THE COLLAPSE of the Berlin Wall brought all these divisions into sharp relief. The Warsaw Pact had constituted a full-fledged eastern empire, ruled from Moscow, featuring military occupation and freeze-frame poverty brought about by the introduction of command economies. During the forty-four years of Kremlin rule, much of Prussian, Hapsburg and Byzantine-Ottoman Europe was locked away in a Soviet prison of nations collectively known as Eastern Europe. Meanwhile, in Western Europe the European Union was taking shape, first as the European Coal and Steel Community, then as the Common Market and finally as the eu, building out from its Carolingian base of France, Germany and the Benelux countries to encompass Italy, Great Britain, and later Greece and the Iberian nations. Because of its economic head start during the Cold War years, Carolingian Europe inside NATO has emerged as stronger, for the time being, than Prussian northeastern Europe and Danubian Mitteleuropa, which historically were equally prosperous but for too long were located inside the Warsaw Pact.
The Soviet thrust into Central Europe in the latter phases of World War II created this entire turn of events, even as it bore out the thesis of political scientist Halford Mackinder that Asiatic invasions have shaped the European destiny. Of course, we shouldn’t carry this determinism too far, since without the actions of one man, Adolf Hitler, World War II may not have occurred, and then there would have been no Soviet invasion.
But Hitler did exist, and so we are left with the situation as it exists today: the Europe of Charlemagne. Yet because of the resurgence of a united Germany, the balance of power within Europe may shift slightly eastward to the confluence of Prussia and Mitteleuropa, with German economic power invigorating Poland, the Baltic states and the upper Danube. The Mediterranean seaboard and the Byzantine-Ottoman Balkans generally lag behind. The worlds of the Mediterranean and the Balkans meet in mountainous and peninsular Greece, which despite being rescued from communism in the late 1940s remains among the most economically and socially troubled of the European Union’s members. Greece, at the northwestern edge of the Near Eastern oikoumene (inhabited world), was the beneficiary of geography in antiquity—the place where the heartless systems of Egypt and Persia-Mesopotamia could be softened and humanized, leading to the invention of the West. But in today’s Europe, dominated by its northern states, Greece finds itself at the wrong end of things, the orientalized end, far more stable and prosperous than places such as Bulgaria and Kosovo but only because it was spared the ravages of communism. Roughly three-quarters of Greek businesses are family owned and rely on family labor, so minimum-wage laws do not always apply, and often those without family connections cannot be promoted.7 This phenomenon finds expression in what to many is purely a financial crisis but in fact is deeply rooted in cultural realities, which means more fundamentally in history and geography.
Geography is a driving force here. When the Warsaw Pact broke up, the formerly captive countries advanced economically and politically almost exactly according to their positions on the map: Poland, the Baltic states, Hungary and the Bohemian end of Czechoslovakia initially performed the best, again with significant variations, while the Balkan countries to the south generally suffered greater destitution and unrest. All the vicissitudes of the twentieth century notwithstanding—including the pulverizing effects of Nazism and communism—the legacies of Prussian, Hapsburg, Byzantine and Ottoman rules are still relevant. These empires were first and foremost creatures of geography, influenced as they were by migration patterns from the Asiatic East.
Thus, behold again that eleventh-century map of Europe, with the Holy Roman Empire resembling a united Germany at its center. All around are region states: Burgundy, Bohemia, Pomerania and Estonia, with Aragon, Castille, Navarre and Portugal to the southwest. Think now of the regional success stories in the twenty-first century, mainly in Carolingian Europe: Baden-Württemberg, the Rhone-Alpes, Lombardy and Catalonia. These populations, as Judt reminds us, are for the most part northerners, who peer down on the supposedly “backward, lazy, Mediterranean, subsidized ‘south,’” even as they look in some horror at Balkan nations like Romania and Bulgaria joining the European Union.8 It is the center versus the periphery, with the losers in the periphery generally, though not exclusively, in those regions closer geographically to the Middle East and North Africa. But precisely because the Brussels-headquartered European superstate has worked so well for northerly subregions such as Baden- Württemberg and Catalonia, these subregions have been liberated from their own one-size-fits-all, chain-store national governments and have consequently flourished by occupying historically anchored economic, political and cultural niches.
