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Snakes in Iceland

One Europe: The Historic Background of European Unity

by René Albrecht-Carrié
Doubleday, 360 pp., $5.95

Decline and Rise of Europe

by John Lukacs
Doubleday, 295 pp., $4.95

Europe is a peninsula at the western end of the land mass which we call the Old World. Its climate is, for the most part, fertile. Over many centuries, various Asiatic tribes wandered into Europe. Finding it agreeable, they settled down. In any case, the Atlantic prevented them from going any further until a few hundred years ago. Large parts of Europe have been civilized (whatever that may mean) for a very long time, though with ups and downs. This civilization has many special characteristics. All Europeans are pinkish in color. Virtually all, except the Jews, profess some form or other of the Christian religion. Urban life predominates. Europeans have been mechanically gifted, at any rate in recent centuries. They have discovered how to grow rich and have now passed on their secrets to the rest of the world.

They have also developed special ideas. They believe, for instance, in Progress. They expect everything to get better all the time. For them, History is a record of improvement, not a mere record of events. They attach some importance to the Individual, an idea which has broadened into various forms of Democracy, Freedom, and even Socialism. The rest of the world has followed their example in ideas also. Wherever you may be, you have only to look out of your hotel window, and you will see people dressed like Europeans, behaving like Europeans, thinking like Europeans. Abyssinia might perhaps claim to have a non-European form of government. Some monks in Tibet would like to spin their prayer-wheels if they were allowed to, and no doubt there are still a few head-hunters in Borneo. These are trivial exceptions of no account. The entire population of the world, as near as makes no difference, sings the refrain: “We are all Europeans nowadays.” A delightful prospect, one might suppose, for the originators of the whole performance. What could be more flattering than universal imitation?

Yet Europeans are not gay. Or more precisely, those who write about Europe are not gay. The silly inhabitants are given over to worldly pleasures, driving around in their automobiles when they are not watching television. With one accord, the social scientists rebuke them. Europeans, it seems, ought to be weighed down with gloom. They should lament the vanished days when they alone knew the tricks and when they were superior in wealth, power, and confidence to the rest of mankind. They should feel guilty at throwing away their birth-right—a famous old record played, for instance, to exhaustion by Churchill when the British were very sensibly handing India to the brown Britons. What is the cause of this dreadful decay? Europeans are lazy, corrupted by easy living, indifferent to their Imperial past. They do not work hard enough. They spend their money on personal pleasures instead of on economic growth—though no one in his senses would want to go on growing for ever. Worst of all, the Europeans will not unite. They insist on living in separate countries and thinking of themselves as separate peoples, when they ought to be rallying to the defense of their European civilization against the other continents.

The charge is true: Europeans do not unite and never have. Most civilizations—Egypt and China, for example—came early under a single political head and fought wars principally against invaders from outside. Europe has never been in a single state, at any rate since the end of the Roman empire, and that was a long time ago. The history of Europe is largely a history of wars between states and, when this was not enough, Europeans threw in rival religious creeds or rival political systems in order to have more to quarrel about. I am not much a believer in the doctrine that what happened in the past will also happen in the future, and I therefore doubt whether we can learn anything from history, except to understand the past better. But if ever history has a lesson, European disunity is surely it. This is sad for men who advocate European unity and who yet, for professional or other reasons, wish to derive consoling lessons from history. A history of European unity, if written without preconceptions, would resemble Dr. Johnson’s favorite chapter. This was entitled: “Chapter XXI. Snakes in Iceland,” and read: “There are no snakes in Iceland.” A book of this length would not sell for $5.95 or even for $4.95 (what strange prices American publishers hit on). The only thing to do is to admit that there was some lack of unity in Europe and then to concentrate on the forces which were supposedly pulling the other way.

