In search of Europe’s DNA

Many these days are searching for their personal roots, inspired by popular tv-programmes as well as DNA agencies offering to trace one’s genealogy. We want to know about our heritage because we want to know our identity.

The rise of populism across Europe and the western world is an expression of this search for identity. Why is this happening, and why is this happening now? Can it be that we have lost the big picture? That the process of secularisation is robbing us of our cultural, spiritual and political heritage? 

The well-known British atheist Richard Dawkins says we cannot understand Europe without understanding Christianity and the Bible. That may be surprising to hear from an atheist.

But history today is a neglected subject. The history of Europe is even more neglected. And the history of Europe’s Christian roots is studiously ignored. This is a story, in my experience, largely unknown to Europeans while it explains so much about the life springs and the soul of Europe’s art, cities, democracy, economics, education, ethics, family, healthcare, human rights, language, politics, science… and much more!

The French Enlightenment offered an alternative in the humanistic values of Freedom, Equality and Brotherhood. In 1785, Schiller’s Ode to Joy enshrined these values in the immortal line: Alle Menschen werden Brüder.  Yet we all know how quickly these values were lost in the bloodbath of the French Revolution. And two world wars and a Cold War at the heart of Europe exposed our complete failure in realising these ideals.

And so we go in search of smaller, more local, more specialised identities – like fanatical football fans – to build our lives around and to give us some meaning, some structure for life. And we find ourselves living in a Europe fragmenting into polarised, small-minded populism. 

Perhaps it is time to research our European DNA again and ask, is there a broader, more inclusive identity that we share? Where indeed have we come from? What has shaped our common European identity – from Armenia to Iceland – beyond our nationalistic identity often shaped by myths and politically-motivated education? 

Oxford professor Larry Siedentop points out that the essential European ideas of the individual and of equality were not discoveries of the Enlightment, but rather the fruit of Christianity. St Paul, argues Siedentop, was the greatest revolutionary of history when he wrote that in Christ there is neither Jew nor gentile, slave nor freeman, male nor female. 

Here is the basis for unity with diversity, the motto of the European Union, to become a truly rainbow community of peoples.

Here was also the starting point for the Fathers of Europe – Robert Schuman, Konrad Adenauer and Alcide de Gasperi – as they set about to rebuild Europe after World War II. Schuman’s vision was for a ‘community of peoples deeply rooted in Christian values’. 

These thoughts inspired Schuman, the French Foreign Minister, to propose the European Coal and Steel Community on May 9, 1950. In a speech of a mere three minutes, Schuman laid the foundations for the European house in which today 500 million Europeans, from 28 nations (still!) live together in peace. For these three minutes are officially recognised as the birth of what has become the European Union.

Each of us have been greatly enriched by our interdependence with our neighboring cultures. Think of Italian pizzas, Belgian beers, German cars, British detectives, Finnish saunas, Norwegian salmon, Dutch cheeses, French cuisine, Spanish wines, Irish rock bands, etc, etc – all of which have contributed to our European lifestyle. We have become interdependent and irreversibly connected.

This is why we need to remember and celebrate Europe Day, May 9. Not as a top-down political imperative from Brussels, but as a bottom-up, peoples’ movement; a cultural expression of gratitude that we live in a part of the world with such a rich heritage.

This is adapted from an address delivered at “Together for Europe” in Esslingen, Germany, on May 3, 2019, organised by the YMCA Esslingen with the European elections approaching.

Cover pic: