Steve Haycox: Like Europe, US can learn from history

commentDecember 6, 2012 

Exploring the churches, museums and neighborhood of Vienna on an end-of-November visit, the sense of history is palpable. One cannot be insensitive to the position of this city of "hohe kultur" on the hinter edge of old western Christendom, the border between western Europe and the long and fiercely contested lands to the east. Vienna was the bastion of the western world, successfully defending against the relentless attacks of the Ottoman Turks from the late 15th century on.

The people in those eastern lands have been ground down by religious, ethnic and nationalist conflict for centuries, perhaps most brutally, as Timothy Snyder wrote recently in his chilling account, "Bloodlands," between 1933 and 1945. For 12 years, the Soviet and Nazi regimes seemed to compete with each other to see who could murder the most innocents, and 14 million between the Oder-Neise and the Dnieper, between the Baltic and Black Seas, were deliberately and systematically exterminated for no other reason than that they weren't good enough, were supposedly inferior.

But the peoples of the region had already set the example themselves, as Robert Kaplan wrote in his first major travel book on the "Bloodlands," though he didn't call them that. In the Balkan mini-states, the clannish hatreds stretch back often to the Middle Ages.

Kaplan called them "Balkan Ghosts." The bottom line is one group's absolute conviction that it is better than another, that its people are superior.

Western Europeans did not escape such fatal prejudices. Quite the contrary; they repeatedly organized them into powerful engines of devastation, most destructively between 1618 and 1648, and again after 1914 and after 1939. But under the blanket of U.S. security since 1945, the Western Europeans have transcended their past and have learned to live in peace with one another. Modern immigration policies across the European Union countries struggle to catch up.

The United States escaped much of that history through the early adoption of the classical liberal ideals of the Enlightenment. But not all of them. The as yet not fully acknowledged American brand of slave labor was the foundation of the freedom and prosperity of the aristocracy and a growing middle class, of their liberation from ethnic and religious persecution and violence.

Thus the Americans have been free to reinvent themselves countless times, evolving from a class-centered society toward classlessness, from an agricultural society to an urban one, from an agrarian culture to an urbane one, from a production- to a service- and financials-driven economy, and from the injustice and inconsistency of race-consciousness toward the humanity of an integrated diversity. Escaping the history of its origins, the United States has generated unparalleled individual freedom, choice and creativity.

But such freedom has its costs. The lack of continuity with the past allowed Americans to ignore serious structural problems in their society, most notably the challenge of addressing those unable to use freedom wisely and productively. Europe tackled that challenge a century and a half ago. Otto von Bismarck implemented the first social service and social justice policies for the several Germanies soon after their unification. Western European nations have been perfecting those policies ever since. It is the positive side of a people conscious of their history, struggling with it, and it's part of the reason the Nobel Peace Prize this year went to the European Union.

Now, as Pete Dupont wrote last week in The Wall Street Journal, there are Americans who fear we are embarked on four more years of the "Europeanization of America," by which he means "putting the government in charge of all that we do -- from stricter management of the economy and family and health decisions, to higher taxes and higher government spending." In fact, Europeanization of America is in the best interest of a responsible freedom, cognizant of the legitimacy of one's fellow citizens, regardless of their differences.

The downtown streets of Vienna were filled with demonstrators last week demanding a more inclusive and supportive refugee policy. The police facilitated and protected the demonstrators while commuters waited patiently in tram stations for the marchers to pass. This is a Europe that has learned well from its history. Perhaps we are seeing today an America that can too.


Steve Haycox is professor emeritus of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

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