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As it approaches the millennium, the Continent is also alive with creative energy and elan. Europe's young have been brought up to a cross-cultural self-confidence and cosmopolitanism or else, it may be, a new saturation of global mass culture in which they are supranationally at home. In any case, they are not neurotic about the past. One does not detect in them the shadows of Europe's terrible career earlier in the century. That happened, as far as they are concerned, in another universe.
Such, in any case, is true of the West European young. In Eastern Europe the tremendous sense of release and luminosity that came with the collapse of communism and end of the Iron Curtain has given way to the political, economic and cultural turbulence that accompanies such a radical change of direction and such a confusion of freedom. In cities like Prague or Budapest, however, one picks up an almost giddy entrepreneurial exuberance and an electric sense of possibility.
With the atavistic exception of the former Yugoslavia, Europe has for the most part overcome the three factors that brought the Continent low in two world wars: its geographical tribalism, its concomitant aversions of race and blood and its dangerously passive susceptibility to the leadership principle (Hitler, Mussolini, et al.) or to ideology (fascism, Marxism, for example). Today it is a double-exposed photograph in which one glimpses triumph overlaid by anxiety. Viewed over the past half-century, European progress seems a miracle. Assessing the present and looking toward the future, one may sometimes detect ominous shadows on the margins of an otherwise complacent scene.
For example: Europe is burdened with a low birthrate, high unemployment and an aging population. Its peoples seem sometimes to have become too smug, too introverted and (for all their unemployment) too overprivileged for their own good; their leaders' feckless performance in the past few years in the face of the genocide next door in Bosnia is not encouraging. There remain in the European character powerful allergies to foreigners and/or dark skins.
The Scot, the Frenchman, the Italian and the Dane are still some distance from an analogy to four Americans, one from California, say, one from Oklahoma, one from Illinois and one from Maine. Not just regional accents but entire languages separate the Europeans, along with historical-cultural differences deeply rooted in the past. Further, the very boundaries of Europe unlike those of the U.S. are ambiguous. Germany is unified now. But where exactly does Europe end as one travels east? Is Russia part of Europe? In what sense? Does even the western part of Russia share a European mind-set?
In America immigrants from elsewhere in the world constructed, so to speak, a new house for themselves. In Europe the many tribes are refurbishing many different old houses and trying to reshape them into a new kind of communal edifice. It is a difficult challenge of architecture, carpentry, plumbing, finance, linguistics and human relations. And yet a splendid work a prosperous, largely peaceful and substantially rehabilitated Europe has been achieved.
The success of the European journey in the past half-century is partly the result of the bitterness and despair in which the trip began. Perhaps only a Continent so shattered could be compelled by its own colossal failure to remake itself so dramatically. At the end of the war, cities in Germany and elsewhere had been, many of them, reduced to lunar landscapes, pierced by the Gothic spires that somehow survived. In Dusseldorf 93% of all houses were deemed to be uninhabitable. Famine seemed likely in many parts of the Continent; harvests were down everywhere, livestock decimated. Rationing became the organizing law of survival. All the basics were scarce: food, shoes, clothing, coal. Communications networks roads and bridges as well as telephones had been substantially destroyed. Railroads were at a standstill. The coal industry in the Ruhr had produced 400,000 tons a day before the war; now it managed 25,000. In France industry worked at less than 50% of its prewar levels. From the North Atlantic to the Adriatic to the Baltic, Europe was all but paralyzed and deeply demoralized.
Its descent from world cultural and financial pre-eminence had begun with World War I, which set in motion the historical landslide that crashed to a halt at last in 1945. Before 1914, Europe dominated the world's politics, finances and culture. The colonial powers held vast sections of Africa and Asia under their authority. By 1945, after two world wars, the Continent's self-confidence had collapsed, its foreign empires contracting, its moral capital all but vanished. In almost every sense, Europe was bankrupt.
Next Out of the Ashes