Richard Mayne: Postwar: The Dawn of Today’s Europe; Schocken Books; New York.
It is common today to describe Western Europe as facing a crisis. Its physical problems are manifold: economic stagnation, high unemployment, political dissatisfaction, demo graphic decline, military flaccidity. It would appear, however, that these overt problems are surface manifestations of a deeper malaise-the loss of confidence in tl1e existing governmental and institutional structures that have been the basis of postwar Europe. It is the origins of this postwar Europe (1945-1957) that Richard Mayne examines. Mayne, who was an active participant in crucial parts of this history as a senior official of the European Economic Community, does not present a detailed history of Europe during this period, but rather focuses on those efforts crucial in the forging of a new Western European order. Mayne’s emphasis is on the remarkable success postwar Europe had in rising out of the ashes of war and establishing a prosperous and humane social order. He says in summation: “The men and women of postwar Europe had saved themselves by their exertions. Their example, like their achievement, still stands.”
It would seem that an implicit purpose of the work is to counter the present European malaise. Europeans have built something worthwhile — though, of course, it can be improved — and they should be proud of it and be willing to defend it. Mayne’s message is similar to that of the late Raymond Aron, presented most explicitly in Aron’s noteworthy In Defense of Decadent Europe. Compared to the intellectually sophisticated Aron, however, Mayne’s analysis borders on the superficial. It fails to probe beneath the surface events of the postwar success story to find the contradictions there. For despite its outward, dazzling success, postwar Europe from its very beginnings lacked a secure foundation and carried within it the seeds of today’s current malaise.
The miraculous nature of Europe’s postwar achievement certainly merits being retold. Immediately following World War II, many commentators feared that Western Europe would never rise again. Western Europe existed as a beleaguered outpost in a continent half of which had been absorbed into the Soviet empire, which threatened to swallow it as well. The war had been devastating, affecting civilians as had no previous European conflict. Western Europe’s economy was in shambles; its politics dislocated; its people physically and mentally exhausted. Yet, not only did Western Europe manage to survive, but in many significant respects it rose to heights never before achieved. In terms of material well-being, Western Europe went on to a period of prosperity, evenly distributed throughout society, unprecedented in its history. Even after recouping wartime losses, Western Europe continued to experience such phenomenal economic growth that the standard of living gap with the historically wealthier U.S. was greatly reduced (by the 1970’s relative parity had been achieved). Not only was affluence attained, but Western Europe was able to construct a system of democracy and personal liberty far surpassing anything it previously enjoyed. In terms of welfare for the individual, Western Europe had entered a veritable golden age.
Mayne presents his story with a moderate left, “Cold War” liberal slant. For example, he makes much of an argument that the “war crimes” trials purged Europe of evil, thus setting the stage for the continent’s moral and physical revival. He seems unaware that in many countries the purging of “war criminals” and collaborators represented personal vendettas — or an effort by communists and radical leftists to eliminate influential political conservatives. Moreover, Mayne is unable to see as inconsistent the fact that the Soviet communists, who had committed as many crimes as the nazi Germans, were often doing the judging. And it might be added that many American and British leaders were also guilty of “war crimes,” if judged by the same standards as applied to German military leaders. TI1is is not to absolve the Germans from their many heinous crimes, but the viewed as far more morally complex than an instance of simple justice-the punishment of evil by the virtuous.
Mayne’s liberal slant is also apparent in his analysis of the cause of Western Europe’s brilliant postwar economic achievement. He attributes this success to government planning and welfare policies, vividly contrasting the economic stagnation of the allegedly laissez-faire interwar economies with the prosperity of the postwar planned welfare states. This comparison, how ever, is specious since the interwar European economies were far from free. The cartelized economies of nazi Germany and fascist Italy were far more restrictive than their postwar counterparts. And though not as extreme, other European countries during the interwar period were permeated with various impediments to economic freedom, protectionist trade barriers, in particular. In reality, the cause of the postwar prosperity may not have been greater government planning but freer economic markets. As Mancur Olson points out in The Rise and Decline of Nations, wars (and he includes World War II) inevitably enhance economic freedom by breaking down the numerous special interest groups and combinations that have accumulated during the prior period of peace and stability. As these inpediments have once again accumulated, so has Western Europe’s economic growth ceased.
