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The historian Walter Laqueur claims that the story of Europe in the postwar years "defies generalization." It is too complex, too contradictory, composed of too many narrative strands. Perhaps, but the threads of individual lives are suggestive: Bernard Rideau is a French political consultant who was born toward the end of the war. As a baby he loved the sight of uniforms. "I spent considerable time in parks on the laps of uniformed German soldiers," Rideau remembers. "Of course, just a short time later the idea of that uniform filled me and everyone around me with hate, and the idea of ever cooperating with Germany, of ever creating Europe on a partnership with Germany, was totally out of the question. You'd have been called mad or worse even to question it."
Now Rideau says a little wistfully, "Despite where we have been, where we came from, people of my generation do not even appreciate Europe anymore ... People today have gone from thinking Europe was impossible to being bored with it. There is no feeling of being a real European, no pride in being a real European. It's sad." Hell is answered prayers.
Enzo Biagi is 75 now. He fought as a member of a unit of Italian partisans during World War II. He thought then that Italy would never rise again. But by 1946 some hope had begun to stir. Biagi inhabited the postwar Italy of Federico Fellini making a living by drawing caricatures of American servicemen, and Roberto Rossellini filming "La Cittá Aperta" on a shoestring budget. Biagi is now an editorial writer for the Milan daily Corriere della Sera. He recalls being sent to London to cover the wedding of Princess Elizabeth in 1947: "I went with a colleague, and we were so poor that our overcoats were actually stitched out of American blankets."
And so from 1947 to the magnificent Italian future: the economic booms of the '50s and '60s; money in the hands of workers; cars, mobility, luxuries; an endlessly bright commercial discretion. There are fewer poor people begging in front of churches, and most of them tend to be foreign.
Yet if the memory of the postwar "Bicycle Thief" years seems black-and-white grainy, the Italian present has a grayness of its own. Investigations of corruption have radically thinned the Italian ruling class. "When you see that we are No. 1 in corruption," Biagi remarks, "what can you hope for?" What values are left? For all the differences between the United States of America and the presumptively united states of Europe New World and Old World they share something of a common dilemma. The U.S. in its formative two centuries ruthlessly demanded that immigrants abandon a certain amount of their cultural distinctiveness in order to meld into the larger American identity. Today the U.S. is fighting passionate culture wars over the nature of that larger national identity and who will define it.
The larger European identity also remains to be defined. Initially, however, it may be formed less by culture wars (the European cultures being indigenous, unlike those in America) than by financial and trade struggles. But as Europe becomes ever more intensely mobile and indiscriminately Continental, the indigenous identities will continue homogenizing.
A version of the tale of Odysseus' old age has him leaving the island of Ithaca for the mainland and, carrying an oar on his shoulder, walking inland for days and weeks until at last a stranger stops him and asks him what the oar is, and what it is for. Odysseus knows then that he has truly left the sea behind and settles there.
The day has not arrived when Europeans will wonder what the oar is what World War II was, who Hitler was, what Nuremberg was all about what happened during the great forest fire. But the day will come. Will that effacement of memory be a good thing or a disaster? How vigorous and civilized will the new Europe prove to be? Those who do not learn from history, someone has said, are condemned to repeat George Santayana's cliché. The task in the postwar years was to integrate the interests of Europe's nations so thoroughly that they would never think to go for one another's throats again to sublimate the old conflicts of blood and steel into quarrels over comparatively harmless commercial issues, over the trade rules for fruits and cheeses. And to convert the old fascination with charismatic leaders into a mere fan's passion for celebrities. An unheroic reading would declare that Europe has rescued itself from itself by internationalizing and trivializing itself.
It would also be accurate, and more heroic, to say Europe has turned the issue of its survival, so problematic 50 years ago, into rejuvenation of a brilliant kind.
Next Out of the Ashes