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Benjamin J Whitlock - World Order after the First World War. Part 2

World Order after the First World War. Part 2: Separating Nation and State – The political thought of Alfred Zimmern and Richard Coudenhove-Kalergi 

By Benjamin J. Whitlock, PhD candidate in History & Graduate Associate of the Centre for Global Security and Governance

The 1920s was a time of great change in international political thought. The First World War and the revolutions in Russia and across Eastern Europe had unleashed new ideas about how to govern international space. Many in Europe advocated for the creation of new nation states in place of the former multi-national empires of the Habsburgs, Romanovs and Ottomans in a continuation of the liberal ideas of the 19th century. Even as the idea of the nation-state was leading to the creation of a patchwork of new states in Europe, and helping to lay the groundwork for decolonisation in the second half of the century, there were those who argued against it. Viewing the idea of a nation-state with suspicion, they proposed different forms of political association. In Part 2, of this blogpost, we explore two of the most developed movements that advocated for an alternative to the nation-state, and draw out some of the similarities between these two movements by looking at the writings of two of their central figures.

The Paneuropean Movement

The Paneuropean Movement was founded by Richard Coudenhove-Kalergi, a former Austro-Hungarian diplomat, who wrote the Movements founding text ‘Pan-Europa’ in 1923. It is clear that in this work he drew inspiration from the late Habsburg Monarchy, in particular the way the ethnicity and political statehood had been separated in the Dual Monarchy.  A relatively short book, Pan-Europa, analyses the political situation in Europe, as Coudenhove understood it in the early 1920s. Finding that after the war Europe was defeated and demoralised, Coudenhove was quick to highlight how with the breakup of the multinational empires, Europe was becoming divided into small individual nations. This he argued was a threat – not only did this mean that Europe was venerable to an external power, but it also increased the potential for inter-European wars. He argued that “the part of the world that has this name [Europe] constitutes a chaos of peoples and states, a source of international conflict and future world war.”

His solution to this conundrum was to reorganise Europe along new lines. He argued for the creation of a United States of Europe, or Paneuropa. A “political and economic union of all European States, from Poland to Portugal”. This union he said was to include all democratic and semi-democratic states. This last point was a concession Coudenhove made to Mussolini in order to secure Italy’s membership of Paneuropa. However, it is clear that Coudenhove viewed Paneuropa as a democratic project, with a directly elected two chamber parliament. Coudenhove argued, that by coming together, Europe could take its place alongside the other great ‘federal’ alliances or empires he predicted would dominate world politics: the Pan-America Union, an as yet undefined Asian empire, the Soviet Union and the British Empire. These five entities he argued represented a new system in world politics; one that grouped states together and existed between the political state and humanity as a whole. For Coudenhove Paneuropa would preserve Europe, both politically and economically. Central to the economic rehabilitation of Europe would be the combining of all the colonies of the different European states into a new colonial empire – something he would later dub ‘Euroafrica’. This, he believed, was necessary not only to ensure equality between Europeans, in terms of access to African raw materials and labour, but also for the economic wellbeing of the continent. He argued that only through the “rational exploitation of her African Colonies” would Paneuropa be able to “produce by herself all the food and essential goods needed, and like this, obtain her economic independence.” 

Exactly who could be a member of Paneuropa is something to which Coudenhove gave considerable thought. The aforementioned ‘federal empires’ give some indication of who would be excluded: both Russia and the Britain were not to be part of Paneuropa. Much of Russia’s territory was outside of Europe and after the October Revolution its trajectory was not democratic, with Coudenhove viewing the Communist government as a threat to European security. Indeed, much of the rational for Paneuropa would hinge on countering the threat of Bolshevism. Britain, however, presented far more of a problem. It was an established democracy and geographically part of Europe. 

Coudenhove, however, argued that it needed to be excluded. By way of justification, Coudenhove invoked a popular pre-war analogy that drew comparisons between the British and the Habsburg Empires. He argued that Britain (or England, as he invariably referred to the United Kingdom) played the role of the Austrian Empire in German Confederation of the 19th century. According to him, it was only after the exclusion of Austria, with its extra Germanic territories, that Germany was able to form a united Empire. Just as the Austrian Empire had been extra-Germanic, the British Empire he argued was “an extra-European empire” [original italics]. This view, however, raises a problem: as we have just noted, Paneuropa was itself not limited to geographical Europe, indeed Europe’s colonial territories in Africa were an integral part of Paneuropa and key to its future economic development. Coudenhove described the British Empire as “a great power spread over the five continents: in Europe, England; in Asia, India; in Africa, South Africa; in Oceania, Australia; in America, Canada.”

