically less developed countries becoming a danger to the international order.

After the war, Spinelli resumed his career as a journalist. In 1970 he became a member of the European Commission, with responsibility for industrial policy. He resigned in 1976 and in 1979 he was elected to the European Parliament as an Independent of the Left in the first direct elections.  Until his death in 1986, Spinelli campaigned vigorously for wide-ranging reforms to the Community institutions. He did this through a series of informal meetings known as the Crocodile Club (after the Strasbourg restaurant in which the Group was founded in July 1980). The European Parliament’s Draft Treaty Establishing the European Union, which was adopted in February 1984 and helped influence the process leading to the Maastricht Treaty, was the principal monument to the final period of Spinelli’s life. Returning to Ascherson’s lecture: he identifies  two consistent elements in Resistance postwar thinking:

First, that the prewar order in these nations – forms of liberal capitalism – had failed to defend democracy or national independence. Their collapse was partly due to the corruption, verging on treason, of the prewar elites; indeed, some of their members had collaborated with the Nazi occupiers. So liberation must involve sweeping institutional and social change. Second, the Resistance programmes from Poland through Italy or Greece to France or the Netherlands framed those changes in statist, welfarist forms of democracy which were ‘socialistic’ but far from the Soviet model. There would be plural political democracy, with all the ‘bourgeois liberties’ guaranteed. There would be steeply progressive taxation, a planned economy, public health insurance and widespread nationalisations of industry, finance and transport.

The thirty years that followed the end of the Second World War were indeed the epoch of the social-democratic consensus: strong interventionist states with large public sectors, committed to full employment and the redistribution of wealth.  Ascherson observes that:

As the late Tony Judt insisted, we should not remember the 20th century only for its horrors. The stability and social justice achieved in postwar Western Europe was one of humanity’s triumphs.

But, as Ascherson observes, there followed ‘three very different decades of neoliberal dogma, now withering, which landed us in the mess we are in’.  He argues that nation-states have seen their their legitimacy erode as public services central to people’s lives have been privatised . Voters have lost interest in the democratic process as the state withdraws from public life.  But now, he argues, European governments are trying to rebuild their authority. And, significantly, one of the ways they are doing this is by increasing, not reducing, the pace of supranational integration.

Ascherson ends by suggesting that, more than thirty years since the old Cold War, social democratic order began to die, we are seeing indications that a new order might be emerging in Europe. But what kind of order?

A new birth of so-called ‘reformed capitalism’? … Or a European order of rediscovered liberty, equality and fraternity in which, to take Tony Judt’s words, ‘we can remake the argument about the nature of the public good’? I’d wave an Amikejo flag for that.

Well, maybe…As I write this thousands of Greek Communist Party demonstrators are massed in Syntagma square in front of the Parliament building in Athens to push home the message that ‘resistance exists’.  That is, resistance to the EU bailout agreement that the parliament will vote on tonight, and resistance to the EU itself, with many in the crowd reportedly convinced that it would now be better for Greece to leave the European Union.

See also