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Apocalypse Now


Walter Laquer, After the Fall:

The End of the European Dream and the Decline of a Continent


            Walter Laquer is one of an older generation of European-born thinkers who have thrived in the United States in the post-World War II era, becoming part of our think tank-academic establishment.  Born in Germany in 1921, Laquer left the country in 1938.  His less fortunate parents stayed behind and perished in the Holocaust.  He has held distinguished positions in Great Britain as well as the United States; has written extensively on 19th and 20th century Europe, specializing in Russian and Germany history; and has taught at numerous prestigious institutions, among them Brandeis, Georgetown, Harvard, Chicago and Johns Hopkins.  But for all this gravitas, I found Laquer’s “After the Fall: The End of the European Dream and the Decline of a Continent” disappointing. 


           I won’t blame Laquer for the overwrought sub-title: that could well have been an editor or publisher’s choice, based on marketing considerations.  But while the “decline of Europe” is a much-discussed subject on both sides of the Atlantic, I did not find many fresh thoughts or new insights on the subject here.  The book is a follow up to another by Laqeur with an equally gloomy title, “The Last Days of Europe: Epitaph for an Old Continent,” published in 2007, whose ostensible purpose is to provide an overview of Europe’s fate as the extent of the global economic crisis became apparent. 


           Euro-pessimism pervades “After the Fall.”  Figuratively, Laquer argues, after  Sir Edward Grey said the lights were going out in Europe in 1914, they have never since gone on again.  The decline of Europe is not only “inescapable” and “inevitable,” it has “already taken place” (p.281), he asserts.  Previous futurists who foresaw Europe’s decline were dealing in prophecy and speculation, whereas today’s declinists “are dealing with developments that, for the most part, have already happened” (p.273).    At another point Laquer suggests that 2000 was Europe’s “last good year”  (p.189).  A constant refrain throughout the book is that Europe is in the process of becoming a large historical theme park, a “kind of sophisticated Disneyland for well-to-do visitors from India and China” (p.80). 


           Against this dispiriting backdrop, Laquer advances four main themes.  The first two involve the weakness of the European Union: it was a mistake to form an economic union in Europe with little political power behind it; and the EU has no real military power, and therefore cannot aspire to be a serious player on the world stage.  The third and fourth concern Europe’s changing demographics:  Europe’s native white population is declining across the continent, and it’s non-white population is increasing, especially its Muslim population, with all the challenges to integration which that raises.  These demographic changes also pose a direct and immediate threat to Europe’s generous welfare systems. 


           To Laquer, the experience of the recent past and the lesson to be drawn from the 2007-2009 economic crisis and its aftermath should have been obvious from the beginning: an economic union was impossible “without a far larger measure of political union.  But this would have involved a price that many did not want to pay – the surrender of hitherto sovereign rights” (p.268).  From the beginning, moreover, it was a serious mistake for Europe to assume that “there could be power without military strength.  Such delusions were bound to lead Europe down the road to irrelevance” (p.74). 


           For the EU, the common defense is not the muscular term used, for example, in the United States or Israel, but rather a “synonym for preventive diplomacy, always with the assumption that such interpretation would be shared by all others” (p.57).  In contrast to  powerful America, willing to exercise its power unilaterally if necessary, Europe sees its mission as “spreading the gospel of law, civilization, and eternal peace” (p.157).  Even in the exercise of “soft” diplomatic power in promoting democracy and the rule of law outside Europe, the EU has been “high on rhetoric, [but] its achievements are less than modest” (p.75). 


            Demography plays no small role in Europe’s decline.  Laquer notes that Europe contained 25% of world’s population in 1900, 12% in 1950, and is projected to be about 5-7% in 2050.  There is no reason to think that there will be any reversal of declining birth rates in Europe.  Despite occasional upticks, the “basic trend is downward, and while a radical turnaround is always possible, it is difficult to even imagine its causes. . . By and large, the predictions of the demographers have been accurate with only a minor degree of error” (p.200).   Throughout Europe, there will soon be more people over 60 than under 20.  But any discussion of the declining demographics of Europe also needs to address non-white immigration into Europe, which in this book mostly means Muslim immigration. 


           At times, Laquer seems apoplectic about the consequences of immigration for Europe, arguing that the influx of immigrants at a minimum is “leading Europe to a profound crisis” and, combined with other threats, “almost certainly means the end of Europe as a major player in world affairs” (p.229).  Although pointing out that Europe’s Muslim population is “anything but monolithic” (p.255), Laquer emphasizes that Islamic immigration into Europe has been mostly among its backward and uneducated elements, not the young and educated.  For a variety of reasons, the second and third generation of young Muslin immigrants, who might be expected to integrate, all too frequently have “revolted against their country of adoption” (p.210).     


