The Times Literary Supplement, the European “Mood”

Sometimes it is frustrating for an American to look at Europe, or “Europe,” or the EU-as-Europe, and listen to European politicians. When the Yugoslavian civil war started in 1991 Jacques Poos, the Prime Minister of Luxembourg famously said “the hour of Europe has come.” Why did he say this, when everybody knew that there was no “Europe” which could respond to the crisis, there were just a bunch of doddering socialist countries, which had militaries which could not do the work of imposing peace, populated by people who could not tolerate the thought of sending their own sons to impose order at bayonet-point. Yet, he said it. This is how European politicians typically talk. Much of the talk by Villepin and Chirac, Schroeder and Fischer, in the last two years has been of a similar airy-fairy character. They want to speak of abstractions, where the Americans want to know how many tons of cargo and how many armed men they can deliver to a fighting front by air.

I will switch topics for a moment, but fear not, I’ll orbit back to what is wrong with the Europeans soon enough. I have friend whom I met through my brother in law. He is an older gentleman, retired, extremely well-read, with a large collection of books, and he shares my interest in economic and business history — though he is far more learned than I in the latter area. It is his practice to hand off to my brother in law a few times a year a stack of the weekly TLSs which have piled up in his apartment. This stack eventually makes its way to me. The TLS, for those not familiar with it, is a weekly, tabloid-format publication, which has high quality reviews, often by true experts, on current academic books. There is always something good in any issues of the TLS.

The other night I was engaged in the pleasant task of reading through this stack. I noticed that John Keegan had a review of a book by one Wolfgang Schivelbusch entitled The Culture of Defeat: On National Trauma, Mourning and Recovery. In the course of a faintly negative review, Keegan notes that “It is not surprising that a book on the moral and social consequences of defeat should be the work of a German.” Keegan then notes that, counting Napoleon’s conquest of Prussia in 1806, “Germany suffered shattering defeat three times in 150 years.” He then gives a very brief sketch of the military and political responses to these defeats, noting that “in 1945 Germany renounced militarism for a consensual and legalistic internationalism” though perhaps “without abandoning its national aim of dominating Europe, if by non-military means.” Keegan then observes of his own historical summary:

This is a highly pragmatic, English retrospective of modern German history. Wolfgang Schivelbush, being a German intellectual, is not pragmatic. Where the English would look for material reactions to defeat — constitutional change, military reorganization, economic adaptation — he seeks to discern the influence of ideas, movements, myth. To him collective mood is a more significant indicator of the state of a nation than collective activity, shared perception more meaningful than shared programme.

This German intellectual “anti-pragmatism” has a first cousin in the French approach to public affairs, which will famously reject observable facts as being not possible in theory. This presents a problem for Americans. We are, like Keegan’s prototypical “Englishman,” are interested in concrete, measurable things. The EU is somehow, to the European elite, much more than its observable features, its bureaucratic rules and procedures. It is an idea which is somehow better and more important than anything which it actually is or does.

Timothy Garton Ash put it very well, in an older (1996) but still valuable speech entitled “Is Europe Becoming Europe?”:

I refer of course to “Europe” as an idea and an ideal, a dream, a vision, a grand design. To those idealistic and teleological visions of Europe as project, process, progress towards some finalitĂ© europĂ©en: visions and ideas which at once inform and legitimate, and are themselves informed and legitimated by, the political development of something now called the European Union. And of course, the very name “European Union” is itself a product of this approach. A Union is what it’s meant to be, not what it is.

This idea of Europe is part of a “shared mood” which Keegan refers to. Recent American conduct is offensive to that mood. The substantively meaningless Kyoto Accord is similar. It was not capable of being enacted into law, let alone put into operation or enforced. It was part of a certain mood of feigned seriousness about “climate change.” Bush’s unapologetic rejection of the thing has driven many people to distraction. He broke the mood. They want to play make believe, while Bush and his team think there are more urgent matters at stake. That is unfortunate, but it is not going to change any time soon, if Bush is reelected.

(I see also in the TLS that a new translation has appeared of Ernst Junger’s Storm of Steel (trans. Michael Hoffman). This astonishing book must be read if one is to make any sense of what happened in the 20th Century. Perhaps I’ll elaborate on this at some point.)

15 thoughts on “The Times Literary Supplement, the European “Mood””

  1. If one could have asked an American colonist whether he/she was an American first or a Virgian first, my guess is that the answer would have been Virginian. This was true up through the Civil War at least. This is where Europeans are now.

    Given time, a common language (English?), I think the federal Europe will emerge.

  2. Interesting post.

    I confess I don’t understand objections to ideals, dreams, visions and so on. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the bare ideal of pooling one’s sovereignty in order to achieve peace and common strength. Isn’t this the vision which inspired Hamilton, Jay and Madison?

