The decline of civilization is as old as civilization itself. From Cassandra of Troy to Marx and Nietzsche, from Augustine of Hippo to Rousseau and Gibbon, the lamentations of latter-day Jeremiahs echo down the centuries. Never does the chorus of doom swell more volubly than in the aftermath of conflict. The Great War enabled Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West to reinvent the genre of cultural pessimism. The Second World War turned the discourse of decline into a cascade of catastrophe.
No sooner had civilization seemingly survived destruction on an apocalyptic scale than the rival intelligentsias of East and West vied with one another to dramatize its predicament. The guns fell silent on the battlefields of Europe, but the battle for the soul of civilization raged on: in classrooms and lecture halls, on the airwaves and the conference circuits, in press and parliament, throughout the Cold War and beyond. Having plumbed the depths of barbarism, Europe saw itself in a new light—or twilight, rather. For the West, it was the dawn of a new, democratic age of prosperity, led by the nations of the free world; for the Communist East, it was the dusk of “late capitalism,” of a dying imperial order that would soon be swept into oblivion.
Paul Betts has made it his mission to investigate this post-war era, a lost world yet still living in memory. His Ruin and Renewal: Civilizing Europe after World War II uses the mutating notion of civilization as a framework to examine Europe in the period during which it finally and irrevocably conceded global hegemony. His labors have divined new sources to irrigate the scorched earth of the Cold War landscape, from etiquette books that taught West Germans how not to behave like Nazis to the literature produced by Marxist-Leninist anthropologists who envisaged Africa as a laboratory for socialist experimentation. An expert on Communist East Germany, Betts bends over backwards to be fair to the Soviets and their allies. The vivid vocabulary of the West—“the free world,” say, “totalitarian” or “evil empire”—is excluded. So are the crimes that gave rise to international communism.
The climax of the book is a chapter devoted to “World Civilization,” which is an illuminating—if occasionally rose-tinted—account of the early years of unesco: the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. Fueled by the hopes of the “greatest generation,” a utopian cosmopolitanism was very much part of the zeitgeist and, until many of the new global institutions were hijacked by anti-Western forces, not the most ignoble of legacies. Alas, unesco, like other similar organizations, has been taken over by the very people it should shun. The United States, its most generous donor, has twice left unesco because of its outrageous bias against Israel—most recently in 2017 after the body designated Hebron’s Old City and Tomb of the Patriarchs, the second holiest site in Judaism, as a “Palestinian” World Heritage site thanks to its “Islamic” history. As I write, it has just elected to its Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Heritage none other than the Syria Trust for Development, a front organization of Bashar al-Assad, run by his wife Asma. The Assad regime is responsible for the destruction of most of Syria’s world heritage sites—which unesco is meant to protect. Yet Betts writes blithely that unesco still carries on its work of preservation “under the banner of world civilization.” No: under the banner of a genocidal dictator.
What would later become the European Union has had some strange bedfellows.
Much of the book is an admirable effort of empirical research, rediscovering largely forgotten episodes such as the trial and incarceration in 1949 of Cardinal Mindszenty, the Prince Primate of Hungary, by the newly established Communist regime of Mátyás Rákosi. The key terms in the conceptual armory of liberalism, such as human rights and international law, acquired their modern meanings during the epoch of decolonization. Betts surveys the furious controversies in which they emerged, citing not only the leaders of movements against colonialism, but defenders of empire, too. The latter included passionate advocates of the European idea: the Belgian Foreign Minister Paul-Henri Spaak, who ensured that colonies such as the Congo were included as “associate members” of the European Economic Community, as part of a revamped mission civilisatice known as “Eurafrica.” Then there was Carl Schmitt, the former “crown jurist” of the Third Reich, who deplored the abandonment of the Ius Publicum Europaeum, the Eurocentric view of law and civilization rooted in medieval Christendom. What would later become the European Union—which is indeed a kind of secularized Holy Roman Empire—has had some strange bedfellows.
