Rediscovering Europe’s Sensuality

Posted on June 17, 2013


 This article was first published in German in Die Achse der Guten

“It is the charm of sensuality…which in subjects of this kind reigns in all its fullness”

So observed Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Europe is losing the sensuality on which it was built and on which its future depends. Without it Europe will, once again, collapse and Germany risks, once again, finding itself at the centre of that collapse.

Europe as Transcendent Concept

Europe’s history is a sensual one. Its traditions in the arts and philosophy; its dynasties, cultures and deeply embedded traditions; its diversity within a particularly European aesthetic. And above all its humanism. For centuries, these elements have provided the foundation of the transcendent concept that is Europe. A shared identity and set of values that go beyond geography or the ever shifting borders of the individual state or nation.  Europe is a sensual, humanistic, cultural concept above all else.

Throughout our history, we have had periods where we lost sight of these foundations and a string of leaders have attempted to create a Europe that was material rather than transcendent. From the Holy Roman Empire to Napoleon to Adolf Hitler, the sensual, transcendent Europe was subverted in an attempt to create a defined, technocratically managed, material entity. All these attempts ended in catastrophe. We are going through a similar period now and it may yet also end in catastrophe.

The sensual, transcendent idea of Europe, that which forms its soul and sets its peoples’ hearts on fire has been subverted into a petty technocratic project. In many people’s minds “Europe” has come to be associated with the bureaucratic entity known as the European Union – an entity that has no soul and that will inevitably remain unloved and unwanted. Our politicians, and our political debate, seem unable to rise above the petty and small-minded concerns of technocracy. In a recent edition of Time magazine, IMF chief Christine Lagarde was quoted as saying that we needed “to focus on the long-term backbone of Europe to make it a strong regional, monetary, banking and fiscal institution.”  Really? Is that all that is left as a long-term backbone of Europe? It is no wonder that the European people are turning away from such a limited, pedestrian, insubstantial, dry view of Europe. Technocrats have taken over from statesmen as leaders of the European project and in the process they are destroying Europe’s soul. And, as clearly expressed by the leader of the European Parliament Martin Schultz, “the moment people withdraw their support from an idea, the idea is finished.”

Embracing German Leadership 

Willingly or not, Germany has been thrust into a leadership position in today’s Europe and it is now saddled with a historic responsibility that it may not have sought and may be reticent to embrace. Yet Germany can, and can become willing to lead the way. To do so, Germany needs to reach back and draw on its rich humanistic past; the Germany of Kant, Goethe, Schiller, Hegel, Heidegger, Brecht, Weber, and German romanticism. For it is they who have built the real Europe, not the bureaucrats, economists and central bankers of today. To move in that direction, Germany needs the sort of leadership that it has had in the past – even in the recent past.  True leaders like Konrad Adenauer and Willy Brandt. Leaders who are not caught in the pettiness of small minded technocratic detail but who can bring forward yet again that powerful yet intangible essence which, for centuries, made Europe Europe.

And we need a fresh narrative.

Embracing Diversity

Cultural diversity has always been an integral part of the European concept. It is that which has given Europe its richness and a large part of its sensuality. Those who have attempted to impose a single “unifying” cultural vision of Europe have always failed. Most recently, it was Nazi Germany that subverted and corrupted the Nietzschean idea of the Übermensch into a culture of intolerance that privileged the technical over the humanistic while attempting to eliminate by any means that which did not fit the narrow, militaristically organized ideas of how things should be. Germany is, rightly, unwilling to be forced into that position again.

Yet this is what the people of Europe are fearing.  They fear that they are to be subjected to a fake “truth” imposed by unelected technocrats aided and abetted by utilitarian politicians who are incapable of being statesmen. They fear that a Germany that becomes convinced of the righteousness of its own model as the only right way has forgotten Nietzsche’s clarity that: “Truths are illusions whose illusionness is overlooked.” They fear that history is repeating itself with the new oppressive tyranny of unelected officials from the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund willing to sweep away the democratic underpinning that is so integral to Europe’s being. Today’s technocrats seem to take seriously Brecht’s ironic “solution” that it might be better if governments were to dissolve the people and elect an alternative. And our politicians seem too weak to resist it. Shamefully, some even go along with it or hide behind it.

The German people are right to reject leadership of this corrupting project.

The Destructive Spectacles

In a recent interview with Der Spiegel, Lithuania’s President Dalia Grybauskaite was quoted as saying: “Some states, inside and outside the euro zone, have difficulties because of their irresponsible economic and fiscal policies.” This is today’s “truth” being sold also to the German people. In Kant’s terms, these are the spectacles through which we are being encouraged to see Europe. But this “truth” is both factually incorrect and anti-European. When combined with the narrative of a lazy, corrupt, inefficient European south, it encourages us to see Europe through destructive spectacles that create a dangerous illusion that is eating away at Europe’s soul. It is a populist narrative that is as dangerous and as contemptible as the rhetoric of the extreme right.

Europe Needs German Leadership

In the current geopolitical map, Europe needs Germany’s leadership more than it needs Germany’s money. But it needs a visionary leadership not merely a technocratic one. Leadership does not mean the use of the new weapon – money – to impose Germany’s will, something which, according to Helmut Schmidt, has ended in disaster for Germany itself whenever it was attempted. Rather it is the ability to define a vision that resonates with the peoples of Europe and to muster widespread support behind that vision. It’s a tall order. To achieve it we need leaders who are willing and able to recover Europe’s soul not just its balance sheet. Statesmen who understand the long sweep of history and who, as they seek to imagine a meaningful future, are willing to spend just as much of their time with philosophers, historians, cultural scholars, artists and humanists as they are with bureaucrats, economists and central bankers. Political leaders who can see Europe not merely as an economic machine to be micro managed according to a single “one size fits all” technical manual that is most likely flawed; but as a sublime, diverse and near mystical landscape of cultures, peoples, places, ideas and ideals.  A landscape which, as envisioned by Caspar David Friederich, must always be seen as more majestic than any individual leader or group, however powerful that individual or group may seem at any particular moment. A Europe where, inspired by Schiller’s Spieltrieb, shared ideals, humanistic values, social cohesion and respect for people in all parts of the continent within a sensual European aesthetic are more important than petty monetary constructions like the Euro or the European Central Bank.

We may be going through another of Europe’s many historic moments and Germany finds itself at its epicentre. As the German people prepare for what may be an election of crucial importance to Europe, everyone is watching and hoping that a visionary leadership can emerge. One that can help us all re-discover Europe’s sensuality and, once again, become enchanted by it.

History is not on our side. Previous historic moments have been enveloped in violence and failure as narrow visions of Europe have repeatedly and unsuccessfully tried to impose themselves on our diverse cultural landscape. The violence has already started – in both physical and political forms – and the failures are there for all to see. Can a German leadership help dig us out or are we once more to be condemned to Schiller’s reflection that: “a great moment has found a little people”?

A print version of this article in English can be downloaded here