It's such a pleasure to be here. Thank you to all of you for allowing me to do this. Thank you, in particular, to Ukrainian and Austrian colleagues who are beginning this important work in the Austrian-Ukrainian Historical Commission, which, of course, if we were in Kyiv, it would be the Ukrainian-Austrian Historical Commission.
My little role in this weekend's events is to give you a brief talk about Ukrainian history as global history, with general reference to the revolution of 1917, and with general reference to the present day. The claim that I'd like to make is that global history makes much more sense with Ukrainian history inside it. What I have found in my own work is that Ukrainian history is a kind of gift to global history, that Ukrainian history, in many ways, is a missing link that makes certain trends in global history make more sense.
Let me start with the revolution of 1917. There's a wonderful quote about the French Revolution from Chiang Kai-shek, the Chinese revolutionary. When asked whether the French Revolution had been a good thing or a bad thing, Chiang Kai-shek said almost 200 years afterwards, "It's too soon to say." Now, like almost every famous quotation in history, that one is probably false, just so you know. But nevertheless, that falsehood contains an important truth, the history of revolutions comes around and around, and around and around again.
What I'd like to do with 1917 this evening is consider the way it thought about history with the way that we think about history. What I'd like to do is begin with what the revolutionaries of 1917 thought they were doing with history. And then end by trying to make sense of the century in a way which is different from how they would have made sense with it, although it has some commonalities.
What did the revolutionaries of 1917 think about history? What did they think they were doing with history? This is one of the ways that the revolution of 1917 is alien to us, because we are in a culture of nostalgia and commemoration. We are in a culture of superstitious reverence for years of round numbers. We are in a culture where anniversaries are so important, they actually affect the real world. And if you don't believe this, consider the war in Ukraine in 2014. The way that the West reacted to the war in Ukraine in 2014 was materially affected by the fact that it was the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War. And hence, the metaphorical force of the beginning of the First World War was applied to how we reacted to 1914. We said, "Let us be cautious. Let us make sure we know what is happening. Let us not hasten to act. Let us not be the first to fire the guns of August," and so on.
If the war in Ukraine had been the anniversary of Munich, presumably we would have reacted in an entirely different way. Because our culture has become such a culture of commemoration. Memory has displaced history to such an extent. I'd go so far as to say the superstition, the pagan superstition of round numbers has replaced historical enlightenment to such an extent that it actually affects the choices that we make in the real world. So, I just say that by way of introducing the point I want to make, which is that in 1917, the revolutionaries were not saying, "What does 1817 mean for us?" In 1917, the revolutionaries, the Bolshevik revolutionaries, were thinking about history as something that moved forward, according to certain rules, which were understandable, and which they perhaps understood better than others, and which perhaps they understood well enough to move history along further. That history was known, it had laws, they were its scientists, and perhaps also its technicians in the sense of being able to turn those gears a little bit faster than they would have otherwise.
If that's true, where does Ukraine fit into a history scene in that way? These are subjects which my colleagues will talk about in greater length, of course. I'll just talk about them very briefly. But if you think about history that way, Ukraine becomes central to the making of the Soviet state. After the revolution in 1917, the civil wars, in plural, fought on the territory of the old Russian Empire were fought centrally in Ukraine, whether it's the Red White Civil War, or whether it's wars involving Ukrainian armies, again in the plural, whether it's the war involving Poland, centrally fought in Ukraine. If you're a Soviet state builder, Ukraine is the major national, let's call it “problem” which you were confronting in the 1920s. If you are Stalin, and you're completing the political revolution in 1927, with the economic and social revolution of 1928, with the first 5-Year Plan, Ukraine is also a critical if not the critical place of revolution. It is where collectivization will fail, or where it will succeed. This is how one thinks about Ukraine if one thinks about history as something which moves forward and as being accelerated.
What might we say today? I want to suggest a different view. I want to suggest a view which is neither history as commemoration, which I think it's not, nor history as acceleration or technique, which I also think it's not. What I want to try to do today is suggest more gently a way that Ukraine in 1917, or Ukraine today, Ukraine in the last century, helps us to make sense of modern history or global history as we see it. And the suggestion that I'm going to try to make is that Ukraine is not exceptional. The way I want to press this argument is by saying that Ukraine is hyper-typical, that Ukrainians is so typical of major trends that it gets buried by or buried in these trends. And that if we can pull it up and see it for what it was, then these trends begin to make more sense. So, the claim is that Ukraine is hyper-typical of three basic moments in the last 100 years or so of history. And I'll go through them in order, but those moments are, first, the encounter of nation with empire. Second, the creation I'm going to call neo-empires or new empires in Europe in the 1930s and 1940s, European imperialism in Europe itself. And the third moment is the encounter of the European Union with states. I'm going to take those as being three moments. So, nations and empires, new empires in Europe, and the European Union and states. And again, my idea here is that Ukraine is so typical of these moments that if we look carefully at Ukraine, then we see the moments, and then the whole history starts to fall into place.
