The Europeans

Milan Kundera defined a European as someone who is nostalgic for Europe. But one need not share this pessimism to derive nourishment from European intellectual and cultural traditions. On the idea of Europe in the work of five Central European writers of the twentieth century.

The most dangerous world view is the world view of those who have not viewed the world.

Alexander von Humboldt

In 1983, eight years after he had left communist Czechoslovakia to settle in France, the novelist Milan Kundera published an essay in the prestigious Parisian journal Le Débat entitled Un Occident Kidnappé ou la tragédie de l’Europe centrale (A Kidnapped West or the tragedy of central Europe). Each element of this compound title points to an important lesson that Kundera wants his French audience to take on board.

First, that there is a large geographical, but more importantly cultural, area not a state, but a culture or destiny to which indeed his own country belongs, which can be called central Europe. Second, this area, which as its name suggests is located between two other Europes, had historically always looked to the West, even if after the advance of the Russian army in the closing stages of the Second World War it found itself kidnapped by the East.

There is certainly something to be said for these notions, though it might also be objected that they leave a good deal out – particularly in Kundera’s rather boiled-down version –, but we will return to that. For the moment, there is another idea in the essay that merits being explored, even if it is more suggestive than empirically demonstrable: that the real Europeans, the genuine idealists who have a feeling for Europe’s future and not just their own, are more likely to be found in the continent’s smaller nations than in its larger.

Kundera assumes we all know what is meant by East and West and doesn’t feel the need to elaborate on the concepts. But since ‘eastern Europe as traditionally understood is now more than thirty years in the past, let us recap: the East was that area, ruled according to a particular political system now largely disappeared from the world, and comprised of the Soviet Union and its various satellite states – Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria etc – which lay between Russian territory and West Germany/Austria.

The West was the part of Europe, extending at the time Kundera was writing from Portugal to Greece and Norway to Malta, where liberal democracy was the dominant form of government. It could also, of course, in what was clearly a non-geographical sense, signify a much wider area characterised by shared values, stretching from Vancouver on the west coast of Canada to New Zealand. One might add a little more confusion to the picture by adding that while people from Prague or Kraków usually referred to their part of the world as central Europe, the not-so-well-informed (or even interested) citizens of Dublin, London or Paris may have referred to it as eastern Europe.

In Kundera’s mental map, the East (and specifically Russia) is bad and the West (mostly) is good, but the Centre is not, as one might innocently suppose, situated somewhere in between but occupies a higher moral plane than either East or West, platonically representing, or anticipating, what an ideal Europe might have or should have been:

Central Europe sought to be the condensed image of Europe and its rich variety, a little super-European Europe, a miniature model of a Europe of nations conceived on the principle of the maximum of diversity in the minimum of space [unlike Russia, conceived on the opposite principle ‑ the maximum of space and the minimum of diversity].

This vision of a large, pluralist, tolerant multinational state in central Europe in fact ceased to have any prospect of political realisation after the last Habsburg emperor, Karl, was despatched into exile in 1919 or even five years earlier, when his uncle, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the throne, was assassinated in Sarajevo. Yet it did enjoy an often richly imagined afterlife in the nostalgia of dispossessed liberal-minded Austrian-Hungarians, who watched, appalled but powerless, the rise of new, turbo-charged nationalisms in the 1920s and ’30s.

The Gloriette at Schönbrunn Palace, Vienna, 1929. Photo via Fortepan / Fortepan

In fear for the nation

The year in which Kundera wrote his essay for Le Débat, 1983, was one of greatly heightened tension between East and West. On September 1st Russia shot down a Korean civilian airliner that had entered its airspace; 269 passengers and crew died. Later that month the Soviet early warning system wrongly signalled the launch of a number of American intercontinental ballistic missiles aimed at Russian territory. The decision of Lt Col Stanislav Petrov of the Soviet air defences to delay notifying the attack to his superiors until he had further independent confirmation of it is credited with preventing a rapid retaliation and ensuing nuclear war.

Even among those not consumed by fear of imminent annihilation there was, during this dangerous decade, a general feeling – particularly marked among leftish intellectuals – that Europe was being politically neutered, in danger of becoming little more than the docile instrument of the United States and its leader, the happy warrior Ronald Reagan.

Kundera argued, perhaps somewhat tortuously, that it was in central Europe, among the small nations which had already had the experience of being swallowed up by a greater power, that the sense of the existential danger for Europe as a whole was most acute: in this sense, the region’s destiny appears as an anticipation of European destiny in general and its culture … demonstrates an enormous relevance. As a home of small nations, he argued, central Europe had its own vision of the world, a vision based on a profound suspicion of History with a capital h.

