A humanistic perspective on the European financial crisis, from Stanford Europe Center scholars

European cultural history plays a significant role in the unfolding debt saga.

iStockphoto Hourglass and symbol of the Euro

The full impact of the cultural obstacles created by the implementation of the Euro is only now fully being understood.

As a carousel of European nations teeter on the brink of financial uncertainty, a parade of pundits scramble to offer predictions about what will happen next.

Scholars affiliated with Stanford University's Europe Center, however, find that a reflective approach to current events – looking back – reveals much about the modern European mindset.

The lasting fear instilled by the trauma of World War II, the cultural implications of the Euro and fraught political histories all factor largely into how the Europeans are reacting to the crisis.

In a relatively small geographic space, there are dozens of languages, cultures and histories. But as unique as each nation is, their shared history binds them together in ways that reverberate in the financial drama today.

This difficult history, said Amir Eshel, the director of the Europe Center, includes "two World Wars, cases of genocide and an attempt in the post-war era to come to a peaceful resolution of these conflicts."

The different forms of totalitarian rule that Europe experienced in the 20th century "not only defined the history and the culture of the continent, but also posed to us very serious questions when it comes to understanding the time in which we live," said Eshel.

A 1929 novel

Eshel, a professor of German studies and of comparative literature, referenced the 1929 novel Berlin Alexanderplatz as a prime example of how literature, the arts and philosophy are a "major prism through which these questions are refracted."

One of the greatest works of 20th-century German literature, the story "displays how human life was shattered by modern, manmade catastrophes." Further, noted Eshel, the book brutally illustrates how "human beings lose their dignity and morals in the course of such events and how institutions that regulate civil human cohabitation can fall apart."

An intrinsic fear of the instability caused by those events, says Europe Center scholar and history Professor Norman Naimark, lies at the heart of the German reaction to the modern crisis.

Germany's "determination to resolve the crisis and drive to maintain the integrity of Europe both come from deep historical experience," said Naimark. "The former from the Germans' dedication to overcoming the darkness of the past by creating a new Germany within a new Europe, the latter from bitter historical memories of the hyperinflation of 1923 and of the meaninglessness of currency in the immediate post-World War II period."

Eshel said there's a real anxiety in Germany that if the crisis were to intensify and threaten the sense of national cohesion the Germans were able to establish after WWII, "Germany and Europe will fall back to the dark spot it came out of in 1945."

War memories linger

German history looms large in the minds of other Europeans too. Even as they turn to Germany for financial and diplomatic solutions, memories make them wary of German leadership. "After all," Naimark said, "most of Europe has had to deal with the expansion of the influence of the German empire in the 19th century, World War I and World War II."

As Eshel said, humanistic endeavors "keep the specter of the way Europe experienced barbarism very alive," in a way that "drives the need for stability, accountability and transparency."

The music of Austrian composer Gustav Mahler, Eshel pointed out, "reflects the sense of anxiety and fear of a universe falling apart."

In the philosophical realm, Eshel cited "a touchstone of the modern era," German philosopher Theodor Adorno. In his social critiques following World War II, Adorno suggested that in order to understand modernity, you had to "go back to the fear and anxiety surrounding the genocide and experience of the Holocaust," Eshel said.

As much as historical memory is motivating, Europe Center scholar and German studies Professor Russell Berman pointed out how it also contributes to an atmosphere of inertia. "The fact that Chancellor Merkel and her cabinet are caricatured as 'Nazis' in the streets of Athens and elsewhere does not help in convincing the German public to support a looser spending regime."

More recent events, including the signing of the Maastricht Treaty and the introduction of the Euro, have highlighted the challenges of attempting to align distinct political cultures.

The biggest question

Joan Ramon Resina, a Europe Center scholar and professor of Iberian and Latin American cultures, said that the biggest question about the nations of Europe since 1993 "has been whether they would advance toward some form of political integration or whether the national histories and priorities would block this process."

The full impact of the cultural obstacles created by the implementation of the Euro is only now fully being understood. "Money is a tool of black and white if you're talking about money within the confines of one nation state," said Eshel. But, by limiting the power and sovereignty of each participating nation, the common currency meant that "people in the sense of nations, governments, parliaments and the voting citizen had to give up a portion of their sovereignty and a portion of their identity," he said.

With conflicts between legislative and executive authority across the continent, Berman said, the financial crisis was an inevitable "crisis of political institutions" because a "common currency without any real common politics could not last for long."

News coverage of Spain's financial troubles, for example, largely lacks the historical background to "understand the structural tensions between Spain and its sub-state nationalities, fundamentally the Catalan and the Basque, both of which accumulate over a century of struggles for recognition and self-government," said Resina.

According to Resina, Spain's political system was created "ad hoc in 1978 in order to submerge the historically important and politically necessary autonomy of Catalonia." Now, Resina said, the Spanish government is using the crisis as a "welcome opportunity" to implement a re-centralization of government.

As much as historical culture plays a role in the ongoing turmoil, the continent, Eshel said, "is all about the present." Europe can be seen as a "model of progressive politics," as evidenced on popular television.

TV as social novel

Borgen, a Danish television series that is broadcast across Europe, portrays all of the "intricacies and problems" of progressive politics, Eshel said. The narrative of the political thriller processes the difficulties of progressive politics, but also "proposes to the viewer that being progressive is a viable option for the populace."

"TV in many respects today has become similar to what the social novel was in the 19th century," Eshel said; that is, television programs have become a major platform for dealing with social issues and social concerns.

Although literature may have lost the social influence it once had, it continues to serve as "a logbook of past crises, both individual and collective," said Resina. Literature shows, "not by way of example but by way of presentation, countless dramas and reactions to physical or moral ruin, and may actually strengthen the individual's capacity to weather them," he said.

If history is any indicator of Europe's future, then there may be a light at the end of the tunnel. The collective European ability to overcome adversity in the last 70 years is "so enormous and so substantial," Eshel said, that he has "confidence that it will emerge out of this crisis as prosperous."

Corrie Goldman is the outreach officer for the Stanford Humanities Center.

Corrie Goldman, Stanford Humanities outreach officer: (650) 724-8156, corrieg@stanford.edu

Dan Stober, Stanford News Service: (650) 721-6965, dstober@stanford.edu