Saturday, June 07, 2008

"Europe" vs. "Western Civilization"

Has anyone here read Tintin in America? It's an absolutely fascinating compendium of 1930s European stereotypes of America. I was thinking of it lately, after reading Adam Tooze's magnificent Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy, one of the most thought-provoking books in twentieth century history I have read in a long time.

Tooze's basic argument runs like this: Germany in the 1920s and 1930s was not Europe's most advanced economy, but a relatively poor, relatively backward economy in Europe -- and the Nazis knew it was. Britain and France on a per capita basis far outpaced Germany, and both had access to colonial resources and markets. Nazi Germany's bid for world conquest was a bid by a self-consciously weak country, directed in the last analysis, at the world superpower, which in 1918 was already recognized to be America. Nazi Germany thus shared with Stalin's Russia, Imperial Japan, and other ambitious but poor powers a need to control the economy, and direct its resources into favored sectors of heavy industry that could be easily fed into a war economy. And like those other economies, the Nazi economy planned from 1939 on for massive use of slave labor, and starvation of scores of millions: in this case, easterners.

Tooze's thesis recasts the relationship of the war in the East to the war in the West. Previous writers have argued that the war in the East, on Stalin's Russia, the ultimate aim of the Nazi war machine and that the war with England was, from the point of view of Hitler's strategy, a mistake. But Tooze shows that for the Nazis the ultimate threat was the terrifying economic power of America. Conquering Russia and killing scores of millions was necessary -- but primarily to give Germany and Europe the resources necessary for a fighting chance to resist American domination and make Europe once again the leading continent. Only war on Russia could secure a colonized continent for Germany, just as the United States had in America west of the Appalachians. What was the role of England in this? Hitler in his writings in the 1920s originally planned to try to get England to ally with him in his European-wide anti-American coalition. But when England refused to join in 1939, it was proof that Roosevelt and the Jews had finally gotten control of England and made it a satellite of America. From then on England was just a satellite of America.

Tooze's analogy between the German aims in Russia and the American colonization of the West highlights unsettling similarities between Nazi Germany and the American republics . To illustrate this, let me recall a scene from the movie Judgment at Nuremberg. The German defense lawyer (played by Montgomery Clift) defends the Nazi sterilization law by referring to similar opinions rendered by Oliver Wendell Holmes. (Actually that's an illustration of the thesis of this recent book.) But the movie pulls its punches, unfortunately. When it comes to Nazi miscegenation laws, the German defense lawyer never once refers to the similar laws polluting the books of many American states at the time. Likewise, it is shaming to realize how much what the Nazis were up to in Russia was modeled on the American dispossession of the American Indians. (As Tooze says, the only difference -- a big one in political economy terms -- was that American colonization was almost most privately run, while the Nazi colonization was state-run.)

This leads to strange question, though: why did Nazi Germany make so little common cause with racism in the United States? Why, for example, in a contest between non-white Japanese on one side and white Americans interning Japanese-Americans on a racial basis on the other did Hitler instinctively and whole-heartedly support the non-whites against the whites? Why was no attempt ever made by the Nazis to win the sympathies of Southern segregationists and Klansmen in America?

After reading Tooze's book, the answer I think is pretty plain: Nazism wasn't just about racism, it was also about Europeanism. In other words it was not just about making "Aryans" triumph over Jews, Roma, and other inferior races in Europe, it was also about making Europe as a continent triumph over rival continents. And by rival continents, the only one really in question was North America. One could even go so far as to say that the racism was instrumental to the "continentism"; that grinding inferior races in Europe into the dust was only a means to the end of keeping Europe the world's leading continent. What is so striking about this is how geography trumped race even in the strategy of the most justly notorious racists in history. How could this be?

