The Necessity of Memory

If Europeans—and the rest of the world—continue to let the lessons of fascism fade, “a nightmare future could unfold.”

EU Brexit Vote
A European Union flag, with a hole cut in the middle, flies at half-mast outside a home in Knutsford, United Kingdom, on June 24.

Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

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Adapted from The End of Europe: Dictators, Demagogues, and the Coming Dark Age by James Kirchick. Published by Yale University Press.

As world leaders huddled in Prague’s glorious St. Vitus Cathedral on a gray December day in 2011, the casket containing the body of former Czech president Vaclav Havel made its way from Old Town square, across the scenic Charles Bridge, and up the sloping hill to the city’s castle complex. Ten thousand mourners joined the funeral cortège, which used the same horse-drawn gun carriage to carry Havel that once held the casket of Czechoslovakia’s first president, Tomas Masaryk.

The playwright, essayist, moral philosopher, and one-time political prisoner had presided over that rare and remarkable thing: a peaceful and democratic revolution. Havel devoted his presidency to bringing the Czech Republic into the EU and NATO, advocating humanitarian intervention in the Balkans, and championing the rights of imprisoned dissidents in far-flung places. Through his own experience as a victim of communist oppression, he understood, more than most European statesmen, the important role that a united Europe, in firm partnership with America, had to play in the survival of freedom.

Havel’s death seemingly marked the passing not only of a great man but also of a legacy. His vision of an open, pluralistic, and confident Europe has been neglected, if not outright repudiated, in his own country and elsewhere across the continent. Havel’s immediate successor, Vaclav Klaus, a friend and ally of Vladimir Putin, forsook his own nation’s history as a target of Warsaw Pact invasion and supported Russia unequivocally when it invaded and annexed Ukrainian territory. The current Czech president, Miloš Zeman, whose campaign was largely funded by the Russian state energy concern Lukoil, is even more slavish in deference to Moscow, expressing approval for the imprisonment of the punk rock protest band Pussy Riot. While readers in many languages found in Havel a humane and humble soul who spoke to our better instincts, a senior official in the Czech Foreign Ministry assailed him for “false universalism.”

Across Europe, as the generation of leaders who struggled to unite a cruelly and unnaturally divided continent leaves the scene, their places have been overtaken by a crop of shortsighted populists. Where Europe once had men and women like Havel, Kohl, Thatcher, Mitterand, and Walesa, today the likes of Zeman, Jeremy Corbyn, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, Poland’s Jaroslaw Kaczynski, and Marine Le Pen are ascendant. Belief in joint prosperity and the rejection of zero-sum politics—necessary precursors to Europe’s unprecedented peace and prosperity—are losing adherents. To judge from the decreasing voter turnout in European parliamentary elections, Europeans care less and less about how the continent is governed, believing that salvation lies in the re-nationalization of politics.

Europe’s manifold crises collectively represent a crisis of liberalism. As the memory of World War II, the Holocaust, and the gulag fades, so too does antipathy to the illiberal ideologies that spawned Europe’s past horrors. This is evident in the rising electoral success of populist authoritarian parties of the extreme left and right, none of which have anything new to say yet claim the mantle of ideological innovation and moral virtue. During the Cold War, Western leaders offered a robust defense of their values in the face of an existential totalitarian challenge. Today, while the threats to freedom may be more diffuse, they are no less potent, and yet moral relativism and self-doubt sap Western will at every turn. The consequences of such abdication are dire: If the values of America and Europe do not continue to shape the future as they have its recent past, then those of authoritarian powers like Russia will.

Although there are many arguments in favor of European integration, perhaps the strongest is that the alternative is so much worse. Europe’s best years have come during its (consensual) confederation. Before the establishment of the EU, the continent was plagued with arbitrary rulers who led their peoples into wars of aggression and genocide over matters like religion or family honor. Historically, the alternative to peaceful and democratic European integration is not a collection of sovereign, independent nation-states trading and cooperating together with ease, but violent competition for mastery and imperial expansion. For all of its utopian trap- pings, the EU is ultimately based on negative lessons. Its creation is meant to be a renunciation of everything Europeans have done wrong. That is not an argument for a European federal superstate, wherein nations would surrender power to Brussels to the same degree that the American states do to Washington. But amid cries that Europeans are losing “sovereignty” to faraway bureaucrats, it’s useful to remember that more Europeans have enjoyed far greater rights and freedoms while living under some form of supranational EU authority than they have at any other point in history.

Europe’s most pressing problems can only be solved collectively. Better integrated and coordinated fiscal and monetary policies will prevent another eurozone crisis. A common external border control and continent-wide asylum policy will impose some sort of order on the flow of migrants whose presence is unraveling the Schengen Agreement, driving support for populist parties, and threatening the existence of the union itself. A cohesive and robust foreign policy, as well as more and freer trade with its former colonies in Africa and the Middle East, will alleviate economic and social conditions in failed states along Europe’s periphery that drive refugee flows in the first place. Bans on foreign funding of election campaigns would stop the flow of Russian money to extremist parties and defend Europe’s hard-won democracies from subversion. Placing stronger political conditions on the payment of EU structural funds to wayward members like Poland and Hungary—both of whose GDPs depend significantly on assistance from Brussels—would help stop democratic backsliding.

