In 1956, as Russian tanks bore down upon Hungary threatening the short-lived freedoms of the Hungarian revolution, the director of the Hungarian News Agency sent a telex to the world. As Milan Kundera reports in a 1984 essay in the New York Review of Books, this Hungarian newspaperman, facing imminent death, ended his dispatch “with these words: ‘We are going to die for Hungary and for Europe.'” The lesson Kundera draws is that the question of Europe—what Europe is and what it means for Europeans—had shifted from Western Europe to Central Europe. No one in London, he writes, would say “I am prepared to die for England and for Europe.” And while Russian dissidents like Solzhenitsyn were prepared to die for their country, it was not Europe that inspired them. Rather, it is in the countries of Central Europe where the idea of Europe came to express a value and an ideal for which lovers of freedom would make the ultimate sacrifice. As Kundera writes, “’To die for one’s country and for Europe’—that is a phrase that could not be thought in Moscow or Leningrad; it is precisely the phrase that could be thought in Budapest or Warsaw.” The center of Europe has moved, it seems, to central Europe—a fact that helps put the current Ukrainian controversy in context.The story of the Hungarian News Director was told by Rob Riemen yesterday at “What Europe: Ideals to Fight For Today,” a conference in Berlin. Riemen quipped that the Hungarian news director may have been the last man willing to die for Europe. But as Europe confronts not only a financial crisis but also the political crisis in Ukraine and the prospect of a rising Russian enemy in the east, there is the question: Will Europe come together and stand up for something like European values in the face of Russian forces intent on holding onto a Central European state? Are there any values today that Europe is willing to fight for?That question was put directly by the American scholar and advocate for Ukrainian democracy Timothy Snyder in his keynote address at the conference. Snyder, who has been writing widely about the Ukraine crisis in the New York Review of Books and the New Republic, claimed squarely that the question of Europe is going to be answered in Ukraine. Ukraine, he argued, is a test case for whether Europe is just a dream or whether it will finally become a reality. Snyder downplays the extremist elements of the Ukrainian protests, arguing that extremists there represent only 3-5% of the population, far less than in Hungary or even in France. Rather, the Ukrainian revolutionaries on the Maidan are European idealists who are risking their lives for the idea of Europe. Like the Hungarian news director 60 years ago and unlike Western Europeans in London, Paris, and Berlin, Ukrainians are the ones putting their lives on the line for the chance to become part of Europe.Snyder spent much of his speech and the bulk of the question and answer session arguing that the Ukrainian revolution is mild, democratic, and non-fascist. But as he was speaking in Berlin, a small group in Ukraine calling themselves the Right Sector surrounded Ukrainian Parliament demanding the resignation of a government minister. Here is how the New York Times reports the standoff:
The presence of masked, armed demonstrators threatening to storm the Parliament building offered the Russian government an opportunity to bolster its contention that the ouster of President Viktor F. Yanukovych, a Moscow ally, after pro-European street protests last month was an illegal coup carried out by right-wing extremists with Western encouragement. In fact, the nationalist groups, largely based in western Ukraine, had formed just one segment of a broad coalition of demonstrators who occupied the streets of Kiev for months demanding Mr. Yanukovych’s ouster.
