The Peace Congress of Paris, August 1849
January 15, 2018Posted by on
This great idea of Europe, Hugo publicly expressed for the first time in the opening discourse at the first Peace Congress, held in Paris, 21st of August 1849. These Peace Congresses were a privileged context for Hugo’s reflection on Europe; he will have the occasion to come back to this theme in his speeches for the Peace Congress of Lausanne (1869) and that of Lugano (1872).
The initiative for this first peace congress gathering of Europeans and Americans, belongs to an English economist Richard Cobden (1804-1865), as well as to Giuseppe Mazzini (1808-1872). This strange couple was thus the one that invited Hugo to speak at the opening conference of the first Peace Congress. Mazzini, Italian patriot and revolutionary, one of Garibaldi’s allies in his fight for the Italian unification, and also founder of a short-lived Roman Republic, that was dissolved by the intervention of French troops. He will try, together with the French Ledru-Rollin and others, to found a universal republican Alliance.
Cobden, in the purest Anglo-Saxon tradition, thought that economic liberalism and free trade determined liberty and union of peoples.He is thought to have convinced the British government, in 1846, to renounce to protectionism. He opposed colonialism and sought to promote the universal republic through commerce and the abolition of frontiers. Mazzini and Cobden, the Italian Jacobean and the British liberal, give a very good picture of the two poles of the European thinking of Hugo, poles that we could consider, at least at first sight, contradictory.
Hugo, who, starting from 1850 will develop more and more towards the left, believes however in the beneficial, liberating and civilising power of free-exchange, without giving up, though, centralised and normative government. Something that had always been a part of the French historic tradition, since Louis XIV until the modern republic, passing through the Revolution in 1789, as Alexis de Toqueville has already remarked upon.
Internal contradiction, or, rather, dialectical tension? As one of his interpreters Jean Gaudon said, Hugo’s universe is not conceptual. The author of Les Misérables is a visionary and a poet. He thinks primarily in images, giving flesh to his hallucinations; the words and the concepts, even the most abstract, become in his discourse springboards for the imaginary and vectors for utopia.
Still, what we should call the European imaginations that Hugo develops in a gradual manner and is being built up on the foundation of a force-idea, that of Peace. He invokes a United Europe in 1849 in this particular sense, that of a guarantee for peace:
Gentlemen, this religious thinking, the universal peace, all nations linked with each other through a common bond, the Gospel as the supreme law, the mediation replacing war, this religious thinking, is it a practical one? This saint idea, is it one that we could achieve? Many positive spirits, as we are used to say today, many political men, experienced in the field of business, say No. As for me, I say YES and I say it with you and without hesitation. Opening discourse at the first Peace Congress, Paris, 21st of August, 1849.