‘We were wise indeed, could we discern truly the signs of our own time;
and by knowledge of its wants and advantages, wisely adjust our own
position in it. Let us, instead of gazing wildly into the obscure distance,
look calmly around us, for a little, on the perplexed scene where we stand’.
‘The Creator of Europe made her small and even split her up into little
parts, so that our hearts could find joy not in size but in plurality’.
‘In Europe we were Asiatics, whereas in Asia we, too, are Europeans’.
When Communism fell and the Soviet Union imploded, they took with them not just an ideological system but the political and geographical coordinates of an entire continent. For forty-five years—beyond the living memory of most Europeans—the uneasy outcome of World War Two had been frozen in place. The accidental division of Europe, with all that it entailed, had come to seem inevitable. And now it had been utterly swept away. In retrospect the post-war decades took on a radically altered significance. Once understood as the onset of a new era of permanent ideological polarization they now appeared for what they were: an extended epilogue to the European civil war that had begun in 1914, a forty-year interregnum between the defeat of Adolf Hitler and the final resolution of the unfinished business left behind by his war.
With the disappearance of the world of 1945-1989, its illusions came into better focus. The much-heralded ‘economic miracle’ of post-war Western Europe had returned the region to the standing in world trade and output that it had lost in the course of the years 1914-45, with rates of economic growth subsequently settling back into levels broadly comparable to those of the late nineteenth century. This was no small achievement, but it was not quite the breakthrough into infinitely incremental prosperity that contemporaries had once fondly supposed.
Moreover, the recovery had been achieved not in spite of the Cold War but because of it. Like the Ottoman threat in an earlier time, the shadow of the Soviet empire shrank Europe but imposed upon the surviving rump the benefits of unity. In the absence of the imprisoned Europeans to their east the citizens of western Europe had flourished: free of any obligation to address the poverty and backwardness of the successor states to the old continental empires and secured by the American military umbrella against the political backwash of the recent past. Viewed from the East this was always tunnel vision. After the collapse of Communism and the break-up of the Soviet empire, it could no longer be sustained.
On the contrary. The happy cocoon of post-war Western Europe—with its economic communities and free-trade zones, its reassuring external alliances and redundant internal frontiers—seemed suddenly vulnerable, called upon to respond to the frustrated expectations of would-be ‘Euro-citizens’ to its East and no longer anchored to a self-evident relationship with the great power across its western ocean. Constrained once again to acknowledge their continent’s broad eastern marches when sketching a common European future, Western Europeans were perforce drawn back into the common European past.
As a consequence, the years 1945-1989 took on a parenthetical quality. Open warfare between states, a constituent feature of the European way of life for three hundred years, had reached apocalyptic levels between 1913 and 1945: some sixty million Europeans died in wars or state-sponsored killing in the first half of the twentieth century. But from 1945 to 1989 inter-state war disappeared from the continent of Europe.373 Two generations of Europeans grew up under the hitherto inconceivable impression that peace was the natural order of things. As an extension of politics, war (and ideological confrontation) was outsourced to the so-called Third World.
That said, it is worth recalling that while remaining at peace with their neighbors the Communist states practiced a distinctive form of permanent warfare upon their own societies: mostly in the form of rigorous censorship, enforced shortages and repressive policing but occasionally breaking into open conflict—notably in Berlin in 1953, in Budapest in 1956, in Prague in 1968 and in Poland sporadically from 1968 to 1981 and under martial law thereafter. In Eastern Europe the post-war decades thus appear rather different in collective memory (though no less parenthetical). But compared with what had gone before, Eastern Europe too had lived through an age of unusual, albeit involuntary, calm.
Whether the post-World War Two era, now fast retreating into memory with the onset of new world (dis-)orders, would become an object of nostalgic longing and regret depended very much on where and when you were born. From both sides of the Iron Curtain the children of the Sixties—i.e. the core cohort of the baby-boomer generation, born between 1946 and 1951—certainly looked back with affection upon ‘their’ decade and continued to harbour fond memories and an exaggerated sense of its significance. And in the West, at least, their parents remained grateful for the political stability and material security of the era, contrasted with the horrors that had gone before.
But those too young to recall the Sixties were often resentful of the solipsistic self-aggrandizement of its ageing memorialists; while many older people who had lived out their lives under Communism recalled not just secure jobs, cheap rents and safe streets but also and above all a grey landscape of wasted talents and blighted hopes. And on both sides of the divide there were limits to what could be recovered from the rubble of twentieth-century history. Peace, prosperity and security, to be sure; but the optimistic convictions of an earlier age were gone for good.
Before he committed suicide in 1942 the Viennese novelist and critic Stefan Zweig wrote longingly of the lost world of pre-1914 Europe, expressing ‘pity for those who were not young during those last years of confidence’. Sixty years later, at the end of the twentieth century, almost everything else had been recovered or rebuilt. But the confidence with which Zweig’s generation of Europeans entered the century could never be entirely recaptured: too much had happened. Inter-war Europeans recalling the Belle Epoquemight murmur ‘if only’; but in the aftermath of World War Two the overwhelming sentiment among anyone reflecting on the continent’s thirty-year catastrophe had been ‘never again’.374
In short, there was no way back. Communism in Eastern Europe had been the wrong answer to a real question. That same question in Western Europe—how to overcome the catastrophe of the first half of the twentieth century—had been addressed by setting recent history aside altogether, recapitulating some of the successes of the second half of the nineteenth century—domestic political stability, increased economic productivity and a steady expansion in foreign trade—and labeling them ‘Europe’. After 1989, however, prosperous, post-political Western Europe was faced once again with its eastern twin and ‘Europe’ had to be rethought.
The prospect of abandoning the cocoon was not universally welcomed, as we have seen, and writing in March 1993 for the Polish journal Polityka Jacek Kuroń did not exaggerate when he surmised that ‘certain Western political figures are nostalgic for the old world order and the USSR’. But that ‘old world order’—the familiar stasis of the past four decades—was gone forever. Europeans were now confronted not just with an uncertain future but also with a rapidly changing past. What had recently been very straightforward was now, once again, becoming rather complicated. The end of the twentieth century saw half a billion people on the western promontory of the Eurasian land mass increasingly taken up with the interrogationof their own identity. Who are Europeans? What does it mean to be European? What is Europe—and what kind of a place do Europeans want it to be?
There is little to be gained by seeking to distill the essence of ‘Europe’. The ‘Idea of Europe’—itself a much debated topic—has a long history, some of it quite reputable. But although a certain ‘idea’ of Europe—reiterated in assorted conventions and treaties—informs the Union to which most Europeans now belong, it offers only a very partial insight into the life they lead there. In an age of demographic transition and resettlement, today’s Europeans are more numerous and heterogeneous than ever before. Any account of their common condition at the dawn of the twenty-first century must begin by acknowledging that variety, by mapping the overlapping contours and fault-lines of European identity and experience.
The term ‘mapping’ is used advisedly. Europe, after all, is a place. But its frontiers have always been more than a little fluid. The ancient boundaries—of Rome and Byzantium, of the Holy Roman Empire and Christian Europe—correspond closely enough with later political divisions to suggest some genuine continuity: the uneasy encounter-points of Germanic and Slav Europe were as clear to an eleventh-century writer like Adam of Bremen as they are to us; the medieval frontiers of Catholic and Orthodox Christianity, from Poland to Serbia, were much as we find them today; and the concept of a Europe divided between east and west at the Elbe would have been familiar to the ninth-century administrators of the Carolingian Empire, had they thought in such terms.
But whether those long-established boundary lines are any guide to the whereabouts of Europe always depended upon where you happen to stand. To take one well-known case: by the eighteenth century most Hungarians and Bohemians had been Catholic for centuries and many of them were German speakers. But for enlightened Austrians, ‘Asia’ nevertheless began at the Landstrasse, the high road leading east out of Vienna. When Mozart headed west from Vienna en route for Prague in 1787, he described himself as crossing an oriental border. East and West, Asia and Europe, were always walls in the mind at least as much as lines on the earth.
