In an essay I wrote in 2011, I argued that Germany should no longer be thought of as a “civilian power” but rather as a “geo-economic power”. I argued that the weakening of the Federal Republic’s commitment to multilateralism during the previous decade and its increasing economic assertiveness, particularly within the eurozone, undermined its claim to be a “civilian power” – that is, one that used multilateral institutions and economic co-operation rather than military power to achieve its foreign policy goals. The concept of “civilian power” was originally used by François Duchêne to describe the European Union and was applied to the Federal Republic by Hanns W. Maull, who, in one of his first essays on the subject in the early 1990s, described Germany and Japan as “new civilian powers” – “prototypes” of “a new type of international power”. So if Germany is no longer a “civilian power”, what about Japan?
Is the European Union a utopian project? Right-wing Eurosceptics often see it as one. In her book Statecraft (2002), for example, Margaret Thatcher called the EU a “classic Utopian project, a monument to the vanity of intellectuals, a programme whose inevitable destiny is failure.” More recently, left-wing Eurosceptics such as Wolfgang Streeck have begun to describe the EU as a different kind of utopian project. In an influential book published in Germany last year (to be published in English in May as Buying Time: The Delayed Crisis of Democratic Capitalism), Streeck argues that the EU is evolving into (or perhaps revealing itself as) a kind of Hayekian utopian project – a vehicle for endless liberalisation without interference from democratic politics. But is this the right way to think of the EU? Does it really seek to make Utopia a reality?
As Europe commemorates the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I this year, a re-assessment is taking place in Germany of what is called Europe’s Urkatastrophe, or “original catastrophe” – in other words, the one that led to all the others. In particular, influenced by books such as Christopher Clark’s Sleepwalkers (published in Germany in 2013) and Herfried Münkler’s Der große Krieg (also 2013) – both best sellers in Germany – many are rejecting the once widely held idea that the war was caused above all by German aggression. A poll in January showed that only 19 percent of Germans thought Germany was chiefly responsible for the outbreak of war. It seems to me that this is part of a broader trend in collective memory and national identity in Germany since around the Millennium that I have written about previously: Germans now think of themselves less as “perpetrators” and more as “victims”.
Europeans, particularly “pro-European” Europeans like me, often make the argument that it is only by pooling their collective resources that can they compete in the emerging world of continent-sized powers such as China, India and the US. By jointly pursuing their interests, the 28 member states of the European Union – the world’s largest trading bloc – can have greater impact than any of them can have individually. In particular, this argument is often deployed to show why it would be a mistake for the UK to leave the EU: to do so would commit it to “geopolitical oblivion”, as a French official put it to me. The idea, in short, is that size matters, as Peter Mandelson put it at a dinner I attended a year or so ago. But interestingly (and perhaps slightly worryingly), this discourse about size echoes the one in Europe at the end of the nineteenth century.
I spent the weekend at a conference at Wiston House in Sussex, where you can’t help think about history. Wiston House is owned by Wilton Park, a foundation set up after the end of World War II that was originally based at an estate near Beaconsfield, where German POWs (including Helmut Schmidt) discussed democracy with British intellectuals. Kingsley Martin, the editor of the New Statesman, called Wilton Park a “prisoners’ university” that was “the nucleus of what might become a new democratic Germany”. It was set up by Heinz Koeppler, a Jewish-German émigré and in 1948 was taken over by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to hold conferences. In 1951 it moved to Wiston House, parts of which date back to the sixteenth century. In such surroundings, it’s hard not to think in historical analogies – especially when it comes to Germany.
A couple of weeks ago I took part in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung’s Tendenzwende conference – a small gathering in Berlin of historians, economists, constitutional lawyers and philosophers, that has been held annually since 2009. It is named after a famous academic conference held in 1974, which coined the term that is often used in Germany for the shift in the 1970s from the post-war settlement to a new phase of slow growth and high inflation after the oil shock of 1973. After the financial crisis in 2008, Andreas Rödder (a historian) and Günther Nonnenmacher (one of the five publishers of the Frankfurter Allgemeine) had the idea of holding a similar conference to discuss whether a new paradigm shift was now taking place. The big question was: what comes after neo-liberalism? This year’s conference (which took place under the Chatham House rule) was on Europe.
One of my favourite passages in the English language is the last paragraph of George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia (1938). In it he describes coming back to Blighty after fighting in the Spanish Civil War, in which he was shot in the neck and nearly killed. Forseeing World War II and in particular the Blitz, he captures beautifully the sense of cognitive dissonance one often has on returning from the world to the familiarity of England. The passage also evokes Britain’s tendency to ignore developments in contintental Europe until it is too late: the “deep, deep sleep of England”. It seems to me as apt in 2012 as it was in 1938:
I’ve just finished reading Paul Berman’s brilliant new book, The Flight of the Intellectuals, which came out in April. Based on a 28,000-word essay that appeared in The New Republic in 2007, it’s a devastating critique of the Swiss Islamic philosopher Tariq Ramadan but also of liberal intellectuals like Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton Ash who, Berman argues, have wrongly seen Ramadan as a “progressive”. In the preface, Berman says he sees Ramadan – the grandson of Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood – as “a representative man of our age” on whom “half a dozen major conflicts and controversies converge”. The failure of writers such as Buruma to take him on is therefore for Berman a symptom of a bigger problem. The book thus develops the arguments Berman made in Terror and Liberalism about the recent failure of western liberals to recognise Islamism as a totalitarian movement and to confront it as they confronted other totalitarian movements in the twentieth century.
Since my book, Utopia or Auschwitz, was published last year, several people have asked me about the title. What exactly did I mean by Utopia and what was I trying to say about utopianism and its relationship with Nazism? At one level, the Utopia of the title stood simply for the aspirations that the 1968 generation in Germany shared with protest movements around the world in 1968. But I also had in mind a more specific meaning that Utopia has in Marxist theory. Marx and Engels coined the term “utopian socialism” in the nineteenth century as a contrast to their own version of socialism, based on dialectical materialism, which they called “scientific”. In the twentieth century, however, Marxist thinkers attempted to revive and reclaim the concept. In particular, Rudi Dutschke, one of the leaders of the West German student movement, was deeply influenced by Ernst Bloch, who developed the idea of “concrete Utopia”.
The Guardian recently had a profile of Tony Judt, the author of Postwar, who is battling Lou Gehrig’s disease (a kind of motor neurone disorder) and described the nature of the illness in an extraordinary, moving essay, entitled “Night”, in the New York Review of Books recently. One thing that particularly struck me in Ed Pilkington’s piece was his description of Judt as a “rootless cosmopolitan” – a phrase that Judt has himself used to describe Edward Said. Since reading the piece, I’ve been thinking about that phrase and what it means. In particular, is being a rootless cosmopolitan a good thing?