Simon Schama: Why America Should Care About the Collapse of European Unity

Roundup: Historians' Take

Simon Schama is a professor of history and art history at Columbia University.  He has been an essayist and critic for The New Yorker since 1994, his art criticism winning the National Magazine Award in 1996. Parts III and IV of his new series, The American Future: A History, air Tuesday night at 8 p.m. on BBC America.

In September 1946, much of Europe had been reduced to smoking rubble. Bitter hardship and gnawing hunger were the lot of millions. The curtain had come down on one monstrous theater of violence and cruelty only to have it rise on others. Unnumbered multitudes languished in displaced-persons camps, with millions more living as refugees from their ancestral lands and homes. An immense Soviet Army had brought liberation, but along with it a contagion of rape and the sinister prospect of new Stalinist tyranny lurking like a predator in the shadows, waiting to pounce on the wasted, fragile democracies.

It was against this bleak backdrop that Winston Churchill, no longer British prime minister but nonetheless assuming the mantle of the prophet, addressed the University of Zurich. In a speech not much remembered today but packed with visionary power, Churchill addressed a continent in agonized distress. “I wish to speak to you today on the tragedy of Europe,” he began, summoning from his rumbling baritone the deepest notes of grandeur. The only way forward for the shattered continent, Churchill said, was “to re-create the European family”—to make some sort of greater union of the continent’s disparate, perpetually warring parts....

It’s important to recall these heroic beginnings rising out of the ash pit of disaster, even as we survey what might be the dispiriting spectacle of the undoing of the common European project. On this side of the Atlantic (and perhaps in parts of the Pacific, too), there is a certain amount of unseemly schadenfreude mixed into the apprehensiveness of the markets at the prospect of the unraveling euro zone taking the whole larger common European enterprise down with it. Credit-rating agencies—those ravening hyenas of fiscal trouble—move on from one economy, mutilated by sovereign-debt downgrade, to another, traveling north from the basket cases of the Mediterranean, crossing the Alps in search of freshly fallen game. You might think that the agencies that were the enablers of the subprime calamity and were capable of making a trillion-dollar error in calculating American debt reduction over the next decade would have the decency to go into hiding for just a while before presuming to decree the viability of hard-pressed states to meet their bond obligations. But a kind of reverse Marshall Plan ethos of meanness is at work these days, combining maximum sanctimoniousness about unsustainable deficits with an insistence on precisely the kind of measures least likely to reduce them: draconian public-sector austerity that leaches demand out of the economy, precluding a return to growth, and opportunistically punitive interest rates for sovereign debt bonds that only add to their burden, stoking the fires of political rage....

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