Because much of Europe until recent times was not divided into states but instead accommodated within empires, it helps to think of the external markers of the continent not as frontiers but as indeterminate boundary-regions—marches, limes, militärgrenze,krajina: zones of imperial conquest and settlement, not always topographically precise but delimiting an important political and cultural edge. From the Baltic to the Balkans, such regions and their inhabitants have for centuries understood themselves as the outer guard of civilization, the vulnerable and sensitive point where the familiar world ends and barbarians are kept at bay.
But these borderlands are fluid and have often shifted with time and circumstance: their geographical implications can be confusing. Poles, Lithuanians and Ukrainians have all presented themselves in their literature and political myths as guarding the edges of ‘Europe’ (or Christianity).375 But as a brief glance at a map suggests, their claims are mutually exclusive: they can’t all be right. The same is true of competing Hungarian and Romanian narratives, or the insistence of both Croats and Serbs that it is their southern border (with Serbs and Turks respectively) that constitutes the vital outer defensive line of civilized Europe.
What this confusion shows is that the outer boundaries of Europe have for centuries been sufficiently significant for interested parties to press with great urgency their competing claims to membership. Being ‘in’ Europe offered a degree of security: an assurance—or at least a promise—of refuge and inclusion. Over the centuries it came increasingly to serve as a source of collective identity. Being a ‘border-state’. an exemplar and guardian of the core values of European civilization, was a source of vulnerability but also pride: which is why the sense of having been excluded and forgotten by ‘Europe’ made Soviet domination so particularly humiliating for many central and eastern European intellectuals.
Europe, then, is not so much about absolute geography—where a country or a people actually are—as relative geography: where they sit in relation to others. At the end of the twentieth century, writers and politicians in places like Moldova, Ukraine or Armenia asserted their ‘Europeanness’ not on historical or geographical grounds (which might or might not be plausible) but precisely as a defense against history and geography alike. Summarily released from Muscovite empire, these post-imperial orphan states looked now to another ‘imperial’ capital: Brussels.376
What these peripheral nations hoped to gain from the distant prospect of inclusion in the new Europe was less important than what they stood to lose by being left out of it. The implications of exclusion were already clear to even the most casual visitor by the early years of the new century. Whatever was once cosmopolitan and ‘European’ in cities like Cernovitz in Ukraine or Chisinau in Moldova had long since been beaten out of them by Nazi and Soviet rule; and the surrounding countryside was even now ‘a pre-modern world of dirt roads and horse-drawn carts, of outdoor wells and felt boots, of vast silences and velvet-black nights’.377 Identification with ‘Europe’ was not about a common past, now well and truly destroyed. It was about asserting a claim, however flimsy and forlorn, upon a common future.
The fear of being left out of Europe was not confined to the continent’s outer perimeter. From the perspective of Romanian-speaking Moldovans, their neighbors to the West in Romania proper were blessed by history. Unlike Moldova they were seen by the West as legitimate if under-performing contenders for EU membership and were thus assured of a properly European future. But seen from Bucharest the picture changes: it is Romania itself that is at risk of being left out. In 1989, when Nicolae Ceauşescu’s colleagues finally began to turn on him, they wrote a letter accusing the Conducator of trying to tear their nation away from its European roots: ‘Romania is and remains a European country. . . . You have begun to change the geography of the rural areas, but you cannot move Romania into Africa.’ In the same year the elderly Romanian playwright Eugène Ionesco described the country of his birth as ‘about to leave Europe for good, which means leaving history.’ Nor was this a new concern: in 1972 E. M. Cioran, looking back at his country’s grim history, echoed a widespread Romanian insecurity: ‘What depressed me most was a map of the Ottoman Empire. Looking at it, I understood our past and everything else’.378
Romanians—like Bulgarians, Serbs and others with good reason to believe that ‘core’ Europe sees them as outsiders (when it sees them at all)—alternate between defensively asserting their ur-European characteristics (in literature, architecture, topography, etc) or else acknowledging the hopelessness of their cause and fleeing West. In the aftermath of Communism, both responses were in evidence. While the former Romanian Prime Minister, Adrien Nastase, was describing for readers of Le Monde in July 2001 the ‘added value’ that Romania brings to Europe, his fellow Romanians constituted over half the total number of aliens apprehended while illegally crossing the Polish-German border. In a poll taken early in the new century, 52 percent of Bulgarians (and an overwhelming majority of those under 30) said that, given the chance, they would emigrate from Bulgaria—preferably to ‘Europe’.
This sense of being on the periphery of someone else’s centre, of being a sort of second-class European, is today largely confined to former Communist countries, nearly all of them in the zone of small nations that Tomáš Masaryk foresaw coming into being, from North Cape to Cape Matapan in the Peloponnese. But it was not always so. Within recent memory the continent’s other margins were at least as peripheral—economically, linguistically, culturally. The poet Edwin Muir described his childhood move from the Orkneys to Glasgow in 1901 as ‘one hundred and fifty years covered in a two days’ journey’; it is a sentiment that would not have been out of place half a century later. Well into the 1980s the highlands and islands at Europe’s edges—Sicily, Ireland, northern Scotland, Lapland—had more in common with one another, and their own past, than with the prosperous metropolitan regions of the centre.
Even now—indeed above all now—fault lines and boundaries cannot be counted upon to follow national frontiers. The Council of Baltic Sea States is a case in point. Established in 1992, it comprises Scandinavian participants: Denmark, Finland,Norway and Sweden; the three Baltic countries of the former USSR: Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania; Germany, Poland, Russia (and from 1995, doing violence to geography but at Scandinavian insistence, Iceland). This symbolic reassertion of ancient trading affinities was much appreciated by one-time Hanseatic cities like Hamburg or Lübeck—and even more welcome to the city managers of Tallinn and Gdansk, eager to position themselves at the centre of a re-invented (and Western-accented) Baltic community and take their distance from their continental hinterland and recent past.
But in other regions of some of the participating countries, notably Germany and Poland, the Baltic means little. On the contrary: in recent years the prospect of foreign earnings from tourism induced Craków, for example, to emphasize its southern orientation and market its erstwhile incarnation as the capital of Habsburg ‘Galicia’. Munich and Vienna, though competing for cross-border industrial investment, have rediscovered nonetheless a common ‘Alpine’ heritage facilitated by the virtual disappearance of the boundary separating southern Bavaria from Salzburg and the Tyrol.
Regional cultural distinctions, then, clearly matter—though economic disparities matter even more. Austria and Bavaria share more than just south-German Catholicism and Alpine scenery: in the course of recent decades both have been transformed into high-wage service economies dependent on technology rather than labour, outstripping in productivity and prosperity the older industrial regions further north. Like Catalonia, Italy’s Lombardy and Emilia-Romagna, France’s Rhône-Alpes region and the Île-de-France, Southern Germany and Austria—together with Switzerland, Luxembourg and parts of Belgian Flanders—constitute a common zone of European economic privilege.
Although absolute levels of poverty and economic disadvantage were still highest in the former Eastern bloc, the sharpest contrasts were now within countries rather than between them. Sicily and the Mezzogiorno, like southern Spain, were as far behind the booming north as they had been for many decades: by the late 1990s unemployment in southern Italy was running at three times the level north of Florence, while the gap in per capita GDP between north and south was actually greater than it had been in the 1950s.
In the UK, too, the gap between the wealthy regions of the south-east and the former industrial districts farther north had grown in recent years. London, to be sure, had boomed. Despite keeping its distance from the euro zone, the British capital was now the unchallenged financial center of the continent and had taken on a glitzy, high-tech energy that made other European cities seem dowdy and middle-aged. Crowded with young professionals and much more open to the ebb and flow of cosmopolitan cultures and languages than other European capitals, London at the end of the twentieth century appeared to have recovered its Swinging Sixties sheen—opportunistically embodied in the Blairites re-branding of their country as ‘Cool Britannia’.
But the gloss was paper thin. In the inflated housing market of Europe’s most overcrowded metropolis, the bus drivers, nurses, cleaners, schoolteachers, policemen and waiters who serviced the cosmopolitan new Britons could no longer afford to live near them and were constrained to find housing farther and farther away, commuting to work as best they could along the most crowded roads in Europe, or else on the country’s expensive and dilapidated rail network. Beyond the outer limits of Greater London, now extending its tentacular reach deep into the rural south-east, there was emerging a regional contrast unprecedented in recent English history.
