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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 distinctiveness, a claim sustained by the Poles’ fervent faith in a universal church. Despite the ruthless efforts of German and Soviet occupiers to liquidate the Polish elite, impressive new leaders nevertheless emerged—Lech Walesa and Bronislaw Geremek are only two among many others.

But their struggle, which began with the birth of Solidarity in 1980, could not have succeeded without the emergence of a new Soviet leader, a relatively obscure apparatchik, who has embarked on a course so audacious, so radical, as to astonish the world. Gorbachev has been driven by the realization that the muchvaunted socialist economy was close to collapse, that in order to survive as a world power the Soviet Union would have to adopt radical changes at home, and allow an unprecedented degree of freedom in its empire. He realized as well that he needed not only an end to the cold war, to the economically stifling cost of military competition with the United States, he needed peace at his borders and help from the West.

The desire for freedom is contagious and during the last month or so the East Germans have achieved what no one thought possible: they have taken to the streets; they have intimidated an orthodox regime; and they have transformed the political climate of the German Democratic Republic. The mass exodus of East Germans this summer—made possible by Hungary’s decision to open its frontiers—shook the East German government. Not since 1848 have Germans appeared on the stage of history so spontaneously, so daringly, and—to all appearances—so successfully. But East Germany has not had the experience of years of struggle, as had occurred in Poland and Hungary, and no acknowledged leaders of its opposition have yet emerged. East Germans have lived under a Nazi or Communist dictatorship for fifty-six years; they were the ones who paid for the lost war, paid for it by deprivation and repression, by unrelieved drabness; they suffered while their rich cousins in the other Germany prospered. The German question, which began this century, is a dynamic issue at its end. Events may yet outrun the capacity of political leaders to give them direction. The world—and particularly the two Germanies—has been stunned by the spontaneity of this disciplined, nonviolent upsurge—a spontaneity that Rosa Luxemburg, murdered seventy years ago, had expected to occur in revolt against capitalism.

But the cunning of reason saw to it that simultaneously Western Europe emerged from a period of Eurosclerosis and Europessimism. It was not much noticed that in 1985 the twelve member countries of the European Community or, to put it differently, the eleven member countries and Mrs. Thatcher’s island, resolved to create a true common market by 1992; that they charged their commission in Brussels to plan for a new European Community, which by 1992 would be a region whose open frontiers, without border guards, would be the symbol of the free movement of people and goods, in a seemingly prosperous Europe heading toward even greater prosperity. I say “seemingly” because the living standards within the European communities are hugely divergent. Greece, Ireland, and Portugal are poor countries compared to France or the Federal Republic of Germany. But the emerging Europe of 1992, with its transnational mergers and its commitment to integration, has become a magnet for other countries. It was fortunate too to have found in Jacques Delors a leader who also has qualities of greatness, and is still not sufficiently known in the US, and who is transforming an audacious and complex scheme into reality.1

But what of the implicit threat of exclusion? Would the creation of a strengthened European Community condemn the East European countries, notably Poland and Hungary, to an impoverished orphan status—an economically deprived noman’s land between a declining Soviet Union and a walled-off half-continent of wealth and freedom and renewed vitality? Or, as may be more likely, will the development of the Eastern countries be increasingly financed by, and intermeshed with, the economies of the Common Market countries, particularly the Federal Republic of Germany? Or will the European Free Trade Area, including Sweden, Switzerland, and Austria, become enlarged?

In considering such questions, some historic paradoxes are worth noting: the Europe of 1992 is a manifestation of a declining nationalism, while the great events in Eastern Europe bespeak a revived national pride. The Germans, in both Germanies, partake of both: the desire for European integration and a reawakened, confused national consciousness, in which concerns about nuclear weapons and damage to the environment have been increasingly intense. The Europe of 1992, with its market-based economies, its plans for greater deregulation, is in the ascendancy, while Bolshevism is in self-avowed bankruptcy.

As we bury Bolshevism—because if it were to be reborn it would most likely be a repressive regime without ideological pretension—we should remember that Bolshevism was the Leninist-Russian distortion of Marxian socialism. But the unintended service that democratic socialism in Europe rendered to capitalism is incalculable: its organization and discipline, whether in France or Germany, forced unbridled capitalism to reform itself, to attempt to move from a variety of capitalism that even today Jacques Delors calls “savage capitalism” to a capitalism with decent regard for humane values. In the years between the two world wars Bolshevism split the working classes, thereby ensuring the survival of a traumatized but transformed capitalism that during the last forty years has shown remarkable resiliency and dynamism.