First example: Nations and empires. The first claim that I want to suggest to help it all make sense, is that we have to bring the two different ways that we see imperial history together. The first way that we see imperial history is that we see it as Europe and everybody else. Right? So, if I say global history, most people would think, "Okay, that's Europe as it were against everyone else. That's colonialism coming out from Europe. And then anti-colonialism coming back into Europe from Africa, or from Asia, or from Latin America." That's one way to think about empire and nation, the global way.
And then there's another way, which is seemingly completely different, which is the national way where you're Polish, or you're Ukrainian, or you're Serbian, and you think, "Well, nation and empire means my nation, one nation, and the local empire." And unconsciously, we use nation and empire in both of those ways, in a global way and in a local way. And we unconsciously, I think, separate those out into two completely different histories. And what I want to try to suggest in this lecture in various ways is that that's actually one history, and that Ukraine is the place which can help us to see it as one history. So, let me begin to try to make that case. Let me begin by talking about the revolution in 1917.
The Bolshevik Revolution presents itself as anti-colonial. And of course, the Soviet Union presents itself as anti-colonial. In what material sense was the Bolshevik Revolution anti-colonial? In what way did the Bolshevik Revolution actually bring down empires in its own time? I'm going to make a suggestion that it does so in a very straightforward and almost banal way, which we can overlook. And that is that before we even think about how the Soviets worked against the British in India, or how they worked against the Poles in Western Ukraine, before we even get to that, we have to think of the moment of 1917 itself as a moment when land empires fell apart.
So, I'm not thinking about it in their terms. I'm thinking about it in mine. That 1917 is the beginning of a moment, from 1917 to 1918, when the land empires of Europe fall apart. That the Russian Empire is, of course, the land empire par excellence, of Muscovy, started in 1410, moved south through some of Europe and Asia, then moves eastern to the Pacific Ocean. Then it finally moves West, Kyiv, Treaty of Andrusovo, partitions of Poland in the end of the 18th Century. Catherine the Great a bit before that down to the Black Sea. That this is the world land empire. It's the biggest land empire in the history of the world, it's land empire par excellence.
When that empire falls, whatever the Bolshevik say about it, that's the beginning of a trend. Because what happens after that, after the Bolshevik Revolution, November 1917, the Habsburgs and the Germans rush in to fill the void. They jointly occupy Ukraine. They have big ideas, especially the Germans, about how they're going to apply the notion of self-determination to Eastern Europe to create a bunch of client states, and what's now the Baltics, Belarus, and Ukraine. They come rushing in early 1918. They signed treaties at Brest-Litovsk to formalize the state of affairs. They send in people, Skoropadskyi, and in the nice Habsburg case, Vasyl Vyshyvanyi, lest we forget. They have their own ideas of how to rule Ukraine, which are, of course, different.
Different ideas of how to rule Ukraine. So, for example, I once spent a couple of days reading the German and the Austrian diplomatic traffic coming from Ukraine in early 1918. And the Austrians had come up with this very characteristic idea that they were going to find all the Ukrainian officers, and give them bright, fresh, clean, very stylish new uniforms. And so, the German diplomats were reporting back to Berlin on this. And one of my favorite sentences ever in German diplomatic history is the last sentence of one of these telegraphs, and it says, "Why don't we ever think of things like that?" So, beautifully, like distinguish the Austrian, the German policies then and forever. So, this is early 1918.
But while this is playing out so nicely in early 1918 in Ukraine, a bad thing is happening from the point of view of the Habsburgs and the Germans in France, which is that hundreds of thousands of American soldiers are arriving in France. And the war is going to be fought, won and lost, not in Eastern Europe, but in France, in Western Europe. The Americans, for every German soldier who dies, there's a period of weeks where for every German soldier who dies, he's not replaced by a German soldier, but by an American soldier. The German soldiers are dying by the tens of thousands, and the Americans are arriving at almost exactly the same rate. So, the Germans lose the war on the Western front, which means that the end of the Russian Empire is followed very closely by the end of the German Empire. It was a Reich. It's followed very closely by the end of the Habsburg Empire, and, of course, the end of the Ottoman Empire, as well.
