Conquering Peace. From the Enlightenment to the European Union

Ghervas, Stella
Massachusetts 2021: Harvard University Press
528 S.
Reviewed for Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists by
George Kalpadakis, Modern Greek History Research Center, Academy of Athens

The conquest of peace constitutes an ongoing project engineered by the strong, whereas war is the refuge of the weak: such is the central maxim guiding Stella Ghervas’s book, which examines five singular moments in Europe’s history that were marked by the looming threat of a single power’s dominance over the entire continent, from Napoleonic France to the Soviet Union. It expounds upon and defends the hypothesis that perpetual peace may be an effective alternative to brute force, contending that three continental empires – which adopted the diametric, and professedly “realist”, political principle of “might makes right” – were ultimately led to humiliating defeats in 1815, 1918, and 1945. This is a shared certitude with those characterized as “partisans of peace”, from early planners such as Charles-Irénée Castel de Saint-Pierre, Immanuel Kant, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau to the French statesman Robert Schuman in the mid-twentieth century.

It is Schuman that is credited with revising the flawed conception of peace as an immediately enforceable plan rather than a piecemeal endeavour. His approach is termed functionalist, characterized by a willingness to pursue a long series of successive agreements without a predefined plan while moving towards the overarching goal of constructing a European federation. Equally grounded in the Enlightenment spirit and in cosmopolitanism, Schuman’s vision aimed at ensuring that the European powers would jointly invest in a pragmatic, long-term project of peace-building not based on federalist theories but on the subsidiarity principle of bottom-up decision-making (municipal, regional, national, and supranational). Along with Jean Monnet, Konrad Adenauer, and Paul-Henri Spaak, Schuman inaugurated what Ghervas calls the post-war “European Spirit”, which would lead to the 1951 Treaty Establishing the European Coal and Steel Community. Along with the Benelux countries, at the core of this initiative were France, Germany, and Italy – the three Franco-German constitutional monarchies emerging out of the Vienna Order, which would develop into the “political emulsifier” helping to reconcile France and Germany.

The resolution of Europe’s peace problem through its unification was also an imperative of the Cold War, when the Soviet threat – the “new tyranny” of which Winston Churchill warned in his 1946 Zurich speech – was believed to loom large. Europe’s partisans of peace did not labour under any misconception regarding the new entity’s ability to function as anything other than a bulwark in the event of Soviet aggression, as the Community seemed designated to be little more than “a Western European system of peace encased in a global system of war”. Nevertheless, the democratic transition of the Eastern European states, what Ghervas terms the “Enlarged European Spirit”, would be seen as a beacon of freedom after the collapse of the United Socialist Soviet Republic (USSR), a movement seen by the post-communist leaderships as instrumental in their efforts to overcome ethnonationalist disputes and to place their countries on a course to peace and economic prosperity.

While Europe has provided us with a diplomatically admirable and intellectually engrossing “laboratory” for experimenting with “several theories of peace”, as Ghervas aptly notes, there have been junctures when the role of the European Community (EC) as an ostensibly disinterested party need not be overstated. For example, the successful attempts – led by Germany and supported by Austria, Belgium, and Denmark – to press for a speedy recognition of Croatia and Slovenia in 1991 and thus to sanction the dissolution of Yugoslavia with no provisions for addressing the complex consequences this act would trigger for the region (not least with respect to the status of the federation’s constituent peoples, such as the Serb minority in Croatia) – were arguably no less impactful to the Yugoslav Wars than the “angry dogma of purity” endemic to the region’s populations, as the author describes as the “Spirit of the Balkans”.

By the same token, a comprehensive survey of the external dimensions of peace in the European Union (EU) cannot fail to discern the antinomies between the public proclamations favouring conflict resolution and the realities brought on by the under-regulation of arms trade and export in the EU, which is one of the key causes for the prolongation of numerous regional wars throughout the world. Indeed, the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU (Art. 346) clearly stipulates that any defence decisions taken by member states, including the trade and export of armaments, lie outside the remit of Community Law, a guarantee whose implications must surely be assessed in the light of the EU’s long-standing commitment to be perceived as a leading actor in the promotion of peace and security.

There is little doubt that research on such contemporary issues will greatly benefit from relying on Ghervas’s panoramic work for a thorough historical contextualization. By conceding that a “paradox” exists whereby the continent that gave birth to “a gentle conception of peace” has been “the heart of colonial empires that ruthlessly conquered the world for 500 years”, and also that the promoters of peace were routinely “derided, denigrated and defeated”, it rightly underscores the primacy of the normative over the descriptive in any narrative that purports to uncover the sinews of the European currents in favour of peace.

Having traversed three centuries of intellectual and diplomatic history, the book charts the development of a movement seeking to establish a state of peace in Europe, which has been not only polymorphous but also surprisingly unitary – though variably successful in terms of the political currency it enjoyed, revealing itself to be more of a lonely tributary than a mighty river. The underlying recognition of the fragility of the enterprise of peace and the concomitant repudiation of political idealism in favour of adopting piecemeal solutions to achieve it, as well as the deep understanding it displays of the wide variety of intellectual antecedents of the modern idea of peace in Europe – most cogently assessed in the chapter on the Vienna Order – render the book a valuable appraisal of the longue durée of Europe’s long-standing efforts to engineer lasting alliances of peace.

Editors Information
Published on
Regional Classification
Book Services
Contents and Reviews
Additional Informations
Language of publication
Language of review