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“Europeans forget where the spark of Enlightenment came from”

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The Enlightenment is not the result of undivided optimism. Moreover, the pessimism and optimism from which it stems have never left Europe”, writes historian Olivier Boehme about the war in Ukraine, “which sends us back to history”.

A war has been raging in Europe for almost a year, which takes us back to history. Forget for a moment this universal world order of peace and prosperity, promised in 1989. The world is de-globalising, politically and economically. After all, not only are we gradually realizing that we cannot believe ourselves safe with, among other things, Russian and Chinese superpower ambitions. The corona crisis and its consequences have also underlined that the world is not a perfectly integrated economic system. We need to rethink our “progress”.

spring evening

It was a beautiful evening in the unreal spring of 2020, inviting you to take a stroll after a busy day. The majestic 19th century facades overlooked a now almost empty city boulevard. There was an air of reverie about the socially privileged residents behind those windows in 1914, who had every reason to look to the future with confidence. Trade had never before covered so many corners of the globe. Science has made unprecedented progress on many fronts. It had even seemed that the social tensions resulting from industrialization and its formation of a worker proletariat could be managed. Economic progress and progressive reforms have taken care of that.

Residents of four years later, however, watched a Europe ravaged by war and the Spanish flu pandemic. How much more deceived the expectations of those who might have looked back thirty years later. In the meantime, Europeans have destroyed their continent for the second time, innocent people have been murdered on a large scale by criminal regimes, vital economic ties have been severed, production systems have been profoundly disrupted, social relations have been fundamentally shaken. People were deeply confused, with no illusions about a bright future. While thinkers and writers captured this mood in sometimes dated writing, the masses quickly fled back into starved materialism and a belief in the future. With that, he could forget a lot.

Sober

This seemingly promising world of the citizens of 1914 had not belonged to them at all. The intense globalization of the time had only come from the colonization of other peoples. Science had disenchanted the world and was enchanting it again with the illusion of knowledge with which everything could be controlled. A part of the working class had not been content with modest concessions, but had triggered structural reforms, peaceful and even very violent revolutions.

There, on that empty boulevard, shunned due to quarantine to contain the corona virus, thoughts of an overconfident Europe resurfaced. This atmosphere caused a historic sensation, a term that the famous cultural historian Johan Huizinga aptly used to describe what happens when the distance between past and present fades in your perception based on a place or object perceived. By experiencing this part of the past, there is then a feeling of righteousness that you normally do not feel so intensely.

The thoughts that accompanied this feeling led to the hubris that had once again reigned until this moment. Even in the past few years of seemingly irresistible progress and control over the world, fears and unease had been subdued by the apparent evidence of comfort, excess, and individual restraint. The globalized world no longer seemed to impose limits on the wealthy Westerner. In reality, it was a raging express train with the brakes of a bicycle.

Relief

Europe is proud of its Enlightenment, especially as it is embroiled in complex discussions about the beings and behaviors of its increasingly diverse citizens. In doing so, Europeans forget where this spark of Enlightenment came from, what it was, is and can go.

In any case, the Enlightenment is not the fruit of undivided optimism. Moreover, the pessimism and optimism that gave birth to it have never left Europe. The catastrophic atmosphere and the belief in progress have also never ceased to conflict in what is ominously called “the West Country”. Nor is the head of Janus, one side of which aims to renew and the other to keep dead and buried.

Let us take advantage in Europe of this confrontation of visions to try again to understand something of this world. And act accordingly.

Olivier Boehme is a historian and author of om The prosperity and pride of nations and Europe, a history of border nations.

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