Another great piece trying to shake Europe from its stupor. (For more see book review of Tyranny of Guilt.)
Europe’s Guilty Conscience: Self-hatred is paralyzing the Continent.
Europe has surely engendered monsters. But it has, at the same time, engendered the ideas that made it possible to slay monsters. European history is a succession of paradoxes: arbitrary feudal power gave rise to democracy; ecclesiastical oppression, to freedom of conscience; national rivalries, to the dream of a supranational community; overseas conquests, to anticolonialism; and revolutionary ideologies, to the antitotalitarian movement. Europe sent armies, missionaries, and merchants to distant lands, but also invented anthropology, which is a way of seeing through others’ eyes, of standing at some distance from oneself in order to approach the stranger. The colonial adventure died of this fundamental contradiction: the subjection of continents to the laws of a mother country that at the same time taught its subjects the idea of a nation’s right to govern itself. In demanding independence, the colonies were applying to their masters the very rules that they had learned from them.
Since the time of the conquistadors, Europe has perfected the art of joining progress and cruelty. But a civilization responsible for the worst atrocities as well as the most sublime accomplishments cannot understand itself solely in terms of guilt. The suspicion that colors our most brilliant successes always risks degenerating into self-hatred and facile defeatism. We now live on self-denunciation, as if permanently indebted to the poor, the destitute, to immigrants—as if our only duty were expiation, endless expiation, restoring without limit what we had taken from humanity from the beginning. This wave of repentance spreads through our latitudes and our governments like an epidemic. An active conscience is a fine and healthy thing, of course. But contrition must not be limited to certain parties while innocence is accorded to anyone who claims to be persecuted.
The United States, despite its own faults, retains the capacity to combine self-criticism with self-affirmation, demonstrating a pride that we lack. But Europe’s worst enemy is Europe itself, with its penitential view of its past, its corrosive guilt, and a scrupulousness taken to the point of paralysis. How can we expect to be respected if we do not respect ourselves, if our media and our literature always depict us by our blackest traits? The truth is that Europeans do not like themselves, or at least do not like themselves enough to overcome their distaste and to show the kind of quasi-religious fervor for their culture that is so striking in Americans.
We too often forget that modern Europe was born not during a time of enthusiastic historical rebeginning, as was the United States, but from a weariness of slaughter. It took the total disaster of the twentieth century, embodied in Verdun and Auschwitz, for the Old World to happen upon virtue, like an aging trollop who moves directly from debauchery to fervent religious belief. Without the two global conflicts and their parade of horrors, we would never have known this aspiration for peace—which is often hard to distinguish from an aspiration for rest. We became wise, perhaps, but with the force-fed wisdom of a people brutalized by carnage and resigned to modest projects. The only ambition we have left is to escape the furies of our age and to confine ourselves to the administration of economic and social matters.
There is nothing more insidious than a collective guilt passed down from generation to generation, dyeing a people with a kind of permanent stain. Contrition cannot define a political order. As there is no hereditary transmission of victim status, so there is no transmission of oppressor status. The duty of remembering implies neither the automatic purity nor the automatic corruption of grandchildren and great-grandchildren. History is not divided between sinner nations and angelic ones but between democracies, which recognize their faults, and dictatorships, which drape themselves in the robes of martyrs. We have learned over the last half-century that every state is founded on crime and coercion, including those that have recently appeared on history’s stage. But there are states capable of recognizing this and of looking barbarism in the eye, and there are others that excuse their present misdeeds by citing yesterday’s oppression.
Remember this simple fact: Europe has vanquished its most horrible monsters. Slavery was abolished, colonialism abandoned, fascism defeated, and communism brought to its knees. What other continent can claim more? In the end, the good prevailed over the abominable.