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Hauke Ritz on Greater Europe

Date de publication: 02.06.2016


Greater Europe:

The Lost Cultural Unity and its Implications for a New Cold War


by Hauke Ritz


The Idea of Greater Europe

Is a Greater Europe from Lisbon to Vladivostok possible? And if so, how should European culture be understood, memorized and addressed, if we see Greater Europe as a long term goal of today’s politics? Or put differently, what is the common ground of European culture as such?

It should be apparent that the overall weight of European standing in the world is in constant decline. And a conflict within Europe itself can therefore only accelerate this process. Furthermore, it is not acceptable, that this continent, which has witnessed so many wars, will once again be destabilized, and perhaps even become the battleground for a Third World War. For all these reasons, the idea of a Greater Europe is today of pressing importance. But as urgent as the idea of Greater Europe may be, we must nevertheless face the fact that today, the notion of a Europe from Lisbon to Vladivostok is often mentioned in such a way, as if no one really believes in it.

If, for example, politicians from the West talk about the idea of greater Europe, they usually think about a pure extension of the Western political and cultural system to the East. And then they refer mostly to the political system that has been build up in the West since World War Two. Moreover, they seldom waste a single thought on the fact that Russia, for cultural reasons I will address later, cannot accept this concept.

And something very similar can be said of the Russian side as well. Here the concept of Greater Europe is either presented only as a pure pragmatic relationship with regard to economic interests. Or as a relationship that is based on the classical culture of Europe. However both proposals are usually not understood in the West. The reference to older European traditions meets deaf ears among Western politicians, because Western Europe has given up those traditions under American influence. Also the pure pragmatic relationship concerning the economy is also not understood in the West. Because the geopolitically influential circles within the West have after 1989 formulated for themselves a grand strategy which goes far beyond economics. This grand strategy has huge cultural implications. However this cultural dimension of Western expansion no longer refers to classical European traditions. Instead, it represents a new kind of value system, one that was generated from the pop- and lifestyle-culture, which emerged in the West around and after 1968. Russian hopes that the Western world will at one point realize their mutual interests in the field of economics, are understandable. It is however vital for Russia’s ability to survive in the upcoming period, to understand what the Western world today is really about. Namely, that there are pseudo-religious overtones in Western politics today which cannot be addressed by reasonable arguments. And furthermore, this rhetoric of the so-called chosen Western World will not vanish any time soon.

Therefore, all the talk about Greater Europe is in most cases not intended seriously. Neither will Russia become in the near future a member of the Western system; nor is the West at this point in time able and willing to step aside from its own perspective. This is a kind of realism, to acknowledge the current deadlock. But that shouldn’t mean that we should be desperate or despondent. There may come a time, when Greater Europe will indeed be a real option. However at this point, we should focus our efforts on the question, as to how this impasse in mutual relations came about.


The Former Cultural Unity of Europe

If we go back only a little bit in time, we see that the cultural unity of Greater Europe is not an unrealistic ideal, but has actually existed in the past. In the 19th century we see how the whole European continent was in a cultural sense interrelated. The revolutionary upheaval of the time affected nearly all European nations. The philosophy of the 18th and 19th century was heatedly discussed from Moscow to Lisbon. Equally so, French and German literature was read and analyzed in Russia, as was Russian literature in Central Europe. It seemed as if the whole continent was behaving like a single organism, where a change in one place could be felt soon thereafter in all others. This situation lasted for at least a hundred years from the Congress of Vienna to the outbreak of World War One. Finally Thomas Mann created a monument to this unified European culture in his novel “The Magic Mountain”, where in the international atmosphere of a Swiss sanatorium philosophical discussions on the future of Europe take place between Europeans of all backgrounds.

 But is there any possibility to return to this common ground that existed then? This depends on the answer to the question: what kind of spiritual traditions enabled this unity in the first place? It cannot be denied that the Russian Revolution of 1917, then the rise of fascism in Central Europe, and finally the Cold War put East and West on independent tracks of development. But what happened on these different tracks? Why are we now, 25 years after the downfall of the Berlin Wall, where we are? My thesis is that the Western world went through a huge cultural transformation during the Cold War. And this cultural transformation affected two centerpieces of European culture so that as long this is not understood, all the talk about Greater Europe will lead nowhere.