History, this goddess of Hegel and Marx, this incarnation of Reason … is the History of the victors. But the people of central Europe are not victors. They are inseparable from European History, could not exist without it, but they are the inverse of that History, its victims, its outsiders. This unillusioned historical experience is the source of their culture, their wisdom, their intellectual lightness, which is disposed to poke fun at grandeur and glory.

It is from the intellectual traditions of these small nations then, with their muscle memory of operating the institutionalised pluralism of the Habsburg empire, that one should look for inspiration for the proper functioning of a united Europe.

But what, essentially, is a small nation? For Kundera, it is primarily one whose existence can at any moment be put in question,

…which can disappear and which knows it. A Frenchman, a Russian, an Englishman are not in the habit of questioning the survival of their nation. Their anthems talk only of grandeur and eternity. But the Polish national anthem begins with the line Poland is not yet lost….

This is a sentiment that might perhaps strike a chord in a country whose unofficial anthem for many decades before independence was Thomas Davis’s A Nation Once Again. Whether there is any inherent moral bonus that comes from simply being small, or having had to struggle to assert one’s right to national existence, is perhaps another question. But it is at least plausible to suggest that citizens of states which have been more minor players in European history might be more ready to see a construct like the European Union as a site of fulfilment (taking one’s place among the nations of the earth) rather than as an institution which is valued only in so far as it can be manipulated to serve the national interest.

I propose here to look briefly at the ways in which Europe and Europeanism played out in the ideas of some prominent writers of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries – writers for whom, whether because of their own country’s painful collision with History or for reasons of personal inclination, or both, nationality was not a simple matter.

Stefan Zweig was born in Vienna in 1881, the second son of the prosperous Moravian textile manufacturer Mori(t)z Zweig and his wife, Ida Brettauer, who grew up in a wealthy family in Ancona in which German and French were spoken in addition to Italian. It was decided in the Zweig family that the elder son, Alfred, would follow his father into the business, but Stefan too was able to draw a comfortable income from it (without working) until, on his thirtieth birthday, he traded in his allowance for a lump sum that left him a very wealthy young man. This income enabled him to travel frequently and extensively and he forged important friendships with writers in other countries, notably the francophone poet Émile Verhaeren in Belgium and the pacifist seer Romain Rolland in France.

His literary production also increasingly enhanced his reputation ‑ and his income: industrious and versatile, he produced a stream of works including poetry, short stories, novels, plays, popular biographies and histories, and even an opera libretto (for Richard Strauss). Zweig was to be one of the most commercially successful European authors of the interwar period, and one of the most frequently translated.

Politically – if the word can be used at all of a man who insisted he was not in the slightest political – Zweig was a prominent member of what is sometimes called the parsonical tendency. That is, faced with a Europe in which fascist dictators were locking up the opposition, turning up the volume of nationalist propaganda and preparing the young to be ready to sacrifice themselves in the struggle to come, he told any audience prepared to listen to him that none of this would be happening, all of this could be avoided, if only people would focus on what they had in common rather than what divided them.

Like many others in the 1930s Zweig understood the popular appeal of the dictatorships, and though he could not sympathise with them he wondered if it might not be possible to harness all the noise and colour and movement that characterised their street presence to something more noble.

We should recognize and admire how nationalism, already manipulating the state’s levers of power, flaunts its artistic and theatrical mastery: recall if you will the speech by Mussolini1 only before 200,000 souls this 1st May on Tempelhof field, or the million assembled on Red Square in Moscow, where some two million workers and soldiers marched in an uninterrupted procession for hours on end; and let us learn from these examples that the masses are most jubilant when they feel themselves visible and can display themselves en masse.

If our idea [the European idea] is to have any tangible effect’, he emphasised, we must remove it from the esoteric domain [of books, pamphlets, conferences] and devote all our energy to making it more visible and persuasive to a wider circle’.

Zweig may, in his giddier moments, have envisaged serried ranks of marchers holding aloft banners proclaiming the urgent need for Peace!, Amity!, European culture! but the only practical suggestions he came up with were a pan-European newspaper, a truth ombudsman to combat the lies of nationalist propagandists, a common school history curriculum and a rotating European capital – interesting ideas perhaps, but quite unlikely to find anyone to implement them in the mid-’30s, and poor weapons in any case against the appeal of blood and soil nationalism in a struggle that across much of Europe it may have already been too late to win.

