The Thirty One Years, Will Europe ever change? by Richard Fernandez

For him, Europe was a place of monsters, collaborators, and victims. He never returned to Hungary, or to Europe. He had no interest in going there. When I was in college I asked him why he refused to recognize that Europe had changed. His answer was simple: Europe will never change. It will just act as if nothing happened. When I look at the European Union now, I think of my father’s words

George Friedman’s book, Flashpoints: the emerging crisis in Europe is tour d’horizon of European civilization. The main question it tries to answer is whether European history, with its tragedy and glory, has fundamentally changed.  He begins his inquiry by describing the incredible arc of European achievement and disaster. It was on Europe that the Enlightenment was born. It was from the shores of Portugal that the world first became aware of itself; when separate isolated civilizations were drawn together by sailing ships into one globe. Here modern science and technology was born. And here it all came crashing down in the most destructive”thirty one years” (1914-1945) in human history.

It was as if some Faustian fire took Europe in one fell swoop from barbarism, “a time when people believe the laws of their own village are the laws of nature”, to civilization “where people continue to believe in the justice of their ways but harbor openness to the idea they might be in error”, straight to final and fatal phase: decadence “in which people come to believe there is no truth, or that all lies are equally true.”

For Friedman the question of Europe’s fate is personal. His own birth came at the end of the European catastrophe and so he wants to know how it will turn out. His father survived Hitler, then Stalin.  We read about the elder Friedman bringing the infant author and the rest of the family with him to America. The Europe from which they escaped was the incredible cauldron described by Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands, a vast killing field of unimaginable proportions. Or if you prefer, it was a flight from the universe of Alan Furst, whose evocative novels of Europe in convulsion can be read almost as fantasy by moderns who cannot believe that such a place ever existed or could ever exist.

What the refugee Friedman family sought as it made its way by rubber boat across the Danube was ordinary life: a place without “lists”, the land without the knock on the door and streets empty of marching armies of idealists. His father had lost faith in politics, causes, civilization, perhaps even in humanity itself.  All he wanted was somewhere to hide and America looked like a good place to start.

My father never forgave the Russians for perpetuating the terror the Nazis had begun. He never forgave the French for being weak and corrupt and losing a war in six weeks. He never forgave the Poles for counting on the French instead of themselves. And above all he never forgave the Germans. My father never forgave Europe for being monstrous, and he never forgave Europeans for how easily they forgave themselves. For him, Europe was a place of monsters, collaborators, and victims. He never returned to Hungary, or to Europe. He had no interest in going there. When I was in college I asked him why he refused to recognize that Europe had changed. His answer was simple: Europe will never change. It will just act as if nothing happened.

When I look at the European Union now, I think of my father’s words. It is an institution that acts as if nothing happened. I don’t mean by this that it doesn’t know what happened or isn’t revolted by it. I mean that the European Union — as an institution and an idea — is utterly certain that all is behind it, that it has willed its demons to depart and they have listened.

The modern European peace, Friedman argues, was constructed by exiting from the game of power.  The theory on which the modern European project was built was the belief that all hard historical choices could be avoided by focusing on diplomacy and prosperity.  The lesson they had “learned from the thirty-one years off destruction [were] that the benefits of power were not worth the price … after World War II Europe boiled down all its dreams to safety and wealth.”

Yet as Friedman shows, all the fracture lines — the “borderlands” — from which European conflicts have flowed are still there.  Through the pages of his book we visit the Ukraine, Poland and the Baltics,  the border between Western Europe and vast, brooding Russia.  We are taken through Luxembourg and Belgium, the dark Ardennes, squeezed between France and Germany. The frontiers between Christianity and Islam both on the Anatolian peninsula and the Mediterranean are examined, and finally the reader looks across the channel from Britain to the continent.  He concludes that nothing basic has changed.  On what is the modern project based? “The problem with the EU was that the Europeans had nothing to offer but peace and prosperity — an Ode to Joy. But what would happen if the joy failed, if either peace or prosperity evaporated?”

For the first time in hundreds of years, no single European country is in the first rank of world nations.  With every European act full of potential menace, even the EU itself, he maintains, was a byproduct of both the Cold War and the Pax Americana.  It was America that welded modern Europe together to face the USSR in the years after 1945.  It was the defeat of the Soviet Union that made the EU seem to work for a while after 1989 — until economic reality and the resurgence of Russia returned them to history.

For a while events were going their way. Now the question is whether the European model can survive the emerging social stresses and the renewed challenge of Russia.

