Is there a European political culture?

Zeus and Europa. Photograph: Terence Faircloth via Creative Commons

This morning I participated in a panel discussion at the Wroclaw Global Forum, a security conference hosted by the Atlantic Council in the Polish city that in a former life was the German city of Breslau.

The conference is held in a facility next to Wroclaw’s Centennial Hall, built in 1913 when the city was still part of the German Empire, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Nations, when a coalition of armies from Russia, Prussia, Austria and Sweden defeated Napoleon outside Leipzig.  A concrete counterpart to Leipzig’s magnificent Völkerschlachtdenkmal, its design, original purpose and former Polish name (Hala Ludowa, Hall of the People), serve to illustrate how a monument can stand still whilst names, systems, borders and local inhabitants change around it.

As if to press home the historical precariousness of Central European existence, conference guests stay at the Hotel Monopol, which has the dubious honour of having hosted Adolf Hitler in 1938 when he travelled to Breslau so as to address a gathering of Sudeten-Deutsche who had made the journey from nearby Czechoslovakia.  The setting helps gives even the most platitudinous Atlanticist clichés about the value of freedom a resonance they lack when regurgitated in their native Washington.

My remarks on the question of ‘Is there a European political culture?’ began with two quotations.  In a recent speech at the Vatican, Pope Francis chastised Europe’s response to the refugee crisis by raising the spectre of its cherished self-image:

What has happened to you, the Europe of humanism, the champion of human rights, democracy and freedom?  What has happened to you, Europe, the home of poets, philosophers, artists, musicians, and men and women of letters?  What has happened to you, Europe, the mother of peoples and nations, the mother of great men and women who upheld, and even sacrificed their lives for, the dignity of their brothers and sisters?

Illustrating just how concerned Europeans are about this self-image, Stefan Zweig, writing about the atmosphere in Europe during the outbreak of the First World War, observed:

Nation after nation rejected the accusation of being or having been ‘militaristic’ as a wicked slander; instead, they vied with each other in declaring that they were ‘cultural nations’ and making a great display of it … they wanted nothing more badly than recognition of universally valid cultural achievement.  All the neutral countries, therefore, were swamped with artistic performances.  Germany sent orchestras with world-famous conductors to Switzerland, Holland and Sweden, Vienna sent its Philharmonic; even poets, writers and scholars were sent, not to praise military deeds or celebrate the annexation of territory, but simply to show, through their verses and other works, that the Germans were not ‘barbarians’, and produced not just flame-throwers and deadly poison gas but works of absolute value to the whole of Europe.

This was a war that resulted in the death of nine million combatants and seven million civilians, and yet Axis Power elites were concerned that their status as ‘cultured people’ should not be called into question.

We are all, as Europeans, guilty of this self-deception to some extent – as individuals, as nations, and collectively as a continent.  We like to tell ourselves that ‘Europe’ is defined by its achievements, when in truth our story is just as much one of barbarism, ignorance, and violence as it is about civilisation, enlightenment and high culture.

But though one can make the case that ‘democracy’, ‘freedom’, and ‘human rights’ are important and celebrated aspects of European political culture, we must also recognise that there is nothing ‘un-European’ about authoritarianism; nothing ‘un-European’ about imperialism; nothing ‘un-European’ about fascism; nothing ‘un-European’ about communism; nothing ‘un-European’ about genocide, ethnic cleansing, various other crimes against humanity.

As a continent we have – and have always had – the capacity both for sublime achievement and for varying degrees of brutish behaviour.  But despite the fact that the former does not preclude the latter, we remain in denial about our capacity for self-destruction. Remember: our continent was named after a woman who decided to clamber onto a big white bull, who proceeded to run into the sea and carry her away – Europa was a lunatic, and a suicide risk.

Instead of confronting these difficult truths about ourselves, we define them away.  That which we in the liberal democracies are proud of, we call ‘European’.  We talk of “European values”, “the European spirit”, “European” – or “Western” – “civilisation”.  But that which we are ashamed of, we define as the opposite – “un-European”. Or we qualify it, as “pseudo-European”, “eastern European”, or best of all – “Eurasian”.

However we define Europe’s political culture, it cannot simply be reduced to ‘things we like’.  It may make us feel better, but it causes complacency because it is a denial of something that we should all know by now, that being rich and cultured does not make us immune to our collective suicidal tendencies, and that the greatest threats to Europe have always come not from without, but from within.

If one understands Europe in these terms, one can make the case that the most ‘inherently European’ country is not Germany, or France, or Italy, but Yugoslavia.  In just over seventy years its people experienced parliamentary democracy, constitutional monarchy, absolutism, fascism, communism, fundamentalism, secularism, imperialism, anti-imperialism, nationalism and gangsterism, as the state went through conceptualisation, formation, expansion, transformation, invasion, consolidation, stagnation, disintegration and annihilation.  It began as an idealistic and elite-driven project – the unification of the South Slavs – and ended in oblivion.  Nothing is more European than a country that no longer exists.

Yet what did the rest of us care about this country and the people who lived in it? You still hear people saying ‘Europe’ has been at peace since the Second World War, even after a European war that killed 100,000 fellow Europeans.  The people of the Balkans are dismissed as ‘a special case’, ‘different’, even ‘crazy’ but they are arguably more European than the rest of us, because they have experienced what it means to be European more intensely than almost anybody.

The lesson of Yugoslavia is this: there is no one European political culture – there are many European political cultures: good, bad and indifferent, and every generation must fight to maintain all that is good about our continent, rather than pretending that what is bad is somehow alien to us.

In a park in Sarajevo there is a giant tin of canned beef with a European flag on it, with the words ‘Monument to the international community by the grateful citizens of Sarajevo’.  10,000 people died in the siege of Sarajevo, and as many went hungry, we were sending them tins of meat that in many cases was over twenty years old, that in many cases was pork despite the city’s Muslim population. With that monument, the people of Sarajevo were reminding us of something we don’t remind ourselves enough: that however ambitiously and comfortingly we wish to define a ‘European political culture’, we rarely live up to the standards we set.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s