‘A Struggle for European Civilization’: T.S. Eliot and British Conceptions of Europe during and after the Second World War

  • José Harris
Part of the The Palgrave Macmillan Transnational History Series book series (PMSTH)


Contemporary perceptions and imaginative portrayals of Great Britain’s role in the Second World War often interpreted it as a defence, not just of particular ‘British’ interests, nor of ‘universalist’ values against fascist tyranny (though both of these were recurrent themes), but as representing an intermediate position, loosely depicted as a ‘struggle for European civilization’.1 Such disparate figures as Winston Churchill, T.S. Eliot, Bishop Bell of Chichester, Cyril Connolly, Julian Huxley, Harold Laski and J.M. Keynes, all talked of ‘European civilization’ in order to conjure up a picture, not just of specific war aims, but of a much more intangible commitment to a certain kind of social, political, religious and philosophical ‘culture’, embodied in the cumulative experience of two thousand years of European history. A conception of Europe, past, present and future, was invoked to describe ‘not just a geographical or economic entity’ but ‘a system of beliefs and ideas, an outlook, a culture, a way of life’.2 Such a vision of Europe and its history was often portrayed at the time, not just as a good in itself, but as a stark antithesis both to the nationalist and ethnic ‘separatism’ artificially created by the Treaty of Versailles, and more recently to the mechanistic ‘uniformity’ being forcibly imposed on conquered territories by the ‘New European Order’ of Adolf Hitler.


European Civilization European History British Empire Disparate Figure Positivist Tradition 
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  1. Amery mss, AMEL, 1/7/39, paper on ‘Pan-European Union’, n.d.; Richard Coudenhove-Kalergi, Europe must Unite (1939); Jan Werner-Müller, ‘“Our Philadelphia”? On the Political and Intellectual History of the “European Constitution”’, Journal of Modern European History, vi (2008), 139–41.Google Scholar
  2. H.S. Jones, ‘The Era of Tyrannies: Elie Halevy and Friedrich von Hayek on Socialism’, European Journal of Political Theory, I, 2002, 53–69.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. T.S. Eliot, ‘Notes towards a Definition of Culture’, Partisan Review, XI, 2 (Spring 1944), p. 150.Google Scholar
  4. T.S. Eliot, ‘The Social Function of Poetry’, The Norseman, i, 6 (November 1943), pp. 455–6.Google Scholar
  5. T.S. Eliot, ‘What France Means to You’, La France Libre, viii, 44, 15 June 1944, pp. 94–5. This view lay behind his refusal to support publishing projects for translating great works of European literature into English, and his claim that readers got more out of reading non-English poetry in its original language, even if they only had little knowledge of that language, than in English translation: T.S. Eliot, ‘Talk on Dante’, Adelphi, xxvii, 2 (1951), pp. 106–14.Google Scholar
  6. ‘The Church and the World’, report in The Times, 17 July 1937; T.S. Eliot, ‘The Responsibility of the Man of Letters in the Cultural Restoration of Europe’, Norseman, II, 4 (July/August 1944), pp. 243–8. Eliot’s views thus bore little relation to the claims of critics who saw him as favouring a monolithic ecclesiastical hegemony based on the Roman Catholic church (e.g. Harold Laski, Faith, Reason and Civilisation, pp. 197–8). A similar point might be made about his views on the teaching of Latin, which he defended, not as a ‘mental discipline’ for a ‘snobbish elite’, but as ‘good for rich demotic everyday speech’ (Classics and the Man of Letters, London, 1942).Google Scholar
  7. T.S. Eliot, ‘Reflections on the Unity of European Culture (I)’, Adam International Review, xiv, 158 (May 1946), pp. 2–3; T.S. Eliot, ‘UNESCO and its Aims’, The Times, 17 October 1947.Google Scholar

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© J. Harris 2010

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  • José Harris

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