At the end of the twentieth century, of England’s ten administrative regions only three (London, the South East, and East Anglia) reached or exceeded the national average wealth per capita. All the rest of the country was poorer, sometimes very much poorer indeed. The North East of England, once the heartland of the country’s mining and shipping industries, had a gross domestic product per head just 60 percent that of London. After Greece, Portugal, rural Spain, southern Italy, and the former Communist Länder of Germany, the UK in 2000 was the largest beneficiary of European Union structural funds—which is a way of saying that parts of Britain were among the most deprived regions of the EU. The country’s modest overall employment figures, a much-advertised source of pride for Thatcherites and Blairites alike, were skewed by the disproportionate size of the thriving capital city: unemployment in the North of England remained much closer to the worst levels in continental Europe
The marked regional disparities of wealth and poverty in Britain had been exacerbated by ill-conceived public policies; but they were also a predictable consequence of the end of the industrial era. In that sense they were, so to speak, organic. In Germany, however, comparable disparities were a direct if unintended consequence of a political decision. The absorption of the eastern Länder into a unified Germany had cost the Federal Republic more than one thousand billion euros in transfers and subsidies between 1991 and 2004. But far from catching up to the West, the eastern region of Germany by the late Nineties had actually begun to fall further behind.
Private German firms had no incentive to locate in the East—in Saxony or Mecklenburg—when they could find better workers for lower wages (as well as a superior transportation infrastructure and local services) in Slovakia or Poland. Ageing populations, poor education, low purchasing power, the westward departure of skilled workers and an entrenched hostility to foreigners on the part of those left behind meant that eastern Germany was distinctly unappealing to outside investors who now had many other options. In 2004, unemployment in the former West Germany was 8.5 percent; in the east it exceeded 19 percent. In September of that year the neo-Nazi National Democratic Party won 9 percent of the vote and returned twelve deputies to the parliament of Saxony.
The gulf of mutual resentment separating Wessies from Ossies in Germany was not just about jobs and joblessness or wealth and poverty, though from the eastern perspective this was its most obvious and painful symptom. Germans, like everyone else in the new Europe, were increasingly divided by a novel set of distinctions that cut athwart conventional geographical or economic divides. To one side stood a sophisticated elite of Europeans: men and women, typically young, widely traveled and well-educated, who might have studied in two or even three different universities across the continent. Their qualifications and professions allowed them to find work anywhere across the European Union: from Copenhagen to Dublin, from Barcelona to Frankfurt. High incomes, low airfares, open frontiers and an integrated rail network (see below) favoured easy and frequent mobility. For the purposes of consumption, leisure and entertainment as well as employment this new class of Europeans traveled with confident ease across their continent—communicating, like medieval clercs wandering between Bologna, Salamanca and Oxford, in a cosmopolitanlingua franca: then Latin, now English.
On the other side of the divide were to be found those—still the overwhelming majority—who could not be part of this brave new continent or else did not (yet?) choose to join: millions of Europeans whose lack of skills, education, training, opportunity or means kept them firmly rooted where they were. These men and women, the villeins in Europe’s new medieval landscape, could not so readily benefit from the EU’s single market in goods, services and labour. Instead they remained bound to their country or their local community, constrained by unfamiliarity with distant possibilities and foreign tongues and often far more hostile to ‘Europe’ than their cosmopolitan fellow citizens.
There were two notable exceptions to this new international class distinction that was starting to blur the old national contrasts. For jobbing artisans and laborers from Eastern Europe, the new work opportunities in London or Hamburg or Barcelona blended seamlessly with older-established traditions of migrant labour and seasonal overseas employment. There had always been men (and it was mostly men) who traveled to distant countries to find work: ignorant of foreign languages, regarded with hostile suspicion by their hosts and in any case intent upon returning home with their carefully saved earnings. There was nothing uniquely European about that, and Slovak house-painters—like Turkish car-workers or Senegalese peddlers before them—were not likely to be found dining out in Brussels, vacationing in Italy or shopping in London. All the same, theirs, too, was now a distinctly European way of life.
The second exception was the British—or, rather, the notoriously Euroskeptic English. Propelled abroad by the meteorological shortcomings of their native skies and a post-Thatcher generation of budget airlines offering to ferry them anywhere in continental Europe, sometimes for less than the cost of a pub lunch, a new generation of Brits no better educated than their parents nevertheless entered the twenty-first century as some of the most widely traveled, if not exactly cosmopolitan, Europeans of them all. The irony of this juxtaposition of popular English disdain and mistrust for the institutions and ambitions of ‘Europe’ with a widespread national desire to spend their spare time and money there was not lost on Continental observers, for whom it remained a perplexing oddity.
But then the British—like the Irish—did not have to learn foreign languages. They already spoke English. Elsewhere in Europe linguistic resourcefulness (as noted above) was fast becoming the continent’s primary disjunctive identity tag, a measure of personal social standing and collective cultural power. In small countries like Denmark or the Netherlands, it had long been accepted that monolingualism in a tongue spoken by almost no-one else was a handicap the nation could no longer afford. Students at the University of Amsterdam now studied in English, while the most junior bank clerk in a provincial Danish town was expected to be able to handle with confidence a transaction conducted in English. It helped that in Denmark and the Netherlands, as in many small European countries, students and bank clerks alike would long since have become at least passively fluent from watching un-dubbed English-language programmes on television.
In Switzerland, where anyone who completed a secondary education often mastered three or even four local languages, it was nonetheless thought easier, as well as more tactful, to resort to English (no-one’s first language) when communicating with someone from another part of the country. In Belgium, too, where—as we have seen—it was far less common for Walloons or Flemings to be comfortably conversant with the other’s language, both sides would resort readily to English as a common communications medium.
In countries where regional languages—Catalan, for example, or Basque—were now officially taught, it was not uncommon for young people (‘Generation E’—for Europe—as it was popularly known) dutifully to learn the local language but to spend their spare time—as a gesture of adolescent revolt, social snobbery and enlightened self-interest—speaking English. The loser was not the minority language or dialect—which anyway had scant local past and no international future—but the national tongue of the surrounding state. With English as the default medium of choice, major languages were now being forced into the shadows. As a distinctively European language Spanish, like Portuguese or Italian, was no longer widely taught outside its homeland; it was preserved as a vehicle of communication beyond the Pyrenees only thanks to its status as an official language of the European Union.379
German, too, was fast losing its place in the European language league. A reading knowledge of German had once been mandatory for anyone participating in the international scientific or scholarly community. Together with French, German had also been a universal language of cultivated Europeans—and until the war it had been the more widespread of the two, a language in active daily use from Strasbourg to Riga.380 But with the destruction of the Jews, the expulsion of the Germans and the arrival of the Soviets, central and eastern Europe was turned abruptly away from the German language. An older generation in the cities continued to read and—infrequently—speak German; and in the isolated German communities of Transylvania and elsewhere it limped on as a marginal language of limited practical use. But everyone else learned—or at any rate was taught—Russian.
The association of the Russian language with Soviet occupation considerably restricted its appeal, even in countries like Czechoslovakia or Poland where linguistic contiguity made it accessible. Although citizens of the satellite states were obliged to study Russian, most people made little effort to master the language, much less speak it except when forced to do so.381 Within a few years of the fall of Communism it was already clear that one paradoxical effect of occupation by Germany and the Soviet Union had been to eradicate any sustained familiarity with their languages. In the lands that had for so long been trapped between Russia and Germany there was now only one foreign language that mattered. To be ‘European’ in eastern Europe after 1989, especially for the young, was to speak English.
For native German speakers in Austria, Switzerland or Germany itself, the steady provincializing of their language—to the point where even those whose own language derived closely from German, like the Dutch, no longer widely studied or understood it—was an accomplished fact and there was no point mourning the loss. In the course of the Nineties, major German firms like Siemens made a virtue of necessity and established English as their corporate working language. German politicians and business executives became notable for the ease with which they moved in anglophone circles.
