“The European question can be summoned in these three words: Unification or collapse”
These words make Richard Nikolaus Count Coudenhove-Kalergi the very first modern European and standard-bearer of this idea, which he formerly describes as the “Paneuropean Movement”. Especially in the interwar years he spreads it wide, investing his entire fortune and 50 years of his life in this movement that exists until today. Many who know his name, see him as an important visionary who can be seen as one of the founding fathers of the European Union while others think that his style is pretentious and his thesis too vague. Unfortunately, many do not even know who he was and hence do not even have an opinion concerning his ideas. Consequently the question arises if Coudenhove-Kalergi can even be seen as influential in the process of Unification since influence requires popularity.
Ironically, the European is born in Tokyo on 17 November 1894 as the son of an Austrian-Hungarian diplomat and his Japanese wife. Already few years after his birth, the family moves back to Bohemia where the young count grows up in the paternal palace in Ronsperg. Not only does the family have Greek and Dutch roots but also relatives living in England, Italy, Belgium, Spain and even in Norway. As a result, it comes as no surprise that Richard has no sense of belonging to any of these nations and starts thinking of Europe as a Union. Especially after the collapse of the Habsburg monarchy, all of a sudden making him a Czech citizen, national borders become even more absurd in his eyes.
As a response to the horrors of the First World War, Coudenhove-Kalergi publishes an article in 1922 complaining about the meaninglessness of European wars and suggesting a pan-European union instead. This is the beginning of his movement, for which his name stands until this day. Only one year later he publishes his work “Pan-Europe”, explaining his visions in much detail and causing a great sensation all over Europe.
Formally the “Paneuropean Union” is first founded in 1923 as the first international non-governmental organization, its goal being the unification of Europe. The first investor in this idea is the banker Max Warburg. He enables Coudenhove-Kalergi to establish his first office in Vienna and to win more members. In the following years, he begins travelling around Europe and presenting his ideas to a broader mass. Many important personalities, including Albert Einstein, Gustav Stresemann, Stefan Zweig and the French prime minister Edouard Herriot are counted to the group of his supporters.
In 1929 Coudenhove-Kalergi’s ideas finally seem to get the recognition they deserve: the French prime minister Aristide Briand suggests a European state-union, inspired by Richard Coudenhove-Kalergi. He gets divided feedback: while Stresemann supports him, the British are sceptical and fear the end of their colonial kingdom. The idea is then slowly leaving people’s minds, especially after the death of Stresemann in October that year, the beginning of the economic crisis and the death of Briand two years later.
Nevertheless, Coudenhove-Kalergi continues to hold speeches all over Europe and to write books, trying to convince as many people as possible that “the man of the future will be a crossbreed”. He also meets with Mussolini and later even with Hitler who at first both admire his work but then dismiss him as a dreamer. During the Second World War he lives in exile in New York, where he holds some lectures at NYU and gets a lot of attention from important Europeans such as Leon Blum, Paul-Henri Spaak and Winston Churchill.
Around this time, Coudenhove-Kalergi’s influence decreases. Many politicians begin to implement their vision of Europe, leaving him out of the picture due to his lacking political influence. He plays a very small role in the development of the European Union and the “Pan-European Union” ironically loses its importance at the precise moment the idea of European integration is starting to get international recognition.
Until this day, Kalergi remains a very controversial figure of the unification of Europe who is often forgotten in this context because he never actually held a government position. Still, his ideas strongly influenced the European discourse over decades and form the basis of European integration. Hence he can be seen as one of the founding fathers, if not the Founding Father himself, of the European Union.