The Legacy of Europe

A Paper by Fred Dallmayr, Co-Chairman, WPF “Dialogue of Civilizations”, delivered at the conference “Europe: Lost in Translation?”, Berlin, May 15, 2014

Esteemed Dr. Platzeck, Dr. Yakunin, guests and friends: It is with great pleasure and a keen interest that I participate in this joint meeting of the German-Russian Forum and the World Public Forum “Dialogue of Civilizations” here in Berlin. The importance of the meeting is underscored by the grim and ominous geopolitical events of our time.

I wish to focus my comments on the basic theme of the meeting: “Europe: Lost in Translation?” The theme raises a stark question: Is Europe lost in translation? My short answer to this question is: yes. First, about translation. This becomes necessary whenever a word, a passage or a text is not immediately accessible or intelligible. Translation here means basically interpretation. Secondly, why “lost in translation?” This is because every interpretation involves the possibility of misconstrual or misinterpretation, hence the danger of betrayal. The Italian language pinpoints this fact by saying “traduttore traditore” (interpreter=traitor).

What does all this have to do with Europe? Clearly, the meaning of that term is not self-evident or univocal; there are in fact many meanings of “Europe.” Hence, the term needs to be translated—which raises the danger of betrayal.

Here, it may be helpful to remember the Dean of German philosophy during the 20th century: Hans-Georg Gadamer. In 1989, Gadamer published a book titled Das Erbe Europas (The Legacy of Europe).  In that book, Gadamer emphasized eloquently the multivocity of “Europe,” the diversity of its meanings, the multiplicity of traditions held together in a loose symbiosis—tracing this multiplicity from Greece and Rome to the Christian Middles Ages, to the Renaissance and Reformation, to Enlightenment, the industrial revolution and beyond.  Throughout this historical development, Europe for Gadamer has always been open or receptive to influences from outside the continent:  from Africa, the Middle East and Asia.  In his words: Europe has always “needed to learn how to live with others, even it these others were very different.”  As he added:  “To live with the Other, to live as the Other of the Other—this basic human task applies in the smallest as well as in larger contexts, especially the context of peoples and nations.”

As one needs to recall, Gadamer was also a great philosopher of dialogue, insisting on the point that human beings constantly dialogue—with themselves, with others, with nature, and the divine.  In this respect, Gadamer certainly can serve as a mentor  to our World Public Forum—“Dialogue of Civilizations,” and probably also to the German-Russian Forum.

The diversity or multivocity stressed by Gadamer is the strength, but also the difficulty and possible hazard of Europe—because one can translate or interpret the term very differently, possibly mistranslate or betray it.  Basically, the rich tapestry of Europe entails that particular facets of the tapestry can be broken out and “essentialized,” that is, presented as the “essence” of Europe, while other aspects are sidelined or repressed.

A few examples should suffice.  Thus, the Christian Middle Ages are sometimes singled out and presented as Europe’s essential core without which the term loses its meaning.  Or else:  the Enlightenment and its focus on critical rationality can be (and have been) claimed to be the crucial foundation of Europe’s identity.  Or again:  modern science and technology are sometimes extolled as Europe’s chief contributions to civilization.  In political terms, liberal individualism (from John Locke to John Stuart Mill and beyond) is sometimes celebrated as Europe’s distinctive essence; on the other hand, one notes Europe’s attachment to social solidarity, community, nation and shared modes of life.  

Here one clearly enters into hazardous terrain.  It so happens that in the 19th century Europe produced both laissez-faire liberalism and capitalism and, on the other hand, also the perspectives of socialism and Marxist communism.  How can these different legacies be balanced or negotiated?  As we know, the different European legacies were sundered or torn apart in the 20th century, in the sense that they were essentialized or absolutized in two directions:  America or the United States appropriated liberalism, calling itself the “Free World” while rejecting socialism; by contrast, Russia (and China) appropriated communism, while rejecting or sidelining individual liberty.  Thus particular features were broken out of the rich European tapestry.  Eventually, this led to a geopolitical “Cold War”—and according to some analysts, we today experience a return to this Cold War.

Evidently, this is how Europe is “lost in translation” and ultimately betrayed.  Now, it seems to me that Europeans should reject such one-sided portrayals which amount to betrayal.  The bifurcation must be rejected especially in Germany—seeing that Germany was for a long time split and torn apart by a wall (most evidently in Berlin).  Together with others Europeans, Germans should oppose the selective appropriation of some European legacies as well as the hegemonic re-imposition of such legacies on Europe by outside forces.  As part of “Middle Europe,” it is a preeminent task of Germany to preserve a “middle path” in cultural and political matters, a path which lets differences flourish without artificial walls.

Fortunately, communist totalitarianism is today a matter of the past.  However, we also have to critically question and oppose the identification of Europe with Western neo-liberalism and financial capitalism.  Likewise, we have to oppose the absorption of Europe into global military strategies alien to European interests—especially if such absorption entails the division or dismemberment of the continent.

As we recall, 2014 is the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I which tore Europe to pieces.  In the World Public Forum and also in the German-Russian Forum we are firmly committed to the effort to prevent any repetition of that catastrophe.  This year 2014 is also the 200th anniversary of the ending of the Napoleonic wars and the preparation for the great Congress of Vienna which re-established peace in Europe.

In a way, the Napoleonic wars were the prototype of the policy of externally induced “regime change”:  at that time, the remodeling of European societies in the image of Paris.  The Congress of Vienna is important for us in two ways:  first because it concluded a period of violent regime changes imposed by the French armies—something which can be a warning for us today.  Second, the Congress inaugurated a constellation of powers called the “European Concert” because, like in chamber music, it encouraged the interplay of different idioms and cultures in Europe.  Russia was an integral part of that concert.  What we need today is global “concert” of cultures maintaining a similar concord of voices even in the face of dissonances.  Our World Public Forum is oriented precisely in that direction.