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ERC Securing Europe, Fighting its enemies, 1815-1914

USHS Blog

Seeing Security

Can we see security? Yes we can, though we might not always be aware of the systems of protection, detection, surveillance and defence that surround us and structure our landscapes. Moreover, the extent to which security is visualized, insecurity is articulated and the threat of enemies is projected before our eyes differ through time. ‘Security turns its eye exclusively to the future’, the British philosopher Jeremy Bentham wrote back in the 18th century. Security is the anticipated state of being unharmed in the future; it is the contemporary projection of impending or plausible threats that might materialise in the near future. Security simultaneously envelopes the efforts to prevent these threats from materializing or at least mitigate their potentially devastating impact. In other words, security is about visualising threats through contemporary means of technology and a historically contingent imagination. This insight makes security, although directed towards future threats, a very historical phenomenon. Our imagination of the future is trapped in the past.

Fort Charlemont, Belgium

Security Fences

Let’s take a tour through Europe in 1815. The traveller on his or her way, from – say – the southern parts of the Netherlands (current-day Belgium) to Paris, would see much more physical symbols and traces of security than we do nowadays. Whereas today auto routes and high-speed railway lines (their trajectories marked by intermittent security fences) cut through a borderless Europe, roads in 1815 were barraged by a multitude of obstacles, barriers, fortifications and border controls. All of these obstructions were intended to protect against approaching armies.

In 1814 the Dutch general Krayenhoff was commissioned by his freshly appointed sovereign William I to start preparing a ‘Southern Frontier System’ along the Dutch-French border. At the Congress of Vienna it had been decided that a new, extended Kingdom of the Netherlands – including the former Austrian Netherlands (Belgium) – under the house of Orange and protected by the UK, should function as the hinge of a new European security system. The Allied Powers, represented by the Duke of Wellington who commanded the Allied Forces, delegated to William I the task of building the Western part of this defence system: a defensive line running from Oostende and Nieuwpoort via Doornik, Charleroi and Maastricht/Liege to Philippeville and Dinant, jointly financed by the United Kingdom, France and the Netherlands. Dozens of forts and fortifications were built, roads created, canals dug – the whole area between Ieper, Antwerp and Waterloo was turned into a construction site. Cities like Dendermonde, Oudenaerde and Charleroi saw their faces changed. Over 70 million guilders were spent on this mutually assured system of defence. William I and Wellington closely watched over the fortifications, and devoted many weeks of their costly time to yearly inspection trips.

In the end, the forts were never used. The Kingdom of the Netherlands split in two after 1830, rendering the Frontier useless. Moreover, the type of threat that was projected onto the landscape through these security measures never materialized. France ceased to be the common European enemy. The threat of large battles on relatively limited battlefields, of Napoleonic conscript armies roaming enemy lands on the rogue, became a historical spectre after technological innovations in artillery and transportation changed military practice from the 1820s onwards. The early-19th-century forts became useless after 1850. Many of these circular walls and girdled fortifications were demolished in the late 19th century to make way for commercial expansion and traffic lines on behalf of the cities that they once had been intended to protect. The projection of future threats onto the landscape by means of a barrier system turned out to be an anachronism. Although Wellington had wanted King William I to turn the fields of Waterloo into a huge fortress, the only visible reminder of the site’s importance to European security is the monumental lion still towering on top of a pyramid hill – not so much an invocation of future security, but rather a historical memorial to lives once lost.

The monumental Lion of Waterloo

The monumental Lion of Waterloo

Invisible Security

Security might just have been much more visible and tangible back in 1815. Two hundred years later, security measures have become almost invisible and yet they have penetrated each aspect of our material and virtual world. Our identities, trajectories and biometric coordinates are more thoroughly mapped and charted than even the staunchest Stasi general could ever have dreamt of. Security has become almost completely obscured from sight (the omnipresent surveillance cameras excluded, though they as well have grown more diminutive and stealthy over the years). Markers of security have retreated behind logics of proactive, prospective risk assessment and general (totalitarian?) panopticon systems that render each and every individual moving body a potential subject of risk analysis. These systems have turned our whole natural and cultural environment into one unified, secured and monitored European space – where hardly any visible trace of security or insecurity can be recognised. Until, of course, a terrorist incident disrupts this monitored space and prompts new rounds of (invisible) securitization.

Return of the Past

Hungarian-Serbian border barrier

That is, until recently. The return of refugees and displaced persons, as well as the fearful notion of ‘vagabonds’ roaming the country, have dragged our security concerns back into the past, back to 1945 or to 1914/18 – perhaps even to 1815. Not cyber threats, but tragic bunches of people defying or jamming our European standardized personal registration and identification systems inform today’s overarching security concerns and trigger violent sentiments of insecurity. At the same time, on the Eastern outskirts of Europe, old-fashioned conventional warfare raises its martial head again. New defensive lines and checkpoints are being erected in places like the Ukraine and Hungary.

Not the invisible systems of surveillance algorithms, but 19th-century border controls are becoming common practice in Europe again. Insecurity and its corresponding security and protective measures have regained historical shape. In 1815 a common European defence system was created – be it in a haphazard and largely inefficient manner. This particular type of security system (the forts and fortifications) was never put to the test, but might just have served its task of deterring enemies (historical and future ones) and bringing European powers, both small and large, together under a single, unified interest: the restoration and preservation of peace after the devastating years of Napoleonic warfare. To what extent today’s new-old border controls mark a single European attempt to preserve peace is a matter to be historicized in the future.