Two new “borderlands” have opened from economic trends. First is internal. The falling birthrate prompted European industry to import immigrant — Muslim labor — to man their factories. But it did not change the relative economic efficiency between nations. The second borderland, the old one, was the consequence.  A growing gap has emerged between Germany and Spain, Italy Greece and France so that once again, Berlin is the master of Europe. The French jockey has fallen off the German horse and this time the horse is expected to wait.

Of the Muslim immigration, Frieman writes the result has been to recreate the inner borderlands to replace those burned out in the thirty-one years but with a new cast of characters.

The Europeans tried to solve this problem through multiculturalism.  Being unable to turn a new citizen into a German or Swede, and being strongly unwilling to return to racism, Europe attempted to accept immigrants as citizens while acknowledging that they could not share the culture.  But under the doctrine of multiculturalism not only could they remain different, but that difference was officially declared to be equal to the native culture. … The Muslims are now experiencing what the Jews experienced. Europe can cope with outsiders in small numbers. It could not cope with Ostjuden, the Jews from the East who flocked to Europe en masse in the 19th century. Nor can they cope with the Muslims who have flowed in more recently. This is not the problem of the wealthier Europeans, who can insulate themselves from all of Europe’s lower class.

But the proximate challenge to Europe is the crisis in the Ukraine, one which might easily expand to Poland and the Baltics. The American withdrawal from the world since 2008 has deprived the European project of hard power.  Friedman does not believe the Russians will push West, even in the absence of resistance, but he does believe that Putin will be ready for all eventualities.  Europe has no reason to feel more secure than before.

In the end, the problem of Europe is the same problem that haunted its greatest moment, the Enlightenment. It is the Faustian spirit, the desire to possess everything even at the cost of their souls. Today their desire is to possess everything at no cost.

“To possess everything at no cost.” Or rather, at an American cost — or in the hopes that “someone” will pay it.

The book is a fascinating and informative exposition written in an elegant, epigrammatic style. Reading it is a reminder of how complicated European history is. Although the work is about Europe, always standing offstage, just out of sight is the United States of America. In fact, the implied answer to the question of whether Europe can remain at peace is “if America maintains it.”

But why should it? Modern American politics appears to neither care nor knows much about Europe — let alone Turkey or Armenia or Iran — any more, except in the most cartoonish of senses. The American Thinker describes a recently unearthed 1995 video of Barack Obama promoting his book Dreams From My Father at the Cambridge, Mass Public Library.  In it, the young, rather inarticulate Obama displays a scant knowledge of Europen culture except as viewed through the provincial prism of his mentor Frank Marshall Davis .

Despite his concession that white Americans were “basically decent,” Obama did not think they were “making a serious effort” to compensate for the “brutal experience” of black history. That “was going to cost some money,” and, according to Obama, “Americans don’t like to sacrifice.”

Obama made the supersized claim that “American culture at this point, what is truly American, is black culture to a large degree.” As evidence, he cited Pulp Fiction, a pop-art gangster movie with a surfer music sound track and an Italian-American director.

The young Obama had an understanding of “white” culture and America’s place in the world consisting of half-digested leftist tropes and Pulp Fiction. Nor is it clear that people of the younger generation understand the issues Friedman focuses on any better. It’s all ancient history, dude.  To many the recent news about 700 North Africans drowning as they tried to reach Italy will be about that of an accident, disconnected from history and bereft of context.  No one will see it as yet another incursion on the borderlands, between the North and Southern halves of the Mediterranean. What is imperative to Friedman is bewildering to the Social Media generation.

The White House won’t use the word genocide to refer to the massacre of Armenians by the Turks, for example.  But what is ancient history to Vox is a living memory in Anatolia. A survey by the Princeton-based Educational Testing Service (ETS) found that American Millenials fall short in “literacy (including the ability to follow simple instructions), practical math, and — hold on to your hat — a category called ‘problem-solving in technology-rich environments.’”

“We really thought [U.S.] Millennials would do better than the general adult population, either compared to older coworkers in the U.S. or to the same age group in other countries,” says Madeline Goodman, an ETS researcher who worked on the study. “But they didn’t. In fact, their scores were abysmal.”

So few may recognize anything of significance. Nobody remembers the thirty-one years any more. Maybe Friedman’s father was right: Europe will never change.   He forgot to add that the people who escaped Europe by moving to America would never remember.  That perhaps, will never change either.

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