RevDem editor Ferenc Laczo interviewed historian Konrad H. Jarausch, Lurcy Professor of European Civilization at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, about his latest book Embattled Europe: A Progressive Alternative, a rich and finely balanced portrait of contemporary Europe. Professor Jarausch, who is also the former director of the Center for Contemporary History in Potsdam, has written or edited some 50 books on modern German and European history. His research interests have covered a whole host of subjects, including the social history of German students and professions, German unification in 1989-1990, the character of the East German dictatorship and the debate on historians and the Third Reich. More recently, Professor Jarausch has devoted attention to learning processes after 1945 and to life histories of ordinary Germans while also offering more general interpretations of 20th-century German and European history. In 2015, he published a new major history of Europe in the 20th Century entitled Out of Ashes. 

You can listen to the podcast or read the edited transcript below.

Ferenc Laczo: In your new book, Embattled Europe, you discuss some of the greatest strengths and most urgent challenges Europe faces. You insist that its combination of liberal democracy, peaceful multilateralism and social welfare that makes Europe a progressive alternative. In terms of the quality of life it offers to its citizens, Europe might indeed be the very best available alternative we have today. So let me start by asking you, what are some of the key features of this European model, and what makes it preferrable to its alternatives, in your view?

Konrad Jarausch: Let me start by explaining the dual purpose of the book. One of them is to write a contemporary history of Europe since 1990, because in the English-speaking world there are currently many polemical publications on Europe, but often the general public does not have much information. The first purpose of the book is therefore to provide basic information, as many people write on the history of Europe and then quit in 1989-1990 as if history had ended – which, of course, was one of the mistaken claims made at the time. It has evidently not, and many things have happened since that need to be explained. 

The second dimension is an argument with right-wing populism, because in Trumpist America Europe is something that you criticize and that you want to be different from, because you’re convinced that America is so much better than Europe, and that Europe reeks of socialism. 

Somehow, the distinction between communism as a dictatorship and social democracy as a progressive, democratic view is not really clear in the mind of many commentators.

 I therefore wanted to intervene in the discussion by providing some information and addressing this “Euro-bashing”, which is quite common in the media – or at least was so until very recently. I remember being in Berlin three or four years ago and going to one of the biggest booksellers and seeing a whole table of books predicting the end of Europe and the collapse of the EU. Of course, none of these things have happened. There’s been Brexit, but other predictions of doom have not come about. 

Let me now try to answer your question. Europe, in my mind, is more democratic, peaceful and egalitarian. Of course, there are Americans who also believe these things, but there is a sizable part of the population which is opposed to them. This has to do with vote suppression and gerrymandering, which is not particularly democratic but rather a somewhat desperate attempt to keep white supremacy in a country that is becoming increasingly diverse. Recent results of the census point in that direction: there are 57% of whites left in the US but, compared to the decade before, almost 10% fewer. There’s therefore an issue of how democratic some Americans are. 

Then, of course, in the last generation there’s also been quite a bit of unilateralism of American policy. President George W. Bush, for instance, assumed that the United States was the most powerful country in the world, and therefore could go ahead on its own without the need to consult with other countries. Then, if you look at the American welfare state, it is also underdeveloped compared to Europe: there are elements of a welfare state in the United States as well – there was President F.D. Roosevelt’s attempt, followed by various other people like President Johnson – but compared to Europe it is not nearly as developed. On the day-to-day level, there are things like rampant gun violence: every other week there is a mass shooting somewhere, and this for me is an astounding and unsupportable situation. Finally, while in Europe there are also people who are against vaccinations, in the United States the number of such people is much larger. It has become a matter of partisan politics: the Republicans are against it and, in Republican states like Texas or Florida, there are no vaccination mandates. There is a disbelief in science and scientific research. These sorts of things are, from the European point of view, astounding and terrible. 

The comparison in my book is really designed to give the more progressive part of Americans arguments against that. If we look around the rest of the world, the Russian example under Putin is not so attractive, at least based on my own visits to Russia. Unfortunately, I have not yet been in China, but if one follows the policies against Hong Kong and the Uyghurs and so on, then I think we can say that this is not really attractive either. For all of its problems and blemishes and crises and so on, I think the Europeans are still doing well, by comparison.

Ferenc Laczo: That’s a great starting point for our for our conversation today. I think these are very convincing arguments, but I also wanted to shift the perspective a bit. In the book you also show that, when you look at how the EU has actually responded to some of the major crises in recent years, they have not really responded particularly well. Whether we zoom in on the Eurozone crisis or on the migration and refugee-related emergencies of more recent years, we see that the Union has been rather slow and ambivalent in its response. We may even say that the response has been rather incoherent and ineffective. I was therefore wondering how you would assess these crises and their consequences for the European project. Would you perhaps say that they point to some crucial shortcomings of the European Union, a successful project that is in need of urgent and serious reform now?

