Conquering Peace: Exploring European History with Stella Ghervas

One century after the assassination of Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo plunged the Continent into war, Europe in 2014 offers observers few chances to catch their breath. The recent annexation of the Crimea by the Kremlin, followed by suspension of that country from the G8 and from the Council of Europe, brought relations with Russia to a new low point. With European leaders calling for more sanctions against Moscow and the Kremlin having declared a ban on European agricultural imports, Russia’s post-Soviet trajectory seems to have taken a decidedly anti-Western turn.

As pundits race to search for historical parallels–the Crimean War, the Sudetenland Crisis, even the rise of the Ottoman Empire–it’s especially important for professional historians with an understanding of peace and the European political system, to share their findings with the public. The tortuous ways by which a warren of quarrelsome princedoms, duchies, and empires became a European Union by the late 20th century–a haven of peace and cooperation in a world too often scarred by conflict–demands explanation. It is also essential for the Europeans themselves to better understand how peace was accomplished, if they wish to better perceive the risks and opportunities that lie ahead with the Ukrainian crisis.

That’s why we at the Global History Forum were delighted to sit down with Stella Ghervas, an expert of European history who is currently a visiting scholar at Harvard University’s Center for European Studies. Ghervas, who organized a major conference on the Congress of Vienna at Harvard in last April (and who is giving several papers on the topic this autumn), graciously took the time out to discuss how she came to write a book on post-Napoleonic Europe, as well as her current book project on the history of peace and peacemaking over the longue durée. Speaking with her this spring, the Global History Forum managed to cover several topics, from her personal journey to history, to her forthcoming projects.

Stella Ghervas’ passion for history began early. Born in the Republic of Moldova to a bilingual family, Ghervas recalls a childhood filled with books. “The first book I remember,” she recalls, “was not really a history book, but it gave me the love of history. It was the Tales and Legends of Ancient Greece. I read it over so many times that it was completely worn out.” This, along with Dumas’ The Three Musketeers helped spur an interest in the past. Just as important, however, was Ghervas’ father, who had trained as a scientist but challenged his daughter with the question of “who is governing the world?”

For much of her youth, the answer to that question had been simple; the United States and the Soviet Union held the world together in a stable and tense bipolarity. But by the time Ghervas was old enough to attend university in 1987 to study philosophy and politologiia (“politology”) in Leningrad (today St. Petersburg, the answer to that question no longer seemed so clear. General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachëv had inaugurated changes to the Soviet economic political system. For Ghervas, this meant constant flux on the syllabus. Along with other students, she boycotted lectures by orthodox Marxist-Leninist professors and demanded more courses outside of the canon. As Gorbachëv’s initiatives towards more “openness” in Soviet society continued, translated German philosophy entered the bookstores around the university and was eagerly devoured by students. Just as some recent ideas of regional or world governance seemed to be succeeding–in particular the newly born European Union, with a reunited German state at its core–the Soviet project was falling apart. By the time that Ghervas graduated with her M.A., in 1992, it no longer existed. It had been an eventful five years.

Stella Ghervas, our latest Global History Forum guest
Stella Ghervas, our latest Global History Forum guest

Ghervas’ journey continued at the University of Bucharest. Romania was itself fresh off of a more violent transition away from Communism. Ghervas had the good fortune to work under the guidance of Alexandru Dutu, an intellectual historian who was the primary representative of the Annales School in Southeastern Europe and a scholar of the history of mentalities. Ghervas became acquainted with a character, Alexander Sturdza, a Greco-Moldovan-born diplomat and intellectual who worked in the Russian service. Readers might not know the name, but that’s part of what inspired Ghervas to start a PhD in history about him: Sturdza was the man who turned the penciled notes of the Tsar into the famous European treaty of the Holy Alliance (1815). “My starting point,” she explains, “was Tolstoi’s War and Peace. The most important historical characters, like kings or monarchs, do not always control the events like they think. There are many secondary actors who have a limited, but sometimes decisive influence on events.”

Ghervas went to pursue graduate studies at the University of Geneva, completing a Master’s degree in European Studies. “Geneva had always had a connection with Russia and Southeastern Europe,” she explained. The opportunity was perfect to deepen the Sturdza project and to develop ties with Francophone academia (Francophone readers interested in following Ghervas more closely can read a recent interview here). It is there that Ghervas started perceiving a chasm in the interpretation of post-Napoleonic Europe: historians of Western Europe tended to ignore those who worked on Russia, and both had different approaches from specialists of South-Eastern Europe. Sturdza, Moldovan by his father and Greek by his mother, lived in Russia and traveled to Paris and Vienna, wrote in French and German, and devoted much of his life to Orthodox apologetics for Eastern and Western audiences. He thus offered “the perfect prism” to break through this gap. Ghervas followed Sturdza’s dream of a “Christian Europe”, and his related quest for a unified Orthodox world–a geopolitical space where Russia would lead the path to modernization.

