Sunday, Aug. 10, 2003

Europe: Then And Now

The most direct way to drive from Berlin to Paris is to follow the same route that Soviet tanks would have taken during the cold war — head west across the north German plain to Hanover, the Ruhr and Ardennes, then rumble through the beet and wheat fields of northern France. Load up with caffeine, put your foot to the floor on Europe's magnificent highways, and you might do the whole trip in a long day.

That seemed too dull and too easy. I was born in the U.K. in 1951, and — like many of my generation — grew up making no distinction between being European and being British. But I'd never really tried to get the measure of how the Continent has changed in 50 years. I wanted to see whether "old" Europe — the nations that had been liberal democracies in 1953 — and "new" Europe — those which, for two generations, had been ruled by communist regimes — were managing to find a common sense of thought and outlook. It seemed a good time to take a look; Europe's bitter row over the war in Iraq and its collective yawn over the proposed new E.U. constitution suggest that European unity is still a concept more of hope than of reality. I wanted to track forces more fundamental than those wielded by politicians and bureaucrats. So from Berlin I turned south, and took a week driving through Germany, the Czech Republic and France before I arrived in the City of Lights just in time to celebrate the quatorze juillet. We'll get to the celebrations later.

The route was deliberate. There are many Europes, but as Ian Buruma once argued, a fundamental division lies between the Europe of the littoral — the seafaring lands of Britain, the Netherlands, Atlantic France and the Hansa cities, largely Protestant, outward-looking, adventurous, with the world on their doorstep — and the Europe of the interior — Catholic, self-absorbed, whose trade went by land rather than sea, and where connections to overseas empires are of less moment than the memories of old political units like Brandenburg, Saxony, Bohemia, Franconia, the Palatinate, Alsace and Lorraine. On the littoral, the revolutionary effect of four centuries of globalization makes it hard to identify what is European about a culture and what is international. I wanted to test the heartland.

It is obvious that Europe has changed in the last two generations. It is richer, more free, less deferential. But it will take more than 50 years for the Continent to shake off the grasp of its recent history. On the outskirts of Nuremberg, you can see the ruins of the grounds where the Nazis held their party rallies in the 1930s. In a new museum and documentation center there, Eckart Dietzfelbinger, who directs the center's research, described Europe as a society living "in the shadow of the past." That's true; but it is also a society with a cautious optimism about the future. Europe, old and new, wants to believe that the gains that have been won since 1945 and 1989 — those two dates of equal liberation — are safe, and that the qualities of life which Europeans have sought for generations have now been secured.

Why is the past so vividly present in modern Europe? I think there are three reasons. First, the horrors of the long European war from 1914 to 1989 were so pervasive and so foul that there is no escaping them. In Berlin, the Soviet brutalist architecture along Karl-Marx-Allee (originally Stalinallee) reminds you that the city had to be rebuilt from dust and splinters. The great gaps in the skyline of Dresden, a city that, when crammed with refugees, was needlessly destroyed by the Allies in February 1945, tell the same story. "Dresden was a war crime," the German novelist Günter Grass said to me earlier this year. He's right. We've all been moved by the pathos of war memorials, in Flanders, say, or on the cliffs above the Normandy beaches. But — never having been there before — I broke down in tears at the Ossuary at Verdun, where the remains of 130,000 bodies blown to smithereens in World War I are interred. You can peer through glass at the heaps of bones, tipped together in a sacred helplessness, as if those who survived the slaughter were saying, "We know it's not much, but we did our best." When French President François Mitterand and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl stood in front of the Ossuary and held hands in 1984, their gesture was not just one of reconciliation, but of a shared and irremovable pain.

Second, for those who lived east of the Iron Curtain, "the war" ended not in 1945 but in 1989. It is only in the last decade that they have been able to speak, and perhaps think, honestly and openly about their lives. In Berlin I met Karl-Heinz Gebhardt, who, as a 24-year-old carpenter in 1953, left a construction site on the Stalinallee to join a march through Berlin. Workers, with arms linked, walked into the heart of the city, through lines of police and soldiers. Though some on the marches called for free elections, Gebhardt insists he wasn't political; he joined the march, he says, because the East German authorities had cut wages and raised prices. But when he went back home at the end of the demonstrations — which were crushed by Soviet troops and T-34 tanks — he vowed to himself that he would never talk about them until he was 65.

It may be scant comfort, but he didn't have to wait quite so long. Gebhardt was 60 when the Wall came down, and can now say, at no risk, that he is determined that the story of 1953 is passed on to the next generation. But the same inability to live honestly was evident everywhere in the communist east. In Prague, John Bok, a former dissident colleague of Václav Havel, told me what Czechoslovakia was like after the Soviet tanks had snuffed the Prague spring in August 1968. The mood, he says, "was gray, which is worse than black. A whole nation was grumbling in the pubs, living in hibernation." All you could do, Bok says, was to follow Havel's axiom to "live in truth;" to eschew heroism and take responsibility for yourself and those closest to you.

