George Santayana’s dictum—“Those who forget the past . . . ”—has long since become one of those clichés beloved of high-school history teachers, who never tire of repeating it to their indifferent charges. But Santayana would surely have agreed that forgetting is sometimes necessary. To dwell obsessively on the past, as any spurned lover knows, can be debilitating, especially if the past in question looms before one’s retrospective gaze with an accusing mien, demanding reparation, sackcloth, and ashes. In 1987 Henri Rousso, in his Le Syndrome de Vichy, explored the politics of selective historical memory, arguing that, after many years of mythologizing French resistance to the Nazis, the French had, by the late 1970’s, become obsessively neurotic about the collaborationist role of the Vichy regime. The title of Theodore Dalrymple’s latest book, The New Vichy Syndrome, clearly alludes to Rousso’s seminal study, but never explicitly credits Rousso. Presumably, Dalrymple’s European readers have a more than passing acquaintance with Rousso’s argument, and perhaps this has simply been taken for granted. But, aside from the occasional specialist in modern European history, the same can hardly be supposed of North American readers, for whom the name Vichy is today more readily associated with a well-known line of skincare products. In any event, Dalrymple is not simply rehashing a borrowed thesis here, but reformulating and broadening its scope. What is “new” about his Vichy Syndrome is that it now designates a moral and spiritual malaise that afflicts the whole of Western Europe, an almost Kierkegaardian despair that is most evident in what Dalrymple calls the “miserabilist historiography” promulgated by an intelligentsia that, despite its grandiose visions of a superstate that would once again establish Europe as a political and economic power of world-historical significance, remains mired in “the habit of seeing in the past no gloire, but only whatever leads up to our present discontents. . . ”
“There is something rotten in the state of Europe,” writes Dalrymple in his opening chapter, a “pervasive sense of decline” rooted partly in reality, partly in unexamined assumptions. The reality is that Europe, having divested itself of its colonial possessions, is now at the mercy of the global market for most of the raw materials that it needs to sustain its standard of living. Unable to compete with rising industrial powers like China, and lacking any significant military capacity, Europeans appear to have settled for an “appeasement” that will allow them “to preserve their remaining privileges.” Added to this is a declining birthrate across Western and Northern Europe, where the most affluent nations have for some time been well below replacement levels, even as life expectancies continue to rise. To address this problem, European elites have promoted immigration, especially Islamic immigration. But this, in turn, has contributed to widespread fears of Islamicization. In response, Dalrymple notes that European decline is, after all, a relative one. If European dreams of superpower status are unrealistic, fears of absolute decline are equally so. As for demographic fears, they rest, he argues, on three unexamined assumptions.
The first assumption is that economically successful countries require large and expanding populations; the second, that expanding populations are also necessary for military power; the third, that aging populations create “economic drones.” Whether these assumptions are quite so widespread as he claims—and he makes no effort to show that they are—Dalrymple is easily able to demonstrate their unreliability. (Just to take the first assumption: Among the most economically successful countries in the world are Denmark, Singapore, and Hong Kong, none of which has either a large or a notably expanding population. Nigeria, by contrast, with a rapidly expanding population, is an economic basket case.) On the matter of Muslim immigration, Dalrymple is less convincing. Fears of a slow-motion demographic revolution are, he argues, grossly exaggerated. While it is true that replacement levels have been higher among Muslim than among European women, the most recent studies show a downward trend, not only among Muslim women in Europe but in Islamic countries as well. Thus, the share of Muslims in the population of Europe is likely to stabilize, especially if Europeans find the will to “limit fresh immigration.” Equally alarmist, he asserts, are fears that the growth of Muslim populations will threaten and radically alter the European cultural inheritance.
Adopting the by-now shopworn argument that over time immigrant populations will succumb to Westernization, Dalrymple claims that “Westernization is in fact far advanced among Moslems in Europe, as elsewhere.” His evidence for this, however, is largely anecdotal. He appears, for instance, to have spent a good deal of time surfing Muslim marriage websites, where he finds that young Muslim men post photographs of themselves in “profoundly American” attire (T-shirts and baseball caps) and are fluent in “psychobabble, that peculiar language that allows people to talk about themselves at considerable length without saying anything.” Dalrymple’s trademark wry humor is frequently on display here and elsewhere in The New Vichy Syndrome, and he is probably correct in noting that there is a good deal of hypocrisy in the assertions of young European Muslims in opinion polls that they, for example, favor sharia. They have, after all, been reared in tightly knit Muslim communities where any deviation from accepted belief—at least outwardly—invites ostracism. “Dissimulation,” quips Dalrymple, “is what keeps social systems strong.” But it is not at all clear that Westernization among Muslim populations is itself anything more than a form of dissimulation. In any case, even if Muslim fertility rates are declining, small differences can produce enormous population changes over a period of decades. According to a 2010 Pew Forum study, Western Europe has seen an almost 200-percent increase in its Muslim population since 1990. By 2030 the rate of increase will decline to a projected 45 percent, but the growth rates will remain substantial. In Northern Europe the projected rate of increase between 2010 and 2030 is near 100 percent. Moreover, fertility rates among Muslim women, though declining, are still projected to be substantially higher than those of European women. In France, for example, the Pew Forum study projects a difference of +.5 for Muslim women in 2030, enough to suggest that by 2050 the share of the Muslim population in France may be well over 20 percent. Such numbers, while they may dampen the enthusiasm of the prophets of dhimmitude, are not encouraging. As the Muslim population grows, the need to assimilate will diminish. Indeed, by Dalrymple’s own admission, the sense of national identity among Europeans has weakened considerably in recent decades, a fact that does not augur well for effective assimilation. When a second-generation Muslim in Germany says that she thinks of herself as German, what exactly does that mean?
