When the news broke that Notre Dame in Paris was on fire a few weeks ago, I was caught by surprise. Unlike most of Europe that seemed to be in shock about it, seeing such an overwhelming wave of solidarity sweeping through the public made me a bit sceptical. In 2019 Europe I was not used to that anymore on such a scale. Uniting left and right, everything in between and on their fringes, people with differing social backgrounds, occupations, people from different countries and of different age. Apparently Notre Dame was something that everyone could relate to. The terrorist attacks of late 2015 in the same city did not quite have the same effect. Overall, the public was far more hesitant back then. Now, politicians from a wide spectrum of camps chimed in and made it their topic for a while. The media in Europe behaved as expected, jumping on the topic of public attention, mostly quite uncritically reproducing mainstream opinion. Billions of funds to rebuild the cathedral were raised within days, if not hours.
I was caught by surprise, really. And this made me think about it more thoroughly.
At some point a friend mentioned the poem ‘Campo dei Fiori’ by Czesław Miłosz, an American-Polish Nobel Laureate, to me. The poem touches on atrocities committed in the cities of Rome and Warsaw, albeit on a different scale and at different times. Rome in 1600 Czesław Miłosz depicts while Giordano Bruno is being burning at the stake at Campo dei Fiori square. Warsaw he portrays in 1943 when the Nazis killed thousands of inhabitants of the Jewish Ghetto. The crucial element in his analogy that he so movingly carved out of these tragic events is the wave of indifference on their margins: While Giordano Bruno was burned alive in Campo dei Fiori, the atmosphere there was joyful. People where minding their business, the square was full of life. No one seemed to be disturbed by the stake in the middle of the square. Similar so in 1943 Warsaw. The tragedy in the burning ghetto did not seem to bother the people outside who were enjoying a spring evening, jauntily living life in the fullest way possible at those times.
In his poem, Czesław Miłosz portrayed a crowd that is not interested in the human tragedies unfolding right next to them, it is indifferent about it. All this drew my attention to the state our world is in right now, what is happening around us.
On an unprecedented scale, there is an environmental disaster unfolding before our eyes. The Syrian war is in its ninth year leaving millions of peoples displaced and hundred thousands dead. Humanitarian aid pledges to help at least a few of the approximately 68 million people worldwide to meet their urgent needs remain largely unanswered. Others are drowning in the Mediterranean on the way to a better live on other shores. Sometimes hundreds of them at once. At the same time, inequality is growing. Divisive political rhetoric and nationalistic, anti-democratic movements have made democracy backslide, significantly so within Europe itself. A new breed of entrepreneurial political leaders is turning politics into a business that maximises investments instead of taking responsibility for the rule of law, democratic institutions and processes.
Europe hears about these events and developments by swiping over the displays of mobile phones borne out of inhumane working conditions and conflict minerals. I could easily go on but I am stop right there. The whole point simply is that it is against this background that Notre Dame caught me by surprise: Even though all these unfolding tragedies and problematic developments are not happening far from Notre Dame, Europe usually notices them with astonishment, paralyzingly entertained at best. Just as in Czesław Miłosz poem, the crowds are cheerful, minding their own business. Other than during the Notre Dame fire there is hardly a trace of public solidarity to be found.
It was Jean Monnet, the influential supporter of European unity, who said that “Europe will be forged in crises, and will be the sum of the solutions adopted for those crises.” Looking at Europe and its environment, there seems to be plenty of need for solutions. And a Europe that is united on this is more important than ever. But not at any price though. It cannot be built on solidarity over symbols like Notre Dame. Simply because Europe would then be reduced to nothing more than a hollow pursuit of things of the past.
What Europe urgently needs is a partaking solidarity. It needs to engage, care, look forward, embrace the possibilities of politics just as it needs to embrace distinctive individualities. It needs to celebrate differences. Also, Europe needs to look at crises surrounding and challenging it and make a stand to solve them. For this it needs an optimistic apocalyptic stance to what is happening in the world in order to infuse a thinking that kick starts something new, creates new symbols, recharges values.
“An optimistic view on pessimism is founded in the fact that the roots of creativity are not based on the blind belief in the future that – in fact – nobody knows and is regarded to be a given continuation of the present with other means but on the virtue that stems from the despair of the state of the world.” (Konrad Paul Liessmann)
For one thing is sure, any “Europe reloaded” can only be borne out of its current challenges, not the ones that it overcame in the past. For this to be achieved the biggest obstacle is overcoming the one thing that easily might be the biggest threat of our time, that is, indifference.
With that being said, have a happy Europe Day, Europe! Celebrate, sure. But not for too long because there is a lot of work to be done.