By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
A new article gives us the familiar bell-ringing. “European civilization is dying” is the refrain. It is threatened by migration, demographics and Islamist extremism. The author gives a brief recounting of recent events. “European leaders gave up defending their own civilization. They slipped into saying that all cultures should be viewed the same way. They appear to have given up.” We’ve heard this in other narratives, “The folly of European elites who would sooner discard the Continent’s civilizational heritage than show partiality for their own culture over others.”
These narratives point to “Muslims” as a threat. “The presumption of those who believed in integration is that in time everybody who arrives will become like Europeans,” Douglas Murray has written. The laundry list of threats reads like this: “School curricula were altered…crime…unemployment…parts of cities turned into enemy territory…terrorism.” And moreover: “Riots took place; leaders made even more concessions. They passed laws restricting freedom of speech.”
When did this happen? In 2017 or in the 1930s? When we talk about “European” and people failing to be “European” or “integrate” the values we chose for them to “integrate” to are entirely arbitrary and based on a very narrow memory of what “European civilization” means. I thought about this when my father told me about a Jewish museum he had come across in Puglia in Italy. There were no Jews in the area, but there was a museum. That’s a description of many places in Europe. Where did the Jews go? They were rounded up, numbered, put in camps, then on trains, and exterminated in European-run gas chambers. They were worked to death, gunned down, put in the backs of vans to die of carbon monoxide poisoning. Check out a map of the Holocaust in Europe. That is also “European civilization.”
When you hear these fear mongering stories about how “European civilization” is threatened and “dying”, and are presented with some rose-colored historical view of Europe as this idealized liberal utopia being invaded by “Islamists”, you should ask about what is this European “civilization”? Historically it is not liberal. If it was so liberal and into human rights then why did it fall so quickly to Nazism? The reality is that the values we hear about mostly came into existence only in the 1970s and 1980s after the terrors of colonialism had ended and the EU was set in form. For 20 years of 1,000 year history we have these European “values”. They are threatened, but it is not logical to say European civilization is threatened. The guillotine is no different than ISIS, the pogroms no different, the crimes in Algeria no different.
What else is European civilization. Check out the long data on expulsions of Jews from European towns and cities and the map. That is European civilization as well. When people talk about “free speech” being restricted or “riots”, there have been many examples of that in recent history in Europe. The number of people killed in all terror attacks in the last 20 years in Europe is less than the number killed in Auschwitz in one day (6,000). So when we talk about the “terror threat,” there is a terror threat in Europe, but it is European civilization that created some of the greatest terror threats in history.
European civilization doesn’t need to be saved. European civilization has certainly done enough so far, in terms of pogroms, the slave trade, colonialism, and other crimes. Why is it that the very short period of progressive and democratic Europe is held up as “civilization.” Even in the 1950s and 1960 when we hear about “human rights” in Europe, European countries were still involved in brutal colonial wars in places like Algeria. Half of Europe was under Stalinism and brutal police states such as the Stasi. Others were dictatorships such as Spain. Many terrible human rights abuses didn’t end until the 1970s or 1980s. Then we have a very short period of the European Union and Schengen until we get to the current “threat” to Europe.
So why are a few short years of the 1980s held up as some kind of historical norm? Are they more normal in European history than the era 1933 to 1945? Colonialism took place over hundreds of years and saw the extermination of native peoples in many places of the world. The Congo was still howling from the evils of this regime in the 19th century. The religious wars also went on for hundreds of years, and included the mass killings of the 17th century. There was the Inquisition and the burning of witches and heretics. The tortures developed in Europe are unparalleled in their cruelty. When people talk about the slaughter of minorities by Islamists in the Middle East and compare it to European “human rights,” it is only because European civilization had exterminated all the minorities in most European nation states by the mid 20th century.
Why does “European civilization” need to be preserved? There is no doubt that Europe is beautiful with its architecture and history. But the idea that this rich history is being damaged by “foreigners” is a bit strange. This rich history is a bloody history. It is also a history of glory and success, Success in sciences and education and learning. But all of that came with a price. With each success there was also a step back. The Holocaust was enabled by the concepts of futurism and worshipping of race theory and technology. Nazis and Stalinists wanted to make society “pure” and “perfect” in line with “science” and “efficiency.” When people talk about demographics, they should recall that “the battle of the births” and obsession with breeding were key aspects of fascism.
So what is European civilization? Which civilization? We cannot only cherry pick the good parts and say “that is civilized” and then compare it to the problems of the Middle East. There is no crime today in the Middle East, whether ethnic-cleansing or terror, that European civilization did not produce on a scale just as widespread and terrible. Abuses of women, religious fanaticism, all of it also has a European historical pedigree.