The so-far unanswered question is the relationship between the current European malaise and its dazzling recovery of the early postwar years. While Mayne is not unaware of some flaws in postwar European society-a small minority outside of the general affluence; intellectuals alienated by industrial civilization-these are not given much significance. However, as Raymond Aron points out in In Defense of Decadent Europe, social decadence almost necessarily accompanies advances in material well-being and individual liberty. Material well being and personal liberty erode the deeply felt collective beliefs that are essential for a society’s ultimate survival. While the consequences of this problem were not readily apparent during Europe’s early rebuilding stage, the germs of this deadly virus were already inside the social body.
Postwar Western Europe has eliminated the fervent ethnic nationalism that caused the internecine warfare and other forms of suffering and oppression in Europe’s recent past. The elimination of that old collective loyalty created the precondition for postwar progress. Toleration of ethnic differences allowed democracy and personal liberty to flourish. The elimination of national hatreds provided the international peace and open frontiers essential for international commerce — a fundamental cause of postwar prosperity, just as interwar nationalistic protectionism had been a cause of economic depression. The end of European imperialism meant that the continent could concentrate its attention and wealth on internal affairs.
The dissolution of nationalism, how ever, has been a mixed blessing, for it has left Europeans without any compelling collective belief. While nationalism has decayed, no fervent Europeanism has emerged as a replacement. (Vestigial nationalism has been sufficient to block efforts for greater European integration. As a consequence, postwar European national and transnational institutions are critically lacking the fervent ideological commitment needed to motivate people to make sacrifices for their own defense. In the past, millions of Europeans were willing to risk death for their homelands, even if their governments did little to benefit them, or if, in fact, their governments were engaged in ruthless aggression rather than actual defense. Today, however, few Europeans seem willing to die in the defense of governments and institutions that have obviously treated them much better than their earlier counterparts. It is because of this lack of a strong ideological underpinning that Western Europe has been unable to defend itself, despite its great wealth and more-tl1an-adequate population base.
Much has been made of Western Europe’s incomplete political integration as a cause of its military impotence. Yet there is no material reason for Western Europe not to establish a sufficient military deterrent even in its present political form. The 5th-century B.C. Greek city-states were much more politically disunited than present-day Western Europe, yet they prevailed against the mighty Persian Empire. Today, numerically small and impoverished Afghan freedom fighters are able to put up resistance against the Soviet Union. Given the critical importance of wealth and technology as determinants of military power in this nuclear age, it would seem that Western Europe could easily establish a credible deterrent. Because of its lack of will, however, Western Europe has de pended on the United States for its military protection for all of the postwar period. And today even this relationship seems dangerous to many Europeans who fear even the possibility of becoming involved in war. Thus, many seek self-satellization; tl1ey value the fruits of the postwar era so little that they are ready to surrender them preemptively to avoid the risk of war.
The dazzling achievements of post war Europe do not make up the com plete picture of the situation. Undoubt edly, in most humane aspects Western Europe has made remarkable advances compared to its nationalistic, militaris tic, imperialistic past. If the verdicts of history were rendered by a court con cerned about the treatment of mankind, postwar Western Europe would have little to worry about. But while peace, brotherhood, a high standard of living, and individual freedom are desirable and admirable traits, they count for little in the scheme of world history which revolves around power. Paradoxically, it is those very newly established virtues that have put Europe’s survival in jeopardy. Europeans no longer threaten each other nor seek to subjugate other peoples, but they no longer have the will to defend themselves, either. Ruthless, strong-willed barbarians have over powered prosperous and peaceful higher civilizations in the past; the future may bode ill for Western Europe’s survival. It would appear that postwar Western Europe represents not a renaissance, as Mayne seems to think, but the afterglow of a spiritually moribund society that will inexorably and swiftly lose its physical existence as well. The physical survival of Western Europe seems to require a miracle. In the Christian scheme of things, of course, miracles cannot be completely discounted. cc
Leave a Reply