Fault Lines and Steeples

Fault Lines and Steeples

Mini Teaser: In a famous passage in a speech to the House of Commons in 1922, Winston Churchill characterized the aftermath of the Great War:Great Empires have been overturned.

by Author(s): Max Beloff

Soviet power in Eastern and part of Central Europe, the sudden collapse of which marks the beginning of the present phase in the history of the Continent, struck ideological roots in an uneven fashion, as the course of events subsequent to the withdrawal of that power have made plain.  As the heady months of 1989 recede we can see how premature was the assumption that communism was in total retreat and that any form of collectivist economic and social policies had no future.  Those peoples who had always been part of or open to the West--Poles, Czechs, East Germans, Hungarians--have tried to resume their impeded march towards democracy.  Even in these countries, the mental wrench of dispensing with an all-powerful state apparatus is proving almost as much of an obstacle as that of finding and holding a new place in the world economy.  In Romania and in the Balkans, it is not even clear that the attempt is being made--Slovenia and Croatia are the exceptions that prove the rule.  As for the Soviet Union itself, one needed to be a Western innocent to believe that what Mikhail Gorbachev meant by perestroika was the abandonment of the communist core of his beliefs.

For all these reasons, the talk of a "common European home" must be looked at with some degree of skepticism; far more immediate are the dangers stemming from the freedom of the states that have rediscovered their independence to pursue ancestral claims and ancestral hatred.  It is of course difficult from case to case to be certain how seriously to take a particular danger.  Clearly rhetoric may sometimes be adopted for purely domestic purposes.  For instance, the revival of the anti-Semitism of earlier periods in Poland and Romania might lead one to believe that this must be so.  There can be no material significance in anti-semitism in a country like Poland with hardly any Jews, or Romania with only an insignificant minority.

Western Europeans should not be quick to criticize their Eastern neighbors.  They are also prone to allow ideological rhetoric to substitute for concrete achievement.  I have heard a Belgian cabinet minister proclaim that a "United States of Europe" is a must, while dismissing the idea that the existence of nine different languages among the present twelve members of the Community could present any problem--and this was the representative of a country which has had successive governmental and even constitutional crises because of its inability to cope with a mere two languages.  While Corsica is in a state of latent insurrections, while Northern Italy rebels against the diversion of its productive wealth to the corrupt economic and social fiefdoms of Rome and the South, is there not a case for saying that existing national unities are already being stretched and that it is unwise to believe that those who cannot manage these more local problems will do better at a higher level?

It is true that the American Founding Fathers brought it off--but they had the embryo of a nation to bring to birth.  Europe is not a nation.  The dreary steeples are still there.  Can Americans then afford to say that all this has no meaning or lesson for them?  In principle there is no reason to believe that the reasons for the cohesion of peoples or their rivalries are peculiar to any one continent.  Indeed, if one were looking for an illustration of the capacity of language and religion to make for a national group's survival, francophone Canada would provide an obvious example--the more striking in that its sense of identity has persisted into a period of partial secularization.  So far the United States itself offers no true parallel.  But if one's concern is with the American national interest, I would advise looking carefully at the language statistics of the Southwest.  European experience tends to make one skeptical about the duration of treaty settlements--is Guadalupe Hidalgo a necessary exception to the general rule?

Lord Beloff is an emeritus professor at the University of Oxford.  His most recent book is Dream of Commonwealth, 1921-1942.

Essay Types: Essay