The decline of French was another matter. As a language of commonplace daily use French had not played a significant role in Europe since the decline of the imperial aristocracies of the old regimes. Outside of France, only a few million Belgians, Luxemburgers and Swiss, together with pocket communities in the Italian Alps and the Spanish Pyrenees, used French as their native tongue—and many of them spoke it in dialect forms disparaged by the official guardians of the Académie Française. In strictly statistical terms, when compared to German—or Russian—French had long been on the European linguistic periphery.
But ever since the decline of Latin, French had been the language of cultivated cosmopolitan elites—and thus the European language par excellence. When, in the early years of the twentieth century, it was first proposed to introduce the teaching of French as part of the modern languages syllabus at Oxford University, more than one don opposed the idea on the plausible grounds that anyone worthy of admission to the university would already be fluent in French. Well into the middle years of the century, comparable assumptions were still widely made—if not quite so boldly articulated—in academies and embassies everywhere. The present author can vouch for both the necessity and the sufficiency of French as a medium of communication among students from Barcelona to Istanbul as recently as 1970.
Within thirty years all that had changed. By the year 2000, French had ceased to be a reliable medium of international communication even among élites. Only in the UK, Ireland and Romania was it the recommended choice for schoolchildren embarking on a first foreign language—everyone else learnt English. In some parts of former Habsburg Europe, French was no longer even the second foreign language offered in schools, having been displaced by German. ‘Francophonie’—the worldwide community of French speakers, most of them in former colonies—remained a linguistic player on the world stage; but the decline of French in its European home was beyond dispute and probably beyond retrieval as well.
Even at the European Commission in Brussels, where French had been the dominant official language in the Community’s early years and where native French speakers in the bureaucracy thus exercised a significant psychological and practical advantage, things had changed. It was not so much the accession of Britain itself that brought about the shift—the seconded civil servants from London were all fluent in French—as the arrival of Scandinavians, who were fluent in English; the expansion (thanks to German unification and the accession of Austria) of the German-speaking community, now shedding its post-war reticence; and the prospect of new members from the East. Despite the use of simultaneous translators (to cover the 420 possible language combinations of the 25-member Union), communication in one of the Union’s three core languages was indispensable for anyone wishing to exercise real influence on policy and its implementation. And French was now in the minority.
Unlike the Germans, however, the French authorities did not respond by switching to English in order to ensure their commercial and political effectiveness. Although more and more young French people studied English and traveled abroad in order to use it, the official position became decidedly defensive: no doubt in part because of the uncomfortable coincidence of the decline of French language usage with the diminution of the country’s international role—something the UK had been spared because Americans too spoke English.
The initial French response to intimations of linguistic diminution was to insist that others continue to speak their language: as President Georges Pompidou had put it early in the 1970s, ‘Should French ever cease to be the primary working language of Europe, then Europe itself would never be fully European’. However, it soon became clear that this was a lost cause and intellectuals and politicians opted instead for a siege mentality: if French were no longer spoken beyond the country’s borders, then at least it must have an exclusive monopoly within them. A petition signed in July 1992 by 250 prominent personalities—including the writers Régis Debray, Alain Finkielkraut, Jean Dutourd, Max Gallo and Philippe Sollers—demanded that the government require by law the exclusive use of French in conferences and meetings held on French soil, films made with French funding, etc. Otherwise, they warned, ‘les angloglottes’ will have us all speaking English ‘or rather, American’.
French governments of every political persuasion were all too happy to oblige, if only pour le forme. ‘A battle for French is indispensable’, declared the Socialist Minister Catherine Tasca. ‘In international organizations, in the sciences, and even on the walls of our cities’. Two years later a conservative culture minister, Jacques Toubon, took up the theme, rendering explicit what Tasca had left unstated: that the object of anxiety was not just the decline of French but also and above all the hegemony of English. It would be better if the French learned something else—anything else: ‘Why’, asked Toubon, ‘should our children learn an impoverished English—something they can anyway pick up at any age—when they should be acquiring a deeper appreciation of German, Spanish, Arabic, Japanese, Italian, Portuguese or Russian?’
Toubon’s target—what he contemptuously dubbed the ‘mercantile English’ that was displacing French (‘the primary capital, the symbol of the dignity of the French people’)—was already moving out of reach even as he took aim. Intellectuals like Michel Serres might complain portentously that the streets of Paris during the Occupation had fewer names in German than they had today in English, but a younger generation reared on films, television shows, video games, internet sites and international pop music—and speaking a mobile French slang full of borrowed and adapted words and phrases—could not have cared less.
Legislation intended to oblige the French to speak French to one another was one thing—albeit honored largely in the breach. But the attempt to require foreign scholars, businessmen, think-tankers, lawyers, architects and everyone else to express themselves in French—or to understand it when spoken by others—anytime they gathered on French soil could only have one outcome: they would take their business and their ideas somewhere else. By the turn of the new century the truth had sunk in and most (though by no means all) French public figures and policy makers had resigned themselves to the harsh realities of twenty-first-century Europe. The new European élites, whoever they might be, did not and would not speak French: ‘Europe’ was no longer a French project.
In order to understand what sort of a place Europe was at the end of the second millennium it is tempting to trace, as we have done, its internal divisions and rifts and ruptures—echoing, unavoidably, the continent’s profoundly schismatic modern history and the incontrovertible variety of its overlapping communities, identities and histories. But Europeans’ sense of who they were and how they lived was shaped just as much by what bound them as by what divided them: and they were now bound together more closely than ever before.
The best illustration of the ‘ever-closer union’ into which Europeans had bundled themselves—or, more accurately, been bundled by their enlightened political leaders—was to be found in the ever-denser network of communications to which it gave rise. The infrastructure of intra-European transportation—bridges, tunnels, roads, trains and ferries—had expanded quite beyond recognition in the course of the last decades of the century. Europeans now had the fastest and (with the exception of the justly maligned British rail network) the safest system of railways in the world.
In a crowded continent whose relatively short distances favored ground transportation over air travel, railways were an uncontroversial object of sustained public investment. The same countries that had come together in Schengen now cooperated—with significant EU backing—to lay an extended network of improved high-speed tracks reaching from Madrid and Rome to Amsterdam and Hamburg, with plans for its further extension north into Scandinavia and eastwards through central Europe. Even in those regions and countries that might never be favored with TGV, ICE or ES trains382, Europeans could now travel throughout their continent—not necessarily much faster than a century before but with far less impediment.
As in the nineteenth century, railway innovation in Europe came at the expense of those towns and districts not served by it, which risked losing markets and population and falling behind their more fortunate competitors. But now there was an extensive network of high-speed roads as well—and outside of the former Soviet Union, the southern Balkans and the poorest provinces of Poland and Romania, most Europeans now had access to a car. Together with hydrofoil ferries and deregulated airlines, these changes made it possible for people to live in one city, work in another and shop or play somewhere else—not always cheaply, but with unprecedented efficiency. It became quite common for young European families to contemplate living in Malmö (Sweden) and working in Copenhagen (Denmark), for example; or commuting from Freiburg (Germany) to Strasbourg (France) or even across the sea from London to Rotterdam; or from Bratislava (Slovakia) to Vienna (Austria), reviving a once-commonplace Habsburg-era link. A genuinely integrated Europe was emerging.
Increasingly mobile, Europeans now knew one another better than ever before. And they could travel and communicate on equal terms. But some Europeans remaineddecidedly more equal than others. Two and a half centuries after Voltaire drew the contrast between a Europe that ‘knows’ and a Europe that ‘waits to be known’, that distinction retained much of its force. Power, prosperity and institutions were all clustered into the continent’s far western corner. The moral geography of Europe—the Europe in Europeans’ heads—consisted of a core of ‘truly’ European states (some of them, like Sweden, geographically quite peripheral) whose constitutional, legal and cultural values were held up as the model for lesser, aspirant Europeans: seeking, as it were, to become truly themselves.383
Eastern Europeans, then, were expected to know about the West. When knowledge flowed in the opposite direction, however, it was not always in very flattering ways. It is not just that impoverished eastern and southern Europeans travelled north and west to sell their labour or their bodies. By the end of the century certain eastern European cities, having exhausted their appeal as rediscovered outposts of a lost central Europe, had begun to reposition themselves in a profitable niche market as cheap and tawdry vacation spots for down-market mass tourism from the West. Tallinn and Prague in particular established an unenviable reputation as the venue for British ‘stag flights’—low-cost package weekends for Englishmen seeking abundant alcohol and cheap sex.
