In 1683, a Turkish army reached the suburbs of Vienna. The outcome trembled in the balance until Jan Sobieski of Poland arrived with his army, threw back the Ottomans and finally freed western Europe from the threat of Muslim domination, thus completing the work begun by Charles Martel at Poitiers in 732.
Or did he? Today, there are plenty of Europeans who would say: "Charles Martel, Jan Sobieski, you are needed at this hour." There are widespread fears that Muslim immigrants, reinforced by political pressure and, ultimately, by terrorism, will succeed where Islamic armies failed and change irrevocably the character of European civilisation.
I was in Vienna for a conference on post-Christian Europe and resurgent Islam. The history of all important cities is a duet for grandeur and original sin but, even by those standards, Vienna is a masterpiece of complexity and ambivalence. An imperial city which has diminished into the capital of a gemütlich little republic, it was the nursery for so many of the glories of German culture – and for so much of the foulness of mid-20th century German history. So it was an appropriate setting for a pessimistic agenda.
In contemporary Britain, there are many grounds for anxiety. Even so, we cannot rival the continental Europeans when it comes to pessimism. Our home-grown product is shallow and pallid in comparison to the length, depth and sophistication of its continental rival. This is hardly surprising. The pessimism of the European mainland is the product of shattered hopes and a failed century. The first half of the 20th century was the most disastrous epoch in history. The Channel spared us from the worst of the ravages and savageries, but those whose nations experienced them or inflicted them can be forgiven for their distrust of the human condition. After such knowledge, what forgiveness, especially as recent events have added fresh inspissation to the gloom.
By 1990, it seemed as if whatever brute or blackguard made the world had decided to forgive mankind for the 20th century. The Cold War was won. George Bush celebrated a new world order. Francis Fukuyama announced the end of history. But history disagreed.
There is a basic difference between our circumstances now and the Cold War order. In the first place, it was an order. The threat was terrible but it was also predictable. We could analyse our enemies, understand them, even compromise with them. In the grimmest paradox of all, peace and stability had found a secure footing, upon the rock of mutual, assured destruction. Then, the enemy had a name, a capability, an order of battle. We had insights into his intentions, diplomatic means of mitigation, geopolitical concepts. Now, we do not even have a map of our ignorance. We are blundering in the dark, wrestling with unknown unknowns.
Europe has immense strengths. The resources of civilisation are not exhausted. Yet many of my conference colleagues were defeatists who believed that those strengths could never be mobilised. Some even argued that Islam would inevitably prevail and, within a few decades, Europe would decline into Eurabia.
It is easy to make the pessimists' case. In essence, Europe has become the victim of one of its undoubted successes. Over the last century, despite the destruction of so much human and economic capital, Western Europe has made a decisive break with scarcity, that mighty constraint which had overshadowed all earlier societies. Europeans no longer needed to fear starvation.
As a result, however, they have thrown off two other constraints which marched in step with scarcity: religion and family life. Much of Europe is post-religious, post-familial – and also post-reproductive. With average child-bearing rates of 1.5 per female, many countries are condemned to declining populations. Unless they import immigrants to produce the wealth to sustain an ageing population, they might even rediscover hunger.
Yet immigration is not cost-free. As the Romans were the first to discover with their barbarian legions, you decide that you need manpower but you end up by importing people. People bring problems. Large-scale immigration would change the character of the host societies.So would population decline. In Mark Steyn's words, the future belongs to those who show up.
Cultural and religious decline could reinforce population decline. A Europe without God and without the civilising disciplines of family is condemned to the devaluation of all values. This is exacerbated by the cultural self-hatred of many European elites, at least outside France. Under the guise of cultural relativism, they enforce their contempt for European traditions, using their control of the educational system to ensure that youngsters are brought up in cultural and historical darkness.
Even those who do not feel cultural self-hatred often lack cultural self-confidence. There was an example of this in Vienna. Last Friday evening, many churches were holding concerts. I heard a Haydn symphony in the Stephansdom. Haydn in St Stephen's Cathedral: the resources of civilisation did not appear to be exhausted. But the cathedral authorities were not on civilisation's side. The columns were festooned with photographs; the choir was obscured by a fatuous plastic montage. If not quite desecration, it was certainly de-sacralisation.
Over the centuries, the cathedral has been a place for prayer and worship, a conduit between the streets and the skies. Its pillars and its vaulting have humbled the faithful and exulted the faith. Stones, sermons and singing have joined in harmony to proclaim the eternal message: ad maiorem Dei gloriam.
So one might have thought that those who are now in charge of the cathedral would use the music as an enticement, hoping that some passers-by who dropped in for a symphony would return for a service. On the contrary: it was as if the ecclesiastics, desperate to spare the sensitivities of any visiting atheist or pagan, had done everything possible to distance the proceedings from historical Christianity. No wonder some of the Christians at the conference wondered whether their faith still had the vitality to resist Islam.
Others insisted that this was absurdly one-sided. Imagine a similar conference in the Islamic world. How many participants would be happily luxuriate in the complacency of resurgent Islam? The West's problems with Islam do not arise from the confident aggression of resurgent nations. They are caused by the embittered victims of failed societies. For any one argument we could provide to justify a lack of confidence in our countries' institutions, the average Muslim could find ten.
Now that the neo-conservative attempt to reconstruct the Middle East has failed, containment and crisis management are the only options. Although this will be harder than it was during the Cold War, the attempt we must try and cultural neurasthenia is of little help. Yet one conclusion is obvious. For much of its history, Vienna was the capital and fortress of the Ostmark: the frontier of western civilisation. Today, the whole of Europe is in the Ostmark.