By Paolo von Schirach
July 14, 2012
WASHINGTON– A couple of months ago, Dr. Wolfgang Schauble, German Minister Of Finance, was awarded the Charlemagne Prize in Aachen, in recognition of his work “for Europe”. Last year the recipient was Jean-Claude Trichet, the former president of the European Central Bank, (ECB). The Charlemagne Prize is a coveted and prestigious European honor. Schauble got it for his work on German and European finances and Trichet received it for his long stewardship of the ECB.
A prize for European achievements
So, high ranking European public officials and notables get an important recognition. The general idea behind the Charlemagne Prize is that an honor named after a famous European would go to meritorious individuals who have worked to further the construction of ”Europe”. Nothing exceptional in any of this. Except for the historic figure chosen to represent the embodiment of the highest modern European ideals: the Emperor Charlemagne.
Charlemagne, Holy Roman Emperor in 800 A.D.
If you think of it, this is almost grotesque. Charlemagne had absolutely nothing to do with modern Europe. And when I say nothing, I mean really nothing. He lived before the Middle Ages. He was the King of the Franks and later on, through military conquest, he managed to control substantial chunks of Western Europe. On account of this conquests, there was an attempt to reconstitute in some vague fashion a medieval version of the Roman Empire.
All school children in Europe learn that on Christmas Eve of the year 800 A.D. (Yes it is really 800 A.D., some 700 years before the discovery of America), Charlemagne was crowned “Holy Roman Emperor” in Rome by Pope Leo III. This way the lost glory of Rome was somehow brushed up –hence ”Roman” Empire– with the fundamental addition of “Holy“, symbolizing that this resurrected Empire would be Christian.
Empire the precursor of a United Europe?
The fact that the political boundaries of the then Holy Roman Empire ruled (for only a few years) by Charlemagne resembled somewhat the boundaries of the original European Common Market, (comprising France, West Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg), later on authorized the fanciful, and historically meaningless notion that the early Holy Roman Empire was somehow the precursor of the European Common Market, founded in 1957 with great pomp via the “Treaties of Rome”, if you want some more empty symbolism.
After World War Two, the good citizens of Aachen –the German city close to the borders with Belgium and the Netherlands where Charlemagne had actually died– decided to name a prize that would symbolize peace and solidarity among Europeans after this Emperor who had ruled over the ancestors of many Europeans. And so Charlemagne (who reigned as Holy Roman Emperor from 800 until his death in 814) over time became the agreed upon “Founding Father of Europe”.
The Vikings as the Founding Fathers of America?
It is said that success has many fathers. Well, if you have to dig that deep to find a European father, then Europe’s success is not really a sure thing. In a North American context, imagine that we had no Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, Washington, Hamilton or Adams as Founders. Desperately looking for one, going back quite a bit, we would agree that our Founding Father was the Viking Thorvald Ericson who landed in Newfoundland in 1004 A.D. For the purpose of making him an honorary early American, we would conveniently assume that he sailed south into today’s US territory. A pretty thin American tradition, wouldn’t you say, if you have to go so far back? Well, we’ve got our Jeffersons and Hamiltons. Europe does not have their equivalent, hence the need to go so far back.
Historic stretching and distortion of facts so that they will suit a desired narrative is quite common across all civilizations. But in the case of Europe what is truly worrisome is that one has to go back more than a thousand years to find a European ruler and then redefine him as non controversial Founding Father, knowing full well that Emperor Charlemagne could not possibly have shared any of the visions of the modern would-be Europe builders.
Thin European tradition
The truth of the matter is that, while there have been many people in more recnt times who had ideas about a United Europe (which does not yet exist, by the way), contemporary Europeans do not seem to be able to agree on anybody a bit more recent than a Frank King, later on Holy Roman Emperor, as the true embodiment of a European idea.
Nobody on the currency
Lack of consensus role models carries further. On the Euro, the common currency of 17 of the 27 EU members, you see bridges and windows and other generic representations that convey absolutely nothing about a deeply shared European identity. And these bridges, as opposed to eminent Europeans, are there on the currency because there are no such pan-European symbols of a shared and deeply felt “European Identity”. At least nobody that could be embraced by all without causing resentments and animosities.
I am happy that Wolfgang Schauble and Jean Claude Trichet before him got this European recognition. However, the fact that this great European prize is named after Charlemagne, a historic (and purposely mythologized) figure completely disjointed from European modernity is a sad indication of the extreme poverty of a pan-European patrimony that most Europeans could rally around and feel comfortable with.
Charlemagne no connection with a modern, (still not united) Europe
In the present context of ”Grand European Visions” with zero plans to get there, Charlemagne as the first Great European is also a dream, an artfully concocted fantasy. While a real historic character, this Emperor from long, long ago has been conveniently remade into a ”Europeanist”, so that the few believers in “Europe”could have a non controversial symbol they can revere.
Depressingly enough, such is the real strength of the “European Idea“: antiquarian stuff divorced from the actual feelings and concerns of modern citizens of individual European countries for whom “Europe” is an abstraction — something that will happen some day– they feel little or no allegiance to.