Commentary Magazine

Europe-The Good News and the Bad

Western Europe has entered a period of intense political activity. With France and Germany pressing for the new European Monetary System; with Spain, Portugal, and Greece asking for entry into the Common Market; and with Great Britain on the edge of making a genuine commitment to Europe, one has the sensation of a possible great revival. Moreover, there are scattered signs on the continent of a dramatic resurgence of faith in democracy and a rejection of Leninist totalitarianism—something which might have been judged impossible just a few months ago. Countries like France and Italy, which last year had threatened to embark on perilous experiments with Communism, today appear more firmly rooted in the Western camp, while Spain continues its impressive transition from dictatorship to democracy.

At the same time that this mini-renaissance is taking place, however, the opposite tendency is also at work. If there has been a rediscovery of democracy in some quarters in Latin Europe, there are distinct signs in West Germany and elsewhere of a growing accommodation to Soviet power, especially Soviet military power. The broad social and political consequences of such an accommodation may be usefully characterized by the term “Finlandization.”

Upon closer examination, these apparently divergent tendencies in Western Europe suggest some common causes, and raise some basic issues for the future.




The Western European campaign against totalitarianism, and the accompanying rejection of Marxism and its related doctrines, began a few years ago with the French “new philosophers.” Led by veterans of the generation of 1968, including many who had manned the barricades in the Latin Quarter, the active opposition to the leftist myths of the 60’s and early 70’s has gained considerably in France—and to a lesser extent in Italy. This can be seen politically in the growing electoral strength of the Center and Center-Left parties (and the parallel erosion of Communist popular support), and it can be seen culturally in the debate among French intellectuals over the nature of Communism—a debate which has now reached historic proportions.

For many French intellectuals the debate centers on developments in Southeast Asia following the American withdrawal from Vietnam. Jean La-couture, one of the most formidable practitioners of left-wing journalism in the last twenty years, may be taken as emblematic of the reappraisal now in progress. The author of some ten books on the Third World, Lacouture wrote innumerable articles on the Vietnam conflict for Le Monde and Nouvel Observateur in which he took a stridently anti-American and pro-Vietcong position; he was, indeed, responsible to a significant degree for the ideas held about Vietnam both by French intellectuals and—through the translation of his articles into English and their publication here—by many American intellectuals as well. Yet Lacouture has now published a book about subsequent developments in Vietnam and Cambodia in which he admits his “shame for having contributed . . . to the installation of one of the most oppressive regimes history has ever known.” Indeed, Lacouture does not stop with a mere confession of sins; he calls into questions an entire class of left-wing intellectuals and journalists who distorted the truth, withheld information, and lied to their readers. In an interview with François Fejto in Milan’s Il Giornale Nuovo, Lacouture acknowledged that:

With regard to Vietnam, my behavior was sometimes more that of a militant than of a journalist. I dissimulated certain defects of [North] Vietnam at war against the Americans, because I believed that the cause of the [North] Vietnamese was good and just enough so that I should not expose their errors. . . . I believed it was not opportune to expose the Stalinist nature of the [North] Vietnamese regime in 1972, right at the time when Nixon was bombing Hanoi. But if we reexamine the dossier, it is true that I did not tell all that I knew about Vietnam.

Lacouture calls people like himself “vehicles and intermediaries for a lying and criminal propaganda, ingenuous spokesmen for tyranny in the name of liberty,” and maintains that French intellectuals have still not come to terms with the true nature of their behavior. Le Monde, for example, now describes the Vietnam regime as an inhuman tyranny, but this prestigious journal has still not admitted it was wrong about Vietnam for nearly two decades. “The newspaper,” Lacouture says, “has changed its mind but no journalist admits having misjudged things.”

It is perhaps too much to ask of the French Left that it embark on a thoroughgoing critical examination of its own hypocrisy. But what critical examination there has been is significant enough. In Fejto’s words, the phenomenon goes beyond the cases of Vietnam and Cambodia “and touches those fundamental attitudes which for such a long time favored the cynical exploitation of generous instincts and impulses by forces which had about them nothing of the generous or humanitarian.” In short, there is a growing recognition of the double-think which has all too often been used to justify tyrannies of the Left as “progressive.”

The same process of what might, at least by extension, be called de-Stalinization can be seen in the debate over freedom in the Third World which ran last summer in Nouvel Observateur (the semi-official weekly of the French Socialist party). The central theme was stated by a regular columnist, Jacques Julliard, who observed that while the European Left has by now abandoned the illusion that the struggle between the Soviet Union and the United States in Western Europe is a struggle between good and evil, this myth remains in force when it comes to the Third World. As the Soviet Union, which is the “locus par excellence of lies and oppression,” has moved in to help African countries emerging from colonialism, it has managed to pass itself off as the genuine friend of the Third World, and many French leftists have convinced themselves of the “progressive” nature of Soviet assistance. “Unfortunately, since the installation of socialism in Cambodia, Vietnam, and Guinea, we know the result. There is no African socialism that is not totalitarian.” For Julliard, this should mark the end of a monumental self-deception on the part of the European Left. The time has come, he writes, to invoke the criterion of human rights to distinguish between those societies of which one can approve and those which must be condemned. Left and Right no longer provide any meaningful guidelines; the touchstone must be human freedom. Gulags are Gulags, whether in Siberia or Santiago, and tyrants are tyrants, whether in Moscow, Seoul, or Peking.

It may justly be said that all this amounts merely to what the Italians call “the discovery of the umbrella.” The tyrannical nature of much of what passes for “progressive” or “socialist” has been obvious for some time. But for men like Julliard and Lacouture, and for publications like Nouvel Observateur and Le Monde, which not only served for years as the leading edge of French intellectual support for Communist regimes in the Third World but also had a hand in the movement that narrowly missed bringing the French Communist party (PCF) into the government last spring, it is a very big change indeed.

The rediscovery of liberty by the non-Communist part of the French Left has gone hand in hand with a rejection of non-Western models of “socialism.” In an article provocatively entitled “A Plea for an Adult Socialism” in Nouvel Observateur last October, Leo Hamon urged his Socialist-party comrades to abandon the messianic illusions of the recent past and adopt social democracy as their program. For the moment at least, the old inferiority complex of French Socialists vis-à-vis the PCF has given way to a vigorous assertion of Western values. In the wake of the electoral debacle, the Socialist party has actually been strengthened, while the Communists are slipping further and are racked by internal turmoil. And, as is generally the case in such matters, there has been a spillover across the Alps into Italy.



Before they took place, the French elections of last spring were widely viewed as the possible beginning of a great wave of success for European Communist parties. Were the Union of the Left to win in France, it was argued, the Italian Communist party (PCI) would be propelled into the government shortly thereafter, and the prospects for the Spanish Communists would also be greatly improved. Instead, last spring marked a most difficult period for Communism on the continent. Not only did the Union of the Left lose, but its defeat was clearly the result of PCF provocations. Moreover, this Communist-induced setback in France occurred barely a week after the sensational kidnapping of Aldo Moro in Rome; in May, after the former Prime Minister was found murdered by the Red Brigades, local elections in Italy registered the most serious losses for the PCI in nearly thirty years.

The political preconditions for the entry of the Communists into the Italian government no longer exist. Whereas less than a year ago the Communists could plausibly argue that their popular support was growing relentlessly, today they are trying to find ways to contain their losses. Any attempt to bring the party into the government would provoke a grave reaction from a wide spectrum of the electorate.

The lessons of France have not been wasted on the Italian Socialist party (PSI). Under the new leadership of Bettino Craxi, who harbors distinctly hostile sentiments toward the Communists, the PSI, moribund for the past decade, has shown some signs of life. For the moment, Craxi appears the most aggressive and imaginative major party leader in the country. While it may be difficult to generate much enthusiasm for a party that has regularly disappointed its supporters ever since World War I, there is some hope that the PSI has finally made a decision about its historic role, and is ready to act on it.

The political atmosphere in Italy has now changed to the point where the tiny but influential Republican party (whose most prominent spokesman, Ugo La Malfa, wrote a wildly pro-Communist article for Foreign Affairs last year) has not only expressed its disappointment over the PCI’s tough Leninist stance and pro-Soviet line, but has even attacked the Communists for their consistently anti-Israel bias:

In constantly following the foreign policy line of the Soviet Union, the Western European Communist parties have embraced the theses of Moscow on the Middle East. But the anti-Israeli and anti-Zionist themes in Soviet propaganda and the Soviet press translate themselves into pure and simple anti-Semitism. The Western European parties do not go quite that far, but neither do they manage to stop short of the dividing line. . . . The efforts of the Communist press to distinguish between an anti-Israel position and an anti-Jewish one are so inadequate that they can hardly be understood by the average reader.

Hand in hand with the discovery that the PCI is not a Western, democratic party like other parties has come the spectacular stroke of the election of Pope John Paul II, a man who symbolizes the triumph of Catholicism over Communism in Poland. As an Italian commentator wrote, one now has the ironic spectacle of a Communist mayor of Rome who knows nothing about real Communism, face to face with a vicar of Rome who knows everything about it.

Finally there is the miracle of Spain, which in three years has passed from dictatorship to democracy in a way no one believed possible at the time of Franco’s death in 1975. And the Spanish have done it on their own: no emergency economic aid of the sort offered every other European country emerging from the shadow of fascism (whether via the Marshall Plan or the kind of special assistance Portugal has received); no special diplomatic favors (indeed, there has been considerable hostility to Spain’s request to enter the Common Market); and certainly no special attention from the United States, despite the critical geopolitical importance of Spain. There appears to be a fairly solid consensus at the center of Spanish politics, favoring the formation of Center-Left and Center-Right governments for the foreseeable future. Here, as elsewhere, there is a general agreement to stick to the dull but civilized rules of parliamentary politics.




Yet these tendencies in France, Spain, and (to a lesser degree) Italy must be seen in the perspective of several trends in the opposite direction which, if they continue, may seriously imperil the democratic revival.

In Italy, years of Communist influence in the media and in educational institutions have produced a broad-based shift away from Western beliefs and toward a romantic Third-Worldism. In late November, for example, a national conference of “solidarity with the peoples of Southern Africa” was held in the Communist stronghold of Reggio Emilia. Sponsored by the Communists, the conference culled participants and supporters from nearly every leading political party and trade union in the country. Sandro Pertini, the Socialist President of the Republic, sent in a message of support, and speeches endorsing the radical “liberation” movements in Southern Africa came from representatives of the PCI, the Christian Democrats, the Socialists, and even the Under Secretary of State. The breadth of support was notable, since the tone of the conference was in line with just the sort of thing that Jean Lacouture now deplores so intensely in France. That the most prestigious representatives of virtually every political party in Italy were eager to participate shows how far they have traveled along the path away from the traditions of the Atlantic alliance.

If Italy is one example of the contradictory tendencies at work in Europe today—toward a revived perception of the importance of Western traditions on the one hand and toward an acquiescence in widespread Communist influence on the other—the Federal Republic of Germany is a second example. At the same time that Chancellor Schmidt has taken the lead in urging a higher degree of European unity, others in his Social Democratic party (SPD) are speaking about the possibility of German neutrality. Last fall, a major scandal erupted in the Federal Republic when it was reported that Egon Bahr, the Secretary General of the SPD and one of Willy Brandt’s closest collaborators, had held secret meetings in the Kremlin where he had spoken of the desirability of creating a neutral zone in Central Europe that would lead to the reunification of Germany and its withdrawal from NATO. Although vigorously denied by Bahr and Brandt, the reports were taken with sufficient seriousness in Washington to prompt Zbigniew Brzezinski to warn against tendencies of “auto-Finlandization” in Germany.

The Bahr plan was hardly news; an account of his thinking had been published in America as early as 1973, and the plan was apparently known to American experts some years before. But the timing of the report—at a moment when American strength was perceived to be dropping—was significant. The Germans know full well that their country is likely to be the first battleground of any future East-West conflict, and if they become convinced that the American nuclear umbrella is insufficient to deter the East, prudence would dictate that they make their peace with the Kremlin. Moreover, the Soviet Union has every reason to encourage those Germans who are willing to entertain the notion of a neutral Germany, by holding out the mirage of reunification as the prize.