The British Empire was, of course, undergoing a radical transformation at the time, with the Dominions forming a new British Commonwealth of Nations. A collection of self-governing territories within the larger British imperium that possessed considerable autonomy and political independence but shared a trans-national identity and structures of governance. 

The Third British Empire: the British Commonwealth

After its establishment, the British Commonwealth received considerable attention from political scientists and historians. Perhaps most famously, Alfred Zimmern, the British classicist and pioneer of international relations, published ‘The Third British Empire’ in 1926, based on a series of lectures he had given at Columbia University the year before. These lectures focused on recent developments within the British Empire, and it was in first lecture that he famously declared that “a Third British Empire has come into existence, new in its form, …. new even in its name. For The British Empire of 1914 has now become The British Commonwealth of Nations.”

The book, a collection of lectures that Zimmern had given in 1925, sought to explain the transformation of the British Empire, or at least its white settlement colonies, into the Commonwealth. Zimmern’s book has gone on to be seen as one of the most influential works on the subject. The British Commonwealth was something of a cause celebre during the interwar period. It attracted a significant amount of scholarly attention in how it played a delicate balancing act between unity of the Commonwealth as a unit in international affairs and national domestic autonomy. Indeed, such was novelty of the Commonwealth that one American political scientist described it as a political unicorn. Subsequently, he said that it marked the “counter-reformation of capitalist imperialism” after the Russian Revolution. During the interwar period, the British Commonwealth was a collection of highly interconnected polities and governments that the historian David Armstrong described as “a group of effectively sovereign equal states [that had] forged a series of strong economic, political, security and cultural links based not primarily on clear perceptions of each member’s national interests but on a sense that they constituted a community bonded together by ethnic, normative, cultural and historical ties.”

The British Commonwealth is therefore best understood as a political community. As indeed is the union that Coudenhove proposed. Both the Commonwealth and Paneuropa, were presented as bringing together culturally similar nations into a single political framework, and both were idealised as a relatively lose political structure. In fact, Coudenhove would later state that he chose the name ‘Paneuropa’ as it explicitly rejected the notion of a centralised federal model he saw in America. This is a view which Zimmern and Leo Amery, his fellow advocate for Commonwealth unity, shared, with Amery believing that any European union would remain a loose political structure similar to the one the British Commonwealth had developed after 1926. As a practical example of how Paneuropa might be governed, Coudenhove cites the Imperial Conference of the Commonwealth, rather than any federal political structure. This suggest that key thinkers on the Paneuropa and the Commonwealth understood them to being similar projects, The idea of a choice suggests a similarity in function, if not necessarily in form. Both the Commonwealth and Paneuropa were imagined to perform a similar functions:  keep the peace and prevent another world war. It is notable that both men lay the blame for the First World War and any future firmly at the feet of what we would now describe as nationalism. A danger that they both recognised and to which they sought to propose solutions. 

Building Peace 

I have already discussed, the general mood that had been created in the aftermath of the First World War. The idea that there should never again be another global conflict was a major theme in international political thought. Once we recognise that the idea of peace was a major factor in international thinking during this period, it is possible to see the Commonwealth as a global peace project. This is an underlying theme within The Third British Empire, with Zimmern celebrating the ability of members of the Commonwealth peacefully to settle disputes between themselves, via arbitration and political agreements. It is worth highlighting how the Commonwealth and Empire had provided the framework for conflict resolution in its members, notably in South Africa, between Dutch and English settlers, but also in Canada and in the United Kingdom itself. This is something he claimed was now being imitated by the League of Nations. Zimmern would ultimately, go as far as stating that “The British Empire is called upon to preserve the peace of the world. The British Empire is the surest bulwark against war in the present-day world”. This was a view that was seemingly supported by both the British Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, and the Australian Prime Minister, Joseph Lyons, who described the Commonwealth as possessing a global peace building mission at the 1937 Imperial Conference. With Lyon going as far as to suggest that “world peace is the idea which all the peoples of the British Empire have as their objective”. For these men, the Commonwealth, and, a system of arbitration at intermittent conferences, provided the frame for a lasting peace. 

