Letter from Europe: The Re-emergence of Moral and Political Confusion in Europe

For many Europeans, who have still not overcome the moral and political confusion of two world wars, it is all too attractive to forget the past and nurture present illusions about European influence, progressive forces and American incompetence.

On June 6, 1984 national leaders from many Western countries assembled in Normandy to commemorate the allied invasion which, forty years ago, liberated Western Europe from tyranny. When allied troops fought ashore on June 6, 1944, the war aim of the allies was clear and morally undisputed: the total defeat of Nazi Germany. Still, it is worth remembering that this clarity of purpose had only emerged in the West, following the outbreak of war. Hitler’s initial successes had been due to fatal Western weaknesses and a cynical collusion with Stalin. Without them, Hitler might not have been able to re-occupy the Rhineland, dismember Czechoslavakia, attack Poland together with Stalin, and overrun Western Europe in a matter of weeks. It is also worth remembering that the Second World War, far from clarifying the moral issues at stake, deepened the confusion created by the First World War.

It made sense to fight for total victory in the West, since no other road appeared to be open for liberation from Nazi occupation and oppression. Why, then, did Western states fail to understand the German totalitarian danger when there might still have been time to prevent war? Resistance made much less sense in Eastern and Central Europe, where liberation from Nazi cruelty was followed by Stalinist terror, and where the systematic destruction by German troops of the city of Warsaw had been made possible because Stalin had ordered his troops to wait on the other side of the Vistula. As A. Anatoli (Kuznetsov) wrote in the uncensored and chilling account of Babi Yar:

The USSR’s holy war against Hitler was nothing more than a heart-rending struggle by people who wanted to be imprisoned in their own concentration camp rather than in a foreign one, while still cherishing the hope of extending their own camp to cover the whole world. There was no difference in principle between the sadism of either side.

After the war it took the West another two years — years which witnessed the Soviet occupation of Eastern and Central Europe and the breakdown of peace negotiations over the future of Germany — to understand that Stalin had fought the war with purposes fundamentally different from the democracies. The United States responded to this new totalitarian challenge with the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan. Western Europe responded with its first initiatives towards European unification. The most noteworthy were the following:

From May 8-10, 1948, European political leaders and European federalists met in the Congress of the Hague and agreed to work towards federal unity in order to attain the international political recovery of Europe.

On May 5, 1949, representatives of eighteen West European states signed the Statute of the Council of Europe and stressed their commitment to the protection of fundamental human rights. A year later they signed the unique European Convention on Human Rights in Rome.

On May 9, 1950, Robert Schuman proposed the creation of a European Community for Coal and Steel, as a concrete step towards federal unity and German-French reconciliation. It initiated Western Europe’s political-moral recovery.

The European democracies, so it appeared, had learned from their pre-war weaknesses and, with the United States, decided to embark on a policy to prevent further Soviet totalitarian expansion and to create a dynamic counterweight to communism.

In the first years of the North Atlantic Alliance, some “pessimists” were doubtful about the ability of the democracies to sustain adequate military strength and political solidarity; in particular, they doubted whether the democracies would be prepared to carry indefinitely the financial burden necessary to deter the Soviet Union. Have the early pessimists been right or wrong in the fears they expressed? In at least one respect they have been wrong. NATO has survived as a viable alliance of democratic states, despite its many crises and serious disagreements. In several other respects, they have unfortunately been right. The Soviet Union in 1984, for example, has grown more comprehensive than it was in 1948.

At the same time, many politicians in Western Europe have come to believe the opposite. They tend to look at the Soviet Union as a status quo “superpower,” fearful of encirclement, rather than as an expansionist and repressive totalitarian adversary. They have replaced the realities of Soviet totalitarianism with their self-made images of detente, military blocs, arms races and peaceful coexistence. They have often succumbed to the claim of Soviet propaganda that the assertion of an urgent need to oppose the Soviet threat is simply a revival of cold war thinking.

This re-emergence of moral and political confusion in Western Europe can be traced to three developments in the late sixties: the crisis in European integration; American involvement in the Vietnam war; and East-West detente.

The crisis in European integration was the outcome of former French President Charles de Gaulle’s attacks on American predominance in the Atlantic Alliance and on the idea of a supranational European community. In the name of an illusory French grandeur de Gaulle initiated the process of erosion in European-American confidence, and virtually destroyed the post-war political ideal of democratic federalism in Europe. Deprived of its ultimate purpose, economic integration became a process without end, provoking boredom, dispute and a revival of nationalism.

American involvement in the war in Vietnam tarnished the image of the United States as a trustworthy democratically; its outcome undermined European confidence in American power and protection. East-West detente had the opposite effect on the European image of the Soviet Union. It set the stage for a new European approach to arms control, based on the questionable assumption that war (with nuclear weapons) itself, rather than Soviet aggression, must be deterred — as if weapons fire themselves and hence their elimination eliminates war itself!

The re-emerging confusion in Western Europe made fertile soil for Soviet peace campaigns and the revival of pacifism. These, in turn, have helped narrow the debate on peace and security to the issue of cruise missiles in Western Europe. In so doing, pacifists are making a deliberate attempt to deprive our populations of an understanding of our own history and past experiences. In my own country, the Netherlands, the so-called peace movements organized demonstrations against the cruise missiles in the very week in which we were to commemorate the Second World War and liberation. Work stoppages — albeit unsuccessful — had been organized on the day (May 10) our country commemorated the 1940 invasion. Their object was to blot out our awareness of past weaknesses and failures, as if this awareness were no more than an evil dream or a “right wing” aberration.

As has once been said, those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it. For many Europeans, who still have not overcome the moral and political confusion of two world wars, it is all too attractive to forget the past and to nurture present illusions about European influence, progressive forces and American incompetence. For this very reason, it is necessary to remember our history. It was our lack of unity, our inadequate defenses, our lack of resolve- and our policies of appeasement and accommodation, that enabled the German dictatorship to deceive and overrun the West European democracies. It was the imaginative steps towards Atlantic cooperation and West European unification in the years 1947-50 that contained further Soviet expansion and created a viable community of pluralistic democracies. The situation is not different today. Democracies can survive aggressive totalitarian dictatorships only if they stand united and are prepared to protect their freedom.


  • 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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