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Les identités européennes au XXe siècle

Robert Frank

European Identity, the European Public Sphere, and the Future of Europe

Luisa Passerini et Hartmut Kaelble

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1Within the framework of the 1997 programme “Les identités européennes au xxe siècle”, our group envisaged five basic approaches for the study of European societies: the social peculiarities of Europe; the convergence of national societies within Europe; the experience of Europeans of Europe beyond national space; the debate about Europe as a civilisation; and finally Europe as a cultural space. This was a tour d’horizon of topics, rather than a specific work programme for two workshops. It was clear that a choice had to be made. We chose the last three approaches for several reasons. Firstly, the current research projects of the organisers fall within these thematic fields. They are also topics which are rarely investigated and are, as such, neglected and promising themes. At the same time, contribution to workshops could be found, due to an increase in public and scientific interest. In addition, these were the topics which linked our group most clearly to other groups in the programme. We tried to bring all this together under the two closely related concepts of European self-presentation, and the European public sphere.

2Our group organised two meetings in Berlin. The main purpose of the workshops was to discuss research in progress, rather than formal discussions on finished projects. The workshops were also to include young researchers. A member of the steering committee was invited as general commentator. This was Robert Frank, chairman of the programme “Les identités européennes au xxe siècle”. Michel Trebitsch was also invited, the moderator from the group working on the “Élites intellectuelles”, the group with the most intensive thematic links to our own group.

The workshops on “European self-representation during the 20th century” (1996)

3The theme of the 1996 workshop held at the Humboldt Universität in Berlin was the question of “European self-representation during the 20th century”. The meeting examined the concept of self-representation in relation to self-presentation, understanding it as a way of making something present that is not necessarily so, therefore with reference to a notion of reality mediated by lived experience, l’Europe vécue. In this context, it became necessary to reconsider the failure of self-consciously internationalist projects, such as the socialist and communist forms of internationalism, and to find a new perspective whereby transnational experiences could also be understood as a process of internalisation and formation of new cultural identities. This process can be seen as corresponding to new migrations, new mobility and business travel, as well as tourism or education in other countries; and to international forms of communication, as well as to processes of individualisation and self-determination, i.e. weakened loyalties to the nation, the church, or the party. In spite of the acknowledged cultural deficit in the European construction process, all this leads to a vision of European society as an intercultural and pluralistic community, a society not confined by national boundaries, where a common discourse and language (semantic and symbols) could emerge on the basis of such plurality. It seems evident that at this point, such a European society exists in an implicit way, and without a parallel form of sovereignty (Judy Bloomfield). Europeans might, however, become aware of this implicit European culture and society in extreme situations, for example in confrontation with non-European societies, in fundamental upheavals, or even in personal crises. One part of the meeting dealt with research in this context, whilst another part of the meeting explored the more manifest self-presentation and self consciousness of Europeans themselves.

4Relevant insights into the historical antecedents to the development of such forms of subjectivity in Europe were offered by Luisa Passerini and Martin Kirsch. The former presented a criticism of “Eurocentrism in the field of passion”, i.e. of discourse – which developed from the 1770s to the 1940s – on courtly/romantic love as an exclusive product of Europeans, transmitted to other continents and peoples of the world via European culture and religion, on the basis of colonization. While the connection between European identity and identity in general, on the one hand, and love on the other, is a fruitful one which could be further developed in the future, the concepts of exclusiveness and the consequent hierarchies have to be deconstructed through historical research. Central to this undertaking is a reinterpretation of European identity concerning representation, and the relationship between the self and the Other of Europe. Historical research in this direction identifies not only many forms of Eurocentrism – which do still partially exist, often in a hidden way – but also a vision of Europe as a utopia, where concepts such as love and solidarity play an important part.