So, the way that this is an anti-imperial moment is different from the way the Bolsheviks presented. What they do is they set off a cascade of events, which leads to the end of territorial empires in Europe as such. And this distinction now I want to make, for me, this is the great accident of European history. One of the things that history is about is about accidents, and noticing that they are accidents, and accepting that they're accidents. So, if you write novels, they're never accidents. Right? If you're Chekhov, and there's a gun in the drawer, it's because you put the gun in the drawer, that's not an accident, that doesn't count as an accident. If you're a social scientist, there are no accidents, right? There's only data. And if it doesn't fit your model, you just push it completely off the scene, completely. Social scientists smile, and some of them do.
But if you're a historian, you sort of...you say, "Yes, there are contingent facts. There are accidents." And I think, for me, the most important contingent fact or accident of European history in the 20th century is this. The land empires go first. The land empires go after the First World War. The maritime empires go after the Second World War. And that is a coincidence. It didn't have to be that way. It just was. So, in the First World War, the Americans, a...by that point a maritime empire, the Americans come in, rescue the British and the French. And so, the British, the greatest maritime empire in the history of the world, they survive. The French, also big maritime empire, they survive. The Portuguese, the Spanish, the Dutch, maritime empires, all survive, right? The empires that go are the land empires.
Why is this so important? It's so important because it means that we're now going to see an experiment with a nation state in Europe. And here's the first place where we're going to say Ukraine is hyper-typical. If you look at the West Ukrainian National Republic, if you look at the Ukrainian National Republic, you would you see a blip, a very brief moment of political activity between, let's say, 1918 and 1922. And then it's over before you know it. And if you're Ukrainian, this can seem like a tragic moment. If you're a historian of the nation state, you can look at this in a different way. You can say that is actually typical, because all of these attempts at forming nation states after '19 failed fast. They all failed fast. None of them lasted for more than two decades.
From the point of view of a whole era, the difference between lasting for a year and lasting for 20 years is not that great. So, that Ukraine as a state doesn't last for very long is also true of Austria, Czechoslovakia, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia. It's true of all of the new states that are formed after the First World War, they're all done by 1940 at the latest. It's also true, by the way, of many of the nation states that had come into being in the 19th century. They're not going to last until the Second World War. The experiment with a nation state is not going to work out.
I'm just going to take a step back and dwell on that for a moment, because it's a very important point. The point is that Ukraine as a nation state that doesn't work is hyper-typical, right? It's not an exception. It's actually the rule, the rule performed at its logical extreme. So, let me just take a step back and consider the logic of this a bit longer. Let me just take a step back to the 19th century for a moment and consider the nation state as such. So, when I say nation state... Okay, this is like a call and response rap. So, when I say nation state, you say France. You don't have to actually say France. But when I say nation state, you say France. We've all been trained to say France. I mean, there are other things, like if I say éclair ...if I say love, you'll say France. They have all these associations with France, none of which are true except éclair. So the... No, I'll give them that. I'll give them a lot of pastries.
But the nation state, they have nothing to do with. France was never a nation state. I mean, it's fun to say État-nation. Right? And then you say, "Isn't it interesting how the French say state nation instead of nation state." And then you say again, État-nation. But they've never been a nation state. Before 1789, they were an empire. And after 1789, they were an empire with slightly different regimes in the middle of the empire. They've never...they haven't been a nation state. They made that up. It never happened. Which is typical, by the way. No, it didn't. They were never a nation state. This is typical. All the West Europeans have this issue, basically. They teach their children that they were nation states, which is a total fable, it didn't happen ever, never happened. In the East Europeans at least it happened for a few weeks, like in Ukraine, but for the West Europeans, it never happened at all, which makes it a fable.
So, if you want to look for the nation state, the nation state happens where? It happens in the Balkans. Greece, Serbia, those are nation states, Romania, Bulgaria. Romania 1878, Bulgaria 1908. These are nation states. That is where the nation state comes from. It comes from the anti-colonial, notice the word, the anti-colonial movements of the Balkans against the Ottoman Empire in the first part of the 19th century. Anti-colonial movements lead to a challenged empire, right? So, nation states can challenge empires, they can even bring them down. They can even bring them down. But what they can't do is provide an automatic replacement to them.