This is what Mr. Albrecht-Carrié has done. His book is the more historical of the two under notice. He starts off with the Reformation and goes on to discuss the disruptive effect of the French revolution. The main part of his book is a history of Europe since 1815. In the nineteenth century nationalism pulled Europeans further apart and even broke up some existing states. On the other hand, economic developments gave Europe an increasingly common pattern, and the ideas which sprang from economics, both Free Trade and Socialism, were unifying forces. The Great Powers discovered means of avoiding their worst quarrels. They preached the Concert of Europe and practiced the Balance of Power. In the twentieth century these checks broke down. Germany threatened to overshadow the other states of Europe, and they united, at any rate in a negative way, to resist German domination. Since then, apparently, there has also been a Russian bid to control Europe, and this too has been thwarted, though without a war—so far. There is not much wrong with the narrative, though it hardly sustains the conclusions which are drawn from it. If a man takes a pledge of total abstinence from alcoholic liquor every New Year’s Day and then is invariably found drinking beer a few weeks later, even his best friends in time recognize that his good resolution is not likely to be kept. So, too, it seems with the European peoples. They may parade their devotion to Christendom, the Concert of Europe, the League of Nations, or the European idea. In practice they think of themselves as Germans, French, or Italians, and feel loyalty only to their national states.

Mr. Lukacs goes over rather different ground. He too laments the decline of Europe from its high estate and points to the attempts at unity which are now being made. But he is franker than Mr. Albrecht-Carrié in admitting that the past has usually not gone his way, indeed has often gone in the opposite direction. With scholarly loyalty, he shows that the concept of Europe developed later in the day, and even then as an abstract idea among intellectuals. Europe was a convenient title to put under a map, not the name of a real place. The idea of being a European was later still, only provoked by contact with the rest of the world. In a last personal chapter Mr. Lukacs reveals that he himself became a conscious European only when he moved from Hungary to the United States, and an old-world European is tempted to remark that in his exuberant cleverness, which froths over into long footnotes, Mr. Lukacs is very Hungarian still. At any rate, his experience tells much about the European idea. Europe is much more obvious as a single place and Europeans are more obvious as the same sort of people when viewed across the Atlantic. No doubt all the inhabitants of the world look the same when viewed from the Moon. All sheep look alike to us, and probably we all look alike to sheep.

Both authors have one thing in common: they cannot make up their minds what Europe is composed of. They write in terms of European civilization, which is indeed the only uniting thing they could write about. But when they come to the political record, they have to acknowledge that Russia and England, in their different ways, do not fit into the European generalizations. They therefore suggest that both Russia and England, in their different ways, do not fit into the European generalizations. They therefore suggest that both Russia and England are a great nuisance or perhaps not really European at all. Mr. Lukacs is the more outspokenly anti-Russian. In fact he gets near to saying that Russia is an alien and dangerous force. He is not much more enthusiastic about England, only a little more charitable. This really will not do. Of course the concept of European civilization is so vague that you can juggle almost anyone outside it if you try hard enough. Propagandists demonstrated this about Germany in both World wars. Before that, the British demonstrated that Napoleon was an ogre, and the French demonstrated that the British had no European feelings.

However, on any reasonable test, the exclusion of either Russia or England from Europe is a nonsense. English writers were European from Shakespeare to Shaw. So were Russian writers from Pushkin to Pasternak. The one cultural frontier which precisely defines Europe is the major and minor diatonic scale, and this frontier embraces Russia and England. Their musicians have some national touches, as for that matter German and French musicians have. But Elgar and Britten, Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky, are unmistakably Europeans. The motive for this proposed exclusion is of course political. No one minds the British constitution, but our two authors, like many writers in the West, want to make out that Soviet Communism has no connection with Europe. This is indefensible historically. There are strong Communist parties in most European countries, except paradoxically in England. Quite apart from this, Communism is essentially a European idea, none more so. It originated with Karl Marx, a man of high European culture, who thought in purely European terms. It was developed by Lenin, a man who lived much of his life outside Russia and whose motive of action was international socialism, not any Russian spirit. The Soviets were invented in Paris—by the Commune. The dictatorship of the proletariat was the common stock of nineteenth-century revolutionaries. Marxism is in fact a purely European religion, which is more than can be said for Christianity. If it has now spread outside Europe, this is because other peoples have become Europeanized, not because of any non-European appeal in it.

