Victor Hugo’s ideal of Europe

The famed French chronicler of poverty and war saw hope in the prospect of the European ideal - over a century before the creation of the EU.

The public funeral of Victor Hugo in Paris, 1885.
The public funeral of Victor Hugo in Paris, 1885. Credit: Rischgitz / Getty Images.

This essay originally appeared under the title ‘Victor Hugo and a Greater Europe’ in ‘The Pursuit of Europe: Perspectives from the Engelsberg Seminar’, Bokförlaget Stolpe, in collaboration with Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation, 2016.

The idea of Europe, as a united entity, is one of the most revolutionary projects to have sprung from the minds of dreamers and visionaries since the Napoleonic wars. We too often forget that before Monnet, there was Hugo. In a series of speeches, given at peace conferences throughout the second part of the nineteenth century, Victor Hugo outlined a Europe which still remains to be built: the United States of Europe.

On August 21, 1849, at the Paris Peace Congress, he took to the stand and declared:

A day will come when your weapons will fall from your hands! A day will come when war will seem as absurd and impossible between Paris and London, between Petersburg and Berlin, between Vienna and Turin, as it would be impossible and would seem absurd today between Rouen and Amiens, between Boston and Philadelphia. A day will come when you France, you Russia, you Italy, you England, you Germany, you all, nations of the continent, without losing your distinct qualities and your glorious individuality, will be merged closely within a superior unit and you will form the European brotherhood, just as Normandy, Brittany, Burgundy, Lorraine, Alsace, all our provinces are merged together in France. A day will come when the only fields of battle will be markets opening up to trade and minds opening up to ideas. A day will come when the bullets and the bombs will be replaced by votes, by the universal suffrage of the peoples, by the venerable arbitration of a great sovereign senate which will be to Europe what parliament is to England.

Hugo’s words have a particular resonance today, at a time when we keep asking ourselves whether we need more or less Europe. Are we ready to jump? Do we all feel sufficiently European to go towards further integration? Or do we want to go back to nation states? Are we fully conscious of what going back would entail? Victor Hugo asked all these crucial questions more than 150 years ago.

Victor Hugo. Today, to the man and woman in the street, the name may sound familiar. They may have heard of Les Misérables, a story of misery in revolutionary France; they may have seen the show, a flamboyant musical produced in thirty-eight countries, in twenty-one languages, and which has been touring the world for twenty-seven years. They may also have read The Hunchback of Notre Dame and kept vivid memories of Esmeralda dancing for Quasimodo in front of a bonfire, Notre Dame’s gargoyles smirking merrily in the shadow.

But this may be all. Who, today, among the wider public, remembers that the great French man was not only a poet and a very successful novelist, but also a visionary statesman, who campaigned tirelessly for a European federation? Some of us remember, of course, his long exile in the Channel Islands from where he wrote ferocious attacks against Napoleon III and his Second Empire. Most of us, however, ignore how prescient, incisive and prophetic his views on Europe have proved.

I am not a professional historian. I am not even an expert on Victor Hugo. I am however, like Hugo, a child of the French Revolution and, like many of you, a product of a rich and complex European history. My work of the past fifteen years, as a French journalist and writer based in London, has been to understand how two nations, Britain and France, great old enemies and today’s close allies, can sometimes work together and why, sometimes, they can’t. My work has also been to travel throughout Europe and report on what I see, on our differences and on what makes us all part of one political, cultural and economic union.

In the last two years, as the euro crisis has intensified, I have found myself digging into the past to understand the present and perhaps see through the mist of our future. In my research, I stumbled on to Hugo and, hooked, I have not let go. I have found in his political writings, in his speeches, and in his life, a real inspiration for us today, lost as we are in the small print of obscure treaties and the intricacies of dour economic concepts such as fiscal discipline, banking union, quantitative easing and eurobonds. In today’s seemingly leaderless Europe, let us find comfort in Victor Hugo’s visions and let us look back at his life and political evolution which, in many ways, mirror ours today.