Travel agents and tour organizers whose clientele would once have settled for Blackpool or (more recently) Benidorm now reported rapturous enthusiasm for the exotic treats on offer in the European east. But then the English, too, were peripheral in their way—which is why Europe remained for so many of them an exotic object. In 1991 the Sofia weekly Kultura asked Bulgarians to which foreign culture they felt closest: 18 percent answered ‘French’, 11 percent ‘German’ (and 15 percent ‘American’). But only 1.3 percent acknowledged feeling any closeness to ‘English culture’.
The undisputed centre of Europe, for all its post-unification woes, was still Germany: in population and output by far the largest state in the EU, it was the very kernel of ‘core Europe’, as every Chancellor from Adenauer to Schröder had always insisted it must be. Germany was also the only country that straddled the former divide. Thanks to unification, immigration and the arrival of the Federal government, Greater Berlin was now six times the area of Paris—a symbol of the relative standing of the Union’s two leading members. Germany dominated the European economy. It was the largest trading partner of most member-states of the EU. Two-thirds of the Union’s net income came from the Federal Republic alone. And despite being its primary paymasters—or maybe for that reason—Germans remained among the EU’s most committed citizens. German statesmen would periodicallypropose the creation of a ‘fast-track’ of states committed to a fully integrated federal Europe, only to retreat in undisguised frustration at their partners’ procrastination.
If Germany—to pursue the Voltairian image a little further—was the country that ‘knew’ Europe best, it was appropriate that at the beginning of the twenty-first century two other former imperial states should have been most insistently seeking to be ‘known’ by it. Like Germany, Russia and Turkey had once played an imperial role in European affairs. And many Russians and Turks had shared the uncomfortable fate of Europe’s ethnic German communities: displaced heirs of an autocratic power now reduced to resented and vulnerable minorities in someone else’s nation state, the tidal refuse of imperial retreat. In the late 1990s it was estimated that more than one hundred million Russians lived outside of Russia in the independent countries of eastern Europe.384
But there the resemblance ended. Post-Soviet Russia was a Eurasian empire rather than a European state. Preoccupied with violent rebellions in the Caucasus, it was maintained at a distance from the rest of Europe by the new buffer states of Belarus, Ukraine and Moldova as well as by its own increasingly illiberal domestic politics. There was no question of Russia joining the EU: new entrants, as we have seen, were required to conform to ‘European values’—with respect to the rule of law, civic rights and freedoms and institutional transparency—that Vladimir Putin’s Moscow was very far from acknowledging, much less implementing.385 In any event, Russian authorities were more interested in building pipelines and selling gas to the EU than in joining it. Many Russians, including residents of the western cities, did not instinctively think of themselves as Europeans: when they traveled west they spoke (like the English) of ‘going to Europe’.
Nevertheless, Russia had been a ‘hands-on’ European power for three hundred years and the legacy remained. Latvian banks were the target of takeovers by Russian businessmen. A Lithuanian president, Rolandas Paksas, was forced out of office in 2003 under suspicion of close links with the Russian mafia. Moscow retained its Baltic enclave around Kaliningrad and continued to demand unrestricted transit (through Lithuania) for Russian freight and military traffic, as well as visa-free travel for Russian citizens visiting the EU. Laundered cash from the business undertakings of Russian oligarchs was funnelled through the property market in London and the French Riviera.
In the short run, Russia was thus a decidedly uncomfortable presence on Europe’s outer edge. But it was not a threat. The Russian military was otherwise engaged and anyway in dilapidated condition. The health of the Russian population was a matter of serious concern—life expectancy for men especially was falling precipitately and international agencies had for some time been warning that the country had seen a revival of tuberculosis and was on the verge of an AIDS epidemic—but this was primarily a source of concern for Russians themselves. For the immediate future Russia was decidedly preoccupied with its own affairs.
In the longer run, the simple fact of Russia’s proximity, its sheer size and unmatched fossil-fuel reserves, must inevitably cast a shadow on the future of an energy-poor European continent. Already in 2004, half of Poland’s natural gas and 95 percent of its oil came from Russia. But in the meantime what the Russian authorities and individual Russians were seeking from Europe was ‘respect’. Moscow wished to be more intimately involved in intra-European decision making, whether in NATO, in the administration of Balkan settlements, or in trade agreements (both bilateral and through the World Trade Organization): not because decisions taken in Russia’s absence would necessarily be prejudicial to its interests but as a point of principle.
European history, it seemed to many observers, had come full circle. As in the 18th century so in the 21st: Russia was both in Europe and outside it, Montesquieu’s ‘nation d’Europe’ and Gibbon’s ‘Scythian wilderness’. For Russians, the European West remained what it had been for centuries, a contradictory object of attraction and repulsion, of admiration and ressentiment. Russia’s rulers and people alike remained markedly sensitive to outside opinion while evincing deep suspicion of all foreign criticism or interference. History and geography had bequeathed to Europeans a neighbour they could neither ignore nor accommodate.
The same might once have been said of Turkey. For nearly seven hundred years the Ottoman Turks had been Europe’s ‘other’, supplanting the Arabs who had occupied the role for the previous half millennium. For many centuries ‘Europe’ began where the Turks ended (which was why Cioran was so depressed to be reminded of Romania’s long years under Ottoman rule); and it was commonplace to speak of Christian Europe being periodically ‘saved’—whether at the gates of Vienna, or Budapest, or at the 1571 Battle of Lepanto—from the jaws of Turkish Islam. From the mid-eighteenth century, as Ottoman Turkey slipped into decline, the ‘Eastern Question’—how to manage the Ottoman Empire’s decline and what to do with the territories now emerging from centuries of Turkish rule—was the most pressing challenge facing European diplomats.
Turkey’s defeat in World War I, the overthrow of the Ottomans, and their replacement by Kemal Ataturk’s ostentatiously secular, modernizing state, had taken the Eastern Question off the European agenda. Now governed from Ankara, the Turks had troubles enough of their own; and although their removal from the Balkans and the Arab Middle East had bequeathed a tangled web of conflicts and choices with momentous long-term consequences for Europe and the world, the Turks themselves were no longer part of the problem. Had it not been for Turkey’s strategic location athwart the Soviet Union’s sea route to the Mediterranean, the country might well have disappeared altogether from Western consciousness.
Instead, Ankara became for the duration of the Cold War an accommodating participant in the Western alliance, contributing to NATO a rather significant contingent of soldiers. American missiles and bases were established in Turkey as part of the cordon sanitaire ringing the Soviet frontiers from Baltic to Pacific, and Western governments not only furnished Turkey with copious sums in aid but looked benevolently and uncritically upon its unstable dictatorial regimes—often the outcome of military coups—and their unrestrained abuse of minority rights (notably those of the Kurds in the country’s far east, one fifth of the total population). Meanwhile, Turkish ‘guest workers’, like the rest of the Mediterranean basin’s surplus rural population, migrated in large numbers to Germany and other Western European lands in search of jobs.
But the Ottoman legacy would return to haunt the new Europe. With the end of the Cold War, Turkey’s distinctive location took on a different significance. The country was no longer a frontier outpost and barrier state in an international geopolitical confrontation. Instead it was now a conduit, caught between Europe and Asia, with ties and affinities in both directions. Although Turkey was formally a secular republic, most of its seventy million citizens were Muslims. Many older Turks were not especially orthodox, but with the rise of radical Islam there were growing fears that even Ataturk’s ruthlessly imposed secular state might prove vulnerable to a new generation rebelling against their secularized parents and looking for roots in an older heritage of Ottoman Islam.