Thus Bahr’s own predilections (which are shared by many other influential members of the SPD) fit well with the accounts of his rumored meetings with Brezhnev. And to judge by events, Bahr’s ideas are gaining ground in the Federal Republic. Schmidt himself is said to have taken great pains that the final text of his recent Newsweek interview with Arnaud de Borchgrave be free of any hostile references to the Soviet Union (while swinging hard at the United States), and the German government complained last fall and winter that future NATO maneuvers ought to be more restrained than in the past. While no one doubts the sincerity of Schmidt’s commitment to NATO, or the depth of his Western attachment, the mounting rhythm of Ostpolitik cannot be denied. The Germans are keenly aware of the way the wind is blowing these days.

In addition, there is a strong nationalistic sentiment in the Federal Republic which in a sense makes the Bonn government hostage to East German demands. In the past, the Federal Republic has shown great willingness to aid East Germany by making large contributions to the DDR in return for the emigration of its citizens to the West (the price per East German has been calculated at between $30,000 and $50,000). Recently, an agreement was signed to open autobahn traffic between West Berlin and East Germany in exchange for several billion dollars of aid. All of this is carried out under the banner of Ostpolitik, and is rationalized by the hope of “Westernizing” East Germany. In practice, however, it dilutes German criticism of the East, makes German leaders reluctant to challenge the Russians, and encourages the Bahrs of the Federal Republic to push ahead with their schemes for the neutralization of Central Europe.




Few could have anticipated the surprising signs of vigor shown by the French intelligentsia, which only a few months ago was demanding the victory of the Union of the Left. Fewer still could have anticipated the revival of the Italian Socialist party, or the heartening democratic achievement of Spain. Yet by the same token few could have predicted the signs of Finlandization in West Germany. What has provoked this curiously contradictory sequence of developments?

Many West Europeans believe that the underlying factor is Washington. For more than three decades, the basic direction of Western policy—monetary or military—has come from the United States, and the Europeans have largely entrusted the defense of the West—from NATO to Japan—to American forces. Now all this is changing. The drastic reduction in the role of the United States in world affairs suggests that Europe had better start fending for itself. For some this means a newly strengthened commitment to democratic institutions and Western values; for others, it has meant an accommodation to the inevitable political triumph of the Soviet Union in Europe.

The relationship between the United States and Western Europe is a unique one, thanks to a common culture and a series of alliances. But it is also a part of America’s global role, and as such it has been seriously affected by the global shift in favor of Soviet power. It is thus no accident that the most worrisome signs of Finlandization come from countries which border on the Iron Curtain, while countries more distant from Soviet military power are experiencing something of a democratic revival. If the United States were firm in its resolve and serious about its power, the former development would be a relatively minor concern while the latter could be expected to continue apace. But as things stand, one must wonder how long the rejuvenated forces of anti-totalitarianism can continue their encouraging activity. When the President announced in December that he had accepted Chinese terms for normalization, it suggested to many of our allies that yet another devaluation had occurred in American self-interest. While West Europeans well understood the advisability of normalizing relations with the People’s Republic, they were baffled by the unilateral nature of the concessions. Following hard on cases of American quiescence in Africa and the Middle East, and on the uncertain quality of American support for the Shah, this merely added to the conviction that the United States was unreliable.

The very people who are spearheading the revival in Western Europe say that they are profoundly concerned by the lack of American leadership, even if this has ironically provided a useful stimulus to their own efforts. (In Africa, for instance, it was the Europeans, and especially the French, rather than the Americans, who moved to meet the threat in the Shaba province of Zaire; our own belated response was due in large part to European pressure and initiative.) Their task would be far easier, and the outcome more likely to be favorable, if the United States took the lead in asserting Western values and demonstrated an understanding of the processes already under way in their countries. In France, Italy, and Spain events have seemed to provide a major triumph for the Carter administration’s human-rights campaign. The French intelligentsia has abandoned many of its most dangerous illusions; the Italian and French Communists have been checked and challenged on the basis of human rights; and Spain has shown that a country can successfully and peacefully pass from tyranny to democracy. Yet the American government has been unaccountably subdued about these developments. Its silence suggests to the democratic forces in Europe that the United States either does not understand what is going on, or does not care. Yet if we cannot assure the Europeans that we are with them, and that they can count on us for their security, they may eventually find themselves having to make their peace with the hangman.

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