Europe and Berlin

Adriaan van der Staay

(Translation of a talk held at The Hague)

Today, 75 years ago – as an 11-year old boy living in Louvain (Belgium) – I heard the news that the Allied Forces had landed on the coast of Normandy.

For me this started an hourly shuttle to the house of the neighbour, who still disposed illegally of a radio, to keep my family informed of the progress of our liberators. For Europe as a whole it meant the beginning of the end of German domination, and so to the centrality of Berlin.

I would like to meditate a little about the place of Berlin in Europe. I intend to do this in geopolitical terms, that is without too many particulars. I will try to come to some kind of synthesis by looking at the broader picture.

From here, The Hague, the political capital of the Netherlands, Berlin lies East, some 600 KM away. Continuing eastwards toward Warsaw it would become 1100 KM. To Moscow the distance would be double: 2200 KM. Towards the south Milan lies some 800 KM away. To Rome it would take 1300 KM. Southwest to Madrid it is 1400 KM as the bird flies.

I cite these distances to position ourselves in Europe. The Netherlands is situated quite centrally within a circle that touches Warsaw, Rome, Madrid. Moscow lies beyond that circle, on the edge.

Geographically Europe is a peninsula of Asia, not much more than 4000 KM long, from East to West. Holland lies at the Atlantic rim of Europe, that considers itself to be a continent. Where would one position the Asiatic border of Europe?

Here one leaves the purely geographical. Charles de Gaulle, an astute geo-politician, considered Europe to halt at the Ural Range. Indeed there is some logic in that. A historian of Russia and Europe, Martin Malia, considered the Russian expansion across the Ural into Asia as part of the expansion of Europe worldwide. On the Atlantic side Europe went overseas. On the Asiatic side over land.

 So there is something in the view that the last major colony of the West is situated in Asiatic Russia. Recently Russia has lost a major part of this colonial empire. After the splitting up of the Soviet empire Kazachstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kirgizstan became independent. In this, Russia shares the post-colonial experience of Europe. Malia, by the way, speaks about Russia and Europe as being more or less alike, but also constantly out of phase to each other. In decolonization Russia follows Europe at a distance.

Anyway, Russia is still half European and half Asiatic. As an Asian country Russia is vulnerable. From the East, China is advancing. Demographically across the Amur river. Commercially via the restored Silk Road, that traverses the ex-colonial Islamic states. And China now reaches Europe by land and sea, in Athens or Trieste or Rotterdam.

Russia is wary of its enormously exposed southern flank . Therefore it very actively engages with Afghanistan, Persia or the Middle East.

To Europe as a peninsula the world mainly present itself as seawater. To the south across the sea lie coasts with very deep Hinterlands, both in Asia and Africa. Across the Black Sea Europe meets the remnants of the Ottoman Empire. In Kurdistan, Anatolia, in the Bosporus and the Balkans. Across the Mediterranean Europe meets Syria and Palestine. Egypt and Tunisia also belonged to the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman fleet was a rival. For five hundred years Europe struggled to gain control of the Mediterranean and the Black Sea and it won. Today it depends on America, with its NATO navy headquarters in Naples.

One century ago this situation would have been considered unbelievable. The peninsula dominated the surrounding seas.

But the suicidal First World War made Europe implode. The transnational power-structures of the Empires all disappeared. A Europe of nations was conceived on the basis of a memorandum of a transatlantic president, the American Wilson. With these new feeble states Europe would be in a permanent crisis between the two wars. On top of this, from Russia communism menaced, from America economic crises came. Demagogues took over. This period ended in the conquest of the greater part of the peninsula by a nation claiming to impose its order on Europe. Europe for a while took the form of an extended Mittel Europa.

But the most important result of the two world wars came at the very end. The Second World War initiated the fall of all European overseas empires. With the disappearance of the English, French, Dutch and Portuguese colonies Europe lost its role as a world power. The Suez crisis made this clear. Geopolitically Europe was somehow back in the position from where it started in 1500.

