An italian filmmaker friend tells me that Europe is in a coma, and this seems accurate. We Europeans lie around unconvalescent, to coin a word, not quite conscious of what’s going on. Ominous shapes appear through a mist, but we are led to believe they aren’t that threatening. We have become accustomed to the worst never quite happening. But what would the worst be if it occurred? We’ve had financial collapse; in many countries, mass unemployment, not seen on such a scale since the 1930s, appears permanent. We are talking now about the least of the worst outcomes—anything, indeed, short of the very worst. Willy-nilly, we Europeans are becoming experts in grading horrors.
We’re approaching the centenary of the First World War. I spent my summer on the edge of a lavender field, and I found some answers to the European conundrum in The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, by historian Christopher Clark. Previous efforts to describe the European suicide have suggested that so much horror must have had profound causes. Clark insists that this may not have been the case. Rather than a crisis of capitalism, or mutual hatreds, this Armageddon was the consequence of multiple small-scale errors.
Europe didn’t communicate. Its feather-hatted magnates couldn’t make sense of the opaque decision making of their soon-to-be enemies. More important, they didn’t know enough about one another in the first place. Estimates of rival strengths or intentions were off the mark. Crowned heads, such as the kaiser and the czar, behaved as if willing their own extinction, although the elected heads were not much better. The angry Serb boys who murdered Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Hapsburg throne, held views like those of today’s suicide bombers, but Europe did not need to die as a result. “The outbreak of war in 1914 is not an Agatha Christie drama at the end of which we will discover the culprit standing over a corpse…with a smoking pistol,” Clark writes. What happened in Europe was “a tragedy, not a crime.”
How much has changed in the past hundred years? Our much-reviled Eurocrats (they do, as Clark acknowledges, bear a startling resemblance to their bewhiskered forebears who administered the Hapsburg imperial lands) knew enough to see that the collapse of the euro would spell the end of Europe. So they did learn from the past, but that is the most one can say in their favour. It would be hard to render in all its appalling detail the level of cynicism now felt by Europeans in relation to what used to be called “the European project.” One cannot speak solely of lack of conviction. Intended to reconcile Europeans, making oneness out of diversity, the European Union has set them once again at each others’ throats.
Over and above the North–South fissure, we can locate uglier antagonisms. In many countries—France, Belgium, Greece, Hungary, even the United Kingdom—hating foreigners, or “recent immigrants,” has formed the basis of a new populist politics. Words to describe the new European condition are creeping into national vocabularies. In Spain, a young person who neither studies nor works—and there are millions—is a Ni-Ni. Never to be outdone, a French sociologist came up with a word to describe a new continent-wide malaise: depressionnisme. As they have always done, Europeans practise the arts of survival. In stricken Greece and Spain, if you are young you emigrate. Families cling together, pretending it’s nothing, hoping it will just go away.
I suggest that we take another lesson from the past. Europe was destroyed a hundred years ago because its arrogant, sleepwalking rulers believed in opposed, clashing notions of European destiny. This bombast brought about so many deaths. Like most Europeans, I suspect, I’d like to see a Europe in which the idea of a grandiose superstate is finally laid to rest. In a bizarre, wholly unexpected way, the current monetary horrors may have brought this anti-vision closer to existence. Given our history, what can Europeans do other than hide from the storm and focus on being European? We should declare a moratorium on abstractions. Instead of proclaiming doctrines, Europe should allow itself to be judged by what it does for its peoples. If it doesn’t reinvent itself as a more modest, livable, even boring place, it may die yet again.
This appeared in the December 2013 issue.