Europe, Land of Anguish and Nostalgia
In France, André Glucksmann is one of the so-called New Philosophers, who turned away from their Marxist beginnings after 1968 and, motivated by Solzhenitsyn’s “The Gulag Archipelago,” wrote off Soviet-style totalitarianism. He is particularly well known in Germany for his two books “The Cook and the Cannibal” and “The Master Thinkers.” His parents were Eastern European Jews and lived in Palestine and Germany before fleeing in 1937 to France, where Glucksmann was born in the same year. He published his autobiography, “A Child’s Rage,” in 2006. As someone who is deeply familiar with German philosophy and has taken a critical look at Heidegger since his university days, Glucksmann has sought to engage in intellectual dialogue with Germany. In his many papers and essays, the 75-year-old has defended the right to intervene in armed conflicts to protect civilians, has championed the Chechens and Georgians in the Caucasus, and has doggedly criticized the West for its tendency to close its eyes to the persistent presence of evil in the world. Glucksmann was interviewed by Roman Leik for “Der Spiegel” in late August.
NPQ | Mr. Glucksmann, in light of the intellectual and existential experiences you had in the 20th century as an anti-totalitarian thinker, are you worried about Europe’s future?
Glucksmann | I’ve never believed that all the dangers were averted after the end of fascism and communism. History doesn’t come to a standstill. Europe didn’t step out of (history) when the Iron Curtain disappeared, even if it has occasionally seemed to want to. Democracies tend to ignore or forget the tragic dimensions of history. In this sense, I would say: Yes, current developments are extremely unsettling.
NPQ | Since its beginnings 60 years ago, the European community has almost always stumbled from one crisis to the next. Setbacks are part of its normal mode of operation.
Glucksmann | A sense of crisis characterizes the modern European era. From it, one can draw the general conclusion that Europe actually isn’t a state or a community in the national sense, which grows together organically. It also can’t be compared with the ancient Greek city-states, which, despite their differences and rivalries, formed a single cultural unit.
NPQ | European countries are also bound by shared cultural aspects. Is there such a thing as a European spirit?
Glucksmann | European nations are not alike, which is why they can’t be merged together. What unites them is not a community but a societal model. There is a European civilization and a Western way of thinking.
NPQ | What are its features?
Glucksmann | Since the Greeks—from Socrates to Plato to Aristotle—Western philosophy has inherited two fundamental principles: Man is not the measure of all things, and he isn’t immune to failure and evil. Nevertheless, he is responsible for himself, and for everything he does or refrains from doing. The adventure of mankind is an uninterrupted human creation. God is not part of it.
NPQ | Fallibility and freedom. But are these fundamental aspects of European intellectual history not enough to create a permanent political union?
Glucksmann | Europe was never a national entity, not even in the Christian Middle Ages. Christianity always remained divided—the Romans, the Greeks and later the Protestants. A European federal state or European confederation is a distant goal that is frozen in the abstraction of the term. I think pursuing it is the wrong goal.
NPQ | Is the European Union chasing after a utopia in both political and historical terms?
Glucksmann | The EU’s founding fathers liked to invoke the Carolingian myth, and an EU award was named after Charlemagne. But, after all, his grandchildren divided up his empire. Europe is a unity in its division or a division in its unity. Whichever way you put it, though, it’s clearly not a community in terms of religion, language or morals.
NPQ | And yet it exists. What does that lead you to conclude?
Glucksmann | The crisis of the EU is a symptom of its civilization. It doesn’t define itself based on its identity but, rather, on its otherness. A civilization isn’t necessarily based on a common desire to achieve the best but, rather, on excluding and making the evil taboo. In historical terms, the European Union is a defensive reaction to horror.
NPQ | A negatively defined entity that emerged out of the experience of two world wars?
Glucksmann | In the Middle Ages, the faithful prayed and sang in their litanies: “Lord, protect us from pestilence, hunger and war.” This means that community exists not for good but against evil.
NPQ | These days, many people cite the phrase “never another war” as Europe’s raison d’être. Does this foundation still hold up now that the specter of war in Europe has dissipated?
Glucksmann | The Balkan wars in the former Yugoslavia and the murderous incendiary actions of the Russians in the Caucasus didn’t happen that long ago. The EU came together to oppose three evils: the memory of Hitler, the Holocaust, racism and extreme nationalism; Soviet communism in the Cold War; and, finally, colonialism, which some countries in the European community had to painfully abandon. These three evils gave rise to a common understanding of democracy, a civilizing central theme of Europe.
NPQ | Is a new, unifying challenge what’s missing today?
Glucksmann | It wouldn’t be hard to find if Europe didn’t act so heedlessly. In the early 1950s, the core of the union was the establishment of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), the first supranational economic alliance in the area of heavy industry; (it was) Lorraine and the Ruhr area, the ECSC as a means of preventing war. As everyone knows, the counterpart today would be a European energy union. Instead, Germany decided to embark on its transition to renewable energy on its own, ignoring the European dimension. Everyone is negotiating individually with Russia for oil and gas, Germany signed an agreement to build the Baltic Sea pipeline despite the resistance of Poland and Ukraine, and Italy is involved in the South Stream pipeline through the Black Sea.
NPQ | So each country is pursuing its own interests amid changing alliances and bilateral agreements that ignore the spirit of the European Union?
Glucksmann | (This is a) grim example of cacophony because it shows that the member states are no longer willing and able to form a united front against external threats and Europe’s challenges in the globalized world. This touches on the nerve of the European civilization project, in which each person is supposed to be able to live for himself, and with which, however, everyone wants to survive together. And it makes things easy for Russia under (President Vladimir) Putin. Despite all the weakness of that giant of natural resources, its capacity to cause damage remains considerable and is something its president likes to use. Recklessness and forgetfulness create the conditions for new catastrophes in both the economy and politics.
NPQ | Do European failures always start with a failure of the Franco-German partnership?
Glucksmann | It was typified by the symbolic insignificance of the celebration to mark the 50th anniversary of German-French reconciliation in Reims Cathedral at the beginning of July. Madame Merkel and Monsieur Hollande had almost nothing to say to each other, aside from a few insipid jokes about the bad weather, which often seems to coincide with their encounters. It fell short of all intellectual, historical, philosophical and political standards!
NPQ | The pathos and historical significance of the encounter between former French President Charles de Gaulle and former German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer in the same place 50 years ago cannot be recreated. Has the relationship simply become trivialized?
Glucksmann | It’s become abbreviated. Our political elites suffer from the intellectual illness of shortsightedness. Adenauer and de Gaulle thought in completely different terms. They looked back on three German-French wars, including the two world wars, and they looked forward to the democratic unification of the Continent and to surmounting the division of power in Europe that was agreed upon at the Yalta Conference in 1945. That was the major driving force behind German-French reconciliation.
NPQ | And it was fulfilled in 1990, after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Did the elimination of the threat and division also lead to the dissolution of internal cohesion? Former French President François Mitterrand and former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl wanted the monetary union to become the new cement.
Glucksmann | Which is now, in an irony of history, releasing divisive forces. But the problem is more deep-seated than that. In 1990, the end of history seemed to have arrived and, with it, the end of threats, trials, ideologies and the great struggles and debates. This is called the postmodern age. Merkel and Hollande are swimming in the instantaneousness of postmodernism, in which the “great stories,” with their overarching claim to legitimacy, are abandoned, as the philosopher Jean-François Lyotard said. Today’s European leaders think and act in the rhythm of election schedules and opinion polls.
NPQ | The two are in constant contact, and the German-French relationship is like the routine of an old couple. Isn’t being liberated from the burdens of history also an advantage?
Glucksmann | One cannot liberate oneself from history. It always has new burdens waiting on the horizon. If the German-French couple wants to go into retirement, it should say so. But if Europe doesn’t move forward, it will fall behind.
NPQ | During the meeting in Reims, German graves were desecrated at a World War I military cemetery. Could the euro crisis reawaken the demons of the past?
Glucksmann | I don’t really think so. The days of spiked helmet cartoons in France are over. The aversion to (former) President Nicolas Sarkozy that became apparent in the French election campaign could also have triggered anti-German resentment because Sarkozy was supposedly so submissive to Merkel. But that was hardly the case. The reawakening of old hostilities is not Europe’s problem; passivity is. People want to be left alone. And those that want to be left alone are not about to pick fights. Instead, they simply do nothing. This is true of France, of Germany and of everyone else.
NPQ | Complaints about the loss of vitality, decadence and downfall have been a recurring theme in European history. Fortunately, we are living in an unusually long period of peace and prosperity. If nothing else, this is a German-French achievement.
Glucksmann | Of course, we are no longer constantly living on the brink of a global political and ideological catastrophe, as we did in the 20th century. But disconcerting shifts are underway along Europe’s margins, such as an ominous encounter between Stalinism and old European nationalism in Hungary and Romania. And there is the special case of Greece. The country is an isolated case of sorts, with a horribly chaotic history since independence in 1830 as well as after 1945, complete with civil war and military dictatorship. In many ways, Greece is at odds with Europe, being anti-German, pro-Serbian and often pro-Russian.
Europe as a Threat to Itself
NPQ | The EU hasn’t lost its appeal. No one is voluntarily leaving the euro zone.
Glucksmann | Socrates said that no one willingly does wrong. I interpret this as follows: Bad things happen when the will grows weak. It doesn’t seem to me that finding solutions and paths in the current financial crisis is a superhuman task. After all, the EU’s leaders keep finding them here and there.