Two Centerpieces of European Culture

1.  History

We very often see European culture from the inside. And we then usually think that republican values and human rights are the core element of European culture. But if we step a little bit aside and instead look from an outside perspective at European history, other important features of European culture become visible. And I think the most impressive, the most outstanding features of European culture, for which our continent will once be remembered, is the European understanding of history and the European understanding of art. The other elements of European culture, the republican values, and the rule of law are also features of our culture. But they are not unique. We find similar forms of organization in non-European cultures as well.

As far history is concerned, we can say that Europe is defined through a specific understanding of time. It is a linear understanding that was established and formed first by the Jewish religion and then, for nearly 2000 years, by Christianity. It is an understanding of time as salvation history that is defined through a beginning and an end. The beginning could be the Exodus of the Jewish people out of the slave house of Egypt and the end the coming of the messiahs. Or it could be the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ and his return on the day of the last judgment. Or it could be the French or the Russian Revolution and the final manifestation of their ideals. What the beginning and the end actually is varies from time to time. It can be understood in a religious manner or in a secular form. It can be understood as salvation or as progress. But that history is understood within such a linear process, and that a human life has to play a role within this timeframe, this is an irreplaceable centerpiece of European culture.[1] And this becomes clear, if we think a little bit deeper about the meaning of it.

Many cultures have tried to connect themselves to eternity. But the way cultures do this differs very much from culture to culture. Asian cultures often practice a form of life that teaches them to distance themselves from everything that is transient. European culture is essentially a culture where people do the opposite and try to connect themselves to eternity through impermanence. While Asian cultures often try to escape the entanglement of earthly conditions for example through meditation, European culture has developed a life practice where the entanglement of our earthly life as such is accepted and only fought from within. So European civilization has established customs where the antagonism between eternity and mortality is bridged. A man, formed by European traditions, is a person who connects himself to Eternity by becoming involved in the transitory character of time and seeing the transience of all appearances as a manifestation of the whole of history with its beginning and its end, and its overall meaning.[2]

Like Jesus takes over his cross, the Christian believer since then has taken over the hurt, pain and grief of life, like this European culture as a whole has taken over the Cross of history itself, despite its transient and imperfect reality within the flow of time. That is why it is not by accident, that Europe was also the continent that forced other cultures to enter the dimension of history.[3] Many of them lived in nearly prehistoric times, where time was understood as the endless repetition of a turning wheel. When Europeans landed on the shores of those cultures, they often committed great harm to them, they perpetrated genocide and brought disease, enslaved parts of the population and destroyed their customs and traditions. However as cruel and brutal as the Europeans may have acted, they also enabled those cultures to realize and enter the dimension of history. The fact that Europe has started the historical process is an undeniable contribution of European culture to mankind, despite the ambivalence we recognize in it today. And this understanding of time, that is special for Europe and that enabled the role Europe has played, also of course has consequences for the way politics has been organized on our Continent. And in this regard, we can also mention the often misused terms like “democracy” or “republic”. But it has to be said, that the European understanding of time and history comes first. And without this the whole political culture of Europe wouldn’t exist in the first place.[4] Therefore, to declare the end of history, like Francis Fukuyama did in 1989[5], and then refer at the same time to the value system of a republic is either just stupid or a euphemism.


2.  Art

Now I have said that the second important meaning of European culture is connected to art. Why art? This is because in most other cultures art is understood in a quite different way than in Europe. In most cultures, art is either nothing more than just a kind of decoration and an ornament, or it is integrated into a religious cult. Only in Europe has art gained a different kind of meaning. Only here was human creativity developed in such a way that art was understood as an independent expression of knowledge. And this in such a manner, that it was together with philosophy, science and theology one of the respected areas of scholarship. Something similar has not happened in any other culture.[6]