5Martin Kirsch explored in his paper the construction of a European identity through confrontation with foreign societies, through personal experience, and through travelling or migration during the 1930s and 1940s. He presented two case studies from a larger study which had just begun: the case of Paul Tillich, a theologian, a cosmopolite following the experience of World War I, and in American exile since the 1930s; and Denis de Rougemont, a Swiss who lived in France, in Nazi Germany and during the 1940s also in the US, but who returned to Europe by the end of the war. Kirsch demonstrated that in both cases, the experience of a non-European society, i.e. the US, was crucial for European identity, whereas Rougemont’s identity remained more influenced by the Swiss version of internationalism.

6While the first line of analysis was primarily concerned with the historical development of new European forms of subjectivity and identity, another line of analysis (often present in the same research) focused more directly on the effort to define a notion of European space. Connections were established between the definition of a public sphere and the levelsand forms of communication. The public sphere can be understood as a constructed cultural place where collective identities are negotiated through various forms of encounters between actors or subjects of communication: direct personal contacts; associations and social movements; mass media (Alexander Schmidt-Gernig).

7An important part of these reflections was taken up by considerations about actual physical space. A concept of a European locus emerged as a civic space, embodied in cities: the city and citizenship characterise a political territory where symbolic exchanges take place (Bloomfield). The city reflects civilisation and physical identity in three ways: identity derived from neighbourhood (see Chombart de Lauwe’s notion of quartier); from the city centre with its historical monuments and as an area of shopping; and from the sense of the city as an area for general shared affairs (Elfi Bendikat).

8Bo Strath (Gothenburg [Sweden]/ European University Institute in Florence) explored the construction of European identity after World War II not as an unrelated construction, but depending on a specific historical context consisting of discredited national identity, the Cold War and pacifist counter-movements, the economic boom and mass consumption, full employment and the rise of the welfare state, new symbols such as the “community”, and the interpretation of the 1930s as a failure. He compared the construction of European identity with Nordic identity, which in many ways was related to a similar context and had the same basic character as European identity.

9Harmut Kaelble dealt with the long-term change of discourse by Europeans on European society and civilisation. He defined his approach in a similar way to Bo Strath, as context-oriented, analysing discourse as a construction of arguments rather than as a series of individual authors. He presented five types of European self-presentation: Europe as the superior civilisation; Europe as a threatened civilisation; Europe as one civilisation among others with her peculiarities; Europe as a driving society in modernisation; and Europe as an internally pluralistic civilisation. He described the discourse on European civilisation according to four periods: the period of belief in progress and European superiority from the late 18th to the late 19th century; the period of uneasiness about the American rival during the last decades leading up to World War I; the period of the crisis of European self-understanding from World War I to roughly the 1960s; and the period of the new European confidence, without implications of superiority.

10Michel Trebitsch, acting as discussant of the workshop, presented many comments, including remarks of a critical nature, which contributed both to the productivity of the discussion and the reorientation and enrichment of the presentation.

The workshop on “European Self-understanding and the Public Sphere” (1998)

11The workshop on “European Self-understanding and the Public Sphere”, held in June 1998, again at the Humboldt Universitaet in Berlin, developed some of the themes presented in the previous meeting in three major directions: a) an understanding of a plural identity (Varikas, Sick, Passerini) ; b) a definition of a new public sphere (Ernst, Nanz, Kaelble) ; c) the future of Europe (Schmidt-Gernig).

12a) On the question of “European plurality and the problematic concept of identity” Eleni Varikas analysed the construction of “Otherness” according to which the West has existed over the last two and a half centuries, including the suppression of the non-identical within and without, and the ambiguities of its “universality”. Referring to Hannah Arendts’s thought, Varikas indicated the emergence of subterranean streams of Western history which can restore the dignity of our tradition, and the aporetical opposition between abstract universalism and communitarianism, proposing instead to try to reconcile the two in a vision which could include the rights of communication as well as multiculturalism.

13Peter Sick presented conclusions from a current project on European self-understanding in France during the anterior period. He argued that the rise of modern European self-understanding and of modern strategies related to the construction of Europe was clearly earlier than usually assumed, and can be seen already during the interwar period. He demonstrated that influential interwar French concepts of Europe were based upon solidarity and plurality of nations rather than on hegemony and, as a consequence, upon a priority for economic rather than political agreements, the concept of a limitation of national sovereignty and intervention in the public sphere rather than mere diplomatic action.

