Rethinking Europe: The Realistic Utopia, The Other Branch

Text and book Christian Much/ Illustration Corinna Heumann

Political utopias inspire all eras. Alongside the better-known ones such as Plato’s State, Thomas More’s Utopia, George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, some have fallen into oblivion, for example Tommaso Campanella’s Sunshine State. In 1602, he devised this utopian society in prison in Naples, between sessions of torture, also as a consoling encouragement to himself that political conditions are not without alternative. The present is not without alternatives either. In my novel Der andere Ast (The Other Branch), I invoke the utopia of a Europe of the regions in an empathetic mind game using the example of South Tyrol.

An alternative branch of the time axis

Political utopias are usually set in the future or in a world that is present but cannot be located on the map. The novel The Other Branch is based on a different scenario: the so-called uchrony (ancient Greek ou = “no” and chronos = “time”). Uchrony means: place and time are here and now, but on a fictional historical timeline. So: What if history had developed differently? In my utopia we sit on another, fictional branch on the tree of history.

Utopia as a feasible counter-draft

Why Uchronie? I wanted to “move” my political draft, a Europe of the regions, as little as possible – neither into a future, the nature of which is unimaginable for us in many respects, nor into a fairy tale (island) world like that of the Sunshine State, which will be interesting to many, but will not appear as a home to anyone. By setting my novel in the geographically real region of South Tyrol, it is easier for the reader to say to himself: This is how it really could have been – if our parents or we ourselves had done something to make history run differently.

Empathy only if you turn circumstances upside down

Imagining the world as different requires empathy for the other. In order to promote more empathy, the novel first turns the circumstances upside down. This inevitably leads to a change of roles and perspectives. In place of the real South Tyrol with a freedom-loving German-speaking minority that repeatedly feels irritated by the distant, sometimes uncomprehending government in Rome, The Other Branch sets a communist South Tyrol in which the Italian-speaking minority is patronized and harassed by an ideologically trumpeting People’s Republic of Austria. In this world turned upside down, it becomes really clear in what the solution, feasible not only in the utopian novel but in reality, can lie: in the mutual respect of the narratives and symbols of the other. In the novel, this approach is condensed into the common advocacy of the symbolic figures Andreas Hofer and Cesare Battisti; in the cross-linguistic cooperation of young people for a common goal, which concretely consists in overcoming nationalistic rituals and slogans and thinking European instead.

Uchronie: What if?

Uchrony also has its pitfalls. The question of what the world would look like if Hitler had lived a shorter or longer time or had successfully completed his art studies even occupies many a novelist and screenwriter, although to my taste it is based on the all-too-simplistic understanding of history that history is essentially made by individual persons and not by ideas and by political conditions in the broadest sense. The Other Branch takes up this question in a dialogue:

“I have always thought of history as a tree. It grows and at one point a branch branches out. At first we don’t know which of the two new branches will be the stronger one. We don’t know until a few years later. And from the stronger branch, two new branches spring up again. But if the weaker branch had become the stronger one, what then? It would have been possible. Also that then this branch and not the other one forms new branches. Then the tree would look different today.”

Emilio was fascinated by this image. “(…) How would history have gone if Garibaldi had not managed to escape in 1849 after the defeat of the Roman Republic? How would history have gone if in 1944 the assassination attempt against Hitler had succeeded…”

“… or, even better,” interrupted Sepp, “if in 1923, during Hitler’s march on the Feldherrnhalle, the Bavarian police had shot him and not Scheubner, who was running next to him?”

“… And how if Churchill had not prevailed in 1947 and South Tyrol had remained with Italy?” asked Magnago.

“Good question,” said Hansl. “Then we would still be Italian today. Would that be better than being Austrian comrades?”

Sepp did not want to deepen this with respect to Scaglia (…). Filo also found the discussion unproductive. “Let’s leave the speculation. It’s not about Hitler, Garibaldi and Churchill. We” – and by this she meant the movement of young people – “are against dictatorship and nationalism. They probably would have ruined Europe in any case – if not one way, then another.”

It’s about ideas

The heroine of the novel, Filo, has realized that – in the specific South Tyrolean case and in any utopia – it is not about persons (the better enlightened ruler) but about ideas (the better political system).
A united Europe is a political system that was a dream, a utopia, for many who looked at Europe’s physical and moral ruins after 1945. In the first postwar decades, this dream became partly a reality. As a child growing up in Luxembourg, I witnessed it, including the happiness and gratitude my father felt in rising more or less circuitously from a POW camp to the first generation of European civil servants. In 1989, when the ideological encrustations that were dividing Europe broke up, and in the years that followed, there was a new chance for Europe to become not only bigger, but also better, more coherent, and more value-oriented. This chance, too, has gradually faded away.

Realistic and empathetic utopia Europe

Today, in the face of enormous global challenges that exceed the capacity of nation states, it seems to me that the moment has come to rekindle the European utopia, enriched by our past experiences, including the experience that Europe must be decentralized in order to be democratically legitimate and tangible in its everyday benefits. A Europe of the regions, starting with the actually existing European region North Tyrol-South Tyrol-Trentino – this is the modest and, I hope, realistic utopia of The Other Branch.

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