 Today we can say that this has defined European culture as a whole. Because the rationality that can be expressed through art is less logical, but therefore much, much more distinctive and unique than the knowledge, that can be expressed through science and even philosophy.[7] Through the specific meaning of art, European culture was able to compensate for the shortcomings that went hand in hand with the scientific revolution and its strong technological and instrumental approach to reality. The European understanding of art also countervailed the growing weakness of Christianity, when the religion was confronted with a deep crisis in the face of the scientific revolution. Therefore, it is possible to argue that European art functioned from the beginning of the modern age up to at least the middle of the 20th century as a kind of life boat for a Christian value system, because Christianity was simply too important for civilization to be abandoned, but at the same time, too distinct to become a proven fact within the scientific culture that evolved during the modern age.[8]

That is why we saw from the Renaissance to the 19th century the emergence of what Hegel later called “Kunstreligion” (art religion), where the work of art as well as the artist gained a standing, which reminds one in many respects of the one that is known from religion. This art religion in combination with the emergence of a philosophy of history untied European culture for the very first time since the great church schism of 1054 between Orthodoxy and Catholicism. A first version of what is referred to today as Greater Europe came into being during the 18th to the early 20th century from the Iberian Peninsula to Russia’s Far East. It was in itself a secularization of Christianity and therefore connected to Christianity. If God has become man in Jesus Christ, then this means that man also participates to some extent in the qualities of God. And that implies that he also can become a creator, at least a creator of works of art.[9] Additionally the work of art itself was seen as something that participates in revelation, by revealing the divine structure of language, that God’s ability to create through the spoken word has left within his creation. It was indeed this underlying belief, which enabled the emergence of an art religion within Europe in the first place. It must be noted that this was especially true for the realm of orthodox Christianity, where iconography had fostered an understanding of the relationship between God and his creation, where the thought, that the divine reality of God could manifest itself in a work of art, was much more common than in the Catholic and especially Protestant sphere of influence. This furthermore explains why the connection Russia established since Peter the Great to Europe was in particular driven and formed through the exchange of art, music and literature.


The Failing of the Westward Expansion of European Culture

In view of the above consideration we can say, that the central questions of our time is, whether or not this tradition has irretrievably passed and is today nothing more than a memory, like that of the ancient world; or, if some elements of it can nevertheless be reinvigorated? Because if this tradition cannot be resuscitated, then it means that a future cultural unity of the European continent can for the foreseeable future not be achieved. Republican values as such – despite the fact that politicians often refer to them – will not again become such a common ground, for two main reasons. First, these values are even in the Western world today nothing more than a facade.[10] The Western world has in the past decades committed many psychological operations against its own population.[11] Furthermore, it denies the right of privacy quite openly. Therefore, the Western world today can no longer credibly invoke itself based on these republican values. Europe, and especially the United States, have entered the post-republican age. And even if these values would still stand, then they are themselves ungrounded if they are not accompanied by the European understanding of history and art.[12] We must therefore ask ourselves, what happened to these two centerpieces of European culture? Why were they alive at the beginning of the 20th century, but not at its end? The answer to this question lies once more in the specific history of the Cold War.

To understand this development, we must first bear in mind that Europe from a geographical point of view has two wings. Russia is the Eastern expansion of European culture, while the United States is the Western expansion. The Eastern expansion was deeply formed by orthodox Christianity, the heritage of Byzantium, while the Western expansion is mostly influenced by a Calvinist interpretation of Protestantism. Despite the fact that Russia is a multi-ethnic state it has, nevertheless, formed a culture which is very similar to the cultural consciousness of traditional European nation-states like France and Germany. The United States, in contrast, were never a true nation state, but from the beginning a melting pot of nations. This meant that their culture could never develop to such an internal complexity that was typical for the European nation states, including Russia. Moreover, American culture emerged under circumstances that were driven by the necessity to establish a common ground for millions and millions of immigrants from several nations. And this common ground was the so-called American dream, basically a form of individualism influenced by the Calvinist belief that God has pre-decided who will be among the Chosen and the Damned. Furthermore, the American state was founded at nearly the same time as modern capitalism emerged. This means that there were few pre-capitalistic values which could later counterbalance the huge impact of capitalism on culture. Therefore, we can say that American culture also emerged as the first true capitalistic culture.[13]

