'An Anxious Continent': Walter Laqueur on Europe's Decline

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British-American historian Walter Laqueur experienced the demise of the old Europe and the rise of the new. In a SPIEGEL interview, he shares his gloomy forecast for a European Union gripped by debt crisis.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Laqueur, you experienced Europe and the Europeans in the best and the worst of times. Historical hot spots and the stations of your personal biography were closely and sometimes dramatically intertwined. Which conclusions have you reached today, at the advanced age of 92?

Laqueur: I became a historian of the postwar era in Europe, but the Europe I knew no longer exists. My book "Out of the Ruins of Europe," published in 1970, ended with an optimistic assessment of the future. Later, in 2008, "The Last Days of Europe: Epitaph for an Old Continent" was published. I returned to the subject in my latest book, "After the Fall: The End of the European Dream and the Decline of a Continent." The sequence of titles probably says it all.

SPIEGEL: The last two, at any rate, sound as if the demise of the Western world were imminent.

Laqueur: Europe will not be buried by ashes, like Pompeii or Herculaneum, but Europe is in decline. It's certainly horrifying to consider its helplessness in the face of the approaching storms. After being the center of world politics for so long, the old continent now runs the risk of becoming a pawn.

SPIEGEL: Fortunately, the European Union refrained from pursuing any imperial ambitions. Nevertheless, it remains an impressive entity, both politically and economically, despite the financial and debt crisis.

Laqueur: Europe will likely remain influential in the future as an economic power and trading partner. But the continent still isn't standing on its own feet politically and militarily today. This wouldn't be that important if power politics didn't play a role and conflicts were resolved peacefully by the United Nations or the International Court of Justice. But the conflicts have not decreased. Their inherent fanaticism and passions continue to burn, as we can now see, once again, in Syria and in Egypt. Under these circumstances, is it realistic to call for European independence in global politics?

SPIEGEL: Why shouldn't the EU be able to be a champion of soft power?

Laqueur: Freedom, human rights, social justice are all wonderful, and I don't want to minimize the achievements of European societies. But a role model? Europe is much too weak to play a civilizing or moral role in world politics. Nice speeches and well-intentioned admonitions carry little weight when made from a position of weakness. In fact, all they do is aggravate China and Russia. Such reproofs are presumptuous, insincere and, unfortunately, often ridiculous. Under the current circumstances, Europe would be well advised to keep a lower profile.

SPIEGEL: That's the kind of advice that another eminence grise (former German Chancellor) Helmut Schmidt, likes to dispense.

Laqueur: I'm afraid that Europe has largely squandered its moral credit. It shies away from imposing sanctions; it has a very hard time intervening in crises outside Europe; and it has even demonstrated its general impotence in wars in its own backyard. Most European governments, not least the German government, don't even have the guts to admit that they are playing a double game.

SPIEGEL: After two world wars, it goes without saying that Europe is in a post-heroic state.

Laqueur: Yes, but how will the postmodern age survive in a world in which, all too often, chaos prevails, rather than international law? The champions of postmodernism will have to act in accordance with two different methods: first, using those that regulate our treatment of one another, and second, using methods to deal with the bullies and thugs who have yet to achieve the enlightened condition of the postmodern age.

SPIEGEL: You seem to advocate a sort of liberal imperialism, which seems self-contradictory. No one believes the United States when it takes that approach, either.

Laqueur: That is, in fact, an unnecessarily provocative concept, which doesn't embody a realistic policy, either. An approach to international politics that involves two different codes of rules, values and standards doesn't just constitute discrimination, but also requires a cold-blooded decisiveness that Europe lacks. Europe is often motivated by fear, which both the bullies and those who need help recognize.

SPIEGEL: Nevertheless, the EU would be extremely welcome as a player in the global game in many parts of the world.

Laqueur: Certainly, but the European crisis is not primarily just a debt crisis. The real question is: Does Europe, in its apathy, even want to play a role in global politics? Arthur Schopenhauer, the great philosopher of pessimism, said that it's easy to want, but that "wanting to want" is virtually impossible. No matter how often European values are invoked and praised, a weak will, inertia, fatigue, self-doubt and lack of self-confidence all amount to the psychological diagnosis of a weak ego.

SPIEGEL: After the horrors of the 20th century and Germany's two attempts to secure global power, both of which failed miserably, is depression a part of the European state of mind?

Laqueur: Pharmacologists have yet to develop a drug to treat the collective depression of entire nations and generations. Keeping a low profile is easier for most Europeans than coming up with the political will to become a major political power once again.

SPIEGEL: It's also not as risky.

