Europe and the Europeans

For the past month and a half I’ve been doing grand tour of Europe. My trip started in Romania and has now reached Ireland. I don’t really have any special insights about Europe. The cities have been pleasant, the historic downtowns have been beautiful. Everyone I’ve actually had a conversation with (ie, mostly young people who know English) have been 100% SWPL. Most everything I’ve seen is about as epected based on everything I’ve ever heard about Europe. The streets are safe, the beer and wine is good, the trains run fast and on time.

On the flights and trains I’ve been reading a bunch of books on Europe. I downloaded Will Durant’s entire history of western civilization onto my Kindle and have been reading it chapter by chapter.

I also read Luigi Barzini’s The Europeans. Barzini was born in Italy, spent his young adult years as a journalist in America, and then returned to Europe where he spent some of Europe’s most critical years (1930 to 1980) as a journalist. He really has the perfect perspective. His American years taught him to write excellent, engaging, eloquent English. He understands the American audience and thus knows how to write for them. But he also knows all the countries of Europe, he spoke to commoners and he knew the great players. If you want to understand Europe during those years, Barzini is the author you need to read first. Here are some interesting excerpts:

Barzini writes about pre-war Britain:

Well-mannered people were also strictly forbidden to say anything witty or clever. If anything of the kind was said, usually by a foreigner or a famous Irishman, at a dinner table, silence followed. Nobody laughed. As Lord Chesterfield had written, “There is nothing so illiberal and so ill bred as audible laughter.” All faces turned in mild embarrassment in the direction of the uncautious witty man. Then conservsation resumed haltingly.

The past is a weird, weird place. It’s impossible for me to conceptualize what it must have been like to be a Brit at the turn of the century. This kind of excessive proper-ness is so far away from the culture I grew up in, and so far away from the English culture of the earlier (Elizabethan times) its hard to imagine how it came about.

Barzini writes about British socialists:

Their socialists were the only ones in Europe who ignored Karl Marx, whose doctrine was based on a study of their own society and the thinking of their own economists

This supports the theory that communism was native to Anglo-America, and not just a foreign import.

Barzini writes about the communist take over in Italy:

The plan to form a Center-Left coalition was first conceived by Italian politicians for many different reasons of their own, but also custom designed to seduce the Americans, without whose approval and backing the Italians curiously believed it could not be carried out. The Americans immediately saw in it a wonderful way to fulfull their double vocation: the pragmatic one of leaving no problem unsolved and their missionary obligation to spread democracy and improve everything in sight. They spared neither effort nor money to implement the plan as quickly was possible. They thought it was the only way to cure all the Italian ills at once, so why wait?

One question I’ve been trying to answer about post-war Europe is, to what extent were European politics, institutions, social policies, etc, designed and created by America? Is secret of anti-american thesis correct? The above paragraph is certainly evidence - Europe is the social democracy that the American left never had enough political clout to enact in America. But I do want to know more. Who specifically were these “Americans” that funded Italy’s left? Why did the Italians believe that they needed American help?

Barzini continues:

The plan might possibly have produced in some other country all the wonderful effects the Americans expected. In unpredictable Italy it produced the exact contrary. It was estimated that in the end the plan cost as much as a lost war and retarted social and economic progress for at least one generation. …The state (what was left of it after twenty years of arbitrary dictatorship and a crushing military defeat) practically collapsed under the burden of a vastly enlarged number of new tasks, some of the admittedly useful and necessary, but with which the bureaucracy, such as it was, was absolutely unprepared to cope. Among them was the enforcement of some of the most ambitious and intricate legislation ever passed outside Byzantium. Furthermore, the Christian Democrats and the Socialists, who had considered with hostility the secular liberal democratic state since its inceptino in 1861, joyfully kept on dismantling it. Too late they realized it had become an indespensible tool, not only to govern in the ordinary way, but above all to carry out any left-wing policy, which notoriously relies on an ever increasing state intervention in every sector of the economy. Corruption grew to Levantine propostions. The police were demoralized, paralyzed and ordered not to use their weapons even when attacked.

Only after Aldo Moro was kidnapped and killed did the more responsible politicians in power begin to realize that the dismantlig of law-enforcing agencies did not harm their “class-enemies” alone but was detrimental for the whole country and could be mortally dangerous for each of them. Law and order were violated by everybody as a matter of course with impunity; even sedate elderly drivers allowed themselves to cross red lights. Bank robberies and kidnappings of well-to-do gentlemen proliferatede. Terrorists dynamited trains, cars, and office buildings and murdered innocent people almost every day. Every request of the trade unions was immediately granted without discussions. The endemic riots, the perennial strikes, the occupation of factories, and the contunious threats of universal nationalizations discouraged new investments. Capital surreptitiously fled the country in vast quantities. Production slowed down and somtimes came unexpectedly, without a reason, to a standstill in many plants….The “economic miracle” of the fifties became but a nostalgic memory, a lost golden age.

It’s shocking how quickly a change in policing policy can change a country. There is a tendenacy to think of crime of an issue of parenting, culture or economics. But governance can change a culture and place, very, very quickly.

Germany undergoes the same transformation - from normal oderly country, to anarchic bohemian, to ultra-oderly fascism, in only a few years time.

