There exists in German a wonderful word, both oddly haunting and untranslatable: Geschichtsmüde, which translates into something roughly akin to being “weary of history”. The unparalleled George Steiner once condensed Europe into five key concepts, the fifth being an ever-present feeling that European civilisation is awaiting its own imminent demise, crushed “under the paradoxical weight of its achievements and the unparalleled wealth and complication of its history”. Steiner never described this process as being voluntary.
Douglas Murray differs. “Europe is committing suicide. Or at least its leaders have decided to commit suicide.” As The Strange Death of Europe opens.
Europe, Murray argues, is a continent that is being wrought by two contradictory forces. The first of these is that a masochistic, morally relativistic continent has lost its self-belief and forces of societal propulsion; its civilisational energy, during an astounding demographic challenge that historian Niall Ferguson describes as “the greatest sustained reduction in European population since the Black Death in the fourteenth century.” The second is that this is occurring during the unprecedented movement of people into Europe who carry differing, assertive value systems, some of which come into direct conflict with Europe’s most deeply held values. You may be able to surmise from the subtitle of the book what the latter refers to.
These arguments must be evaluated in tandem, and the analogy Murray chooses is the ship of Theseus. As a ship ages and endures normal wear and tear, parts must be replaced. Primarily a question of identity, at what point do changes mean that the original ship is unrecognisable? If Murray’s argument is considered, at what point over the coming decades will Europe cease to be truly European? At what point will European values within Europe become wholly à la carte; merely one choice among many differing, perhaps conflicting value systems?
Readers familiar with Murray’s previous work will pick up on his philosophical lineage: Leo Strauss and Allan Bloom are palpable. As Saul Bellow quipped in the foreword to Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, “we live in a thought-world, and the thinking has gone very bad indeed”. What Bloom famously described across the pond as the fashionable Americanised “nihilism with a happy ending” has, in Europe, instead regressed to second-rate Nietzsche. Basically, we have become weak, relativistic, and lost one of the most powerful engines of our civilisation (more on that later).
The irritating reality is laid out to the reader: the fact that phrases such as “cartoon crisis” would be uttered with a straight face; the depiction of religious figure results in most of a magazine’s editorial staff being gunned down in their Paris office; more than 100,000 British women have suffered genital mutilation; a piece would be published in The Atlantic, of all places, with a matter-of-fact reference to ‘Europe’s endless, debilitating blasphemy wars’ while asking whether it was time for Jews to leave Europe?
Murray’s prose is elegant, cool, and considered, which softens the blow of the often-distressing subject matter. I echo Elliot Abram’s analysis that ‘he [Murray] will be called names for his writing, but there is not an ounce of prejudice here; just candour.’
Some parts of the book mesh awkwardly with the rest, particularly two chapters of reportage from the migrant camps on the islands of Italy and Greece. The harrowing stories that Murray relays from the migrants on these camps – of a man raped every night by his Taliban captors in Afghanistan, for example – and their relevance to the rest of the book isn’t entirely clear, save for a reference to the understandable “generous instinct” that underlies Europe’s migration policy. Europe’s political class certainly appear to hold this generous instinct in abundance.
The movement of such large numbers of people across the globe has always caused challenges, but the unprecedented volume of people moving into Europe over the past thirty years present a whole new platter of challenges, not least that Europe has, in Murray’s argument, completely lost faith in itself.
To me, this is the most interesting part of the book. Opening with a chapter simply entitled “Tiredness” – with a spot of Geschichtsmüde – Murray, an atheist, begins to address the latter part of his argument: Europe’s civilisational decay. The continent is grappling with its post-Christian character: Europe’s force of propulsion for centuries was the spirit of its faith, which provided a sense of purpose, consolation, and transcendent meaning “however many troubles that brought”. Two World Wars delivered the final, killing blow to Christianity as Europe’s driving societal force; we are living in its death-throes. Having lost all the certainty and conviction that the numinous provides, what has taken its place? The twentieth century absolutisms: Marxism and various forms of fascism, dreamt of systems wherein the follies of man and the world would be mended, with Murray evoking T.S. Eliot’s flawless: ‘dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good’. This accumulation of absolutist wreckage is a problem not merely because all its former adherents are exhausted by its magnitude, but because, as Murray says, ‘it can allow almost anything to follow in its wake’.
Living in this wreckage, in a later chapter, is explained as such: the feeling that life in modern liberal democracies is ‘to some extent thin or shallow and that life in modern Western Europe in particular has lost its sense of purpose’, which is to say it has lost its sense of the transcendent. Is it any wonder that after a particularly strenuous night on the lash that people may look around and wonder if there’s something – or anything – more to all this? Europe’s loss of its religion has left a gap that is hard to quantify, and that even the atheistic like myself must acknowledge. In many important respects, we are running on empty.
Can such a feeble, often self-abnegating society successfully integrate the record numbers of people who’ve recently entered Europe? To put it lightly, the author isn’t entirely convinced, and not without reason. Using social attitudes as examples in the case of Britain, Murray cites a Gallup poll from 2009 that found a zero tolerance attitude toward homosexuality among British Muslims; a survey for a Channel 4 documentary last year that found that half of British Muslims polled thought homosexuality should be made illegal, with 46 per cent saying it would be unacceptable for a gay person to become a schoolteacher, to name a couple of examples. Possible problems with such polling put aside for a moment, the underlying problem for Murray is clear: these attitudes towards minorities exist in a weak, relativistic culture, that is unable to defend its own values.
Is Europe lost? Nobody knows, and one of the dangers of making predictions in print is the chance you’ll look an idiot at parties. One of the most baffling things about reading the book is the realisation that this debate, or for that matter, any debate on these matters in Europe has only taken place as a series of public relations exercises, rhetorical shadow boxing where those in power do their very best to avoid saying anything whatsoever. Maybe recent events will spur some change, or perhaps politics on the continent will merely continue to dawdle on as per usual. Whatever your opinions on Murray’s thesis, it’s a conversation we must have.
The Strange Death of Europe by Douglas Murray is published by Bloomsbury.
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