If Zweig had any party political sentiments (he didn’t vote, he said) they might have inclined towards Austria’s social democrats, whose internationalism at least he shared. Still, he must have been surprised when in 1934 the police arrived to search his house in Salzburg acting, they said, on information received that he was storing weapons for the social democrats’ paramilitary defence force, the Schutzbund. A few days afterwards, sensing the irreversible drift of Austrian politics towards more severe repression, he left for England.

In March 1938 Austria was annexed by the German Reich and Zweig found himself a man without a country. He commented:

It was of little use to me now that for half a century my heart had been beating to the idea of being a citoyen du monde [citizen of the world]. The day I was deprived of my passport I discovered, at the age of fifty-eight, that in losing one’s country one loses more than a little patch of earth surrounded by frontiers.

At the end of June 1940 Zweig and his second wife, Lotte, sailed to America. From there they eventually moved to Argentina, and then Brazil, where they settled in Petrópolis, not far from Rio de Janeiro.

Meanwhile, throughout the summer and autumn of 1940, Britain and Germany fought for air superiority over southern England and the Channel. Had the Germans been victorious – and had Britain then refused to accept terms of armistice – it is likely that the detailed invasion plan Operation Sea Lion (Unternehmen Seelöwe) would have been implemented.

An essential part of this was the Sonderfahndungsliste G.B. (Special Search List GB), a document drawn up by the SS containing the names of 2,820 people – politicians, writers and intellectuals, political refugees from Europe – who were to be hunted down and arrested after the invasion and, one must assume, in many cases murdered. There, on the final page, is the entry Zweig, Stefan, Dr., 26.11.81, Wien (Jude), Schriftsteller, Emigrant (Vienna [Jew], writer, émigré), followed by his London address.

In the event, the British escaped invasion and Zweig avoided the fate that would have awaited him at the hands of the Gestapo. But in Petrópolis in February 1942 he and Lotte took their own lives with an overdose of Veronal. A memorial stone (Stolperstein) for Zweig outside his former home in Salzburg reads: Here lived / Stefan Zweig / year of birth 1881 / Flight 1934 / England, USA / Brazil / Flight into death / 23.2.1942 / Petropolis’.

Stefan Zweig’s compatriot and friend Joseph Roth had the good fortune to die of natural causes – or, if you prefer, of the inevitable results of his alcoholism – in Parisian exile in May 1939, just a little over a year before the arrival there of the German occupying army.

He was forty-four and had enjoyed a writing career of little more than twenty years. Included in his work are stories, novellas and about a dozen novels and fragments, of which the most famous is his magnificent elegy for the vanished Austro-Hungarian empire, The Radetzky March. He also wrote hundreds of articles in German-language newspapers, chiefly in the continental European form known as the feuilleton, a usually rather light, freestyle composition on human or cultural subjects which Roth interpreted as an invitation to [say] true things on half a page.

Roth was born in 1894 in Brody in eastern Galicia, a predominantly Jewish town close to Austria-Hungary’s border with Russia. He attended university first in Lemberg (today Lviv in Ukraine) but was forced to transfer to the University of Vienna when the Russians captured the city in the early stages of the First World War. In 1916 he joined up himself, serving for the most part as an army journalist and mail censor. After the war he returned to Vienna, where [f]or lack of money [I began] to write for the newspapers…My nonsense was printed. I began to live off it. I became a writer’.

Like Zweig, Roth had the experience of losing his country, though for him this came at a much earlier stage of his life when, in 1918, Austria-Hungary ceased to exist, splitting into its component national parts. He was eventually accorded citizenship of the new rump Austrian republic, though during the protracted application process he had to face much bureaucratic stalling and even hostility, some of it no doubt antisemitic in motivation.

In 1920 he moved to Berlin, where his articles – cinema reviews at first – began to appear in the Freie Deutsche Bühne, then the Neue Berliner Zeitung, the socialist paper Vorwärts and the Berliner Börsen Courier. In 1923, after some time back in Vienna and in Prague, his journalistic career took a turn towards prosperity when he was hired to write from Berlin for the prestigious Frankfurter Zeitung, the leading German liberal paper in the interwar period, which published the work of many distinguished authors and intellectuals including Stefan Zweig, Max Weber, Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, Thomas and Heinrich Mann, Sándor Márai and Alfred Döblin.