Both Europeans and Americans take for granted the peace and integration that allowed them to blossom. Hardly anyone believed the Soviet Union would ever collapse, right up to the moment it did. Just as we were wrong to assume the permanence of Soviet rule, so would we be wrong to assume the permanence of European political and economic stability. It is not the natural state of things. Across the grand sweep of European history, countries and empires disintegrating into smaller governing units or being violently subsumed into larger empires is the norm. For the United Kingdom to wash its hands of the continent and go solo is not out of national character, nor would it be a historical novelty for Germany and Russia to form a strategic axis.

Not long ago, when disagreement over the Iraq War brought transatlantic relations to a nadir, cheering for European disintegration was a fashionable attitude among many American conservatives. Goaded on in their Europhobia by a cohort of like-minded British conservatives for whom the EU represented an intolerable usurpation of national sovereignty, they saw dismantling the European project as a step forward for freedom and a means of weakening a competitor to American global hegemony. In 2001, Andrew Sullivan ominously foresaw a federal Europe undermining the United States. “By the end of [George W.] Bush’s term,” he wrote, “the United States could well be the second-largest economic and political power in the world, playing second fiddle to a European behemoth powered by Germany, handled by France, with Britain as a mere province within. The United States will have lost its most critical ally and gained its most formidable competitor since the Soviet Union.”

Fifteen years later, that fearsome prediction seems a luxury born of the hubristic assumption that Americans and Europeans could afford to go their separate ways. While a European superstate—always a chimera despite the wishes of a small, European federalist elite—might pose a hypothetical threat to American global preeminence, there is no question that its increasingly conceivable opposite—a weakened, splintered Europe driven by political and economic fractures—would be disastrous. There can be no “pivot” away from Europe as Europe is inherently the strategic focal point of American foreign policy.

Europe’s diminishment on the world stage, never mind collapse, would constitute a tragedy not only for the continent but also for America and the world. A divided, weaker, and less influential Europe means a more dangerous international state of affairs. For as much as it was the invention of great European statesmen such as Jean Monnet and Robert Schumann, the European project of political, military, and economic integration would have been impossible without American foresight, sacrifice, and generosity. Twice, American presidents intervened in the continent’s wars. Hundreds of thousands of young men from California to Maine gave their lives to defeat fascism in Europe; millions served under arms to stop the advance of communism. A continent composed of peaceful, economically prosperous democracies—rebuilt by Marshall Plan aid and protected by the U.S. military—is America’s greatest gift to the world. We would be foolish to let it slip away.

But if the problems Europe faces today are not addressed, a nightmare future could unfold. Absent a common energy policy, Europe will continue to be held hostage to Moscow’s pipeline politics. Lacking a common defense policy to deter Russian aggression, Europe risks another conventional war. Without a thriving common market fueled by the free flow of labor, goods, and workers, production and trade will fall, leading to increased unemployment and rising social unrest. And without political cohesion, Europe’s critical role in maintaining the liberal world order will be severely diminished. A whole parade of horribles could be set in motion if other European countries take Britain’s lead and leave the EU.

Reading the headlines from Europe, it’s easy to get depressed. Yet there are glimmers of hope. Polls show younger Europeans identifying more as “European” in addition to their respective nationalities. A rising cohort from Europe’s East, who have a more direct knowledge (if not personal experience) of living under dictatorship, possess a greater appreciation for democracy. Some of the most remarkable Europeans I’ve encountered are young people from the post-communist world: the upstart Ukrainian twentysomethings who launched an independent investigative television network in the revolutionary cauldron of the Maidan; the Polish democracy activists imparting the lessons of their nation’s struggle to democrats in Burma; the Belarusian actors who illegally stage subversive plays in abandoned houses on the outskirts of Minsk. If Europe is to regain a sense of its purpose, it will be in the example set by the “new” Europeans of the East who cannot afford to take democracy and liberal values for granted in the way their Western brethren so often do.

I also acquire optimism from more unexpected places. When a bearded Austrian drag queen named Conchita Wurst won the 2014 Eurovision Song Contest, provoking denunciations of European decadence and depravity from Russia and other predictably reactionary quarters, it was heartening to see a wide-ranging assemblage of European voices rise up in her defense and assert, yes, this is a product of European ingenuity and pluralism and we are proud.

To ensure that the past 70 years of relative utopia are not the exception to its history but the rule, Europe needs a renewal of the muscular liberal center that is as proud of a hirsute diva as it is willing to use force to defend itself and as welcoming of Muslim refugees as it is unyielding in defense of the values it insists they adopt. Much more is at stake than the continuation of a currency union or the freedom to travel from France to Germany without a passport. A Europe unmoored from the Enlightenment values it brought to the world would not only spell the end of Europe as we know it. Such a collapse would usher in nothing less than a new dark age.

Adapted from The End of Europe: Dictators, Demagogues, and the Coming Dark Age by James Kirchick. Reprinted by permission of Yale University Press.