The Tainted Source
by John Laughland
A while back, I discovered that my great-grandfather’s estate in Ukraine, Apanlee, figures in a novel which is something of a favourite among neo-Nazis and Aryan supremacists. This led me to a number of websites that I wouldn’t regularly have frequented, including the Zundelsite and Stormfront’s webpage. There I found something genuinely intriguing: A new historical justification for anti-Semitism. They point to a book written back in the 70’s by Arthur Koestler called The Thirteenth Tribe. Koestler – himself Jewish – makes a case that Eastern European Jews originated in the somewhat mysterious medieval state of Khazar, located in part of what is now Russia. He puts forward evidence that many people in this multi-religious Turkic nation converted to Judaism, and that after the disappearance of the Khazar state these people remained Jewish and formed the core of the Eastern European Jewish population.
It is an interesting idea from a historiographic perspective. Others have taken up Koestler’s case since then. I am not a scholar of Jewish history and I make no claims as to the status or veracity of the Khazar hypothesis. What I found fascinating, in a sick sort of way, was how easily radical anti-Semitic movements in the Anglo-Saxon world manage to incorporate this notion into their worldview. For them, this leads them to the conclusion that the Jews aren’t really Jews, and therefore none of the Biblical status given to Jews applies to them. Modern Jews are, in their minds, merely a Turkic tribe that converted to the false Judaism that killed Jesus, and the real Jews were expelled into Europe by the Romans, becoming the Anglo-Saxon people.
It should go without saying that I find this latter hypothesis to be, to say the least, deeply suspect. In fact, laughable would be a better adjective to describe my opinion of it. I bring this up however, because the kind of thinking that motivates this radical reinterpretation of Jewish and Germanic history also motivates a book I have just read: The Tainted Source. Unfortunately, my finances restrict my ability to purchase books for review, and I have not yet had the gumption to write to publishers to ask for a reviewer’s copy. So, the books on Europe that I read tend to come from the discount rack, where many Euroskeptics seem to end up.
Just as Aryan nationalist justify their anti-Semitism by claiming that Jews aren’t really Jewish because of (in their minds) tainted origins, Laughland’s case against Europe is built atop the idea that Europeanism’s roots are tainted.
Having now drawn an analogy between Aryan nationalism and Laughland, I should point out that Laughland is not, as far as I can tell, an anti-Semite and certainly isn’t a Nazi sympathiser. His target is the European Union – an idea which he first claims draws substantially on Nazi political ambitions, then claims to derive in large part from German national ambitions, and finally that fits Russian designs on Europe from the communist and post-communist eras.
I had purchased this book expecting an anti-European screed, and in this respect I was not disappointed. I had hoped, however, to find in it a real history of pan-European projects. I was hoping it might go beyond merely Nazi projects for European unity but that it might also have covered the pan-Slavic movement, the Napoleonic programme for Europe, various Catholic federalist ideas, communist discussions of European unification and perhaps even others that I don’t know anything about. A good discussion of these movements, with names, dates and footnotes, and comparisons between them and contemporary pan-Europeanism would have been interesting and useful to me. This, however, is not what Laughland wrote about.
Instead, we are treated to the same sort of guilt by historical association that Stormfront advances. Laughland’s biggest fans on the ‘Net are quite clear on what he is saying: The EU is the Nazi programme for Europe under a different cover. Laughland specifically denies this. He says that “the point is not to suggest that the European idea was inspired by the Nazi and their allies.” Laughland is not that nuts. There is, as he claims, a significant continuity, all over Europe, between the ruling elites of the Nazi era and the ruling elites of the post-Nazi era. He is hardly the first to remark on this. But, to make this the first section of his book and to use it as the cornerstone for the construction of a case against Europe is akin to making a case against multi-lane freeways because they too were a Nazi programme, and many of the post-war road-builders in Europe were trained and inspired by Nazi civil engineers, or simply were the same people as built Hitler’s roads.