But Turkey’s educated professional and business elites were disproportionately located in the European city of Istanbul and identified enthusiastically with Western dress, culture and practices. Like other ambitious eastern Europeans they saw Europe—European values, European institutions, European markets and careers—as the only possible future for them and their ambivalently situated country. Their goal was clear: to escape out of history and into ‘Europe’. Moreover, this was one objective they shared with the traditionally influential officer corps, who identified wholeheartedly with Ataturk’s dream of a secular state and expressed open irritation at creeping Islamisation in Turkish public life.
However, Europe—or at least Brussels—was more than a little hesitant: Turkey’s application to join the European Union lay unaddressed for many years. There were good reasons for caution: Turkey’s prisons, its treatment of domestic critics and its inadequate civil and economic codes were just some of many issues that would need to be addressed before it could hope to get beyond a strictly trading relationship with its European partners. Senior European commissioners like the Austrian Franz Fischler openly voiced doubts about the country’s long-term democratic credentials. And then there were practical difficulties: as a member-state Turkey would be the second largest in the Union after Germany, as well as one of the poorest—the gulf between its prosperous western edge and the vast, impoverished east was huge and, given the opportunity, millions of Turks might well head west into Europe in search of a living wage. The implications for national immigration policies, as well as for the EU’s budget, could hardly be ignored.
But the real impediments lay elsewhere.386 If Turkey entered the EU, the Union would have an external frontier abutting Georgia, Armenia, Iran, Iraq and Syria. Whether or not it made geographical sense to take ‘Europe’ to within one hundred miles of Mosul was a legitimate question; in the circumstances of the time it was unquestionably a security risk. And the further Europe stretched its frontiers, the more it was felt by many—including the drafters of the constitutional document of 2004—that the Union should explicitly state what it was that defined their common home. This, in turn, induced a number of politicians in Poland, Lithuania, Slovakia and elsewhere—not to mention the Polish Pope in Rome—to try unsuccessfully to insert into the preamble to a new European constitutional text a reminder that Europe was once Christian Europe. Had not Václav Havel, speaking at Strasbourg in 1994, reminded his audience that the ‘European Union is based on a large set of values, with roots in antiquity and Christianity’?
Whatever else they were, Turks were assuredly not Christian. The irony was that precisely for this reason—because they could not define themselves as Christian (or ‘Judeo-Christian’)—would-be European Turks were even more likely than other Europeans to emphasize the secular, tolerant and liberal dimensions of European identity.387 They were also, and with increasing urgency, trying to invoke European values and norms as a lever against reactionary influences in Turkish public life—a goal that the member-states of Europe itself had long encouraged.
But although in 2003 the Turkish parliament finally removed, at European bidding, many longstanding restrictions on Kurdish cultural life and political expression, the lengthy hesitation-waltz performed by governments and officials at Brussels had begun to exact a price. Turkish critics of EU membership pointed insistently to the humiliation of a once-imperial nation, now reduced to the status of a supplicant at the European door, importuning support for its application from its former subject nations. Moreover, the steady growth of religious sentiment in Turkey not only produced an electoral victory for the country’s moderate Islamist party but encouraged the national parliament to debate a motion to make adultery, once again, a criminal offence.
In response to explicit warnings from Brussels that this could definitively jeopardize Ankara’s application to join the EU, the motion was abandoned and in December 2004 the European Union at last agreed to open accession talks with Ankara. But the damage was done. Opponents of Turkish membership—and there were many, in Germany388 and France as well as closer to home in Greece or Bulgaria—could point once again to its unsuitability. In 2004 the retiring Dutch EU Commissioner Frits Bolkestein warned of the coming ‘Islamisation’ of Europe. The likelihood of negotiations proceeding smoothly diminished still further—Günter Verheugen, the EU Commissioner for enlargement, acknowledged that he did not expect Turkey to become a member of the Union ‘before 2015’. Meanwhile, the cost of future rejection or further delays—to Turkish pride and the political stability of Europe’s vulnerable edge—ratcheted up another notch. The Eastern Question was back.
That history should have weighed so heavily upon European affairs at the start of the twenty-first century was ironic, considering how lightly it lay upon the shoulders of contemporary Europeans. The problem was not so much education—the teaching or mis-teaching of history in schools, though in some parts of southeastern Europe this too was a source of concern—as the public uses to which the past was now put. In authoritarian societies, of course, this was an old story; but Europe, by its self-definition, was post-authoritarian. Governments no longer exercised a monopoly over knowledge and history could not readily be altered for political convenience.
Nor was it, for the most part. The threat to history in Europe came not from the deliberate distortion of the past for mendacious ends, but from what might at first have seemed a natural adjunct to historical knowledge: nostalgia. The final decades of the century had seen an escalating public fascination with the past as a detached artifact, encapsulating not recent memories but lost memories: history not so much as a source of enlightenment about the present but rather as an illustration of how very different things had once been. History on television—whether narrated or performed; history in theme parks; history in museums: all emphasized not what bound people to the past but everything that separated them from it. The present was depicted not as heir to history but as its orphan: cut off from the way things were and the world we have lost.
In eastern Europe, nostalgia drew directly upon regret for the lost certainties of Communism, now purged of its darker side. In 2003 the Museum of Decorative Arts in Prague mounted an exhibition of ‘pre-revolutionary clothing’: boots, underwear, dresses and the like from a world that had only ended fourteen years beforebut was already an object of detached fascination. The exhibition attracted many older people for whom the grey sameness of the shoddily-made items on display must have been a recent memory. And yet the response of visitors suggested a degree of affection and even regret that caught the curators quite by surprise.
Ostalgie, as it was known in Germany, drew on a similar vein of forgetful remembering. Considering that the GDR—to adapt Mirabeau’s description of Hohenzollern Prussia—was little more than a security service with a state, it demonstrated in the glow of retrospect a remarkable capacity to evoke affection and even longing. While Czechs were admiring their old clothes, Germans were flocking to Goodbye Lenin: a film whose ostensible mocking of the shortages, dogmas and general absurdity of life under Erich Honecker was knowingly offset by a certain sympathy for its subject and more than a little ambivalence at its sudden loss.
But Germans and Czechs, like other central Europeans, have had all too much experience of sudden, traumatic national re-starts. Their selective nostalgia for whatever might be retrieved from the detritus of lost pasts made a lot of sense—it was not by chance that Edgar Reitz’s Heimat: Eine Deutsche Chronik attracted an average of nine million West German viewers per episode when it was televised in 1984. The obsession with nostalgia that swept across the rest of Western Europe in the last years of the old century, giving rise to heritage industries, memorials, reconstructions, reenactments and renovations, is not so readily accounted for.
What the historian Eric Hobsbawm described in 1995 as ‘the great age of historical mythology’ was not of course unprecedented—Hobsbawm himself had written brilliantly about the ‘invention of tradition’ in nineteenth-century Europe, at the dawning of the national age: the sort of ersatzculture dismissed by Edwin Muir (writing of Burns and Scott in Scotland 1941) as ‘sham bards for a sham nation’. But the creative re-imagining of the national past in France and the UK at the end of the twentieth century was of another order altogether.
It was not by chance that history-as-nostalgia was so very pronounced in these two national settings in particular. Having entered the twentieth century as proud imperial powers, both countries had been stripped of territory and resources by war and decolonization. The confidence and security of global empire had been replaced by uneasy memories and uncertain future prospects. What it meant to be French, or British, had once been very clear, but no longer. The alternative, to become enthusiastically ‘European’, was far easier in small countries like Belgium or Portugal, or in places—like Italy or Spain—where the recent national past was best left in shadow.389 But for nations reared within living memory on grandeur and glory, ‘Europe’ would always be an uncomfortable transition: a compromise, not a choice.
Institutionally speaking, the British turn to nostalgia began almost immediately after World War Two, when the Labour Minister Hugh Dalton established a ‘National Land Fund’ to acquire sites and buildings of ‘beauty and history’ for the nation, to be administered by a National Trust. Within a generation ‘NT’ properties—parks, castles, palaces and ‘areas of outstanding natural beauty’ had become prominent tourist attractions: some of them still occupied by their original owners, who had bequeathed their heirlooms to the nation in return for significant fiscal relief.
