Letter from Berlin: Old Europe

By Stan Persky | May 12, 2003

Last night, at Berlin’s Philharmonic Chamber Music Hall, the Alban Berg Quartet played Haydn, Beethoven, and Janacek. I guess that’s about as "Old Europe" as you can get.

Every since I landed in springtime Berlin last week, I’ve been trying to figure out the meaning of U.S. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s dismissal of what he dubbed "Old Europe." That was his term, you’ll recall, for France and Germany, who earned the American Empire’s sneer for refusing to support the recent U.S. punitive expedition to Iraq. Old Europe also includes, I suppose, Holland, Belgium and Sweden, since they too opposed the American attack, but because their opposition wasn’t very loud, the brunt of Rumsfeld’s contempt fell on the old stand-bys. By contrast, the governments of England, Italy, Spain, Poland, the Czech Republic and Bulgaria supported the attack, so they probably count as the "New Europe." Wait a minute, was Bulgaria onside? It’s hard to keep track of these "either you’re with us or against us" lists. In any case, even if various European governments backed the Americans, their populations were overwhelming opposed to the legally-dubious drama in the desert, just like the populations of France and Germany.

Was Rumsfeld just bitching about what he regarded as the gutless politics of French President Jacques Chirac’s and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder’s respective governments, or was he getting at something deeper–the irrelevance of old Europe’s culture and civilization? Surely, Rumsfeld couldn’t have any complaints about Haydn’s rather upbeat "Kaiser Quartet" or Beethoven’s famous "String Quartet No. 11 in F Major," even if the latter is a bit moody. Maybe it is Janacek’s 1923 "String Quartet No. 1," inspired by Tolstoy’s novella, The Kreuzer Sonata that upsets American hawks. It’s true that Old Europe also kind of invented the artistic movement known as "Modernism," and that the music of Janacek, who was fascinated by troubled women who broke through the rigidity of patriarchal bourgeois society, is rife with the discordant cries of the early 20th century disrupting the melodies of Romanticism. But, hey, Janacek’s a Czech, and the Czechs were with-us-not-against-us, right?

In between walking around springtime Berlin, with its streets lined with thousands of lindens and flowering chestnut trees, I’ve also been reading about Old Europe. In fact, a trio of books on my desk provides a sort of panorama of 20th century Old Europe. Thomas Levenson’s Einstein in Berlin (Bantam, 2003) is the story of the genius physicist figuring out the nature of the universe during his 18-year stay in the German capital, from 1914 to just before Hitler ascended to power in 1933. Einstein may have had his head in the cosmos, but he had his feet sufficiently on the ground to get out of Germany in time. "Take a good look," he said to his wife as they walked away from their house. "You will never see it again."

The Weimar Republic of the 1920s failed, and Nazism’s boot-in-the-face took over for a dozen horrific years until the Allies crushed the fascists in World War II. The Germans have been trying to keep the lessons of the Holocaust in mind ever since. Last weekend, while the strains of Janacek’s strings echoed through architect Hans Scharoun’s Philharmonic chamber, there were observances, lectures and readings all over town marking the 70th anniversary of the Nazi book-burning on May 10, 1933 in Bebel Platz, the elegant square off east Berlin’s major boulevard, Unter den Linden. The site is marked by a memorial that includes a line from one of Old Europe’s better 19th century poets, Heinrich Heine, who wrote, "People who start burning books will end up by burning people."

Paris After the Liberation: 1944-49 (Penguin, 1994) by Antony Beevor and Artemis Cooper picks up the story after the Second World War. It’s all about the collaborationist Vichy regime of Marshal Petain, who happily played along with the Nazis after the too-easy fall of France in 1940. But nobody ever claimed the French were fighters. Lovers yes, fighters–well, not since Napoleon. Beevor and Cooper, a husband-and-wife history-writing team, point out that "the most fervent support for Petain’s regime" came from, if not Old Europe, at least an "arch-conservative ‘old France’–symbolized by a ferociously illiberal clergy and a petite noblesse that was both impoverished and resentful–[that] still cursed the principles of 1789." If France got second-rate home-brew fascism during the war, what they got afterwards was General Charles deGaulle, who wasn’t much of an enthusiast for democracy either. But France also got Sartre, deBeauvoir, Camus and a host of other thinkers who invented everything from existentialism to postmodernism, and had a lot of drinks, cigarettes, and dances while doing it.