Konrad Jarausch: I completely agree with the thrust of your question, and the book is structured in such a way that it starts with the enthusiasm and the optimism of 1989-1990 and then asks what has happened since then. Some positive things have happened, such as the economic transformation of Eastern Europe or the widening of the European Union to include various new kinds of countries, both in the core of Europe and in Eastern Europe and somewhat in the Balkans. There have therefore been positive developments that seemed to support an optimistic assessment. Indeed, 15 or 20 years ago, the books on Europe were all about how Europe was a better model than the United States. 

If one has followed European politics in the last decade, one knows that this has not come to pass; instead, as you just indicated, there’s been one crisis after another. The fiscal crisis, one could blame initially on the United States because, after all, the speculation of the financial sector that was no longer curbed as it had been earlier then spilled over to Europe and involved some of the major European institutions. However, the question is therefore how the European countries responded to it and, of course, they did not do very well at all. There have been serious disagreements, especially between the Mediterranean and/or some Eastern European parts of Europe, and the more prosperous Western and Scandinavian parts of Europe. And yes, the responses have been slow. 

The “doom and gloom” literature has nonetheless overplayed the slowness of the responses. In the fiscal crisis, eventually, the European Central Bank put its foot down and said that Europe would need to come together. My own personal opinion on the austerity policies is, perhaps somewhat due to my German background, that some of it was necessary because there were bubbles in some of the European countries – especially in some of the Mediterranean ones and in Ireland – and just throwing more money at them would not have been the right response. On the other hand, just insisting on belt tightening and saying nasty things about Greek corruption was not a way to go either. So, eventually, out of these controversies within the European Union on what to do came a somewhat more intelligent response, in which there was an acceptance of the need to help the European countries that were most in trouble, and not just the big banks and stockholders.

On the migration crisis, of course, the key difficulty is one of asylum versus immigration policy. In many ways the asylum argument has been to push the door open for more immigration, and it is understandable that some European countries did not want more of it. On the other hand, just letting people drown in the Mediterranean could obviously not serve as a political solution in the long run either. What happened were various kinds of deals of trying to stop immigration before reaching the European borders. Billions of euros were given to Turkey to keep people in camps outside of Europe. The disaster has been the unwillingness of most European countries to accept migrants. 

Ultimately, of course, these are very difficult problems to resolve, because they would require solutions in the countries from which the refugees and immigrants come. You can’t just open the doors and have everybody rush into Europe – that is, as one philosopher of migration argues, irresponsible to the populations already in Europe. On the other hand, you also have to show solidarity with people in dire need, and the question of how to do that correctly is still largely unresolved. We have stopgap measures – we have Frontex and attempts in the Mediterranean to send people back to the places where they came from – but none of this is working terribly well.

Then, of course, there was Brexit, which you kindly didn’t mention in your question. The EU, together with the British Government, underestimated the fact that the Brexit vote might actually win. This has been followed by years of domestic deadlock in Britain, as well as deadlock in Brussels as to how to come to some kind of agreement. Ultimately, of course, sanity did prevail, to some degree. I’m not sure that the Northern Ireland issue is really off the table, because you can’t both be in the EU and not be in it at the same time. You can, however, pretend that you can do this, and if it’s a small enough area economically then maybe you can get away with it. 

I think Brexit did teach many other European countries who were playing with the possibility of leaving the EU that this was not such a smart idea, because people would actually suffer more and it would be more costly. Even places like Greece, which felt very badly treated, decided that it was better to bear a certain level of austerity and hope for change in the European Union than to leave it completely. Indeed, even places like Orbán’s Hungary or Kaczyński’s Poland have decided that it is better to curse Brussels and then accept subsidies from the EU than to leave the EU altogether. 

In the long run, this is clearly not sustainable: if you’re violating basic European values and standards and accepting European money at the same time, there’s a contradiction in that which won’t work. One can hope that these are transition issues: moving from Communist dictatorship into a more West European democratic culture is not an easy prospect, and I think the difficulty of it was underestimated in the enthusiasm of the peaceful revolution. One can hope that people like Donald Tusk will eventually win an election again, and that the anti-EU propaganda will lessen. There is also much need for reform of the EU, and majority voting has to happen on a much larger scale. The European Parliament needs to have more power to address the democratic deficit. 

