June 17, 2024

Non-partisan and pluralist communication and debate platform

Home » Content » Rethinking the European spirit
What unites us? Shared values, culture or history? Are we any more than the sum of our parts? Old ideals are under threat: we must once again decide who we are.



In The World of Yesterday, Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig remembers the optimism of the years immediately before the First World War when the French aviator Louis Blériot made the first cross-Channel flight: “We rejoiced in Vienna as if he were a hero of our own nation,” he recalls. The “triumphs of technology and science, which succeeded one another by the hour, had led for the first time to a European sense of community, the development of a European identity. How pointless, we said to ourselves, frontiers were if it was child’s play for any aircraft to cross them.”

Zweig of course was looking back – not without nostalgia – from the vantage point of 1941, a long time after the illusion of a European culture had been lost on the battlefields of Flanders and Poland, and a year before his suicide, as his ideal of Europe was shattered once again by the march of fascism.

After 1945, the European Project set out to rebuild the “European sense of community” that Zweig had seen destroyed, but this time based on democratic values and a recognition of the need for peace in Europe rooted in the memory of two world wars.

The idea of a “European spirit” was closely tied in this project to high culture, to the heritage of Leonardo, Shakespeare, Rembrandt, Beethoven, the most precious thing to distinguish Europe, as it found its place between the US, with its mass commercial culture, to the west, and the Soviet bloc on Europe’s eastern frontier. There could not be a better symbol of European culture than Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, the glorious choral finale of the Ninth Symphony celebrating freedom and the brotherhood of man, which became the official anthem of the European Union.It was only with the railways, cheap mass printing and the spread of international copyright that a pan-European culture spread to every level society

Today those ideals are under threat again. The EU is struggling politically to cope with the combined challenges of climate change, globalization and themigrant crisis, as nationalist forces pull electorates away from the union. In Hungary and Poland these electorates have returned a quasi-fascist form of authoritarian government incompatible with the EU’s principles.

If “Europe” is to survive, we must decide what being “European” means. What unites us? Shared values? A shared culture? A shared history? Are we any more than the sum of our parts?

Zweig was writing of a European world before the First World War (his “world of security”) when “people no more believed in the possibility of barbaric relapses, such as wars between the nations of Europe, than they believed in ghosts and witches.” That optimism had been based on the peace and progress of the 19th century when Europe was united by a shared culture spread across the continent by railways, cheap mass printing and the economics of the marketplace.

By 1900, the same books were being read across Europe, the same paintings reproduced, the same music played at home or heard in concert halls and the same operas performed in all the major theaters of Europe – their tunes made popular in music-halls and cafés and by organ grinders in the street. Before the age of the gramophone, there was no great divide between “high” and “popular” culture.

A “European school” in every art was formed on top of national traditions as the cultural traffic and cross-fertilizations between nations fostered richer hybrid forms. “In a book of that era,” wrote French poet Paul Valéry of European culture just before the First World War, “we should have no trouble in finding: the influence of the Russian ballet, a touch of Pascal’s gloom, numerous impressions of the Goncourt type, something of Nietzsche, something of Rimbaud, certain effects due to a familiarity with the Impressionist painters, sometimes the tone of a scientific publication – the whole flavored with an indefinably British quality!”

How this “European culture” was created is the subject of my book, The Europeans: Three Lives and the Making of a Cosmopolitan Culture. At the center of its argument are three key inventions of the 19th century that enabled such a culture to develop on a continent-wide and mass level. An international culture had existed in Europe since at least the Renaissance but it was limited to the elites and their narrow networks on the continent. It was only with the railways, cheap mass printing and the spread of international copyright that a pan-European culture spread to every level of society.The very term itself, “European civilization,” has become discredited. In the eyes of some it is practically synonymous with “colonialism,” “dead white men,” even “white supremacy”

The railways enabled artists and their works to move around the continent more easily. They opened up new markets for their work and began the modern age of mass foreign travel, enabling Europeans in much greater numbers to recognize their commonalities. It allowed them to discover their own “Europeanness,” the values they shared with other peoples across Europe, above and beyond their separate nationalities.

Cheap mass printing, made possible by modern techniques of lithography, allowed artists and their publishers to reach a larger international public. The rise of literacy and the growing middle-class demand for books, sheet music and art prints underpinned the profits to be made from this printing revolution, as large print-runs brought prices down.

The spread of international copyright – one of the great but overlooked achievements of the 19th century – enabled artists, writers and composers to make a stable income from the reproduction of their work. It turned the artwork into a form of capital in whose exploitation artists and their publishers could share. It gave publishers an incentive to invest for longer in a work of art, and to set up offices abroad to collect foreign royalties. The Berne Convention of 1886, the founding charter of modern international copyright, underpinned the globalization of artistic production in the 20th century.

It was through these market forces that a European canon formed. As the market for cheaper books, art reproductions and sheet music grew, it became more profitable for publishers to focus on mass prints of the most successful, tried-and-tested works. Likewise, in the theater, for example, once the railways could bring in a larger public than had been possible in the days of horse and carriage, larger theaters could be built and longer runs of the most successful works could be produced. In the 18th century the vast majority of operas were performed for one season, and then never repeated. But in the later 19th-century, operas such as Gounod’s Faust or Verdi’s Rigoletto were performed several hundred times, season after season, in the major theaters of Europe.