It is true that Russia and England have both stood somewhat apart from Europe politically and have sometimes even had the good fortune to keep clear of its turmoils. Europe has been mainly a nuisance to them, from William the Conqueror to Hitler, and they have been happiest when they could turn their backs on Europe—a decisive argument incidentally against the view that Soviet Russia now wants to dominate Europe. But this is an accident of geography and does not mean that Russia or England are any the less European. I can think of no point at which either of them deviates from the European pattern, except that the Russians take their dinner at three o’clock and that Englishmen eat a cooked breakfast—or used to. At any rate, any project which leaves out Russia and England flies in the face of history and will not be a European project, whatever else it may be.

The record of the past is discouraging for those who want a united Europe. This does not mean that their wishes are necessarily wrong or that they will not be fulfilled. Men sometimes behave in new ways, though this is disturbing for historians. It is possible, for example, that the Europeans have had enough of war. This would certainly be going against history. War has been among the most characteristic of European institutions. Churches and schools have extolled it. Society has been built round it. According to the German historian Sombart, “war created the modern state,” and he added that war largely created capitalism also. Without war, Europeans would probably be still living in the middle ages. If Europeans now give up war, this will be a rational decision, and eminently sensible: war has become too destructive. It will not be a peculiarly European decision. Most other peoples want to give up war, and for the same reason. In fact, a European renunciation of war will be a sign that Europeans are becoming less European and are becoming, say, more like Indians.

Europeans may also accept a measure of cooperation for economic reasons. This, too, will be a sensible rational decision which will have nothing to do with a European consciousness. It will simply be a device for becoming even richer than they are already. What is more, the cooperation will still be between sovereign states who will think primarily of their own interests—or so experience tells us so far. The Common Market rests on voluntary agreements between its members, just as one businessman makes a deal with another. The Russians, too, have discovered that Communism does not make the Czechs or the Poles any less determined to assert their national interests. As a matter of fact, economics cannot be relied on to produce unity of themselves. As countries grow richer, they become less dependent on others, and the ultimate outcome of modern science may well be national self-sufficiency, not a single continent, still less a single world.

There remains the greatest unifying force: a common danger. Europeans have united against the threat of a single dominant Power, either France or Germany, and when no such threat existed, one has sometimes been invented, as has happened recently with Soviet Russia. The most unifying force is the danger from without. Europeans united, to some extent, in the Crusades, and the only army which ever assembled contingents from all the Great Powers was the expeditionary force which went to the rescue of Peking at the time of the Boxer rising. Does any such danger exist now, to the point of bringing the states of Europe together? Soviet Russia has turned out to be a hobgoblin, which no one believes in any more except for a few writers in the United States. China is sometimes offered as an alternative peril. I do not think that this horse will run. The Chinese may be a nuisance to European interests in the Far East, though even this is exaggerated, as the prosperity of Hong Kong bears witness. But no one expects to see Chinese armies in Europe. The best hope would be the American peril, but it is a non-starter also. Of course there is plenty of American influence in Europe. But this is because the Americans are even more Europeanized than the Europeans themselves, and the European wants to catch up. Even if the Chinese were to become a danger, this would only be when they had turned themselves into Europeans.

In short, Europe is in no peril. On the contrary, Europe has conquered the world. Take a decisive test: all the world has adopted the European religion. This is no longer Christianity. It is the worship of the automobile. We sacrifice more lives to it every year than ever the most foul paganism sacrificed to idols. We tear down our historic cities for its sake. We allow it to poison the atmosphere. We persecute pedestrians off the streets. Soon there will be no country left—only roads. Yet people all over the world clamor to follow our example. When Khrushchev, for example, proposed that private motoring should be restrained, he was immediately flung from power—at least this is as good an explanation as any other guess by a Kremlinologist. There is not a country in the world where a party could win an election with the cry: “Forbid all automobiles.” Until that happens, Europe is safe. Europe’s past may be a messy business. The future is all European.


Snakes in Iceland April 22, 1965

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