Beyond their dissatisfaction with Europe’s losers on the periphery, among prosperous northern Europeans there is an unease over the dissolution of society itself. National populations and labor forces are demographically stagnant in Europe and consequently graying. Europe will lose 24 percent of its prime, working-age population by 2050, and its population of those over sixty years old will rise by 47 percent in that time frame. This will likely lead to increased immigration of young people from the Third World to support Europe’s aging welfare states. While reports of Muslim domination of Europe have been exaggerated, the percentage of Muslims in major European countries will, in fact, triple by midcentury, from the current 3 percent of the population to 10 percent. Whereas in 1913 Europe had more people than China, by 2050 the combined populations of Europe, the United States and Canada will comprise just 12 percent of the world total, down from 33 percent after World War I.9 Europe is certainly in the process of being demographically diminished by Asia and Africa, even as European populations themselves become more African and Middle Eastern.
Indeed, the map of Europe is about to move southward and once again encompass the entire Mediterranean world, as it did not only under Rome but also under the Byzantines and the Ottoman Turks. For decades, because of autocratic regimes that stifled economic and social development—while also being the incubators of extremist politics—North Africa was effectively cut off from the northern rim of the Mediterranean. North Africa gave Europe economic migrants and little else. But as North African states evolve into messy democracies, the degree of political and economic interactions with nearby Europe will, over time, multiply. The Mediterranean will become a connector rather than the divider it has been during most of the postcolonial era.
Just as it moved eastward to encompass the former satellite states of the Soviet Union following the democratic revolutions of 1989, Europe will now expand to the south to encompass the Arab uprisings. Tunisia and Egypt are not about to join the European Union, but they are about to become shadow zones of deepening EU involvement. Thus, the EU itself will become an even more ambitious and unwieldy project than ever before. Europe’s real southern boundary is not the Mediterranean but the Sahara desert, which cuts equatorial Africa off from the North.
Nevertheless, the European Union, albeit beset by divisions, anxieties and massive growing pains, will remain one of the world’s great postindustrial hubs. Thus, the ongoing power shift within it, eastward from Brussels-Strasbourg to Berlin—from the European Union to Germany—will be pivotal to global politics. For it is Germany, Russia and Greece—with only eleven million people and with or without its debt crisis—that will most perceptively reveal Europe’s destiny.
THE VERY fact of a united Germany has to mean comparatively less influence for the European Union than in the days of a divided Germany, given united Germany’s geographical, demographic and economic preponderance in the heart of Europe. Germany’s population is now eighty-one million, compared to almost sixty-six million in France and sixty-one million in Italy. Germany’s gross domestic product is $3.63 trillion. France’s is $2.81 trillion, and Italy’s is $2.25 trillion. More significant is the fact that whereas France’s economic influence is mainly limited to the countries of Cold War Western Europe, German economic influence encompasses both Western Europe and the former Warsaw Pact states, a tribute to its more central geographical position and trade links with both East and West.10
Besides their geographical position astride both maritime Europe and Mitteleuropa, Germans have a built-in cultural attitude toward trade. As Norbert Walter, formerly the senior economist for Deutsche Bank, told me long ago, “Germans would rather dominate real economic activities than strict financial activities. We keep clients, we find out what they need, developing niches and relationships over the decades.” This ability is aided by a particular dynamism, as the political philosopher Peter Koslowski once explained: “Because so many Germans started from zero after [World War II], we are aggressively modernist. Modernism and middle-class culture have been raised to the status of ideologies here.” United Germany is also spatially organized to take advantage of an era of flourishing northern European subregions. Because of the tradition of small, independent states arising out of the Thirty Years’ War in the seventeenth century—which still guides Germany’s federal system—there is no single, great pressure cooker of a capital but rather a series of smaller ones that manage to survive even in an era of a reborn Berlin; Hamburg is a media center, Munich a fashion center, Frankfurt a banking center and so on, with a railway system radiating impartially in all directions. Because Germany came late to unification in the second half of the nineteenth century, it has preserved its regional flavor, which is advantageous in today’s Europe. Finally, the fall of the Berlin Wall—which in historical terms is still recent, given that trends take decades to fully emerge—has reconnected Germany to Central Europe, recreating, in exceedingly subtle and informal ways, the First and Second Reichs of the twelfth and nineteenth centuries, roughly equivalent to the Holy Roman Empire.Image: Pullquote: The fact that this budding European superstate of our own era is concentrated in Europe’s medieval core, with Charlemagne’s capital city of Aachen still at its very center, is no accident.Essay Types: Essay