Here Barzini describes Berlin of the Weimar Republic years:

The Kurfustendamn, the famous tree-lined boulevard, a pretentious imitation of the Avenue des Champs Elysees, was filled with characters dreamed up by de Sade, Havelock Ellis, Sacher-Masoch, Krafft-Ebing, and Sigmund Freud. There were men dressed as women, women dressed as men or little schoolgirls, women in boots with whips (boots and whips in different colors, shapes, and sizes, promising different passive or active divertissements). I saw legless veterans on crutches, culs-de-jatte, armless or blind veterans wearing iron crosses, and the hungry unshaven unemployed, all of them begging. I saw pimps offering anything to anybody, little boys, little girls, robust young men, libdinous women, or (I suppose) animals. (The story went around that a male goose of which one cut the next at the ecstatic moment would give you the most delicious, economical, and time saving frission of all, as it allowed you to enjoy sodomy, bestiality, homosexuality, necrophilia, and sadism at one stroke. Gastrononmy too, as one could eat the goose afterward).

I couldn’t help wondering where all these monsters had come from, which Germany had generated them. Had they been there all the time, and if so, where had they been hiding? To be sure, under the parade-ground perfection of Wilhelmine Germany (as under the impeccable comme il faut appearance of Edwardian Britain) there always was some concealed corruption of one kind or another….But both countries had been healthy and wholesome as a whole. Nothing had prepared observers for that massive outbreak of freaks in Germany. I must confess the show bewildered and frightened me…

The young Italian journalist [Barzini himself] was by no means theoretically opposed to sexual freedom. In fact he welcomed it with relief and enthusiasm. But he limited his concupiscence strictly to young, well-washed, pretty girls. To sleep with elderly beareded men, hunchbacks, mutilated veterans, blond soldiers, schoolboys, to whip or be whipped, and to savor excrement seemed to him forms of diabolical and unendurable torture…

In the sooty industrial suburbs sporadic street fighting went on, which foreign correspondents described diligently without really understanding. Armed men in all kinds of strange uniforms or in overalls and caps, singing anthems, flying old imperial flags, Nazi flags, red flags with hammer and sickle, or red, black and yellow Weimar flags, sometimes paraded the streets. I saw one of their Skirmishes by chance one day. The men on my side, in some sort of uniform and street helmets, with campaign ribbons on their chests, crouched behind street corners, inside doorways, behind masonry pillars, tree trunks, and the pedestal of the monument to an unknown statesman in a bronze frock coat, and cooly aimed their rifles before pulling the trigger. The chattering of a machine gun could be heard in the distance, as well as shouts, the screams of wounded men, and the occaisional explosions of a hand gernade. The opponents, evidently working men, started to advance carefully, one man or two at a time, from one shelter to the next as they had been taught in the army…

What the screaming and fighting was all about and how it would end nobody really knew. The speeches at street meetings, the slogans, the posters, the newspapers articles, the plays, the witticisms in the carbarets, the conversation with colleagues in cafes made no sense. My impression was that all this merely expressed the anger of a defeated people, the rage of men who thought they had been betrayed…This bewildered and frightened me. What had happened to the rational, efficient, disciplined, sober Germans of yesterday, the Germans all Europe admired and feared?

A few years later (it must have been in 1934) I visited Kurfurstendamm again. Hitler was in power then. The long tree-lined boulevard shone with municipal pride. It was carefully manicured by gardeners and kept dust-free by hard-working streetsweepers. Paternal and severe policemen, their black leather shakos bent forward, watched over it. A new set of people promenaded up and down with gravity, stiff men in spotless uniforms, honorable families, businessmen carrying briefcases full of vital documents, rich gentlemen with shaved heads and the fat backs of the Grosz-like necks bulging like pillows over the starched collars, a feature typical of their breed that nobody else in Europe managed to acquire, shopping housewives and supercilious chic women, aristocrats, actress, or haughty courtesans who looked almost unapproachable. It was definitely and bewilderingly another country. …

Later I had to go to Germany every few years. I saw the strangely malleable country gradually given a new shape by the Nazis. The phenonomenon was disturbing. Even intelligent old friends, men who spoke foreign languages and had lived abroad, diplomats and journalists, seemed now and again to go out of their minds. You drank beer and chatted pleasantly about this and that, the job, cuisine, girls, books, money, until the talk turned to Germany, the Fuhrer, or the Western democracies. Then their faces suddenly froze and they took on a determined expression. They clenced their teeth. Their eyes looked toward a radiant future…They honestly hoped Hitler would somehow avenge the honor of their fatherland, restore its pride and dignity and its place in the concert of nations, solve the economic problems, and eventually, one day, unite all Germans under one flag….Others were only ambiguously sincere. They wanted badly to decieve themsleves…Some were evidently faking their Nazi faith, or keeping silent. Later, just to keep silent became an act of courage. One cabaret comedian used to keep silent for a minute or two, looking at his public. Then he said, “Now that we have discussed the political situation, we can talk of something else.” He soon ended up in a concentration camp. …

At this point I went to Germany more and more rarely. The feeling of constraint and deceit was becoming heavier and unbearable. The persecution of minorities and dissidents, of which the regime openly boasted, was growing more barbaric and demented. To be sure the economy flourished and order reigned supreme, but at what price? Preparations for the next war were arrogantly flaunted in violation of treaties. The ostentatious display of brand-new tanks and guns, the parades of infantry and cavalry in impeccable formations through city streets, the planes flying overhead in formation were ominous and frightening.

The Europe of today is remarkable for being unremarkable. Americanized, modernized, homogizined, defanged, castrated, it bears no resemablance to the Europe of fifty or a hundred years ago. Nothing like the above passages is even imaginable. Is the Europe of 2010 now dying a peaceful death of old age? Or does history still have more in store this ancient civilization?