After the Nazis came to power in 1933, Roth – like all Jewish writers – found himself excluded from the pages of the Frankfurter Zeitung and abruptly deprived of the quite comfortable living to which he had become accustomed. He left Germany definitively – he had not lived there permanently since 1925 – and spent most of the rest of his life in Paris, a city to which he became very attached. Though his health was sharply deteriorating, he continued to write, finishing The Emperor’s Tomb, a sequel to his masterpiece The Radetzky March, and the moving fable of debt and redemption The Legend of the Holy Drinker, as well as contributing to the émigré German-language press of France and Czechoslovakia; remarkably for such a heavy drinker, his writing remained clear and penetrating.

In his final years his thoughts often turned to the no longer existing state in which he had been born, my fatherland, the only one I ever had, the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary, which, in contrast with the chaos and threatening barbarism of the 1930s, acquired for him a retrospective glow it may not have wholly merited.

On a visit for the Frankfurter Zeitung in the mid-1920s to the city where he had first attended university, he had recalled its former cosmopolitan charms: Lemberg had been a bustling, polyglot meeting place where Polish, German, Ruthenian (or Ukrainian) and Yiddish could be heard in the streets and markets. Now renamed Lwów, it was governed from Warsaw and was undergoing a Polish purification. Roth certainly had little sympathy for cultural nationalism, writing:

European culture is much older than the European nation-states. Greece, Rome, Israel, Christendom and Renaissance, the French Revolution and Germany’s eighteenth century, the polyglot music of Austria and the poetry of the Slavs. These are the forces that have formed Europe. These forces have combined to form European solidarity and the cultural conscience of Europe. Not one of these forces was bounded by a national border. All are naturally opposed to the barbarity of so-called national pride.

Unlike his friend (and frequent benefactor) Zweig, Roth had no problem identifying himself as political. In his earlier years he made it clear that he was a socialist, though his travels in the 1920s in the Soviet Union cured him of any hopes he might once have placed in the Leninist path. His growing nostalgia for the vanished Habsburg empire led him to eventually adopt a monarchist position – a bizarre choice, many will feel, but one that is perhaps not incompatible in a constitutional regime with progressive politics. He also grew imaginatively closer to Catholicism, without ever renouncing his deep sympathy for the world of the eastern Jews from which he had come.

From his Parisian refuge Roth, who in 1923 had probably been the first person to mention Hitler in a work of fiction, never ceased to attack the Nazi regime, urging other European states first to isolate it diplomatically, then to stand up to its bullying before it was too late. By early 1939 he was no longer writing much, preferring to linger in the company of friends and fellow exiles in the café below his hotel.

After his death at the Hôpital Necker, he was interred in the Thiais cemetery outside Paris following a modestly Catholic ceremony (a burial ritual but no mass) attended by a huge crowd that included socialists, communists, Galician Jews and official representatives of the pretender to the Austrian throne, Otto von Habsburg.

Roth had certainly been lucky not to fall into the hands of the Nazis. His wife, Friederike (Friedl) Reichler, who had been a long-term patient in a number of mental institutions in Austria, where she was being treated for schizophrenia, was murdered, in accordance with national socialist policy on the mentally ill, in July 1940.

Czesław Miłosz was born in the final decade of the life of the Tsarist empire: his childhood memories include the manoeuvres of the Russian army, to which his father was attached during the First World War as a civil engineer, and the Bolshevik Revolution. He was raised in the Polish border city of Wilno, now Vilnius, capital of Lithuania, but spent three years of his childhood, from seven to ten, with his grandparents in the Lithuanian countryside where he had been born. The memory of this idyllic period informed his appealing lyrical novel The Issa Valley (1955). The valley in question (actually the Nieważa) was later to disappear off the face of the earth, as Miłosz recounted in an entry in the miscellany Miłosz’s ABC (2001):

Smoke from the hamlets has vanished, along with the creak of the well pumps, the crowing of roosters, barking of dogs, people’s voices. There is no longer the green of orchards embracing the roofs of the cottages – apple trees, pear trees, plum trees in every farmyard, between house, barn, and granary, so that the village streets were framed in trees.

In line with the policy of collectivisation, the farmers (kulaks) were moved out to the Soviet far east, their orchards bulldozed and their holdings ploughed over, leaving only a mournful plain which those who remained dubbed Kazakhstan.

The coincidence of Miłosz’s rich family heritage (with Polish, Lithuanian, Baltic-German and perhaps even Serbian ancestors) and his coming of age in the kind of frontier city in which nationalism often presents itself in its most intolerant forms produced in him complex but deeply felt ideas about nationality. He was certainly attached to the Lithuania of his mother’s family but came to recognise, with his Polish education and later commitment as a poet to the Polish language, that this was destined to be a road not taken: I am a Lithuanian to whom it was not given to be a Lithuanian’, he concluded.

