By Roger Cohen 25/01/2019 – Horacio Villalobos/Corbis, via Getty Images
When I covered the war in Bosnia I got to know Nermin Tulic, a prominent Sarajevo actor. He had his legs blown off by a Serbianshell on June 10, 1992.
He raged. He begged me not to look at his stumps. He wondered how he had ever taken his wife, who was half-Serb, in his arms. He told me how he had wanted to die as he lay in the hospital and, on the floor below, his wife gave birth to their second daughter.
Only his father’s words gave him the will to live: “A child needs his father even if he just sits in the corner.”
I am a European patriot because I witnessed how nationalism could turn a cosmopolitan European city into the place where Tulic lost his legs. Nationalism, self-pitying and aggressive, seeks to change the present in the name of an illusory past in order to create a future vague in all respects except its glory. Pregnant with violence, manipulating fear, it is an exercise in mass delusion. I hate it with all my being.
As François Mitterrand, the former French president, observed in 1995, prejudices must be conquered because the alternative is nationalism — and “nationalism is war.”
Almost a quarter-century later, nationalism advances. The American president declares: “You know what I am? I’m a nationalist. O.K.? I’m a nationalist.” This is how dangerous words achieve banality.
I am a European patriot because I read the war diary of my uncle Bert Cohen of the 6th South African Armored Division, 19th Field Ambulance. He reached Italy’s Monte Cassino on July 21, 1944. His diary entry:
“Poor Cassino, horror, wreck and desolation unbelievable, roads smashed and pitted, mines, booby traps and graves everywhere. Huge shell holes, craters filled with stagnant slime, smashed buildings, hardly outlines remaining, a silent sight of ghosts and shadows. Pictures should be taken of this monument to mankind’s worst moments and circulated through every schoolroom.”
That was Europe not so very long ago. I would also send to every schoolroom a photo of Willy Brandt, the West German chancellor,on his knees in the Warsaw ghetto in 1970 (“I did what people do when words fail them”); Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl, the French and German leaders, holding hands at Verdun in 1984 in the place where hundreds of thousands of their countrymen died fighting in 1916; Muslim refugees from the Bosnian town of Srebrenica, women and children, their menfolk executed by Serb nationalists, clamoring for help from United Nations forces in 1995.
I am a European patriot because I have lived in Germany and seen how the idea of Europe provided salvation to postwar Germans; because I have lived in Italy and seen how the European Union anchored the country in the West when the communist temptation was strong; because I have lived in Belgium and seen what painstaking steps NATO and the European Union took to forge a Europe that is whole and free; because I have lived in France and seen how Europe gave the French a new avenue for expressing their universal message of human dignity; because I have lived in Britain and seen how Europe broadened the post-imperial British psyche and, more recently, to what impasse little-England insularity leads; because I have lived in the Balkans and chronicled a European war that took 100,000 lives; because “plain-routine, rut-living Bertie Cohen of Johannesburg,” as he put it, came to Europe to save the continent along with the young Americans whose graves I have gazed at in Normandy. Not least, I am a European patriot because I am a Jew.
I am a European patriot and an American patriot. I am not from one place but several. The bond that binds the West is freedom — the cry of revolutions on both sides of the Atlantic. There is no contradiction in my patriotisms. Patriotism is to nationalism as dignity is to barbarism. As nationalism equals war, so contempt for the law brings savagery.
Will anyone remember Europa? As the Polish poet WislawaSzymborska wrote of the aftermath of war: “Those who knew/ what was going on here/ must make way for/ those who know little./ And less than little./ And finally as little as nothing.”
European patriots do remember. They are multiplying in the face of danger. Writers including Milan Kundera, Elfriede Jelinek, Ian McEwan, Anne Applebaum, Salman Rushdie, Bernard-Henri Lévy, Herta Müller, Adam Michnik and Orhan Pamuk have just published an important European manifesto, drafted by Lévy.
Europe, it declares, “has been abandoned by the two great allies who in the previous century twice saved it from suicide; one across the Channel and the other across the Atlantic. The continent is vulnerable to the increasingly brazen meddling of the occupant of the Kremlin. Europe as an idea is falling apart before our eyes. … We must now fight for the idea of Europe or see it perish beneath the waves of populism.”
We must. European unity is a peace magnet. I am a European patriot for my children and grandchildren. It is they who will pay the price if the most beautiful postwar political idea dies.
Roger Cohen has been a columnist for The Times since 2009. His columns appear Wednesday and Saturday. He joined The Times in 1990, and has served as a foreign correspondent and foreign editor. @NYTimesCohen