Becoming Europe

“The Bulgarians had actually oscillated quite markedly over the years from enthusiastic pro-Germanism to ultra-Slavophilism. Neither served them well. As a local commentator remarked at the time, Bulgaria always chooses the wrong card … and slams it on the table!"

It took me over a year to finish reading Tony Judt’s Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945. The thing’s a doorstopper, but it was worth it. Tidbits like the footnote above are sprinkled throughout its 831 pages, all of which illuminate the travails of Europe in the years following WWII until the fall of the Soviet Union.

A good proportion of the population began as refugees, people uprooted by years of war now searching for a home in a landscape that seemed to be determined by which victorious army occupied what terrain when the Germans surrendered. Ancient communities were disrupted, never to become again what they had been before the war.

Each nation that had been occupied by the Nazis had also to come to grips with their own collaboration and nascent anti-Semitism. Germany itself took years to face its own guilt, to acknowledge it for what it was.

Eastern Europe fell to the armies of the Soviet Union, who remained in place to provide a bulwark against any further German adventurism. Germany had been defeated in WWI, but that had not stopped it from trying again not too many years later. There likely wasn’t a country in Europe, including the Soviet Union, that did not fear and insist on protecting themselves against a resurgent Germany.

Judt covers the movement from Soviet-style communism to independence on the part of Eastern Europe and the movement from complete disarray to the European Union on the part of the West in the kind of detail that keeps the reader engaged. The journey of Germany itself, from international pariah to bedrock of the EU is worth the price of admission all by itself.

And therein lies a cautionary tale that speaks to the United States of the present day.

One hundred years earlier, Judt writes, Heinrich Heine wrote of two kinds of nationalism:

We [Germans] were ordered to be patriots and we became patriots, for we do everything our rulers order us to do. One must not think of this patriotism, however, as the same emotion which bears this name here in France. A Frenchman’s patriotism means that his heart is warmed, and with this warmth it stretches and expands so that his love no longer embraces merely his closest relative, but all of France, the whole civilized world. A German’s patriotism means that his heart contracts and shrinks like leather in the cold, and a German then hates everything foreign, no longer wants to become a citizen of the world, a European, but only a provincial German.

One could say that the years of our own greatness, the America of the immigrants’ dreams, had that French expansiveness wherein we welcomed the stranger and exported the vision. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the America of today has fears of falling into fascism given our growing suspicion of the stranger and our new reluctance to remain partners in the global endeavor.

Thrust now into a WWIII of sorts against an invisible foe that threatens the entire world, I can’t help but wonder if we will be able to summon the angels of our better nature to become once again a symbol of all that is possible or if we take the art of the possible out back and bury it in what was once a garden of earthly delights.