With the demise of the Third Reich in 1945, Europe was moreover divided in two halves, one dominated by America, one by Russia. On the Asiatic side the Pax Sovietica was controlled from Moscow, on the Atlantic side the Pax Americana was controlled by Washington. The future of the peninsula was decided outside our European circle.

The Pax Americana initially conceived of Europe as a whole. But after the rejection of the Marshall plan in 1947 by Russia, division took over. The story of the Cold War is well known. When the Pax Sovietica imploded, the Pax Americana became the dominant force.

One should not belittle the Pax Americana, even if the present president behaves foolishly. The sovereignty of America in its own power reach has not undergone essential changes. The dollar remains the world currency. The American forces remain the most powerful on earth.

Within the Pax Americana the European peninsula became reunited after 1989. The vassal states of Russia joined NATO and the European Union. Not so much because Europe wanted it as because America advised it.

The most relevant effect of this change initially was not fully realized by Europe. Within the Pax Americana, now that Russia had been defeated, Europe became less important. As long as Europe meant a potential battlefield for America, it weighed heavily. After the Cold War had ended, it lost weight. American presidents made themselves clear. China was the big challenge.

What was the American view of a pacified Europe? I am a buyer of Foreign Affairs since I first bought it in Washington in 1970. It reflects the views of the American Establishment. In the new millennium it has continued to give systematic attention to Europe, but hardly spoken of Europe as a geopolitical power. Europe had grosso modo become a regional affair. This was once frankly explained to me by L. Paul Bremer III (1983-1986 ambassador to the Netherlands). Only in the context of the American global reach Europe counts. But its importance was limited. Bremer later became the American pro-consul in Iraq, who hunted and hanged Saddam Hussein.

Reading Foreign Affairs one gets the impression that Turkey, Egypt or Israel attract more attention (and money) than Europe. After all, around Europe a power vacuum exists. Europe is not sovereign. It has no European army, and levies no European taxes to pay for it. It projects no power in its neighbourhood. At least no hard power. It moreover in Wall Street’s eyes fools around with an unnecessary currency, the EURO.

Round 2000 two prominent American visions of Europe could be heard.

One was optimistic. That of the political scientist Francis Fukuyama, who considered Europe to be a good example of imitating the American model. Somewhat like Japan. This capitalist democratic model would spread across the globe. In his view Europe was considered as a whole.

A more conservative vision emanated from the historian Samuel Huntington, who stressed permanent European cleavages. America should not be naive and consider Europe as a whole. One of the fissure lines ran from the Baltic to the Mediterranean Sea. It followed the divide between the orthodox and catholic Christian churches. This division was compounded by a division between Slavonic and German speakers. Huntington therefore considered Greece or Serbia not as really European. In his view Europe would remain divided.

In tsarist Russia too this mid-European cleavage had been the subject of long discussions. The conservative biologist Nicolai Danilevskii (1822-1885) had proclaimed the frontier of the Slavonic orthodox area to forever cut Europe in two (1869). In his view two permanent identities coexisted on the European peninsula, two races. Russia was the natural protector of the Slavonic identity. France and Germany competed to defend the rest. In practice the struggle by Russia (to annex the orthodox and Slavonic part of Europe) was mainly with the Austrian and Ottoman Empires.

The permanent Russian pressure was known in the West as the “Eastern Question”. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels published a book about this in 1897. So, the claim of Stalin to occupy the Eastern part of the peninsula was not new, but old.

Yet, after the fall of the Soviet Empire in the nineties an alternative view of Europe emerged within Russia. For a short while the vision of  Gorbachev dominated.  Gorbachev considered Europe as a potentially coherent and autonomous political and economic entity. He abdicated the rule of Russia over the vassal states. He dreamt to create a European community from the Atlantic to the Ural. Both he and his vision became very popular for a moment. It could have been the moment to rethink and reform Europe.

It took some time before Europe realized that this vision was not supported by America. The dream to make Russia part of Europe also meant making Europe part of Russia. This did not fit the Pax Americana. It would only be in 2018 that Europe, Tusk, Merkel fully realized that Europe was not autonomous and would have to struggle to retake autonomy.

Russia also was quick to disavow the dreams of Gorbachev. A resentment towards the European lead, that had existed since Peter the Great , became official with Putin. Danilevskii resurged. His book, nearly forgotten by Europe, was reprinted several times after 2000. It was especially read and taught in military academies. Slavonic nationalism was back. In Russian eyes Europe appeared both menacing and decadent, and not a friend.

In Eastern Europe it took some time before the dream of  Gorbachev was forgotten. In the vassal states initially the return of sovereignty in 1990 was celebrated, before they realized it was only a mirage. They had been integrated in the new order of the Pax Americana. Nowhere the disenchantment was more felt than in East Germany.

In 1990 the DDR disappeared and was not reborn as a new state. There would be no new constitution, no new money, no new army or even taxes, no sovereignty. For a short while in the Palast der Republik representatives of the people had speculated about this possibility. Wir sind das Volk. Instead the nation disappeared in the Bundesrepublik.

This meant that the geopolitical power-shift also became a change of daily life. The population had to shift from an economical system dominated by the state to a system dominated by the market. This had enormous consequences for housing, or employment. Many Ossies migrated. People usually do not migrate willingly.

For Western Europe the victory of America in the nineties had also unforeseen consequences. After the Second World War in Europe a compromise was reached that created social cohesion. It meant a deal between trade unions and employers, between socialists and liberals, between the state as protector of the population and capitalism as a provider of profit. In several countries like France and Italy the big communist parties had accepted this social treaty. But now, in the new millennium, the menace of Russia had gone away and also its support. The communist parties disappeared.

But also the socialist parties and the trade unions lost influence. This was mainly the result of developments within America. It only gradually emerged that the neoliberal movement basically meant an attack on the state. In America in the new millennium the consensus created by the New Deal weakened. Trade unions lost their support. Public health care, normal in Europe, became anathema. Nobody defended the European option within the Pax Americana.

Initially this had little direct impact in Europe. The European compromise had combined social security with economic growth for half a century. But in the new millennium a deep Americanization of the political, economic, social and cultural life took place. American norms and habits were followed, for instance in the privatization of public services.

The neoliberal movement created a crisis of trust in the political elite. When everybody was motivated by self-interest, the political elite could not have other than private motives. Politics were a market. Public spirit was fake. This distrust, that was imported as populism from America, was reinforced in Europe by the economic crisis of 2008, both created and solved in the American way. The European way was consistently doubted in the American media as was the European Union.

The Wende of the nineties had direct impact on Berlin. The town lost its role as showcase for the Western alternative to the Soviet model. Berlin also felt the general loss of geopolitical importance Europe was experiencing. Provinciality menaced. Initially the capital remained in Bonn. This changed when Berlin became the capital of Germany again. The Reichstag and the Bundeskanzler resumed their role in the biggest nation of Europe. They had to cope with considerable internal problems that asked for urgent solutions. This new start in Berlin found its expression in the building of a formidable modern centre of governance. In Berlin new embassies were built to keep in contact with this centre. The Netherlands also had a new embassy built, by its most famous architect.

Berlin was perhaps saved from provincialism by its new place in the international network. It was now 600 KM from Brussels, as to the headquarters of NATO and the EU. But still within the Pax Americana. Yet it was now a close neighbour of Warsaw, Budapest and Prague, cities that had belonged to the Russian network.

Berlin became the head of the most populous and richest nation of Europe. But somehow its foreign policy seemed to operate beneath this level. It seemed to be reluctant to assume a role commensurate with its weight.

There exist quite understandable reasons for this. The war had been lost and it had brought enormous damage to Germany. The frontiers of the country had been redrawn by the victors. Many Germans had had to leave their places of birth, as for instance more than 3 million Germans from Sudetenland. One or two generations had mainly concentrated on restoring material and immaterial damage.

The German responsibility for the genocide of the Jews in Europe also called for humility. Both America and Israel were very sensitive to this mortgage.