Actually, placing this section at the beginning of the book is suspicious for other reasons. Laughland builds a much better case later on that German ideas about European unification draw on a far older, pre-Nazi tradition dating back to the Holy Roman Empire and encompassing Bismarck’s programme for German unification in the 19th century. Germany was not a unified political entity until 1870, but its unification was preceded by a series of treaties covering social and economic integration, as well as a sort of “Allemagne à deux vitesses” where some German states were more closely integrated than others. The section on Nazi plans for Europe would have made a good deal more sense as historiography had he placed it in chronological order with his larger discussion of German unificationism. But, this would have diminished its dramatic effect. It would have suggested not that Europe is a continuation of Nazi plans, but that both present and Nazi pan-Europeanism are themselves part of an older middle-European political tradition – one which has had very substantial positive effects. German power and economic growth were both advanced substantially by unification, and I am hard-pressed to find any support for the idea that German unification meaningfully diminished German liberalism. Nowadays, even the highly inequitable Austro-Hungarian Empire has its revisionist supporters, who see in it a reservoir of modern, liberal ideas whose disappearance harmed its former subjects more than it helped them.
So, we can dismiss Laughland’s historical case – his tainted source – as of no more significance than the Khazar hypothesis about the origins of Eastern European Jews. It may have some genuine value as history, but has no genuine significance in understanding present-day issues. It is completely beside the point. That European unity was once advanced by Hitler, and to suggest that one of its major motivators is a German desire for peaceful borders and neighbours with neutralised military ambitions is entirely irrelevant to current debates about the European Union. What, precisely, is wrong with a German policy of peaceful borders and neighbours without military ambitions? When it is realised by force of arms, a great deal is wrong with such a programme, but when realised through institution building in Brussels?
Laughland could have stopped there, but reading his book one has the sense that he realises how weak his historical case against Europe is and how much it really draws on guilt by association. So, he presses on to advance an anti-European thesis which rests on political philosophy. This effort is not to his credit.
Indeed Laughland has done me a service with his political case against Europe, one which amply compensates for his failure to provide me with the historiography of European unity I had expected to buy. He eliminates the need for me to construct a strawman to make a pro-European case. He is opposed to the EU because it undermines exactly the things I oppose: the nation-state, a balance of power as the main force to keep the peace and national governments as the final source of all political authority. Indeed, he is genuinely rare among political theorists in defending the nation-state as a universal and essential institution, when the mainstream in both the history of nationalism and in political science sees it as a contingent institution which came into being to meet certain needs in certain times and places and may be passing away for the same essentially pragmatic reasons.
Laughland’s case is built atop three pillars which he claims are essential to the establishment and maintenance of liberalism: the sovereignty of the nation-state, the rule of parliaments, and sound money. Each one is in turn either undesirable, inadequate, or positively mystical. I remind my American readers that “liberal” in Europe does not mean “liberal” in the US. Except for the UK, a party that labels itself as liberal is closer to what Americans would call “fiscally conservative.” Arguably, the European usage has a longer pedigree.
What Laughland means by sovereignty is not the notion that states should be free to act as they see fit. Instead, it is a rather mystical property which he admits may not reflect actual power. He views sovereignty as a purely philosophical construct: Political acts should carry the authority of a state, and that authority is what sovereignty is. The notion that those acts may be restrained by extra-national authorities and agreements is, to Laughland, entirely irrelevant to sovereignty. Having extracted from sovereignty any conception of power, it is difficult to see what the point of sovereignty is. Philip K Dick once claimed that reality is that which, when you stop believing in it,
isn’t is still there. In this sense, it’s hard to claim that Laughland’s sovereignty is a real thing.
What is truly bizarre in The Tainted Source is the transition from history to political argument. The two are utterly disconnected from each other. Laughland is opposed to the undemocratic power of central banks, but favours an effective currency based on the gold standard. He is opposed to dirigisme, which he rightfully attaches not to some strange French authoritarian streak but to vesting authority in powerful executives. But, he sees the solution not in establishing and empowering more democratic institutions in the EU but in abolishing any EU authority apart from its member governments. Although no mention is ever made of the structure of US government, I can’t see how anyone can hold the views Laughland has without disdain for the American state.