From the Fifties through the Seventies a reassuring version of the recent past surfaced and resurfaced in the form of war films, costume dramas and clothing: the recycling of Edwardian fashion, from teddy boys to hirsute facial ornaments, was a particular feature of this trend—culminating, in 1977, in a self-consciously ‘retro’ and nostalgic celebration of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee amid street parties, photographic exhibits and nationwide invocation of older and better times. But after the Thatcherite revolution of the Eighties even this element of continuity was lost. In the course of that decade the Britain—more precisely the England—that could feel a certain warm glow of recognition when looking back to the ’40s, or even to 1913, was quite swept away.
In its place there emerged a country incapable of relating to its immediate past except through the unintentional irony of denial, or else as a sort of disinfected, disembodied ‘heritage’. The denial was well captured by the insecurities of the old educational establishment of Oxford and Cambridge, humiliatingly constrained in the new Blairite atmosphere of egalitarian opportunism to insist on their ‘anti-élitism’; or in the grotesque self-deprecation of cultural institutions like London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, reduced in the 1990s to marketing itself with wink and nod as ‘an ace caff’ with quite a nice museum attached’.
As for the nation’s heritage, it was quite avowedly transformed into a business proposition, the ‘heritage industry’: promoted and underwritten by a new government ‘Department of National Heritage’. Established in 1992 by a Conservative government but in conformity with plans originally drafted under Labour, the new ministry would later be absorbed under Tony Blair’s New Labour governments into a revealingly labeled ‘Department for Culture, Media and Sport’. The ecumenical background is significant: heritage was not a political-party project. The past was not abused or exploited; it was sanitized and given a happy face.
Barnsley, at the heart of the defunct South Yorkshire coalfield, was a case in point. Once an important mining hub, Barnsley in the post-Thatcher era had been transformed beyond recognition. Its town center was eviscerated, its civic core ripped up and replaced by tawdry pedestrian malls encased in concrete parking garages. All that remained were the town hall and a handful of neighbouring buildings, architectural relics of Barnsley’s nineteenth-century municipal glory, to which visitors were directed by fake-ancient, ‘olde-worlde’ signposts. Meanwhile, book-stalls in the local market now specialized in selling local nostalgia to the area’s own residents (Barnsley was not on any established tourist route)—sepia photos and prints and books with titles like The Golden Years of Barnsley or Memories of Old Doncaster (a neighbouring town): reminders of a world only recently lost and already half-forgotten.
A few miles from Barnsley, near the village of Orgreave, the ‘Battle of Orgreave’ was rerun for television in 2001. The June 1984 confrontation there between striking miners and police was the most violent and desperate of the clashes that marked Margaret Thatcher’s confrontation with the National Union of Miners that year. Since then many of the miners had been unemployed—some of them took part (for cash) in the re-enactment, dressed in appropriate ‘period’ clothing. This ‘performing’ of famous battles was an established English pastime. But that Orgreave should have been getting the ‘heritage’ treatment was illustrative of the accelerated historicizing now under way. After all, it took three hundred years before the English got around to re-enacting the Civil War Battle of Naseby a couple of hours to the south; Orgreave was being rerun for television just seventeen years after the fact.
The town of Barnsley figured prominently in The Road to Wigan Pier, where George Orwell wrote unforgettably of the tragedy of inter-war unemployment in Britain’s industrial working class. Seventy years on, in Wigan itself, there was now not only a pier (Orwell famously remarked upon its absence) but also a signpost on the nearby motorway encouraging people to visit it. Next to the cleaned-up canal there had been constructed ‘The Way We Were’ museum and ‘The Orwell at Wigan Pier’, a generic modern pub selling burgers and chips. Orwell’s fearful northern slums had indeed been erased—not only from the landscape but also from local memory: Memories of Wigan 1930-1970, a guide on sale at the museum, offered pretty sepia pictures of demure salesgirls and quaint, forgotten shops. But of the pits and the workers whose condition drew Orwell there and gave Wigan its dubious fame, there was not a word.
It was not just the North that had been given the Heritage treatment. In England’s West Midland potteries district, tourists and local schoolchildren were encouraged to learn how Josiah Wedgwood, the eighteenth-century ceramics manufacturer, fashioned his famous wares. But they would search in vain for evidence of how the pottery workers lived or why the region was called the Black Country (Orwell described how even the snow turned black from the belching smoke of a hundred chimneys). And such examples—where the way things ought to have been was substituted for the way they were (or are)—could be multiplied hundredfold.
Thus the real, existing British railways were an acknowledged national scandal; but by the year 2000 Great Britain had more steam railways and steam-railway museums than all the rest of Europe combined: one hundred and twenty of them, ninety-one in England alone. Most of the trains don’t go anywhere, and even those that do manage to interweave reality and fantasy with a certain marvelous insouciance: summer visitors to the West Riding of Yorkshire are invited to ride Thomas the Tank Engine up the Keighley-Haworth line to visit the Brontë Parsonage.
In contemporary England, then, history and fiction blend seamlessly. Industry, poverty, and class conflict have been officially forgotten and paved over. Deep social contrasts are denied or homogenized. And even the most recent and contested past is available only in nostalgic plastic reproduction. This countrywide bowdlerization of memory was the signal achievement of the nation’s new political élite. Riding on Mrs. Thatcher’s coattails, New Labour successfully dispensed with the past; and England’s thriving Heritage industry has duly replaced it with ‘the Past’.
The English capacity to plant and tend a Garden of Forgetting, fondly invoking the past while strenuously denying it, is unique. France’s otherwise comparable obsession with the nation’s heritage—le patrimoine—took a different form. In France, the fascination with identifying and preserving worthy objects and places from the national past went back many decades, beginning between the wars with agrarian exhibitions already nostalgic for the lost world of pre-1914 and accelerated by the Vichy regime’s efforts to replace the inconvenient urban present with an idealized rural past.
After the war, under the Fourth and Fifth Republics, the state poured considerable sums of money into national and regional preservation, accumulating a patrimoine culturel planned as a sort of tangible pedagogy: a frozen contemporary reminder (in the wake of a painful and turbulent century) of the country’s unique past. But by the last decades of the century France—the France of Presidents Mitterrand and Chirac—was changing beyond recognition. Now it was not the continuities with past glory—or past tragedy—that attracted comment, but rather the discontinuities. The past—the revolutionary past, the peasant past, the linguistic past, but above all the recent past, from Vichy to Algiers—offered little guidance for the future. Overtaken by demographic transformation and two generations of socio-geographic mobility, France’s once-seamless history seemed set to disappear from national memory altogether.
The anxiety of loss had two effects. One was an increase in the range of the official patrimoine, the publicly espoused body of monuments and artifacts stamped ‘heritage’ by the authority of the state. In 1988, at the behest of Mitterrand’s Culture Minister Jack Lang, the list of officially protected items in the patrimoine culturel of France—previously restricted to UNESCO-style heirlooms such as the Pont du Gard near Nîmes, or Philip the Bold’s ramparts at Aigues-Mortes—was dramatically enlarged.
It is revealing of the approach taken by Lang and his successors that among France’s new ‘heritage sites’ was the crumbling façade of the Hôtel du Nord on Paris’s Quai de Jemappes: an avowedly nostalgic homage to Marcel Carné’s 1938 film classic of that name. But Carné shot that movie entirely in a studio. So the preservation of a building (or the façade of a building) which never even appeared in the film could be seen—according to taste—either as a subtle French exercise in post-modern irony, or else as symptomatic of the unavoidably bogus nature of any memory when subjected thus to official taxidermy.
Mitterrand’s own distinctive contribution to the national patrimoine was not so much to preserve or classify it as to manufacture it in real time. No French ruler since Louis XIV has marked his reign with such a profusion of buildings and ceremonials. The fourteen years of Mitterrand’s presidency were marked not only by a steady accumulation of museums, memorials, solemn inaugurations, burials and reburials; but also by herculean efforts to secure the President’s own place in the nation’s heritage: from the appalling Grande Arche at La Défense in western Paris, through the graceful Pyramid at the Louvre and the aggressively modernist Opera House by the Bastille, to the controversial new National Library on the south bank of the Seine.
