by Robert Bellafiore
The Strange Death of Europe: Identity, Immigration, Islam. By Douglas Murray. 352 pp. Bloomsbury. $17.15
“Europe,” Douglas Murray declares at the beginning of his new book, “is committing suicide.” Though wild exaggeration and unjustified conclusions are easy to find when considering the controversial subjects of Europe’s refugee crisis, the value of European civilization, and the proper relationships among cultures, Murray sets out to prove that his diagnosis is correct in The Strange Death of Europe: Identify, Immigration, Islam. He immediately offers the faint hope that he is wrong: “Or at least its leaders have decided to commit suicide. Whether the European people choose to go along with this is, naturally, another matter.” His careful analysis of this possibility, and how Europe has come to face such a stark choice, makes the work a moving though flawed elegy for European culture and society.
Murray, a British journalist, sees two immense challenges to the survival of Europe as we know it–a Europe that is rooted, according to Murray, in ancient Greek and Roman thought and indelibly shaped by two millennia of Christendom. The first is the “mass movement of peoples into Europe,” resulting in huge demographic shifts across the continent. With them have come dramatic changes in views on such issues as the role of religion in society, the rule of law, and relationships between men and women. The second challenge is Europe’s loss of “faith in its beliefs, traditions and legitimacy.” Marked by malaise and disgust in its own history, Europe lacks the vitality to preserve its distinct institutions and principles, which are now crumbling through disuse and outright rejection. To Murray, these trends are nearly irreversible, but that does not stop him from offering a dispassionate but moving analysis of them.
Combining research with reporting from his travels across the continent, Murray documents patterns that began developing after World War II but have escalated in recent years. As the birth rates of native Europeans have dropped past the point of sustaining themselves, the continent has come to rely on importing its population from abroad. However, the replacement has proven far from perfect. As revealed both in surveys (see, for example, here and here) and in the steady stream of terrorist attacks by self-proclaimed Muslims across the continent, growing numbers of people in Europe oppose the very principles that made it such a desirable place to live. Respect for minorities, freedom of speech and religion, and support for democracy do not grow spontaneously in a population. But the near-total absence of policies encouraging integration of immigrants into European culture suggests to Murray that European politicians thought otherwise—or, more likely, that they did not think about the issue at all.
These problems, Murray is careful to state, are not new. All that the refugee crisis of recent years has changed is the scope of the problems, as the number of immigrants Europe attempts to accommodate grows. In the desire to do good, Europeans have adopted careless policies and implemented them sloppily, making it too easy for non-refugees—and terrorists—to move in and out of the Continent. Murray clearly sympathizes with the plight of the migrants he meets. But, he insists, Europeans must recognize the dangerous consequences of the current immigration policies and admit that not all good ends are attainable—that, as German Chancellor Angela Merkel famously put it, “politics is hard.”
The most eloquent parts of the book, however, address the second problem facing Europe: its “existential civilizational tiredness.” In a fascinating survey of European, and especially German, thought over the last two centuries, Murray describes how Europe gradually discovered what it considered insurmountable flaws in Christianity and European culture. The theory of evolution and new historical analyses exposed the lies in religion’s claims to infallibility and divine guidance, while the bombastic art of the Romantic Era became so bloated that it could not help but collapse under its own weight. The World Wars only strengthened European skepticism about flying too close to the sun.
We can see the results of a diminished view of humanity in modern art, which would rather indulge in ugliness than celebrate beauty—for example, Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, which is simply a signed and dated urinal—and in a philosophy so afraid of claiming to know the truth that it avoids saying anything at all. Europeans have attempted to ignore the ensuing nihilism by embracing worthless but distracting entertainment that does not even pretend to possess the ambitions of earlier art. Though Murray laments these trends, he does not simply wish that everyone would flock to Europe’s churches again. An atheist himself, he makes clear that however valuable religion was in the past, there is just no going back. Though Murray does not claim to know what could fill the void in European culture, at least, he insists, he is willing to point out that there is a void, and that the proposed solutions have utterly failed.
Despite its eloquence, the book has its flaws. Murray fails in several cases to prove the causal connections that are central to his argument. Consider, for example, his claim that the surge in immigration has taken away jobs from European citizens. Murray acknowledges the counterargument that immigration has actually helped citizens economically by increasing demand for European goods and services, but he dismisses it so quickly that it is hard to be convinced one way or the other. Another frustrating part of Murray’s analysis is his unclear views on democracy. Murray highlights poll after poll revealing a growing opposition among Europeans towards their countries’ immigration policies. By his account, Chancellor Merkel and other European politicians have ignored their citizens and insisted on promoting the policies they themselves prefer. But what if those polls had revealed that the majority of Europeans supported current policies—would Murray then retract his support for majority rule and declare that everyone is wrong, or would he acquiesce with a shrug to the general will? Finally, Murray offers almost nothing in the way of solutions. Murray may well be right that bureaucrats will ignore or deny these problems until it is too late and a certain Europe is no more. But instead of simply lamenting modern art and the constant stream of distractions we face, Murray might have pointed out the alternatives that European civilization continues to offer. It is still possible to value Beethoven, Dante, and Michelangelo, even if one’s colleagues and contemporary artists do not.
Nevertheless, The Strange Death of Europe is an excellent work in its ability to analyze an evolving world with both sympathy and sobriety. Murray writes with the vigor and sadness of someone who dearly loves a civilization that has come to be considered replaceable. At one point Murray uses the German expression drang nach dem absoluten—“the drive towards the absolute,” the habit of forcing an idea to an inexorable conclusion that cannot be denied, even if one might wish to do so. The expression applies perfectly to Murray’s own thinking on this topic. While reading the book I found Bach’s St. Matthew Passion playing in my mind. Both are beautiful, almost overwhelmingly sorrowful, and worth experiencing.
Robert Bellafiore is a senior at the University of Oklahoma studying economics and philosophy and minoring in international studies.