Saturday, Dec. 07, 1996

Europe's Journey of Rejuvenation

Civilizations, as well as forests, may be swept by devastating fires. But sometimes in the aftermath, the very ashes nourish the soil, and gradually a vigorous new growth rises. It is an inspiring but terrible kind of reforestation — historical progress by way of apocalypse.

Phoenix industries arise from rubble. Cities recrystallize. The forest obliviously forgives the fire. In 50 years the new order may become so lush that hardly anyone remembers the shock and despair, the flames and the blackened earth and the evil. The nitrates work a miracle of cultivation. A population that had descended from Bach to barbarism may find its way, sadder but wiser, toward Bach again.

That, anyway, is the hope. And so a society, recovering, may build a memento mori — a tribute to the civilizing influence of memory. In Bonn the tribute takes the form of a three-story museum called the Haus der Geschichte (House of History) — an archaeological inventory through which a younger generation may trace the astonishing process of European death and rebirth over the past 50 years.

The House of History contains a file of memories, from the collapse of the Third Reich at the end of World War II to the dismantling of the Berlin Wall at the end of the cold war and, further on, to German unification and the formation of a European Community. Here are the famous Trummerfrauen, the "rubble women," who, brick by brick, street by street, cleared passages through the bombed-out cities of Germany, knocking off the mortar, piling up bricks by the tens of thousands, to be used again to make the new cities.

Here, a blouse knitted from the strings around CARE packages, and cook pots improvised from old Wehrmacht helmets, and water jugs fashioned from the spent shells of German .88-mm cannons. There, a vegetable grater made from a soup can. Shoes sewn from CARE sugar bags, the soles made from Wehrmacht web belts. A note from a bulletin board: CAN SOMEONE TELL US OF THE WHEREABOUTS OF LT. HORST WIENAND, LAST SEEN IN STALINGRAD IN OCTOBER, 1943? And a vintage jeep, one of the thousands that rolled into the Thousand Year Reich, carrying the jaunty American occupiers.

In the summer after the war, there was drought all over Europe, and then came winter. In February 1946, Marion Gräfin Dönhoff rode on a coal car for 2 1/2 days from Hanover to Hamburg, a city that British bombers had reduced almost to powder. "There were sunken ships blocking the Elbe River," she remembers. "Die Zeit's building was completely burned out. Hamburg was bad. Berlin, through which I traveled, was even worse... I was totally black from head to foot. I never believed that I would ever sleep in a white nightgown between linen sheets again."

Dönhoff's journey from the coal car to the present is a sort of model for the course that Germany itself has taken, along with much of Europe. During the entire postwar period, Dönhoff has been a powerful voice for liberalism and democracy in a nation that has groped its way toward both. Today, as editor of Die Zeit, the nation's most prestigious weekly newspaper, she is probably the best-known woman in Germany.

Europe in 1945 seemed to be in a state just short of Carthaginian extinction. Now, after a 50-year struggle to transcend its fractious past and bellicose nationalisms, it has come an astonishing distance toward prosperity, democracy, tolerance and even unity, however flawed and quarrelsome.

Self-renewal has always been an American genius; the Americans, with their enormous continent and resources, have historically been able to expand and thereby overleap their own failures. After World War II, Europe, a shambles, was forced to renew and even to reinvent itself. Like Japan, Europe was obliged to replace much of its physical plant and soon emerged with newer, more advanced factories than those of the conquering Americans.

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.

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.