Finally, bringing us up to date, there’s Jan-Werner Muller’s Another Country: German Intellectuals, Unification and National Identity (Yale, 2000). Forget its ponderous sub-title. Old Europe jokes aside, if you’re looking for the one book that gives a genuinely intelligent account of German thought from the end of World War II to re-unification in 1990, Another Country, written by a brilliant 30-something-year-old Oxford scholar, is the new high-tide mark in contemporary German intellectual history. I don’t imagine it’s on Secretary Rumsfeld’s reading list.

This spring’s hit movie in Berlin–it’s been running in movie houses all over town for the last three months–is Wolfgang Becker’s bittersweet comedy, "Goodbye, Lenin!" Becker, the talented Berlin-based director whose previous box-office and critical success was "Life Is a Construction Site," this time tries to come to terms with German unification in 1990. The plot is farcical, and is filled with in-jokes for former East Germans, but the underlying semi-serious message is that there was something in the dream of a socialist society, however nightmarish it turned out to be in reality, that shouldn’t be thrown away. A movie definitely not for cowboy capitalists with their eyes on the privatisation of Iraqi oilfields.

The real problem for Old Europe, though, isn’t the 20th century or any time further past, but the uncertain future of the 21st century. Berlin may be spectacularly beautiful in springtime, with its greenery and waterways, but it’s also looking a bit shabby. Post-unification Germany hasn’t brought an economic boom. Just the opposite: lots of closed shops, 4 million Germans unemployed (with rates running up to 20 per cent in some backwaters), a stagnant economy and a very shaky Social Democratic-Green Party coalition government that squeaked into a second term in office last year, partly on its opposition to U.S. military belligerence. Chancellor Schroeder was recently trial-ballooning the word "emancipation" to describe the needs of Europe in relation to the American Empire. And on the weekend he met with Chirac and the Polish president in Wroclaw, Poland to make a few unified Europe noises, while at the same time soothing the Big Guys across the pond. For the most part, though, Schroeder and Chirac both have a mess on their hands. Both countries are running big deficits, and German Finance Minister Hans Eichel admitted on the weekend that Germany wouldn’t meet its 2006 target for balancing the budget.

In the meantime, Schroeder is bowing to global (read: American) pressure to "reform" (read: shred) the German welfare state. The polls put his Christian Democrat opponents some 20 points ahead of the governing Social Democrats, but everyone admits that the Christian Democrats have neither a plan nor a leader. For now, it’s muddle on, even though the government might fall if enough Greens and Social Democrats vote against their leader’s reform package. Politically, it’s a time of waiting for the barbarians–well, actually, Schroeder is waiting for U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, the "good cop" of the Bush administration, who’s coming to Berlin for a smoothing-over-the-differences visit at the end of the week. The only other weekend political event of note is that Lithuania voted to join the European Union. But is that the Old or New European Union?

Oh yes, one other weekend musical event was a performance of Italian composer Luigi Nono’s 1960 opera, Intolerance, all about the injustices suffered by immigrant workers. Maybe it’s enough to say that Nono’s music definitely clashes with Schroeder’s unpopular reform scheme.

In Tolstoy’s Kreutzer Sonata, the story’s protagonist has some harsh words for music. "Music is really something terrible," he says. "People say music lifts the soul. That’s not true… Music makes me forget my real situation, it brings me to a different, strange condition… I feel something that I don’t really feel, I seem to understand what I don’t understand." Maybe Tolstoy’s murderous protagonist is right. And maybe Rumsfeld is right about Old Europe. Still, sitting in the balcony of the Chamber Music Hall,Old Europe sounded pretty good to me last night.

Berlin, May 12, 2003


  • Stan Persky

    Stan Persky taught philosophy at Capilano University in N. Vancouver, B.C. He received the 2010 B.C. Lieutenant-Governor's Award for Literary Excellence. His most recent books are Reading the 21st Century: Books of the Decade, 2000-2009 (McGill-Queen's, 2011), Post-Communist Stories: About Cities, Politics, Desires (Cormorant, 2014), and Letter from Berlin: Essays 2015-2016 (Dooney's, 2017).

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