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Europe needs a new story

Europe needs a new story

Photographer:Fotograaf: Merlijn Doomernik

Schuman Lecture by writer Ian Buruma

Learning from the past. It is a cliché that is often neither here nor there, the writer and historian Ian Buruma will argue in his Schuman lecture The Wrong lessons from history, next week. And what about the endless comparisons with the Second World War then? Is it right to call Baudet a fascist? “It is not completely unfounded.”

Buruma figured prominently in the news on two occasions recently, favourably as well as unfavourably. At the beginning of this year, he won a major literature prize, the Gouden Ganzeveer, for his “unique view on the world,” the jury said. A few months before that, he was fired as editor-in-chief of The New York Review of Books.

Buruma asked the Canadian radio presenter Jian Ghomeshi, who was accused of sexual abuse in 2014, to write an article about his experiences. Ghomeshi was acquitted due to lack of evidence. The criticism on the article was severe. His editorial staff was divided and, according to Buruma, university publishers threatened with a boycott.

“They did have one point though,” Buruma reckoned afterwards in an NRC interview. “When you ask an accused person like that to tell his story, you must force him to be much clearer about what exactly he was accused of.”

Learning from the past. This is also the underlying idea in his Schuman lecture (organised by Studium Generale), not on a personal level, but on the international stage. There where it has become a cliché, says Buruma, encased in the famous words of the Spanish-American philosopher and poet George Santayana: Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

This statement is quoted time and again, but it doesn't always stand up to scrutiny, says the writer in a telephone interview from his place of residence in New York. “I feel knowledge of history is very important, also to understand the time in which one is living. But the idea that you can always learn important lessons from it, is incorrect. All too often, contemporary references to the past lead to the wrong conclusions, the creation of myths and the wrong decisions.”

Look at the large-scale bombing of German cities in the Second World War, which resulted in so many civilian casualties. “The decision was taken by people who had experienced the trenches in the First World War, who had served in the armies that slowly massacred each other. That never again, was the idea. That is why the Second World War had to be ended as quickly as possible, but the bombardments resulted in just as much horror as the war that was fought in the trenches. Maybe even more.”

How useful are comparisons with WW II? Right-wing populists such as Baudet are quickly labelled as fascists.

“I find this a tricky point. If you start using terms such as Fascists and Nazis, the discussion immediately falls flat. It is difficult to defend yourself against that. It also conjures up associations that go too far. After all, Baudet is not sending Brownshirts onto the streets to beat people up. On the other hand, it is true - and that is new in post-war history - that Baudet delves up all kinds of ideas from the beginning of the twentieth century that prepared the way for Fascism and Nazism. So the comparison is not completely unfounded. Baudet places himself in a certain tradition and that is why I feel it is legitimate to bring attention to it.”

What ideas should we think of?

“Voters say that it is refreshing that Baudet wants to defend our civilisation against external stains, or that he feels that the voice of the people is so important, but these are ideas that were also presented a hundred years ago. Mussolini was the man of the referenda, of the conviction that it would be better to abolish parliament because of decadence and suchlike. Ideas like that haven't been heard for a long time, because they were taboo, because it was too fresh in everyone's minds what those ideas had led to. So, in this case, knowledge of the past is most definitely important because you can place things. Only when you know nothing about these matters, does Baudet sound refreshing.”

The ideas may have been presented before but it was in a world that is in no way similar to ours.

“That is true, the world has changed, but the ideas are the same and in the past they led to something evil. And it could, probably in another manner, happen again. Imagine that a politician proclaims Stalinist opinions, then you could also say ‘we no longer live in nineteen-twenties’ Russia’. But then you can still point out that those thoughts are unsound and can lead to disaster.”

What is according to you the greatest problem of the EU in 2019?

“That they are losing the trust of many citizens. People don't believe in it any more. They look at the world differently than the generation that set up what was then the EEC. They saw integration as a guarantee that in particular France and Germany would not take up arms again. Young people today no longer see this as a real threat and therefore not as a reason for integration either. Something new needs to thought up, a new story.”

Should we not remind young people of those reasons for integration?

“That could be a solution and it may be necessary, but I don't think it will be sufficient. Similarly, you cannot stop the decline of left-wing political parties by reminding people that those parties once stood up for the interests of the working class. Circumstances have changed too much.”

Some people claim that the EU needs a new founding moment.

“Yes, maybe it does. But then you need a basis in which people can believe.”

You are referring to that new story.

“Yes, but don't ask me what that should be, because I don't know. One thing that is certain, is that European countries can do very little by themselves in a world in which they can no longer rely on the US, and in which countries such as China, India and Russia play an increasingly greater role. If Europe were to disband, it would be on the basis of the same illusions as those that inspired the Brexiteers: that England can do better by itself than as a member of the EU. Which is absolutely wrong.”

Where does the dissatisfaction of Dutch right-wing populists come from?

“You often hear that they have attracted many voters who have missed out in the global economy. Except, in the Netherlands relatively few people have missed out. We are a prosperous, calm and stable country. So when someone like Baudet scores so highly, it is a peculiar phenomenon. I think that it has more to do with the changing nature of the left. Whereas the Social Democrats in principle represented the interests of the less well-off and working classes, from the nineteen-seventies onwards, this has changed. The left-wing has focused increasingly on matters such as racism, immigration and climate change. And in doing so the tendency has emerged to practice politics in terms of good and evil. European integration and admitting immigrants is good, and if you are against that, then you are not only wrong but you are also evil.”

And people no longer accept that.

“No, they rebelled against it. For that matter, the Netherlands has a long tradition of virtuous politics. Look at the regents in the seventeenth century. They didn't derive their right to rule the country from their riches or class, but because of the protestant idea of virtuousness. You can see it in the portraits by Frans Hals: we know what is good for the people because we are virtuous Christians. The Dutch Provos already protested against this regent mentality in the nineteen-sixties. And now it is happening again.”

The Schuman lecture by writer Ian Buruma (in English) will be held in the lecture hall on Tongersestraat 53, at 20:00hrs

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