In terms of preserving the important values that have been developed in the last two hundred years, including recognition of human rights, women’s rights, democracy, freedom of expression, rights of children, workers rights, and many other values, we should strive to keep them and extend them. Unfortunately the very short period where there was a blossoming of a secular and liberal society in Europe from the 1970s to 1990s has been eroded by Islamist extremism. It has meant the return of many of the elements that dominated Europe historically, including religious intolerance, soldiers on the streets, attacks on Jews and women. To pretend Europe is under “assault” or its values under “threat” is a misnomer. Its historic values are not under threat, they merely have a new expression. It may be that the very short period where human rights have been taken seriously by European countries is coming to an end or declining. It is ridiculous to pretend that countries such as France, which carried out extreme brutalities in Algeria, were “enlightened” in the 19th century. What was the “enlightenment”? It was certain values mostly for European men, and then by extension for women. Only later were minorities in Europe, primarily Jews, freedom from the historic shackles European civilization subjected them to.
When I thought of my father in southern Italy, or I think of what happened so easily in the 1930s and 1940s, it is hard to listen to these stories about European civilization being “threatened.” Where was this civilization in 1942? Almost every countries in Europe either collaborated with the Nazis or was easily occupied by them. Several became neutral. Where was the resistance to fascism and Nazism? If an entire continent can so easily be swept up with fascism, how can one pretend that its historic values are human rights and all these “liberties” threatened by Islamist terror? There was virtually no resistance to fascism and Nazism in western Europe, the supposed centers of enlightenment and rights. Unlike the Belarussian swamps, there were very few men and women who signed up to fight the Nazis. Most countries had collaborationist governments. Why is it we pretend that these governments are not the actual heart and soul of European history. Petain, Mussolini, Quisling. These countries didn’t defend the rights of their people, the right that people like Murray talk about. They quickly threw the rights out the window, rounded up minorities such as Jews, and ran to give the Hitler salute.
If European civilization truly embodied the values that we hear it does, then why were those values so easily obscured? Why did those values so easily disappear between 1933 and 1943? People who truly believe in values don’t allow them to disappear in Europe. How were so many Jews deported so easily from Belgium, the Netherlands, France, Italy, Austria and other places, if the people supposedly had so many of these historic good values? In many cases neutrality, such as in Sweden, was only a cover for quiet collaboration and acceptance of the new Nazi order in Europe. Today we hear lectures on human rights in the world from Swedish politicians, but where were these politicians’ ideological ancestors in 1940? If, supposedly, Sweden has all these “values” then where was this country to fight for those rights in 1942? They will point to taking in a handful of Jews from Denmark, out of 6 million. 7,220 Jews escaped to Sweden, out of 6 million. That was Sweden’s great contribution to these “values” we hear about.
In the ultimate test of European “values”, the continent failed. It failed not only in that it did not protect human rights, but that much of the continent embraced fascism and Nazism that committed more murders in a a few day than Islamist extremism has committed in a decade. This is the real perspective of European civilization. Europe may have beautiful public parks and churches appear liberal on the surface, but historically its great and beautiful architecture is not a counterbalance to Islamist extremism. Istanbul also has beautiful architecture, but it was also constructed at a time when the Ottoman Empire had slavery and abused human rights. European civilization is similar to Ottoman civilization, it isn’t somehow more enlightened historically. When we read books such as What went wrong directed at the Islamic world, shouldn’t we ask also what went wrong in Europe in the 1930s and 1940s? Why is that era the one people want to forget. They want to talk about the rights of the French Revolution but not the guillotine. The guillotine is no different than ISIS. Why is one beheading different than another?
The development of western values and fighting for free expression and rights, as Charles James Fox did in British parliament in the late 18th and early 19th century, is admirable. Those intellectuals who fought for the values that open minded people hold dear deserve credit. But they were often the minority in their own time. The rights of “European civilization” are a fragile group of rights that have held sway barely for decades. They are not the norm, but the exception. They are exceptionally good, but creating the space for them to exist took 1,000 years. They are threatened by the rising extremism of Islamist terror. There are tens of thousands of homegrown European supporters of extremism, including 5,000 who joined ISIS and tens of thousands who sympathize with Islamist extremism that blends the values of Nazism and the Inquisition. If Europe wants to struggle against the new extremism, it cannot do it by simply pretending its “values” are at risk. Its values are not historically any different or more moral than the values of Islamist thought. What it can do is encourage all Europeans to embrace the new values that fully took hold in the 1970s and 1980s that support women’s rights and free expression and individual liberty.