I think there’s also been a kind of cultural lag. Some months ago, I was at the House of European History in Brussels. 

I reflected there on the fact that there’s been too much focus on the technical, legal and financial aspects, while efforts at creating a diverse but nonetheless cooperative European culture have not been nearly as intense and as strong. 

I think this kind of cultural engagement on what Europe is all about, what its values are, where it needs to work together and where it can accept difference is very important: Hungarians are not Portuguese, and Finns are not Italians. You can’t force people to be what they’re not, but you can try to work towards a better understanding of what Europeans share and how they need to work together.

Ferenc Laczo: I wanted to return to the challenges posed by intra-European divergence later in our conversation but let us zoom in on some of the more positive examples first. You have several chapters in the book that are devoted to the case, for instance, of the reform of the Swedish welfare state. You also cover the path-breaking environmental policies that have been implemented in Denmark. These are some of the most positive examples you present about recent decades, describing how they have also, in many ways, succeeded at setting a new kind of standard. I was wondering whether you could describe what the key ambitions of these reform policies have been, how far they have actually gone, and what consequences they have had. Perhaps you wish to address a larger question on what these two Nordic countries can teach us more generally?

Konrad Jarausch: The purpose of the welfare state reforms was not to have a maintenance welfare state, which is also something that the moderate Left tried in Britain and in Germany, and is still trying in France, where it hasn’t gotten very far. In the long run, a maintenance-type welfare state is not sustainable, as it will lead to an anti-welfare rebellion of the middle and upper class that has to pay high taxes to finance it. 

The point is rather to implement an enabling approach, which involves retraining people to help them get back into the workforce. 

It may also involve childcare, so that if you have a single mother who is not able to work because she needs to take care of the kids, you can find a way of creating public nursery schools where she can leave her kids during the day and be economically active again. This approach also involves a moderate amount of cutbacks, in order to reduce unemployment benefits and welfare payments to make it worthwhile to start working again. 

I may annoy people by saying this, but I think this is at least the generally correct direction. In particular cases, this may be hard and may not always work, so you do have to maintain a certain kind of basic level of welfare; that’s just a question of decency and humanity. However, the accent should be on getting people back into the workforce. This is also for psychological reasons, as people have a better sense of themselves if they are doing something meaningful than if they’re just accepting welfare handouts.

The Danish case had to do with a high-living-standard country that had a tremendous amount of energy usage and not much available energy supply. The Danes, unlike the Norwegians, do not have enormous amounts of North Sea oil and they don’t have coal deposits either. They were therefore in greater difficulty from the beginning, and when the various oil crises came in the 1970s, they began to think about switching to renewable energy much more quickly than other European countries. What they largely did is focus on wind power, because, of course, in Denmark there is not enough sunshine. They actually developed various kinds of energy plans and, over time, invested greatly in wind power. They then also changed public transport and tried to phase out cars and increase the use of bicycles, like the Dutch. A lot of commuting therefore now takes place on public transport and bicycles. You therefore have to do both: increase renewables and change the use of fossil fuels to reduce its use as much as possible. The Danes have, I think, gone further in these areas than various other European countries, and have also been leaders in international debates on what to do. I therefore thought it would be good to write on this example, although there are other European countries that have also done reasonably well in additional dimensions, such as recycling. 

One of the other chapters that you didn’t ask about that I wanted to mention focuses on the issue of economic competitiveness. It’s nice to be saying that you should do all these things, but you also have to be able to afford them. The standard model for competitiveness tends to be the German one because they have an economy that is largely still producing things, not just software and financial speculation, like the United States and the south of England. Maybe I’m old fashioned, but I think people still need stuff and somebody has to make it. We found out during Covid, with production chains being interrupted, that if you send everything to another part of the globe and you don’t do any of the things in which you really need yourself, then you’re in real trouble. I think that, compared with some other places, there are at least some European countries that are still reasonably competitive. 

Therefore, welfare state reform, renewable energy and economic competitiveness seem to me to be three areas in which the Europeans have done fairly well, and on which they need to continue to focus.

Ferenc Laczo: That sounds like a very nice package. I also wanted us to talk about something slightly more controversial. My impression was that much of Embattled Europe focuses on the prosperous, well-functioning core areas of Europe – such as Sweden and Denmark – and that these countries indeed provide a key to what you may call a European model. On the one hand, this sounds very convincing but, on the other, some people would certainly say that these successes have gone hand in hand with the increasing socioeconomic and political divergence between these core regions of Europe and, say, the Southern and the Eastern peripheries. Some people would argue that, as much as Germany may have succeeded in recent decades – when it comes to economic competitiveness and to playing a very important global role – a country like Italy has fallen behind, and that the two processes need to be looked at simultaneously. I was therefore wondering what your view is on this controversial question of divergences, and whether you think that it’s a major contemporary challenge for the EU that it has not yet adequately addressed.

