By Eugène E.
There is a magical quality about Christmas. Given the momentousness that the birth of Jesus Christ had for the Christian canon, perhaps it can’t be otherwise; but as I sit at home, enjoying the subdued glitter of the Christmas tree and the euphonious sentimentality of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker, I can’t help but feel that I am immersed in a wintry fairy tale. If there is a time when an adult can be forgiven for expecting a miracle, surely this must be it. A most joyous time, in a word.
Yet when my roving glance wanders away from the Christmas tree and settles on my bookshelves, the mood darkens. I see a copy of Stefan Zweig’s The World of Yesterday, his paean to a Europe that had once been and which, as he set out to write the memoir, was now racing towards its doom, full steam ahead. Inevitably I ponder his fate and think of yet another man. That man’s name is Dominique Venner.
On the surface of it, there is not much that unites the two men. They were born half a century apart, and they varied sharply both in their accomplishments and legacy. One was an Austrian writer, whose name, at least in the German-reading world, was a household one. He has gone down in history as the author of fiction (and some non-fiction too), much of which is still delightfully readable, particularly the fin-de-siècle Vienna vignettes. The other was a French historian and essayist, whose works were unlikely to appeal to anyone who wasn’t close to the far-right strain of the French political landscape. He has gone down in history – for the time being, anyway – as the man who shot himself in Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris in front of bewildered tourists in 2013. One was an assimilated Jew, the other a product of a milieu that, traditionally at least, was inimical to all things Jewish. If the two had found themselves at the same dinner, it is unlikely they would have found much to say to each other.
Yet, though neither one of them would have realized it at the hypothetical dinner table, at least in one major facet of life – perhaps the major facet of life – the two had something eerily in common. They both committed suicide; more to the point, they did it for much the same reason. They had surveyed their world, realized it was crumbling, and decided that life in the ashes was no life at all. Their world – which may not have been the only world they knew, but certainly the only one either man cared about – was Europe; and if the symptoms of the fatal disease that they had perceived were completely different, the diagnosis was the same: their Europe was singing its swan song.
Was the diagnosis accurate? In a way, it certainly was. It doesn’t matter that Europe survived the horrors of World War II and that, barring some disaster that will obliterate human civilization, Europe will probably live to see another day yet again. As Jonathan Franzen wrote, apocalypse is always personal. The world of chimney sweepers ended when chimney sweepers were no longer needed, even though it was in no sense the end of the world as such. A new Europe came about after World War II, but it bore no resemblance to Zweig’s Europe, whose soil was now soaked with blood and covered with rubble. A new Europe is being forged in front of our very eyes, but it will have nothing to do with Venner’s Europe, which was, whatever its flaws and defects, European, and which is today facing the potential disappearance of its native population. If Muslims become a majority in Europe fifty years from now (not an implausible scenario), Europe will still continue to exist as a continent; but its innate Europeanness will have been lost. That kind of Europe Venner could not accept.
The appropriateness of their own personal responses to the conclusions they had drawn is a different matter. One could accuse Zweig of a certain degree of selfishness or cowardice (as some did): after all, he was lucky to have escaped Hitler’s Europe; while he and his wife were living in safety in Brazil, millions of European Jews were being sent to the gas chambers. As for Venner, one might say that suicide at the age of 78 is hardly an act of heroism. Zweig at least had the excuse of being cut off from his homeland; Venner had no such excuse. Yet suicide – that irrevocable step into the maw of eternal darkness, into the black void, into the great unknown – is a lot of things, but cowardice it is not; and it takes a special kind of arrogance to pass judgment on the moral choices of those who find themselves in the throes of the gloomiest kind of despair.
The history of World War II has largely been written (insomuch as the history of anything can ever be definitively written, that is); the history of today has not, since it is still ongoing. Zweig’s suicide can be placed in its historical context with some degree of confidence; Venner’s suicide, for those who are sufficiently interested in the man and his ideas to attempt to place him in a historical context, will not be placeable for quite some time. But the dramatic fashion in which he killed himself (without, it should be pointed out, hurting anyone else) perhaps deserves some attention.
It isn’t necessary to adopt or feel comfortable with the many strands of the discourse of someone like Venner in order to agree with what seems to be its main thesis: through depopulation and enfeeblement, European civilization is dying.
What is the modern European ruler like? Generalities are dangerous, but what do British Prime Minister Theresa May, French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni, and Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar have in common? None of them have children of their own – not a single one of them. The first people of Europe’s biggest countries have no issue to speak of. Of course, having children need not be a professional requirement for a national leader. Neither the formidable Charles XII of Sweden nor Frederick the Great had any offspring, but it did not make the former any less formidable and the latter any less great. But it would be futile to look for a Charles XII or a Frederick the Great among the current crop of leaders lording it over Europe, who are bureaucrats with political acumen at best, lucky political cheerleaders at worst; and it is no pointless exercise to ask whether childless national leaders are sufficiently invested in the future to formulate sound policies that will protect those who will be around when that future arrives.
Engagement with the future aside, this barrenness among European paladins also reflects, to an extent, the societies they lead. Even the greatest leader cannot be divorced from his times and zeitgeist. Napoleon would have felt distinctly out of place if he’d found himself not in late-eighteenth-century France, but in 21st-century Canada. To a degree, a national leader epitomizes the society he leads. The indigenous population of Europe is shrinking, and it would be surprising if its political establishment dazzled the electorate with its fecundity. This will only happen when the Muslim polity in Europe is sizeable enough to be fully in control of the government apparatuses.
And what about the people these childless leaders lead? I have already written about the demographic crisis in Europe and am likely to do so again. For now, I will ask the reader to consider the results of a poll conducted in the aftermath of the Crimean crisis of 2014, when many in Europe were haunted by visions of Russian tanks charging across Europe all the way to Lisbon. According to the poll, the number of people willing to fight for their country was under 30% in the major countries of Western Europe (France, Germany, the UK, and Italy) – with the lowest in Germany, where less than 20% of respondents expressed readiness to take up arms if required. The results for Western Europe on the whole were equally dismal.
These kinds of polls should be taken with a healthy dose of skepticism, but an unwillingness to fight is a mark of a lack of vitality. So is a lack of desire to procreate. Vitality is what keeps people going, growing and thriving. The opposite of vitality is decay, death. If a country such as Germany had vitality, it would not be in need of millions of migrants from the Middle East to replenish its population. Such is the Europe of today, then: childless leaders elected by their equally childless citizens.
Dwell on this long enough, and you might well wonder if you’re not starting to make out a requiem among the frilled melodies of The Nutcracker, this masterpiece of Western civilization. As the world prepares to change the calendar, for the eighteenth time this century, we indulge in our New Year’s wishes, secret or otherwise. For my part, my wish is that we never get to hear a requiem for the Europe we know and love, and for the great civilization that we cherish.
Happy New Year.