If it is the case that art holds a mirror up to life, it is no less true that a book holds a mirror up to its reader. Published, not coincidentally, on the eve of the UK’s original scheduled departure from the EU, Robert Menasse’s The Capital, the first novel ever written about the European Commission, has elicited a wide variety of responses from British readers, who cannot help but view the book through the refractive prism of Brexit. Not only do both sides of the Brexit debate find succour for their arguments in The Capital, the book has also split pro-Europeans between optimists, who regard it as a timely reminder of why the European project was launched in the first place, and pessimists, who feel the novel offers little in the way of hope for the future.
Pessimists and Eurosceptics will both cite Menasse’s satirical portrayal of national and individual ambition within the Brussels apparatus and how these hinder or even thwart progress on an EU level at every turn. At the heart of the novel, however, is an impassioned speech by the Austrian professor, Alois Erhart, who takes his audience of younger economists back to the genesis of the post-war European idea, recalling how it was built on the ashes of Auschwitz. He urges this generation of Europeans to unshackle themselves from the fetters of nationalist thinking and embrace a truly post-national Europe, rather than one of competing states.
It is fitting that these words should come from the mouth of an Austrian, and indeed that the novelist himself is an Austrian too. For in the wake of the collapse of the Habsburg Monarchy, the interwar Austrian state struggled to define an identity for itself that chimed with the national principle that had underpinned the Paris Peace Settlement. The dominant political figure of the 1920s in Austria, Ignaz Seipel, had published a book in 1916, entitled Nation und Staat, in which he argued that nation and state were not one and the same, the nation being (pace Herder) more of a cultural unit, whereas the state was a political entity. This was, of course, at odds with the idea of the nation in, say, France or Britain, where the nation meant political nation, and thus was synonymous with the state.
Having been shorn of its multinational hinterland, Austria was a rump German state and the desire for Anschluss, or political union with Germany, was very strong, especially as post-1918 Austria seemed too weak to survive on its own. Amongst conservative factions in the country, enthusiasm for Anschluss was more muted and, invoking Austria’s former imperial glory, Seipel instead emphasised the Austrians’ mission in the Danube area, one which could not be fulfilled by union with a Prussian-dominated Germany. Vague plans for a Danube confederation were mooted and Seipel also endorsed Richard von Coudenhove-Kalergi’s ‘Pan-Europa’ movement, which held its first congress in Vienna in 1926.
Ultimately, however, supranational solutions for Austria’s future, most of which borrowed too heavily from the discredited Habsburg past, were blown away by the juggernaut of German nationalism in 1938. The Anschluss happened – though not in the form which had been envisaged in the 1920s – the Führer received a rapturous welcome in his former homeland and the Austrians went on to play their full part in the darkest period of European history. For many years the extent of their complicity was never officially acknowledged, successive governments being able to point to the Allied Moscow Declaration of 1943, which stated that Austria had been the first victim of Nazi aggression. Eventually, in 1991, Chancellor Franz Vranitzky insisted that the country had to recognise its responsibility for the crimes of the Third Reich. A few years later, in 1995, Austria joined the European Union, finally embracing the international identity that had proved so elusive in the immediate post-imperial era.
All of which brings us back to The Capital. When Alois Erhart makes his impassioned plea for a post-national community, he is echoing the thinking of Robert Menasse himself, who has articulated similar ideas elsewhere. On the face of it, Erhart’s radical proposals for Europe’s future might be hard to stomach for even the most pro-European of minds, let alone British exceptionalists! Indeed, the professor tells his audience, ‘not even you, the elite of international economists, members of numerous think tanks and advisory committees in EU countries, can conceive of this, can accept this idea.’ He argues that the current generation of Europeans have reverted to an outdated idea of political organisation according to the national principle, mistakenly believing it to be ‘normal’, very much at odds with the founding fathers of the European project, who were spurred on by their terrible experiences of the war.
We began by considering the shadow that Brexit casts over this novel for British readers. In truth, however, the Brits and their tortuous relationship with the EU are given summary treatment in the book, with Brexit presented – not unjustifiably – as merely a side issue in the larger realm of European affairs. It is only one of several centrifugal forces threatening the integrity of the European Union at a time of resurgent nationalism and growing populism across the continent, as well as the dangers posed by external actors such as Russia. Is it too gloomy to talk already of an existential crisis? Maybe, maybe not. There is no doubt, however, that Europe must rise to meet the stiff challenges it faces, of which nationalism is the common denominator. In this light, perhaps, the vision of a post-national Europe as laid out in Robert Menasse’s The Capital begins to look less like a naïve, idealistic project and more like a practical way for liberal and democratic elements to reassert themselves, while ensuring that the historical developments which gave rise to the EU are never forgotten.
The Capital by Robert Menasse, translated by Jamie Bulloch, is published by MacLehose Press.