Prague, Czech Republic – 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 remains, as of today, largely unknown: George of Poděbrady, king of Bohemia in the 15th 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 was founded after World War II.
Bohemia as 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, more than 500 years ago?
Such a claim might seem rather surprising at first. Yet, the lands of Bohemia and Moravia have stood, throughout history, at the forefront of major artistic, intellectual and political movements that changed both the face and the fate of Europe.
The following account is one of its most revealing 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, re-allowed the Czechs of Bohemia within the Catholic Church and admitted the free preaching of the gospels.
Leader of the Utraquist party turned king of Bohemia in 1458, George of Poděbrady relied 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” called, with the help of his French advisor Antoine Marini, 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, sadly, yielded no results: the Pope renounced the Compacts in 1462, excommunicated George of Poděbrady and called for a crusade against the kingdom of Bohemia.
It is in that context that the Bohemian king designed another, much more ambitious alliance and went the great lengths to convince sovereigns to join his cause in establishing a first-of-a-kind European union.
The Turkish threat 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 himself 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 limitation of 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 described the organization’s institutions and resources. Its main body would have been a permanent assembly, comprising special envoys from every monarch gathered within four regional entities: France, Italy, Spain, and Germania (including Central European kingdoms, like Bohemia).
Other Christian princes, kings, and monarchs would have been able to join the organization later on as long as they abode by its rules. This organizational chart would also have included an international tribunal to resolve litigious affairs and conflicts between the states and establish a common legal framework for all members.
This supranational organization would also have had at its disposal shared resources and emblems, such as a coat of arms, a seal, dedicated civil servants as well as a common budget.
George of Poděbrady: The legacy of a failure
This project never saw the light of day: initially faint-heartedly received by European monarchs, it was then completely abandoned, due to the geopolitical landscape of the time and the infringements to national sovereignties in key state-areas (defense, finance, justice) it would have implied.
George of Poděbrady’s diplomatic efforts only yielded 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 and George’s own son-in-law Mathias Corvin ended up leading a crusade against Bohemia in the late 1460’s, a few years before George of Poděbrady’s death in 1471.
A 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 paradoxically have 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 – repercussions 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.