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Troubled Continent

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Troubled Continent

James Kirchick assesses Europe’s fraught future. March 14, 2017
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The End of Europe: Dictators, Demagogues, and the Coming Dark Age, by James Kirchick (Yale University Press, 288 pp., $27.50)

James Kirchick’s The End of Europe: Dictators, Demagogues, and the Coming Dark Age is an engaging meld of journalism and history. The product of six years of living in and reporting from Europe, Kirchick’s book is essential reading for anyone trying to make sense of the upcoming elections in the Netherlands, France, and Germany, which will take place amid economic stagnation, jihadist attacks, and Vladimir Putin’s attempts to undermine NATO by subventing philo-Russian populist/nationalist parties.

Across the continent, but particularly in those three countries and in Sweden, it’s almost impossible to discuss immigration and Islamism without being accused of racism. Free discussion is confined to what Europeans call the “opinion corridor,” and dissidents step outside it at their own risk. “Rising support across Europe for xenophobic, populist parties,” writes Kirchick, “is partly the result of a constricted political discourse in which decent, ordinary people are told not only that plainly visible phenomena don’t exist but also that voicing concerns about these allegedly nonexistent phenomena is racist.” It is as if Islam were a racial category.

Just five years after winning the Nobel Prize and being championed as a model for the world, the European Union, says Kirchick, is “crumbling.” It’s unable to police its borders, stimulate economic growth, afford its generous welfare state, and halt its demographic decline—and unable, or unwilling, to acknowledge the failures of multiculturalism. The attempt to create a European super-state by way of a common currency, the euro, has produced an increasingly bitter divide between prosperous northern Europe and southern neighbors such as Greece, Italy, and Spain. Nonetheless, for the ideologues of the European Commission, led by its president, Jean-Claude Juncker, former prime minister of Luxembourg, the only good answer to every problem has been to expand further the already-overextended powers of the European Union—a body heartily detested by a good portion of Europeans. The one thing that the unelected bureaucrats of the German-dominated EU are good at is policing free speech and denouncing the nationalism that grows out of their arrogant and unaccountable failures.

Some of the best sections in The End of Europe deal with all-too-vivid memories of World War II. In Estonia, a Baltic nation that borders Russia, citizens think of the Soviets as the occupiers who displaced the Nazi occupiers. Putin, who says that the collapse of the Soviet empire was the great tragedy of the twentieth century, insists that Estonia should be eternally grateful for the Soviet defeat of the Nazis. Anti-Russianism in Estonia, on this view, is only a cover for the philo-fascism that accompanied the Soviet occupation. Estonians are understandably more ambivalent. In 2007, Estonia decided to move the Bronze Soldier monument—dedicated to fallen Soviet soldiers—and its surrounding graves from the capital, Tallinn, to a more peripheral site. The move set off two days of riots by Estonia’s substantial Russian-speaking minority and a cyber-attack on Tallin’s thriving technology industry (Estonians created Skype) by Moscow.

Putin’s barely concealed aim is to dismantle NATO, a goal he could achieve in various ways. He might invade Estonia or Latvia, claiming, as per Ukraine, that he was coming to the defense of an oppressed Russian minority. Toomas Ilves, president of Estonia from 2006 to 2016, points to perhaps an even more vulnerable location: the Suwalki Gap, “located in a narrow sliver of land,” notes Kirchick, “between Lithuania, Poland, Belarus, and Kalingrad (the heavily militarized Russian enclave wedged between Poland and Lithuania).” Should Russia seize that sliver, it could seal off the Baltic States from Europe.

Military options aside, the great danger to NATO lies in Germany’s historic attraction to Russia. Both have seen themselves as alternative cultures to the Anglo-French civilization of Western Europe. The Germans were drawn to Dostoevsky, the Russians to Nietzsche. More recently, during the Cold War, Germany’s Social Democrats, led by Willy Brandt, pursued a deal to reunite East and West Germany in return for German neutrality. This is more than an academic point. Christian Democrat Angela Merkel’s predecessor as chancellor, Social Democrat Gerhard Schroeder, declared Putin “a flawless Democrat.” Shortly after leaving office in 2005, Schroeder became chairman of Nord Stream, a Kremlin-run subsidiary of Gazprom. “When the Estonian government relocated the Bronze Soldier in 2007,” Kirchick writes, “Schroeder saw fit to emerge from retirement and condemn Tallin for violating ‘every form of civilized behavior.’” At his lavish 70th birthday party, Schroeder embraced Putin, and he stayed silent about the Russian conquest of Crimea.

The dangers of Putinism and Islamism have intersected in Germany. Seeking reelection after 11 years in office, Merkel faces a stiff challenge from Social Democrat Martin Schulz, the president of the powerless European parliament from 2012 to 2017. Merkel, who has described multiculturalism as a failure, had once been seen as a shoo-in, but her ill-conceived proposal to admit 1 million Muslim refugees into Germany has dramatically weakened her political standing, especially in light of the sexual assaults committed by Muslim arrivals. If Schulz wins what is now a tight race, the Social Democrats will no doubt adopt a position opposing sanctions against Russia for its imperial adventures—and a softening of sanctions will shake NATO further.

The End of Europe offers a readable but historically grounded view of a deeply troubled continent.

Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images

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