This had consequences for the two centerpieces of European culture, previously mentioned. The European understanding of art was never fully established in the United States, despite a promising beginning in the 19th Century. Also the European relationship to history was never adapted by the culture of the United States. Instead, the strong individualism within the Protestant churches paved the way for a purely private interpretation of the Christian salvation history. Finally, the very young age of the American state as such, in combination with the geographical isolation of the USA, prevented history from being realized by most Americans as a reality of our world. Therefore, we see in the 20th century in the United States the establishment of a culture which has no true connection to history at all, and seems instead to live more in a constant present than within a linear concept of time.[14]


The Transformation of European Culture During the Cold War

When the United States entered Western Europe after the Second World War, they found an understanding of history and time that was unknown to them. Furthermore, they were confronted with the fact that this kind of philosophical and political thinking in the realm of history was at the same time deeply intertwined with the worker’s movement, and therefore, with socialist and communist ideology. The communist parties in Italy and France and the unions and socialist parties in other European countries were at that time quite strong and deeply rooted in European society. Considering the geopolitical situation of the Cold War, it was only natural that they were seen by the United States as a potential fifth column of the Soviet Union. Therefore, the US was looking for ways to contain the worker’s movement. And they founded for this purpose different cultural organizations. One of them was the “Congress for Cultural Freedom” which organized much of the cultural policy of the United States in Western Europe during the first 20 years of the Cold War and that was covertly financed by the CIA.[15] One of the main tasks of this organization was to support the establishment of a New Left movement, which would no longer be attached to a socialist or communist world view. This attempt was called within the ‘Congress for Cultural Freedom’ the founding of a “non-communist left”. This non-communist left became a reality in the second half of the Cold War, when the political Left identified itself more and more with issues like environment protection, human rights, critique of outlived conservative traditions, liberalization of sexuality, equal rights for homosexuals, feminism, the fight against discrimination and so forth.[16] Many of those issues have in fact been part of the Left discourse for many decades. However now they became the centerpiece of a left political identity, while the social question, that once occupied this space, lost its importance.

We see that this cultural shift also took place within the medium of art. The Congress for Cultural Freedom spent a large amount of money to found and support new directions in art, which were considered a valuable expression of individual freedom within capitalism. One trend in art which received huge support from the CIA and was promoted through the ‘Museum of Modern Art’ (MOMA) and the ‘Documenta’ in Kassel was Abstract Expressionism. It was an art form in which the abstract form of art became so dominant, that the suspense between form and content could no longer be maintained. It therefore became impossible to express any political meaning through Abstract Expressionism. Because of that, Abstract Expressionism has indeed become the expression of the way the modern state has revalued freedom as a purely private enterprise.[17]

Moreover, not only art, but also philosophy became an object of American cultural policy during the Cold War. From the 1970s to the 1980s philosophies became dominant, which denied the philosophical meaning of history as such. The tradition of philosophy of history itself was now constantly criticized by a new class of postmodern philosophers which claimed history as such had ended and the great narratives had died. Many of them not only attacked the meaning and the content of Marxist philosophy, but also the underlining epistemological positions of Marxism. For example, the idea, that history could be understood as a linear process, that progress within history was in principal possible, that there could exist a subject within history, be it the intellectual or the working class. Finally even the idea of justice and truth in regard to history was attacked. They claimed that all these ideas would in the end always lead to the gulag.[18]

This epistemological attack on Marxism was, it has to be said, successful; because it contributed to the more and more outdated appearance of Marxism at the end of the 1980s, which eventually gave rise to Perestroika.[19] However the side effect of this attack within the realm of the history of ideas, was, that with the epistemological foundations of Marxism, the epistemological foundations of the philosophy of enlightenment as such were attacked as well. Furthermore, this criticism called the whole process of secularization into question, which once connected the modern age with the Christian heritage.[20] As a side effect of this tendency, European culture assumed in the following decades an increasingly negative relationship to its own history and tradition.[21] Today we have a situation within Europe, where foreign religions are sometimes even more respected than Christianity itself.

For all these reasons, we can say that the Western expansion of European culture to the United States has failed. The Western expansion of European culture did not lead to an enlargement of European culture, as many may have hoped in the 19th century. To the contrary, it has led to the emergence of a new type of culture in North America, deeply shaped by capitalism, one which should no longer be considered European. Finally, because of its difference to European culture, this new type of culture has over time become more and more antagonistic to the main features of European culture.

