What being "European" means to me

Jorge Semprun
8 June 2011

In order to organise my thoughts about Europe, I want to take three intellectual journeys to try to approach its reality from both a cultural and an historical point of view.

The topic is rich and vast. It is hard to find ways of traversing this immensity. I'll start with a memory. It is Vienna 1935, towards the end of the great period of Viennese culture. This is the city where writers and painters inherited all the great riches of European culture. Sigmund Freud is still working here.

The year of 1935 is important, the moment in Europe when the two European totalitarianisms - Nazism and Stalinism - began turning on each other. The Nazis had been in power in Germany for two years, and Austria has begun to feel the rot. Its government is already caving in before fascism.

In Germany, Hitler’s SS had started liquidating the plebeians in his own movement, while in the Soviet Union, Stalin was beginning to exterminate the Bolshevik old guard.

Two years later, in 1937, during the Paris Exhibition on the right bank of the Seine, the Soviet and German pavilions stood defiantly facing each other. On the Hitler pavilion there were huge eagles; the Soviet building sported a pair of Caucasian metal-workers whose image became famous across the world, expressing after a fashion a certain socialist ideal. The lucid minds of the time discovered in this confrontation a surprising cultural resemblance that resided in the heroic surrealism of the sculpture and the grandiose architecture of the pavilions.

The Spanish republic had a pavilion in the same exhibition. Spain was then into the the second year of its civil war for. In part because of the politics of "non-intervention", the republic was beleaguered. But, at the risk of sounding chauvinistic, this modest pavilion had a kind of sobering and modern allure. Pablo Picasso’s Guernica was there, Alexander Calder’s Fountain of Mercury, the last painting by Juan Miro - the most modern and audacious art of the time. This exemplified a kind of successful relationship between the political and the cultural avant-garde.

Two years on, in 1939, the Spanish republic was defeated; and with the German-Soviet pact the two totalitarianisms set about carving up Europe.

Prague: Husserl’s heroism of reason

In May 1935 in Vienna, an old German philosopher of Jewish origin, called Edmund Husserl, gave a lecture. At that time, he was already in flight from his native Germany. Even by 1928, his philosophy student and disciple, Martin Heidegger, had deleted from the fly-leaf of his book, Being and Time, the warm dedication : “To his Master, Edmund Husserl, with veneration and friendship”. It didn’t look good, to say the least, if a lecturer at a German university insisted on dedicating his book to a Jew who had been chased out of the university.

A whole book could be written on the meaning of this murderous deletion, this negationism. By deleting the name, Heidegger pretended to wipe out the decisive contribution of Jewish culture to the German language from German university life, indeed from German cultural life as a whole.

In 1838 Heinrich Heine had written that the profound affinity which prevailed between those two radical nations, the Jewish and the German, was destined to create together in Germany, a new Jerusalem, a modern Palestine. It was an Enlightenment dream: the fusion of these two cultures. And one might have believed in that era that it was possible, that we were on the path to that merger.

Remembering the great figures of German literature and culture in that epoch - Freud, Einstein, Kafka, not forgetting Elias Canetti and others - it is obvious that the Jewish part of German culture made an inestimable contribution to the Europe of the time. And now, more than two generations later, we still feel the lack of it.

The annihilation is still there, haunting us. With the extermination, and the subsequent decline of the life of the diaspora since the creation of Israel, this Jewish culture - both European and cosmopolitan - is missing. This is assuredly one of the major lacunae in the construction of Europe today.

Husserl’s 1935 lecture was couched in extremely abstract, rigorous philosophical terms. He talks about philosophy during the crisis which was gathering in Europe, and asks a vital question: what does Europe represent today? His first answer is that Europe is above all, a spiritual entity. It cannot be defined by its territorial character.

“I see Europe”, he says, “not as a country which we could circumscribe on a map. From a spiritual point of view, it is obvious that Great Britain and the United States of America, belong to Europe”. Immediately, one can begin to see what Husserl means by the spiritual character of Europe - a whole tradition of thinking, an extended critique which has its roots deep in our cultural history.

