The Common House of Europe

for Bronislaw Geremek

Since the unread Hegel is popular these days, I use his terminology to say that the “world spirit” has once again found a temporary home in Europe—or, to put it more prosaically, Europe is in the throes of a world-historical upheaval. During the last three months revolutionary changes have been sweeping across Europe, mostly Eastern and Central Europe, with an intensity and a momentum that no one had been able to foresee. We are in the midst of a transformation. We are able to recognize individual events, staggering as these are, but it is much harder to detect the connections between these events.

Yet I would maintain that great historic upheavals are the result of conjunctions, when several and seemingly self-contained processes emerge, distort, and reinforce one another; and these processes—what modern historians often call the great anonymous forces of history—usually find representative figures or leaders. All of this is happening in Europe today, destroying old orthodoxies, old certainties, and leaving Europe with new hopes, new visions, and the sense that the future is blessedly, dangerously, open. Perhaps the greatest change as well as the greatest uncertainty is that I can talk of Europe as if it existed or might again exist, as if its great political and ideological divisions were disappearing.

My contention about the sometimes invisible conjunction of events is easy enough to demonstrate from the past. Consider the Reformation, when Europe’s relative unity broke down with the emergence of great national monarchies in Spain, France, and England, and when an obscure German monk nailing ninety-five theses to a church door could challenge the universal faith, and call men and women to martyrdom in order to reform a luxuriously declining universal church. We see the connections with hindsight; as Kierkegaard said, “Life is lived forward and understood backward”—if it is understood at all.

The recent immense changes in Europe are by now familiar; I merely wish to identify them and suggest some possible connections among them. Revolutionary events have shaken Poland and Hungary; Poland, in a great national upsurge, demanded freedom; Poles sought to reclaim their historic heritage as part of Europe. They succeeded—or have succeeded so far—in peacefully overthrowing forty years of Communist rule, in part because of the country’s economic disaster. The coincidence of economic bankruptcy and the yearning for freedom recalls Mirabeau’s declaration on the eve of the French Revolution: “The nation’s deficit is the nation’s treasure.” This, I might add, applies only to countries in simultaneous need of political and economic reform. It does not apply to Reaganite countries that create deficits in order to postpone painful reforms—and it certainly does not apply to deficit-threatened universities. But it applies to Poland, to Hungary, to the USSR, and to East Germany.

Even in these long-term processes there are names to be recorded: there was the election of a Polish pope who by his very existence exemplified Poland’s claim to …

This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $94.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.

One-Week Access — $4.99

Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.