Heeding the Times from Harry Antonides' Desk

Buck up, Europe

 August, 16, 2010


Europe is not aging gracefully. More than half a century after it began taking the steps that eventually resulted in the European union, it is at best a vast market without a consistent military or political personality – and one that matters less and less  in world affairs. Henry Kissinger’s old witticism about Europe’s having no phone number is more relevant than ever. What happened? (Pascal Bruckner, “Europe’s Guilty Conscience: Self-hatred is paralyzing the Continent,” City Journal, Summer 2010)  

With these provocative lines, Pascal Bruckner, French writer and philosopher, began his analysis of what ails the sick European giant. But he did not write, as many now do, with denunciation and contempt, but more like a caring doctor who treats his patients with respect and professional excellence. (The following is a summary of Bruckner’s article.)  

Bruckner cites a number of factors that have laid Europe low, such as nationalist egoism, predominance of the two major founders, France and Germany, etc. But more than any of these reasons, he thinks that since the end of World War II, “Europe has been tormented by a need to repent.”  

That felt need to repent of past sins (slavery, imperialism, fascism, communism) has morphed into a destructive self-loathing, which explains, e.g., that the majority of Europeans felt that on 9/11, the Americans got what they deserved. The same attitude emerged at the time of the Madrid and London attacks in 2004 and 2005. 

Europe is a Paradox

Bruckner admits that Europe has engendered monsters, but at the same time it has made it possible to slay monsters. European history is a succession of paradoxes. Take colonialism: insofar as the colonial powers introduced the subject colonies to the laws of the mother country, they also taught them the idea of a nation’s right to govern itself. 

He reminds us that modern Europe was not begun with hopeful enthusiasm but with a “weariness of slaughter,” imprinted in the memory of Verdun and Auschwitz. Europeans want to escape the furies of our age and confine themselves to the administration of economic and social matters.  Europe is a sorrow that, he predicts, will soon amount to little except “the residue of abandoned dreams.”  

He writes that a “civilization  responsible for the worst  atrocities as well as the most sublime  accomplishments  cannot understand itself  solely in terms of guilt…. We now live on self-denunciation… as if our only duty were expiation, endless expiation.”  

Bruckner thinks that the passing on of a collective guilt from generation to generation is insidious, because contrition cannot define a political order.  He writes that history is not divided between evil nations and angelic ones but “between democracies, which recognize their faults, and dictatorships, which drape themselves in the robes of martyrs.” 

 Europe is a mixture of the good and the bad. It is the Holocaust, but also the destruction of Nazism; the Gulag, but also the fall of the wall…. In the end, freedom prevailed over oppression, which is why life is better in Europe than on many other continents. 

Europe no longer believes in evil but only in misunderstandings to be resolved by discussion and dialogue.  She no longer has enemies but only partners. If she is nice to extremists, she thinks, they will be nice to her, and she will be able to disarm their aggressiveness and soften them up…. [W]e have no armies that would be able to defend our frontiers if we were so unlucky as to be attacked; after the Haitian crisis, Brussels could not dispatch even a few thousand men to help disaster victims.  

Peace at Any Price?

Bruckner asserts that in its worst moments, Europe seeks peace at any price, even what Saint Thomas Aquinas called a bad peace – “one that consecrates injustice, arbitrary power, and terror, a detestable peace heavy with vicious consequences.” It is selfish in being content only with its own freedom. It is willing to live with a bad conscience because that is less burdensome than to assume responsibility. 

 In practice, that means that we are satisfied with tranquil impotence, preferring to live “in a peaceful hell.” We are willing to accept blame for old crimes so as to escape responsibility for current ones. But warns Bruckner, by preferring injustice to disorder, “the Old World risks being swept away by chaos, the victim of renunciation mistaken for wisdom.” 

Bruckner concludes by holding up the prospect that Europe is made over into a continental Switzerland, that is, a peaceful, neutral, self-indulgent island in the midst of a chaotic and turbulent world. He concludes:  

In that case, our continent, aging and in decline, would be reduced  to a high-class sanatorium – ready to be dismembered  piece by piece  by all predators and to renounce its freedom  just to gain a little more  quiet and comfort. 

This hard-hitting and honest analysis of the sickness of Europe is at once deeply disturbing yet encouraging that such a voice is still heard “from under the rubble.”  It deserves the widest possible distribution.      

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