What Is Europe?

The following paper was given at the meeting in Budapest discussed in Timothy Garton Ash’s article.

The two subjects I want to deal with are: What is culture? What is Europe? It is preposterously ambitious, but nevertheless I shall try to give a few partial answers.

Let me start with a simple historical observation: During the past three decades, Europe has not been part of the preoccupations of the French intelligentsia; in the Fifties, Sixties, and Seventies, the concept of Europe did not at all attract the attention of intellectuals; Europe was identified with the Common Market and as such it was the province of the politicians, experts, and technocrats. The intelligentsia or at least its most influential part could not care less.

Why such indifference? For two historical reasons, I think: Hitler and the process of decolonization. Hitler, as we all know, was moved by the idea of building a new European order. His intention was to preserve the ethnic, the Aryan integrity of Europe from the poisonous blood of the Jews and other barbarians. By nearly achieving this goal, he discredited the very idea of Europe in the eyes of the intellectuals who witnessed his crimes and survived his fall.

There is a very revealing passage in “What is Literature?”, the essay written by Jean-Paul Sartre in 1947, in which he says that after the war (under the shock of the war) neutral words like “collaboration” or “Europe” became derogatory, and even taboo. In “Europe,” Sartre says, “you can hear the sound of the boots of Nazi-Germany.” The word “Europe,” he wrote, “used to refer to the geographic, economic and historic unity of the old continent. Today it conveys an odor of servitude and Germanism.”

On behalf of ethnic Europe, Hitler wanted to destroy the humanistic tradition of Europe. He did not succeed completely but, paradoxically enough, he distracted a number of intellectuals from this tradition by making the very word “Europe” sound aggressive, racist, and dangerous.

This tendency was aggravated by the process of decolonization. When third world countries started to struggle for their independence, they portrayed Europe as an imperialist force, whose humanism was just a cover for arrogance and the will to power. So, from that point of view, when you wanted to take the side of the poor and oppressed you had to stand against Europe. There was a divorce between the left and Europe, because in the international class struggle, Europe was just another name for oppression.

Here lies, I think, the root of the misunderstanding between French and, more generally, West European intellectuals on the one hand, and intellectuals who have to live under Soviet rule on the other. The repression of the Hungarian revolution in 1956 and the invasion of Prague in 1968 were denounced in Western Europe, but the Czechs and the Hungarians were not supported as Europeans, claiming their European identity: they were supported as oppressed people, victims of totalitarianism. At that time, these two notions of “European …

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