Paul Berman: How Europe Earned Its Nobel Peace Prize

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Paul Berman is a senior editor at The New Republic.

On December 10, the Norwegian Nobel Committee will bestow its Peace Prize upon the European Union, and the wisdom of the committee’s action ought to be obvious to every last creature on Earth. The European Union consists of 27 states containing roughly 500 million citizens, not all of whom are worthy recipients of the prize, given the Nazis in Greece, fascists in Hungary, Islamist gunmen in France, anti-immigrant demagogues and bigots in general almost everywhere, child molesters, and investors in Spanish real estate bubbles, not to mention the political leaders incapable of approving a sufficiently robust economic stimulus, and so forth, unto the uptick lately in Catalan nationalism. Most of those 500 million Europeans deserve their award, though.

Alfred Nobel, the unfortunate inventor of dynamite, died before he was able to articulate the logic for his prize, but no explanation was necessary. The history of Europe during the last four 400 years has been punctuated by one attempt after another to avoid a recurrence of the mother-tragedy of all European tragedies, which was the Thirty Years War back in the seventeenth century, together with the sundry other religious wars of the time. Europeans slaughtered each other for the purpose of imposing on the entire continent a single theological truth, which was going to be Catholicism, or Protestantism, or some variation, but was not going to be more than one of the above. And the agreements that brought the slaughters to an end, codified in the seventeenth century, rested on the tolerant principle of cuius regio, eius religio, meaning, the local religion will be whatever the local potentate says it is, and neighboring potentates should mind their own business.

This was a principle of renunciation. Europe agreed to give up on the ambition of discovering a single truth and set out instead to manage the multiple truths. Renunciation and muddling-through proved to be a success, within limits. During the 150 years that followed, European wars tended to be ritualized affairs fought by armies wearing colored jackets, as in sports, shooting at each other instead of at the bystanders. When the system broke down, it was only because the French Revolution had introduced a different dispute about right and wrong—instead of Catholicism versus Protestantism, a matter of feudalism versus post-feudalism. And when Napoleon was defeated and order was reestablished, the principles of peace conformed roughly to the same doctrine of cuius regio, eius religio as before, except extended this time to multiple sociopolitical systems (e.g., constitutional monarchy, bourgeois monarchy, multinational imperial paternalism, backward-looking czarist despotism, forward-looking French-style barricade-building, etc.).

The new peace lasted 99 years, with occasional interruptions and a giant massacre of the Paris Commune, not to mention the imperialist wars foisted on the rest of the world. Then it fell apart once again, this time because of yet another set of new ideas, having to do with idiotic nationalist resentments and mad theories about race. The Thirty Years War broke out anew. Or maybe the twentieth-century wars rested on a nihilist impulse to kill everyone in sight, akin to a disgruntled young person shooting up his high school or a movie theater, urged on by scurrilous ideologues.

The European Union of our own moment rests on a different principle altogether... 

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