In the Wilno of his youth, Poles shared a marginal territory somewhat nervously with Lithuanians, Byelorussians and Jews. The state had regained its independence in 1918 (as the Second Republic) after more than a century of non-existence. Established by the military successes of Marshal Józef Piłsudski and later consolidated by international agreement on territories that were home not just to ethnic Poles but to Germans, Lithuanians, Byelorussians, Ukrainians and Jews, Poland spent much time and energy in the 1920s and ’30s debating what kind of society it was or should strive to be.

Broadly speaking, the division was between the political family of Piłsudski (nominally a socialist one), which tended towards an inclusive definition of Polishness – you are Polish if you think yourself Polish – and that of his political rival Roman Dmowski, leader of the National Democrat or Endecja movement, which believed that Catholicism was an essential ingredient of Polishness and Catholic Poles must dominate all other ethnic groups, which were either dangerous to the nation or simply culturally inferior to it.

The press and slogans of the Endecja movement and its allies (many of them clerical), Miłosz wrote, entered his field of vision early:

My allergy to everything that smacks of the national and an almost physical disgust for people who transmit such signals have weighed heavily on my destiny.

One way in which that weight was felt was in the trajectory his career took in the immediate postwar period, when he served the state established on the back of Russian arms as cultural attaché in the United States and later France.

Miłosz’s antipathy towards nationalism – as well as his wish not to see pre-war social and property relations re-established in Poland – placed him inevitably on the political left: not a communist but certainly a progressive. This was a political profile which the authorities in Poland and other people’s democracies found very useful to have on board in the short transitional period – say up to 1947 or ’48 ‑ before it became possible for full socialist democracy to be implemented, at which point the services of liberals, socialists or Christian democrats would no longer be required: the communist strategy, as one commentator put it, was that the lion would lie down with the lamb but only the lion would get up.

In 1951, feeling himself to be increasingly under threat, Miłosz sought and was granted political asylum in France. While this decision may have protected him from arrest, followed by imprisonment or worse, it did not bring him any immediate comfort, either spiritual or physical. He wrote:

Westerners like to dwell in the empyrean of noble words about spirit and freedom; but it is not often that they ask someone if he has enough money for lunch.

Miłosz went through a lonely period, separated from his family, still in the United States. Eventually, it was the beauty of the earth that pulled him out of his depression, a healing property in nature that he had already experienced in his childhood in Lithuania and in the open spaces of America; but this time it was different, as Europe gathered him in its warm embrace:

Europe, after all, was home to me. And in her I happened to find help…[W]hile I climbed the hills of Saint-Emilion, near a place where only yesterday the villas of Roman officials had stood, I tried to imagine, gazing out over the brown furrows of earth in the vineyards, all the hands that had once toiled here…Gradually…I stopped worrying about the whole mythology of exile, this side of the wall or that side of the wall. Poland and the Dordogne, Lithuania and Savoy, the narrow little streets in Wilno and the Quartier Latin, all fused together. I was like an ancient Greek. I had simply moved from one city to another. My native Europe, all of it, dwelled inside me, with its mountains, forests, and capitals; and that map of the heart left no room for my troubles.

The intellectual climate at the time of Miłosz’s defection to the West – or at least the climate among the intellectuals – was strongly disapproving of such a move. His friend Pablo Neruda – both would later be Nobel laureates – denounced him in the communist press as The Man Who Ran Away. In Parisian left-wing circles, he said, he was made feel as if he had committed a social blunder; only Albert Camus offered him his friendship.

A generation later, after the accumulated effects of the crushing of the 1956 Hungarian uprising, the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961 and the suppression of the reform movement of the Prague Spring by Warsaw Pact forces in 1968, the mood had changed significantly. Intellectuals in conflict with their governments in central and eastern Europe were now known as dissidents and quite properly admired for their courage. When Milan Kundera arrived in Paris in the mid-’70s there was no one – or no one who counted – who was going to brand him a traitor to socialism.

Love of France Miłosz wrote, although not mutual love, characterised the culture in which I grew up’. It was only gradually that he came to realise that

my part of Europe is a blank spot in the consciousness of the inhabitants of France, and that Alfred Jarry was simply confirming this when he set the action of [his play] Ubu Roi in Poland, which is to say, nowhere.

No doubt part of his motivation in writing his memoir Rodzinna Europa (1959) was the perceived need to familiarise western – and not just French – readers with that other Europe, that which is Europe too. The book’s English title, Native Realm, does not quite render the meaning of the Polish (Familial Europe perhaps) and it has been published as Otra Europa in Spanish, La Mia Europa in Italian and Enfant d’Europe in French. But it may be that Anglo-Saxon publishers feel it is best to keep the word Europe out of a book title.