One of the problems with Dalrymple’s book is that it is not immediately evident what his droll survey of demographics has to do with the “miserabilist historiography” that is his central concern. Presumably, however, he is attempting to suggest that exaggerated demographic worries are yet another symptom of the implosion of self-confidence that has made it impossible for Europeans to imagine for themselves a future that will somehow transcend the apathetic materialism which has, since World War II, settled over the continent like a death shroud. More pertinent are several chapters in the second half of the book that explore the origins of this loss of self-confidence. One important factor is the spread of epistemological relativism, the view that all truth claims are equally valid, or, as the case may be, invalid, including the claims of tradition, which is thus robbed of its authority. Another factor is the pernicious spread of the notion that “choice” is the highest good (what Dalrymple calls the “multiculturalism of daily life”), an assumption that can lead to several baleful consequences. One of these is that “no choice is taken very seriously, because a whole future of choices spreads endlessly before one, like a landscape without a horizon.” Such factors, combined with the seemingly inexorable erosion of Christian faith, have produced a population of egotists for whom nothing—no allegiance, no moral principle—can override the claims of self-realization.
Nevertheless, the quest for a transnational or European identity offers itself as a form of secular transcendence, a quasi-utopian hope for deracinated intellectuals that, however, lacks attraction for the masses. The problem is not that a pan-European identity is absurd, not at least “in the abstract,” argues Dalrymple. Most modern national identities, in Europe and elsewhere, are partly the result of indoctrination. But the European Project, as it is often termed, is unlikely ever to attract the kind of loyalty that the earlier nationalist projects managed to forge, for the simple reason that it is “a thing of the mind rather than of the heart.” Dalrymple implies that national identities generate heartfelt devotion, but he never attempts to pinpoint why. Could ethnic affiliation have something to do with it? Dalrymple conspicuously evades the issue. He is surely correct, though, to assert that the European Project’s appeal for its intellectual defenders is rooted in antinationalism, which in turn is sustained by precisely that “miserabilist historiography” which finds in the past only what seems to confirm present dissatisfaction. For the better part of three centuries before World War I, Europeans were manifestly self-confident, perhaps overweeningly so. This was, of course, a period of expansion, and, whatever else one may say about it, it was, after the dust from the Napoleonic period had settled, an era of relative peace, progress, and economic plenty. World War I brought that era to a crashing halt, but Dalrymple takes great pains to show that our received view of the Great War was a product not of the immediate postwar years, but of the late 1920’s and 30’s, the period in which a number of popular plays, novels, and memoirs began to expound the view that the war had been a senseless atrocity, that the millions who fought in the trenches had been little more than sacrificial lambs, cynically sent to slaughter by capitalist profiteers and their political cronies. Of course, there is some truth in this view, but Dalrymple’s point is that it was not the only view of the war, but merely the one which, by a selective and “miserabilist” reading of the past, survived in the popular imagination and became the basis for the pacifism that made World War II possible.
Today, virtually the whole of European history falls within the purview of this disfigured reading of the past promulgated endlessly in academia and in the media, a grotesque caricature in which there “is nothing to be proud of, nothing worth preserving . . . Indeed the culture and tradition are of war and massacre, and nothing besides.” Dalrymple explores several reasons for the stubborn persistence of Europe’s miserabilism, the most interesting of which is the claim that “limitless guilt [is] a form of grandiosity,” a consolation of sorts for European loss of face in the global pecking order. He suggests also that such historical guilt-mongering is a useful tool for elites looking to secure and expand their positions, particularly bureaucrats with the European Union, whose hold upon power is often predicated on rectifying the evils of the past through various forms of social engineering.
Does Dalrymple offer any hope that Europeans will, in the foreseeable future, cast off their sackcloth and rediscover in their past something worthy of celebration? None whatsoever. But, then, perhaps he would say that his purpose was to diagnose the illness, not to offer a cure. Or has he, too, fallen into a sort of miserabilism? Surely at the heart of the malaise he describes so eloquently is a loss of faith. He laments the almost complete collapse of Christianity in Europe but, perhaps because he is a nonbeliever, can’t seem to imagine the possibility of a return to Christian belief. Yet it is only such a return that could begin the process of healing what Kierke gaard would surely have called a “sickness unto death.”
[The New Vichy Syndrome: Why European Intellectuals Surrender to Barbarism, by Theodore Dalrymple (New York: Encounter Books) 163 pp. $15.95]