The Temper of Western Europe
By Crane Brinton; Harvard University Press, Cambridge; $2.50; 118 pages.
Many recent novels and narratives have pictured Europe a dying continent, its citizens politically and intellectually stagnant. Arthur Koestler's Age of Longing and William Shirer's Mid-Century Journey, rather gloomy studies of Western Europe, have challenged the optimistic Crane Brinton. Hoping to find Europe not Entirely decayed, Brinton travelled to France and England searching "an antithesis to the thesis of the prophets of doom and the bellyaching intellectuals." Brinton's candid predisposition impugns the value of his evidence, for the reader can never decide just how much unfavorable information is purposely ignored.
Europe is alive, and living well at that--if Brinton's high birth rate statistics, calorie tallies, and record manufacturing figures (probably weighted down with expensive guns) are unmistakable signs of life. Plump children and comparatively merry faces on bus-riders are Brinton's evidence that the people are content. Eccentric, but by no means morbid, paintings still hang in the familiar Parisian galleries and studios, and though many landmarks are gone, Brinton concludes that Europe has changed less in twenty years than America.
Even the argumentative European temperament remains. Brinton hypothesizes that disputatious people will not succumb to Communism, and indeed Europeans maintain a stubborn diversity whether discussing compulsory Latin in the schools or policy in Korea. The conflicts in the multifactional French government often sound like bedlam, but according to Brinton this is not a pathological condition. In countries with a two-party system, compromises come from conventions, caucuses and executive chambers; in France the disputes go to the National Assembly, but in all democracies there must be dissension somewhere. The French have managed with similar systems for 164 nearly unbroken years, and according to Brinton "that is a long time for a really diseased organism to last."
Nor is British socialism a cancer. Brinton declares that most socialized industries are really public corporations modeled after TVA. As with American corporations, British workers may strike against them, and perhaps the British people have more influence in their direction than American stockholders. Brinton neglects entirely, however, the key question--whether state control has been justified by practical achievement.
Far more important than material welfare or forms of government is the temper of the people. The United Nations, Schumann Plan, Council of Europe and NATO Brinton regards as significant accomplishments in a nationalistic and individualistic climate which has compelled the Communists in France to "represent Communism as a special benefactor of the peasant proprietor and the small shopkeeper." Whether a formidable union of 300 million people with industrial might superior to that of America would really be desirable, is really academic, for Brinton's shaggy simile declares attempts to form a sovereign union in nationalistic Europe "would be like asking a good miler to cut thirty seconds from his time."
Yet the nationalism Brinton emphasizes can hardly be pro-American; if the signs "Ridgeway la peste" were erected by Communists as Brinton contends, the more reassuring "Stalines a Moscou" may equally well spring from activity of a few Gaullists. Though moderate governments have at least a precarious hold in all of Western Europe except in Spain and Portugal, Brinton admits that most intellectuals distrust Americans. Yet Brinton's solace that there are "promising beginnings" in the average European's attitude toward America is based on subjective evidence, curiously flimsy for an historian to present.
European neutrality, explains Brinton, "is not a noble feeling, nor one with a sound basis in history. The spiritual crisis of our age has its roots in Western Europe at least as deeply as in the United States. But the war was fought there . . . and the reaction is normal." In deed neutralism is a normal response, and it is here that Brinton's ebullient optimism goes flat; the United States cannot bank on European gratitude or support when its popularity rating is barely a polite handclap.
Brinton's writing is quite lucid; in fact he often sacrifices accuracy to gain clarity in making his optimistic generalizations. In such a short book perhaps this is inevitable, but only audacity could permit him to criticize Koestler and Shirer for generalizing their pessimism. With Brinton's hope tipping the scales the other way, the reader is tempted to seek the balanced view somewhere in between.