Konrad Jarausch: It is certainly one of the major challenges, because you should think about Europe not as a unit, but rather as a set of regions. I think the recent debate about the crises in Europe has sharpened our understanding that there is a northwestern core – Scandinavia and so on – but that Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean are quite different in many ways. The question is just what kind of solution we want. Is the solution more funding from Brussels? To some degree, probably yes, but if there is corruption and incompetence there also needs to be a certain amount of change. The question is how to get that. My sense is that the solution is not to make the advanced countries poor, but rather to help the countries in need of help to catch up. Therefore, leveling down, as some analysts claim, would not be what I would do. There are already regional funds that could be spent on something other than agriculture, but there also needs to be control over that so the money doesn’t just disappear. In some ways, the problems are also cultural, as they have to do with different lifestyles, and some of these things also have to change for countries to catch up to the level of the rest of Europe. It can be done, and I think the Polish example is one that is largely positive, but what is needed is patience, help and pressure at the same time. One of them alone won’t be sufficient.

Ferenc Laczo: Let us talk about societies and politics more directly. One of the things I really appreciated about your book is that you have a very fine sense of ambivalences and paradoxes. You discuss the crisis of representative democracy, as we know it, but you also explain that, while people seem to be more and more dissatisfied with their political systems, they also seem to be increasingly satisfied with their own lives. This seems to be somewhat paradoxical. You also argue that welfare states have, in many ways, been reasserted in Europe, but the Left and Social Democratic parties in particular have entered a crisis of reproduction. They have, in many countries, declined quite significantly. These are processes that are very interesting, and that should point us to a number of further questions. One is: how would you explain the rise of political dissatisfaction and political anger in Europe, and what drives the populist revolt that is challenging the liberal democratic institutional framework in a number of European countries? Last but not least, why has the Left proven unable to repeat its electoral successes? When I was about 20 years old, around the year 2000, social democratic parties were in power in most major European countries, and that’s certainly not the case today. 

Konrad Jarausch: That’s a hard question to answer. I think dissatisfaction has much to do with expectations. A lot of people want everything immediately these days. There used to be – and again, this comment shows my age – installment plans, whereby when you wanted to buy something, you saved the money gradually and bought it when you had enough of it. What you have today is you get the stuff that you want immediately and then you end up paying afterwards for years, so that the car you bought is already falling apart just at the point when you paid it off. That is just not a very smart way of doing things. 

Many people have never had it as good as they have it today. In general, when you take life expectancy, health or prosperity in a long time series, things are going well for many people, but not for everybody. That’s, of course, part of the problem. 

When some people are falling behind and other people are doing very well, these people wonder why they are falling behind which creates a certain amount of envy. 

Social Democratic parties have reached many of their goals, and thereby have become somewhat superfluous. The German example is the one I know best: when you have a Chancellor who basically follows social democratic policies, then you wonder what place a Social Democratic party still has. The party has therefore declined. If the Chancellor candidate of the CDU/CSU is incompetent enough, maybe they will have a surprising revival. The chapter is not necessarily closed: if you have too much neoliberalism and too much austerity, then people will suddenly begin to remember that there was something called social democracy and that they liked it better. This is all still an unfinished process.

Of course, the sociological, structural problem of the Left is the decline of industrial labor. Some hundred years ago it looked, as Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were predicting, as though the proletariat would one day constitute the majority. The 1920s and 1930s still saw the number of workers growing. However, in the post-war period, something strange happened: the number of white-collar employees started increasing, so that industrial workers are now down to 20% and even less in some countries. Thus, a classic kind of Social Democratic labor union policy based on these sociological groups was no longer going to be successful. For this reason, many Social Democratic parties switched over to white collar agendas. These groups, however, often also think of themselves as middle class, so these parties and policies such as tax rebates would be appealing to them as well. Therefore, if the Left loses its sociological base and doesn’t really gain a new one, adopting these kinds of policies may be part of the solution.

The decline of these parties also has to do, to some degree, with globalization and rapid technological change, which have led to people losing traditional industrial jobs and becoming victims of globalization. This did not extend as far as some sociologists claimed – that practically everybody would now be doing patchwork careers – but enough of this has happened for many people to lose employment chances. For an unemployed miner whose coalmine has been shut down in the British Midlands, retraining as a computer specialist just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. This is not a model that is working right now. 

