City Journal

Pascal Bruckner
Europe’s Guilty Conscience
Self-hatred is paralyzing the Continent.
Summer 2010
Spanish protesters blaming not al-Qaida but their own government for the 2004 Madrid bombings
Christophe Simon/AFP/Getty Images
Spanish protesters blaming not al-Qaida but their own government for the 2004 Madrid bombings

Europe is not aging gracefully. More than half a century after it began taking the steps that eventually resulted in the European Union, it is at best a vast market without a consistent military or political personality—and one that matters less and less in world affairs. Henry Kissinger’s old witticism about Europe’s having no phone number is more relevant than ever. What happened? One can cite a number of factors: the persistence of nationalist egoism; the excessive importance of the EU’s two major founders, France and Germany; Great Britain’s aloofness and readiness to follow Washington’s instructions; the imbalance created by the influx of former Soviet satellites. But more decisive than any of these reasons is that since the end of World War II, Europe has been tormented by a need to repent.

Brooding over its past crimes (slavery, imperialism, fascism, communism), Europe sees its history as a series of murders and depredations that culminated in two global conflicts. The average European, male or female, is an extremely sensitive being, always ready to feel pity for the world’s sorrows and to take responsibility for them, always asking what the North can do for the South rather than asking what the South can do for itself. Those born after World War II are endowed with the certainty of belonging to the dregs of humanity, an execrable civilization that has dominated and pillaged most of the world for centuries in the name of the superiority of the white man. Since 9/11, for example, a majority of Europeans have felt, despite our sympathy for the victims, that the Americans got what they deserved. The same reasoning prevailed with respect to the terrorist attacks on Madrid in 2004 and on London in 2005, when many good souls, on both the right and the left, portrayed the attackers as unfortunate people protesting Europe’s insolent wealth, its aggression in Iraq or Afghanistan, or its way of life.

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.

While America is a project, Europe is a sorrow. Before long, it will amount to little except the residue of abandoned dreams. We dreamed of a great diversity where we might live well, seek personal fulfillment, and, if possible, get rich—and all this in proximity to great works of culture. This was a worthwhile project, to be sure, and such a calm condition would be perfect in a time of great serenity, in a world that had finally achieved Kant’s “perpetual peace.” But there is a striking contrast between the stories that we Europeans tell ourselves about rights, tolerance, and multilateralism and the tragedies that we witness in the surrounding world—in autocratic Russia, aggressive Iran, arrogant China, a divided Middle East. We see them, too, in the heart of our great cities, in the double offensive of Islamist terrorism and fundamentalist groups aiming to colonize minds and hearts and Islamize Europe.

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. Europe is the Holocaust, but it is also the destruction of Nazism; it is the Gulag, but also the fall of the Wall; imperialism, but also decolonization; slavery, but also abolition. In each case, there is a form of violence that is not only left behind but delegitimized, a twofold progress in civilization and in law. At the end of the day, freedom prevailed over oppression, which is why life is better in Europe than on many other continents and why people from the rest of the world are knocking on Europe’s door while Europe wallows in guilt.

Europe no longer believes in evil but only in misunderstandings to be resolved by discussion and dialogue. She no longer has enemies but only partners. If she is nice to extremists, she thinks, they will be nice to her, and she will be able to disarm their aggressiveness and soften them up. Europe no longer likes History, for History is a nightmare, a minefield from which she escaped at great cost, first in 1945 and then again in 1989. And since History goes on without us, and everywhere emergent nations are recovering their dignity, their power, and their aggressiveness, Europe leaves it to the Americans to be in charge, while reserving the right to criticize them violently when they go astray. It is notable that Europe is the only region in the world where military budgets go down every year; we have no armies that would be able to defend our frontiers if we were so unlucky as to be attacked; after the Haitian crisis, Brussels could not dispatch even a few thousand men to help disaster victims. We are well equipped to calibrate the size of bananas or the composition of cheeses, but not to create a military force worthy of the name.

In its worst moments, Europe seeks peace at any price, even what Saint Thomas Aquinas called a bad peace—one that consecrates injustice, arbitrary power, and terror, a detestable peace heavy with vicious consequences. Europe postulates freedom for all but is content with just its own. It has a history, whereas America is still making history, animated by an eschatological tension toward the future. If the latter sometimes makes major mistakes, the former makes none because it attempts nothing. For Europe, prudence no longer consists in the art, defended by the ancients, of finding one’s way within an uncertain story. We hate America because she makes a difference. We prefer Europe because she is not a threat. Our repulsion represents a kind of homage, and our sympathy a kind of contempt.

What is the point of our bad conscience? To purge our faults and to avoid falling back into old errors? Perhaps. But it serves mainly to justify renouncing political action. If the Old World invariably prefers guilt to responsibility, it is because the first is less burdensome; so one puts up with a guilty conscience. Our lazy despair leads us not to fight injustice but to coexist with it. We delight in tranquil impotence, and we take up residence in a peaceful hell. We allow ourselves to be overwhelmed with words of blame, a role we willingly adopt so as to be accountable to no one and to avoid taking any part in world affairs. Remorse is a mixture of good will and bad faith: a sincere desire to close old wounds and a secret wish to be left alone. Eventually, indebtedness to the dead prevails over duty to the living. Repentance makes of us a people who apologize for old crimes in order to ignore present ones.

Europe has developed a veritable fanaticism for modesty, but if it cannot preside over the destinies of the whole world, it must at least play a part, retain its special voice in favor of justice and law, and assume the political and military means to make itself heard. Penitence is finally a political choice; it is to choose an abdication that in no way immunizes us against mistakes. Fear of repeating yesterday’s errors makes us too indulgent of contemporary outrages. By preferring injustice to disorder, the Old World risks being swept away by chaos, the victim of a renunciation mistaken for wisdom.

We long thought that Europe was the future of Switzerland. But what if the opposite were true? What if Switzerland is the future of Europe—what if we are threatened by Helvetization? In that case, our continent, aging and in decline, would be reduced to a high-class sanatorium—ready to be dismembered piece by piece by all predators and to renounce its freedom to gain just a little more quiet and comfort.

Pascal Bruckner is a French writer and philosopher. He will be a visiting professor at Texas A&M University this autumn. His article was translated by Alexis Cornel.

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