The Berlin Wall and Europe’s weariness

Published 11.11.2014 02:20
Updated 11.11.2014 10:28

Edmund Husserl, one of the towering figures of German philosophy in the 20th century and the founder of a school of thought known as phenomenology, gave a series of lectures in 1935 on what he called "the Crisis of European Sciences." As a Jew, he was denied any public platform in Germany and thus had to lecture and publish his work outside his home country.

In his famous Vienna and Prague lectures, Husserl defined the crisis of the sciences as an "expression of the radical life-crisis of European humanity." Europe, Husserl argued, had lost the original vision of existence and life and betrayed its "spiritual birthplace," i.e., the ancient Greek philosophical tradition. Dazzled by the successive achievements of natural sciences and technological innovations, Europeans reduced the meaning of life to the measuring, function and use-value of things. They lost the perspective of a "universal science," i.e., the ability to understand the universe as a whole from the point of view of the meaning of existence and humanity's place in it.

As Germans celebrate the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall - a symbol of profound divisions in modern European history - one is reminded of Husserl's diagnosis of the "crisis of Europe" as a crisis of humanity. Husserl saw the Europe of his time as marred by irrationalism, nihilism and meaninglessness. World War I, which he witnessed and the imminent World War II, which he missed by a few years and the destruction that was wrought upon the earth in the name of progress, made his generation lose faith in history, science and politics. The epoch-making promises of modernity produced catastrophic wars and the Holocaust. The "banality of evil," as Hannah Arendt called it, penetrated the lives of Germans and other Europeans like no other period. In this violent turn, Europe was forsaken of its rich heritage. It lost its sense of direction and mission. As Husserl put it: "Can we live in this world, where historical occurrence is nothing but an unending concatenation of illusory progress and bitter disappointment?"

Yet Husserl saw Europeans as belonging to a common root and spirit: "No matter how hostile they may be toward one another, European nations nevertheless have a particular inner kinship of spirit which runs through them all, transcending national differences." How this "inner kinship of spirit" shapes German, French or Italian attitudes vis-à-vis Europeans on the one hand, and non-European worlds on the other, remains a highly contested issue. But it is also a real one. The fall of the Berlin Wall is certainly a moment of joy and pride for Germans as well as Europeans. With the help of the Americans, it is a symbol of the unifying spirit of European nations Husserl spoke about. Furthermore, it is a major achievement of the European Union project in terms of transcending local and national differences.

Yet it is also a painful reminder of darker times not so long ago. Like the Holocaust, it serves as a tragic warning of the type of irrationalism and nihilism that invaded European intellectual and political life in early 20th century. In the case of Germany, it was the fourth unification of Deutschland - a much envied political goal since the 18th century. The "Wall of Shame," as Willy Brandt called it, was bound to come down at some point. Even the rock singer Bruce Springsteen had a presentiment about it when he gave a concert in East Berlin on July 19, 1988, 15 months before the actual fall of the wall. This was the dismantling of the mental and political walls that had separated east and west in Europe.

Since then, however, other "walls of shame" have been erected around the globe. The mental walls separating nations, religions and cultures have been no less disorienting and costly. The problems of xenophobia, anti-Semitism, Islamopobia and new forms of cultural and political racism have crept into the life-world of many in Europe and elsewhere. At the end of his Vienna Lecture, Husserl warned that "Europe's greatest danger is weariness." Against the backdrop of war, materialism and a "misguided rationalism," Europe runs the risk of turning into a dilapidated, tired and irrelevant power unable to realize the goal of "good life" based on reason, justice and compassion. Individual happiness as the satisfaction of the ego is not enough because "... if man is a rational being, it is only insofar as his whole civilization is a rational civilization."

Needless to say, Europe has come a long way since the 1930s and 40s. Intra-European wars have ended, democracy is established and prosperity has been secured. But Husserl's understandably Euro-centric diagnosis of the crisis of "European humanity" has gone global, encapsulating both European and non-European nations. Sciences are not more humane and purpose-driven, politics are not more just and culture is not more enriching. The clash of ideas and values has been replaced by a brutal clash of interests. From Berlin to Kiev, from Damascus to Jerusalem, from Washington to Tehran, the bells of a new cold war are ringing. Is it ironic or not to hear Mikhail Gorbachev, the last president of the Soviet Union, speak of a "world on the brink of a new cold war over Ukraine" on the day of the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

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