14Luisa Passerini analysed the historical use of the idea of Europe and the concept of European identity, from the appropriation attempted by the Nazis through the Second World War and the Resistance, to the declarations on European identity by the European Community. Against this background, today's proposal can only be that of a multiple European identity, taking into account the presence of the Other – being European “among” other forms of identity, as stated by Derrida – and centring on the points of resistance to the claims to supremacy posed traditionally by European culture, as suggested by Rosi Braidotti.

15b) The meaning of a European public sphere was explored from various perspectives.

16Patrizia Nanz reported from a project in progress on the European public sphere treating three clearly different, but strongly interconnected levels: the level of popular discourse, the level of the public sphere created and inspired by the European Commission, and the level of debate among European intellectuals. In this way she tries to cover not only theEuropean identity invented from above and reflecting relations between European powers, but also daily dialogues among citizens. Patrizia Nanz described the diverse methods needed for the different levels of this project as well as the theoretical implications, criticising the Habermas model. She presented a theory which treats the 20th century public sphere in general more as a communication process and as a pluralistic rather than a homogeneous public sphere, with highly fragmented discourse between competing publics, and with clear hegemonic structures.

17Andreas Ernst evaluated the chances of the rise of a European public sphere by comparing the Swiss case, highly interesting because of its multilingual public sphere, with the situation in the European Union. In his view, three elements are crucial in the Swiss case: the idea of the Swiss Germeinschaft, the diffusion of this idea within the public sphere, and the division of power between the federal institutions and the cantons. The comparisons made by Ernst led to highly negative conclusions for the European Union. The European Union could neither develop symbols of Germeinschaft as Switzerland did, nor could it create a publicsphere, a public debate on European items or on an international European movement, on decisions of a European parliament, of the European Council or European Commission. Ernst predicted three scenarios, all unfavourable for the rise of a European public sphere: the Europe of the heads of state with a weak parliament and few public debates; the Europe of religions and the weakening of nation states in favour of regions, which he considered to be dangerous; and a Europe of nations linked together with limited Europeanised fields in environment, immigration and foreign policy, but basically a continuation of the nation state as before.

18Hartmut Kaelble also evaluated the chances of the European public sphere. He argued that national public spheres in Europe can not be used as a model for the European public sphere, since the latter is special in various respects. It will always be a combination of separate national language areas, will always be less formalised in the sense of European wide newspapers, radio or TV networks, less directly related to the European power centre in Brussels, less powerful than the national power centres, involving the European citizen less, and less supported by European symbols. Kaelble argued that the rise of a European public sphere must be investigated within this special context. He tried to show the slow and partial rise of a European public sphere from the late 18th century to the 1990s through three eras: firstly, the era of the classic public sphere of the small liberal middle class and aristocratic circles which opposed the powerful monarchies and developed vivid international European exchanges between intellectuals and scholars during the Enlightenment. Secondly, the era of a modern national public sphere, a mass public sphere through mass media and mass civil society based upon alphabetisation and urbanisation, with an ambivalent relationship to democracy and to new types of dictatorships, in this respect also with ambivalent attitudes of intellectuals; the rise of a predominantly national public sphere, but with intensified international exchanges between experts in congresses and with rising international political movements, but little involvement of the citizens as Europeans. And finally, since World War II, the era of the new mass media, the establishment of supranational European institutions, and from the 1980s, the new intensity of public debate on European topics and the gradual, though still insufficient involvement of the European parliament and the European citizen.

19c) A third direction of research, which was present in a scattered way through various papers, was thematised as the question of the “Future of Europe”.