And perhaps it should be recognized that Germany was wary of itself. It was hard to forget that the majority of Germans had not opposed Hitler in his European ambitions. German solutions for European geopolitical problems were deeply discredited.

This made Germany the most American pupil of the European schoolroom. The Pax Americana stood for fifty years of peace and prosperity. Little ambition, no adventures seemed to be wise.

Inside Berlin, Russia was still present. Over 7000 Russian soldiers are buried around Berlin. In Treptower Park they are commemorated by a monument to the Pax Sovietica. There you can still read the praise of Joseph Stalin to the antifascist heroes in golden letters, in Cyrillic and Latin alphabet. A gigantic statue of a soldier carries in one hand an immense sword, on the other arm a child. Some Germans interpret the child as their future. Between the soldier’s feet a chapel celebrates the glorious motherland of Slavs.

In other words the “Eastern Question” is permanently put. The line of fracture that oriented Danilevskii, Marx, Engels, and Huntington is not easily ignored.

Without having planned it Berlin again became the centre of Europe. A Europe that geopolitically was more dependent on America than ever. A Europe that could dream about a beneficent global role of soft power. That could follow America in its ventures, but not lead. That could not itself decide who rules the waves in the Mediterranean or Black Sea, but could only rescue migrants coming in from overseas.

An American president disturbed this illusionary world view, by exposing another side of America. A Russian president exploited the inattention of this slumbering Europe in Georgia and the Crimea. At the moment that it was most needed the political elite in Great Britain failed Europe.

In this time of reappraisal the population of Europe has reason to feel itself badly protected. It intuitively understands that a European answer is needed, but looks at the European elite with some disbelief. Where is European leadership to be found? A minority wants to revitalize the national past, but the majority still expects a European answer.

In this situation probably no capital in Europe should assume more responsibility than Berlin. After London it is the largest city with 3.5 million inhabitants. It mixes East and West. Can it lead Europe in a awakening or renaissance?

It is too early to come to a conclusion. Just a few marginal notes based on recent visits to Berlin.

In comparison with the Netherlands theorizing about politics is no offence in Berlin. If one looks at the magazine of the Akademie der Künste, an institute of long standing, one is struck by the number of theoretical discussions about the political state of affairs. They take fundamental issue for instance with the rise of neo-fascism as a danger to democracy and the constitution. The Berliner Festspiele opened 2019 with a three-day symposium about the disappearance of the DDR and the unfinished business of reunification that hangs like a cloud above the city. Prominent philosophers like Jürgen Habermas and Peter Sloterdijk are very public intellectuals. Habermas raises the question of the constitution for Europe as essential to its future, while Sloterdijk points out the absence of Europe in the world. In general one is struck by the number of bookshops and the quality and completeness of their political content.

Holland shrinks from theory, Germany embraces it.

In practical terms Berlin provides a European platform. Yannis Varoufakis, the Greek minister who lost the battle with Schaüble and Dijsselbloem during the 2008 crisis, figured on a transnational list Demokratie in Europa duringthe European Elections.

I can discern three roads leading away from the present quandary.

The first is that Europe would try to return to its old ways of nationalism. For Berlin it would mean playing power and profit games with other capital cities within Eastern Europe. It would still be within the Pax Americana, while being exposed to diverging seductions. It would terminate the further development of the European Union.

The second road would be that Europe would still be within the Pax Americana, but internally return to the European consensus of a compromise between capitalism and the state, between profit and the idea of protection. It would signal an alternative model within the Pax Americana, that could well resonate in the United States. For the policy of the European Union this would mean a swing to the left. Leadership of Berlin would depend on the strength of progressive parties in Germany.

The third road would imply more external autonomy for Europe. A Pax Europæa could result. Europe would do with the help of Berlin what the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk calls for, and return from its period of historical absence. It could well complement the second road.

A Pax Europæa, both externally and internally, would not of necessity mean damage to Russia or America. It could help them to better face the emerging power of China.

A Pax Europæa would also mean a rehabilitation of the visions of Marshall in 1945 and that of  Gorbachev in 1990: the unity of Europe.

The Hague, 6 June 2019.