THE IDEA of Europe, in the minds of Westerners today, is an intellectual concept—liberal humanism with a geographical basis—that emerged through centuries of material and intellectual advancement, as well as a reaction to devastating military conflicts in previous historical ages. The last such conflict was World War II, which spawned a resolve to merge elements of sovereignty among democratic states in order to set in motion a pacifying trend.
Alas, this grand narrative now is under assault by underlying forces of history and geography. The economic divisions seen today in the European Union, manifest in the Continent’s debt crisis and pressures on the euro, have their roots, at least partially, in contradictions that stretch far back into Europe’s past and its existential struggle to grapple with the realities of its immutable geographical structure. It is this legacy—somewhat deterministic and rarely acknowledged—that Europe still must overcome and that therefore requires a detailed description.