Letter From Europe: Democratic Values And European Discontinuities

The alliance between Western Europe and North America derives its strength and acquires its meaning in this nuclear age, from the joint commitment to democracy, freedom and the rule of law. According to a study recently published by the Atlantic Council of the United States (The Teaching of Values and the Successor Generation, Washington, D.C., 1983):

The values that characterize Western democracy have evolved since ancient times, They are rooted in the traditions of Greece and Rome, and shaped by the Judeo-Christian religious tradition. The Magna Carta, the French Declaration of the Rights of Man, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States are landmarks in the evolution of civic values. This civic value system is “Western” not in any exclusive sense but because it developed in a small group of Western nations, which, despite many lapses, have exerted great efforts to preserve and practice it.

The Council apparently is in good company with its reference to the traditions in which our democratic values are rooted, In Christianisme et Democratie, a book published during the Second World War, Jacques Maritain argues that commitment to democratic values reflects a “profane consciousness” clearly inspired by the Christian message.

Still, one cannot fail to observe that many West Europeans today are far less convinced of the dignity of a common Western tradition than most North Americans. The former may share with the latter a post-war commitment to democracy following the defeat of Nazi-Germany and in the face of a Soviet totalitarian threat. West Europeans, however, are less inclined to stress continuity “despite many lapses,” and more susceptible to Marxist arguments that Western democracy is no more than the last stage of capitalism in decay.

Even those who reject Marxist philosophy, tend to agree with Hannah Arendt, who wrote:

We can no longer afford to take that which was good in the past and simply call it our heritage, to discard the bad and simply think of it as a dead load which by itself time will bury in oblivion. The subterranean stream of Western history has finally come to the surface and usurped the dignity of our tradition. (The Origins of Totalitarianism, 1951.)

For a good many Europeans the roots of their tradition have forever been buried under the rubble of two world wars, the victims of senseless battles, and Hitler’s concentration and extermination camps.

Even to an America that has lived through the ordeal of the war in Vietnam, the difference in awareness of democratic values between West Europeans and North Americans must be stressed. Americans may look at the development of their civic value system as an historic continuity despite such serious lapses as the Civil War and the Vietnam war. The Dutch, the Danes and perhaps the British can do the same within strictly national limits. But the French, the Germans, the Italians, the Greeks, and Europeans at large cannot help but see discontinuity in their history and fragility in their attachment to a civic value system.

One must really stretch one’s imagination to look at French history as a continuous development of a civic value system. Following the declaration of the Rights of Man, France went through a turbulent discontinuity of Robespierre’s reign of terror, two empires and five republics. Democracy in Italy and the German Federal Republic have been in existence only since the Second World War. The Greeks may like to boast of their ancient traditions of democratic government, on being the cradle of civic government. Yet there is no continuity between the Athenian Pericles and today’s Papandreou.

If, as Maritain writes, the Christian message has inspired the “profane consciousness” towards a civic value system, one must confess that it took almost twenty centuries to see results. And even those results do not go unchallenged in such episcopal teachings as the American and Dutch pastoral letters on peace and nuclear weapons. Emphasis on democratic virtues, democratic values and democratic institutions in the social teaching of the Catholic church still is a desire expressed by some rather than an achievement in Catholic teaching, although progress has been made since the Second Vatican Council.

Until far into this century, traditional Catholic teaching and thinking stuck to the value system of the “ancien regime,” and thus failed to offer a convincing challenge to the 19th-century philosophies of progress, or to socialism, racism and anti-Semitism. When the First World War gave rise to modern totalitarianism—turning 19th-century philosophies into official party ideologies—Christians were left unprepared to rise above the challenge posed by rival ideologies. The very depth of the crisis made the two world wars the symbol and the signal of discontinuity in European history. West Europeans emerged from the second world war with the conviction that a new political order according to new political principles had to be found. And indeed, it was a new political order that such imaginative postwar leaders like Germany’s Konrad Adenauer, Italy’s Alcide de Gasperi and France’s Jean Monnet and Robert Schuman set out to achieve since 1948. They were strongly supported in their endeavor by America’s George Marshall, Britain’s Ernest Bevin, Belgium’s Paul-Henri Spaak and many others.

The West and its civic value system as we know it today is a unique phenomenon both in time and in space. From a European viewpoint in particular it is the product of a post-war effort to turn the tide of their history away from violence, warfare and totalitarianism and towards the rule of law, cooperation and democratic government. The effort to seek intra-European, and in particular German-French, reconciliation after the second world war did not signal continuity. It was a break with the past meant to escape from a situation in which organized hatred had produced the frenzy of the First World War, the imposed peace of Versailles and the Second World War.

The same applies to the post-war European commitment to the protection of fundamental human rights. The creation of the 1950 European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights was meant to prevent West European states from again violating these rights on the scale of Nazi-Germany.

Equally, European integration and Western multilateral cooperation after the war must be seen as a new departure aimed at creating new international strength through unity, where conflict, nationalism and war had been responsible for weakness. The Marshall Plan did not conform to the traditional pattern of hegemonial intervention by a major power. It was the initial step in an evolving cooperative relationship based on the new principle of mutual confidence between a major strong state and several weakened smaller states.

From these efforts, the “West” evolved as a distinct group of nations sharing distinct values extending beyond national boundaries. When Greece, Spain and Portugal applied for membership in the European Communities in the late seventies, they did so to seek protection for their newly won democratic system of government.

In our present decade of the eighties it has become customary to blame the West, our system of government and democratic societies for all kinds of mistakes and evils. So-called progressive political forces blame the West for underdevelopment in the “South” and for tension with the “East,” for the pollution of our environment and for unemployment. So-called conservative forces blame Western governments for moral permissiveness and the breakdown of law and order. In the European environment at least, their arguments should not be challenged on the assumption of a continuity of development from ancient times to present conditions. European man indeed bears a heavy burden of guilt and of violence done to his fellow men. In order to convince him that the values of Western democracies are worth standing for, we should stress discontinuity and realism rather than continuity and utopia. It is the new post-war Western “tradition” of multilateral cooperation and democratic government that is worth defending in a world dominated by conflict and repressive regimes.

Today’s Western democracies are not perfect societies, but only they have achieved a workable political system based on the diffusion of power through constitutionally safeguarded checks and balances, so as to prevent any one person or group from acquiring absolute power and abusing it absolutely. The freedom and dignity of man is threatened by a combination of excessive domestic self-criticism and external totalitarian destructiveness. As Jean-Francois Revel writes, in How Democracies Perish: “Democratic civilization is the first in history to wrong itself in the face of a power working to destroy it.”


  • Frans Alting von Geusau

    Frans Alting von Geusau (born in 1933 in Bilthoven) is a Dutch legal scholar and diplomat. When he wrote this article he was affiliated with the John F. Kennedy Institute in Tilburg, the Netherlands, and was also professor of international and European organizations at the Catholic University of Tilburg.

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