Commentary Magazine


European Diary

Liverpool, London, and Points South

After a considerable delay American commentators, official and unofficial, have finally discovered the decline and fall of Europe. Newsweek has reported economic stagnation and a “political malaise which darkens the future of a once proud and powerful continent.” Growing doubts have been expressed about the survivability of European culture, and there is anxiety that Europe’s identity will be overwhelmed in an imminent demographic catastrophe. The European Economic Community (EEC), we are told, is in disarray, and mass strikes are reported from Britain and France. Stern warnings about the future of the NATO alliance have been given to the Europeans by American spokesmen.

Much of the news is correct, but it is still not clear why these anxieties should have arisen in the spring of 1984. When Constantinople fell to the Turks in 1453 it took about a year until Paris found out; now, in the age of instant communication, the time lag seems to have grown to a decade. It was only yesterday that a whole literature was produced exuding satisfaction over the state of Europe, its self-confidence, prosperity, and political stability. For every article written by the late Raymond Aron (or a few others), there were literally hundreds decrying such Cassandras. My own piece, “Hollanditis” (COMMENTARY, August 1981), was dismissed as the product of a feverish political imagination. Countless speeches, books, and articles demonstrated beyond any shadow of a doubt that Europe had become one of the pillars of the new “pentagonal” world order. American residents and tourists could no longer afford Europe—was any additional proof needed to show how much had changed since the days of CARE parcels and the Marshall Plan?

And now, quite suddenly, the pendulum has swung to the other extreme. The new pessimism is closer to the true state of affairs in Europe, but it too contains elements of exaggeration; it is based, at least in part, on faulty reasoning, and it comes at the wrong moment. To say that Europe is not in good shape is no more than to state the obvious; it has been the case for a long time. But the chances of a recovery, while far from certain, seem a little better today than they did in the recent past. It was predicted that civil war would result from the stationing of the missiles in Western Europe, but the skies did not fall in. The Left-of-Center governments of Italy and Spain have shown surprising political aptitude and staying power; and as for Eurocommunism, that mighty new avalanche on the European scene, today it reminds one more of the snows of yesteryear. One year ago, industrial production was down in every West European country; today it is up everywhere. True, the conflicts within the EEC have become acute. But precisely for this reason there is more hope now that the inevitable storm will clear the air.

The main problem is not the state of the economy. Not long ago I visited Brussels and there was nothing in the outward life of the city pointing to a deep economic crisis; nor were there any signs that the ethnic divisions between the Walloons and the Flemish were turning into an armed conflict. Brussels is now a cosmopolitan city and quite prosperous. But once one leaves the Belgian capital for the South in the direction of Charleroi, with its old metal industry, or the mining regions of the Borinage—Van Gogh country—it is a different story altogether.

In Britain such differences are even more striking. It is less than two hundred miles as the crow flies from Surrey, Hampshire, and Kent to Liverpool, once Britain’s third largest city, the home of the Beatles and two of the best soccer clubs in the land. Never a particularly pretty town, it is now a very sad sight indeed. Once upon a time it was a vital, bustling place; today no ship can be seen in the docks, the wharves and warehouses are empty. Over the last two decades the population has decreased by almost one-third; in the last decade a quarter of the city’s jobs have disappeared. The inner city, which was the site last summer of one of Britain’s worst race riots, is a shambles. Liverpool’s municipal council is dominated by Militant, one of the self-styled Trotskyite factions within the Labor party. Militant wants to declare a general strike against the decaying capitalist system and defy the government by intentionally overspending and forcing the city to go bankrupt.

The problem with ravaged Liverpool is, in an extreme form, that of the Midlands in general—of traditional industries no longer needed, of a lack of foresight and initiative in investing in new ventures. There have been some steps in the right direction of late. More than a hundred acres of docks filled with rubbish are being transformed into an enormous park exhibiting different kinds of gardens. This will, it is hoped, become one of the biggest exhibitions in Europe and eventually develop into an annual festival. It has also been decided to build a new maritime museum and a Beatles museum. But Liverpool will not be saved by museums and exhibitions alone. It needs a new infusion of the entrepreneurial spirit which was once so characteristic of this part of England—the first industrialized region in the first industrialized nation.

Elsewhere in Europe, too, leading port cities have suffered decline as a result of the changes in the pattern of transport, and the corresponding downfall of related industries. The chief merchants of Hamburg and Bremen—particularly the latter—have been equally helpless to cope with the problems besetting these city states, and the Social Democrats who constitute the local government have not excelled in new ideas and initiatives. But Hamburg and to a lesser extent even Bremen have all kinds of smaller industries and other enterprises which provide work for at least some of those who have become “redundant,” and good care has been taken of the quality of life in these cities. There are few volunteers to leave Bremen, however bad the employment situation.

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In London, at a lunch given by a minister of the crown for a foreign dignitary, I was seated between two leading British industrialists, whose companies are household names in Britain and abroad. How was business? They agreed that it had seldom been so good. What was their main problem? To get enough technically qualified personnel; they had to raid their competitors to keep up with demand. On the other hand, they complained about the various barriers still obstructing free trade within the European Economic Community. True, direct customs have been abolished, but German government orders still go to German corporations, and the same is true elsewhere. All kinds of irrelevant safety regulations also discriminate against foreign competitors. What of U.S. and Japanese competition? They had no misgivings with regard to the prospects of their specialized products.

British productivity has recently risen more sharply than that of other European countries; so has the rate of growth. These gains have been made at substantial political cost, resulting in bankruptcies and the loss of jobs. But every European government will have to suffer similar hardships in the years to come; there will be no smooth transition to new patterns of employment. Still, the problems are not insoluble, and if Liverpool is one side of contemporary Britain, the prosperous South is the other.

Touring the Cotswolds and the West country, one sees many new industries, including high technology, many new housing developments, new stores. Twenty years ago, this was not a prosperous part of the British isles; today, though the holiday season has not even started, there are enormous traffic jams and the hotels, from modest “bed and breakfast” establishments to the five-star Imperial, are fully booked. There are hundreds of marinas with sailing boats of every size and description, motorboats, small and big private yachts. The pre-season feeling (the counterpart of a certain post-season atmosphere admirably described in one of Thomas Mann’s novels) is that, miners’ strike or not, this will be a good year for Devon and Cornwall.

Once this was a farming region; the sedate resorts were strictly reserved for the upper classes. Rudyard Kipling wrote that “Torquay is such a place as I do desire to upset it by dancing through it with nothing on but my spectacles. Villas, clipped hedges and shaven lawns, fat old ladies with respirators and obese landaus. . . .” Today there are no more obese landaus and few fat old ladies, but a lot of chain stores and cheap restaurants; and if Kipling did dance in the streets with nothing on but his glasses, he would get scant attention—there are greater attractions all along the beaches.

The condition of England, then, is not universal decline, but the reemergence of two nations, of North and South, of the majority which earns good money and the three million unemployed, of rising and declining industries. The problem is polarization and the breaking of that social consensus which is now needed more than ever and which still exists in most other European countries. Whatever Mrs. Thatcher’s virtues, she is not an integrative national leader; she commands respect for her toughness and her gut reactions, not for her ideas and vision. As for the Labor party, it has in Neil Kinnock a new leader who as an individual does not have an enemy. But Labor’s leadership as a whole is the least intelligent ever. Anti-democratic forces have taken over entire unions and major branches; their radicalism owes more to Luddism and xenophobia than to Marxism. This is no longer the Labor party of Ernest Bevin or his antagonist, Aneurin Bevan. It is a new phenomenon in British history, this coalition of sectarians, social workers, and employees of dying industries; perhaps it is no more than a passing aberration, perhaps common sense will prevail in the end as it so often has in this country. But there is no certainty that it will.

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Essen

The Ruhr is the largest single industrial conurbation in Europe: for a century it has been a synonym for iron, coal, and steel; for Krupp and Mannesmann; for armaments and guns; for impenetrable smoke, the blackened faces of the miners, the German version of Blake’s Satanic mills. But one morning not long ago, from the top floor of the Essen municipal building, the tallest in Europe, the view was almost perfect, so clear was the air. No wonder, for not a single ton of steel is produced in Essen any longer. Of fifty coal mines only one is left, and this will go out of business in 1986. The biggest taxpayer in Essen is no longer Krupp, but Coca-Cola.