Husserl’s Europe is linked neither to a piece of land nor to the whole discourse of nationhood. And indeed, his second important idea is the concept of supranationality. This was the first time that a European philosopher had clearly delineated this concept. He calls for a transformation worthy of Europe at its best: an unprecedented supranationality which would grow out of the unique spiritual strength of Europe. Nations, Husserl argues, come together only thanks to the dictates of commerce and the perpetual contestation of powers. He talks about the necessity of moving beyond this.

What is striking is that there is no mention of Nazism in this text. After his colloquium, Husserl was on his way back to Germany, where indeed he would live until his death in 1939. He converted to Catholicism, having taken refuge in a convent in flight from persecution. This is how all these conference manuscripts were saved - preserved in the convent and smuggled out by the priests to Louvain.

The third of Husserl’s points in this extremely rich text is his argument that Europe’s crisis of 1935 could only be resolved in one of two ways. There would be either a fall of Europe, where it becomes spiritually alienated from its own meaning, a collapse into spiritual hatred and barbarism; or it was possible that Europe could undergo a spiritual rebirth, arising out of the heroism of reason. The author might be reproached at this point for his impossibly abstract line of thinking. Idealist philsophy of the will as the only remedy for the disintegration of Europe? This, surely, is too obscure.

Nevertheless, the heroism of reason, while it is an abstract concept, is one which can help to develop a very interesting and concise historical metaphor. For, present in that lecture hall in Vienna in 1935, was a young Czech student of phenomenology called Jan Patocka. He organised his own conference in Vienna a few months later, echoing Husserl’s idea of Europe.

Patocka, at the time less than 30 years old, is one of the most interesting and unfairly neglected figures in European philosophy. He studied at the University of Prague, but was prevented by Nazism and (after 1948) by the communist regime from continuing his studies. His books were mostly the transcripts of private seminar papers, later translated into French.

Patocka returned again and again to Husserl’s lecture on Europe. One of his collections was called Plato and Europe, and another The idea of Europe : a poem. His political writings, anthologised in French under the title Freedom and Sacrifice, include several pieces about Europe. And in its own calm fashion, Husserl’s phrase the heroism of reason came to apply to Patocka’s own life very exactly.

For Patocka became, alongside Vaclav Havel and Jiri Hajek (foreign minister during the brief Prague spring of 1968), one of the signatories of Charter77 – the movement of Czech intellectual dissidents. Jan Patocka died on 13 March 1977 at the age of 70, having been harshly interrogated by the communist police for ten hours.

On the day of his funeral, police helicopters circled over his cemetery to keep people away from the ceremony. They shut all the flower-shops in Prague so that nobody could buy any flowers to put on his grave. For me, this is a very strong metaphor.

To think of this philosopher, who as a young man attended this conference in Vienna about the spiritual and philosophical struggle for Europe’s survival - against barbarism and the death of the spiritual life - dying during police interrogation, with all the flower-shops being closed down while he was buried…is quite something!

Weimar and Buchenwald: Europe against Europe

Now to take another route to what seems to me to be essential in the spiritual culture of Europe. Weimar, a small German city with a long and important politico-cultural history, is one of those places which is perhaps the most appropriate for inspiring meditation in Europe, or even the world.

On an island on the banks of the river which runs from the ramparts of its old city walls, there is the summerhouse and garden which belonged to Goethe. There, surrounded by reminders of this man who was a great European, one of the defenders of its cosmopolitanism in its deepest sense, is a good place to think about what has become of Europe.

It is really an extraordinary place. For Weimar, the cultural capital of Europe in 1999, is the home of Schiller’s and Nietzsche’s archives; it is also only a few kilometres from the site of the Nazi concentration camp of Buchenwald. This proximity is both very strange and instructive.

It is a kind of short-cut to the political as well as the cultural history of Germany. In the 1920s Weimar was the place where, for only the second time in the country’s history, Germany's national assembly gathered to attempt to create a constitution for what became the Weimar republic. The delegates were trying to create a seed-bed for parliamentary democracy, which in the event the Nazis would destroy and bury beneath their charnel-houses.