This idea of peace, and peace building, is also present within the writings and rhetoric of Richard Coudenhove, who held that “only a Pan-European alliance [could] guarantee the internal peace of Europe”. This would be achieved through the creation of a charter for the protection of ethnic minorities and through the establishment of a court of arbitration. This he, somewhat optimistically, argued would prevent inter-European conflicts. Both Zimmern and Coudenhove can be understood as having sought to prevent conflict through arbitration and legal readies. This they argued would depoliticize ethnic conflicts and prevent future wars. For both men, arbitration within a clearly defined legal order was the future of international relations. The reason that both men believed it was possible to depoliticize international politics, whether through a court or arbitration as in Paneuropa; or the Conference system as in the British Commonwealth, is because they advocated for a separation of nationality and state.

Non-national States

Both Zimmern and Coudenhove were sceptical of the idea of homogeneous nation state, and they regarded the terms ‘British’ and ‘European’ not as descriptions of a nationality but as a political designation.

Zimmern believed that the idea of a nation state was “unsound” and based on a “confusion between government and nationality, between free institutions and national institutions”. In somewhat amusing passage, Zimmern argues that nations that possess only a cultural expression are in fact stronger, possessing a greater pull on a population’s consciousness. Here he uses Scotland as an example, declaring that “Scottish nationality is like one of those drinks which are all the stronger because they look exactly like water”. In that same chapter, he argued that the English had already been able to de-politicalize nationality, and if the rest of the world were able to follow then “the greatest cause of war in the world would disappear”. Coudenhove for his part viewed the idea a nation state and nationalism as a myth. Stating that “nations are not blood communities but spiritual communities”, and that nations were therefore not political objects, but rather cultural ones. Coudenhove appears to view the idea of political nationhood as illogical: as a spiritual objects nations could not be controlled or limited by state borders. Just as church and state had been separated in the early modern period, so too must nation and state be separated in the 20th century. This he argued would allow nations to cease being political objects. Both Coudenhove and Zimmern argue that by depoliticizing nations, the individual is freed, and here both men use the same metaphor. Arguing that depoliticize nations allow the individual to ‘render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s’, while preserving loyalty to their nation as a purely spiritual object.


In both ‘Pan-Europa’ and ‘The Third British Empire’, it is argued that nationality could, and should, be separated from political statehood and be preserved as a purely cultural expression. Indeed, it is notable how similar both Zimmern’s and Coudenhove’s respective understandings of nationality are. This perhaps stems from the fact that both men had atypical ethnic backgrounds for men of their position in this period. Coudenhove was half German-Bohemian and Japanese and grew up in the politically charged final years of the Habsburg Monarchy, when there were numerous schemes that sought to separate nationhood and statehood in order to preserve the Habsburg state. Alfred Zimmern, meanwhile, was ethnically Jewish, and held a long-standing interest in cultural Zionism, believing that it was possible, and one might say desirable, for nationhood and statehood to separate. The worlds in which both men grew up were not as dissimilar to today’s world as many would like to think. The 19thand early 20th century saw both the British and Habsburg states challenged by the ‘nationalities’ question; the quest for Home Rule and the rise of nationalism in Hungary, Bohemia, Ireland and Canada all challenged pre-existing ideas of the state. This atmosphere influenced both men in similar ways and allowed them to reach similar conclusions. By regulating the nation into the spiritual or cultural sphere, both men sought to remove its political meaning. These feelings were in keeping with those identified by Stråth, when he argued that the League of Nations was an attempt to depalletize international relations. For both men, and the movements to which they gave expression, international relations were chaotic and in need of institutional processes to guide them and limit any potential for future world conflicts. By conceiving of nationality as a purely spiritual phenomenon these men believed that it was possible to remove nationality from politics. To do this, they proposed two complimentary political programmes: Paneuropa and the British Commonwealth, two organisations that would provide the framework to reorder the world and, they hoped, provide lasting peace.  