Victor Hugo was born a true Frenchman of his time, torn between an ultra-religious and royalist mother and a father who was a high-ranking officer of Napoleon, besotted with notions of grandeur, world revolution and empire. In his early years, Hugo was too busy becoming the official poet of the restored Bourbon monarchs, Louis XVIII and Charles X, to take any interest in Europe. His motto during those years could have been: ‘For God, King and Country’. His writings and ideas perfectly reflect France’s mood at the time. It had become an inward-looking and narrow-minded country which didn’t want to be reminded of 1789’s ideals and of Napoleon’s adventures.

In 1829, however, just before the July revolution, Hugo slowly started embracing liberal ideas, showing real economic and social concerns, opening up to the world around him. In his famous The Last Day of a Condemned Man, Hugo campaigned eloquently against the death penalty. France had to wait another 142 years to definitively outlaw capital punishment. Hugo was a man who had seen the future, a free thinker who had liberated himself from past dogmas and bygone prejudices.

Under Louis-Philippe, also known as the bourgeois monarch, or Citizen King, Hugo declared that he had lost his Catholic faith and royalist views. Gradually, the romantic poet mutated into the statesman who would give a voice to the oppressed. Along with a rising social awareness, he became more and more interested in European issues and what, today, we would call geopolitics.

When Hugo looked at Europe in the 1830s, what did he see? Territories whose ill-thought out borders and desire for independence and revenge, undermined Europe as a whole. Greece and Turkey, Poland and Russia, Norway and Sweden, Lombardy and Austria, Piedmont and Sardinia, Ireland and Britain, Belgium and Holland: every European country had what he called an ‘ulcer’, a grudge against a neighbour. Hugo forcefully denounced this messy assembly of different nations living under archaic rulers and undemocratic institutions. He hoped that the people of Europe would follow in France’s steps and lead their own revolution to get rid of the remnants of the Holy Alliance.

He started dreaming of a world revolution, but soon realised that peace was the only way forwards. In 1842, in a very original essay on the Rhine region, which he had toured during a long trip through Europe, he advocated the most fantastical exchange of lands between France and Germany. The aim, he argued, was to quell future territorial rivalries between the two countries. Hostility in Europe arose from geographic jealousies, he said. A slightly different mapping of Europe could ease such tensions. His design may at first sound a little naive, mad even. Now, however, we know how spot-on his thinking was.

In 1845, at the age of 43, the poet, novelist and playwright officially became a politician and a statesman. Made a peer by King Louis-Philippe and appointed to the upper chamber, Hugo spoke out against social injustice and in favour of freedom of speech. A great orator, he made an impression on everyone who listened to him. When the revolution of 1848 broke out, he personified the political avant-garde by audaciously calling for the establishment of the ‘Republic’ and universal suffrage. He naturally found himself among the first elected MPs at the constitutional assembly of the Second Republic.

At the same time, le printemps des peuples, the European spring, was taking place throughout the continent. Hugo’s hopes were high, but short-lived. After a few months, the revolution was nipped in the bud, a victim of reactionary forces.

It was in this politically charged context that Hugo made his historic speech at the Paris Peace Congress. The peace conferences which took place throughout the second part of the nineteenth century attracted pacifists from both America and Europe. They were the brainchild of a British economist and industrialist, Richard Cobden, whose ideas on free trade had a great influence on Britain’s economic policies. Politically, Cobden was in favour of abolishing all borders in Europe, a prefiguration of the Schengen agreement, signed in 1985, which now comprises twenty-six European countries and benefit more than four hundred million people.

On August 21, 1849, Hugo took to the stand and made his call for ‘European brotherhood’ and a sovereign senate to arbitrate for it. ‘A day will come’, he went on, ‘when we will display cannons in museums just as we display instruments of torture today, and are amazed that such things could ever have been possible. A day will come when we shall see those two immense groups, the United States of America and the United States of Europe, stretching out their hands across the sea, exchanging their products, their arts, their works of genius, making deserts fruitful, improving creation under the eyes of the Creator, and joining together to reap the well-being of all.’

A United States of Europe: Hugo, always one step ahead, spoke the words. What was then a poet’s dream now had a political reality, and perhaps the beginnings of political legitimacy.

