Column | Ah. Europe – NRC

Polish artists worked in the studio houses next to us in Worpswede, Germany, where we stayed for two weeks in 1984. I had just discovered their poet Zbigniew Herbert and they admired him too. How much we had in common, how easy it was to talk to each other: we were all part of a European culture.

We were also surrounded by it, in Worpswede a century earlier the Old Worpsweder lived and worked, artists of whom Paula Modersohn-Becker, Otto Modersohn and Heinrich Vogeler were (and are) the most famous. Rilke had written about them (well, only about the men) – the culture jumped at you from all sides in Worpswede. European culture.

Later, the Wall came down and the civilization that Central Europe symbolized was once again free to flow from the coffeehouses, where people talked about literature and history, Goethe and Wittgenstein, democracy and human rights. Ah. Europe.

I can say that for many years I have been more or less proud of that Europe, even if it was not my own merit. But I was also part of it with some eagerness. I saw the lesser episodes in history mainly as attacks on that culture. As if they came from undetermined “hostile elements.”

Now that attitude is hard to maintain. Refugees arriving in Europe are shocked. “I don’t know what we did to be treated so badly,” said the Afghan refugee Atifa Akbari, who eventually managed to escape to a refugee camp in the cradle of our democratic tradition, inhumane Greece.

Photo Hazem Ahmed/Reuters

The European Union recently signed a deal with Tunisia and said, through Ursula von der Leyen, that this is how we fight criminal smugglers. Our own prime minister was beaming next to it. A week later we saw images from the desert where bodies were found of withered men, of dead mothers and children who, thanks to us, do not provide work for the smugglers.

Even Caroline de Gruyter, a tireless advocate of the EU, recently considered it impossible that the EU would become a radical right-wing organization, under the guise of defending European culture.

Dead mothers and children who, thanks to us, do not provide work for the smugglers

Culture, of course, is not about Zbigniew Herbert, who wrote delightfully haughtily about his aversion to communism: „a barracks called the Palace of Justice”, „no distinctio in the argument” and who would undoubtedly extend this contempt to those in power today who believe that European culture must be defended against anyone who comes from outside. So maybe also against someone like the Senegalese-French writer Mohamed Mbougar Sarr who met La plus secrete mémoire des hommes wrote one of the best European and also critical novels you could wish for as Europe. Awarded the Prix Goncourt, that is.

Yet pride has given way to shame. Even now you are part of Europe, of the good and the bad. And even now there are of course plenty of politicians and artists with whom you could feel connected through something like ‘European culture’. It doesn’t take away that feeling of shame. “And only our dreams are not humbled,” wrote Herbert.