It has been three-quarters of a century since the end of the European Civil War, also known as World Wars I and II. Hardly anyone alive has an adult memory of that catastrophic conflict but our world today remains imprisoned by the legacy of that monumental act of civilizational self-destruction. The self-confident Europe that, by every measure, had dominated the planet until 1914 was, by 1945, reduced to a sea of ruin and rubble with all assertions of moral and political superiority shattered.
Claims that this world calamity ended in the triumph of freedom were belied by the fact that the principal victor — the Soviet Union — was a tyranny as murderous in character as the Nazi regime it had overthrown. It was also clear that a conflict that began as a war among nations had been transformed into a battle of ideologies that would continue through 40-plus years of the Cold War, with a battered Europe — half slave and half free — stripped of its empires and influence, permanently overshadowed by the United States and the Soviet Union.
Within a single generation, European politics lurched from conservative monarchism to liberal socialism. The creation of the modern welfare or entitlement state was nothing less than a just recompense to people who had loyally supported their armies and governments through the unparalleled horrors of war.
The most striking cultural transformation was the near collapse of organized religion. With rare exceptions, such as Poland, church attendance plunged throughout Europe to all-time lows and never recovered. If religion could offer no explanation for the great catastrophe of the 20th century, answers had to be sought elsewhere. None of the alternative explanations was more perverse than the doctrine that arose among many intellectuals, and elite opinion-makers more generally, that the disaster that had befallen Europe was a deserved punishment for the “original sin” of colonialism and its horrible oppression and exploitation of poor people of color worldwide.
The implications of this were enormous. If true, then Europe and Christianity were guilty of terrible “crimes.” The required corollary of this doctrine was that Western civilization itself must be devalued, or even rejected outright, as a shameful culture of oppression.
To a remarkable extent, this narrative of guilt was widely accepted by Europeans and reinforced in the higher echelons of academia and the media. It fit perfectly with the blame and condemnation coming from non-Europeans, particularly the adherents of Marxism for whom the inherent rottenness of Western capitalism and its inevitable collapse long had been bedrock doctrine.
As broad sectors of European opinion-makers and political actors struggled with these sweeping indictments of European history and values, many embracing an outright cultural self-loathing, this painful saga was further exacerbated by a rising tide of immigration from the former colonial territories.
This immigration element of Europe’s post-imperial travails and their attendant moral, political and demographic ramifications were brilliantly chronicled in Christopher Caldwell’s 2009 book, “Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam and the West.” Then a columnist for Financial Times and contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine, Caldwell’s seminal work was described by the Times as the “most rigorous and plainspoken examination of Muslim immigration in Europe to date.” The Washington Post said it was “notable for its range, synthesis of the literature, analytical rigor and elegant tone.”
It is significant to note that the events described above and in Caldwell’s book all predate the massive immigration-related upheavals in Europe that arose as a result of the Syrian Civil War, the Libyan revolution, and vast human misery throughout the Middle East and North Africa.
The experience of Europe should be a cautionary tale for the United States about what happens to a society that is led by its elites when it surrenders itself to self-flagellation and cultural self-loathing by embracing the most perverse possible interpretation of its own history. Yet, in light of the current political and cultural furies that threaten to tear America apart, we must conclude that the lessons of Europe have gone unheeded.
The philosopher George Santayana warned us that “those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Tragically, the United States again appears to be proving the enduring wisdom of these words.
William Moloney, Ph.D., is a fellow in conservative thought at Colorado Christian University’s Centennial Institute who studied at Oxford and the University of London. He is a former Colorado Commissioner of Education.