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Defying Big Brother

Tom Garvin

Goodbye to All That? The Story of Europe since 1945, by Dan Stone, Oxford University Press, £25, 416 pp, ISBN: 978-0199697717

In 1960 I was one of a group of schoolboys who toured western Germany as part of a course of German studies in our secondary school in Dublin. I suspect most of us had never been outside Ireland, or certainly had not been outside the British Isles before. One day we were sitting in a local train ambling through Bavaria on its way to Munich when it stopped at a little village called Dachau. We muttered to each other, as one might; even then the little word painted on the sign by the side of the railway had terrible undertones to it. A young German was sitting opposite us, perhaps five years older than our average age of sixteen. He explained in a mixture of German and English that he was a local, and would get off at his home village some miles down the line. He assumed that we were English, and narrated how, when the wind blew from the west over his village, clouds of ash would descend on the houses and streets. As a small boy, he had asked his Dad what was going on in Dachau? Dad replied that it was government war work, to defend the Reich. But then the Americans came and marched everyone up to the concentration camp and made the adults bury the thousands of corpses the Nazis had left behind. The children were made to watch. The Americans said repeatedly “this is what you Germans did”. He finished his little story, took a deep breath and said after a pause, looking at me with a strained, determined look “I am glad my country lost the war.” He got off the train and we never saw him again. Someone said: “He’s a brave lad.” The catastrophe of 1945 was very clearly seen by the peoples of Europe as a huge crime committed by Nazis and fascists. Any legitimacy Hitler and Mussolini ever had had evaporated during the war years, never to return.

Goodbye to All That, without the question mark is, of course, the title of Robert Graves’s classic memoir of the First World War, written as he was abandoning his military and British years of formation and retiring to Spain to write novels, poetry and cultural history. The title is the only real resemblance between the two books. Dan Stone sets out to write the history of Europe since the collapse of Nazi Germany and the takeover of Europe by a sort of joint and uneasy hegemony of the Soviet Union and the United States in the late 1940s.

The central thesis of the work is that “anti-fascism became the basis of stability in postwar Europe”. Certainly a rhetorical anti-fascism underpinned the doubtful legitimacy of some of the East European satellite regimes, particularly the magnificently misnamed German Democratic Republic. “Anti-fascism” was also at the basis of what became the main legitimating myth of the Soviet Union once Marxist-Leninism lost whatever magic it once had had. The heroic story of the Soviet people’s brave resistance to the Nazi hordes was extolled in newspapers, books and, above all, in a plethora of increasingly cyclopean statues and monument complexes. The European left was keen on anti-fascism.

However, to claim that anti-fascism was also the main legitimating idea of the western European group of countries is to misread the situation rather wildly. Fascism was radically discredited, particularly in its heartlands, post-Versailles Italy and Germany. Many European countries had had very small fascist movements, or none at all: the Scandinavian countries, Britain and Ireland, or what became the Benelux countries. Even Franco’s Spain or Salazar’s Portugal were more traditional authoritarian police states rather than examples of classic fascism. Both of the latter countries lacked anti-clericalism, a key feature of classic Nazism or Italian fascism. In France a kind of clerical fascism came to power, but only under the Nazi aegis in 1940 in part of the country.

It would be truer and also more obvious to argue that western European governments after the war were legitimated by constitutional democracy and the rule of law, found wanting after Versailles in favour of fascism and communism but reinstated in an almost apologetic manner after 1945. A second source of legitimacy was anti-communism, as the communist popular presence in some western democracies remained large and was genuinely believed in as a possible alternative to social democracy or Christian democracy in the first generation after Yalta. Far from many people being worried about a fascist resurgence, they were far more worried by the real possibility of a Soviet takeover of mainland Western Europe by a mixture of democratic means and military pressure. For a while, the idea that the Soviet Union was the wave of the future was a source of hope to some and terror to others. George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, written in 1948-49, portrays a future Europe where a form of Soviet-style communist totalitarianism has taken over. This fear of such a takeover impelled the Americans to step into Britain’s shoes in Greece and Turkey in 1947-8 to ward off any communist adventurism, with military force if necessary. Fear of the Soviet Union led to an “Atlanticist” consensus among the western European elites and an acceptance of an American-led North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. The consensus was led in particular by Christian democratic leaders, many of them coming from the intermediate area of Western Europe occasionally dubbed “Greater Lorraine”: the group included Adenauer, de Gasperi, Monnet, Spaak and Mollet. “Greater Lorraine” runs from Holland through the Rhineland, through Alsace-Lorraine to Lyon and turns abruptly east to take in the Alpine boundary between Germanic and Romance Europe.

As time went by it became increasingly obvious that the experiment had worked; Western Europe was rapidly recovering from the twin disasters of the Great Depression and the war. After the war, a common expectation was a return of the stagnation of the thirties. Instead the west, and particularly Western Europe, experienced the greatest long boom the world has ever seen. By the sixties, it was also becoming obvious that the much vaunted success of the Soviet Union, symbolised by space satellites and military might, was built over a profound weakness: the command economy could not compete with the extraordinary dynamism of capitalism. The technology of the Soviets was already obsolescent by western standards. The Soviets themselves realised this, as the KGB agents in western countries sent back increasingly pessimistic reports, eventually letting Moscow know that it had no chance of “catching up” with the west under the existing regime. The satellite states were becoming restive, and increasingly regarded their own leaderships with hatred and contempt.

The move to forge a European confederation of some sort started very early, and gradually became a reality. Stone remarks rightly that

... national interests concretized the plans, and national interests have sustained the EEC/EU ever since, which, despite Schuman’s talk of ‘European federation’, remains an economic rather than a political union (the response to the 2011 economic meltdown suggests that some of the EU’s elites would like to use the opportunity to argue that economic union can only work together with political union, but it will be hard to convince national electorates).

It is certainly true that the European Union is a strange political entity, and with the eager entry of the east European states after the fall of European communism it has become even stranger. Here is a “superpower” with no army, no police force and no real democratic legitimacy. It relies on the member states to enforce its edicts. It exists and prospers because it suits the various national interests of its sovereign members. As soon as it ceases to do so, the more likely it is to suffer from disintegrative pressures of one kind or another. But all this is well understood. Germany and France set up a partnership sixty years ago, and it is still the fulcrum of the EU. Germany wished to escape from its militarist past, and France saw German economic strength as a useful supplement to its own relative economic weakness; as de Gaulle put it: “We are going to build Europe, and France will be the coachman and Germany the horse.” Spain and Portugal saw it as a route out of the authoritarian dead end that Franco and Salazar had left behind. Little Ireland saw it as a counterweight to the overwhelming power of the United Kingdom. Britain has been torn, as usual, between being in Europe and out of it: between the American option and the European one. The irony there is that the Americans want Britain in Europe possibly more than the British do, insofar as they ever think of it at all. The eastern Europeans saw the EU plus NATO as their insurance against a renewed Russian hegemony and the traditional bullying of thugs like Putin. The great expansion of membership of the EU multiplies sovereignties and makes a European superpower's emergence even less likely.

The problem with this book is its persistent softness toward the left, and the writer’s inability to see communism in Europe, particularly its Russian version, as millions of ordinary people saw it: as a large and very nasty tyranny. He writes casually about “the more extreme, intolerant aspects of Stalinism”, for example. What were the less extreme, tolerant aspects of Stalinism? Stalin was a genocidal monster, as successful at his chosen career of nation-killing as his arch-rival Adolf Hitler. Notoriously the two ruffians admired each other. It is clear from the text that Stone cannot grasp that communism was not reformable. It had a political sickness involving a pathological lack of political legitimacy. As the memory of the Great Patriotic War of 1941-1945 receded and as Stalin’s heirs in power grew old, ill and senile, the fact that it could not reform itself became ever more evident. Eventually the Mantle of Heaven was withdrawn and the regime disappeared almost as though it had never been.

