“Unity without freedom is nothing.” – Benjamin Zeeb


Tourists at the Colloseum in Rome

Tourists at the Colloseum in Rome

Loving Europe is easy. As long as you don’t live there. How many times have we stood in front of some great European monument or another, watching tourists from overseas professing their deepest affections for a place where you can still feel and touch the human spirit of centuries past? „Don’t you just love Europe?!“, some chubby American explorer is sure to exclaim right next to us while snapping pictures of the Roman Colloseum’s arena with his Iphone. Upon his return he will tell his friends of all the wonders he saw, this Cathedral in Seville and that charming little Brasserie at the foot of the Eiffel Tower – „So very romantic.“ „You, too“ he says to his American friends „will love Europe!“

Soon this traveller will get back to the daily business of loving his own country – and not for anything in particular, not for the Empire State Bulding, or for John Wayne or even the US Constitution, not for any of the great American monuments – but just because that is what he does. He might at times be of the opinion that his country is helmed by a greedy, illiterate, corporate warmonger or by a Kenyan socialist Usurper. It doesn’t matter; it’s not the country’s fault.

As Europeans we look on from afar at our chubby friend’s ritualized shows of patriotism with some kind of bewildered amusement, a little envy even, knowing that something like that – such a grand show of faith, complete with pennant and song and dance and all – is never to be on this side of the Atlantic. Not any time soon and not under a flag bearing a golden circle of stars on dark blue ground.

And thank the heavens for that! Europe has learned the hard way, that patriotism can be vice as well as virtue, and loving any political idea must at some point lead to the deepest of disappointments. So is it then not love, I feel for Europe? The word alone put in the context not of a person but of a political idea, makes me cringe as I put it to paper. Yet, lying awake at night I find myself worrying about the continent, rooting for it, hoping that in some not too distant future it might become all that it can be. Fearing that it won’t.

Heinrich Heine comes to mind, who once upon a time in his poem ‘Nachtgedanken’ famously spent his nights worrying about another political dream, one that would allow him to return home from exile and once again greet his old mother. The poet understood that unity without freedom is nothing and that dancing numbly around the campfire of some collective identity has nothing to do with patriotism. Consequently it’s not in some glamorous description of national beauty or cultural accomplishments, not in some exclamation of irrational pride, where his love of country manifests itself. It is precisely in his worries and in his fears – in his spirit of criticism. What’s keeping him up at night, his doubts and fears, are the nagging companions of a passion devoid of any romantic exuberance. What’s keeping him up at night is the genuine affection of one who worries about the future of someone or something close to his heart. And it’s in confronting these fierce companions that cling to the fragile hope of freedom and unity that his love finds its clearest expression.


Image “203/356” courtesy of Jamie Henderson via Flickr, released under creative commons 2.0 attribution.

Print Friendly