Therefore, there’s both a sociological transformation and a political transformation. These things are concurrent, and only occasionally have Social Democratic parties succeeded in creating a new base for themselves. I hope this provides at least part of an answer – this is certainly a large and complicated subject that we could talk about for a while.

Ferenc Laczo: Certainly. I also wanted to address another large question: you started your very first answer by talking about the American context of this book, and how your thinking is embedded in a transatlantic context, which has, if I may add, also shaped your own life trajectory. I therefore wanted to return to that subject as your new book addresses transatlantic connections and differences quite extensively. What you seem to show is that Europe and the US have been growing apart due to what you call their different interpretations of shared values: if you look at the attitudes towards, and practices, of taxation, welfare, or equality more generally, Europe and the US indeed appear to have diverged quite significantly. On the one hand, the American economy is more dynamic and innovative, but Europe is certainly more solidaristic and the average person has a more fulfilling life over here. When you then take a look at what the perspectives are on multilateral organizations or the role of force and violence in international politics, there are also notable differences. Having tried to summarize your take on transatlantic relations, let me ask you about your expectations. What would be your expectations, for instance, towards the current Biden Presidency when it comes to transatlantic relations? Would you expect there to be a reestablishment of a robust alliance, or are the differences between the US and Europe simply too large today to invest our hopes in such a revival, even if it is perhaps desirable for other reasons?

Konrad Jarausch: There are two different kinds of rhetoric on transatlantic relations. One of them is the “holiday and after dinner” type rhetoric, when Europeans and Americans come together at some ceremonial occasion. I’m kind of tired of that because it doesn’t add very much. On some very basic level, Timothy Garton Ash is right about there being common and shared values on both sides. Many Europeans have, of course, been indebted to the United States after 1945 and the two world wars, and there’s also been an Americanization of European popular culture. These things should, of course, not be forgotten. On the other hand, there’s also a strand of literature in this discussion that talks about an irreparable split. It’s mostly based on the unilateralism of American administrations and on Donald Rumsfeld’s “Old Europe” versus “New Europe” narrative, which has it backwards as the Old Europe is the progressive Europe and the New Europe is the nationalist Eastern Europe after 1989. 

I think that, on a very basic level, there are shared values, such as democracy, social solidarity, peace and so on, but the interpretation of these values has become more difficult and more controversial. There was at one point – I go back to FDR and other left-leaning social democratic presidents in contrast to Ronald Reagan and even Barry Goldwater – where there was a sense of convergence, whereby Europeans and Americans would get closer together. That convergence has broken down, and it’s not just a matter of personal chemistry between the President of the US and the President of France; it’s much more basic.

With the Biden presidency, there is a chance for transatlantic reset. The domestic agenda that he has outlined – and part of which he’s already gotten accepted – is similar to that of mainstream Europeans. He wants policies such as welfare reform, childcare, parental leave, public transport and so on. Many of these things sound familiar, and which creates a new possibility for convergence. There remain, however, substantive differences in defense, in the understanding of what democracy is, and in institutional structures (single-member districts versus multi-party systems, etc.). 

Since these differences and the resulting problems won’t just go away, we urgently need is a new transatlantic dialogue, leading to more consultation and more compromise.

Nordstream 2 is an example about which Europeans themselves are at odds. The Eastern Europeans are afraid of Russia and don’t really want it, while the Germans don’t want to give it up. They might argue, of course, that it won’t just be them that will be dependent on Russia, but that Russia will also be dependent on them, because Russians have to supply the gas if they want to make money from of it. The issue here is whether there is a possibility of working this out, and of reassuring the Eastern Europeans that they’re not going to be left in the lurch when Putin thumps on the desk – not in the style of Khrushchev, but in his own way, as in the cases of Ukraine and Crimea. 

What I’m talking about is a realistic cooperation, rather than false hope for immediate unanimity. It’s a transatlantic process that needs to get going again. My argument would be that the Europeans and Americans still need each other, that Americans alone cannot act like the policemen of the rest of the world, and that the Europeans – who have been huddling under the American nuclear umbrella for decades ­– can’t go it alone either. My hope is therefore that, with the Biden administration, the process of transatlantic consultation will resume, and that the difficulties and disagreements will be discussed among friends. There is a possibility of resolving these issues which was going down the drain with Trump, so we can only hope that the Biden part of America will move closer to the European example in order to sustain itself in the future.

The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

In collaboration with Virginia Crespi de Valldaura.

Contact Us