Even if Snyder is right and the Ukrainian revolutionaries are more like European democrats than the extremists imagined by Russian propaganda, it remains to be seen whether the country’s corrupt oligarchs will permit the formation of a meaningfully democratic and liberal government oriented towards Europe. For Snyder, this is an existential question not only for Ukraine, but also for Europe. He believes that Ukraine will orient towards Europe and then argues that Europe will flourish or wither depending on whether it welcomes its Ukrainian brothers and sisters into the EU and protects them against the anti-European Eurasian axis centered in Russia. Europe, he insists, rise or fall on the question of how it handles Ukraine.If Ukraine is the test case for the future of Europe, it looks bleak. The European Union was born from a deep wish for security and prosperity. Governed by consensus and centered around a monetary union, it seems incapable of acting boldly to protect anything but its most basic financial interests. Faced with threats to Ukrainians claiming the mantle of Europe, European leaders are paralyzed. Germany receives the bulk of its oil from Russia and is unwilling to risk economic pain that would come with sanctions. The United Kingdom relies on the billions invested by Russian Oligarchs in British tax havens and London real estate and is unwilling to accept asset friezes that would threaten the inflow of dirty Russian money. And France has opposed an arms embargo on Russia because it has a contract to supply Russia with two warships worth $1 billion. Amidst austerity and with little sense of common purpose outside of peace and prosperity, the European Union has almost no ability to think the Ukrainian conflict through the political lens of a clash of ideas or a clash of civilizations.Snyder called upon Europe to do just that. He argues that Europe must recognize that in Russia and the growing Eurasian Alliance Europe finally has an enemy, one that sees it as a threat. The question, he insisted, is whether Europe will grow up and finally act collectively to oppose a growing existential threat.The problem is that Europe is nearly existentially unable to articulate common ideals for which it will fight. Europe shies from articulating a vision of itself as exceptional or distinct in ways that are worth defending. Not only does it lack a common language or a heartfelt national anthem, but also it lacks a sense of what Europe means.The contrast between Europe and the United States was frequently cited at the conference, and it is helpful to compare the two. In the United States there is a clear national sense of what it is we stand for and those ideals for which we will fight. These are perhaps best expressed by Abraham Lincoln in his Gettysburg Address:
Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal….It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced…. [We] here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain – that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
As Seymour Lipset writes in American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword, “The United States is exceptional in starting from a revolutionary event, in being ‘the first new nation,’ the first colony, other than Iceland, to become independent. It has defined its raison d’être ideologically. As historian Richard Hofstadter has noted, ‘It has been our fate as a nation not to have ideologies, but to be one.’ In saying this, Hofstadter reiterated Ralph Waldo Emerson and Abraham Lincoln’s emphases on the country’s ‘political religion.’” There is, Lipset writes, an “American Creed” that includes five fundamental (if contradictory) values: 1) liberty; 2) egalitarianism; 3) individualism; 4) populism; and 5) laissez faire.Whether one agrees with Lipset’s articulation of the American Creed, the claim of American exceptionalism has been central to the American self-understanding as well as the the country’s willingness to imagine itself the guardian of a particular idea of justice throughout the world. Here is one articulation of the exceptionalist idea from John F. Kennedy, from a speech he gave to the General Court of Massachusetts in 1961:
I have been guided by the standard John Winthrop set before his shipmates on the flagship Arbella three hundred and thirty-one years ago, as they, too, faced the task of building a new government on a perilous frontier. “We must always consider”, he said, “that we shall be as a city upon a hill—the eyes of all people are upon us”. Today the eyes of all people are truly upon us—and our governments, in every branch, at every level, national, state and local, must be as a city upon a hill — constructed and inhabited by men aware of their great trust and their great responsibilities.
President Barack Obama recently articulated a similar view in a speech at the United Nations:
Some may disagree, but I believe America is exceptional, in part because we have shown a willingness to the sacrifice of blood and treasure to stand up, not only for own interests, but for the interests of all.
For all the controversy around American exceptionalism and the disdain for it shown by many intellectuals, the American belief in its destined role as the guardian of constitutional democracy and self-government has indeed led it to put aside self-interest in the pursuit of idealistic aims.The point of departure for these reflections as well as for the “What Europe?” conference (sponsored by the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College and Bard College Berlin) was a sentence by Hannah Arendt from her essay “Tradition and the Modern Age.” In that essay, Arendt writes:
The rebels of the 19th and 20th centuries fought against tradition. They were occupied with critique and destruction of past and authoritative structures. Today, in the wake of the fact of the break of tradition and the loss of authority, we face the ominous silence that answers us whenever we ask: ‘What are we fighting for?’
Amidst the loss of assured and common values in the wake of the loss of tradition, one great challenge today is the articulation of those common values and shared ideals that can still bind and inspire us and compel us to fight and suffer something beyond our narrow self-interest. The problem of Europe today is that the European Union is still ideologically barren, or if it has an ideology, it is a patently pedestrian ideology of economic security. As Ulrike Winkelmann of taz Berlin said at the conference, the Financial Times is the de facto newspaper read by European Union officials in Brussels. There is neither a European newspaper nor a European vision except for the maintenance of peace and economic growth. The problem for Europe as it faces the emergence of a real enemy on its Eastern front is that it means little to say “Give me peace or give me death.” At some point Europeans will either forge a common ideal for which they will collectively struggle, sacrifice, and even fight, or the European project will prove itself to be the mirage that Timothy Snyder hopes it is not and President Putin is seeking to prove it to be.The video of Timothy Snyder’s speech will be available soon on the Hannah Arendt website. Until then, you can read his latest essay in the New York Review of Books.