The awakening of eastern and central Europe since 1989 is sometimes inspiring. Terezín, just north of Prague, used to be a small Habsburg garrison town, and was converted by the Nazis into a "model" Jewish ghetto called Theresienstadt, a fake complete with orchestras, art classes and a thriving literary life. It was, of course, not a ghetto at all, but a concentration camp where 35,000 Jews died. Just outside the ghetto is an old fortress where Czech communists were imprisoned by the Nazis. During the years of communist rule, says Vojtech Blodig, deputy director of the ghetto museum, it was those communist martyrs, not the Jews, whose suffering was remembered. Schoolchildren were taken on tours of the fortress — not the ghetto. "Young people in Terezín didn't know there had ever been a ghetto here," says Blodig. So when the museum opened in 1991, most Czechs associated Terezín with the communist regime; in the first few years, only 2.5% of visitors were Czech. But now more than 25% of visitors are Czech, and Blodig says that in some Czech towns, the local groups that maintain old synagogues don't have a single Jew among them. "We're taking care of the memories of our missing neighbors," he says.

That a thaw has come to those whose dreams were reduced to frozen stubble by communism is something we instinctively understand. But the third reason for the persistence of memory is more surprising. In "old" Europe, too — in those places that never felt the communist boot — the accretions of 50 years of denial are still being scraped away and the past exposed. At the documentation center in Nuremberg I asked Dietzfelbinger why it had taken so long to commemorate such central events in modern European history. "It has taken this city more than 60 years to accept its Nazi heritage," he said. Until the 1960s, he argued, those in the "responsible generation" simply ducked all talk of the Nazi years. Then, in the 1960s, their children began to ask questions about the past. Now — finally — Germans can have an honest debate about the Third Reich. But Dietzfelbinger then broadened this familiar point in an important way. I asked him if he ever thought it was time to say "enough," and stop picking over the bones of the past. "In an open society," he says, "that's not possible. But we have to understand the values of democracy as well as the shadows of the past. We have to help people understand that they now live in a system whose values can prevent new tragedies like the Holocaust."

This linking of the past to the present and future is at the heart of modern Europe. It means facing the truth of the awful last century, and applying its lessons to build a better society in this one. Of all those who have tried to do that, I have long had a soft spot for that deeply unfashionable figure, Helmut Kohl. The conservative German Chancellor from 1982 to 1998 understood with every fiber of his ample frame that Europe had to get beyond the divisions of the past. While others were nervously chewing their fingernails in 1989, he seized the opportunity to unite old and new Europe. When the Wall came down, Kohl — who had lost a brother in World War II, and whose future wife was raped by Soviet troops in 1945 — did not hesitate. Before anyone in the Kremlin had time for second thoughts, he committed himself to the reunification of Germany, while at the same time locking Germany into a European political and economic union in which its power would be constrained by multilateral institutions.

For those still committed to the old conception of the nation-state, Kohl was literally incomprehensible. In the spring of 1989, he hosted Margaret Thatcher, then British Prime Minister, at a Sunday lunch in his cosy home village of Deidesheim, in the heart of the Palatinate wine country. They ate at the Deidesheimer Hof, a lovely inn in the center of the village, where the specialty is saumagen — stuffed pig's stomach. Thatcher did not enjoy it. As her aide Charles Powell later told the BBC, she chased the delicacy around her plate before hiding it under her knife and fork. (When I passed through Deidesheim on my trip I tried the saumagen too, and found it delicious, like a rather firm Scottish haggis.) After lunch Kohl and Thatcher visited the magnificent Romanesque Cathedral at Speyer. In the crypt — amid the graves of kings and emperors — Kohl took Powell to one side. "Surely," he said, "now she's seen me, in my part of Germany, close to the French border, surely she'll finally understand that I'm not German — I'm European." No chance. As she got on the plane to fly back to London, Powell recalled, Thatcher kicked off her shoes and exclaimed, "My God, that man is so German!"