20Alexander Schmidt-Gernig presented preliminary conclusions from a project in progress on European self-understanding in the public debate and research on the future during the 1950s and 1960s. This debate, which was not an elite discourse but took place in the mass media and through best-sellers, was an important example of international discourse on a wide range of global themes in a long-term perspective, and included elements of an international public sphere. The progress of human life through technological change, forecast and planning was a central assumption of this discourse. This debate was not homogeneous, but was featured a plurality of political directions, the radical critique of capitalism, as well research for military and industrial corporations, biological and economic as well as theologian and philosophic approaches. European participants were special to a certain degree: contributions by Europeans were less global, less optimistic and more oriented towards planning than American contributions. In Schmidt-Gernig’s interpretation, the debate showed a clear European self-confidence in forecasting an important role of Europe in the future, and also brought out more similarities between European societies. The self-understanding of Europe was strongly influenced by the Cold War, limited mostly to Western Europe, with a feeling of European superiority still conserved.


21From the above activities of our group, various conclusions can be drawn for the topics of the final meeting of the programme “Les identités européennes au xxe siècle”.

22A first conclusion covers the relationship between European identity and national identity within Europe. One important relationship exists in the mind of most historians and social scientists, in the sense that European identity is explicitly or implicitly measured against the “normality” of the national identity which is to be constructed in an antagonist relationship against the Other. This includes the use of symbols in the wide sense, not only flags, anthems and capitals, but also language, music, literature, the arts, landscapes, technological and scientific inventions, mass consumption and life styles, and big firms, etc. This is normally to be related to a clearly defined territory, to a clearly defined population, and to a sovereign state and parliament. It is obvious that European identity looks necessarily weak or even non-existent from this point of view. Hence one crucial conclusion is a methodological one: European identity should not implicitly be understood as simply a variation of national identity (whatever definition of national identity is chosen), but as an identity on its own. The exploration of the peculiar character of European identity was the aim of the group, and this is to be the objective of further research. As far as this peculiar character of European identity is concerned, it can be said that it was constructed not through wars of independence as many national identities were (for example the 19th century American, Italian, German, Polish, or Czech national identities), but against a war, i.e. the Second World War. It is less built upon the threat from outside, the fear of conquest or cultural and economic supremacy by other civilisations, than the much smaller and far less powerful European nations. It uses symbols in a much more restricted way, though historical research on European symbols, still rarely carried out, may detect many European symbols and myths. European identity is also based on the recognition of a multitude of identities rather than the often exclusive national identity repressing regional or international identity. Other peculiarities of transnational European identity might be identified by further research.

23A second conclusion, much less surprising, is the relation of European consciousness to European space. It proved to be extremely difficult to relate Europe to any specific space. The whole concept of space as a political territory was extremely difficult to apply to Europe. The geographic borderlines of Europe did not make any sense, partly because they divided up national territories such as Russia or Turkey, and hence were totally unrealistic as borders, partly because the transfers across other European borderlines such as the Mediterranean Sea or the Atlantic Ocean were sometimes more intensive than the transfer across national borders within Europe. Moreover, since Europe was the civilisation with by far the most intensive emigration to other continents, Europe could often be found outside the European continent in the Americas, in Australia, or in Israel. Since Europe deeply influenced non-European societies such as India, Japan, and the Muslim world, and since the identity of these civilisations consisted to a large degree in opposing an imagined Europe, Europe in this way was also present in Asia and Africa. Hence Europe was not really related to a specific space, but to imagined borderlines all over the world. This is an observation and irritation rather than a conclusion. What can be concluded, however, is that Europe as a space should be explored in a much more intensive and differentiated way than it has been so far.

24A third conclusion covers the nature of European cultural identity, which can be understood as different from the political and social types of identity. The cultural plan allows one to feel European among other forms of identity, in the sense proposed by Derrida, so that Europeanness can be viewed neither as an exclusive character of subjectivity, nor as the basis for a hierarchical organisation of other components of identity. In this way, a multiple European does not appear simply as an undifferentiated sum of various forms of allegiances, but is resolutely orientated towards a consideration of the Other; it chooses to start with the points of resistance to the claims to sovereignty advanced by the old Eurocentric subject, and opens up to relationships with the rest of the world. A point within this perspective should be the reconsideration of the tension within Western culture as a whole, including the contradictions and similarities between Europe and the United States. Various forms of Americanism and anti-Americanism, frequent in the intellectual traditions of countries such as Italy and France, appear then to be first of all negative forms of European cultural identity.

