Magazine | March 20, 2017, Issue

The Dark Continent

Vladimir Putin speaks to supporters at a rally in Moscow in 2012. (Reuters photo: Denis Sinyakov)
The End of Europe: Dictators, Demagogues, and the Coming Dark Age, by James Kirchick (Yale, 288 pp., $27.50)

Journalist James Kirchick’s first book is about Europe, not America, but throughout the reader will sense that it rests upon unvoiced axioms about America and its role in the world. These are axioms upon which no argument can rest confidently in the age of Donald Trump. As a consequence, although the book contains no obvious anachronisms, it feels as if it were written in another era, for a reader who no longer exists.

Kirchick was based in Prague and Berlin for much of the past decade, sending dispatches back to America about Europe and the former Soviet Union. During most of those years, I did the same thing from Istanbul and Paris. Every writer imagines his readers; Kirchick’s imaginary readers seem to be much like mine. Call them “post-war Americans” — Americans who feel it important to take a lively interest in the rest of the world; who are familiar, roughly, with the history of the two world wars and the Great Depression, and instinctively feel the lessons of these catastrophes; who understood that the relative global order in which Americans flourished for some 70 years did not emerge sua sponte but was created, deliberately, by great post-war statesmen and maintained by American power.

The United States was at the center of a system designed to promote peaceful trade among reasonably decent and democratic people, and, for the most part, it did. They knew this system to be imperfect, but better than the alternatives. And they believed — wrongly, as it happened — that their country was sufficiently exceptional that such things as happened in Europe could not happen to them.

To the extent that spectral qualities may be assigned to Donald Trump, there is a specter haunting this book, making a mockery of Kirchick and his imaginary readers. Trump is mentioned only four times, each time in passing. Clearly, Kirchick underestimated his significance and dismissed the prospect of his election. This is not a reproach. I didn’t see it coming, either.

Kirchick was, however, fully aware that the old order was dangerously frayed and that something was wrong with America. This is reflected in his exasperation with the Obama administration’s passivity in the face of Russian aggression and its unwillingness to reprise America’s traditional, deeply involved role in Europe.

But he was unable or unwilling to see how frayed it truly was: His tone suggests that he considered Obama’s detachment in foreign policy an aberration rather than the warning it was. But let us take The End of Europe on its own terms, as a book for people concerned about the future of liberal democracy in Europe. As Kirchick reports, Europe is imperiled again by Russian imperialism, and on the verge of entering “precisely the enervated state that Vladimir Putin seeks.”

Kirchick recounts the familiar story of Europe’s economic torpor, its alienated immigrants, and its demographically unsustainable welfare states. Europe is moreover reeling from deadly ISIS attacks and the Brexit vote.

His description of this is, in places, excellent. His chapter about Brexit is well written and fair-minded. He is particularly scathing about United Kingdom Independence party head Nigel Farage and the type of American conservatives to whom Farage appeals. He recounts with dismay watching Farage address “a half-empty lecture hall at the conservative Heritage Foundation” in 2015:

[I asked] the uncrowned king of British Euroskepticism what he made of the ongoing crisis in Ukraine. . . . War in Ukraine, he said, was the result of a “democratically elected leader brought down by a street-staged coup d’état by people waving EU flags.” . . . Invading and annexing Crimea were perfectly understandable reactions to European imperialism. Ukraine’s dismemberment, the thousands of deaths in its eastern provinces, more than a million displaced people, and heightened tensions between Russia and the West — all of it, Farage told me, was “something we have provoked.” A Kremlin spokesperson could not have scripted the response better himself.

Farage and those like him, Kirchick carefully argues, live in a morally inverted world where the bumbling and bureaucratic (but benign) EU is likened to the Soviet Union and Vladimir Putin is respected as the unlikely moral custodian of the West, even as Russia — relying on largely unreconstructed Soviet organs of statecraft — invades Europe.

Kirchick is contemptuous of American conservatives who cheer Europe’s disintegration. He is of course right to say there is nothing in Europe’s past to support the idea that the EU, if destroyed, would be replaced by a democratic and cooperative collection of sovereign nation-states. The view is historically illiterate. The long post-war peace is unique and fragile. “Those who claim that the EU has failed,” Kirchick writes, “must answer the following question: In comparison to what? The Europe of the Thirty Years’ War? The Napoleonic Empire? Hitlerite Europe?”