But what exactly did Kohl mean when he said that he was "European?" I think he was claiming a link to a time when national borders meant less than they later did, when Speyer was an imperial city of the Habsburgs, Europe was coterminous with Christendom, and Germany just meant the place were people spoke German. But there are other Europes, even in Speyer. At the time the cathedral was built, the most sophisticated "European" civilization was in Muslim Andalusia. Deep in the crypt, among a forest of arches, it's impossible to miss the Moorish influence on Romanesque art — you could almost think you were in the great Mosque of Córdoba. Just down the street from the cathedral is a superbly preserved mikvah, or Jewish ritual bath-house, dating from the 12th century, when the Jewish community in Speyer was known throughout Europe for its wisdom and learning. The later history of the Jews of Speyer was marked less by scholarship than by pogroms and concentration camps. So perhaps the true lesson of the town is not that Europe doesn't need borders but rather that Europe has long had a problem with diversity, with a split sense of identity, with those who want to be Jewish and German, French and Muslim, black and British.

It isn't just the absence of Jews that has, for 50 years, made Europe a less diverse place than it should be. There's also the matter of the missing Germans — the great taboo of modern European history. In the last year of World War II and its aftermath, some 9 million Germans were driven out of their ancestral homes in eastern Europe. That has changed societies in ways large and small. Blodig reminded me, for example, that before 1939, the culture of Prague was a mixture of Czech, Jewish and German influences. Today Prague is a monoethnic city. With the expulsion of the Germans and the reordering of borders after 1945, the nations of eastern Europe are, for the first time, pretty much ethnically homogeneous, devoid of minorities, so long as one turns a blind eye to the shameful condition of the Roma. The political entity of Poland, for example, is also the place where Poles — and only Poles — live. That has never been true before.

For Poles, and other central and eastern Europeans, the capturing of national identity after years of oppression under the communists is understandably a matter of pride. It should surprise nobody that substantial majorities in the former communist states are skeptical about the wisdom of subordinating their new independence to the institutions of the European Union. If you wanted to be really pessimistic, you might conclude that it is in central and eastern Europe that extreme nationalism might raise its head once again. I don't think that will happen. The post-communist nations may be ethnically homogeneous, but people don't have to stay in them. Having the wealth and freedom to wander around the Continent — and the world — is the single most important change in Europe in the last 50 years. I spent an evening in Prague drinking beer with a bunch of twentysomethings. One had spent a year as an au pair in London; one planned to take a graduate course in Dublin; one had studied at an American high school; one had just returned from a semester in Thessaloniki. For all of them, it was the ability to travel freely that most distinguished their lives from those of their parents.

It is in this shifting population of young Europeans that I find true optimism about the future. I don't mean to imply that all national distinctions are in the process of being abolished; plainly, that is not the case. But there is now a generation of Europeans that are able to make friends anywhere, talk about the same soccer teams, drink the same beer, dance to the same music, and, not least, speak the same language. It is, after all, not the deliberations of political leaders but the quotidian actions of countless individuals from which a society takes its strength. "We don't have a perfect democracy," says John Bok, speaking of the Czech Republic after the velvet revolution, "but we have freedom to make our own decisions." That's not everything, but compared with the past, it's enough. Milos Zika, 68, a retired Czech engineer, has seen it all. He's old enough to remember the Germans riding motorcycle sidecars through the snow into Prague in 1939, to have listened with his family — on pain of death — to the BBC's call sign Volá Londyn during the war, to have seen boys from Siberia and Kazakhstan sleeping on their tanks after the invasion in 1968, and East Germans flock into the city in their Trabants in the summer of 1989, hoping to get out to the West.

Finally, in November of that year, he was in the crowd in Wenceslas Square when Havel gave a rotten regime the little push that was needed to knock it over. After the communists fell, says Zika, "many people thought that life would be 100% perfect, but that's not how life works." Still, he continued, he's satisfied and optimistic. "People have plenty of food, they have friends, they have a washing machine and a food processor, they have four mobile phones."

Everyone knows that there are large and difficult issues facing Europe, new and old. An aging population, weak political leadership, an unresolved tussle between national identity and supranational power, an unwillingness to make the investments in the armed forces that would allow Europe to claim an equal partnership with its American allies, an economy whose green shoots rarely seem to grow and bear fruit. But measured by its relaxed mood and the evident happiness of its people, Europe today is simply on a different planet from the Europe of 50 years ago. On the last night of my trip — July 13 — I was walking across the Boulevard St. Michel in Paris when I bumped into an old American friend. He told me that he was taking up the tango, and when I asked him why, he suggested we take a stroll along the banks of the Seine opposite the Ile St. Louis. In a makeshift amphitheater, a drop-dead gorgeous crowd were tangoing away, while families picnicked nearby, and a full moon sailed into a cloudless sky. Later that night, in the oh-so-cool passages of the Marais, I stumbled upon a block party. Someone had set up a sound system on the sidewalk, and young and old, gay and straight, black, white and brown were grooving to salsa in the street.

Divided, poor and hungry 50 years ago, Europe has become a society where the eve of a national holiday is celebrated by dancing under the stars. If that doesn't make you feel good about the place, nothing will.