Europe's History, Rewritten

January 03, 1991|By William Pfaff

PARIS — Paris.

AN ECONOMY called Europe is supposed to exist by the start of 1993. A political entity called Europe, possessing defense and security policies, is supposed to be under construction.

Yet neither of these would be imaginable if another Europe did not already exist, with cultural and historical dimensions. This Europe has been neglected in the effort to construct the European Economic and Political Communities, begun by Jean Monnet in the 1940s.

That lapse has now been addressed by an individual European, acting on his own account, in what an American might think a very American way of going about the problem. One reason for this European's initiative is that he possesses a personal identity as complicated as that of most Americans.

Frederic Delouche has a Norwegian mother and a French father. He was educated at (Catholic) Ampleforth and at Cambridge in England. At school in England he was a ''Frog.'' On vacation in France he found himself one of those faintly ridiculous figures, to the French, a ''rosbif'' -- which is to say, a roast beef, or Englishman.

Both English and French looked upon his Norwegian side as of the savage Vikings pillaging civilized countries, whom sensible Europeans prayed God to keep away from them. Mr. Delouche became very tired of being treated, even jocularly, as a historic enemy in the countries he considered home.

He married after Cambridge, to an English girl brought up in Uganda. He became a banker and worked in Latin America, the United States and France. He became interested in the Ottoman Turks, and he and his wife went to Lebanon to learn Arabic.

In Europe again, he became increasingly frustrated by the persistence of nationalist thinking. He really could not describe himself as anything other than a European, but nobody else seemed to share that state of mind. To him, being Norwegian or French or English was not enough. Each nationality was limiting, and false to the other parts of himself. He had also seen Europe from the distant perspectives of Buenos Aires, New York, Beirut and Ankara.

So he set out to make Europeans conscious of themselves as Europeans. He decided that a new history of Europe should be written, which would treat it as a single civilization derived from a common history and shared cultural experiences: from Greek philosophy, art and politics; Roman Empire; Christianity; Christianity's division in and after the Reformation; Revolution in the 18th Century; Nationalism in the 19th; Industrial Revolution -- the aesthetic experiences of Renaissance, Romanticism and Modernism.

He approached several professional historians and convinced them that his project was worth doing. He convinced publishers in eight countries that it could be done. He gave and raised money for the effort.

A senior French historian, Jean-Baptiste Duroselle, undertook the text. Karl Dietrich Erdmann in Germany, Sergio Romano in Italy, Juan Antonio Sanchez Garcia-Sauco in Spain, and Keith Robbins and Richard Mayne in Britain joined the effort to make the work one which would surmount national prejudices and limitations.

The volume which resulted has just come out, to considerable critical success. It is called ''Europe: A History of Its Peoples'' (in the British version, published by Viking Penguin). Simultaneous editions have come out in Britain, Germany, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Denmark, France and the Netherlands. A school-textbook version is in preparation, and a Europe-wide television series is being considered. (There is no plan for a U.S. edition -- although there should be.)

The purpose of the volume, to make Europeans see themselves as specific national members of a single civilization, strikes a contrasting note to the critical reexamination of American cultural unity now under way in U.S. universities.

The U.S. has no such primordial diversity as Europe possesses. It is -- or was until very recently -- the cultural product of a single, English-speaking, mainly Protestant immigration from the British Isles.

In the early 19th Century, Germans and Irish Catholics followed, and then Italian, Scandinavian, Slavic, Jewish and Asian immigrations, but all accepted the cultural predominance and essential politico-social norms of the original settlers. The Hispanics who today demand official bilingualism are the first in recent years seriously to challenge settled American self-identification.

The American exception to this was the black African minority, brought to slavery and excluded from power until the 1960s. It nonetheless made a wholly disproportionate contribution to the development of a specifically American Protestantism, and to an American musical and popular culture that swept the world -- indeed to the creation of the Twentieth Century American sensibility that whites now share.

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