Hitler's 'cosmopolitan bastard' and his vision for Europe

Richard Coudenhove-Kalergi opens the inaugural session of the Pan-American Congress in Vienna in May 1934

Richard Coudenhove-Kalergi, founder and president of the Pan American Union, opens the inaugural session of the Pan-American Congress in Vienna in May 1934 - Credit: Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

He infuriated Hitler, won over Churchill and de Gaulle and inspired one of the central characters in Casablanca. So why do we know so little about pan-European visionary Count Coudenhove-Kalergi?

The story of uniting Europe goes back a long way before 1950 and the Schuman Declaration. But there is a piece of that history after the First World War that has been neglected, especially in Britain.

In the 1920s Count Coudenhove-Kalergi – a household name among the elite in continental Europe but unknown in Britain – came close to making a reality of his vision of a united Europe.

This half-European, half-Japanese count was brought up to think in terms of continents, not countries. In 1923 he published his political programme called Pan-Europa. It was an immediate bestseller – more than 25,000 copies in the first year – and many who read the book joined his political movement, the Pan-European Union. Its message promised peace and plenty after the destruction of the First World War.

The Count called for a United States of Europe, with a supra-national Court of Justice, a customs union and a single market: elements we recognise in the European Union we have now left. He called for a draft constitution to create a pan-European federation. This European power would then hold the balance between Soviet Russia and plutocratic America.

He followed his bestselling book with a monthly magazine, also called Pan-Europa, that was sent to ten thousand subscribers. His book was translated into nine languages and he set up national committees in 16 continental capitals.

He called his first Pan-Europa Congress in Vienna in 1926. More than 2,000 of the great and the good from Europe’s cultural and political elite attended, Thomas Mann and Albert Einstein among them. An international press corps of more than a hundred reported on the event, and for three days, as the Count later wrote, “Vienna was the capital of Europe”.

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But other forces were at work in Europe too. Within ten days of the Count publishing Pan-Europa in Vienna, Hitler launched the Beer Hall Putsch in Munich. His arrest and trial gave him a national profile, and while he was in Landsberg prison he wrote Mein Kampf. Neither the first nor the second volume sold anywhere near the number Pan-Europa achieved. In a projected third volume Hitler launched a bitter attack on Coudenhove-Kalergi, damning the Count as a "cosmopolitan bastard".

Hitler wanted a German Europe, but the Count wanted a European Germany. For the Count, no national state should dominate the United States of Europe. All continental states – even the largest – should subordinate some aspects of their sovereignty in the common enterprise. In that way Europe would take its place alongside the other great ‘power centres’ of the world: a democratic Pan-Europa alongside America, the Soviet Union, the British empire, and the more distant Asian power of China, Korea and Japan.

Coudenhove-Kalergi was a stylish and prolific author in German, French and English. Everything he wrote, he declared, was "propaganda for the cause" and he was an expert at public relations. He introduced Beethoven’s Ode to Joy as the anthem at his Congress and designed a European flag – the golden sun of Apollo with the red cross of Christendom against a blue background – widely recognised between the wars as the symbol of Pan-Europa. He proposed a single passport and a common driving licence to make a reality of freedom of movement across the whole continent.

He and his actress wife, Ida Roland – Vienna’s answer to Sarah Bernhardt – had the best address book in Europe, hundreds of high-level contacts among the cultural and political elite. She and the Count were devoted and inseparable, and so was the Count to his cause. They networked for this one passionate objective.

In the 1920s he travelled Europe and America encouraging opposition to the Nazis, but Hitler won the first round in 1933. The Count’s books were burnt and Hitler banned the Pan-Europa Union in Germany. Five years later Hitler won the second round as well, forcing the Count to flee Vienna when the Nazis annexed Austria. During the Phoney War the Count alternated between London, Paris and his country home in Switzerland, stiffening opposition to Germany wherever he could.

When Hollywood made the film Casablanca, the screenwriters took his adventurous story as background for the character of Victor Laszlo, the Czech Resistance hero who knows all the anti-Nazi leaders from Portugal to Poland, the man who leads the patriotic singing of La Marseillaise in Rick’s bar.

The Count and his wife spent the war years in New York, flown out of Lisbon in 1940 by influential American friends who arranged visas and tickets on the Yankee Clipper. There he found himself on the winning side for round three.

He preached early US involvement in support of Britain, welcomed the Atlantic Charter, and warned that the Soviet threat would one day be as great as the Nazi threat was then. That earned him no friends in Roosevelt’s administration, which needed Stalin as a wartime ally, but president Truman welcomed the Count’s analysis. Even before ‘containment’ of the Soviet Union became American policy, he declared that “the United States of Europe is an excellent idea”.

Churchill, who entertained the Count at Chartwell and at his London flat, agreed and, naming him in his famous speech in Zurich in September 1946, gave him credit for his pre-war work with Pan-Europa. He too wanted “a kind of United States of Europe” but was never quite sure of the UK’s role. In it or alongside it?

The Count spoke immediately after the great man at the Congress of Europe in May 1948 and his European Parliamentary Union (EPU) – a pressure group of MPs he set up in every democratic parliament in Europe – lobbied for a Europe-wide parliament. The EPU was instrumental in creating the Council of Europe in 1949, with the first continent-wide parliamentary assembly, the culmination of his life-long campaign.

Dismayed by Churchill’s ambiguity towards Europe after his return to power in 1951, the Count turned to de Gaulle and became his confidential adviser. From 1960 to his death in 1972 the Count was on the presidential payroll. He promoted the general’s views and his image as the strong leader for an independent European power they both wanted to create as a potential arbiter between Washington and Moscow.

In 1950 he was the first recipient of the Charlemagne Prize for his contribution to European unity; Jean Monnet and Churchill were recipients in later years. For his services to Franco-German reconciliation he was awarded the légion d’honneur and the Bundesverdienstkreuz. Squares, streets and parks are named after him across the continent, but his contribution to the European story has been ignored in Britain.

The Count died in July 1972, a few weeks after the UK voted to join the European Communities. Otto von Hapsburg summed up the Count’s role in his eulogy of the man: “If one day Europe is really united, the people of our continent will owe it to Coudenhove in a much greater measure than they are prepared to admit today.”

Hitler’s Cosmopolitan Bastard: Count Richard Coudenhove-Kalergi and his Vision of Europe, by Martyn Bond, is published by McGill-Queen’s University Press, £24.95

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