Not only has the air become clear, there is a big green belt and the Ruhr river is now one of the cleanest in Europe. But the ecologists’ delight is the nightmare of the economists (and of the politicians). When the Bundesrepublik was founded less than four decades ago, there was considerable opposition to the creation of the superstate of North Rhine-Westphalia, for it was so much richer and stronger than the rest. This was certainly true at the time; more than one-third of all German exports then came from this region. But today this rich state, which formerly produced so much wealth, has become Bonn’s problem child. Steel production has declined by 30 percent in ten years, and as the industrial base has shrunk, so has the state’s population (from 5.7 million in 1965 to 5.3 in 1984). The growth industries are now situated near Munich and in the Stuttgart region. Some Ruhr cities such as Duisburg and Gelsenkirchen have been on the verge of bankruptcy; unemployment in some centers is very high indeed.

Yet walking along Kettwiger Strasse in Essen, let alone the Koenigsallee in Duesseldorf, one does not have the feeling of impending disaster. The new department stores and expensive boutiques are full. It is a far cry from the scenes of mass unemployment, of starvation, of street riots which I remember from the days of my own youth in the Germany of the early 30’s. I asked to see the slums. My host took me to the predominantly Turkish quarter, not a very inspiring neighborhood, but comparing not unfavorably with many parts of New York, Philadelphia, Detroit, or Los Angeles. We passed a major building site; a big opera house is to be constructed, designed by Alvar Aalto. How could the city afford it at a time of crisis? Why not, they had spent prudently in years past and had a good treasurer. Who was he? A Christian Democrat. A Christian Democrat in a city ruled by the SPD? (All cities in the Ruhr have huge Social Democratic majorities.) Why not, he was a good man, and anyway, there are no tremendous differences between the two major parties on the municipal level. And what did the far Left have to say? Who knows, there are not many of them around here. This is a working-class area: the leftists are concentrated in administrative jobs, social work, and education. . . .

There is a greater willingness to cooperate in German politics than ever before, and there is also an essential toughness which characterizes these people, a mixture of immigrants from various parts of Germany, Poland, and lately also other parts of Europe. They complain vociferously but, like the people in the Midlands, they will not give up easily. Unlike the residents of Liverpool they have a leadership which knows that confrontational politics will not work, for not even Trotskyites can sell coal and steel for which there is no demand. The old industrial giants such as Krupp, Thyssen, and Mannesmann began to diversify a long time ago; they went into trading and high technology, and they bought shares of Daimler-Benz. Some of these ventures were ill-starred and a few seem curious: Volkswagen is breeding cattle in Brazil, BASF (the chemical trust) produces white wine, and Grundig is running hotels. But more enterprise was shown by these corporations than those in Britain and France, and it is now beginning to pay off.

Many European businessmen and economists are strongly inclined toward pessimism, and the Germans more so than the rest. Last year the statistics seemed to bear out such pessimism. The balance sheets of the largest German corporations showed a negative picture. But there was clearly something wrong with the statistics, for every visitor to the country could see that the great majority of the population was living quite well: a clear impossibility according to the figures. This year, the mood suddenly changed for the better: exports during the first quarter of 1984 were 25 percent higher than during the same period the year before. (Actually, they had been quite high even in 1983.)

The German car industry is said to have fallen behind the rest of the world. But Volkswagen again has the most advanced production lines in the world, robots and all. Has Germany missed the boat in high technology? It still manages to be the world leader in nuclear research and reactor-building, in space reconnaissance, space platforms, and modules. Siemens, the foremost electrical firm and largest employer in Germany, has been criticized for excessive caution in its management and planning—very much in contrast to the practice of its founders in the last century, who were true pioneers. Yet Siemens is still matching the sales of General Electric and Westinghouse in the Third World.

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So much, then, for the state of the economy. But what of the deep-seated pessimism within the younger generation, the “no future” slogans, the seemingly irresistible growth of the Greens? I remember a conversation about a year ago in a little car on the Autobahn near Kassel. My interlocutor, a graduate technology student in his late twenties, had kindly agreed to drive me to my hotel from the home of his father, a classmate whom I had not seen for many years. “Why do you assume,” he demanded, “that ten or twenty years from now we shall still be alive? My friends and I firmly believe that the end is near.” I replied, if I remember correctly, that while my own life experience had not been such as to make me an incurable optimist, I saw no plausible reason to agree with him. But I did frequently hear similar views while touring Germany in the months that followed. At church meetings the general theme was “We are afraid” or “Be afraid.” In the windows of the bookstores such titles as The German Neurosis, The German House on Fire, The Fears of the Germans were prominently displayed along with novels describing the last days of Germany.