I believe that—unbeknown to themselves—Bolshevism and the USSR have one remaining secret weapon: to induce complacency in the United States, to make us think that because they failed we have succeeded or because they are sick we are healthy. I believe that we deserve to be measured not by the failure of a brutal system in a backward country but by our own standards, by the standards of the American political tradition that runs from the Founding Fathers to FDR and John F. Kennedy. It would be a travesty if we were to believe, as the State Department theorist Francis Fukuyama has been arguing, that history ends with us.

On the contrary, history has a new momentum. At the end of the century, after its unspeakably self-destructive civil wars, Europe faces a time of promise, yet Europeans understandably ask what kind of future they can build. Gorbachev gave a magnificently ambiguous answer when he spoke of “The Common House of Europe.” He may not have invented the term, but he gave it instant popularity. It is a term at once evocative and fuzzy, a metaphor that allows for a hundred benevolent and not-so-benevolent interpretations. As Gorbachev put it: “The continent has known more than its share of wars and tears. It has had enough.”

[Realizing] the common roots of such a multi-form but essentially common European civilization, I felt with growing acuteness the artificiality and temporariness of the bloc-to-bloc confrontation and the archaic nature of the “iron curtain”…. Europe is indeed a common home where geography and history have closely interwoven the destinies of dozens of countries and nations. Therefore, developing the metaphor, one may say: the home is common, that is true, but each family has its own apartment, and there are different entrances, too. 2

It is a brilliant metaphor, launched at precisely the right moment, giving voice to an unarticulated hope, a metaphor that combines obvious idealism with veiled self-interest. Implicit in the phrase is the hope for a Europe without antagonistic blocs. No wonder that it evoked an immediate response in many quarters.

I remember shortly after Gorbachev’s first use of the term, a cardinal of the Roman Church, at a papal seminar, recalling nostalgically the days when “Europe spoke with one voice.” Of course there is a common house of Europe. It is born of seemingly endless conflicts, of seemingly boundless strife for European hegemony among rival nations; and yet it is a Europe with national cultures that in thought and literature, in science and commerce, have been linked for many centuries. And there were genuinely good Europeans, like Nietzsche, who condemned the nationalism that seemed bent on destroying Europe.

There have been recurrent dreams of a united Europe—one thinks of De Gaulle’s “Europe from the Atlantic to the Urals.” The divided Germans have found Gorbachev’s metaphor particularly intriguing—and not only because of its poetic vagueness. They see a common house where they can move walls, bring down partitions; or to put it more correctly, they see within the possibility of a unifying Europe the prospect of overcoming their own division.

The West Germans are divided among and within themselves. They are elated by the changes within the German Democratic Republic and worried about the consequences. They are not uniformly happy about the influx of their longlost cousins. To provide housing for hundreds of thousands of immigrants is only the immediate problem. Some West Germans fear for their homes, fear the economic consequences of an immigration that gives each German newcomer automatic citizenship and all the entitlements of social security. Before the East German regime announced on November 9 that citizens could travel directly to West Germany, some West Germans said in private, “Thank God for the wall.” In public, some say they don’t want the sort of reunification that would be brought about by wholesale immigration from East Germany. The decision of November 9 (as this article went to press) to allow immigration, even through the wall, was an attempt to slow the flight. In this desperate and paradoxical situation a green light was thought to be a more effective discouragement than a red one. The Communist party—threatened with dissolution—adopted a policy of fuite en avance.

For the moment the government of the Federal Republic demands free elections in East Germany—in return for which there would be vast economic aid and of course the prospect of West German business establishing a strong presence in East Germany. What would a freely elected East German parliament propose, and what would the politically divided West Germans really want? There is, at least, some continuity in the confused situation: Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik already envisioned economic assistance and close relations with East Germany in return for more humane conditions.

Nor are the West Germans alone in their unease about sharing the bounty of the good life. I have heard it said that a Pole finds it harder to get an entry visa into France than an exit visa from Poland. Less than a month ago a high Soviet official said that all European nations, including East Germany, should find “comfortable quarters” in a common European house, “certainly a house with open doors and fresh air.”3 The common house will have common quarrels. But even the metaphor and the ideal it expresses already affect events. The strong unlikelihood that the Soviet Union would forcefully intervene in the states belonging to its eroding empire can be attributed in part to the Soviet desire not to affront the rest of Europe—a consideration that was negligible in earlier times. What the two Germanies need, and may not get, is a breathing space in which they can weigh their choices and consult with their respective allies.

