Hugo’s Dream of Unification


We can notice these days, following the 60th anniversary of the United Nations, that Hugo primarily justifies the idea of a Union of European states by the need to preserve peace, as the ONU Charter did in 1946; Europe should first be a space without war, its genius should imagine nonviolent solutions for unavoidable litigation.

In 1876, he pronounces a discourse that could seem entirely prophetic if we think back to the tragic events that made the ex-Yugoslavia so blood-stained at the beginning of the nineteen nineties.

What is going on in Serbia shows the need for the United States of Europe. The need for peoples united to replace disunited governments. Let us put an end to the criminal empires. Let us silence fanatism and despotism. Discourse on Serbia, 29th of August 1876.

But let us remember that, at that time, the Serbs were the object of a terrible repression from the part of the Ottoman Empire, from which they tried to liberate themselves, just like the Bulgarians. Nowadays, it is mostly against these internal conflicts that the EU tries to protect its member states. During those days, there was no question whether to consider Turkey a part of Europe, as Turkey was not even established as a nation; there was only an Ottoman Empire, that stood for the absolute expression of despotism in the eyes the European intellectuals of the 18th century, justly or not.

But Hugo dreams even further than this alliance of sovereign nation-states, managing their conflicts through dialogue. The visionary poet that he wants to be in the manner of the Latin vates, describing in The Function of the Poet, the vision of a union of states that is a fusion of historic nations in a great European nation, whose destiny will be designed similarly to that of France. Moreover, he uses the history of the unification of the regions of France under the central authority as a metaphor for this future European unification:

On that day you will feel like having a single thought, common interests, a common destiny : you will hug one another, you will recognise one each other as brothers of the same blood and race, on that day, you will no longer be some enemy populations, but a people ; you will no longer be Burgundy, Normandy, Brittany, Province, you will France. You will no longer bear the name of war, but the one of civilisation! Peace Congress, Paris, 1849.

We ask ourselves if Ernest Renan had not found inspiration in these formulations of Hugo dating back to 1849 when he wrote his famous conference What is a nation? in 1882. One can find here actually the elements that constitute the unity of a nation: cultural unity, unity of historic destiny, and, also, ethnic unity, an idea that will become extremely dangerous during the 20th century.

At the time that Hugo was writing this unity of blood and race had no other meaning than the profound link between peoples that only the arbitrary decisions of the autocrats could stir them one against the other in fratricidal wars. However, what is ultimately obvious in this passage is that Hugo cannot avoid thinking of Europe through the historic schema of France. It is Mirabeau, at the beginning of the Revolution, that had defined the kingdom of Louis the XVI as an undefined unit of disunited peoples that the New Regime, founded on the idea of nation and of popular sovereignty, had to transform into a political body organically united. History thus flows naturally towards unification, and France, England, Spain etc. should follow the same path as Burgundy, Normandy, Brittany.

This is precisely what engenders much of Hugo’s ambiguity when it comes to his European vision, and this ambiguity can be found even today in the great project of the European construction: a Europe of Nations or a federal Europe? Hugo does not make the effort to describe the institutions that should manage this continental nation. He stays very artistic in his views, a thing that allows him to suggest, without saying it openly, that in the middle of this republican alliance of peoples of Europe, it is precisely France that has, given its history, the vocation to serve as a guide and a model. Hugo’s European dream, we can see, is closer to the 20th century vision of Charles de Gaulle, than that Jean Monnet or Robert Schumann.

But Hugo, again, does not fear to bring together two poles apparently contradictory. Great friend and admirer of the young American republic, he adds to his being a European Jacobean a conception that is typically Anglo-Saxon, that of the free circulation of goods and people, ideas that are still being promoted by the USA. Hugo predicts at the same time the triumph of the normative government à la francaise and the introduction of the single currency, as well as, eventually, the globalization of the economy:

Civilisation tends invincibly towards the unity of idiom, unity of measure, unity of currency and towards the fusion of the Nations into the Humanity, the supreme unity. Understanding has as synonym: simplification. As well as richness has its own: circulation. The first servitude, that is the frontier. Peace Congress, Lausanne, 1869

One response to “Hugo’s Dream of Unification

  1. Pingback: Victor Hugo, Europe United, “Mais Non” | Aasof’s Reflections

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a Landrights campaign for Britain

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This site was created for members and friends of My Telegraph blog site, but anyone is welcome to comment, and thereafter apply to become an author.

TCWG Short Stories

Join our monthly competition and share story ideas...

The Real Economy

Blogs and stuff from Ed Conway

Public Law for Everyone

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Am I my Brothers keeper?

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