    Moreover, there’s nothing particularly bad about an interpretation of history in terms of ideas, movements and myths. Menand’s “The Metaphysical Club” is a case in point, since it shows how the idea of pragmatism evolved from new ideas in evolutionary biology, statistics, and the tension between labor and big business. If one’s interpretation of history is limited to the influence of ideas though, it’s clear one will be guilty of a narrow view. The importance of significant events such as constitutional change, and even significant individuals, is an important part of historiography. Surely the wise thing is to strike a balance between the two?

    Perhaps your post might explain better whether you’re frustrated by the idea and dream of Europe, or by the fact that European politicians pay lip-service to the ideal without actually getting things done.

    They certainly do pay lip-service to the ideal, but one can hardly claim that nothing gets done. Europe has moved from an organisation of six countries agreeing tariffs on coal and steel in 1956, to a free trade organisation of twenty-five countries, equipped with a court, common trade policy, and extremely high standards of individual rights and liberty. Some of the policies are misguided, others just crazy, and yet more are merely talked about by politicians anxious for domestic credibility, but for all that, things unquestionably get done.

    In addition, I’m doubtful whether one can move directly from Schivelbush’s faults as an academic to a grand explanatory theory that Europe suffers from rampant Cartesianism resulting in a mood of make believe. There is such a thing as taking reductionism too far.

    Just my two cents.

  3. “If one could have asked an American colonist whether he/she was an American first or a Virgian first, my guess is that the answer would have been Virginian. This was true up through the Civil War at least.”

    600,000 had to die to make that happen, and while the North and the South certainly had different ideas and customs (the least of which was slavery) on trade, money, culture and what form government should take, they at least shared a common language and roughly common ancestry.

    The EU is going in one of two directions: disintigration or fascism (although they certainly won’t call it that). The EU constitution far from mirroring the simple declarative, general rules of the US document, is basically hundreds of pages of conflicting regulations and peculiar rantings. It is a rule book not a constitution.

    The EU is going to be ugly one way or the other. The only question is : is a giant pasifistic fascist nation a danger to the world or only to it’s own citizens?

  4. your article is thoughtful, it took the last world war to propel the USA into a superpower, a country of 275 million having suffered about 350 thousand dead in world war two. A country like Germany now with 82 million, lost some 8 million of its citizens, and then excepted 8 million foreign workers its estranged eastern countrymen becaming another 20 million yearning to be reabsorbed for the fruits of the West. Could the USA today with its 275 million support and incorporate 25 million mexicans for example. Seems that a more profound look at the psychology of defeat and consequences should be re-examined; for example the former american confederacy and the mentality of outside in.

  5. in closing lets not forget that the USA has boutiful resources, bountiful land, and is not contstrained by its neighbors to thrive and expand and dictate its wishes; unlike a country like Germany that needs to GET ALONG to survive, and is the exact opposite now of its past, and by the way Germany is about the size of one average American state.

  6. Interesting. It chimes with a feeling I’ve had for some time that an increasing number of people here in the UK (primarily, but not exclusively among the “left intellectuals”) are becoming absorbed with “mood” or “correct form” and viewing real-world outcomes as secondary, if that. Is Britain beginning to abandon pragmatism (which has always been important to the British left, e.g. Fabians as against Continental marxists) for postmodernity?
    Certainly the BBC and some other media (Guardian, Independent) seem increasingly to act as if there is one set of “correct” views, to which all educated, civilised folk should subscribe.
    So Bush/Republican contraventions of these norms mark them as “barbarians” (whereas Clinton might contravene them, but at least he “felt your pain” over it).

    I think, though, that this is unlikely to become as general a worldview in Britain as it has, in particular, in Germany. (Incidentally, German blogger Hans Zee Beeman’s Cum Grano Salis is enlightening on German attitutes.)
    I also suspect that French governments often use German susceptibility on “mood” to pursue their own self-interest, rather than any conviction on their part. I think this may be very important. This idealistic worldview is very prominent in Germany, as is an elevation of Europe over nation.

    Elsewhere, the moderate left may endorse the “mood”, but it is far less a motivating force than political expedience, and the EU less the German “escape from history” and more a comfortable, familiar and everyday affair.

    By comparison, the UK continues to be far more suspicious of both viewpoints (see UK opinion polls re EU constitution; IIRC about 60% are against in principle, still more against present proposals.)

  7. John Farren,

    “Certainly the BBC and some other media (Guardian, Independent) seem increasingly to act as if there is one set of “correct” views, to which all educated, civilised folk should subscribe.”

    I believe this is why organizations like the Le Pen’s Front National and the UK’s British National Party are gaining followers. If you don’t allow everyone a voice, freedom to speak, it will eventually rise up and bite you in the ass in very nasty ways.