Here is where Tintin in America comes in. To understand European fear of North America, one needs to understand the European image of America. Tintin's America is a gangster paradise, a land of skyscrapers and anarchy, of grotesque slaughterhouses and industrialized food, drunken sheriffs enforcing Prohibition while citizens have fun at a lynching parties, a land where oil companies routinely dispossess Indians, where you can go to sleep in a prairie one day and wake up in a traffic-jammed metropolis the next. Now, this is Tintin, and it is all fairly light-hearted. (My personal favorite line is where Tintin as a celebrity has to turn down product endorsement offers, including this gem: "Join our new Islamo-Judeo-Buddhistic religion and earn the highest dividends in the world!") As Tintin leaves on a steamer back for Europe, he sighs, "Funny, and I was just starting to like the place." But make no mistake, America is not part of some "Western civilization" -- it is just as alien to Herge's European readers as Africa, the Soviet Union, or the Arab world and India, scenes for his immediately preceding and following Tintin volumes.

And it is not surprising therefore that in volume ten of the series, The Shooting Star, we see the following rivalry: pure-minded, impractical, yet lovable scholars from Belgium, Paris, Heidelberg, Stockholm, and Salamanca, are pitted against ruthless, gun-toting Americans, whose aims are set by their greedy financial backer Blumenstein. Now when I tell you that the book was written in 1941-42, you will understand why the lovable scholars are all from German-occupied or pro-German countries and why the financier has a hook nose, big lips, and no scruples when it comes to blood-sucking. Post-war editions scrubbed the American flag off the rival expedition's boat and the Jewish name off the financier, but the fact remains, this book links perfectly (and again in a light-hearted, non-didactic way) the stereotypes of Tintin in America with the European agenda of the Nazi party, as seen in Tooze's Wages of Destruction. Note that in Herge's unreflective viewpoint we see a strange co-existence of a morally-based dislike of America's dispossession of the Indians with an implicit approval of the Nazi-led mission to defeat America by conquest and colonization of Russia.

It is this European image of America, as found in Herge, combining monstrous economic growth and urbanization, lack of any state-imposed order, alienation from nature and a willingness to dispossess others purely for profit that makes sense of why Nazi racism could never make common cause with American racism. American racism existed within the context of a society which was categorically hostile to the traditional order of Europe which Nazism was defending. The social self-image of Nazi Germany, however delusional in practice, really was closer to that of militarist Japan than to America, no matter how pure "white" -- and determined to stay that way -- the majority of Americans then were.

Herge himself was no ideologist, just a trimmer spinning with the wind. In his 1958 The Red Sea Sharks, he reflects a new pro-American view by making the crew of an American cruiser the role of heroes rescuing Tintin and a cargo-load of Africans being sold as slaves. The American sailors are indeed called "cowboys" -- but only by chief slave-trader and aristocratic villain Rastapopoulos. In context it's a badge of honor.

What happened between Tintin in America and the Red Sea Sharks (and its superb sister volume The Calculus Affair)? Obviously the annihilation and discrediting of the Nazi ideal. But another way to see it is the acceptance by Europeans of the "Western Civilization" as a summing of their highest ideals to replace "Europe." What's the difference? Well obviously "Western Civ" includes America, and not just as a peripheral player either, but as a central part of the narrative. But the inclusion of America changes how the whole narrative works. In "Western Civ" the aim is democracy and individual rights. From Greek city states to the Magna Carta, to New England town meetings to today; or as David Gress put it, From Plato to NATO. Christian theocracy, feudalism, absolutism, fascism -- these were somehow aberrations in the narrative. The power of the "Western Civ" narrative is how it links a particular praxis (extensive social and economic ties between the Western European and American upper classes, dwarfing those either has with any other region), a particular policy (multilateral democracy promotion), and a particular understanding of history.

The problem is that this understanding of history was made plausible only by the annihilation of fascism as an alternate understanding of Europe's destiny in the modern era. In a purely historical reading, from Plato's racist and aristocratic Republic, to the Christian empire, to the feudal Carolingian monarchy, to absolutism, to fascism's peculiar synthesis of social mobility and corporatism under the leader-principle is at least an equally valid way of looking at European history. In this reading, hierarchy and leadership justified by enlightened reason, war as a testing of the soul, caste endogamy, and a dichotomy of free and unfree are the central messages of European civilization. (I've touched on a Swedish Christian version of it here.) Nazism served up this ideal in a way that its humane adherents such as J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis detested and were willing to fight to destroy, but as they themselves recognized, this hierarchical ideal was recognizably in line with the ideals of the Greco-Roman and Germanic roots of European civilization. And just as recognizably to them, America was not.

Labels: , , , ,