 The end of the Second World War led to an American presence in Western Europe. The Cold War and especially the crimes of the Nazis finally gave the United States the excuse to deeply penetrate and transform European culture. Today this transformation has reached such a level, that the cultural foundation and cultural consciousness of Europe is in grave danger and very near its final dissolution. Only a meaningful decrease of American influence in the foreseeable future in combination with a type of new enlightenment with regard to recent history could turn the tide. Otherwise, the cultural division of Europe into a part that is transformed by the United States, and an Eastern sphere that is sovereign enough to keep its traditions alive, will be permanent.

Already now we can witness that the loss of the two main core elements of European culture has dramatic implications. It basically leads to a kind of technological nihilism, where the technological rule over nature evolves to a technological rule over man and society as such. Where man is only seen as an impression of nature and treated correspondingly. And where as a consequence the higher dimension of human life and culture, which was once established by Christianity, is lost again. And thus, the forces of paganism, this time combined with high technology and consumer culture, have started to form society once again. Russia, as the only meaningful European country outside NATO, has until now withstood cultural penetration by the United States. Only time will tell, if Russia can distance itself from the cultural destiny of the rest of Europe. If so, it will then, in fact, become a kind of Noah’s Ark in reference to European culture as such.



[1] Jacob Taubes, Abendländische Eschatologie, Bern 1947

[2] Klaus Heinrich, „Parmenides und Jona – Ein religionswissenschaftlicher Vergleich“, in: Parmenides und Jona – Vier Studien über das Verhältnis von Philosophie und Mythologie, Frankfurt a. M. 1982

[3] Karl Löwith, „Weltgeschichte und Heilsgeschehen“, in: Sämtliche Schriften, Bd. 2, Stuttgart 1983

[4] Jacob Taubes, Die Politische Theologie des Paulus, München, Paderborn 1993

[5] Francis Fukuyama, The End of History, in: The National Interest, Summer 1989

[6] Klaus Heinrich, „Der Untergang von Religion und Kunst in Wissenschaft“, in: Floß der Medusa, Frankfurt a. M. 1995

[7] Theodor W. Adorno, Ästhetische Theorie, Frankfurt a. M. 1995

[8] Theodor W. Adorno, „Zum Ende“, in: Minima Moralia, Frankfurt a. M. 1997, S. 283

[9] Klaus Heinrich, „Götter und Halbgötter der Renaissance“, in: Floß der Medusa, Frankfurt a. M. 1995

[10] Colin Crouch, Post – Democracy, Washington, D.C. 2004

[11] Daniele Ganser, NATO Geheimarmeen in Europa – Inszenierter Terror und verdeckte Kriegsführung, Zürich 2008

[12] Jacob Taubes, „Theologie und politische Theorie“, in: Vom Kult zur Kultur, München 1996

[13] Adorno, „Kulturindustrie – Aufklärung als Massenbetrug“ in: Dialektik der Aufklärung – Philosophische Fragmente, Frankfurt a. M. 1969

[14] Jacob Taubes, „Ästhetisierung der Wahrheit im Posthistoire“, in: Streitbare Philosophie, Margherita von Brentano zum 65. Geburtstag, Berlin 1988

[15] Francis Stonor Saunders, Who Paid the Piper – the CIA and the Cultural Cold War, London 1999

[16] Paul Edward Gottfried, The Strange Death of Marxism – The European Left in the New Millennium, Columbia 2005

[17] Werner Seppmann, Ästhetik der Unterwerfung – Am Beispiel der Documenta, Hamburg 2013

[18] Jean-François Lyotard, „Randbemerkungen zu den Erzählungen“, in: Postmoderne und Dekon­struktion, Stuttgart 1990, S. 49

[19] Alexander Zinoviev, Global Suprasociety and Russia, Moscow 1999

[20] Jacob Taubes, „Zur Konjunktur des Polytheismus“, in: Vom Kult zur Kultur, München 1996

[21] Paul Edward Gottfried, Multiculturalism and the Policy of Guilt – Towards a Secular Theocracy, Columbia / London 2002 

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