Can Europe be saved?

Or save itself? As we sit here in this southeast corner of the Iberian peninsula watching Europe disintegrate, I find myself wondering how "Europe" ever happened and whether it exists at all except in our collective imagination. As Tony Judt remarks in the first lines of Postwar: A history of Europe since 1945, “It is not really even a continent — just a subcontinental annexe to Asia. The whole of Europe (excluding Russia and Turkey) comprises just five and a half million square kilometers: less than two thirds the area of Brazil, not much more than half the size of China or the US.”

Too bad Tony isn't with us to help us understand this new crisis. (He died earlier this year.) In Postwar, he makes vividly clear how nearly “Europe” as a cultural unit came to disappearing as a result of its two world wars. What I mean is the glory and power that had made that territory something more than an annexe to Asia, or the sense of common cultural values that at least seemed to unite the hundreds of language groups and scores of more or less sovereign states (at last count, 46). This time it's not war but simple inability to come to agreements, coupled with nationalist pretensions ridiculously out of sync with national economic potentials, exacerbated by the usual short-sighted opportunism of political parties and factions, that's threatening the economic union holding all these countries together. 

Postwar goes over familiar ground, and most of what it tells us in the first chapters (I'm about a quarter of the way through this big book so far) are things you've probably read or heard before about the enormous destruction of housing, industry and infrastructure along with the millions of lives lost in the Second World War, the anxieties and contradictory demands of the survivors and the beginnings of an improvised, ad hoc postwar division of power we call the Cold War. But there will be many things that you hadn't heard before, or that you had never connected to other elements to see the themes. This English scholar, son of Eastern European Jews and long-time professor in the US, is especially good at explaining how and why the US saved the western parts of the subcontinent and bolstered the defeated and ruined Germany (the part not governed by the Soviets) to regain its industrial strength and prosperity (a complete break with Allied practice after World War I),  along with the equally ruined France and smaller countries such as the Netherlands and Belgium.

Those countries with all their rivalries were able to cohere more or less because of the Cold War. I'll be eager to read Judt's description of the end of that division, the collapse of the “socialist bloc” and disintegration of the Soviet Union — he was there, more involved than most of us (he even went to the trouble of learning Czech).  Left to itself, without the USSR and its subject states squeezing it from the east and the US pressing back from the west, “Europe” had to re-invent itself and define its boundaries. How far west? Are the British Isles part of Europe? Ireland decided it was – though it may now be regretting that choice. England has been more diffident. How far east? Ukraine has been welcomed, but coldly. Turkey? Not yet. France and Germany came to believe they were Europe, and the other countries merely satellites.

I'm going to have to go back to re-read Janet Abu-Lughod's marvelous book on the world system before Europe emerged, back in the 13th century. It may be that we're headed back that way, except that now Brazil and South Africa may join those great pre-European powers China, India and Persia (Iran). “Europe” appears to be voting for its own irrelevance.

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