Europe is the most fascinating place on Earth. The home of ideas, it is on this continent that the most sublime and the most depraved episodes in the entire human drama have played themselves out. From the ancient Greeks, who strived to create a civilisation worthy of human dignity, to the great thinkers of the Enlightenment, human advancement has been one of Europe’s finest ideals. And just as the great Greek advancements in culture and philosophy were exported to Alexandria and elsewhere during the Hellenistic period, the Enlightenment value of progress was adopted by American rebels to form the basis of the New World in the late 18th century.
But the great victories of the European imagination fail to tell the whole of the European story. In the name of millennial fantasies, master races and “new men” this continent was the setting for all that was most horrific about the twentieth century. In Europeans, as in all members of our primate species, barbarism has always lingered somewhere, threatening a blood-dimmed tide if things fall apart, but its victories can only ever be temporary, for the gifts of culture touch an eternal and transcendent sense of beauty in the human spirit.
As a part of the Cretan resistance in 1944, Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor, the late British travel writer, helped kidnap General Kreipe, commander of the German occupation. In his memoirs, Fermor recounts his Nazi captive’s response as a “brilliant dawn” broke whilst he was being taken over the crest of Mount Ida:
‘We were all three lying smoking in silence, when the general, half to himself, slowly said: Vides et ulta stet nive candidum Soracte. [“See how Mount Soracte stands out white with deep snow.”] It was the opening of one of the few Horace odes I knew by heart. I went on reciting where he had broken off…. The general’s blue eyes swivelled away from the mountain top to mine and when I’d finished, after a long silence, he said: “Ach so, Herr Major!” It was very strange. “Ja, Herr General.” As though for a moment the war had ceased to exist. We had both drunk at the same fountains long before, and things were different between us for the rest of our time together.’
I love the Europe in which the gifts of culture have prevailed over the horrors of barbarism, the Europe of partnership and solidarity which rejoiced, in November 1989, as it tore down the wall which separated its people. This is the Europe –
‘Not in utopia, – subterranean fields, – / Or some secreted Island, Heaven knows where! / But in the very world, which is the world / Of all of us,- the place where in the end / We find our happiness, or not at all!’ (William Wordsworth, The French Revolution as it Appeared to Enthusiasts at its Commencement)
– from which the rest of the world can continue to learn.
Image courtesy to European Parliament via Flickr, released under creative commons share alike.