“For twenty-five years,” Jamie Kirchick tells us in the opening of this profound and necessary book, “the attainment of a Europe ‘whole, free and at peace’ has been the mantra of American and European statesmen.”
But, he continues with what the reader soon learns is customary gloom, “this goal is becoming a vanishing reverie.” And it is on this tension that the book rests. For over seventy years Europe, largely though not totally, enjoyed peace and prosperity. The trend, it seemed, was ever upwards.
How things change. In the last decade Europe has suffered the largest financial meltdown since the Great Depression, seen an explosion of jihadist terrorism on its shores as well as the largest human mass migration since the late 1940s.
Meanwhile, the European Union, once held up as the ideal of transnational economic and cultural unity, is in turmoil. From the Greek financial crisis to Brexit, the continent is under greater threat than at any point in its history. Emmanuel Macron’s recent victory in France has just about sustained liberalism and rule by technocratic elites in Western Europe but as you head eastwards “illiberal democracy,” as practised in places such as Hungary and Poland, is firmly in.
Demagogues from both left and right, with the Netherlands’s Geert Wilders to Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, have risen to take advantage of growing inequality and economic uncertainty as well as increasing fears over immigration and what many perceive to be its attendant cultural loss.
As populism has grown so has, inevitably, the fetid stench of anti-Semitism: the continent’s perennial – and foulest – tradition.
Ancient and exhausted, beset from all sides and, as Kirchick argues, suffering above all from “a loss of faith in the universal, humanistic values of what might be called the European idea” – what then is the future for Europe?
To answer this question Kirchick travels throughout the continent, visiting along the way, Greece, Germany, the UK and Hungary, among other countries. And what he sees worries him. In Britain he laments that the Labour Party, “a once-great institution…has been captured by Jeremy Corbyn, an unreconstructed Trotskyist, Putin apologist, and anti-Western firebrand.”
Kirchick is deservedly harsh on Corbyn, a man who, in your humble writer’s opinion, should be selling potatoes by the side of the road and not leading Britain’s official opposition. He points out that Corbyn has advocated abolishing the British Army, endorsed “dialogue” with the Islamic State, and proposed tens of billions of pounds in new, unfunded government social spending. When jihadist terror is erupting across a Europe already strafed by financial crisis the consequences of such policies are self-evidently both absurd and dangerous. As Kirchick concludes: “It is hard to exaggerate the damage Corbyn and his acolytes have done to the British social democratic tradition.”
But perhaps most worryingly of all, amid the travails of Greece and the unease of French Jews, lies Russia on the periphery. When not busy stealing a part of its neighbouring country, Ukraine, or looting billions from the public coffers the kleptocrats in the Kremlin are engaged in threatening nuclear strikes and menacing the Baltic States. And if Europe is now no longer united, whole or even at peace, who will stop them? Certainly not the US President who has repeatedly expressed his admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin while decrying NATO as “obsolete.”
The book is rich in analysis and ideas but if one theme emerges it is that of a Great Forgetting. Gore Vidal memorably called the US the “United States of Amnesia” because of his country’s seeming ignorance of its own past. In Europe, this phenomenon seems almost willful. Whether it is Victor Orban’s campaign to obscure the Hungarian state’s active collaboration in the Holocaust, or Russia’s deeply unsettling rehabilitation of Stalin, or even the British public’s seeming refusal to acknowledge the havoc the hard left brought to the country during the 1970s, a great erasure of memory is taking place across the continent.
And it is dangerous. As Kirchick notes, “as the memory of World War II, the Holocaust, and the gulag fades, so too does antipathy to the illiberal ideologies that spawned Europe’s past horrors.”
The result is a crisis of liberalism. “If the values of America and Europe do not continue to shape the future as they have its recent past,” Kirchick observes, “then those of authoritarian powers like Russia will.”
Kirchick has written both an expert analysis of what has brought us to this point of historical danger and a rallying cry for the renewal of a muscular liberal centre to combat it. It must be heeded, or the European dream may die forever.
The End of Europe by Jamie Kirchick is published by Yale University Press £18.99.