Of late the fear boom has somewhat abated, but some young (and not so young) Germans have gone on writing and talking loudly about fear and anxiety. Do they also suffer more acutely? Hard as I tried in my search for the mysterium tremendum, the overwhelming feeling of impending total destruction, I did not find it in the streets, the buses, the railways of contemporary Germany. I looked in vain for people undergoing the agonies of Tantalus in department stores and Urangst on the soccer fields. Nor was there any sign of extreme dejection, or of accumulated stress and tension, even in the universities and the churches. The casual visitor from afar is likely to conclude that “the great fear” is nothing more than a matter of attitudinizing by journalists and littérateurs who have run out of other subjects of conversation, or by certain public figures who cultivate fin de siècle or fin de millénaire moods for obvious political ends. And since intellectual fashions do not last forever, the great fear is now on the way out.

All this is true, but it is still not the whole truth. There is a generation in Germany—and the same goes for other North European countries—now in its late twenties and thirties, that is very much under the influence of the whole Eco-Pax syndrome. Those people entered the political scene during the past decade, and while they do not constitute a majority even of their own age group, they are still at the center of public attention.

About their views, hopes, complaints, expectations, there is now an enormous literature financed by corporations such as German Shell and also by various government ministries. The consensus of this literature is that youth protest should be viewed not as a “classic conflict” between the generations but as a response to the crisis of the industrial system and of representative democracy. It signifies the emergence (and not just among the young) of new social groups directly hit by the transition to post-industrial society.

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During my peregrinations in Germany I made it my business to visit not just universities but also the upper grades of secondary schools and even an occasional Diskothek, to talk and to listen. It did not take long to realize that the reports and analyses of a post-materialist generation searching for new spiritual values (either because they are dissatisfied with prosperity or because of “unsolved social problems” that have rendered them marginal and disaffected) are badly out of date and have to be rewritten. The study of the young is a perilous field—it takes a few years to observe and collect the data and a few more years to write and publish. By that time a new generation has made its appearance on the scene, quite different from the one described in the learned books and articles just arriving in the libraries.

Different in what way? It is too early to describe in detail the character of young men and women who were not even born when Rudi Dutschke and Danny Cohn-Bendit unfurled the banner of revolt. But it is my clear impression, borne out by discussions with teachers, that the generation of 1984 has no more in common with the rebels of 1967 than with Hitler or Napoleon. Their mood is different and so are their language, their cultural interests, their values, and their political orientation. They are reading other books, they listen to other records, and they have no interest in the new German cinema (fairy tales have become enormously popular both on paper and on the screen). Having grown up in freedom, they do not complain about oppression; on the contrary, there is a certain longing for authority and leadership. Patriotism and Heimat (homeland) are back, and the volumes of MEGA (the German acronym for the collected works of Marx and Engels) purchased by their older brothers have been relegated to the basement together with old furniture and clothes that are no longer in fashion. So too with sex, one of the main issues of the “great refusal” of the recent past. Today, needless to say, sex is not dead, but the endless debates about it are now considered a great bore.

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Brussels-Zurich

The quickest way to get from Belgium to Switzerland is on the express train that stops at Cologne and then goes along the Rhine, passing the Lorelei and other famous tourist attractions. But there is another way, less fast and less picturesque, hardly ever frequented by tourists, which leads through the main battlefields of Europe of the last two hundred years, from Waterloo to Bastogne via Sedan to Verdun and Metz. Except for the signposts and the cemeteries one would not know that great armies once confronted each other in this region, and that many people died here. There are no tanks to be seen now and no soldiers; today it is Europe’s main industrial battlefield.

There was a time when the annexation of Longwy (which is French, near the border with Belgium and Luxembourg) was one of Germany’s main war aims because of its industrial importance. Today the Mitterrand government probably wishes it had never heard of Longwy because this steel town is the center of violent trouble in Lorraine. For a few days in March the whole region was cut off from the rest of the country, government buildings were stormed, and then, on April 13, the great “march on Paris” took place.

The French steel industry has been kept afloat only by massive subsidies (many times higher than in neighboring Germany) which the country can no longer afford and for whose products there is only limited demand. For the local right-wingers this is the fault of the “Socialist-Communist dictatorship”; the Communists and the left-wing Socialists for their part put the blame on the European Economic Community. Both explanations are equally false, though successive French governments are by no means blameless. Many of the installations now closed are among the most modern in the world, built at great cost only a few years ago. When Mitterrand came to power in 1981, the Union of the Left actually promised to expand the coal and steel industry! It was a case of gross miscalculation by people who forever talked about planning. Today, that same government is causing unemployment and has to keep wages down.