Perhaps Kundera, in his 1983 essay for Le Débat, was counting on central Europe still being a blank in French readers’ consciousness, a blank he could proceed to colour in for them with a potted history of his own that seems based more on how he would have liked things to have been rather than how they were.

For a Hungarian, a Czech or a Pole, he wrote, the word Europe does not represent a geographical phenomenon; it is rather a spiritual notion, and, quite simply, a synonym for West. The moment that Hungary, for example, ceases to be European and western it loses its essence, its identity, its destiny. For an eastern European country like Bulgaria, domination by Russia may also of course be experienced as a misfortune, but it is not the same as for Czechs, Poles or Hungarians, for whom it is a question of a clash of civilisations (choc des civilisations).

As regards the Habsburg past, and the squandering of its promise of enlightened federalism, Kundera knows where the finger of blame should be pointed: the Austrians, unable to decide if their future should lie with their ‘central European mission or in union with the German Reich, failed to construct out of their empire a balanced state in which all nationalities would enjoy equal rights. Disillusioned, the other nations peeled off and went their own way, thereby creating a number of small independent polities, whose weakness in due course facilitated the conquests of Hitler and Stalin.

The problems with this might begin with the simplifications that inevitably result from a radically condensed account of complex situations and processes; but they do not end there.

First there is the presentation of Kundera’s three chosen central European nations, the Czech, Polish and Hungarian, as virtually identical, highly idealised, entities in religion Latin, in culture European, in moral character beyond reproach whose constitutional status and relations to the Viennese centre were effectively the same. In historical fact each was quite different. Only one section of what was to become the Second Polish Republic in 1918 had ever belonged to the Austrian empire: the others had been parts of the German Reich and the Russian empire.

What was to become Czechoslovakia had been ruled partly from Vienna (Bohemia and Moravia) and partly from Budapest (Slovakia). Hungary was not subservient to Austria but its partner: the clue is in the name of the state: Austro-Hungarian Monarchy (Österreichisch-Ungarische Monarchie, or in Hungarian Osztrák-Magyar Monarchia).

And as a partner Hungary got to do its own dominating, treating its clients – Slovaks, Croats and Romanians – with what most historians agree was a greater degree of condescension than that shown by Vienna to its Czech, Slovene and Italian subjects, excluding them from significant power or attempting to assimilate them culturally to Hungarianness, a process known as Magyarisation.

In the boastful words of Béla Grünwald, an adviser to Hungarian prime minister Count Tisza in the late nineteenth century:

The Hungarian secondary school is like a huge machine, at one end of which the Slovak youths are thrown in by the hundreds, and at the other end of which they come out as Magyars.

Finally, it might be pointed out that Hungary was not, in the Second World War, a victim of Nazi Germany but its ally.

If it seems a little severe to tick Kundera off now for historical shoddiness in an article published nearly forty years ago it might be argued in defence that if we remain wholly ignorant of the historical currents in inter-war Poland or Hungary we are likely to be mystified as to where their currently governing parties can have emerged from.

Cees Nooteboom’s essay collection Wie wird man Europäer? poses the question of how one becomes a European. The initial and fairly simple step is just to be one, as for example Nooteboom managed on his own behalf by being born in the Netherlands in 1933. But that is only a bare minimum: every citizen, he argues, is inescapably a product of his national history, which is a pyramid on whose apex he must, so to speak, balance his head.

To be Dutch thus involves an empathetic engagement with a number of aspects of the national story: one must push back the sea, drain the land, be ruled by the Burgundians, wrest independence from the Spanish, fight the English, buy and sell, build a fleet, establish colonies in faraway lands and all the while ensuring the home is kept dry find time to fit in a little painting and invent the microscope and the pendulum clock.

That takes care of being Dutch.

Being European for Nooteboom, he writes, began when he was only a few days old, when certain Latin formulae were said over his bald skull as he was received into the Roman Catholic church, a very European institution despite its universalist pretensions. Later he was to be taught Latin and Greek, as well as modern languages, by Augustinian and Franciscan monks who told him of the wanderings of Odysseus and the abduction of the princess Europa by the god Zeus disguised as a white bull.

The first foreign language he remembered hearing, however, was that spoken by the field-grey-clad troops of the Wehrmacht, who invaded his country when he was six. After five years and 200,000 deaths – including that of his father – they were expelled by allied British, American, Canadian, French and Polish forces:

Someone had tried once again to unite Europe by force, and once again had failed, for Europe cannot be ruled by a single hegemonic power. Its multiplicity cannot be digested by a single body but must rather be apprehended through a mysterious process of alchemy.