Benjamin J Whitlock - World Order after the First World War. Part 1

World Order after the First World War. Part 1: Reassessing the League of Nations 100 years on

by Benjamin J. Whitlock, PhD candidate in History & Graduate Associate of the Centre for Global Security and Governance

The end of November 2020 held a little remarked upon, but significant anniversary. 20 November marked the 100th anniversary of the first session of the League of Nations. The world’s first permanent intergovernmental organisation, the League, has traditionally been regarded as failure. It failed to prevent conflicts in Ethiopia and China in the 1930s; it failed to bring reconciliation between Germany, France and the United Kingdom after 1919; and its failure to prevent another world war was judged to be so serious that the League itself had to be shut down and replaced by the United Nations. This view, however, is increasing challenged by scholars who, rather than seeing the League as an unabashed failure, are instead highlighting its many, if lower profile, successes in areas such as public health, the trafficking of women and girls, and international labour standards. Historians such as Mark Mazower, Glenda Sluga, Benjamin Gorman and Natasha Wheatly are not only investigating the League’s successes, but also its legacy on international governance. The First World War unleashed new ideas in politics and international relations, with the League of Nations being only the most famous. Numerous movements across Europe, and the world, sprung up in the aftermath of the conflict, all of which aimed at creating a lasting peace. To quote the late Zara Steiner, the world order inaugurated at Versailles "created the basis for new experiments in international co-operation. The growth of interdependence and the transnational character of so many problems encouraged the development of multilateral diplomacy and the appearance of new international institutions."    

The world of the 1920s was crying out for new forms of international governance. In this two part series, we are going to explore two such projects that attempted to reorder the world: The Pan-European Movement that sought to create a union of European states; and the movement for unity, between the United Kingdom and the Dominions, within the British Commonwealth of Nations. In particular, we will focus on two influential books that can be considered as providing the ideologically raison d'etre for both movements: Richard Coudenhove-Kalergi’s Pan-Europa, published in 1923; and Alfred Zimmern’s The Third British Empire published in 1926. Both authors challenged the notion that the nation-state was the ideal political community. They foreshadowed many arguments in favour of supranational association from the post Second World War era. While it is important to note the differences between these two movements – notably that one was advocating the creation of a new political union and the other sought to provide intellectual legitimacy for one that was already in existence – there is evidence we should view them as analogous peace projects created as a result of the First World War and the ensuing instability in the international system.

1919, a utopia of peace.

In 1919 the world was beginning the slow process of recovery after what then was, in absolute terms, the largest conflict in human history. Even during the war, it had been recognised that the conflict would have to lead to a new world order based on new political concepts. “The war is being waged about ideas,” Zimmern wrote in 1915, “and the settlement at its close will be determined by ideas”. One of these ideas provided the inspiration for the League of Nations. For the men who gathered in Paris the League was presented a cure to the world’s ills. Having witnessed unprecedented destruction during the war, the world had vowed a ‘never again’ to war and sought to make another conflict impossible. Central to this purpose was the League of Nations.

The League was the brainchild of American President Woodrow Wilson and South Africa’s Premier, Jan Smuts. The latter used the emerging British Commonwealth as an example of how an international organisation would function. Wilson for his part drew on his background as a professor of jurisprudence and political economy to imagine a League that was deeply embedded in liberal values around nationhood, self-determination, and the rule of law. This faith in liberal ideas led Wilson, Smuts and others to codify what the Swedish scholar Bo Stråth has dubbed a ‘utopia of peace’. By this he means that there was a widespread belief that conflict could be eliminated by managing international relations through the creation of international law and institutional structures. The League was an attempt to ‘de-politicize’ international relations and transcend the nation-state as primary means of political organisation. By creating clear legal and institutional processes, it was hoped that conflicts could be resolved peacefully, without a need of having to resort to violence. The League was not alone in this endeavour. Both the Pan-European Movement and the movement for unity between the self-governing parts of the British Empire can also be understood as part of this global movement to remove war as a political tool in international affairs. In Part 2, we will explore these two movements through the writings of Alfred Zimmern and Richard Coudenhove-Kalergi who provided their ideological underpinnings.

To be continued.