This pas d’ennemis à gauche (no enemies on the left) syndrome runs through the entire book. Even Stone’s vocabulary betrays it. Milovan Djilas, the writer of political classics such as The New Class and Conversations with Stalin, is referred to casually as “a renegade communist”. Djilas was a brave man and a gallant and loyal fighter against the Nazis, who tried to stand up to the Yugoslav tyrants. He could see what was wrong with communism, and to call him a renegade communist is not only an insult but a symptom of extreme stupidity. The repeated suggestion that the German Democratic Republic was a sovereign state is ridiculous. Its leaders could scarcely wiggle their ears without an OK from Moscow. His grasp of ordinary terminology is, to put it gently, idiosyncratic. He seems to think that entities like “Stalinism” and “totalitarianism” are “civilisations”. There is some kind of strange category error here. If these are “civilizations”, are we allowed to speak of “Nazi civilization” as well? Surely it would be only fair? Again, he actually speaks quite bizarrely of a “demonization of Nazism”. He writes of the murder of Polish elites and ethnic minorities during the war by the Nazis with no reference to the massacre of elites at Katyń wood carried out on the specific orders of Joseph Stalin, presumably during an occasional bout of extremism and intolerance.

By 1960, it had become obvious, though it was still much denied, that the West had outclassed the communist bloc, “the beginning of the West’s outstripping of communism on these economic grounds were essentially the western-defined ones of economic growth, consumer culture, and shopping as leisure”. To which one might add, say, education, health, personal freedom, sexual equality and longevity. The Soviet Union noisily accepted these goals as indicators of success. Khruschev famously babbled of “Goulash Communism” around 1960. Occasionally Stone gets it right, almost by accident. On Eurocommunism he remarks on “ ... intellectuals and academics who mistook for a political revival of Marxism what was in fact an expression of doctrinal exhaustion”. It was also based on an intellectual realisation, not achieved by Stone, that the idea of a democratic communism was an oxymoron. At one stage he finds it strange that far-leftists commonly evolve into far-rightists. But it isn’t strange: it is a well-known and even cliched phenomenon perfectly well understood by, for example, Hitler.

Stone has a habit of making strange generalisations and giving curious examples. One real fake gem is: “Seventy-five years since the start of the Second World War, revisionists across Europe are arguing that Stalin was as much to blame for starting the war as Hitler.” Where are these revisionists? The only example he cites is a Russian (Victor Suvorov) peddling this kind of thing to the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. Maryland is not a European country; I suppose Suvorov is a European of sorts, but hardly representative. Stone sees neo-fascism in western Europe as a growing menace. Certainly there are nasty people on the anti-democratic right in modern Europe. However, there is one huge difference; their equivalents in 1920s Europe had in front of them a huge market in the form of millions of young men trained to march, obey orders and kill people. Modern Europe is, by comparison, demilitarised and the type of the neo-fascist tends more toward the uneducated and badly disciplined thug than the trained soldier type; the True Finns, the Golden Dawn and the Dutch Freedom Party are echoes of a dead past, not the wave of the future.

Stone seems to think that Europe is saying goodbye to anti-fascism. It is evident that Europe has forgotten about fascism. At some level Stone himself realises this, as he sees that the students who rebelled and called for revolution in 1968 across America and Europe railed against a fascism they in fact knew nothing about. Europe is saying goodbye to nothing in particular, but is worrying about the economy and the fashioning of political structures to enable financial systems to function efficiently and safely. And in worrying about such things, Europe could not be more innocently employed.

Tom Garvin is Emeritus Professor of Politics at University College Dublin. His most recent book is News from a New Republic (2011). He is at present working on an intellectual biography of Daniel Binchy.