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 finalité européen: 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.)