But I also see in this evocation of a common house a subliminal message, a mischievous message. Implicitly it replaces the earlier term “the West,” with its clear connotation that the United States is a principal participant in that world, indeed for a long time the model of that world. The noble phrase “the Common House of Europe” has an anti-American ingredient. Gorbachev was quite explicit about it:

A serious threat is hovering over European culture too. The threat emanates from an onslaught of “mass culture” from across the Atlantic. We understand pretty well the concern of West European intellectuals. Indeed one can only wonder that a deep, profoundly intelligent and inherently humane European culture is retreating to the background before the primitive revelry of violence and pornography and the flood of cheap feelings and low thoughts.4

I won’t comment on the irony of Gorbachev’s celebration of an “inherently humane European culture,” but will simply say that such thoughts and resentments enjoy wide currency—among Church leaders and politicians, among Western intellectuals and Eastern populists. Obviously more than culture is at stake.

I have misgivings about this aspect of Europe’s common house—misgivings at once historical and political. Only the unhistorical could argue for American exclusion from this mythical house. Who in the last three hundred years discovered Europe, or even, on some occasions, saved it from itself? The Founding Fathers understood that there was a common European culture, an Enlightenment philosophy, from which they drew considerable inspiration. One thinks immediately of Locke and Montesquieu. But that generation also saw Europe as politically retrograde, as a common house of tyranny. In our century Americans understood the unity of European culture in many ways much better than the fratricidal Europeans themselves. For a fleeting but important moment in the 1930s and 1940s Europe’s culture found a home and refuge in America. And after the Second World War, it was the Marshall Plan that first mobilized European energies to achieve European integration; George Marshall made a measure of institutional cooperation among the countries of Western Europe the condition of our help, and out of that effort grew the first joint European venture, the Organization for European Economic Cooperation.5 But just because we preached European integration, paid for it in the beginning, and protected it for four decades, we should not expect Europeans to be grateful. Gratitude is all too rare among individuals; nations, to paraphrase Lord Palmerston, have no permanent friends, only permanent interests.

I would maintain, however, that it is in the interest both of the Europeans and of the Americans to cultivate our common links. These common links have to do with politics, with security, with trade, and with culture. With the West Europeans we share a liberal-democratic tradition, a concern for human rights, even as we know that our own record is imperfect. We share common cultural institutions, we need each other in the pursuit of science and technology. There are more American physicists at CERN, the European center for atomic research, than European physicists in the States. On the other hand very few European universities can compete with our best—a pride of place that imposes special fiscal responsibilities on our universities.

The absence of a common enemy—the conversion of the Soviet Union from strong foe to beggar friend—may intensify the economic conflicts between the Europe of 1992 and ourselves. It is more likely that the European house, even in its incomplete form in Brussels, will continue to be more inhospitable to the Japanese than to us. But differences are bound to arise. It is also clear that a unifying Europe will be more inward looking, just as Americans are becoming more inward looking, or more concerned with the Pacific rim, and somewhat more removed from the Atlantic-minded establishment of the past. The question is whether the estrangements and conflicts that are likely to occur will be exacerbated by age-old prejudices and new-fangled suspicions.

We have no reason to be alarmed by the revolutionary changes occurring in Europe; we might take heart from the evidence that there is a heroic hunger for a freer world; we should grasp the chance to construct a world that measures security not in numbers of missiles or atomic weapons but in limited armaments and limited defense budgets. It is inevitable that in times of such dramatic changes as are now occurring, new dangers arise as well. For the moment, the one thing that it seems safe to say is that there is no common house of Europe, and that we are a part of it.

November 9, 1989

  1. 1

    See Stanley Hoffmann’s essay, “The European Community and 1992,” Foreign Affairs, Fall 1989.

  2. 2

    Mikhail Gorbachev, Perestroika: New Thinking for Our Country and the World (Harper and Row, 1987), pp. 194–195.

  3. 3

    Valentin Falin, as quoted by John Tagliabue in The New York Times, October 3, 1989.

  4. 4

    Gorbachev, Perestroika, p. 208. On his ill-financed trip to Japan, former President Reagan echoed Mr. Gorbachev’s views. He welcomed Sony’s acquisition of Columbia Pictures because it might “bring back decency and good taste to American movies…. I am not too proud of Hollywood these days, with the immorality that is shown in the pictures and the vulgarity…. Maybe Hollywood needs some outsiders to bring decency.” (The New York Times, October 26, 1989.) It is odd for an ex-President to appeal to foreigners for moral rehabilitation, but, having done so, he could perhaps have asked for help in restoring political decency in America, in preventing the kinds of government scandals that have tarnished our civic life during the last eight years.

  5. 5

    For a vivid recollection of the period, see, Robert Marjolin, Memoirs, 1911–1985: Architect of European Unity (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1989).

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