Events & News


Reflecting about continents in Classical Weimar: some findings on the idea of Europe at the end of the eighteenth century

Dr Dominic Eggel, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva

03 Oct 2011

SR 606, Level 6, NTU@one-north campus, Executive Centre, 11 Slim Barracks Rise (off North Buona Vista Road), Singapore 138664



Discussion of European integration is relatively widespread today, but Dr Dominic Eggel reminded us that such discussions have been circulating for many centuries, and there is much in them to inform contemporary policy debates. Dr Eggel made fascinating comparisons between the Enlightenment-era debates on the idea of Europe at the end of the 18th century and  its modern day equivalent.


Dr Eggel began with a historical overview of the idea of Europe.  In antiquity, the term ‘Europe’ was often used simply to differentiate the territories held by the Greek and Roman civilisations against other geographical entities, rather than to connote any precise identity. With the advent of Charlemagne in the Middle Ages, the idea of a universal monarchy  for the Christian world – roughly conforming to the boundaries of today’s Europe – took root. The division of (Christian) world order was hieriarchical, with the Holy Roman Emperor at the apex., Gradually, however,  more secular states (firstly in the ecclesiastical sense, then in the more modern one) began to develop and such secularism became a debatable token in the definition of Europe.


One side of the Enlightenment period produced ideas and phenomena now considered repugnant – European colonialism and racial ideas about the evolutionary ladder  of world civilisations, in which Europeans were at the top. The other side of the Enlightenment – represented in Dr Eggel’s lecture by the figures of Classical Weimar such as Goethe, Schiller, Herder and Wieland, though not restricted to them – consisted of the ‘conscience-stricken’ moralists and universalists. Herder, for instance, believed in an ideal ‘Europe of nations’ as a pre-stage for a more general humanity.   –More radical thinkers dreamt of supranational institutions for the European continent, in some way perhaps likethe EU institutions of today, to regulate some European affairs.


Here the comparisons with the  European debates of the 21st century are instructive. Back in the Enlightenment period as today, the project of European integration had been a project of the elites, for which the European citizenry had not been fully convinced of. The citizenry’s unbelief in the project would naturally hinder any further integration.


Yet there is one crucial difference with the 18th century – today European integration has actually been achieved with the establishment of the EU, whereas the idea was considered utopian and ‘political day dreaming’ 200 years ago. More vitally, the achievement of European integration has brought about its goal of prolonged peace for the continent.


Dr Eggel also suggested larger ramifications for his study. Europe, which was the world’s universalising force in the 18th century, has lost its triumphalist position and risks the danger of being provincialised by a globalising world. For Dr Eggel, Europe can be a sanctuary of the very values it gave birth to, such as of freedom and the rule of law. In arguing for an EU of norms and values, Dr Eggel raised the spectre of the post-9/11 anti-terrorism debates which threatens this vision. When so many aspects of daily life areframed and legislated as a matter of national security, this not only runs counter to European values since the Enlightnment, but threatens to derail the project of European integration with the re-strengthening of national sovereignty.