  8. I do share the perception! that theoretical idealism is still more important that efficient pragmatism in, well, certainly Germany. In fact, I’ve written on that matter myself in the last week (

    But there is a difference between a philosphical approach and political symbolism. Of course, Europe is an idea, as well as a political symbol, and shared perception is often a necessary requirement for a shared programme if there are veto players.

    Europe as a polity may have a different policy style and a different political rethoric than the US (well, the “evil” part of the US, the one that is currently running the country). But rethoric aside, I think most people will be astonished by the cold pragmatism that is necessary to keep the idea afloat. Much more of this will be needed in the near future.

    Quite to the contrary I think that much of the current US administration’s policy was more about symboliy acts of “shared perception” than policy pragmatism – including the rethoric on the “War on Terror” and the war in Iraq. It is hardly possible to claim that the American attempt was driven all the way to Baghdad by a rational calculation of risks and possible rewards. In fact, it was driven by a shared perception that amounted to some kind of idealism, don’t you think?

  9. “In fact, it was driven by a shared perception that amounted to some kind of idealism, don’t you think?”

    I actually believe what Bush says about it. He thinks that we can reform Iraq, which will transform the region, which will reduce the threat of Islamic/Arab terrorism in the long run. Bush does tend to say what he really means. It is weird for a politician, and it takes some getting used to. So, no, I think it really was a concrete, policy-based initiative to invade Iraq — just one which is extremely ambitious and, unusually, serious about addressing “root causes”.

  10. >I actually believe what Bush says about it.

    Well, if that is not idealism, what is?

    In my book, if something walks like a duck, and talks like a duck, there’s a pretty good chance it’s actually a duck. And I hope you don’t mind that I express my hope it also becomes a lame duck in November.

  11. Well, if that is not idealism, what is?,

    You’re right, Tobias, it is idealism. But it’s a practical application of idealism, not simply rhetoric.

    Who can deny that the roots of Middle Eastern jihadism lie in political repression? Unless, of course, you’ve swallowed the “It’s all the joooooz fault!” canard.

    Time will tell if our policy in Iraq is successful. Much relies in our ability to learn how to midwife the birth of a free nation.

  12. Michael,

    >Who can deny that the roots of Middle Eastern >jihadism lie in political repression? Unless, >of course, you’ve swallowed the “It’s all the >joooooz fault!” canard.

    I think political repression is one reason for jihadism. But there’s clearly a lot of other reasons like growing alphabetization, demographic change and lack of economic prospects, and, also the Middle East Conflict.

    I think it would be fair to say that most people agree on the origins of the problem, while they do not agree on the risks associated and thus the measures needed.

    Idealistically, there’s some merit to the neo-conservative “shake it to shape it” – approach. Practically, I’m afraid, it’s very likely not going to work and might actually soon wear off as a semi-credible cover for strategic interests.

  13. Wow… great initial post, as well as very interesting contributions on the thread!!!

    DaveVH, “The Metaphysical Club” isn’t nearly as interesting an account of the movement as a C.S. Peirce biography (there’s only a couple, and owning to Harvard’s continued refusal to allow full access to it’s Peirce collection even those are incomplete).

    “The Fixation of Belief” was (I believe) written initially in French, not English. “How to Make our Ideas Clear” is a response to the Cartesian problem. Regarding Hegel, as well as much of the confusion that is current in certain popular philosophy in France and Germany today, see:

    Tobias… In philosophy and physics departments in both Germany (EU) and the US, I suspect that you are correct that theoretical Idealism is more important than Classic Pragmatism. That said, considering Germany’s deserved fame for engineering, it’s safe to assume that German (and Austrian and French and Polish) engineers and logicians don’t share that particular vice (certainly Godel didn’t). In as much as Newton/Bacon’s “experimental philosophy” relies on a method that’s easy to confuse with Idealism, it’s a common error to mistake the temporary and qualified axioms of the one with conclusive and necessary “truth” derived from the other.

    John Farren… I’ve just finished reading B.H. Liddle Hart’s biography on Sherman (the arch-Realist), and it strikes me that there’s nothing that’s more dependable than the British establishment’s (Oxbridge) tendency to take the national habits of understatement and/or academic faction to absurd extremes. Russell was a fine thinker, but it’s worth noting that he certainly isn’t even among the top five British contributors to the field of Logic (errrr… Scotus, Ockham, Boole, Von Neumann, R. Bacon, F. Bacon, Mill… etc.). Furthermore, some might find Russell’s brand of Secular Humanism hard to stomach considering Thomas More was canonized (“Why I’m not a Christian, but am nevertheless pitching the exact same Humanist creed as an English Catholic martyr, current patron Saint of Writers, and author of the satire, ‘Utopia'”… might have been a more apropos title).

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