If you look at the logic of the nation state in the Balkans, then in Eastern Europe, you see an overall pattern which is this. These nation states that are first formed, Greece, Serbia... Serbian history is actually, I mean, in my view, the key to all of this. Greece, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Montenegro, you name it, Macedonia, Albania. The pattern is, the nation states are not sufficient unto themselves. The nation states create huge armies, they fight wars for more territory. And in the early 20th century, what they managed to do is actually bring down not one but two empires. The First Balkan War of 1912 is these new nation states proving themselves to be fully sovereign by driving the Ottoman Empire out of Europe, which is a world historical event. Empires are not supposed to lose wars to these small nation states. In fact, when I say nation state, you think sovereign, but that's not what the powers thought.
The powers thought, "These new nation states are just our clients. It's just imperialism with a different label." When the nation states of the Balkans fought a war and drove the Ottoman Empire out of Europe, they were proving themselves to be sovereign. They were proving that they could do things on their own. Similarly, and more disastrously, the assassination of Franz Ferdinand and the beginning of the First World War is an exercise in Balkan sovereignty. So, the First World War is actually the Third Balkan War, and it follows the logic of creating the nation state. So, nation states can create problems for empires. What they can't do is solve those problems. Hence the irony of the outcome of the First World War.
So, the First World War is started by nation states. Serbia... Admittedly, a lot happens in the intervening four years. But puzzlingly, it's still a bit of a puzzle, that at the end of the First World War, Serbia is a victor. Its war aims are fulfilled. And not only that, Serbia's political philosophy spreads across much of Europe. So, the nation state, which forms in the Balkans against the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century, is then extended after 1918 to much of Eastern Europe. So, new states are created, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Austria, it's a new nation state, all of which, as I say, are gonna fail disastrously very soon. And what's typical of all this, and this is the point that I'm trying to make, is that without a system, these nation states don't have a chance.
Now, if you look at it from the point of view of Czech history, or Ukrainian history, or Macedonian history, or whatever, it all seems like an individual tragedy. The Poles are the best about this, right? I mean, the Poles are the best at presenting what happened in the '20s and '30s, as being a very specific tragedy to which no one else's tragedy could possibly be compared. And the way they do it is by not studying the period. But that's the magic of national history. The magic of the national history is that your collapse looks unlike everybody else's collapse. But in fact, these nation states were basically doomed by the lack of a higher European level of politics in the 1920s and 1930s. That's what they have. That's what they have become.
And what I'm trying to say is that Ukraine here is very typical. Ukraine is not really unlike these other places in the 19th century. It, too, has its grand romantic poet, Shevchenko. It, too, has its populist historian who was probably better in another language, but nevertheless manages to write the whole national history as a social history in an impossible labor. They all have that. Ukraine has that too. It, too, has the songs. It, too, has the story about how we've been divided among empires, which, by the way, is a good thing. If you want to have... I mean, the Poles do this too. They say, "We were divided in three," that's terrible. If you want to have a national movement, partition is a good thing. No, it is. Not being partitioned retards the national movement. That's not what they teach you in school, I know, but it's actually the case.
Think about why the Russian national movement, still in 2017, is entangled with the imperial idea. Why is there no...why is the Belarusian national idea so weak? This is why. Having Galicia separated from the rest of Ukraine is an advantage, not a disadvantage, because it means that in the 1860s and 1870s, when Ukrainian politics becomes harder than Russian Empire, you can then go to Lviv, Lemberg. In Poland, it's the same story. When things get hot in the Russian Empire, you go to Poznań, and you write some books. And when things go bad there, you go to Kraków and you drink some coffee. And then you just repeat the whole thing. That was Józef Piłsudski's biography, by the way, that I just gave you. So, being partitioned is actually typical, it's actually a favorable condition. It is not some kind of unique tragedy.
So, up until 1918, Ukraine is actually typical. And then when it doesn't get a nation state, what I'm trying to say is that's also not exceptional, that's hyper-typical. When we move into the next moment, we see how Ukraine is typical and indifferent, and in a more tragic moment, which is the moment of neo-empire. I'll spend less time on this because the argument will be familiar to those of you who have read Bloodlands or Black Earth. But the argument is that in the 1930s and 1940s, what both the Nazis and the Soviets tried to do can only be understood if you see how they are looking at world empire. We can say, "Well, we're just going to look at German sources," Or we can say, "We're just going to look at Russian sources." And this is something that Kotkin has right. The way that they see the world is by way of world history.