The result was a step beyond the biographical account she had worked on before. It had become a thematic essay that embraced the breadth of the “Europe of the Holy Alliance”. Ghervas sought to break out of staid paradigms of national history to instead think of European history in terms of the longue durée and transnational spaces. She argues for viewing Europe as a triangle marked by the West (Paris or London), Russia (Moscow or Saint-Petersburg), and Constantinople (today’s Istanbul). Indeed, just as Ghervas was tracking the circulation of ideas through Sturdza’s eyes, she herself was journeying through Europe. Perhaps not unsurprisingly, Ghervas was herself becoming, as a scholar, the bridge between Russia, Southeastern Europe, and Western Europe that she had been researching about. It was in Geneva that she presented her research, as a second PhD in humanities (European studies). After several more years refining the manuscript further, Ghervas saw her book Réinventer la tradition. Alexandre Stourdza et l’Europe de la Sainte-Alliance published in 2008. It was awarded several prizes, among which the Guizot Prize of the Academie Française, the Xenopol Prize of the Romanian Academy, and shortlisted for the Grand Prix d’Histoire Chateaubriand (France). It was recently released in Romanian, and translations into Greek and Russian are in progress; an English version is under contract with Cambridge University Press and will appear in its series Ideas in Context.

Ghervas’ book, Réinventer la tradition (upcoming English translation to be published by Cambridge University Press)
Ghervas’ book, Réinventer la tradition (upcoming English translation to be published by Cambridge University Press)

Yet as Ghervas advanced professionally she felt she had to address several more sweeping questions that her original project had posed, but not fully answered. Using the same perspective she had used with Sturdza to bridge diplomatic and intellectual history, she sought to explain Europe in a longer-term context. The spirit of Braudel, kept calling. After conducting a project on “Enlarged Europe” (in space and time) at the Institute for Advance Studies in Paris, she came to the essential conclusion that peace appeared as a through line in the history of European unification. That motivated her to work on an upcoming book to be published by Harvard University Press, Conquering Peace: From the Enlightenment to the European Union, which seeks to follow the history of peace and peacemaking in Europe over the longue durée.

That might sound at first like a straightforward intellectual task, but as Ghervas explains, a number of national biases, as well as boundaries between subjects, had long been limiting the way that scholars approached the issue. Most obviously so, is that “wars excite the imagination more than peace treaties”, explains Ghervas. In this year 2014 the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War (1914) is receiving more attention than the opening of the Congress of Vienna two hundred years ago (1814). The former event has come “packaged” with a slate of heavily-promoted books, museum exhibits, and public events, whereas Vienna’s bicentennial hardly receives mention. Against a tide of World War I promotion–which itself can implicitly encourage the view of war as tragic but somehow inevitable–Ghervas has sought to intervene in the public sphere through popular articles to relocate Vienna as a historical turning point in international relations.

For the accomplishment of diplomats in Vienna, namely the principle that great powers should permanently consult with one another so as to maintain peace, was a radical innovation, one whose pre-history and post-history demands exploration. Hence, Ghervas explains, Conquering Peace aims to reconstruct five major episodes in the international organization of Europe; “spirits,” as she calls them. Each time, the European powers that had fought against a would-be continental empire (a “universal monarchy,” in the parlance of the eighteenth century) and defeated it, tried to reconstruct an international order that would prevent the menace from reoccurring; and yet again and again it manifested itself. The first “spirit” was the period from the War of Spanish Succession (around 1713) to the Napoleonic Wars, when Enlightenment thinkers like the Abbé de Saint Pierre began concocting schemes for a “perpetual peace” that would render continental warfare (and threats like a unified Franco-Spanish crown) obsolete.

