Forget America, this is the European century

SATURDAY ESSAY
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The Independent Culture
IN 1941, the publisher Henry Luce wrote a now-legendary article urging the United States to enter the war in Europe, mould the post-war world, and accept its role as a global power. If it did so, he predicted, people all over the world would concede that this was the "American" century.

At the time, Luce's prophecy was dismissed, even by Americans, as just the sort of pronouncement one might expect from a man with an evangelical temperament and the arrogance to call his magazines Time, Life, and Fortune.

Today, no one sneers at Luce. Instead, they embrace his concept of an American century as if this were the only possible way to describe the history of the past 100 years. Or to conceive of the future. In the May/June issue of the influential journal Foreign Affairs, Mortimer Zuckerman - the publisher of US News and World Report - argues that the US is so affluent and technologically ingenious that the 21st century will surely be as dominated by America as was the 20th.

In Britain and on the continent, people are equally taken with Luce's hypothesis. At a recent conference in Leipzig, German scholars recalled how important the American military and cultural presence has been in their country since 1945. The imprint of America's century, they insisted, was discernible everywhere, from missiles to movies.

Meanwhile, Harrold Evans, the former editor of the London Sunday Times is publishing in October his illustrated history of the US entitled, not surprisingly, The American Century. And with the year 2000 almost upon us, what pundit or professor can resist the opportunity to ruminate on the American century?

But perhaps we would do better to question, rather than embrace without thought, the Lucean vision. Should the 20th century be characterised as distinctively American? Or did the most important events of our century take place - just as they had in the 18th and 19th centuries - in Europe? Could the 20th century be more accurately described as the European instead of the American century?

America's impact on this century is indisputable. It has been a pioneer in mass production, mass consumption, and mass culture, innovations that have magnified America's global influence and transformed modern life. Because of the ubiquity of American products, advertisements, music, movies, television programmes, theme parks, and fast food emporiums, people on every continent feel - sometimes uneasily - that they are living in an Americanised world.

Yet Europe's wars and ideological conflicts have done far more to shape the way people think and act than has Hollywood or Disneyland. The manipulativeness of America's mass culture has been inconsequential compared to the murderousness of Europe's mass movements. Europeans have therefore remained, unhappily, at the centre of the world's history.

Nothing illustrates this better than the two World Wars. Both wars, while they eventually involved America's armies, were less cataclysmic for Americans, especially on the home front, than they were for Europeans. America's cities were not bombed; its natural resources were not devastated; its civilian population was not terrorised. Europeans, in contrast, spent both the war years and the years after the wars - from 1917 until 1989 - living in the shadow of the totalitarian messiahs, along with their gulags and concentration camps.

The Bolshevik and Nazi revolutions as well as the Cold War were essentially struggles over the post-war fate of Europe. Indeed, the rise and fall of totalitarianism is the central political and human drama of the 20th century. And it is predominantly a European drama in which the US played a significant but secondary role.

In the loftier realm of science and the arts, it is usually said that after 1945, America, or at least New York, became the home of Western culture. This was certainly a reversal from the time before World War II when Americans regarded their own culture as a second-rate imitation of Europe's; and when American novelists, painters, and composers thought they had to go to London, Paris, or Berlin to learn the latest theories and techniques.

But the postwar cultural pre-eminence of the United States was largely dependent on the contributions of Europeans. The construction of the atom bomb, the emergence of abstract expressionism as a uniquely American form of painting, and the evolution of American literature from Ernest Hemingway to Thomas Pynchon could not have occurred without the influence of European ideas or the flight of scholars and intellectuals from Nazi Germany to the US.

Even the global popularity of American movies is inconceivable without the presence in Hollywood of European directors, cinematographers, set designers, writers, and stars.

As we near the end of the century, Europe is again engaged in the most important of contemporary arguments over economic integration and the effort to achieve a balance between the free market and social welfare. The debate presently going on in Germany, France, Holland, and Britain is about how to create a mixed economy which will combine the values of privatisation and deregulation with social benefits like mass transit and state-funded medical care, services that barely exist in the US.

Stylistically, and in their campaign slogans, Tony Blair and Gerhard Schroder may well be clones of Bill Clinton, as their critics claim. But they confront electorates which do not share the American aversion to government programs. So while President Clinton talks vaguely about building bridges to the 21st century, Blair and Schroder focus more substantively on the large public issues that will likely dominate economic and political discussion in that century.

One of those issues, the rapid expansion of a global economy and culture, is being propelled as much by British and European as by American corporations. Indeed, the most significant of the current multinational mergers consist of European companies taking over American firms.

Daimler-Benz purchases Chrysler; Bertelsmann buys Random House; Pierson Ltd takes over Simon and Schuster. In the meantime, Hachette - France's leading book and magazine publisher - helps finance George, the glossy monthly published by John F Kennedy, Jr, while the editor of the New Yorker, Tina Brown, is British.

The resistance to these instances of globalisation has also been rooted in Europe. From the civil wars in the former Yugoslavia to the separatist movements in Belgium and Spain, we see an anti-global sentiment that is shared by people around the world.

Occasionally, the resentment of globalisation inspires efforts within European countries to preserve regional dialects, as in the case of Gaelic, Welsh, Frisian, Provencal or Catalan. More often, the result is an eruption of nationalism, populism, ethnic assertiveness, and religious or linguistic sectarianism. But whatever its form, the discomfort with a global economy and culture has been a characteristically European phenomenon.

So was Henry Luce wrong? Not entirely. American military power was crucial in ending Europe's wars, hot and cold. The US did become a missionary on behalf of democratic capitalism, just as Luce hoped it would. And America's economic methods and cultural exports have changed how all of us work, what we buy, and how we entertain ourselves.

But this is a century that has been marked by extraordinary achievements in the arts and in sciences like physics and psychology, most of them originating in Britain and on the continent. It is also a century that has been plagued by totalitarian movements and state policies that resulted in the slaughter of millions, tragedies originating in Europe as well.

One can only wish that Henry Luce had been entirely right. Because if he were, then maybe the past 100 years would not have seemed so indelibly - at times for the better but mostly for the worst - the European century.

The writer is a Fulbright professor in American Studes at Bonn University.

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