He is also right to warn that Europe’s social cohesion is at risk from its “failure to devise a common approach to asylum and migration, its propensity to adopt nationalist solutions in response to this shared problem, and its sorry record in assimilating Muslim residents.” This is obviously true. In places, though, he overstates the case or gets the details wrong, even to the point of echoing the populists and Russian propagandists he rightly deplores. “The rude facts of demography also matter,” he insists before asserting that 8 percent of France is Muslim and a quarter of teenagers identify as Muslims. But these are not facts, let alone rude ones. We don’t know how much of France is Muslim because the French government is forbidden, by law, to ask. A recent and credible private survey found that self-identified Muslims constitute only 5.6 percent of the metropolitan population above age 15 in France.

Nor does it seem to me quite accurate to write of Germany, as Kirchick does, that “historical guilt for the crimes of Nazism inspired an open-door refugee policy as ill considered as it was well intentioned, the negative consequences of which will be felt for generations.” I couldn’t know the extent to which Germany’s policy was inspired by guilt for the crimes of Nazism — no one could — but the authors of the policy say they were inspired by the Geneva Convention on Refugees, to which Germany is a signatory. It is probably also true that the decision was made easier because Germany has a large, aging work force and a low birth rate; without immigration, its population will decline, with disastrous economic effects.

Kirchick is right to say, though, that Europe’s inability to develop “a coherent and robust foreign policy that would tackle the migrant crisis at its source” has left it at the mercy of the autocrats on Europe’s periphery:

Europe finds itself in hock to autocrats like Vladimir Putin, . . . [who offers] himself as a “partner” against ISIS while bombing Western-backed opponents of Russia’s client Assad (whom the vast majority of refugees are fleeing). . . . By entertaining Putin’s cynical proposal of an “anti-ISIS coalition,” Western leaders willfully ignore how Moscow’s Syrian intervention is fueling the very migrant wave they supplicate him to help plug. Russia’s interest is very clear: In exchange for its supposed help in fighting ISIS, the West would lift sanctions on Moscow and effectively give a green light to its ongoing subversion of Ukraine.

As Kirchick notes, Russia has exploited the refugee crisis to serve its disinformation objectives. The impression many Americans have of a Europe simply overrun by migrant hordes has its origins in Russian agitprop, which is full of thrilling but often fictional stories of migrant rapes and rampages. It offers a platform and legitimization to Europe’s most extreme nationalist and anti-immigrant figures, all with the transparent goal of furthering European division.

Kirchick treats these stories too credulously. It is true, as he writes, that German police were stunningly unprepared on New Year’s Eve 2015 for the mass assault on women by North African assailants, and true as well that the media failed to report this for fear of ginning up hatred toward immigrants. But it is also true that this story has now been reported so many times, in such hysterical detail, that Americans seem to believe this happens every night in Germany. It doesn’t. A recent Centre for European Research study found “no association between the number of refugees and the number of street crimes in Germany” beyond small increases in drug offenses and fare-dodging.

The book is strongest when it deals with Russia’s revanchists. While Americans are being prepared for “great deals” and “getting along” with Putin, Russians are being readied for something quite different. Aleksander Gelman, a playwright and former Soviet official who left the Communist party late in the Gorbachev era, tells Kirchick that Russian society “is being prepared for the idea that we might have to fight” a world war. Putin has superintended a campaign of historic revisionism in Russia: Stalin’s reputation has been rehabilitated and the liberation of Central and Eastern Europe from the USSR has been recast as an amputation.

The End of Europe concludes with a warning that Europe’s collapse would be a catastrophe. “A Europe unmoored from the Enlightenment values it brought to the world, ignorant of and unwilling to protect its civilizational achievements, captive to chauvinist demagogues, indisposed to defend itself, bereft of its Jews, estranged from America, cowed before Russia, and reverted to its traditional state of nature with nations pursuing mercenary self-interest at the expense of unity would not only spell the end of Europe as we know it,” the author concludes. “Such a collapse would usher in nothing less than a new dark age.”

Kirchick never confronts the possibility that by the time this book went to print, the United States would be led by a Putinversteher and committed trade protectionist who views the architecture of the West’s post-war peace and freedom as obsolete, leaving an unsteady Angela Merkel as the de facto leader of the free world. He can’t really be criticized for this, but it does, finally, give the impression that the book comes from a world in which we no longer live.

– Claire Berlinski is the author of Menace in Europe: Why the Continent’s Crisis Is America’s, Too. She writes for She is now crowdfunding a new book about Europe titled “Brave Old World.”

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