When Louis Napoleon Bonaparte established the Second Empire in 1852, Hugo naturally chose exile. For eighteen long years, from Brussels, Jersey and then Guernsey, he wrote tirelessly and made his voice heard in Europe, loud and clear. Those were his most prolific years. He published Les Misérables, one of the great sagas of social misery and injustice, but also three collections of poetry and, of course, his famous political pamphlets against Napoleon III. What about Europe? It was there, everywhere, in the subtext of his writings.

France, under a tyrant he called ‘Napoleon le petit‘, could no longer claim any moral superiority. France was no more the laboratory of democratic ideals it had been during the Second Republic. France was no more the ‘prophet of Liberty’, a beacon for the world. If European nations had lost a guide, they were at least now united in sorrow, all oppressed by monarchies and authoritarian regimes. Hugo put his hopes in the hands of the many exiled revolutionaries he had met in Britain. He addressed the Italian and Greek revolutionaries, urging them to fight on and show the way to the rest of Europe.

In 1869, with Napoleon III still in power, Hugo despaired of ever going back to France alive. More than ever, he clung to his European ideals, addressing the peace congress in Lausanne with these words:

Fellow citizens of the United States of Europe, allow me to give you this name, for the European Federal Republic is established in right and is waiting to be established in fact. You exist, therefore it exists. You confirm it by the union from which unity is taking shape. You are the beginning of a great future.

Hugo was now convinced that this united Europe would have to be established as a republic, based on universal suffrage. No more kings. The people of Europe must decide their fate. Their freedom must be absolute. On Bastille Day, 1870, while Napoleon III declared war on Prussia, Hugo planted an oak tree on the grounds of his Guernsey house, which he called ‘the oak of the United States of Europe’.

If anything, the Franco-Prussian war convinced Hugo that a united Europe was the only political solution, a matter of life and death for a whole continent. All his life, he sought to reconcile his patriotism and love for France with his European convictions. The Franco-Prussian war certainly tested his love of his German neighbour and, in a magnificent text which still hangs on a wall of his bedroom in Paris for every visitor to see, he called out to Germany:

We shall see France arise again, we shall see her retrieve Lorraine, take back Alsace. But will that be all? No… And we shall hear France cry out: am I your enemy? No! I am your sister. I have taken back everything and I give you everything, on one condition, that we shall act as one people, as one family, as one republic. I shall demolish my fortresses, you will demolish yours. My revenge is fraternity! No more frontiers! The Rhine for everyone! Let us be the same republic, let us be the United States of Europe, let us be the continental federation, let us be European liberty, let us be universal peace! And now let us shake hands, for we have done one another a service: you have delivered me from my emperor and I have delivered you from yours.

In 1871, in a defeated France, amputated of Alsace and Lorraine, Hugo, back from his long exile, was elected an MP of the Third Republic. Talking at peace and international conferences throughout the 1870s, Hugo expounded views whose sharpness still feels extraordinary today. He foresaw the fall of all monarchies in Europe, brought about by a world war; he also predicted that a voracious Germany would bring the world to the brink of a global conflict. After those wars, he wrote, ‘fraternity between nations will be reborn and a European federation will finally see the light of day.’

Today, most of us, like Victor Hugo, are heirs to the myth of nation states, trying to reconcile our love for our countries with a desire to be part of a bigger ensemble, a strong, generous and rich political and economic European Union. But it is difficult. We are torn, unsure. After all, what is it to be European?

Hugo explained his European feeling very well. It is not to renounce one’s identity, it is, on the contrary, to add an extra layer to it and make it richer.

I have written with a profound love for my own country, but without being engrossed by France more than by any other nation. As I advance in life, I grow more simple and I become more and more patriotic for humanity.

Europe, a patriotism for humanity: what a beautiful definition.

What we seem desperately to need today are leaders with vision, politicians who can reconcile politics and economics with imagination, leaders who can show us the way forward. We cannot achieve all the fiscal, banking and economics goals we have fixed for ourselves without reflection on the political nature of our common project. A cart needs horses to get going. It also needs a direction; and hope.

When, a year before his death, Hugo wrote his will, he chose to bequeath all his writing and drawings to the French National Library, which he predicted would ‘one day be the Library of the US of E.’ Who knows? Having been right so often, and sometimes more than 100 years before the fact, the future may yet prove him right.


Agnès Poirier