Travelling has been an important part of Nooteboom’s life as a writer. In his twenties he hitched around Europe and sailed to South America as a merchant seaman. In his work as a journalist he covered the 1956 Hungarian uprising, the 1968 events in Paris and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. He is best known to many readers as a travel writer, though he is also a poet, translator and author of fiction.

His attachment to the Netherlands and its writers – largely unknown outside that country – is evident but his intellectual wanderlust and appetite is also clear, not just in his life but in his imaginative work. In the Dutch Mountains (1984) reimagines a Netherlands that stretches from the North Sea to the Alps. In the novella The Following Story (1991) the protagonist goes to bed in Amsterdam but wakes up in Lisbon.

Nooteboom’s reach is extensive not just in space but in time. In the essay Musings in Munich (1989) in the travel collection Nomad’s Hotel, he writes of himself (or rather of the traveller) as someone who has never felt particularly comfortable in the here and now, always seeing it as tinged by the past. And yet, he observes, most people seem to do very well without the past and entire countries seem able, when circumstances require, to forget it completely.

But was it really true that he had never felt at home in the present? That would be romanticism and a trifle childish. It was more a question of not feeling at home between people who felt at home exclusively in the present, who pinned all their hopes on it.

Nooteboom is aware, in Munich, that he is in – or very close to – central Europe, or Mitteleuropa, a region which seemed, in his lifetime, to have been torn away from the continent. This is March 1989: still overcoat weather, not yet spring: the legalisation of Solidarity in Poland will come in April, the Berlin Wall will be breached in November and in December the Czechoslovaks will elect a non-communist government. Nooteboom feels the tug of the past,

the hermetically sealed world of Poland and Czechoslovakia…Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia and Trieste…the twice-lost worlds of Isaac Bashevis Singer and Vladimir Nabokov, of Kafka and Rilke, Roth and Canetti.

In France or in Italy, or in his own country, the past seemed to have arrived, by more or less organic processes, at the present. But further east, it was different: Here that other part had not made it, had got stuck, bogged down, torn away. But it still existed, perhaps it was waiting’.

It is far from uncommon for writers commenting on society to express the view that, culturally speaking, we are living in the end times. This tendency towards morosity can be partially explained by their perception that they are radically undervalued, while others of scant merit – the professional chatterers of the newspaper columns and airwaves for example – are overvalued, and certainly overpaid. It is of course hard not to agree with this. But cultural pessimists of all ages have tended to feel that the times they happen to be living through are uniquely decadent. Forty years ago Milan Kundera thought culture was all washed up. In the Middle Ages, he wrote, Europe was united by a common religion; then, in the early modern period, this ceded its place to culture (art, literature, philosophy); and now culture too had ceded its place. To what? Technology? The market? Politics? Kundera was not sure:

I really have no idea. All I know is that culture has already given up its place. And so, the image of European identity recedes into the past. A European: someone who is nostalgic for Europe.

One does not, however, have to believe that either culture or Europe have vanished from the face of the earth to acknowledge the value to humanity – the irreplaceable value – of the past and the traces it leaves in the present. In an essay published in 1944, TS Eliot deprecated what he saw as a new provincialism, a provincialism, not of space but of time: one for which history is merely the chronicle of human devices which have served their turn and been scrapped, one for which the world is the property solely of the living, a property in which the dead hold no shares.

Kundera is not wrong in identifying the European idea with a certain tendency to nostalgia: the intellectuals and scholars of the seventeenth century who kept up a voluminous correspondence (in Latin) across barriers of religious difference and national rivalry looked back to a time when Christendom was one. The tolerant virtual Europe sans frontières to which they dedicated themselves they christened the Republic of Letters. Others remembered the pax romana, the benefits of Roman infrastructure, the reach of Roman law.

Versions of this idealised Europe of the spirit – of which Stefan Zweig is a quite typical example – made frequent appearances throughout the middle decades of the twentieth century, though many of the names associated with the movements in which they expressed themselves are now forgotten. Among the 750 delegates present at the grandly named Congress of Europe, held in The Hague in 1948, were, in addition to large numbers of former and future ministers from several countries, the philosophers Étienne Gilson and Bertrand Russell, the writer and diplomat Salvador de Madariaga, the sociologist Raymond Aron, the musician Sir Adrian Boult, along with many journalists, historians and church leaders. Aron, a sympathetic yet sceptical observer, recalled: I followed the debates without taking part, unable to motivate myself to join in these tournaments of eloquence. We had been mandated by no one; even those who were delegates of a movement or party represented only themselves’.

