Napoleon Bonaparte in full imperial regalia. He got close to creating a European Empire, but he failed utterly in the end. He faced the same problem that other would-be European Emperors faced: fighting on two opposite fronts at the same time. At present, the European Union (another form of European Empire) is facing the same defeat, although in an economic war rather than in a conventional military one.
One of the fascinating parts of history is how people tend to repeat the same mistakes over and over. A couple of generations are more than sufficient for leaders to forget everything about what their predecessors had done, and run straight into a new — but similar — catastrophe. It is also called “history never repeats itself, but it does rhyme.”
A case of history rhyming with itself is the story of Western Europe and how its leaders tried, over and over, to unify the riotous and unruly Europeans into a single state — a European Empire. Charlemagne was perhaps the first who tried, already during the 8th century AD. His “Holy Roman Empire” survived for nearly a millennium, but it never included all of Western Europe. Then it was the turn of Napoleon Bonaparte, then the German Kaiser, then the German Nazis, and, recently, the European Union that, for the first time, tried to put together a European Empire not based on military might. They were all failures: right now we are seeing the probable dissolution, of the European Union — an entity that nobody seems to want any longer.
Why couldn’t Western Europeans create a true Empire? After all, when it was a question of making some money by military conquest, they didn’t find that it was so difficult to get together to attack an external adversary. It happened during the crusades (12th-4th century), the attack on Russia by Napoleon in 1812, the Crimean war (1853-1856), the attack on China during the Boxer rebellion (1899 -1901), and a few more cases.
One major problem of would-be European Emperors is simply geographical. Europe is a peninsula of Eurasia, but where does it exactly end? The geography books say that it ends with the Urals, but that’s just a convention. Are the Russians Europeans? In many ways, yes, except when their Western neighbors decide that they are barbarians to be exterminated (as happened during WW2) or, at least, people whose culture is to be ignored or, better, annihilated (as it is happening nowadays). So, where is the Western border of Europe? Nobody knows, and that’s a sure recipe for war.
Then, on the Western side, is Britain part of Europe? Again, geography says that it is, but do the British consider themselves Europeans? The best that can be said is that they do — but only when it is convenient for them. During WW2, there was a common saying in Italy that went as “Che Dio stramaledica gli inglesi” (may God heavily curse the British). A bit nasty, sure, but at least it highlights a certain feeling that continental Europeans have for Britain.
Geography normally dominates politics, and that seems to be especially true for Western Europe. In practice, any attempt to create a European Empire (or even just a stable coalition of European states), faces an unsolvable strategic problem. At Europe’s borders, on the East and the West, there are two powerful states, Great Britain (now the US Empire) and Russia. Neither has an interest in seeing a strong Europe arising and they normally act to avoid exactly that. Note that neither Russia nor Britain ever were interested in invading Europe — they just didn’t want a powerful Europe at their border. The case is slightly different for the US Empire, which does keep its military stationed in Europe. But, even so, the US occupation is more a question of political, rather than military, control.
In any case, during the past few centuries, emergent European Empires usually found themselves fighting on two opposite fronts. An impossible strategic situation that normally ends with not just a defeat, but with catastrophe.
It was Napoleon who inaugurated the challenge of fighting Britain and Russia at the same time. The result was the disappearance of France from the list of the world’s “great powers.” Then, it was the turn of the German government to do the same mistake. As a remarkable example of the stupidity of government leaders, they managed to do it twice on two different occasions, in 1914, and in 1939. Note, incidentally, that Adolf Hitler himself, wrote in his Mein Kampf (1933) that Germany should never find itself fighting on two fronts. And then, he led Germany exactly into that!
After the catastrophe of WW2, Europeans seemed to realize that the attempt to unify Europe by military means was hopeless. So, they tried a combination of diplomatic and economic actions. It was not a bad idea in itself, but it failed utterly as the result of several factors, the main one being perhaps that the European Union became a bureaucratic monster, unable to produce anything but useless paper. It didn’t help that the national governments consistently tried to gather the most they could for their countries, without much regard for the collective good. Finally, the higher layers of the EU fell in the hands of traitors bought by foreign powers. Any attempt to create a European military force was sabotaged and, during the past few decades, Europe has been effectively de-fanged and declawed: it doesn’t have any more significant independent military forces. (image below from “The Economist”
In the end, the EU went through the same sequence of failures that had doomed the previous attempts of unification. The “Brexit,” the exit of the UK from the Union in 2020, was the economic equivalent of the military defeats of Napoleon at Trafalgar (1805), and of Hitler at the battle of Britain (1940). But the true disaster came with the attempt of bankrupting Russia with economic sanctions. That was, instead, the equivalent of Napoleon’s dash on Moscow (1812) and Hitler’s “Operation Barbarossa” (1941).
The economic war is still ongoing, but we can already say that Russia is surviving the sanctions while Europe has been badly damaging itself. No matter what will be the outcome of the war in Ukraine, Europeans now face a cold winter and a probable economic disaster. In short, the same outcome of Napoleon’s and Hitler’s campaigns — even though not in military terms.
And now? Disasters beget disasters, it is one more rule of history. The European relentless rejection of everything that has to do with Russian culture and traditions is a cultural and human disaster that cannot be measured in economic terms. The last thing Europeans needed was an enemy on their Eastern border. Now they have created it, and they will have to live with it. And, most likely, the idea of a Western European Empire is now buried forever, and perhaps it is good that it is.
Originally appeared on The Seneca Effect