25A fourth conclusion covers one social implication of European politics: the public sphere, a crucial element of any modern polity through which citizens transfer their interests and wants to the government, and through which at the same time the government presents itself to the citizen. On the one hand, this is a central topic for any study of European consciousness. European self-presentation could only work in a European public sphere. Without a public sphere, no self-presentation, and no self-presentation without a public sphere. On the other hand, the history of the European public sphere proved to be a highly controversial issue. This can also be easily seen from the summaries of papers, notably those of the second workshop. The history of the European public sphere is not only controversial because of contrasting theoretical concepts and because of a currently highly ambivalent situation, but also because the history of the European public sphere is seen in a contrasting way. Some historians argue that this topic is a historical blank compared to the national public spheres in Europe, whereas other historians argue that Europe as a communication space existed already in the Middle Ages, in the medieval urban networks, in the medieval church and monasteries, and in medieval court life. In spite of this controversial view one can take for granted three elements of a history of a European public sphere: firstly, a European public sphere of scholars and experts always existed, at least since the enlightenment, was broken by 20th century dictatorships, but re-emerged after their fall. European self-presentation was intensively discussed within these circles. Secondly, European governments used public space not only for national, but for international European presentation. Neither the use of public space by the monarchs of the ancien régime, nor that of the 19th century revolutions, nor that of the 20th century dictatorships, can be understood merely as national presentation. Finally, the 1980s seem to have been a turning point in the development of the European public sphere, i.e. in the technological and economic internationalisation of the media, in the public debate of Europe, and in the willingness of European politicians to create a public sphere.


References: Some of the papers given at the workshops are published in the forms of articles or books.

A special issue on the topic of the two workshops in the Journal of European integration History, 8, 2, 2002, Hartmut Kaelble and Luisa Passerini eds.

Passerini L., Europe in Love, Love in Europe, London, Tauris, 1998.

Passerini L. (ed.), Identità cultural europea. Idee, sentimenti, relazione, Scandicci, La Nuova Italia, 1998.

Bendikat E., “Die Idee der ‘europäischen Stadt’. Reflexionen zur Stadtgestaltung in Deutschland und Frankreich im ausgehenden 19. Jahrhundert bis zum Ersten Weltkrieg”, in H. Kaelble und J. Schriewer, Hg., Gesellschaften im Vergleich. Forschungen aus Sozial- und Geschichtswissenschaften, Frankfurt/M., Lang, 1998.

Kaelble H., “Die europäische Öffentlichkeit in der zweiten Hälfte des 20. Jahrhunderts. Eine Skizze”, in H.-G. Haupt und M. Grüttner, Hg., Geschichte und Emanzipation. Festschrift für Reinhard Rürup, Frankfurt/M, Campus,1999.

Kaelble H., “Europäische und nationale Identität seit dem Zweiten Weltkrieg”, in K.-P. Sick, S. Weichlein und W. v. Kieseritzky, Hg., Prekäre Stabilität ? Demokratie in Deutschland, München, Beck, 1999.

Kirsch M., “Entwicklung der Erfahrungsräume von Europäern im Bereich des höheren Bildungswesens seit 1918”, in H. Kaelble und J. Schriewer, Hg.,Gesellschaften im Vergleich. Forschungen aus Sozial- und Geschichtswissenschaften, Frankfurt/M., Lang, 1998.

Schmidt-Gernig A., “Gibt es eine, ‘europäische Identität’? Konzeptionelle Überlegungen zum Zusammenhang transnationaler Erfahrungsräume, kollektiver Identitäten und öffentlicher Diskurse in Westeuropa seit dem Zweiten Weltkrieg”, in H. Kaelble und J. Schriewer, Hg., Diskurse und Entwicklungspfade, Frankfurt/M, Campus, 1999.

Schmidt-Gernig A., “Die gesellschaftlichen Konstrukte der Zukunft”, Welttrends, 18, 1998.

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