There was of course a nationalist reaction against this European standardization. Critics who assigned the highest virtue to national character wondered if the arts would all end up the same. Such concerns were loudly voiced in France at the turn of the 20th century, when there was a flood of translated novels into the French book market. “We have really been invaded, and from every side at once,” wrote one critic. “If we do not keep our guard, soon there will be no French literature.” Similar reactions could be found across the continent. The opening of countries to international currents was accompanied in most of them by a reactive nationalism in the arts and politics.

Political nationalism grew in the final decades of the 19th century. It was different from the nationalism that had evolved before 1848, the year of democratic revolutions across Europe, when the nationalists’ defense of language rights, cultural and political freedoms, was more inclusive than the forms of ethnic nation-building pioneered by later nationalists.

The technological forces that enabled Europe’s growing cultural cosmopolitanism could also be employed by nationalists – cheap printing to disseminate a patriotic canon, the railways to move armies to the front, as Bismarck and his generals did to such effect in the Franco-Prussian War. Their example would be followed by the armies of the First World War.The EU is struggling politically to cope with the combined challenges of climate change, globalization and the migrant crisis, as nationalist forces pull electorates away from the union

“Now that a great storm has long since destroyed it,” Zweig wrote in 1941, “we know at last that our world of security was a castle in the air.” We know even better now. We understand that new technologies, rapid cultural and economic change, are more conducive to disunity than to unity between nations. Globalization works not only to reduce the cultural gap between countries (“everywhere’s the same these days,” as the refrain of weary tourists goes) but to increase national, regional and class-based fears of losing out to these changes (loss of jobs to new technologies and cheaper labor in Asia, loss of markets, and so on) – changes which our governments cannot control. We are all at the mercy of the multinational tech giants. In that much, at least, we are united.

What can Europe do to stand its ground in this globalized culture? What remains of our cultural identity as Europeans in this world?

Ode to Joy is an inspiring symbol of European unity. It was fittingly employed to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall in a Christmas Day concert in 1989, and its hopeful song, an antidote to nationalism, may well stir our better international emotions (it was loudly heard at French President Emmanuel Macron’s election victory rally after his defeat of Marine Le Pen in 2017). But the high-cultural heritage which that chorus represents is too highbrow and too remote in the past to mean much to the majority of Europe’s citizens, who are more likely to identify with Beyoncé than with Beethoven.

The old culture of Europe, its ancient towns and cities, cathedrals, palaces, universities and galleries, attracts tens of millions of tourists every year. They come in part in search of “culture,” a list of cultural monuments to be ticked off a list of things that must be “done” by the “civilized” person. This is culture as an acquisition or commodity, an industry in which Europe’s brand is highly prized.

But Europe has to be more than a tourist destination, more than just a marketplace, if it is to survive as a union. It needs a political identity, a point well made by Macron in a recent interview with The Economist. It needs to defend the autonomy of European space to protect the interests of its citizens: to collect taxes from the tech giants and end their tax havens; to regulate their industries to protect labor rights and international copyright; to pass new European laws to stop the undermining of democracies by disinformation on social media sites; to enforce collective EU policies on climate change, the migrant crisis, gender equality, minority rights and so on. These are European principles – they all have their roots in the great ideals of liberty, equality, fraternity – and we need to defend them.New technologies, rapid cultural and economic change are more conducive to disunity than to unity between nations

What are the lessons we can learn from “the world of yesterday,” from the great advances of European civilization in the 19th century? We the Europeans have lost our confidence, our belief in the values of that civilization. Like its allied concept, the “Enlightenment,” the very term itself, “European civilization,” has become discredited. In the eyes of some it is practically synonymous with “colonialism,” “dead white men”, even “white supremacy.” It has dropped out of public discourse because others fear public shaming, or even loss of jobs if they use it.

This political correctness is based on a partial view of history. There were many men and women in the 19th century who championed the ideals of European civilization, not as a form of Europe’s domination of its subject colonies, but as a progressive force of cosmopolitanism and the broadest cultural exchange between “civilizations.” They saw Europe as a hybrid culture, enriched by external influences, like the Mongols in Russia or the Moors in Spain.

Both were studied in great depth by Louis Viardot, a republican socialist, journalist, art expert and translator, who stands at the center of my book with his more famous wife, Pauline Viardot, a great singer and composer, and the writer Ivan Turgenev, with whom the Viardots had a long relationship, aménage à trois. Their example is a timely reminder of the progressive role that can be played by European civilization as an outward-looking and inclusive force.

Turgenev and the Viardots were cosmopolitans, capable of living anywhere on European soil, provided it did not offend their democratic principles, without losing any of their nationality. Edmund Burke’s maxim – that “No European can be a complete exile in any part of Europe” – might have been designed for them.

Is Burke’s rule still true? I hope so. With our EU passports, we travel more within Europe, and have a greater sense of connection with other European countries, if only through our shared lifestyle of restaurants, cafés, shops, entertainments and pleasures. Growing numbers of us work and live abroad, owning homes, bringing up our children to be European citizens. This “passport Europe” may not be a “home.” There will be many who identify with native soil, familiar food and TV shows rather than an international ID card. But it is a sanctuary in troubled times, and we must protect its European principles.

Orlando Figes is a British historian. He recently published The Europeans: Three Lives and the Making of a Cosmopolitan Culture (Taurus).

© Orlando Figes, 2020.



View all posts

Add comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *