Commentary Magazine

The Rebirth of Europe, by Walter Laqueur


The Rebirth of Europe: A History of the Years since the Fall of Hitler.
by Walter Laqueur.
Holt, Rinehart & Winston. 434 pp. $8.95.

This, for many of us, was lived history, and to read about it in Walter Laqueur’s excellent book brings sharply back to mind what that aftermath of an apocalypse was like. The gutted buildings, the twisted railway tracks, the ration books, the black market, the privileged military enclaves, the exhortations of politicians as another cold, hungry winter approached—one had forgotten these things: the Vienna of The Third Man, the Berlin of Berlin Year Zero. These were not “the problems of advanced industrial society,” still less of “the affluent society.” They were just problems—the results of famine, disease, war, and of man’s intentional inhumanity to man, whose symbol and consequence were the camps for displaced persons.

Europeans have come a long way since then—it is the main purpose of Laqueur’s book to remind us of it. It is a far cry from the France of the existentialists and the power cuts which forced one to read their works by candlelight to that of the Maoists and the Club Mediterranée. Indeed, the one remaining common factor seems to be Jean-Paul Sartre. Western Europe, at any rate, was soon on the road to recovery as a result of American generosity as well as of its own efforts. For Western Europe was the great success story of American foreign policy, and, at a time when a certain discouragement over the results of commitments abroad has set in, it is no bad thing to be reminded of it.

In Eastern Europe it was a different story. The terror institutionalized by Stalin may have ceased with his death, but the ponderous weight of a bureaucracy composed of untalented time-servers and kept in position by the police has effectively prevented the attainment of Western European standards of living. Government in Eastern Europe has tended to be the apotheosis of the mediocre, all too concerned to suppress originality and brilliance. These are shabby tyrannies, but it is a cheering reflection that they have not wholly been able to prevent the manifestation of the free human spirit. In terms of Russia’s future, it is hard not to think that Solzhenitsyn will ultimately be more important than Sputnik.



As for Western Europe, it must now decide what to do with its affluence. Will it do anything? Is it not rather “bound” for an eternity of bliss spent in the very best hotel in Brighton—or Cannes? The question is not without its urgency, since it now rather looks as if European integration will go ahead with the enlargement of the European Economic Community, with a start being made on such matters as a unified monetary policy and technological cooperation. What is not so certain is whether out of an integrated economic area there will arise a political entity conscious of its own personality and capable of pursuing policies appropriate to its own considerable power. The New Europe, if it is to be more than a magnified joint-stock company, will have to decide the questions traditionally posed for every state—questions of war and peace and questions of political advantage.

For, while it seems unlikely that an integrated Europe will feel much need for global self-expression, matters closer to home than Vietnam or South Africa will undoubtedly demand its attention. A “regional” Europe—that is, a Europe concerned with its own immediate interests in a geographical sense—would find that the association agreements arrived at by the Brussels Commission (and so much disliked by Mr. Stans and the U.S. Department of Commerce) have sketched out a possible foreign policy for it. North Africa, West Africa, the countries around the Mediterranean—these are the areas that will receive the economic fall-out from a prosperous Europe. These are also the areas in which such a Europe could expect to exercise political influence. That that influence might be described as an enlightened neo-colonialism should not deter anyone in 1971.



Undoubtedly, however, the biggest problem to be faced by an emergent Europe will be that of its relations with Russia at a time when the latter’s military power looms larger than ever and there is talk of American withdrawal from the line of the Elbe. The dialogue between Europe and the Soviet Union is now beginning—unfortunately in dispersed order and a disadvantageous position on the European side. The present Russian regime (and any successor regime to it, whether officially Communist or not) will continue to believe in the secular European mission so dauntingly defined by Dostoevsky in his eulogy of Pushkin. Whether the desire to hug Europe to death will also persist is an open question—but not one which Europeans can assume will be necessarily answered in the negative.

The political tasks which await Europeans, therefore, are considerable ones, more realistic in their nature perhaps than the chimeras of global power or the paper exchanges of alliance politics. Laqueur’s book suggests a dogged indestructibility about the Western European political community which might lead one to optimistic conclusions concerning its ability to carry out the tasks before it.

Europeans are, in any case, condemned to optimism. For what is the alternative? To accept being a kind of Sweden living on the good pleasure of a precarious balance of power and overcompensating by yammering on about other people’s international misdemeanors? To be increasingly influenced by the preponderant power to the East? To depend forever on the United States? None of these possibilities presents Europe with an opportunity worthy of its historic past or present capacities. An emergent European political entity must exercise its own power in the measure that this is feasible and realistic. Here again history has lessons to teach—in the first place, that affluence is not enough (an intuition common to Kipling and to the French student rioters of May 1968, but more clearly realized by the former than the latter). Laqueur’s book might instill some self-confidence into the hearts of European statesmen. It might also suggest to the futurists that we can only have some idea of what the future will be when we have contemplated the past—and not only past statistics.



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