Czech Republic Essay History News

A European visionary in XVth century Bohemia?

It would be far too pretentious and misleading, if not outright dishonest, to credit one single man with the “creation” of European integration; the EU is the heir of countless influences which matured, overlapped and mutually enriched each other over several centuries of European history. However, one of its pioneers has too often been ignored or disregarded in history books and political speeches and remains, as of today, largely unknown: George of Poděbrady, king of Bohemia in the XVth century, was one of the first to come up with the idea and try to create a union of European states which, in some regards, heralds the one that will be created after World War II.

Bohemia, the birthplace of European integration?

Was it French poet Victor Hugo’s 1848 speech on the “United States of Europe”? Count of Saint-Simon’s political essays? Or German philosopher Immanuel Kant’s theory of perpetual peace? What if, contrary to more popular references, the original idea and first plea in favour of European integration were born slightly more to the East, at the heart of the kingdom of Bohemia, some 500 years ago?

Such a claim might seem rather surprising and offsetting at first. Yet, the lands of Bohemia and Moravia have stood, throughout history, at the forefront of major artistic, intellectual and political movements or trends which have radically changed both the face and the fate of Europe. The following account is one of its most revealing and illustrative examples.

George of Poděbrady, an unwitting European?

George of Poděbrady’s reign came at a time of great turmoil and major upheaval in Bohemia’s history. Signed in 1436 with the Council of Basle, the Compacts of Jihlava seemingly brought an end to the Hussite wars, reallowed the Czechs of Bohemia within the Catholic Church and admitted the free preaching of the gospels. The leader of the Utraquist party turned king of Bohemia in 1458, George of Poděbrady will rely on these accords to guarantee religious tolerance and peaceful cohabitation between the Hussite and Catholic communities in Czech lands. In order to improve his strained relationship with the Holy Siege, the “heretic king” will, with the help of his French advisor Antoine Marini, call for a pan-European alliance against the Ottoman threat: this project aimed to restore Bohemia’s prestige and standing in the eyes of Rome and Christian kingdoms by positioning itself as one of the main contributors of a crusade against the Turks. The Czech king’s diplomatic efforts will, however, yield no results: the Pope will renounce the Compacts in 1462, excommunicate George of Poděbrady and call for a crusade against the kingdom of Bohemia.

It is in such context that the Bohemian king will design another, much more ambitious, alliance and go the great lengths to convince sovereigns to join his cause in establishing a first-of-a-kind European union, primarily based on the non-interference in the affairs of other states.

The Turkish threat (fall of Constantinople in 1453, Belgrade siege in 1456) and the defense of Christendom were the Hussite King’s envoys’ main arguments to persuade European kings and princes. However, far from being exclusively driven by outstanding pacifist ideals and an exemplary faith in Christian fraternity, George of Poděbrady may also have sought to protect itself against a foreign invasion – a threat which became more credible as his relationship with Rome deteriorated. His project, can therefore also be explained by more prosaic factors and was deeply rooted in the geopolitical realities of his time.

Towards a new European order?

The main goal of this union between European kingdoms and monarchs, gathered within a common organization, was to maintain peace between European states through the establishment of international rules of law and non-interference in the affairs of other member states. This pacifist goal lies at the heart of George of Poděbrady’s plans: not only did the project outlaw the use of force and recourse to military actions, it also pleaded for a mutual assistance mechanism in case of aggression from a third party. In this regard, one of the most innovative and ground-breaking aspects of this project was the obligation for all states to receive the organization’s approval before declaring war to a foreign enemy – an obvious infringement to nations’ sovereign integrity and prerogatives.

Far from restricting itself to an abstract plea for peace, the document presented by Czech diplomats to European courts also describes the organization’s institutions and resources. Its main body would have been a permanent assembly, comprising special envoys of every monarch gathered within four regional entities: France, Italy, Spain, and Germania (including Central European kingdoms, such as Bohemia). Other Christian princes, kings, and monarchs would be able to join the organization later on as long as they committed to respecting its rules. This organizational chart would also have included an international tribunal, in charge of resolving litigious affairs and conflicts between the states and of establishing a legal framework to which all members should abide. This truly supranational organization would also have at its disposal shared resources and emblems, such as a coat of arms, a seal, dedicated civil servants as well as a common budget.

The legacy of a failure

This project will, however, never see the light of day, initially faint-heartedly received by European monarchs, before being completely abandoned, due to both the geopolitical landscape of the times and the infringements to national sovereignties in key state-areas (defense, finance, justice) it would have implied. George of Poděbrady’s diplomatic efforts will only have minor results, including a bilateral French-Czech treaty signed with Louis XI, a rather meager achievement compared to the wide-ranging ambitions of the multilateral treaty he envisioned. The king of Hungary, Mathias Corvin, George’s own son-in-law, will end up leading the crusade against Bohemia in the late 1460’s, and George of Poděbrady will die a few years later, in 1471.

A complete diplomatic failure, his project remains one of the first attempts to implement a union between European states. The posterity of its ideas is irrefutable, but still hard to apprehend, as is the potential impact it would have had on European politics: this permanent, if not outright supranational, organization may have paradoxically favoured the emergence of European nations by pleading for a new geopolitical order in which neither the emperor nor the pope had any specific role. The ambiguity regarding the – hypothetic – consequences of this stillborn project is an eloquent symbol of the intrinsic complexities of the European project, an unidentified political object, inherently unfinished and precarious endeavour, both crippled and enriched by its own contradictions.

A Sciences Po Paris graduate and former student of Charles University in Prague, Jules Eisenchteter has worked in both the private and public sector in France, South-East Asia and Central Europe. Freelance writer and translator, he co-founded Kafkadesk in 2018.

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