Laqueur: I'm not so sure about that. Only time will tell. The Europeans haven't quite understood that trying to stay out of the fray offers no protection against the consequences of global policy. Retreat offers no security against the consequences. Perhaps exaggerated caution is sometimes appropriate, but inaction can also prove to be disastrous. During his recent visit to Berlin, President Barack Obama said that remembering history should not lead to our withdrawing from history. I don't think that the economic, political and military problems Europe faces are insurmountable by any means. Nevertheless, a strange "abulia" has taken hold. French psychologists coined the term in the late 19th century to describe an inexplicable lack of will, which some now interpret as a symptom of aging in prosperity.

SPIEGEL: Isn't it a little facile to accuse Europe of decadence? Europe has always moved forward from one crisis to the next.

Laqueur: A 19th century cynic once said that a crisis is the period between two other crises. Historians are probably conservative by nature, and they tend to be skeptical. (Former German Chancellor) Konrad Adenauer once said something to the effect that there are countless ways to do something wrong, but only one way to do it right. I'm sticking to my diagnosis that Europe is in decline, especially when measured against the expectations that arose after the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Iron Curtain.

SPIEGEL: At the time, optimism surrounding the euro went so far that even in the United States, predictions were made, in books, lectures and essays, that the 21st century would be the European century.

Laqueur: Around the turn of the millennium, European leaders seemed convinced, at their summit meetings, that Europe was in the process of becoming a shining example, a role model for other nations, with its international virtues, its shared values, its model of the social welfare state and its system of intergovernmental relations. Anyone who questioned that was not only branded as a pessimist, but also as a reactionary. This euphoria probably has more to with a disappointment over America, especially the America of (former US President) George W. Bush, than with actual circumstances in Europe. Thanks to the short-sighted, arrogant and aggressive US foreign policy of those years, a European anti-Americanism flared up, which has remained latent on both the left and the right, and it distorted Europeans' views of their own weaknesses.

SPIEGEL: Is Europe experiencing a moment of truth in the current crisis?

Laqueur: I'd have to answer that question with another question. What are the prospects for a reversal of the process? The decline is relative, and it's taking place gradually. The situation is bad, even very bad in Greece, Spain and Portugal, but it isn't devastating. Europeans are making every effort to prevent a crash and achieve a soft landing. The collapse of the monetary union is not unavoidable. In fact, if one considers the consequential costs, I think it's somewhat unlikely in the foreseeable future. Perhaps a rapid decline would be even better, because it would raise awareness of the need for a general overhaul of the European structure. Crises bring about solidarity, as Jean Monnet, one of Europe's founding fathers, knew all too well.

SPIEGEL: People now recognize that the EU is both a community of solidarity and a community of fate. This is symbolized by the creation of a bailout and stability mechanism.

Laqueur: But, as a result, Europeans have lost the sense of clear and present danger. Once again, European leaders believe that they are out of the woods. Well, miracles happen. But it's my impression that the formula is being applied that promises the least amount of success in the longer term and is the least painful -- a little reform here, a little tinkering there, and a dose of business as usual.

SPIEGEL: One could also say, less caustically, that this is simply pragmatic crisis management, as practiced by Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Laqueur: It's a policy based on persistence. It appears that there is a hidden law in history, where institutions, once they are established, become self-propelling and continue to exist, contrary to all expectations or fears, or at least much longer than expected. There is always a retarding, persevering moment before the collapse arrives.

SPIEGEL: So we end up with a rude awakening, after all?

Laqueur: The rise and fall of empires are constants in history. Historians have been searching for explanations since antiquity. Is it, as Oswald Spengler said after World War I, an unavoidable consequence of the aging process, an older person's desire for a quiet and undisturbed life? Has material prosperity created a timid society, one that avoids all conflicts and tries to ignore all warning signs that it sees as detrimental to its hedonism?

SPIEGEL: Spengler's theory explained nothing. It was merely an expression of a mood in 1918. And doesn't a saturated society have its advantages, too, such as a reduced propensity to violence?

Laqueur: Of course, life doesn't just take place at the top. Being eliminated from the Champions League isn't the end. But then it might be advisable to somewhat limit the generous distribution of good advice to other countries and not to invoke one's own achievements as enthusiastically. Constant self-praise could easily become counterproductive, because one's achievements should never be taken for granted. The EU may survive the current crisis, but what about the next one and the one after that? It is no longer a given that the majority of Europeans want to continue to the end of the path to a political union. The first stabs at moving away from that concept are unmistakable. Nothing is without an alternative in history and politics.

SPIEGEL: In that case, would what remained of Europe consist of more than a geographical concept and a cultural memory?