So, Hitler is not saying, "I'm going to build the German nation," or anything like that. What Hitler is saying is that, "We don't seem to be able to build a maritime empire around the world." This is in Mein Kampf. "The only thing that is left for us to do is to conquer Eurasia." Stalin is not saying, "Socialism in one country, because I like the one country." Stalin is saying...this is 1928, the time of the beginning of the first Five Year Plan, Stalin is saying, "We need a policy," I'm quoting now, "of internal colonization," I'm quoting still, "because unlike the great colonial powers, we don't have maritime territories to exploit." That is the logic of the first Five Year Plan in a nutshell. If you don't have a far flung colonial empire, you colonize yourself. You colonize yourself.
So, the ideologies are very different, and the goal of colonization was very different. But where these two neo-imperial powers focus their energy overlaps. Overlaps where? It overlaps in Ukraine in the first Five Year Plan, which, of course, affects the entire Soviet Union, and it's painful all over the Soviet Union. But in the first Five Year Plan, 1928 to 1933, one of the major goals is the control of Ukrainian black earth and Ukrainian grain stocks. And because that is central, dekulakization in Ukraine is particularly harsh, requisition's targets are particularly high. And when collectivization doesn't work out very well, Stalin moves in the second half of 1932 to a political account of why this is failing. This an argument first made by Terry Martin. And that political explanation of the failure of grain requisitions leads to a much greater famine in the boundaries of Soviet Ukraine than would have happened otherwise. Somewhere between 3 million and 4 million deaths.
When Hitler is thinking about building a German Empire, he is also thinking predominantly of Ukraine, controlling the black earth of Ukraine. His idea, in this respect he is like Stalin, is that the only way to rival the British, who are the world's superpower at the time, the only way to rival the British is for us, the Germans, to be autarkic, to be self-sufficient. The only way to do that is to control enough rich territory, by which we mean, above all things, Ukraine. And so, again, the idea of how this is going to be done is different. Although there are certain interesting overlaps, because Hitler was aware, for example, and his planners were aware of the collective farms. So, the idea is that they're going to use the collective farms in order to extract even more grain.
That doesn't work, by the way, because the Germans just have an occupation apparatus. They don't have the party. It's one of many places where our stereotype of German efficiency completely breaks down. The Stalinist apparatus was much better at extracting, much better, incomparably better at extracting grain from Ukraine than the German apparatus was. At the end of the day, the Germans get less grain from Ukraine than they get from Belgium in the Second World War, which is a sign of how things don't work. But they do succeed in starving people. Not as many as they planned. They planned to starve tens, dozens of millions of Soviet citizens in this winter of 1941 alone. They don't starve that many, but they do starve people. They starve almost a million people in Leningrad during the siege. They starve tens of thousands of people in Kharkiv and Kyiv. And above all, they starve or kill, as a result of malnutrition, around 3 million Soviet prisoners of war.
So, the point here is that you have this encounter of what I'm calling “new empires”. And the result in Ukraine is particularly deadly, roughly 3 million to 4 million people starved in 1932, 1933. Another 3 million Ukrainian inhabitants of Soviet Ukraine killed by German occupation. More than half were Jews. Another 3 million or so inhabitants of Soviet Ukraine die as Red Army soldiers. So, there is no event of this scale in any other country in the world. And the reason that we have it, the reason that we see it or can see it, the way that we can see this whole phenomenon of the neo-empire, or the double neo-empire, is to look at it from the point of view of Ukraine. If you look at it from Berlin or from Moscow, you don't see it. Now, it's a terrible, terrible price. Right? And it just suggests to me that we should at least try to understand.
Okay, third point, which is Europe and the state. The first historical moment was the nation and the empire. And my point was, Ukrainian failure to establish a nation state is actually typical and revealing. Second point was the neo-empires, the new empires, Europeans colonizing Europeans. And my point was, from the perspective of Ukraine, the aspirations and the consequences of neo-imperial policy comes clearest. My third moment is Europe or the European Union and the states. So, here, again, I'm going to repeat a very important tendon, a very important connection in this argument, which is that we have to be able to connect empire in the sense of Europeans and the world with Europe itself. Because the whole deception in contemporary European history is to break that. Right? The way that Europeans tell history, Western Europeans mostly, tell themselves history is to break off the imperial history, and to tell themselves a story of national history, which means that no one understands, I think, some of the most important things.