Yet the animating idea behind this baggy monster of a book is rather more polemical than simply a post-war panorama of a divided Europe redefining its own civilization and acknowledging others. Educated at Haverford College and the University of Chicago, Betts is now Professor of European History at St Antony’s College, Oxford—a graduate foundation with a focus on international relations and global development, with strong institutional connections to the European Union. However academically prestigious, the dons of St Antony’s are anything but neutral on certain contentious issues such as migration, Brexit, or Trump. The college has this in common with the rest of Oxford and indeed almost all universities in the United Kingdom, United States, and European Union, but opinion there is probably even more unanimous than elsewhere. Hence one might expect Professor Betts to frame his view of the recent past through the prism of our present discontents. He does not disappoint.
In fact, the Bettsian view of the world in 2021 is at least as apocalyptic as any of the thinkers he invokes from the late 1940s. In a final chapter, ominously titled “New Iron Curtains,” he paints an alarming picture of a European continent in the grip of “right-wing nationalism, tribal populism and anti-Muslim xenophobia.” Half of all border walls built since 1945 have been erected after the 9/11 attacks of 2001, he tells us, as “demands to protect civilization under threat have accompanied the fortification of new Iron Curtains . . . . So there is a new specter haunting Europe, and it goes by the old name of civilization.”
Betts sets out his case with a familiar litany of villains: “strong-arm leaders across the world—from Hungary to Turkey, Russia to Egypt, China to the United States—have deployed [civilization] to bolster their conservative political outlook.” His, too, is a vision of decline, from the universalist conception of civilization in the post-war era—associated with “science, comfort, rights, and protecting civilians in war zones”—to one of “sharp boundaries,” “religious fundamentalism,” and “ethnic homogeneity.”
Betts concedes that “the ongoing recasting of civilization is not simply a story of doom and gloom.” But where does he look for solace? Not to the West, but to “Chinese sociologists” who are said to be “rethinking the history of ‘communist civilization.’ ” Others, “especially in China,” talk of “ecological civilization.” Betts argues that the covid pandemic has “brought with it a renewed one-world planetary consciousness about the mortality of humanity and civilization itself.” He hopes for “concerted action based on more universal values to preserve the future of our species.”
Historians are not obliged to be politically impartial, but it is an absurd anachronism to describe as “new Iron Curtains” the attempts by European and American countries to protect themselves against illegal mass migration. “Iron Curtain” was of course coined by Winston Churchill at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, in 1946: it had everything to do with the emerging Cold War and nothing to do with migration. The post-war era was one of huge population movements in Europe, notably the expulsion of up to fourteen million ethnic Germans, mainly from Poland and Czechoslovakia, to the western zones of Germany. Such east–west migrations continued until the erection of the Berlin Wall in 1961. Large numbers of “guest workers” also arrived by invitation to provide cheap labor, but they had limited civil and political rights. The collective social security of the welfare state requires a society with shared values. Where those values are absent—as in more recent migrations from Africa, Asia, and the Middle East—the impact on host populations is bound to be different from that of earlier upheavals within Europe. Despite the difficulties of integrating some, mainly Muslim, migrants, attempts by European nation-states to reassert sovereignty over their borders have not been accompanied by serious ethnic or religious conflicts. But jihadist terrorism and political Islam have undoubtedly made it harder to integrate some Muslim asylum seekers, particularly if they arrive undocumented and in large numbers. Yet the tensions that have inevitably arisen serve only to demonstrate the robustness of civil liberties, democracy, and the rule of law in Europe. The present debate in France, in which President Macron is reasserting Republican secularism (“laïcité ”) against Islamist “separatism” is, thus far, quite civilized. As for the notion that Brexit has unleashed a wave of racism and xenophobia in the United Kingdom: this canard has been refuted many times. In reality, the British emerge from polling data as more tolerant than their Continental neighbors; this is one reason for the absence from the Westminster Parliament of extreme right-wing parties.
