About the European House

No better moment to introduce Hans Magnus Enzensberger’s book to an English-speaking public could have been found than the summer of 1989. This is turning out to be one of the big European years. It is not one of those moments when great powers reshuffle the Continent, as they did in 1919 and in 1945. This year, in contrast, counts among those rarer occasions when the peoples of Europe try to do the reshuffling themselves. If we take 1989 as the title year for a period of upheaval which began before it and will certainly extend beyond it, then “1989” will change more and for a longer time than the events of 1968, and quite possibly more than those of 1848.

The post-1945 settlement is being undone. The soldiers—grandsons of the American and Russian and British soldiers who first moved into those captured Nazi barracks—are starting to go home. The tanks are loaded onto long flatcars, heading east so far but soon west as well. The rockets are being detached from their warheads and scrapped. Above all, the huge, flat stone of Soviet power is being lifted off Eastern and Central Europe, and upon the bare space of earth underneath every kind of wriggling, sprouting, authentic life is starting to appear. The other day I was at what used to be the most iron of curtains—the Polish–Soviet frontier—and heard about the traffic springing up at the reopened crossing-points. Meat and cosmetics and even bread were going one way, while Soviet television sets bought for half the Polish prices in Grodno were being dragged back in the other direction: the “kleine Grenzverkehr” resuming its natural flow. And, not many miles away, Poland was fighting the first half-free election campaign in forty-two years. Official and unofficial Hungarian trade unionists were colliding at Lech Walesa’s door, while a Polish-American baby-powder heiress prepared to save the Lenin Shipyard from unemployment and bankruptcy.

With all this change and liberation come the slogans to advertise them, many of which are misleading. There is praise for the revival of “Central Europe,” often in terms that suggest that Germany has been towed off to some other hemisphere. There is rhetoric about restoring the “unity” of Europe—which has never known anything like political union except through the efforts of Napoleon and Hitler. There is much winning, Gorbachevian rhetoric about “our common European house,” but that phrase has been riddled now by every kind of satirical allusion to houses with upstairs/downstairs compartments or to those residents who have the best bedrooms as opposed to those who have to sleep in the corridors where they get trodden upon. Most annoying of all, there are civic speeches of welcome for the return of “European civilization.”

To all of the slogans, I find Hans Magnus Enzensberger’s reflections a fine corrective. He is alert and unforgiving. His own continent is not a comfortable or reassuring place: if Europe talks big about its achievements, then …

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