At the same time as Mitterrand was engaged in lapidary monumentalism, inscribing himself quite literally in the physical memory of the nation, a gnawing sense that the country was losing touch with its roots moved a prominent Parisian historian, Pierre Nora, to edit Les Lieux de mémoire, a three-part, seven-volume, 5,600-page collective work published over the course of the years 1984-1992 that sought to identify and explicate the sites and realms of France’s once-shared memory: the names and concepts, the places and people, the projects and symbols that are—or were—France, from cathedrals to gastronomy, from the soil to the language, from town planning to the map of France in the minds of Frenchmen.
No comparable publication has ever been conceived for any other nation, and it is hard to imagine how it could be. For Nora’s Lieux de Mémoire captures both the astonishing confidence of French collective identity—the uncontested assumption that eight hundred years of national history have bequeathed France a singularity and a common heritage that lend themselves to mnemonic representation in this manner—and the anxious sense, as the editor makes explicit in his introduction, that these commonplace collective symbols of a shared past were about to be lost forever.
This is nostalgia as Angst: the fear that one day—quite soon—the earth-colored information panels clustered along France’s magnificently engineered, impeccably landscaped autoroutes will cease to hold any meaning for the French themselves. What point would there be in alluding—first in symbols, then a little further along by name—to the cathedral at Reims; the amphitheatre at Nîmes; the vines of Clos de Vougeot; the Mont Ste Victoire or the battlefield of Verdun if the allusion meant nothing? What remains of France if the casual traveller encountering such names has lost touch with the memories they are meant to evoke and the feelings they are intended to stir?
The heritage industry in England suggests an obsession with the way things weren’t—the cultivation, as it were, of genuine nostalgia for a fake past. In contrast, the French fascination with its spiritual patrimoine has a certain cultural authenticity. ‘France’ has always represented itself in allegorical ways: witness the various depictions and incarnations of ‘Marianne’, the Republic. It was thus altogether appropriate that regret for the keys to a lost Frenchness was focused upon a formal body of symbols, whether physical or intellectual. These ‘are’ France. If they are misplaced or no longer shared, France cannot be itself—in the sense Charles de Gaulle meant when he declared that ‘France cannot be France without glory’.
These assumptions were shared by politicians, intellectuals and people of all political persuasions—which is why Les Lieux de mémoire was so successful, encapsulating for tens of thousands of readers an evanescent Frenchness already eluding them in daily French life. And it is therefore very revealing that whereas Christianity—Christian ideas, Christian buildings, practices and symbols—occupy a prominent place in Nora’s tomes, there is but one brief chapter on ‘Jews’—mostly as objects of assimilation, exclusion or persecution—and no entry at all on ‘Muslims’.
This was not an oversight. There was no assigned corner for Islam in the French memory palace and it would have run counter to the purpose of the undertaking to create one after the fact. But the omission nevertheless illustrated the trouble that France, like its neighbours, was going to have in accommodating the millions of new Europeans in its midst. Of the 105 members of the European Convention assigned the task of writing Europe’s constitution, none had a non-European background. Like the rest of the continent’s political élite, from Portugal to Poland, they represented above all white, Christian Europe.
Or, more precisely, formerly Christian Europe. Although the varieties of Christianity within Europe remained many—from Ukrainian Uniates to Welsh Methodists, from Trans-Carpathian Greek Catholics to Norwegian Lutherans—the number of Christians who actually practiced their faith continued to shrink. In Spain, which still boasted 900 convents and monasteries at the end of the twentieth century—60 percent of the world’s total—active faith was on the decline, correlating all too closely with isolation, old age and rural backwardness. In France, only one adult in seven acknowledged even attending church, and then on average just once a month. In Scandinavia and Britain the figures were even lower. Christianity was on the wane even in Poland, where the citizenry was increasingly deaf to the moral exhortations of the once-powerful Catholic hierarchy. By the turn of the century well over half of all Poles (and a much larger majority of those under thirty) favoured legalized abortions.
Islam, in contrast, was expanding its appeal—particularly among the young, for whom it served increasingly as a source of communal identity and collective pride in countries where citizens of Arab or Turkish or African provenance were still widely seen and treated as ‘foreigners’. Whereas their parents and grandparents had made strenuous efforts to integrate and assimilate, young men and women in Antwerp or Marseille or Leicester now vociferously identified both with the land of their birth—Belgium or France or Britain—and with the religion and region of their family’s roots. Girls, especially, took to wearing traditional clothing and religious symbols—sometimes under family pressure, but often in rebellion against the compromises of an older generation.
The reaction of the public authorities, as we have seen, varied somewhat by local tradition and circumstance: only the French National Assembly, in a righteous fit of secular republicanism, opted by a vote of 494-36 to ban the wearing of all religious symbols in state schools. But this move, undertaken in February 2004 and targeted at the voile—the headgear of observant Muslim girls—must be understood in a broader and more troubling context. Racial prejudice in many places was being turned to political advantage by the far Right; and anti-Semitism was on the rise in Europe, for the first time in over forty years.
Seen from across the Atlantic, where it became a staple in the speeches of Europhobic politicians and neo-conservative pundits, anti-Semitism in France or Belgium or Germany was immediately identified as a return to the continent’s dark past. Writing in theWashington Post in May 2002, the influential columnist George Will went so far as to describe the recrudescence of anti-Jewish sentiment in Europe as ‘the second—and final?—phase of the struggle for a “final solution to the Jewish question”.’ The American Ambassador to the EU, Rockwell Schnabel, told a special gathering in Brussels of the American Jewish Committee that anti-Semitism in Europe ‘is getting to a point where it is as bad as it was in the 1930s’.
This was inflammatory rhetoric, and deeply misguided. Anti-Jewish feelings were largely unknown in contemporary Europe—except among Muslims and especially Europeans of Arab descent, where they were a direct outcome of the festering crisis in the Middle East. Arab television stations, now available via satellite throughout Europe, regularly broadcast reports from Gaza and the Occupied West Bank. Infuriated by what they saw and heard, and encouraged by Arab and Israeli authorities alike to identify Israel with their local Jewish neighbours, young men (mostly) in the suburbs of Paris or Lyon or Strasbourg turned on their Jewish neighbours: they scrawled graffiti on Jewish community buildings, desecrated cemeteries, bombed schools and synagogues and in a few instances attacked Jewish teenagers or families.
The attacks on Jews and Jewish institutions—concentrated in the first years of the new century—aroused concern not because of their scale, or even on account of their racist character, but because of their implicitly inter-communal nature. This was not the old European anti-Semitism: for those seeking scapegoats for their discontents, Jews were no longer the target of choice. Indeed, they ranked well down the pecking order. A French poll in January 2004 found that whereas 10 percent of those questioned admitted to disliking Jews, a far higher number—23 percent—disliked ‘North Africans’. Racially motivated attacks on Arabs—or, varying by country, on Turks, Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Senegalese and other visible minorities—were far more numerous than assaults on Jews. In some cities they were endemic.
The troubling aspect of the new anti-Semitism was that while, once again, Jews were the victims, now it was Arabs (or Muslims) who were the perpetrators. The only exception to this rule appeared to be in Germany, where the renascent extreme Right did not trouble itself to distinguish between immigrants, Jews and other ‘non-Germans’. But Germany, for obvious reasons, was a special case. Elsewhere the public authorities worried more about the growing alienation of their Arab and other Muslim communities than they did about any putative revival of Fascism. They were probably right.
In contrast to the United States, which continued to treat ‘Islam’ and Muslims as a distant challenge, alien and hostile, best addressed by heightened security and ‘pre-emptive war’, Europe’s governments had good reason to see the matter very differently. In France especially, the crisis in the Middle East was no longer a matter of foreign policy: it had become a domestic problem. The transmigration of passions and frustrations from persecuted Arabs in Palestine to their angry, dispirited brethren in Paris should not have come as a surprise—it was, after all, another legacy of empire.