Okay, let me now try to make this connection. Let me make it by way of, let's say, think about Stalingrad. Think about the siege of Leningrad, and think about Wiesbaden. Think about partisan warfare in Belarus. And then think about nice journalists in Hamburg. The images are very hard to hold together in one's mind. It's very hard to put together the nice image that we have of the Federal Republic of Germany, West Germany, the history of West Germany, right? If I say the history of West Germany, what do you think about? The selection of associations that we have with the history of West Germany is very hard to put together with a selection of images we have with the Holocaust, starvation, sieges, mass shootings in Eastern Europe. The interesting thing is that it's the same people. It's the same men who achieve both things. It's the same people.
There are more Nazis in the German Foreign Service in the late 1940s than there were during the Second World War. I mean, former Nazis, of course, at that point. It's the same people, it's the same history. And if we can establish that, then we can start to think about the relationship between an empire and a state, or what a state chooses to do. I don't say any of this to tarnish the origins of the European Union, but only to make it more realistic. What's interesting and characteristic about the Germans is not that they lost the Second World War, that's not so important. What's important is that they lost a colonial war. And they did so early. And they knew it. They knew it.
As of 1939, the German idea is, "Empire cannot be established in the broader world, but we can establish it in Europe." As of 1945, the conclusion is, "Empire cannot be established anywhere. What shall we do? What shall we do?" And the answer is, beginning of the 1950s, "We have a nice set of economic agreements with the French, with the Italians, with the Luxembourgeoises, with the Belgians, with the Dutch, we have this thing called European integration." The history of European integration is integrally linked to the history of empire. It is not so closely linked to the history of the Second World War. That's a European fable. It's what Europeans tell themselves. They say, "We learned..." That's a good point for me to be censored, actually. "We learned from the Second World War that war was a bad thing. Hence, we started this process of European integration." You must have heard this because it is the standard West European propaganda. And it has no relationship to reality at all.
If Europeans learned from the Second World War that war is a bad thing, then the centers of world pacifism would be Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, and Israel. Right? Because those are the Europeans who suffered the most from the Second World War. If suffering in war made you a pacifist in Europe, then these would be the centers of world pacifism. I ask not for your particular judgments about Russia, Belarus, Israel, and Ukraine, but can we agree that they are not the centers of world pacifism? Right? They're not. What Europeans learned from... Okay. And why is it so much fun to say, "We learned from the Second World War that war is a bad thing." Because the next move you make is, "And the stupid Americans didn't learn that." Right? That's why it feels so good, like many things that are completely lie. That's why we accept things that are not true, because they feel good.
So, what Europeans actually learned was that losing colonial wars could not be done indefinitely. The Germans were ahead of everyone else. They lost the colonial war in a definitive way. But as other Europeans, the French, the Dutch, the Portuguese, the Spanish, the British, lose their colonial wars, they land in Europe. The European Union, the European project, the European Community, and then European Union is the soft landing after empire. That's what it is. But you don't say that to yourself, because you never tell history to yourself. What you say to yourself is the fable of the wise nation. The fable of the wise nation says, "We were always a nation. Then we got to the Second World War, and we learned that war was a bad thing. And so, we started economic cooperation." That's the fable of the wise nation. Right? It bears no relationship to reality.
And the reason why...I'm not just saying this to make me feel good, and you feel bad, because it doesn't make me feel that good. I'm saying it because the important thing is that if we get this piece right, we begin to see how the European Union matters, and again, how Ukraine is hyper-typical. Because if the European Union is the safe place to land after the end of empire, that gives us a different way of thinking about the West European state, which is very important, especially at this time of national populism. Because the whole premise of national populism is, "Hey, let's go back to the nation state." And interestingly, no one ever responds, "We can't do that because we never had a nation state." Right? There are many reactions to national populism in the European Union. But as far as I know, that's not one of them.
And the reason why is that all Europeans, right, left, center, whatever, are of the view that at some point back there, there was a nation state. But there wasn't. And this is relevant, because it means that the...for example, it's very relevant to Brexit. There cannot be Brexit. If there's exit, no Britain, if there's Britain, no exit, but there won't be both. There is no reason to think that you can go back to a British state when there's never been one. There's been an empire. And then there's been a collapsing empire, which was bailed out by an integration project. But there has never been a Britain as such. There has never been a France in this sense. There was a French Empire, which fell apart, and which was rescued by European integration project. There has never been a France in the sense of “L’Hexagone”. “L’Hexagone” is one of these evocative phrases of something which never happened.