The arguments for sound money are equally dubious. It reads as if it have been cut and pasted from the Mises Institute website. Instead of a single, flexible, fiat currency, Laughland advocates a gold standard which fixes the exchange rates. He points out that it served much of Europe through centuries, but seems to have missed the vicious boom-and-bust cycle of 19th century European economies, nor that since the partial abandonment of gold in the early part of the last century, economic growth has been vastly greater in most of the world. The idea that gold has “intrinsic value” – the core of his defence of metal money – is not much more than an intermittently fashionable superstition. Gold has a few industrial uses, but otherwise is nothing but shiny metal.
There is so much wrong with Laughland’s revisionist history of nationalism that I’m not quite sure where to start. To claim that communism is to blame for the recent Balkan wars, rather than fingering nationalism as the culprit, is completely unsupported. Furthermore, he is the first person I have encountered to identify as the cause of WWI a British failure to make plain its intent to defend Belgium. He defends Georgia as a state that wants nothing but to be free of meddling Russian, but never mentions the Abkhazians or the South Ossetians who want to be free of Georgia. He points to Russian duplicity in the separatist movement in Transnistria, of which there is plenty, but then claims that there are more Russians and Ukrainians in the rest of Moldova and that the Gagauz minority hasn’t made any waves – neither of which is exactly true. There are more Slavs in the rest of Moldova, but in Transnistria they are a majority, and the Gagauz also declared independence from Moldova, however, they didn’t have Russian support.
None of the real problems of nationalism are ever addressed. On one page, he claims that a common language is essential to nationhood, and on another claims that Belgium’s problems with dual nationalisms would not exist if Belgium didn’t have a “culture of dependency.” The magic link between people and land – why an ethnic nation should be empowered to lay claim to a piece of territory – is never clarified.
He even castigates the British government for accepting an EU programme designed to help island areas overcome the economic difficulties that their geography entails. His logic is that Britain is, of course, an island. Ergo, being an island is no barrier to success. Of course, neglected in this account is that Britain is only 21 miles from the continent, that it is the largest island in Europe and one of the largest in the world, and that it has some 60 million people on it – all benefits that even Ireland, much less Corsica or the Balares, don’t enjoy.
Laughland ridicules the notion that integration is a good political tool for forcing states to meet modern standards of behaviour, using Russia’s efforts to join the Council of Europe and to gain a seat at NATO as examples. He’s right, in part, but his examples say more about Russia than about the political programme of EU expansion. Russia is a large nation, one far less tied to Western Europe than, for example, Poland is. His discussion of sovereignty ignores the simple reality that small industrialised states can not avoid economic dependency, and that dependency at once motivates economic unions and empowers them. It is fear of being cut-off that makes Poland far more likely to remain a parliamentary regime with strong human rights protections than Russia. At the same time, what is a complete mystery to Laughland – why nations would sign their sovereignty away – becomes clear in the same context. Belgium has adopted the Euro because a seat at the ECB gives it at least as much control over its own currency as it had when the Bundesbank effectively set Belgian interest rates without regard for Belgian interests. States join the EU because they estimate the tangible gains to exceed the largely symbolic costs. They may be wrong in that assessment, but if so, Laughland certainly makes no mention of it.
Opposing the EU in the name of liberalism, as Laughland does, is really very pointless. It is little more than fetishism for the WWI-era ethno-linguistic republic. The EU has plentiful flaws, the worst probably being a lack of democratic responsibility to the people rather than to the constituent governments. But, if the protection of freedom is to be the goal of political institutions, the nation-state has a pretty tattered record. The EU hasn’t been around that long, but I am unaware of any act of genocide or ethnic cleansing that can be laid at its doorstep, and I can think of many instances of protection of minority rights and personal freedoms that can be attributed to it. How many of Europe’s nation-states can make the same claim?