It was not to be the Hague Congress which was to launch European construction, though it did lead to the creation of the Council of Europe, a body which still exists and which has responsibility – in a rather nebulous way – for matters of values and culture in Europe. Today’s European Union on the other hand grew out of the European Coal and Steel Community, an eminently down-to-earth and practical body sponsored by the French politician Robert Schuman and the public servant Jean Monnet, strongly supported by various, chiefly Christian Democratic, European statesmen. If some of the pères fondateurs of Europe came from traditions that were marginal in their own countries – Konrad Adenauer, a Rhineland Catholic, the Luxembourg-born, German-educated Schuman representing France, the Austrian-educated Alcide de Gasperi for Italy – the Coal and Steel Community’s main selling point was that it squarely addressed the essential national interests of continental Europe’s two major powers: France’s desire to control German industrial-military muscle, Germany’s desire to be readmitted to the concert of civilised nations. The countries in between – Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg – wished for a mechanism that would qualify the national egoism of both. But smaller nations would only really make their voices heard in the course of the EEC’s later progressive enlargements. For Charles de Gaulle, not the most enthusiastic of Europeans, all that counted was France and Germany: the others, he said, were merely the vegetables.

Some of us may find Miłosz’s broad historical vision of deep Europe appealing, or Nooteboom’s feeling for the continent’s inexhaustible cultural multiplicity (in German: Vielfältigkeit) – and of course some may not. It is not compulsory. Europe has had its visionaries and its doers, politicians, bureaucrats, servants of the public. While the former certainly have their inspirational role it is the latter that we are more inclined to rely on. For Nooteboom, the votary of the past, the future is something one can safely leave to normal people. But there is a somewhat skittish humour at work here, as indeed there often is with Nooteboom. We would, as most of us realise, be very foolish not to consider the future, or to ask economists and scientists (which is to say experts) to consider it on our behalf.

As a coda it might be worth mentioning the strange use which contemporary Eurosceptics are making of Stefan Zweig’s rather disembodied Europeanism of the spirit. John Gray, who provides a foreword to the Zweig essay collection Messages from a Lost World, purports to find his subject’s fears more convincing than his aspirations,

especially so today, when Europe seems to have reverted to a historical mean of chronic crisis. With a resurgence of nationalism in many countries and the inability of European institutions to come up with any coherent response to the migrants who are fleeing to the continent in search of safety, Zweig’s hopes of European unity are remote from any realistically imaginable future.

This is sophistry, but really only to be expected from a polemicist whose highly marketable brand of scepticism now seems to extend to almost any form of purposeful human activity. Gray shakes his head sadly at a European Union [s]uspended between unrealizable ideals and unmanageable realities, but are these realities the everyday problems of politics everywhere any more manageable at national than international level? It would seem not from reading our newspapers, which in every country ceaselessly remind their readers of the latest failures of government. Whether from Brussels or from Dublin, we are governed in prose: failure, or a perception of failure, is our daily bread. It is of course our democratic right to be dissatisfied and ask for better, but we might also occasionally remember the nature of the world we live in. Ideals can certainly be useful things to have, but it is not normally in their nature to be realised.

British Eurosceptic propagandists in particular have been predicting the collapse of the European Union for ten or twenty years now, sure that the scales would eventually fall from the citizens’ eyes and they would realise it was all an impossible dream (or a system of oppression wrapped in a dream). But the citizens continue to disappoint them – seldom, it is true, wildly enthusiastic but apparently more solidly convinced than they have ever been that they are better off with Europe than without. For those whose positivity about the project goes beyond this simple cost-benefit calculation there is nourishment to be derived from European thought, art and culture, and there is of course territory to explore. Some of us might even, had we the means, wish to emulate Cees Nooteboom, who until recently divided his year between Menorca, Amsterdam and Berlin, when he was not setting off again in search of his ideal patria, the mountains – the watershed of Europe – where the languages, the states, the rivers flow in all directions. An enticing prospect, though for the moment of course all our voyages will have to remain virtual.

This is a mistake in the original. Mussolini spoke at the Olympic stadium in Berlin during his visit to Germany in September 1937; Hitler spoke at Tempelhof on 1 May 1933. Zweig's speech was written in the mid 1930s – ed.

Published 14 April 2021
Original in English
First published by Dublin Review of Books 132/April 2021

Contributed by Dublin Review of Books © Enda O’Doherty / Dublin Review of Books / Eurozine

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