These plans never materialized in the eighteenth century–witness the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars–but the powers that defeated France started the second spirit described in Conquering Peace, the spirit of the Congress of Vienna. It ushered in the so-called Congress System that lasted from 1815 to 1823, in which the great powers convened regularly in European cities, in order to discuss matters related to security and the preservation of peace. In her telling, the resulting political order–the Concert of Europe–was interrupted by the Crimean War (1853-1856), but it went on. It crumbled at the outbreak of the First World War. After the conflict, a new and distinct “spirit of Geneva” emerged in 1919, with the foundation of the League of Nations. Following the Second World War, the “first European spirit” slowly evolved over a decade, a moment epitomized by European statesmen like Winston Churchill, Robert Schumann, Jean Monnet, and Konrad Adenauer. Following a fifty-year stint of Western European peace held together against the threat of Soviet hegemony, the “second European spirit” was born when the Wall of Berlin fell down in 1989. It was marked by the accession of Eastern European countries to a more administratively empowered European Union.

But, as Ghervas notes (here, too, in a recent interview), there is no manifest destiny for peace – it must be conquered, time and time again. This story doesn’t only emphasize the shifts from one “spirit” to another, as well as the chasms in-between, namely great continental wars. Certain moments called for the determined action of individuals, as well as institutions, in order to uphold the peace. After the Napoleonic Wars, the Vienna moment required a tutelary personality like Russian Tsar Alexander and a Holy Alliance. In the post-WWI period, President Wilson promoted a Covenant of the League of Nations. The similarities and the contrasts between those five episodes may tell us far more about shifting idea of Europe, than some of the current debates between Europhiles and Eurosceptics. Whereas the fragile European peace of 1815 was essentially a directorate of great powers, by the 1920s, the concept of “peace” was broadened and institutionalized in such a way that it no longer depended on autocratic whimsy. As Swiss writer Robert de Traz pointed out in 1936, Europe had moved from an Alliance of Kings to a League of Nations. That reflected somehow the old idea of Immanuel Kant that autocrats had been motivated by greed and desire for territorial aggrandizement, while representative governments would be more pacific. But as Ghervas points out, even this shift did not prevent Western publics from applauding colonial empires and wars of conquest.

Beyond Conquering Peace, however, Ghervas has found herself drawn back to working again on the history of Eastern and South-Eastern Europe, in ways even closer to Braudel. Her second ongoing project, a “New Thalassology” of the Black Sea, aims to cover the history of transnational and trans-imperial encounters in and around that body of water, from the emergence of Russian power in the region (1774) to the disintegration of the Romanov and Ottoman Empires (in 1917 and 1920, respectively). It’s probably not a coincidence that that time period corresponds to what was then called the “Eastern Question,” that is, the issue of how the European powers would share the spoils of the Ottoman Empire, particularly in the Balkans and around the Black Sea. But Ghervas aims to do more than simply rehash the diplomatic history between Petersburg, London, and Paris over the fate of the region. Exploiting her credentials as a former denizen of the Black Sea region (she has personal ties with the port city of Odessa), she is focusing on the history of circulation of people, goods and ideas between port cities that were prominent trade centers. It combines with a broader historical analysis that takes into consideration the geopolitical and national stakes, especially the Eastern Question. Ghervas seeks to tell a longue durée history of the region both from the “inside,” as it were, while also being able to explain the broader European or geopolitical significance of that sea.

Once again, Ghervas’ urge to overcome restrictive national historiographical paradigms runs strong. The Black Sea, she reflects, has the bad luck of being located in a part of the world where national histories are a matter of quasi-religious dogma. Making things more muddled is the fact that national narratives are dissimilar from one another: Russia and Turkey have imperial memories that tend to be promoted and glorified; on the contrary, Ukrainian, Moldovan and Romanian historians have anti-imperial memories that tend to dim the Eastern Question in favor of stories of foreign occupation and suffering. But, explains Ghervas, “there are more important continuities–the overarching one is the sea.” The older name for the Black Sea, she notes, was the Pontic Sea, from pontos which meant both “sea” and “bridge” in Greek. Rather than carving up the littoral lands of that Sea as historians might once have done, it’s important today more than ever to conceive it as a single space of circulation, albeit a contested one. As Russian power now seems firmly cemented on the Crimea once more and Turkey continues to rise, rather than decline, there’s an obvious interest in rediscovering the rich texture of the interrelations between the populations around the shores of that sea.

For the moment, then, Ghervas is happily busy with the two projects–Conquering Peace and this “new thalassology.” Skillfully moving between Francophone, Anglophone, Romanian, Greek and Russian academia, and writing “Eastern Europe” back into the narrative of an enlarged European history, Ghervas symbolizes for the Global History Forum the best virtues of a scholarship grounded in solid research, yet which speaks of larger themes: peace, global order, and continents. It’s with pride that we feature her as the latest guest of the Global History Forum.

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