           Laquer downplays the notion of European “Islamophobia,” widespread antipathy toward Muslims across the continent.  The attitude of Europeans toward Islam is one of “indifference rather than enmity,” (p.196), he concludes.  Europeans’ feeling of “becoming strangers in their own country” (p.140) is the main reason for tension with Muslims, not hostility to Islam.  Violence against Muslims is rare in Europe, compared with violence of young Muslim immigrants toward Jews and non-believers in such countries as Sweden, France, Belgium, and the Netherlands, he contends. 


           Laquer concludes his bleak analysis by pointing out that there are “no shortcuts or quick fixes to improve Europe’s standing in the world” (p.279).  If Europe does not want to be reduced to insignificance, it must:


regain economic momentum; its countries must cooperate far more closely with one another inasmuch as Europe’s foreign and defense policy is concerned, to understand the limits of civilian power in the world of today and tomorrow.  This will be a painful process, and it is not certain whether Europe and the Europeans have the will and the strength to undergo it (p.279).


           Laquer treats the subject of an ailing Europe intelligently, and his book may be a good primer for readers who seek an overview of its contemporary challenges, written from the perspective of an author who regards the continent as an increasingly irrelevant entity in the 21st century.  I am predisposed to think that reports of Europe’s death are greatly exaggerated, much like those of Mark Twain that reached the living writer, but must of course remain open to arguments to the contrary.  This book might be compared to an opening statement at trial, in which Laquer sketches out his main arguments for Europe’s irreversible decline, but with a more extensive presentation of facts and weighing of evidence needed before a judgment may be reached.   


Thomas H. Peebles

Rockville, Maryland

September 4, 2013



Filed under European History, History, Uncategorized

Is Europe Burning?

[Introductory Note:  I have again spliced together two short commentaries which I wrote earlier: on Phillips in 2009 and on Caldwell in 2010.  I owe reading of both to my college friend Tom Fagan.  Tom pointed me to Phillips’ book, which I fortuitously found in a used bookshop for $2.  A little later, Tom sent me Caldwell’s book as a holiday present.  Two thought-provoking books for a total of $2.  That’s an excellent return on a modest investment.  Thanks, Tom]


Christopher Caldwell, Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: 

Immigration, Islam, and the West


Melanie Phillips, Londonistan

Europe’s fiscal and financial crisis undoubtedly constitutes its foremost contemporary challenge.  But the challenge of integrating ever-growing Muslim populations into its cultural mainstream is not far behind – and in many ways is linked to European economic woes.  These two books address Western Europe’s efforts to find a place for Islam.  Christopher Caldwell surveys approaches across Europe, while   Melanie Phillips focuses exclusively on Great Britain.

Caldwell’s title is an allusion to Edmund Burke’s 1790 “Reflections on the Revolution in France.”  Caldwell starts with a 1968 speech by British Tory parliamentarian Enoch Powell on April 20, 1968, two short weeks after Martin Luther King was killed in the United States.  In this speech, Powell decried rising immigration into Britain.  He forecast American-style urban ghettoes and said that watching immigration into his country was like “watching a nation busily engaged in heaping up its own funeral pyre” (p.5).  I was living in London at the time, and remember well Powell’s speech, which was the subject of much discussion with my British friends.  Although the term “politically correct” was not yet in use, it was very clear to me and my friends — all of us wise and worldly 20 somethings — that Powell’s ideas were most incorrect politically.  My recollection is that we almost unanimously compared Powell, an erudite classics scholar, to the retrograde Southern racists whom we assumed were responsible for King’s death.  Since that time, however, as Caldwell states, all British discussion of immigration may be reduced to whether Powell was right.

Caldwell traces how both Britain and continental European countries increased immigration in the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s of the last century, without sufficient forethought of the consequences.  He outlines the differences between European countries, with varying rationale for opening borders and diverse approaches toward absorbing and welcoming immigrant populations.  Caldwell considers judiciously both sides of the arguments that Muslims can be integrated into these countries, but leaves no doubt that in his view such integration is a steep, uphill battle across Europe, not least because a certain part of the European Muslim population is “dedicated to Europe’s destruction by armed violence” (p.172).

Caldwell describes two models for immigrant assimilation, British and French.  Britain’s model is “multicultural,” holding that one may “keep one’s culture as long as one [obeys] the law of the land” (p.151).  Caldwell prefers the French model, which holds that immigrants “should become French in their cultural loyalties” (p. 151).  Despite – some would say because of — its multi-cultural model, Britain remains “by far, the European country with the most serious dangers of violence and political extremism” (p.301).  France’s republican traditions, by contrast, “give it the best chance of fully assimilating the children and grandchildren of immigrants.  It is the only country where a European equivalent of the American dream is likely,” Caldwell concludes (p.301).

Although Caldwell’s purpose is not to compare European and American approaches to immigration, he regards Hispanic immigration to the United States as an altogether different phenomenon from Muslim immigration to Europe — far more benign, far less threatening to our culture.  Latin American immigrants come with a European language, he says, which is “inevitably discarded for English by the second generation.”   Latinos’ “cultural peculiarities” are “generally antiquated versions of American ones” (p.12).  They have “less money, higher labor-force participation, more authoritarian family structures, lower divorce rates” than native white Americans.  Their culture, in its broad outlines “is like the American working class culture of forty years ago”  (p.12).

I would have liked more discussion in Caldwell’s book about non-Muslim immigration to Europe.  Are the prospects for integration of West Indians, sub-Saharan non-Muslim Africans, and Asians from India, Vietnam, Cambodia and China as bleak as those for Muslim immigrants?  It was immigrants from all these places, not simply Muslim countries, which prompted Powell’s 1968 remarks. But Caldwell’s critique of the effect of Muslim immigration on today’s Europe, while provocative, is well-reasoned and cogent.

In “Londonistan,” British journalist Melanie Phillips comes across as Enoch Powell on steroids.  She would surely agree with Caldwell that Great Britain today is “by far,” the country most vulnerable to Islamic violence and political extremism, and would not hesitate to attribute Britain’s vulnerability precisely to the multi-cultural model of assimilation which Caldwell describes.  Phillips starts with the July 2005 London bombings, which revealed a society initially in denial that these attacks had been carried out by home-grown Muslims, “suburban boys who had been educated at British schools and had degrees, jobs and comfortable families” (p.viii).  As denial faded, Phillips found Britain pitifully unable to confront the threat posed by the violent ideology she terms “Islamism”:  a “particular interpretation of authentic Islamic principles” (p.168) that is the “dominant contemporary political force within Islam. . .. an ideology that seeks to destroy Christianity and its values” (p.141).

In Phillips’ view, Britain’s ability to counter Islamism is undermined by a flabby and permissive social culture dominated by “secular nihilists” who disdain the country’s Judeo-Christian values.  Secular nihilists are infatuated with the “doctrine of multiculturalism,” and obsessed with the rights of victims and minorities.  Phillips contends that an unquestioning tolerance for non-Western cultures, militant feminism, exaltation of gay rights, and a judiciary which has supplemented the common law with more general human rights norms have, taken together, rendered Britain ineffectual in countering the grave threat to its existence growing in its midst.  Today’s Britain is “locked into such a spiral of decadence, self-loathing and sentimentality that it is incapable of seeing that it is setting itself up for cultural immolation,” (p.189), Phillips warns direly, echoing Powell’s 1968 clarion call.  Ironically, “self-styled progressives of the British left” have aligned themselves with Islamism – “which denies female equality and preaches death to gays” — to advance their common goal, “the destruction of Western society and its foundation values” (p.xxiii).

I agree with Phillips’ core message that tolerance is no virtue in dealing with violent Islamism and that the West needs to defend its democratic values unapologetically.  But she loses me when she radiates out from this core to suggest that secular Enlightenment values – secularism, equality, respect for minority rights – are incompatible with taking a strong stand against what she terms Islamism.  Phillips’ analysis seems at times to gravitate toward the comments of the late Reverend Jerry Falwell, who inanely attributed responsibility for the 9/11 attacks in the United States to “the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way–all of them who have tried to secularize America–I point the finger in their face and say ‘you helped this happen.”

Further, there is irony in Phillips railing against many of the manifestations of modernity in today’s Britain, when the most common prescription for bringing Islam out of the dark ages and into the 21st century is some form of Muslim Enlightenment – development of a secular sense and a more general spirit of free inquiry, with recognition of equality for women and homosexuals.  Phillips’ strong condemnation of the anti-Semitism which pervades much of the Muslim world is to be lauded.  But she is far less critical of the subordinate role of women in Islamic societies and I had to wonder whether this was because excessive feminism figures so prominently among the reasons she contends that Britain is incapable of countering Islamism.

Phillips recommends requiring a civil marriage certificate before an Imam could perform a marriage ceremony, thereby, she hopes, halting the drift toward parallel Sharia jurisdiction where polygamy is recognized; instituting tough controls on immigration “while Britain assimilates the people it has already got” (p.188); and teaching Muslims “what being a minority means” (p.189).  These measures may be reasonable but the likelihood that they will make any serious dent in Islamism seems at least as dubious as the outreach efforts to moderate Muslims which she belittles throughout her book.  Like everyone else struggling with the issue of assimilation of the Muslim population into Western European societies, Phillips falls short in specific solutions.  Finding such solutions ranks among the most pressing challenges facing contemporary Europe.

Thomas H. Peebles

Rockville, Maryland

June 5, 2012


Filed under History, Politics, Religion