So, it has major implications for how you think about populism in Western Europe. But it also has major implications for how you think about Eastern Europe. In Poland, in Hungary, in Russia, there was also this idea that perhaps the 1930s were not such a bad time. And in Eastern Europe, of course, there were nation states, they just didn't last very long. And if you look at it only from your national point of view, you don't draw a general lesson. You say, "Well, we didn't last very long because the outsiders were evil." But if nobody lasts for very long, it can't just be that the outsiders are evil, it has to be that there's a systemic problem. But East Europeans, by not considering this in a systemic way, are making a big mistake.
But I wanted to talk about Ukraine. So, the EU is a soft landing after empire in two senses. If you were a big maritime empire, the Dutch, the Portuguese, the Spanish, the British, the French, then the EU is where you land when you lose your maritime empire. If you were a Soviet periphery, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Slovenia, Bulgaria, 2013 Croatia, the last enlargement, the EU is where you go for a soft landing after empire in a different way, after leaving somebody else's empire. And the very interesting thing about the European Union, I think its most interesting achievement is that it manages to bring together post-imperial states of both kinds. And in that sense, the European Union is not really a settlement to the Second World War. The European Union is a settlement to the First World War, if anything, because what the European Union does is it brings together the the doomed nation states created after the First World War with the places that were still maritime empires after the First World War.
In other words, if we look back 100 years from today, if we consider the European Union from the point of view of 1917, early 1918, what it has done is it has brought together the doomed nation states of Eastern Europe, with the places that back then were still empires, and seemed like they would always be empires. That's its historical achievement. It's the peace settlement of the First World War. That's what the European Union is.
Which slowly brings me to Ukraine, and how Ukraine is hyper-typical. If it is correct, that the purpose of the European Union is the rescue of the European state, then the protests on the Maidan make perfect sense. Because the logic of the protests on the Maidan was something like, "Ukraine has a problem with the rule of law, that is the essential problem of state building. It could use a little help from the outside, or more than a little. We're hopeful that the association agreement with the European Union will be a push in the right direction," which it would have been, and probably still will be. Now, if you're a Ukrainian... Okay. I can juggle them if you want.
If you're a Ukrainian revolutionary, your situation seems specific. And understandably. I understand that. But it's part of a more general political trend. The European Union rescued all of these states. After it rescued them, the nations take it for granted. And they keep telling themselves the fable of the wise nation. The fable of the wise nation is that the nation was always there and it made good choices. Any story about how something is always there and made good choices should be suspicious, by the way.
The point is that Ukraine is a specific example, maybe an extreme one, but of a general situation. The EU also bailed out the French state. It also bailed out the German state. That's what it did. It made the European state possible. So, if the Ukrainians on the Maidan seemed like they were doing something exotic by campaigning for the rule of law, that is only because the rest of us had forgotten the entire point of the European integration process, which I'm afraid is what happened. So, you see where this argument is going. Ukraine in 2014 is also hyper-typical. Because Ukraine faced greater costs, or did more things, for the same basic gains that everyone else was getting, namely the rescue of the state.
So, I'll just say one word in conclusion, and then we can talk. I said that I'd talk about revolutionary history, and commemorative history, and just history. So, the argument in this talk has been not about commemoration. I'm going to try very hard in this year never to talk about commemoration. Because I think it does bad things to us when we talk about commemoration. Unless it's with art, in which case it's fine. It's not a work about, oh, history is a science that can be accelerated. That's not what I'm talking about, either. I'm talking about history as a kind of horizontal process in which there are connections that we see if we look horizontally, if we look to the side, rather than just looking down a national narrative. I'm talking about how global history only makes sense if we're able to look both at Europe and beyond Europe at the same time. And that the convenient division between Europe and beyond Europe actually prevents us from seeing the things that are essential to Europe itself, I think to Europe's great peril at this particular moment.
And my point is that Ukraine in particular is the place which allows us, if we look at it closely, to...because it's so typical, because it's so intensely typical, is a place that allows us to see the general phenomenon, whether it's nations or empires, whether it's the creation of new empires in Europe, or whether it's the European rescue of the nation state. That's been my case. Thank you for listening to it.