Now that the Weimar republic and the Buchenwald concentration-camp have both disappeared, it is possible to begin to see what Europe means - something which has precisely been constructed against fascism and against Stalinism. This history was already fully visible by 1937 when Buchenwald was opened by the Nazis.

At first, it was full of the German political opposition, the communists and social democrats. Later, it became an international camp where all the peoples of Europe were represented. But it wasn’t an extermination camp, like Auschwitz or Birkenau. It didn’t have gas-chambers. It was a camp where people were destroyed through forced labour, not by sudden extermination.

The camp was shut down by the third American army, led by General Patton, and was empty by June 1945. But in September of that same year it was reopened as a special camp under the authority of the Soviet forces; only in 1950 (after the creation of the German Democratic Republic) was it finally closed to become a place of memory. It is therefore a very significant site.

A museum of Nazism marks the spot. But the titles to the exhibits must be read rather carefully to avoid the impression that the camp was liberated by the Red Army rather than the Americans. So now, there is another, smaller museum next to the first, which tells the story of the Soviet camp. Here, in Buchenwald, is the history of Europe in a striking nutshell - the history of Europe against which Europe is being built today.

London: Orwell’s rediscovery of democracy

A final detour is through London. George Orwell (whose true name was Eric Blair) fought in Spain in an International Brigade connected to the extreme left-wing of Europe - a grouping which was diametrically opposed to Stalinism - whose local representatives were the Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista (POUM). From this experience he wrote a fantastic work, Homage to Catalonia. In mid-1940, he began another remarkable book (finished in 1941, just before the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union), The Lion and the Unicorn.

Orwell, an internationalist and a socialist, opposed to Stalinism, confronted daily by the Luftwaffe’s bombing-raids (“As I write, highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me”) reacted in a characteristically surprising way: he set about rediscovering England.

The Lion and the Unicorn is a groundbreaking book about the reclamation of a sense of national belonging by someone who was driven to extreme radicalism precisely by his internationalism; one reason for his opposition to Stalinism was its abandonment of internationalism in the retreat to building "socialism in one country".

From today's perspective, Orwell’s encounter with England is both a rediscovery of belonging and of liberal democracy from someone who had come from a strongly left-wing position. Because it must be said that liberal democracy was the target not only of the fascists and Nazis, but also of the extreme left. A democracy which had become stultified had enemies on both sides. So, Orwell’s essay appears today as also essentially about democracy - as the universal precondition for western societies.

Maybe I should have started with this. But I will finish with this, or recommence with this! Because, in Europe today, it is so clear that the unity of Europe can only be founded on the basis of democratic reason, the principles of democracy and the certainty of its values. Many western intellectuals like to question or denigrate the universality of democracy. They like to support in its stead, the local values of community life, the warmth and succour of those local communities, communitarianism itself.

But in the Europe that is being built, there are many ways that Orwell’s basic universalist and democratic principles might be translated into local values. On this basis indeed, it is obvious that Europe’s unity can be built only through diversity.

There are those who argue with extraordinary equanimity that Europe must have but one single language. That would be a disaster, in my opinion. It would be akin to giving up our history and our roots. Some of these advocates have little doubt that only the French language merits this exclusive status - thanks to its clarity, its capacity for abstraction, its precision. But today, the democratic basis of Europe must be built on the knowledge of several languages, not with the imposition of a new lingua franca.

Europe, compared to other regions of the world, has the resources and opportunity to draw upon a great range of languages and cultures. This is a huge linguistic advantage. But there are, after all, three intercontinental if not universal European languages: English, Spanish and French. If a second chauvinist moment may be forgiven, the only language which is irresistibly expanding in the world today is Spanish. English is also expanding, but it is way behind Spanish! Spanish is even competing with English in the United States, the bastion of the English language in the modern world.

The existence of three world languages in Europe creates the the chance to build Europe’s spiritual character through cultural diversity and respect, through the knowledge and practice of all cultures and languages. Today, the very sense of the unity of Europe must come through cultural diversity and its practice: and that means everyone in Europe speaking at least two European languages.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData