Sunday, February 14, 2016
European fragmentation and the lessons from the catastrophic XXth Century
Now that the UK debates about EU membership and that Europe faces economic and political dilemmas because of the refugee crisis and the slow recovery from the last financial crisis, it is a good time to reflect about the history that brought us here. It is important to understand the difficulties of the steps taken to reach the precarious peace and unity that we have enjoyed. Centuries of fragmentation perhaps gave us incentives to innovate, but also led to the catastrophes of the XXth century, so well explained by Timothy Snyder in "Black Earth." Now I'm reading "To Hell and Back," by Ian Kershaw, a cronicle of Europe between 1914 and 1949. Here's how the introduction starts: "Europe's twentieth century was a century of war. Two world wars followed by over forty years of cold war -itself the direct product of the second world war- defined the age. It was an extraordinarily dramatic, tragic and endlessly fascinating period, its history one of huge upheaval and astounding transformation. During the twentieth century, Europe went to hell and back. The continent, which for nearly one hundred years after the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 had priced itself on being the apogee of civilization, fell between 1914 and 1945 into the pit of barbarism." In chapter 9, Kershaw discusses the role of intellectuals. Not all of them contributed to stop the tragedy (some did, like Keynes). Many of them not only in Russia but also in Western Europe, endorsed stalinism. Many others endorsed fascism, not only in Italy and Germany, but also in other countries. The remedies to the much criticized at the time liberal democracy turned out to be much worse than the problems that had been diagnosed. Kershaw argues that "The belief in spiritual renewal through national rebirth accounts in good measure for fascism's appeal to intellectuals," A manifesto of intellectuals in favour of Italian fascim had been promoted in 1925 by Giovanni Gentile, a distinguished professor of philosophy at the University of Rome. He was ready to boast of fascist barbarity "as the expression of the healthy energies which shatter false and baleful idols, and restore the health of the nation within the power of a state conscious of its sovereign rights which are its duties."