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The Ugly European

On Principle, v11n1

May 2003

by Peter W. Schramm

I lived in Munich in 1968. This was my first trip to Europe since leaving it at age ten. My reason for going was to learn German. My reason for staying was to learn something about Europeans, their habits and their ways, and their rich history. In the end, I learned a great deal about how Europeans see America, and therefore learned much about why I love Americans. But above all, I learned much about Europeans.

What I learned then has remained true, and helps explain some of the French and German shenanigans over Iraq. The French power play that we have been witnessing over the past few months is only partly a reflection of disagreements over Iraq specifically, and American foreign policy generally. It is certainly an attempt by the French to break the American monopoly of power in the world. Although it is geopolitics of the highest sort, it is also and more importantly, a reflection of different dispositions, of different intellectual and moral habits. Europeans note our power and wealth, but have contempt for (what they see as) our ignorance. These two things combine into resentment. And that resentment is fed by a deep well of continental philosophy, a view of the world that Americans don’t share. And this is the crux of the matter.

It was a tough and lonely year. At age twenty-two I enrolled at the University of Munich to better my German (and to sit in on some philosophy seminars). Since I had about seventy-five bucks in my pocket when I arrived, I needed a job. I got one through the only friend I had there (a Hungarian poet-in-exile) and I was able to stay. The job was ridiculously difficult. I worked twelve hour-days, six days a week, and was paid seventy-five cents an hour. But this paid for my room in a pension (two bucks a day) and I got to eat for nothing since I worked at the main market in Munich unpacking bananas from freight cars. The bananas were free, and the owner only charged fifteen cents for soft drinks or a beer.

The job wasn’t legal, of course. They called it "black" labor; it was off the record, I was paid in cash. I was hired only because I didn’t tell them I was an American student; they never would have hired me. I told them I was a Hungarian refugee. They were willing to help. My fellow laborers were bums, German bums (we would call them homeless now). Although they smelled awful, drank too much and slept on park benches, I liked them. I became especially fond of them when I finally figured out what they were humming as we worked. They were singing and humming American songs, old songs, like "The Yellow Rose of Texas."

After a few weeks of working with them I got to know them well enough to ask them how it was that they were singing American songs. Well, it turned out that they had been soldiers in World War II and were among the first Germans captured by the Americans. They were sent to a prisoner of war camp in Texas. They lived out the whole war in Texas, they learned English and liked our songs. And because this was an American prisoner of war camp, they were able to leave the camp, get jobs in town and got acquainted with real Americans. All four of them said it was the best experience of their lives. They loved Americans, they said.

I wanted to know what it was they liked about Americans. They thought that Americans were direct and honest. They looked you square between the eyes and told you what they thought. The Americans laughed a lot, often loudly. Their view of life was not tragic, they were not filled with the passionate anxiety of Europeans. Americans had no angst. They didn’t spend their time regretting the past; they thought anything was possible. Give a man an opportunity, he’ll take it, and fulfill what ambitions he had. My German friends called this "practical freedom." These Americans lived as free men should live. They were modest, never overbearing, and gave no quarter to flim-flam. And they were very generous. Although we were soldiers for a country that they were at war with, the Germans explained, the Americans never said they disliked Germans. They did keep asking us, however, how we could have gotten ourselves a leader like the one we had. It started us thinking, they said.

Everybody in America seemed young, they said. They had a liveliness about them, a kind of wide-eyed-adolescence, as if they had never experienced disappointment and defeat, and there was no reason to think they ever would. They were energetic and full of vigor. They thought that people should have the opportunity to excel in something. These Americans moved through the world as if there was no one trying to hinder their progress, their ambition, their way in the world. The Germans said that they were struck by the fact that the children seemed to look mature men in the eyes, as if they were their equals.

We talked about these matters in my halting German. And after a while, I felt morally compelled to tell them that I was really an American and that I spoke English. Well, you should have seen the hurrahs and the cheer! They were delighted and quickly revealed that their English was much better than my German. From then on we spoke only English.

Over the years, and on other trips, much was added to this opinion. Although none denied what my homeless friends understood to be the American character, they added some not so subtle mixes to that opinion. What had been described as virtues now became vices. Many Frenchmen I met argued that Americans were money grubbing, all they were interested in was making money. The country was full of an endless commercial bustle. As a result Americans worked too hard, and had no proper understanding of leisure. Their culture was minimal and only their manners were lower. They were unsophisticated and un-learned, they knew little about their own history, and nothing about the history of others. They had never suffered, so they lacked depth. That may explain why they had no great literature and why were not in love with museums, as Europeans were.

I remember one man who couldn’t possibly understand how all these people of different backgrounds and colors could live together as something like citizens; he wondered how it was possible. He concluded — because he never understood its cause, the idea, the electric cord, as Lincoln called it, that was the real basis of American patriotism — that it was not possible in the end, that it was only a question of time before the place fell apart. Not enough ties of blood, not enough common history, he said.

In the end I came to learn that what held together all the critical opinions about America was the spirit of resentment and envy. We were big and powerful and thought we were special. We claimed to establish a novus ordo seclorum (see the Great Seal of the United States on the back of the dollar bill), as if we had reinvented the world. We scoffed at the old and tired ways of the mother continent, we were like children who weren’t able to appreciate the sober and cultured ways of the parents. These European parents were jealous of their energetic and ambition children. The child became too powerful, too wealthy, too ambitious. The more the child was able and willing to help the parents out, the more resentful the parents became. And yet, the parents were forced to admit to themselves that there was something especially interesting and appealing in these exuberant youths, their liveliness and their straight-shooting ways. And yet again, these youngsters had to be kept in check by their betters.

Over the years I began to see the philosophical basis of their thinking, and why they disliked our ways. They attempted to prove that all philosophical questions and human life can be reduced to the deep Grundproblemen (fundamental problems) and then to nihilistic despair, because in becoming fully enlightened the Europeans freed themselves from all illusions about good and evil, and right and wrong. But we Americans didn’t think this and we couldn’t feel the despair. How could we, we simple-minded and practical folk, understand the depth of the human condition? We Americans insist on holding to the connection between freedom and justice, courage and moderation. As a result, we couldn’t take the Europeans as seriously as they took themselves. We thought that they were participants in a sophisticated and endless coffee-house chatter leading nowhere except the will to power and gulags and concentration camps. We, on the other hand, thought that equality and liberty had ethical and political implications; we were willing to fight to make men free.

It should not surprise us that the Old Europeans have been taking advantage of our current situation (the war on terrorism and Iraq) to try to revivify their worn down power in the world, and their old grandeur. The post September 11 world is the first true international crisis in a world now dominated by American power. The Iraq problem has given the Old Europeans an opportunity to try a dangerous gambit. They tried to challenge the legitimacy of American power, and they failed, as they have failed in their philosophical instructions to us. We are still optimists who laugh too loudly, and we still think, along with Mark Twain, that against the assault of laughter, nothing can stand.

Peter W. Schramm is Executive Director of the Ashbrook Center.

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