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ERC Securing Europe, Fighting its enemies, 1815-1914


Walls, Ramparts and Bulwarks: Europe Against the ‘Other’

The European Union likes to portray itself as a community of bridges, open windows and arches – the images on the EURO banknotes undeniably illustrate this. Yet, the EU is just as much a community of borders, frontiers and boundaries. In fact, European countries share not only a history of increasing integration, but also a history of continuous exclusion of what is framed as the ‘other’. Today, as in the remote past, political leaders of countries situated in the continental borderlands present their states as lines of defence, as bulwarks. By doing so, they emphasize a sense of Europeanness and of European belonging.

Against the borders of Fortress Europe? Posters in Venice, by Joep Schenk

Action against Fortress Europe. Posters in Venice; Joep Schenk, 2016

Fortress Europe

Confronted with hotly debated immigration flows from outside Europe, we can today observe a very tangible ‘return’ of borders. Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orbán justifies the erection of a border fence on Hungary’s territorial edges by calling it a defence of the ‘1000-years-old Christian culture of the country’ and an essential protection wall for the entire continent. Orbán explicitly frames the arrival of mostly Muslim refugees as a cultural threat to the supposedly superior Christian civilization of the European community. In the last few years, it has become common both in- and outside Hungary to compare Europe to a fortress.

Being the bulwark means being European

At both the Central- and South-Eastern frontiers of the continent, defending European culture against the ‘threatening other’ has been an essential theme in nationalist mythologies since the sixteenth century. One of the most famous examples is the warrior nobleman Skanderbeg, who has long been heralded by Albanian nationalists because he supposedly defended Europe against the Ottoman invasions. More recently, the Serbian president Slobodan Milošević employed the 1389 Battle of Kosovo once again to illustrate Serbia’s historical role as the first line of European defence against the Ottomans. With this so-called myth of antemurale christianitatis (the bulwark of Christianity), political leaders found a way to frame their countries as a bulwark of the Christian European civilization against the Ottoman, Tatar or Muslim ‘other’. Thereby they stressed their national unity and created a narrative in which they could take a central role in the larger play of European security.

'Croatia' defending Christian Europe. Ferdo Quiquerez, Antemurale Christianitatis (1892), Wikimedia Commons

‘Croatia’ defending Christian Europe. Ferdo Quiquerez, Antemurale Christianitatis (1892); Wikimedia Commons

The Netherlands as the bulwark of Europe

The antemurale myth, or bulwark myth, was not always about protecting a Christian civilization. In essence, this myth is a rhetorical construct that stresses the urgent need for defence against a common threat: the ‘other, whether religiously, nationally or ideologically defined. It also serves as a call to protect vital interests for the sake of the common good. Employing such rhetoric is by no means an exclusive characteristic of Eastern-European nation-building projects. In fact, historical actors in the Netherlands did the same two hundred years ago.

After the Napoleonic wars the Dutch Prince Sovereign Willem Frederik bombarded the European Powers with proposals to construct a powerful state north of France, obviously to be headed by himself. ‘The new Netherlands should serve as a bulwark for the independence and the tranquillity of Europe’, Willem said in 1813. Its economic interests and political independence could only be secured, Willem argued, by enlarging this new incarnation of the Netherlands with the port of Antwerp and extensive territories along the Rhine (up to Koblenz). Furthermore, the annexation and fortification of the former Austrian Netherlands (current-day Belgium) would further protect the ‘the citadel of the Netherlands’, as Willem called the sea-side province of Holland. The monarch-to-be argued that only by reconstituting the Netherlands in this way could Europe could be protected from renewed French aggression.

Primarily because Britain and Prussia believed there was an urgent need for a new line of defence against France, the bulwark plan was largely approved. From 1815 onwards, the Allies constructed extensive fortifications in the Southern provinces, some of them still visible in the Belgian countryside today.

Ukraine and Europe

Two hundred years ago, Willem Frederik presented his envisioned Netherlands as an essential element in the defence structure of a larger European entity. Thereby, he sought to cloak his authority in military and political legitimacy. Today, political leaders in Ukraine are doing almost the same thing. In a context of military dispute, Kiev’s bulwark rhetoric notes a Russian threat and claims that common European interests are at stake. Prime minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk appealed for Western help to strengthen the Ukrainian military defence system and ensured: ‘This is not just a fight for Ukraine, this is a fight for the free world’.

The ‘European Rampart’ envisioned; globalsecurity.org


Apart from some references to imputed Russian cultural inferiority, the government in Kiev employs an antemurale logic that is mostly stripped of Christian aspects. Instead, it presents military defence measures as a shared European security interest. It is therefore quite similar to the Dutch bulwark plan of 1813. Strikingly, the erection of an almost 2000 kilometres long wall along the border with Russia is part of the Ukrainian security strategy. It is not surprising that Yatsenyuk consistently calls this project the ‘European Rampart’, and ‘the Eastern border of the European Union’.


The bulwark rhetoric in Ukraine also comes with demands for political autonomy and hopes of increased cooperation with the European economic bloc. Even if we might be susceptible to go along with the claims of Ukraine’s government, the bulwark rhetoric also is inherently connected to projections of an allegedly threatening ‘other’. These threat perceptions might be as destructive and dangerous as any other type of chauvinism. The coming weeks, following the Dutch referendum on the ratification of the Ukraine-EU association agreement, we will see whether Ukraine will be bridged to the European economic system. But looking beyond that treaty and over at the Russians, Europeans might also begin asking themselves whether they want to live on a continent of bulwarks or of bridges.