Laqueur: What will Europe turn out to be? Europe needs the world, and the world needs Europe. These are august words that people like to hear, and to some extent they are also true. Who couldn't agree with that? But does the world feel the same way? The possibility that Europe will become a museum or a cultural amusement park for the nouveau riche of globalization is not completely out of the question. Ten years ago, 900,000 Chinese came to Western Europe as tourists. Now it's several million.

SPIEGEL: Does that bother you, as an old European?

Laqueur: I think I've traveled to every European country, except Norway and Albania. My father never made it to France or Great Britain, and my mother never left her native country. My first station in Europe, after returning from Israel in the early 1950s, was Paris, the second one was Berlin, and the third was London, where I was director of the Wiener Library for 30 years. I can almost see the grave of Karl Marx from my apartment in London. London has become less interesting than it used to be, and yet I'm not deeply sentimental. Yes, I feel a certain regret that Europe hasn't come as far as one could have hoped. But I haven't lost any sleep over it, either.

SPIEGEL: You once wrote that you would have preferred to live at the end of the 19th century instead of in the horrible 20th century. That was the old Europe to a T.

Laqueur: (laughing) Especially in Paris! The fin de siècle, with its Belle Époque, was an incredibly optimistic time. Even the socialists felt that things were improving and that they would soon come to power, for the good of mankind. This brings us to an interesting insight: The years after the French defeat of 1870 and 1871 were years of depression, when Paul Verlaine wrote in a poem: "I am the Empire at the end of decadent days." Thirty years later, Paris was a city filled with energy and joie de vivre, with theaters, dance halls, cabaret, the Impressionists' salon, the 1889 World's Fair, the construction of the Eiffel Tower and Louis Blériot's flight across the English Channel. The French had rediscovered their optimism, and no one knows exactly why.

SPIEGEL: But that spells hope for Europe.

Laqueur: (laughing) Hope springs eternal. It's one of the most frequently quoted verses of English poetry. The poet was Alexander Pope, a decidedly cautious man. He had many enemies, and we know from his sister that he never went out into the street without his large, aggressive dog, and always with two loaded pistols in his bag.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Laqueur, we thank you for this interview.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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1. Excellent Interview
Keir 07/26/2013
This is how an interview is supposed to be conducted- challenging, knowledgeable, and conducted by one who is respectful yet holds his own to produce real dialogue. And Mr. Laqueur appears to be in full command of his faculties at such an advanced age- a model for us all.
2. European Impotence
Jim in MD 07/26/2013
The problem is that Europeans think that they are wiser than others due to their culture. Still they always look to the US to act. Merkel was happy to put a Russian pipeline around her Slavic neighbors. She lets the US spy for her but places her adviser in Athens to supervise every penny. George W. Bush was blunt, but Merkel is truly arrogant.
3. optional
peskyvera 07/26/2013
It should have been a European Commonwealth, allowing much more flexibility than the Union does. 'One size fits all' just doesn't work - not in Europe and not in the rest of the world.
4. optional
spon-facebook-10000061525 07/26/2013
The issue is not the decline of Europe, it's just that the world is changing faster than ever did in its history and in so many complex ways. A lot of this change is coming from Europe, but innovation is very difficult to contain in the age of high speed digital communications, so this advantage is quickly spread throughout the globe. The vision for the future of humankind has to come from Europe, as it did for centuries.
5. ...
Newspeak 07/27/2013
A main problem of Europe is its bigotry and dishonesty. All these nations do not really believe in the European ideas. They take the advantages, in economic terms, but everything else is left over for idealistic speeches without any consequences. Where is a European parliament that derserves its name? Where are opposing forces to the nationalisms re-appearing in every crisis? It is all a big lie. Europe is only nice, when it comes to science, art, culture in general...but it gets ugly when it comes to economics, military, politics in general. The most annyoing thing for me is, that we are as morally depraved as the US, Russia, China, the Iran or North Korea. In fact the only difference nowadays is, that the Western world still pretends some sort of "values"...all rotten and corrupt since years. China may not be a role model, but it has some sympathies from my side because it is often plainly bad...and not pretending to be better.
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From DER SPIEGEL
About Walter Laqueur
  • Dan Chung/ DER SPIEGEL
    Walter Laqueur is a highly respected historian and political commentator who has acquired an international reputation with his many works on Nazism, Russia and the Cold War, the Middle East and Europe. Born in 1921 in Breslau (modern-day Wroclaw) to a Jewish merchant family, he emigrated to Palestine shortly before the pogrom against Jews known as Reichskristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass, in 1938. There, he studied at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. His parents and most of his relatives were murdered in concentration camps. After the war, Laqueur went to London, where he headed the Wiener Library. He later worked at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, a security and foreign policy think tank. Most recently, he analyzed the EU's problems and current crisis in his book "After the Fall: The End of the European Dream and the Decline of a Continent."

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