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April 2019 Item of the Month

Eugen Ewig’s Letters to Wilhelm Levison

"We all hope, that the new british leaders will be successful in the difficult task to organise peace. The time is over, that one country rejoiced of the difficulties of its neighbours. There is a new solidarity of interests of all European nations. Hitler’s extreme nationalism was to some extent the common collapse of all nationalism. Personal liberty and social justice are the great ideas worth to be defended by all honest people. The Allies could prepare the United States of Europe in organising Germany." Letter from E. Ewig to W. Levison, 31 July 1945 (Ref: LEV/D2)

These words come from a letter written in July 1945 by the prominent German medievalist Eugen Ewig to his former PhD supervisor Wilhelm Levison in Durham. Ewig was a Catholic and Francophile born in Bonn, western Germany, in 1913. After finishing his doctorate in 1938, he had been unwilling to make the political compromises with the Nazis necessary to pursue a university career. Instead he trained as an archivist and, during the Second World War, was sent to work in the archives of the occupied French city of Metz. Here he refused to be a tool of the German forces, doing his best, for example, to prevent the city’s archives from being transported to Germany. In 1946 he started teaching at the University of Nancy, the first German to receive a lectureship in France after the war. He became the leading expert on the Merovingian dynasty and eventually took up Levison’s old chair in Bonn. At the same time, he dedicated himself to promoting Franco-German understanding and was instrumental in founding the German Historical Institute in Paris.

The fall of German-occupied Metz in 1944 had allowed Ewig to re-establish contact with his former supervisor, who had spent the war, after a brief internment on the Isle of Mann, in Durham. In a series of letters to Levison, written in English, French and German, Ewig described not only his academic ambitions and experiences of the war, but also discussed his hopes for the future of Germany and Europe.

Ewig’s desire for a Europe federation was based upon a wish to reorganise the relationship between the different parts of Germany. Underlying this was Ewig’s Rhenish patriotism: he saw his native Rhineland as an integral part of the liberal, Christian and civilised West. By contrast, he believed that Prussia, the north German state that dominated Germany, was inclined to totalitarianism and collectivism. It had used the doctrine of nationalism to subject the rest of Germany to its will, ultimately paving Hitler’s route to power. Now it was in danger of turning to Soviet Communism.

Allowing Prussia to continue to govern Germany, he argued, would endanger peace after 1945. The Rhineland should either receive autonomy in a confederated Germany or complete independence. Both solutions would be the first step toward the creation of a federal Europe; the Rhineland could not survive on its own without broader European help. Ever since the Middle Ages, the Rhineland’s location on the French border and embodiment of Western civilisation had given it, in Ewig’s eyes, a particular role as the mediator between Western Europe and Germany. Indeed Ewig described the creation of a European federation as a return to the continent’s origins: a move away from the senseless national and racial hate that had spread since the development of the ideology of nationalism that had culminated in Hitler’s war. For all his fear of the danger still posed by German nationalism, he placed his hopes in, to quote a letter from January 1946, “the new solidarity of men of good will towards all classes, races, religions and parties”.

At a time when the European project is facing considerable challenges, Ewig’s letters to Levison are a reminder of some of the original impulses driving the desire for greater European integration. They express an optimism for the future following the catastrophe of war and genocide, an appreciation of the dangers of nationalist ideology, the imagination of a transnational European community with common historical values and the persistence of regional loyalties that undercut national identity. Through his role in setting up the German Historical Institute in Paris, Ewig directly contributed to post-war European rapprochement and integration.

The correspondence is part of the Levison Papers held the Durham University Library Archives and Special Collections currently being catalogued. Wilhelm Levison, a prominent German medievalist, had escaped Germany in April 1939 in the face of the Nazi persecution of German Jews. He found refuge in Durham, where he stayed until his death in 1947. In addition to his scholarly notes, the collection contains letters sent to Levison during his tenures in Bonn and Durham. The latter, in particular, give a fascinating insight into German academics’ experiences during and immediately after the Second World War.

Further reading:
Ulrich Pfeil, “Eugen Ewig: »Créer un ordre transnational«. Von einem Mittler zwischen Deutschland und Frankreich”, in Ulrich Pfeil (ed.), Das Deutsche Historische Institut Paris und seine Gründungsväter, Munich: Oldenbourg Verlag, 2007, pp. 294–322.

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