Europe’s lost perspective

What use is the past – Europe’s past in particular? There is no one answer to the question because what we need from history changes in accordance with our own circumstances. Although it had been gestating for a while, Dark Continent was written as the Cold War slipped into the past. In the 1990s, Europe suddenly seemed to be splitting into two once again. In the Balkans, Yugoslavia had dissolved into civil war, amid a conflict from which its peoples have yet to fully recover. But at exactly the same time – 1992 to be precise – the architects of the European Union attained new heights of hubris, predicting that the Maastricht treaty would revive the continent as a global superpower. The book tried to caution the Euro-enthusiasts not to take things too fast, and to remember in particular how fragile and contingent the achievement of postwar democracy was. The chief purpose of the book was to analyse how liberal democracy had emerged triumphant, by a whisker, from its long threeway struggle with fascism and communism.

This topic loses none of its pertinence today. The creation of the Euro took Euro-enthusiasm to new heights of unreality and irresponsibility. And the crash after 2008 has not produced much enlightenment. More sound and fury than genuine illumination, the soul-searching prompted by the Eurocrisis has seen a frenzy of accusations and national stereotypes. It has reminded us how little the continent’s peoples know still about one another, and how quick they are to blame one another for their woes. It has reminded us too of how short-term politics has become and how painfully shallow the historical memories of our politicians are.

Were I to rewrite the book today, I would certainly do some things differently. I would want to say much more about finance, and the way that the world changed fundamentally in the 1990s thanks to the globalization of money. This great watershed was not one I emphasized even though it was taking place as I wrote. And I would want to think through the story of the modern European nation-state and ask what is left of sovereignty in this globalized world. For the book failed to anticipate the dramatic shifts in global power that make European integration both painful and indispensable.

Can there be a form of integration that does not void Europe’s nations of their sovereignty? Is there a plausible future for the nation-state? Here it seems to me that the history of the continent’s rebirth after 1945 remains salutary, when national economic growth was accompanied by a controlled reinternationalisation of trade but not of banking or finance. It is helpful to revisit this achievement, the economic miracle of the 1950s and 1960s, even if revisiting it reminds us of how much has changed, in the world and in ourselves, since those days.

And that achievement was of course not only an economic one, it was a political and yes, a moral one as well. Democracy had run into such difficulties before the Second World War that it was by no means clear it would recover after it. The Americans pushed hard for it; the Soviets too, although for a very different conception [since both understood fascism quite differently from one another]. But ultimately it was the Europeans themselves who turned their backs on fascism, and eventually on communism as well. The outcome was cushioned by the high growth rates and expanded social spending of the times. Above all, democracy’s rebirth was assisted by hard-won knowledge and bitter historical memory – by the memory in particular of what fascism and Nazism had brought with them, of political violence that started on the streets but spread quickly through camps and armies across borders and eventually – as the Germans themselves found – tore apart the very societies that had given birth to it.

Europeans grew tired of watching overgrown boys marching around pretending to be soldiers, the silly uniforms, the incessant demands by dictatorial leaders that they reshape their lives and devote themselves – at all costs, at the cost ultimately of their childrens’ lives – to the nation. Today those memories are still so deeply etched into the continent’s culture that it is hard to make them disappear. Fascism remains close to us. Yet austerity does pose a threat to democracy today and so does the ethical blindness of too many politicians. New demagogues are emerging, promising endless false dawns and new orders, playing on undercurrents of racial prejudice that have never really disappeared. Those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it, it has been said. That does not seem quite right to me. The greater likelihood is not mere repetition. It is that by lacking any historical perspective on our own times, we no longer remember what it is we should value and what we should fight to protect.

* Mark Mazower teaches history at Columbia University.