Frenchmen have taken it badly, the government coalition may break up one of these days, and the more militant unions are turning against Mitterrand. But the unions in France are relatively weak and disunited; nor do the Communists have a great desire to return to their shrinking ghetto. Most thoughtful Frenchmen accept that every French government would have had to face the present difficulties, that many problems are not specifically French but common to all of Europe, and that it is probably better that the painful but necessary operation should be carried out by left-wing surgeons than by those of the Right.

As one passes from Lorraine to Alsace one enters another world, and one is bound to feel some sympathy with the ecologists. Alsace has been industrialized to a certain extent: there is now an oil refinery near Mulhouse, some automobile plants and chemical factories. But it has remained basically agricultural; it is still a country of monasteries and gardens, vineyards and old castles, of the Isenheim Altar and the Strassburg cathedral. Time has not stood still: the little village in which some of my ancestors once lived is now virtually part of Colmar and in the street one hears as much Turkish and Arabic as French. But the specific character of this region, the cradle of European civilization, has not disappeared. It is still more obvious in small places like Selestat or Eguisheim or Riquewihr than in the big cities.

Having suffered a great deal in their history, the Alsatians are a tolerant people: I doubt whether they spend many sleepless nights because of the Sinnkrise. This is still a wholesome world, largely unscathed, and as one walks at night through the crooked streets alongside half-thatched houses with their gabled roofs, one wonders whether Alsace could not teach the rest of the continent a lesson or two. Unfortunately, the chances that Western Europe will become one great Alsace are not good.

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Zurich

It was in Zurich, in September 1946, that Winston Churchill made one of his great speeches, about the need for a new initiative “to help this turbulent and mighty continent to take its rightful place with other groupings and help to shape the destinies of men.” Europe at present, he said, was little more than the plaything of outside powers; united, it could overcome all its internal difficulties and again be a great power in the world.

It was a fine speech, but soon afterward Churchill made it known that his vision of a united Europe did not encompass Britain, which belonged rather to the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth has long since disappeared and the British now belong to the EEC, but they still have not become ardent Europeans. Nor, for that matter, have most of the other member nations. Even in the countries in which Europeanism was strongest—West Germany and Benelux—there is now a great deal of disappointment. European party leaders continue to make speeches about the need for Europe to reassert itself. Some extreme spirits call for the dissolution of NATO and a neutral Europe. But never fear, if the alliance should fall apart it will be as the result of American annoyance and loss of patience, not of a European Declaration of Independence.

For better or worse, it seems unlikely that anything of great importance will happen in Europe in the next few years. In the absence of an immediate outside threat, Western Europe will be preoccupied with its internal affairs; it will leave the U.S. to take care of global politics, and will be attacked for doing so.

The trouble with Europe is not so much decadence—though there are elements of decadence in more countries than one—as the fact that the shelter provided by America over several decades has impaired the vision of not a few Europeans and given rise to a climate in which real dangers are not recognized, and unreal threats are conjured up.

To a considerable extent the problem of Europe is the crisis of Social Democracy. But there are cross-currents even in this river. If there has been a fairly strong drift toward neutralism among the North European Social Democratic parties, the Social Democrats of France, Italy, Spain, and Portugal, who are in power or share power, are behaving differently. Anti-Americanism is not a major issue in these countries.

The great majority of Europeans want to remain free, which is to say that there is a reasonable chance that over a number of years, perhaps a decade, they will have gone through their learning process. But is there that much time left, or will the military balance of power have meanwhile decisively shifted, so that Europe will have far less freedom of action than today? There is no certainty, only some room for hope. The European crisis is largely one of mood. And for reasons unknown even to the most profound historians and the most astute students of politics, the mood of countries is given to sudden and far-reaching changes for seemingly trivial “objective” reasons—and sometimes for no obvious reasons at all.

And so, whether one surveys the European scene from the Cotswolds or the Ruhr, or looks down on Lake Zurich from one of the surrounding mountains, there is room for concern and some pity but not for a feeling of impending doom and apocalyptic visions. This should be left to the fin de siècle industry, which is working overtime to counteract the effects of the cautious optimism which, temporarily at least, is getting the upper hand in Europe.

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