Nor is it the case that the West has erased the developing world from either its consciousness or its conscience. The levels of international aid now flowing south, whether from governments or ngos, dwarf anything seen in the post-war era. More significantly, the rising nations of Africa, Asia, and Latin America have—with a few notorious exceptions— abandoned the socialist models foisted on them by Soviet-led initiatives from the 1950s to the 1970s. As a result, poverty has fallen dramatically. The danger now is the neo-colonial influence of China, which has just extinguished the independence of Hong Kong, one of the first great post-war Asian success stories. If there is a threat to law, liberty, and democracy in the world, it comes not from the West, but—as in the Cold War—from Beijing and Moscow.
Betts concludes his threnody to a lost era of progressive politics by calling as an improbable witness the novelist V. S. Naipaul—who, though Betts does not say so, was just as proud of his adoptive British citizenship as of his native Trinidad or his Indian ancestry. In a 1990 lecture in New York on “Our Universal Civilization,” the writer paid tribute to “the extraordinary attempt of this civilization to accommodate the rest of the world, and all the currents of that world’s thought.” Betts leaves open the question of whether Naipaul was speaking of the past or the future. But the authority of a Nobel laureate is clearly being invoked to suggest that, in the thirty years since, the “universal civilization” of which he spoke has been occluded by “conservative” forces.
I must declare an interest: Standpoint, a monthly magazine that I founded and edited for eleven years, was dedicated to the defense of Western civilization. According to Professor Betts, this puts me in the reactionary camp. It doesn’t help that the values we spoke up for are also those of the Enlightenment: expecting others to respect our liberties is “Eurocentric.” Defining that civilization as Judeo-Christian only makes matters worse. The language of civilization renders its defenders suspect.
Naipaul was a global version of the English man of letters.
Yet a leading member of my editorial advisory board was Naipaul. He read every issue and often sent appreciative messages via his wife, Nadira. He and I agreed implicitly on what we meant by civilization. It was indeed, as he said in that 1990 speech, universal—in the sense that it was open to all. But it owed everything, nevertheless, to the Western civilization that gave birth to it. His view of what it was to be civilized, like the Manhattan Institute where he delivered it, was conservative: as in Matthew Arnold’s definition of culture, it was the best of what has been thought and said. As he said in that speech, his family had come from India: “We were a people of ritual and sacred texts.” Original literary composition had no place. Somehow, in Trinidad, “an idea of the high civilization connected with the [English] language came to my father.” His father passed on the idea of being a writer, and Vidia realized that his vocation required him to move to England. Naipaul was deeply versed in what Goethe called Weltliteratur, the great books of all languages, but he chose the Anglosphere as his audience and Anglo-American literature as his frame of reference. He was a global version of the English man of letters and identified fiercely with the civilization that had made it possible for him to be a writer.
In his Manhattan speech, he reflected on his travels in Muslim lands and on the confrontation between Islam and the “universal” civilization created by the West. And then he recalled his hosts. Without even naming the United States, Naipaul paid tribute: “This idea of the pursuit of happiness is at the heart of the attractiveness of this civilization to so many outside it or on its periphery.” That pursuit is “an elastic idea; it fits all men. . . . It cannot be reduced to a fixed system. It cannot generate fanaticism. But it is known to exist; and because of that, other more rigid systems in the end blow away.”
That prescient speech, given immediately after the fall of the Berlin Wall and more than a decade before 9/11, explains rather well why those who lament the decline and fall of Western civilization are likely to be proved wrong. Naipaul would have rejected the nostalgia of liberals like Professor Betts for a lost golden age of the mid-twentieth century. By the time Naipaul died in 2018, he was reviled by the progressive intelligentsia. No longer content to be merely a pioneer of postcolonial literature, he had become a voice in the wilderness, or rather a defiant watchman standing guard over the civilization he loved. He loved it so much, indeed, that he could be caustic about his heritage, even though this infuriated liberals. Asked why he left Trinidad, he replied: “To join civilization.” But he always took seriously the threats from those who have always rejected our universal civilization: the Islamists and communists, the fanatics and totalitarians of all stripes. His most quoted line remains: “The world is what it is.” Only our civilization, embattled as it is, can redeem it.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 39 Number 6, on page 71
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