NPQ | And they’re finding their way from one Brussels summit to the next, and at increasingly shorter intervals. But what are supposed to be solutions just don’t pan out.
Glucksmann | What’s missing is a global perspective. The why of the EU, its raison d’être, has been lost. There will always be ways to improve the EU institutions and adjust them to the needs of the situation. We can rely on the resourcefulness of politicians and lawyers to do this. The challenge appears at a different level, and it’s clearly a matter of survival: If the old European nations don’t unite and present a unified front, they will perish.
NPQ | But haven’t European leaders recognized this?
Glucksmann | If they have, why are they acting with so little unity? The question of size has become an absolute necessity in globalization. Mrs. Merkel undoubtedly senses that Germany’s fate will also be decided in Europe’s backyard. That’s why, after some hesitation, she chose solidarity, albeit in moderation. Nevertheless, she is also allowing Germany, France, Italy and Spain to become divided in the crisis. If our countries can become divided under the pressure of market forces, they will perish, both individually and jointly.
NPQ | Are you saying that the idea of a European community of fate hasn’t really taken hold yet?
Glucksmann | Not in practice. Globalization brings global chaos, and a global police force—which the US played for a long time—no longer exists. The players may not be keen on war, but they don’t exactly mean well by one another. Everyone is playing his own game. In this anarchic confusion, Europe has to assert itself and face up to threats offensively. Putin’s Russia, which wants to regain parts of what it lost, is a threat. China, a bureaucratic slave state, is a threat. Militant Islamism is a threat. Europe has to learn to think in terms of hostility once again. (German philosopher) Jürgen Habermas, for example, doesn’t see this when he says that well-intentioned cosmopolitanism can unite everyone in global citizenship.
NPQ | For many parts of the world, Europe is a beacon of freedom and human rights.
Glucksmann | But ideals and values don’t combine to form prospects. European nations can certainly have an attractive pluralism of values, but presenting them as if they were part of a catalog isn’t sufficient. Instead, it’s important to address the challenges together. Europe is lingering in a state of hesitation, which can sometimes turn into hypocrisy. There are two ways to avoid challenges: One is to look away and pretend they don’t exist. The other is fatalism, that is, helplessly shrugging one’s shoulders and pretending that nothing can be done about them, anyway. The great universal historian Arnold J. Toynbee evaluated the development of cultures on the basis of their ability to appropriately react to challenges. Is Europe willing to confront its fate? There is reason to doubt it.
NPQ | Does this result from a lack of leadership?
Glucksmann | It’s more than that. It’s also a question of the failure of intellectuals, indifference in public opinion and isolationism. Look at the elections in Europe. What role do foreign policy and Europe’s place in the world play? A few years ago, the EU gave itself a high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, Catherine Ashton, with a separate agency employing several thousand civil servants. Where is she, what is she doing and who notices her? The 21st century will be the century of big continents that will either get along with each other or not. If Europe doesn’t enter this dimension, it will fall back into the 19th century. Then our political activity will only be based on distant memories: Europe, the continent of anguish and nostalgia.
NPQ | How could the intellectual energy flow be revitalized? German and French thinkers were long in a state of mutual fascination. One could say that it lasted from the French Revolution to the 1968 student movement.
Glucksmann | It was a curiosity that arose through rivalry and competition. We took a careful look at each other, and we knew each other pretty well. The intellectual distance has grown considerably in recent decades. There have always been differences in ways of thinking. Hegel described the Paris of the Enlightenment as an example of the “intellectual animal kingdom” of self-expression. The French argued and cursed; they were fond of differences and polemics. Their discussions shared something in common with journalism and spectacle, but not as much with academic rigor. The Germans worked on major explanatory systems, seeking the realm of knowledge as a replacement for a lack of unity in politics and religion. Today, an intellectual depression is weighing down upon both countries. The intelligentsia as a social class no longer exists in France, and it lacks coherence on both sides (of the German-French border). It has become lost in postmodernism.
NPQ | So those who wish to shirk the big challenges no longer need any important stories anymore, either?
Glucksmann | At least that’s what is postulated in what Lyotard sees as the end of systems and ideologies. But the supposedly non-ideological postmodernism is itself an ideology. I see it as the embodiment of the movement of the outraged—outrage as a moral protest that’s an end in itself. The form is the content. It reminds me of Oskar Matzerath in “The Tin Drum” by Günter Grass: I see, I drum and the unbearable world breaks apart.
NPQ | A child’s belief?
Glucksmann | Europe is still a playground of ideas. But thinking is so fragmented, so weighed down by scruples, that it flees from the true test. In this sense, it’s a mirror image of politics.
NPQ | Mr. Glucksmann, thank you for this interview.
©Der Spiegel. Used with permission. Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan.