Michel Gurfinkiel

Michel Gurfinkiel

Michel Gurfinkiel


Judeo-Christian Tradition vs. Totalitarian Utopias


In the early 1950s, the European Union as we know it did not exist, but a process of economic and political cooperation involving most Western European countries was already underway. And those countries came close to choosing a flag that featured the cross to represent their union.

The idea for the flag came from Count Richard von Coudenhove-­Kalergi, who in 1923 had founded the Paneuropean Union, the first political organization dedicated to European unity. Son of a Bohemian diplomat and a Japanese patrician, Coudenhove-Kalergi was born an Austro-­Hungarian subject in 1894, adopted Czechoslovak citizenship in 1919 after the breakup of the Habsburg Monarchy, and became a French citizen in 1939 after the takeover of Prague by Nazi Germany. He was concerned about the cultural dimension of post–World War II Europe. Would not a common religious, ethical, and aesthetic heritage be the best foundation for a secure future? Most of the founding fathers of the postwar European project agreed with him. They unanimously endorsed his choice of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Ode to Joy as the continent’s anthem.

But the flag posed problems.

The prewar Paneuropean Union had its own flag, a dark blue banner with a yellow globe and red cross. Why not wave it?, Coudenhove-Kalergi asked. Many European countries, from the U.K. and the Nordic countries to Switzerland and Greece, already used the cross as a national symbol. Yet the issue turned out to be more difficult than expected. Some European countries did not use the cross in their flags, and thus tended to view it as a foreign symbol. A certain sector of European opinion argued that featuring a cross would be too dogmatically Christian or even too Catholic, or that other religious or philosophic sensibilities, from Judaism to secularism to Islam, should be acknowledged. (Turkey, Islamic at heart if outwardly secularized, had just joined the Council of Europe and NATO.)

Then there was the last, and truly disturbing, difficulty: The Paneuropean Union flag looked like an inverted Nazi flag—blue instead of red, a yellow circle rather than a white one, a Latin cross rather than the swastika, but still the same pattern.

Eventually, a different flag was adopted, the one we know today. Its twelve stars are, ironically, no less Christian and Catholic than Coudenhove-Kalergi’s design. A preliminary design submitted by the exiled liberal Spanish scholar Salvador de Madariaga envisioned golden stars against a blue field. Paul Lévy, a Catholic Belgian official at the Council of Europe, and Arsène Heitz, a Catholic French civil servant, redesigned the flag with twelve stars to symbolize harmony and stability. Though it is not clear that they really had in mind the Holy Virgin’s celestial crown (Levy later denied it, Heitz affirmed it), many Catholics came to read it that way, and some infuriated non-Catholics and secularists as well.

Looking back, it seems only natural that an emerging United Europe should have adopted Christian emblems. Christian statesmen and Christian parties carried weight in the preliminary processes of European integration. There was some talk in the late 1940s and early 1950s of a “Vatican Europe,” even a “Holy Roman Europe,” since the three major countries were led by devout Catholics: Alcide De Gasperi served as prime minister of Italy from 1945 to 1953; Robert Schuman served as foreign minister of France from 1948 to 1953; and Konrad Adenauer was chancellor of West Germany from 1949 to 1963. Other countries were likewise under strong Christian political influence: Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Austria, and Ireland, as well as, in a different manner, Spain and Portugal.

In the ensuing decades, Europhile Christian parties continued to dominate Europe. In Germany, Christian Democratic chancellors have been in charge for fifty of the seventy years since the founding of the Federal Republic. Italy’s Christian Democracy Party (DC) was in power for almost fifty years, from 1945 to 1994. Christian parties have led or been part of most cabinets in most countries, including many of the former Eastern European countries that were welcomed into the European Union after 1989. The European People’s Party (EPP), inspired by Christian Democracy, has consistently been the largest single group at the European Parliament since that body’s beginning in 1976.

But is this political tradition, so important in the postwar era, still genuinely Christian? Christian Democratic parties have gradually abandoned some core values, such as defending the traditional family, traditional communities, and a common ethical heritage. They now endorse a vague and constantly revised philosophy of secular “human rights,” which they share not just with the moderate left but with the radical left as well. Whereas early Christian Democrats or Christian conservatives were eager to rebuild Europe as a Christian and humanistic polity, many of today’s nominally Christian politicians see ­Europe—or rather, the E.U. decrees and machinery in Brussels—as an end in itself. This “idea of ­Europe” supersedes Europe’s Judeo-Christian identity. A ­purely legal Europe has displaced the real one.

The European Parliament building in Strasbourg is suggestive of where this fantasy leads. Oddly (and tellingly), the E.U. was never able to decide where its mammoth assembly of 751 delegates should be located. Finally, two halls were built at great cost, the Paul Henri Spaak Building in Brussels (1989–93) for the more frequent “ordinary sessions,” and the Louise Weiss Building in Strasbourg (1999) for the “plenary sessions” that formally endorse Union legislation. Though much more elegant than its counterpart and rival in Brussels, the Strasbourg building elicits metaphysical bewilderment. It is an impressive, round structure, and its uppermost stories appear to be incomplete, lending it the appearance of the Tower of Babel as frequently rendered in Western art. The image is of man’s rebellion against the heavens, a far cry indeed from the cross or Mary’s crown.

Origins of Modern Christian Politics

The French Revolution of 1789 was quick, dirty, implacable, and irresistible, because it sought to realize the Empire of Reason and to dispose once and for all of the Judeo-Christian or biblical ­heritage—that is, of Christendom, which was diagnosed by elites as “fanaticism” and “superstition.” The Revolution’s most radical Jacobin phase lasted only a few years before giving way to the Napoleonic military dictatorship, and then progressed from 1814 on to a much milder regime, thanks to Anglo-Saxon influences. But the Revolution was never really reversed. Indeed, its legacy influenced the rest of Europe and its colonies. Revolutionary France was the paradigmatic “modern regime,” and its modes of social engineering and modernization spread even to countries such as Prussia and Russia, which pretended to oppose it.

Revolutionary upheavals occurred again and again in France and elsewhere: the revolutions of 1830 and 1848, the Parisian Commune of 1871, and finally, the twentieth-century “secular religions” of communism and fascism, which fully realized the inherently totalitarian drive toward social engineering that characterizes modern revolutionary politics. But Christianity did not just survive; it acquired new forms of strength throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Christianity’s continued influence was first and foremost a matter of sheer numbers. There were many Christians in the post-Revolution world. In their imagery and on their coins, French Republicans represented the Sovereign People as Hercules, the mace-wielding giant who smashed everything in his way—a transparent allusion to the sans-­culotte mob that had stormed the Bastille in 1789 and the Tuileries Royal Palace in 1792. But they, like ­Napoleon after them, were curbed or defeated by another Hercules. He showed his power in a series of Catholic rebellions, from the War in the Vendée and the ­Chouannerie uprisings to the counterrevolution in Naples in 1799 to the Spanish War of Independence (1808–14).

As representative governments were established, Christian demographic strength translated into electoral power. The steady growth of confessional parties in Western countries, from the early nineteenth century to the late twentieth, paralleled the steady extension of the electoral franchise. The first Catholic political congresses or caucuses took place between 1864 and 1884, when most European countries granted electoral franchise to most or all men. The formation of Catholic parties occurred in Germany in the 1870s, a result of Bismarck’s constitutional provision for universal male suffrage. In other countries the introduction or expansion of the electoral franchise led to the formation of confessional parties, Protestant as well as Catholic, and some Jewish ones. The Golden Era of confessional parties, starting in the 1920s in some countries and in the late 1940s in others, coincided with the extension of the franchise to women: 1918 in Austria and Poland, 1919 in Germany, 1922 in Ireland, 1931 in Spain, 1944 in France, 1945 in Italy.

What brought Christians and other religiously minded voters together was an anti-totalitarian resistance to revolutionary politics, expressed in the willingness of confessional blocs to defend themselves and their mores as organic elements of society. This meant protecting family values against social engineering, upholding popular traditions, supporting traditional marriage and independent education, and fostering local and professional autonomy (subsidiarity, to use a partly Calvinist, partly Catholic term). Christian parties also recognized at a very early stage the disruptive effects of the Industrial Revolution and were willing to address them. They did so through paternalistic but usually effective private initiatives (providing decent family housing to industrial workers and sufficient wages to allow fathers to provide for their families) or state-managed initiatives (retirement plans, medical insurance).

The Christian influence had a strong civic dimension outside formal political activity. Christian parties built up a host of ancillary organizations, from school networks to publishing houses and media, from youth movements (including the Scouts) to sports clubs, from guilds to trade unions. This civic dimension gave them a decisive advantage against secular liberals (whose main civil society institution was freemasonry) and, perhaps more importantly, against the socialists, who presented themselves as champions of the growing industrial working class. The Christian trade-union movement, which gained ground throughout Europe in the 1880s, competed with the more powerful Marxist and social-­democratic unions, and even managed to attain dominance among some laborers, such as the miners of Northern France or the skilled workers in the Ruhr.

In Christendom, kings and rulers had been the temporal coregents or protectors of the churches. As Christendom ended, the churches were emancipated and, paradoxically, far from becoming less politically relevant, they became more so. For the first time since Constantine, kings and rulers were more dependent on church support than the church was on their patronage. Among Catholics, ­Ultramontanism—the doctrine of the pope’s absolute supremacy in religious matters—superseded Gallicanism and similar views that insisted on the union of Church and nation. Protestant churches, often more subservient to the state than Catholic churches, likewise became more assertive, especially nonconformist or “free” churches. As a consequence, a self-consciously Christian form of modern politics arose. It was to have extraordinary consequences.

Christian Democracy, Phase One

Belgium was the first European country in which a Christian party rose to power in the nineteenth century. Formerly the Austrian Netherlands (and part of Republican and Napoleonic France for about twenty years), Belgium was a largely Catholic and partially French-speaking nation. Belgians resented being incorporated into the predominantly Protestant and Dutch-speaking Kingdom of the Netherlands in 1815. Things only worsened when the haughty Dutch king, William I, attempted in the 1820s to turn the Catholic Church into a “national church,” that is to say, to cut it from the Holy See. In the wake of the French Revolution of 1830, which installed the Orleans dynasty in place of the Bourbons, both liberal and confessional Belgians rose against King William and declared independence.

The new state reflected this novel alliance. Its constitution, which is still in force (excepting some minor adjustments) one hundred and ninety years later, was drafted by the liberals, the party that stood for a moderate, modern government in the Anglo-­Saxon style: popular sovereignty, parliamentary governance, and human rights, including freedom of religion, speech, and opinion. But the constitution also extended benefits to the Church and the faithful. As Michael P. Fogarty explains:

The Catholics, led by their bishops, placed themselves squarely on the ground of liberal democracy, and approved and indeed demanded the freeing of the Church from any entanglement with the State. The liberals on their side recognised the right of the Church to manage its own affairs, open its own schools, and even (a little illogically, in view of the general nature of the settlement) to have its clergy paid by public funds.

As the electoral franchise widened, Catholic-dominated parliamentary majorities governed. The Catholic Party of Belgium, founded in 1868, achieved an absolute majority in the Chamber of Representatives in 1884, which it retained until 1918. Under further names—the Catholic Un­ion, the Catholic Block, and finally the dual Christian-Social Party (CSP, in Wallonia) and Christian Popular Party (CVP, in Flanders)—a Catholic party remained part of almost every Belgian government until the end of the twentieth century.

The Belgian experience influenced Christian activists throughout Europe. It made clear that Christian Democracy was a perfectly sensible proposition, even if it contradicted the anti-liberal decrees of Pius IX, the pope who dominated the nineteenth century. But circumstances were different in other countries, more complex and often less idyllic.

From the 1880s on, the Netherlands, like Belgium, was dominated by Christian parties that advocated family values, freedom of education, the extension of the electoral franchise, and the interests of “ordinary people” (kleyne luyden). But these parties were divided on confessional lines and were rocked by a series of quarrels and schisms. Dutch Catholics, a despised minority after the secession of Belgium, initially lent their votes to the secular liberal party, a strategy meant to improve their lot.

Abraham Kuyper’s Anti-Revolutionary Party (ARP) changed Dutch politics. His party rejected Enlightenment philosophy and promoted, on purely Christian principles, a democratic and progressive platform. On this basis a Catholic-Protestant coalition was formed in 1888. Although it never became a unified parliamentary party, this configuration ruled the country on a regular basis, and then exerted full control over Dutch politics from 1918 to 1939. The signal influence continued after 1945 as well.

France came very close to the Belgian model in 1848, under the short-lived Second Republic. Thanks to the universal male franchise, both conservative and progressive Catholics dominated the Constituent Assembly of 1848 and the Legislative Assembly of 1849, implementing many parts of their platforms. A French army was dispatched to restore Pius IX’s temporal authority in Central Italy (albeit motivated by reasons of state); the Falloux Laws abolished the secular state’s monopoly on education and allowed for Catholic schools and colleges; laws were passed to protect the working class.

However, the Catholic party could not prevent the 1851 military takeover by President ­Louis-Napoleon, soon to become Napoleon III. In this period, out of concern over the growth of atheistic socialism, Catholics shifted loyalties toward a larger conservative party, le Parti de l’Ordre. In the Third Republic, founded in 1870, most Catholics remained entangled with the monarchist or authoritarian right. This led to anticlerical backlashes in the 1880s, and eventually to the complete separation of Church and state in 1905. Despite these setbacks, intellectual Catholicism, Catholic civil society, and Christian trade unions prospered in France, paving the way for a political revival in the mid-twentieth century.

At first glance, Christian politics seem to have fared much better in the Germanic countries. Conservative parties were keen to describe themselves as Christian, and liberal parties proclaimed their loyalty to Christian ethics. But actual conditions were less auspicious.

Conservatives in Germany tended to use the churches as tools for social control, and treated them harshly if they did not cooperate: This was the case for both Protestants and Catholics in Prussia in the 1820s and 1830s, and again in the 1870s. The liberals, who were influential in Southern Germany, especially in Bavaria and Baden, were unwilling to endorse a Belgian-style compromise to accommodate the churches. And some groups advancing a Christian agenda drifted toward anti-Semitic agitation. The Christian Social Party founded by Adolf Stöcker, the Lutheran Court chaplain in Berlin, attracted few votes but succeeded in disseminating radical anti-Jewish views. In Austria, Karl Lueger, the charismatic mayor of Vienna, founded a party that achieved political influence at local and national levels. It, too, engaged in anti-Semitic rhetoric, though it did not attempt to translate those sentiments into policy.

The most successful Christian party in Germany was the Zentrum or Center Party, founded in 1870 by Ludwig Windthorst, a Hanoverian lawyer and statesman. Members of Zentrum sought to defend Prussia’s Catholic communities. Catholics constituted almost one-third of Prussia’s population and were a majority in the Eastern Polish-speaking provinces of Posen and Upper Silesia, as well as in the western provinces of Rhineland and Westphalia. The establishment of the Second Reich in 1871 incorporated Bavaria and other southern German states, making Catholics a substantial 40 percent minority within Germany.

The Second Reich established a universal male franchise. In the 1871 election, the Center Party secured 18.6 percent of the vote. It reached 27.9 percent at the second Reichstag (1874) and hovered around 20 percent until 1907. It was thus, for most of this period, Germany’s second-largest parliamentary party, initially behind the National Liberal Party (a broad coalition of conservative and liberal nationalists), and then the Social Democratic Party, which after 1891 rose to first position. On two occasions, in 1881 and 1884, the Zentrum gained the most votes of any party.

In many ways, the Center Party’s rise was the direct outcome of the Kulturkampf waged against the Catholic Church by the Second Reich under Otto von Bismarck. No fewer than twenty-two laws were passed between 1871 and 1876 to curb the Catholic clergy, expel the Jesuits, dissolve other monastic orders, interfere with Church discipline, secularize civil registries and primary schools, and encourage swift denominational disaffiliation. One can dismiss these policies—the harshest attack against the Roman Church in Europe since the 1789 Revolution—as Bismarckian aberrations. But this misjudges. Protestant Prussia dominated the Second Reich, and it was wary of a renewed Catholic coalition of France and Austria. Bismarck worried that such a configuration would attract the loyalty of German Catholics. But the legal measures backfired. It was only natural for German Catholics, as a reaction, to support the Center Party en masse.

From the outset, Windthorst insisted that the Center Party was loyal to the Reich and its constitution. Moreover, he claimed that the party did not defend Catholics as such. Rather, the party insisted that all citizens were entitled to full equality and full religious freedom, and pledged to defend those rights for all Germans. To that end, Windthorst attempted to win Protestant support, and he strongly opposed anti-Semitism. Thus, while Belgian Catholics had led the way in the nineteenth century by endorsing democracy, German Catholics went a step further. The Center Party was Catholic in the sense that its support came primarily from Catholic voters, but the party promoted a non-confessional Judeo-Christian Democratic vision.

The Center Party demonstrated its staying power during the Kulturkampf. Bismarck began looking for ways out of his repressive policies. When the more flexible Leo XIII succeeded Pius IX in 1878, the chancellor agreed to rescind some measures and gradually restored most rights to Catholics. As Social Democrats and more radical elements gained electoral votes, the Center Party cooperated with the Imperial and Prussian governments to buttress national defense and create a comprehensive social security system. Somewhat diminished after World War I because of the loss of Catholic regions to Poland and France, the party nevertheless remained powerful, one of the few stalwarts of democracy in the troubled Weimar state.

Similar political developments took place in Italy. It seems strange, for Italy, which had achieved national unity shortly before Germany, was, unlike Germany, a predominantly Catholic country. How could Catholicism be marginalized there? The blame lies with Pius IX. He refused to recognize the House of Savoy’s “theft” of the Papal States in 1860 and of Rome in 1870, and thus forbade Italian Catholics to take part in Italian political life. Leo XIII relaxed this policy but did not dare reverse it entirely. Leo’s successor, the conservative Pius X, lifted the ban incrementally, beginning in 1903, continuing in 1909, and concluding in 1913.

Though officially they stood outside Italian politics, Pius IX and Leo XIII guided the Catholic Church toward a heavy investment in civil society. The hierarchy nurtured, and to an extent controlled, an array of lay organizations: the Catholic Congress Movement, Catholic Action, and others. At quite an early stage, these groups cooperated indirectly with political parties in order to protect Catholic interests. Under Pius X, they provided a basis for direct Catholic political involvement. This involvement became more explicit still when Benedict XV lifted the ban against the Italian State in 1918 and freed Catholic politicians from direct Church interference. The Italian People’s Party that emerged captured 20 percent of the vote in the two pre-fascist elections of 1919 and 1921.

Just as the Kulturkampf led German Catholics to counterattack by embracing democracy, the rift between the Italian State and the Holy See encouraged Italian Catholics to subscribe to a democratic agenda. The Programme of the Young Christian Democrats, published in Turin in 1899, called for progressive reforms: proportional representation of parties in parliament and local authorities, extension of the franchise, decentralization of the administration, legal protection for labor, a fixed maximum of working hours per day and a fixed minimum wage, vocational education for the masses, workers’ housing societies, industrial arbitration, tax reform, and last but not least, the protection of civil and political liberties: freedom of teaching, of the press, of association, of meeting, of organization. The Programme insisted that these initiatives were rooted in Christian principles: “We demand all this as Christian Democrats, because the reforms for which we call correspond at once to the aspirations of a true democracy and to the social principles of Christianity. Christian Democracy means the wholehearted application of Christianity, that is of Catholicism, to the whole of modern public and private life, and to all its forms of progress.”

In view of their roles in late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Germany and Italy, it is not surprising that the Center Party and the Italian People’s Party were the forerunners of the two strongest and most influential Christian parties that emerged in Europe after World War II: the German CDU/CSU and the Italian Democrazia Cristiana. But they first had to pass through very dark times.

Tribulation and Resistance

In less than thirty years, from the 1880s to the 1910s, Euro-American discoveries and innovations—electric power, radio waves, radioactivity, automobiles, aircraft, submarines, the telephone, cinematography, sound recording, broadcasting, plastics and synthetics, the eradication of many endemic illnesses—reshaped everyday life. This tremendous material progress transformed Western societies in ways that seemed to validate the Enlightenment’s principles of reason, order, prosperity, and peace. But these material advances also disrupted traditional forms of life, and the social dislocations often made European countries politically unstable. Moreover, progress was soon harnessed for war and destruction.

The terrible events that rocked Europe and the world from 1914 to 1945 did not dispel belief in progress. Most people blamed the catastrophic events on an “eclipse” of the Enlightenment. It was not easy to recognize that the twentieth century’s “totalitarian” experiments—the project of “total war,” the murderous “total class warfare” waged by communism, the “total State” promoted by fascism, and the genocidal “total racial engineering” fantasized by Nazism—might on the contrary be an ultimate expression of the Enlightenment’s totalizing drive. In retrospect, 1914–45 were not decades of irrationality; they were a time of a mad rationalism.

Committed Christians and other religiously minded Europeans were swept along by patriotic fervor in the summer of 1914, as were other citizens. Many remained ardently patriotic or nationalistic after the Great War, either out of fidelity to the sacrifices borne by soldiers and civilians, or because they viewed nationalism as Christianity’s best defense against ­atheistic socialism and its new, radical wing, Bolshevism.

The trauma of the trenches and concerns about communism caused some leaders of Christian parties to turn to the fascists in Italy and the national socialists in Germany. Others urged a “traditionalist” or “corporatist” Christian-fascist synthesis (sometimes referred to as “clericofascism”). This impulse was manifest in Action française (even after its 1926 condemnation by Rome), António Salazar’s Estado Novo in Portugal, Engelbert Dollfuss’s regime in Austria, José María Gil-Robles y Quiñones’s Confederacy of Autonomous Rights (CEDA) and later the Franco regime in Spain, the Blueshirts in the Irish Free State, the Metaxas or “Fourth of August” regime in Greece, the Iron Guard in Romania, and both the Croatian-Catholic and Serbian-Orthodox radical movements in Yugoslavia. There was also, in many places, a very different but equally extreme and post-democratic Christian infatuation with the left, including even communism, as the strange case of Pierre Pascal exemplifies: Pascal was a devout French Catholic who joined the Bolshevik party in Russia in the wake of the October Revolution.

Yet amid the turmoil of the interwar years it was also the case that many religiously minded Europeans were alarmed by the rise of political totalitarianism. Resisting the communist threat was a priority throughout the 1920s and the early 1930s, but as the thirties advanced, national socialism and Japanese militarism were likewise regarded with growing suspicion. Some Catholics hoped that clericofascism and even Italian-style fascism would contain both ­menaces—hence their support for Dollfuss in Austria, their pro-Italian stand in the Abyssinian crisis of 1935, and their sympathy for the half-traditionalist, half-fascist rebellion in Spain in 1936. When ­Mussolini aligned strategically and ideologically with Hitler, sacrificing Austria in the process, these hopes started to unravel. Right-wing Catholics, like many Protestants, drew the proper conclusions.

The ideological disorientation and gradual clarification of Christian political commitments during this time are reflected in intellectual debates, especially in France, a country that hosted many refugees from totalitarian regimes. The “nonconformist school” (Jean-Louis Loubet del Bayle’s description) dominated the 1930s. This outlook was encouraged by Esprit, a periodical founded by Emmanuel Mounier, and l’Ordre Nouveau, a movement influenced by Robert Aron that was largely Catholic and looked for a “third way”—neither right nor left, neither liberal nor totalitarian, but “communitarian” and “personalist.” Some of its members were active in Léon Blum’s Popular Front government in 1936–1938; others worked for the Vichy government in 1940. Most eventually joined the Resistance. Charles de Gaulle, the charismatic leader of the Free French, had been close to l’Ordre Nouveau before the fall of France in 1940.

The war was a moment of truth. Christianity, or at least a commitment to the Christian heritage, was often the touchstone of resistance, separating those who mobilized to defeat Nazism from its sympathizers, appeasers, and collaborators. Claude Bouchinet-Serreulles, who served as secretary to de Gaulle in London, recalled in his memoirs, Born to Be Free, a conversation he had on Christmas 1941. Hitler had declared war on the United States after Pearl Harbor, and the European war was now global. Bouchinet-Serreulles was speaking to “a prominent member of the Conservative party” who still favored an arrangement with Hitler. “Finally, I asked him whether a Nazi victory would not mean the passing of our Judeo-Christian civilization. At that point, his face darkened and he stopped talking to me.” Bouchinet-Serreules knew that the religious core of European identity was at stake.

In Germany, opposition and resistance to national socialism was found in and around the ­churches. In his 1939 novel, On the Marble Cliffs, Ernst ­Jünger portrays the destruction of the Evil Empire by a handful of learned monks. Among Protestants, the Confessing Church movement (which defended Christianity against the neo-Marcionite “German Christians”) played an important role. Among Catholics, leading prelates such as Clemens von Galen, Konrad von Preysing, and Josef Frings took part in drafting the 1937 encyclical Mit brennender Sorge. They denounced, even during the war, many aspects of the regime’s ideology and policies. Galen condemned racial anti-Semitism but was not above religious anti-Judaism. Preysing and Frings let it be known that they were horrified by both attitudes and their genocidal consequences (“a crime crying to Heaven,” Frings said).

These public pronouncements influenced Germans who were not fully fanaticized. The White Rose group in Munich came together after Galen condemned the Nazi T4 euthanasia program. It was driven to action in 1943 by reports and testimonies, many of them disseminated in church circles, about the genocide of Jews. “Since the conquest of Poland . . . Jews have been murdered in this country in the most bestial way,” the group wrote in its second public leaflet. “The German people slumber on in dull, stupid sleep and encourage the fascist criminals. Each wants to be exonerated of guilt, each one continues on his way with the most placid, calm conscience. But he cannot be exonerated; he is guilty, guilty, guilty!” Preysing was in touch with another Resistance group, the Kreisau Circle led by the Protestant Helmuth James von Moltke. He also met and blessed the Catholic Claus von Stauffenberg shortly before his ill-fated attempt to assassinate Hitler in 1944.

In most countries subject to German control, Christian activists engaged in various forms of anti-­Nazi mobilization, from underground and guerilla operations to political maneuvering. In France, priests, monks, nuns, and lay Christians joined the Resistance. The communist poet Louis ­Aragon wrote La Rose et le Réséda, a ballad celebrating the partisan “who believed in Heavens” along with “the one who did not.” In 1943 in Italy, where Church authorities and lay activists had attempted to ­moderate ­Mussolini’s regime from within, large numbers of Christians joined the Partigiani guerilla groups against the German military occupation in the north and center of the country. In Hungary, the churches supported Admiral Miklós Horthy’s stubborn ­efforts to keep the country as independent as possible from its German ally, and to protect its large Jewish ­community.

In Greece, the Orthodox Church entertained ambivalent relations with the semi-fascist Metaxas regime, which sought to make religion subservient to the state but did not otherwise pursue anti-Jewish persecution, and did not surrender to the Italian and German invasions in 1940–41. Under German occupation, the Archbishop of Athens and All Greece, Damaskinos Papandreou, protested the deportation of Thessaloniki’s Jews in 1943, then engaged in extensive underground operations to rescue the rest of the Jewish community. He supported the Resistance in many ways. In Bulgaria, the Orthodox Church unanimously mobilized against the planned deportation of the local Jewish community.

Christian Democracy, Phase Two

The courageous stand of many churchmen and lay Christians during World War II granted them a special role after 1945—at least in the Western half of Europe, where American protection and support allowed for the restoration of democratic politics. But other factors contributed to the remarkable ­ascendancy of Christian Democracy during the postwar era.

First, there was a MiMa’amakim (“out of the depths,” from Psalm 130) response. The human suffering of the wartime years led to a general turn toward transcendence and a return to the Judeo-Christian outlook. The most instinctive and stunning manifestation was the baby boom, which started simultaneously in Germany, France, Britain, America, and Russia. Bearing and raising children had always meant love, faith, and hope for the future.

There were intellectual and cultural signs as well. The Ten Commandments was published in the United States in 1943, featuring chapters by famous European authors such as Thomas Mann, Sigrid Undset, Franz Werfel, Rebecca West, Jules Romains, and André Maurois. Toward the end of the war, Jünger circulated among German anti-Nazis a short but stunning essay, The Peace. He argued that a war that brought so much destruction and led to such crimes (he mentioned the “gas chambers” and the crimes perpetrated “in the name of race”) should have no other outcome than “a better and wider Kingdom of Peace,” to be achieved by a wholesome return to “the God of the Bible.” In his judgment, “the symbols of Man’s Godly origins, the narrative of the Creation, the figures of Cain and Abel, the images of Sodom and the Babel Tower, the Psalms, the Prophets, the New Testament’s truth, so superior to the base laws of this reign of terror, provide us with the eternal pattern and measure governing human history.”

The return to religion was not just a gesture among intellectuals. At the old German justice hall in Nuremberg where surviving Nazi leaders were tried in 1946, the four judges were seated under the Tablets of the Law. From Berlin to Le Havre to Coventry, churches and cathedrals were the first monuments to be rebuilt in devastated cities.

Christian Democracy’s rise was also strengthened by the Year Zero effect. Though materially hurt, the United Kingdom and the U.S.S.R. could take pride in their fortitude and final victory, but most other nations were morally collapsed as well as physically destroyed. Germany was left with no central government and had lost 25 percent of the land mass it possessed in 1937. It was subjected to forced migrations of ethnic Germans on a huge scale from lost provinces to the East, split among four occupation zones, and burdened by the crimes of the Nazi regime. Italy was shattered by the fall of ­Mussolini’s dictatorship and the Savoy monarchy. France had been wiped out militarily in 1940, and its liberation in 1944 had been the work of the Anglo-Saxons (de Gaulle’s gallant stand notwithstanding). In these contexts, religion was the last token of legitimacy and national continuity.

In Germany, Italy, and even France, Year Zero was characterized by a backward-looking and often only half-admitted desire for absolution. Too many people among the elites and the masses had tacitly or explicitly supported the fascist regimes, at least for a time. This was often the case for non-fascist conservatives. Having feared Bolshevism as the greater evil, they had allied themselves with fascists, and they sought to be cleared of this alliance, if not amnestied. Pledging allegiance to Christian values, and to the Christians who had fought fascism in one way or another, offered a path to rehabilitation.

In sum, the postwar situation favored the dominance of Christian Democratic parties. They would remain in charge for several decades.

In the 1949 German elections (the first free elections since 1932), two Christian parties, the Christian Social Union (CSU) in Bavaria and the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in the rest of West Germany, emerged as the largest political group in the Bundestag. They earned 31 percent of the vote, gaining a narrow victory over the Social Democratic Party (SPD), which garnered 29.2 percent. Four years later, in 1953, the CDU/CSU rose to 45.2 percent of the vote, against 28.8 percent for the SPD. In 1957, it rose even higher, to 50.2 percent. In the 1960s and later, the CDU/CSU was dominant in West Germany, and after unification it dominated German politics as a whole. It has ruled for forty-two years out of the last seventy-one, as either the parliamentary majority or a partner in a broad coalition with the Social Democrats. Even in opposition, during brief periods when the Social Democrats have held power, the CDU/CSU has been a force to be reckoned with.

The Christian Democracy Party (DC) was likewise dominant in Italy after World War II. The direct heir of the pre-Mussolinian People’s Party (running under the same emblem, a red shield with a white cross and the Latin motto Libertas), the DC won the first elections under the new constitution in 1946, with 35.2 percent of the vote. In 1948, its vote share rose to 48.5 percent. The party stayed above 40 percent for a decade, then stayed close to 40 percent for two more decades after 1958.

In France, the Popular Republican Movement (MRP), a secular party with Christian influences, did not fare as handsomely. It began at 24.9 percent of the vote in 1945, rose to 28.2 percent in June 1946, and fell slightly to 25.9 percent in November 1946. In 1951, it fell to under 15 percent. Conservative voters had rallied to the party largely out of the need for absolution and reintegration into legitimate French politics. But in the early 1950s, voters switched to the new national-democratic party founded by de Gaulle, or they moved to Antoine Pinay’s more right-wing Independent and Agrarian Party. From the early 1950s onward, French Christian Democracy, or the Centrists, as the party was renamed in 1965, never achieved more than 15 percent of the vote nationwide. But the fragmented Christian constituency in France would at times reunite on specific issues and exercise decisive influence.

The Postwar Bargain

The post-1945 Christian Democratic agendas manifested slight differences in accordance with national situations. There were nonetheless common tenets:

  • Resistance to communism and Soviet takeover, then the major totalitarian threat in Europe. This meant strengthening alliances with America and supporting NATO. Christian Democrats were staunch Atlanticists.
  • Free enterprise mitigated by regulation and welfare programs. The Germans described this approach as the “social market economy.” It worked in concert with American-controlled Keynesian organizations, above all the Marshall Plan. Eventually, these policies translated into a series of “economic miracles”—the German Wirtschaftswunder, the Italian Miracle, and the French Trente Glorieuses.
  • Pro-family policies, which included direct government subsidies for parents, subsidized housing, support for family businesses, support for religious school networks, a conservative stand on sexual norms, policies curtailing birth control, and prohibition of abortion and even ­divorce.
  • Reconciliation among European nations, cooperation, and federalism. The Soviet menace and the American security umbrella meant that the major Western European powers were not fully independent anymore, and they could not nurture hostile designs against one another. With greater Germany reduced to West Germany, there was greater parity of size and power in Europe. Moreover, American economic support—the key to recovery, full employment, the rise of living standards, and domestic peace—was provided on the condition of European integration.
  • Rule of law and support for traditional institutions (including the monarchy, where it still existed). The widespread desire to return to “normalcy” reinforced the conservative platforms of Christian Democratic parties.

Yet early in the postwar era, a new political dynamic emerged. It would at first qualify the ascendancy of Christian-dominated parties and eventually hollow them out. The Christian Democrats found themselves often joining forces with the Social Democrats, their historic adversaries. They had agreed on some issues in the past and had joined forces during the Resistance. After 1945, cooperation increased dramatically. At times, Christian Democrats and Social Democrats looked like the two wings of one single movement committed to prosperity and stability.

Social Democratic parties emerged in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, organized along the assumption that the laboring class was in conflict with the capitalist class. These parties sought a new, “post-­capitalist” social order, and in that sense they were revolutionary in the tradition of the French Revolution. But they distinguished themselves from communists and other radicals by pledging to work within liberal democratic institutions—hence their name, Social Democrats.

The postwar situation moderated the ideological differences of earlier decades. The Social Democrats moved toward the Christian Democrats on the question of communism and Soviet expansion. They were affected by the dissolution of their movement by the communists in the so-called “People’s Democracies” in Eastern Europe, often accompanied by assassinations and imprisonments of Social Democratic leaders. (The Prague coup in 1948 was a particular shock to the left in Western Europe.) As a result, Social Democrats embraced Atlanticism too, and with it an American-dominated foreign policy.

This resulted in a broad national consensus in countries like Germany, where CDU/CSU and SPD contended for power. In Italy, where communists dominated the left, small socialist parties had no choice but to ally themselves with DC. In France, MRP-Socialist cooperation was necessary against an informal but effective coalition of the Gaullists, the communists, and several small right-of-center or left-of-center groups, cemented together by a common distrust of Atlanticism. Unlike its Italian and German counterparts, the French center-left/center-right cooperation failed: The coalition that worried about American dominance derailed a NATO-sponsored European Defense Community project in 1954. As was so often the case, de Gaulle remained difficult to categorize in postwar politics.

Wartime destruction united the interests of labor and capital. Both had an overriding interest in rebuilding shattered economies. Thus, when it came to economic policies, Christian Democrats and Social Democrats had similar agendas. Both groups were influenced by American patrons who believed in a regulated market and welfare programs: New Deal Democrats, Eisenhower Republicans, and the AFL-CIO, which actively supported non-communist unions in Western Europe, Christian Democratic and Social Democratic alike. This convergence was sealed when Germany’s SPD, the strongest European Socialist party, disclaimed any vestigial allegiance to Marxism at its 1959 party convention in Bad Godesberg.

When it came to European integration, the convergence was even more complete. Among its leading proponents were the so-called Vatican triumvirate of De Gasperi, Schuman, and Adenauer, to which the godfather of European federalism himself, the international banker Jean Monnet, should perhaps be added, since he always remained close to his family’s Catholic tradition. This group was paralleled by a Social Democratic triumvirate: the Belgian prime minister Paul-Henri Spaak, the Dutch Minister of Agriculture and then Minister of Economy Sicco Mansholt, the Italian Socialist and Eurofederalist Altiero Spinelli. Without the Christian Democratic–Social Democratic compact, it is unlikely that the European Coal and Steel Community would have been created in 1951, or that the Treaty of Rome, the cornerstone of political Europe, would have been signed in 1957.

Christian Democrats and Social Democrats also shared many views on family policy, as long as it involved increasing economic or financial aid. They were ready to compromise at times on politically risky matters such as education. But there were still marked differences on family values as such. Christian Democrats prioritized the family over the individual; Social Democrats did the opposite. As long as the baby boom lasted, this was not really a matter of consequence, because family values were dominant within both groups. But the boom slowed by the mid-1960s, and the parents’ generation yielded to that of the children, for whom family was not the first priority.

Technological Revolution in Sex and ­Family

The wealth of the West expanded after 1945. Major breakthroughs took place in physics (nuclear energy), biology (the antibiotics revolution, DNA, genetic engineering, the food revolution) and artificial intelligence (computers, data, imagery, algorithms, the Internet). Over time, the pre-1914 euphoria returned, and with it the Enlightenment hubris according to which man is all-powerful. Such a view no longer required the biblical, transcendent God. As the postwar era matured, the new proclamation was that man (or something like a ­technologically augmented man) was God, or about to become God.

Nowhere was the new proclamation more visible and more dramatic in its consequences than in sexual matters. In the late 1940s, antibiotics erased the threat of most venereal diseases. In the 1960s, the pill and intrauterine devices provided reliable female contraception. In the 1970s, abortion was legalized and reframed as a routine surgical operation. In vitro fertilization, achieved in 1978, led to technologies that assisted reproduction to counter infertility among married couples, and this in turn led to a whole gamut of medically assisted procreation procedures, designed for single parents or same-sex parents, and finally, to surrogacy. Now, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, gender reassignment technologies have become accepted practices.

Though some of these technologies may have been compatible with traditional family patterns, they led, as a whole, to a gradual dissociation of sex and family, and then to the erosion of the family itself.

In the United States, where the concepts of marriage and family remain relatively important (61 percent of never-married Americans said in 2011 that they wanted to get married), the decline of marriage as an institution is nonetheless marked. In 1940, 90 percent of all households were families. In 2010, 66.4 percent of households were families. Fertility dropped from 3.4 children per woman to 1.8. Single-parent births rose from 6 percent of all births in 1960 to 43 percent in 2010.

In most European countries, marriage has lost its magic altogether. According to a 2011 OECD report, cohabitation has replaced or is replacing marriage or civil partnerships among couples aged twenty to thirty-four in Sweden (62.6 percent of all couples in that age bracket), France(56.58percent), Germany(56.03 percent ), the Netherlands(54.21 percent), the U.K.(50.02 percent), Spain(41.43 percent), and Switzerland (40.14percent). Surveys by the National Institute for Statistic Studies show that marriage rates dropped in France from more than 400,000 marriages per year in the early 1970s to fewer than 221,000 (including six thousand same-sex marriages) in 2019. “Civil solidarity pacts” or PACS, a low-cost and easily dissolvable marriage, rose to 209,000.

By the same token, according to Max Planck Institute data, fertility in France dropped from 2.7 children per woman in 1960 to 1.8 in 2018, which is still the highest rate in Europe in relative terms, an anomaly that may be explained by a large Muslim immigrant presence. (The French government prohibits gathering data concerning race, religion, or ethnicity.) In Germany, fertility dropped from 2.3 children in 1960 (both in the Western and Eastern parts of the country) to 1.2 in 1993, but returned to 1.5 in 2017 (in a reunited country), probably thanks to immigration. In Italy, fertility has fallen from 2.4 to 1.3. In Spain, from 2.8 to 1.3. In the U.K., from 2.7 to 1.8. The average European rate of out-of-­wedlock births (or births from polygamous parents, in the case of some immigrants) is about 50 percent. It is 60 percent in France.

Clearly, changes of this magnitude lead to further disruptions. A demographically declining nation without strong family formation will need ­immigrants—or will be unable to control immigration flows. Its capacity to create, produce, and engage in business will likely falter. Many aspects of its culture will become irrelevant. Its survival as a polity is not assured.

In March 2019, Jérôme Fourquet, a pollster and essayist, published L’Archipel français (The French Archipelago). In a dry and dispassionate manner, relying on multiple surveys and a wide array of data, Fourquet concludes that the nation of France is vanishing. Its dissolution is due to the decline of its national religion and the disintegration of its traditional family patterns.

In 1961, Catholicism was the social norm and baptism a near universal practice: 92 percent of the French were baptized. Among the children seven years old and younger, “48.8 out of 100 were baptized in 1999, 40 out of 100 in 2005, 34 in 2010, and 30 in 2015.” In 1961, 38 percent of baptized Catholics said they attended Mass “every Sunday” or “as often as possible.” In 2012, just 7 percent did.

The decline of Catholicism in France has many causes, according to Fourquet, including the sense of spiritual dispossession created by some of the Second Vatican Council’s doctrinal, liturgical, and disciplinary reforms. But it also has been caused in no small measure by the breakdown of sexual morality, marriage, and family, which undermines the basis for stable religious practice. One casualty has been the clergy. There were 25,203 French priests in 1990 and only 11,908 in 2015, the latter number including some six thousand already beyond the age of retirement. Another factor is Christian militancy in social and political affairs, a worldly orientation that downplays the transcendent.

These dramatic declines influenced the postwar European political settlement, which was dependent on Christian parties. All over Europe, Christian Democracy has lost its traditional basis of support: churchgoing parents and grandparents concerned to ensure cultural and economic stability for themselves and their children. As that basis of support has eroded, Christian Democratic parties have lost touch with their core commitments. The process was so incremental that it went unnoticed for years.

The Return of Revolution

By all outward appearances, Christian Democratic parties thrived from the 1970s through the early 2000s. In the European Parliament, the European People’s Party (EPP) has regularly enjoyed a plurality. In Germany, the CDU/CSU remained dominant, with 48.69 percent of the vote in 1976, 48.89 percent in 1983, 40.9 percent in 1998, and 41.5 percent in 2013. In Italy, the DC was still well above 30 percent in the 1980s and just under 30 percent the last time it ran, in 1992. It was thereafter engulfed (along with the entire Italian political class) by the mammoth corruption investigation known as Mani Pulite or Clean Hands. Its members and voters did not vanish into thin air, however. They dispersed among new right and left parties, including two smaller Christian Democratic groups.

In France, Christian-minded groups merged in the 1970s with the classic right, a move that increased their influence. In 1984, this political force masterminded mass demonstrations that forced a Socialist president, François Mitterrand, to withdraw a reform bill that would have imperiled the religious school networks. Similar demonstrations against same-sex marriage in 2013 failed, but they helped conservative Christians to advance an ally, François Fillon, as candidate in the presidential election of 2017, and nearly get him elected.

In the last generation, Christian groups still dominated Belgian and Dutch politics. Other Christian groups emerged in Scandinavia. In Spain, Catholic groups became the backbone of Franco’s regime after 1945, the main agent of its liberalization in the 1950s, and the inspirers of its economic modernization in the 1960s. After the restoration of a parliamentary monarchy in 1975, they lent support to the People’s Party (PP), which was in charge from 1996 to 2004 under José María Aznar, and then again from 2011 to 2018 under Mariano Rajoy. In Portugal, the
CDS – People’s Party acted as the main rampart against a communist takeover in the late 1970s.

But Christian Democratic dominance was becoming increasingly hollow. It required, at the political and administrative level, in the E.U. and in national politics, an intensified cooperation with Social Democrats. Sometimes, the two parties ruled jointly through a “grand coalition” (a common development in Germany and Austria). In other instances, they entered larger coalitions that included more partners, from the old liberals to the new Green militants or regional parties. Sometimes the power-sharing meant that the parties alternated in power but rarely changed the policies of the preceding administration.

Outwardly, the trend toward Christian Democratic–­Social Democratic fusion rested on the familiar postwar pillars: Atlanticism, the “social market,” family policy, the rule of law, and ever-greater European integration. But in truth each of these priorities was modified, with the Social Democrats dictating terms. When the Cold War was over, Atlanticism became a commitment to a loosely defined “world order.” “Social” economics drifted toward an unstable combination of globalized capitalism for those who could afford to participate, and an extended welfare state for those who could not. Family policy was no longer understood in the traditional sense, but was reframed to support experimentation under the new sexual mores. The rule of law came to be understood as the rule of court and the implementation of ever expanding “human rights.” And the European project was revised in an even more drastic way.

Why did Social Democrats insist on these changes? And why did Christian Democrats oblige?

In its first phase in the nineteenth century and early twentieth century, social democracy sought to improve the worker’s condition incrementally by democratic and peaceful means, while a more radical socialism advocated revolution and violence. This led to the 1917 schism between Social Democrats and socialists on the one hand, and communists on the other. But the schism was never complete. Whereas some communists adhered to Social Democracy in the subsequent decades, many Social Democrats were attracted to communism, or at least to the Popular Front sympathy for communism. Fascism and national ­socialism—another form of radical politics, which adopted many of the grievances and aims of socialism and mimicked communist terror tactics—also attracted former Social Democrats and communists in many countries.

After 1945, the leaders of Social Democratic parties were a filtered remnant of an earlier, more radical element. Whatever their considerable merits, they still carried an ambivalent political DNA. As they came of age amid the material wealth generated by the postwar boom, the conservatism and pragmatism of the postwar settlement grated on their utopian sensibilities. It was no surprise, then, that the next Social Democratic generation—happy baby boomers, raised in comfortable homes, usually college-educated—­relapsed into socialism’s more radical variations (the so-called “New Left”).

When the rising generation became active in the supposed “center-left” parties, they increasingly discarded their parents’ hard-won wisdom, deriding it as bourgeois degeneracy and betrayal. They flocked to “pacifism” (the Orwellian euphemism for disarming and only criticizing democratic countries), Trotskyism, Castroism, Maoism, anti-imperialism, anti-Zionism, and finally Red terrorism, from the German Red Army Faction to the Italian Red Brigades, from the old-new IRA to the new-old ETA, from the French Action directe to the transnational Carlos network. The children of postwar Social Democrats frequently mingled under such circumstances with the sons and daughters of communists and fascists, who had reasons of their own to cultivate New Left radicalism.

Even the Social Democratic baby boomers who kept their distance from the New Left couldn’t entirely evade utopian dreams. They were interested in a piecemeal, Fabian, “daily life” revolution that would advance the welfare state and affirm the ongoing sexual revolution. Over time, their “Second Left” agenda came to include John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice, judicial activism, affirmative action, Jürgen Habermas’s supranationalism, and internationalism. It was social engineering with a human face, but social engineering nonetheless.

Christian Democratic baby boomers might have realized what was at stake and broken the grand alliances with their former associates in order to protect the distinctively modern form of Christian civilization—governed in accord with a fundamentally anti-utopian and thus anti-totalitarian moral order. It was a precious and indispensable mode of political modernity that Christian Democracy had done so much to make possible. But this generation was destabilized by the unraveling of the churches. (Protestant denominations fared little better than Catholicism in the 1960s and after, with the exception of small splinter churches.) The supposed “center-right” element of European society underwent its own sex and family crisis. There was a pervasive sense that the foundations of anything meaningfully “conservative” were eroding. As for the younger Christian Democrats in France who didn’t leave the fold, they were nonetheless in such a confused state of mind that joining the neo-Fabian Social Democrats on most issues and subscribing to most of the Rawls-Habermas dogmas seemed quite natural.

France can serve as a case study. Regions such as Brittany and nearby western provinces had been Catholic strongholds since 1789, but in the last fifty years have shifted left. Régis Debray, the son of prominent conservative Catholic activists, fought with Che Guevara in Bolivia in 1967. The new Socialist party created by Mitterrand in 1971 was said to be a three-tiered affair: one-third Social Democrats of the old school, like Gaston Defferre, the mayor of Marseilles; one-third opportunistic ex-radicals or ex-Trotskyites like Michel Rocard and Lionel Jospin (both later to be prime ministers); and one-third Catholics like Jacques Delors, the former leader of the Christian union CFDT and a future chairman of the European Commission in Brussels.

Mitterrand himself was from a right-wing Catholic background and merely masqueraded as a socialist out of political ambition. Ségolène Royal, who was a charismatic socialist candidate in 2007, was revealed to be a practicing Catholic. Emmanuel Macron, the maverick “neither Right nor Left” politician who won the 2017 presidential election against the Catholic-supported Fillon, was baptized as a Catholic as a teenager on his own initiative. He claims to be a disciple of the Protestant philosopher Paul Ricoeur, himself a pupil of the “neither Right nor Left” Catholic philosopher Emmanuel Mounier.

Europe as Utopia

Europe came to play a central role in the new Christian-Socialist configuration. Until 1993, an integrated Europe was understood in terms of economic cooperation: the original Treaty of Rome of 1957, which focused on a customs union, and the modified Single European Act of 1986, which provided for a free-­market regime. However, the peaceful but far-reaching changes of 1989–91—the end of the Cold War and of Soviet control in Eastern Europe in 1989, the reunification of Germany in 1990 and the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991—evoked a new vision, one that reignited the utopianism of the left.

Germany’s neighbors were unsettled by her sudden return as Europe’s largest power. All Europeans, Germans included, were troubled by the emergence of America as the single global superpower—the “hyperpower,” as France’s socialist foreign minister Hubert Védrine used to say. These concerns led to the project, co-authored by Mitterrand and the German Christian Democratic Chancellor Helmut Kohl, of supplementing the economic treaties binding Europe together with political ones. The ambition was to turn Europe into a federal superstate that would tame Germany and counterbalance American power.

Had the new entity been based on sound democratic practices, a fair distribution of power, and strong mechanism to hold accountable those in charge, this plan might have been viable. Instead, the promoters of the European superstate were keen to retain the governing structure of the old system of economic cooperation—nonelected European commissioners, a host of technocratic assistants—checked only symbolically by a gigantic and largely powerless European Parliament.

The new Europe-wide policies that resulted were both intrusive and inconsistent. In the name of Europe, many national and local institutions and public services were dismantled, and a single currency, to be governed under strict deflationist principles, was introduced. National legal traditions were streamlined, superseded by a Byzantine “European law,” and undermined by the European Court’s judicial activism. The Schengen Agreement dispensed with border controls, an important tool for continental and domestic security. For all that, Europe has been unable to adopt unified policies on issues that matter. None of the main European powers have been willing to relinquish their sovereignty in foreign or military affairs—an attitude that ironically reinforces American “hyperpower.” The United States still controls NATO and European defense.

From the outset, the public has been disillusioned with the whole process of creating a “political” Europe, and with the political class that endorsed it. The Maastricht Treaty of 1992, which formally established the European Union (E.U.), was ratified in most countries by their national parliaments. In those countries where a referendum was held, it either passed by a very thin margin (50.8 percent of the vote in France) or was defeated (by 50.7 percent in Denmark). In spite of these warning signs, the Christian Democrat–Social ­Democrat, pro-E.U. political elite pressed on. In 2004, a Constitutional Treaty was devised and submitted to ratification in the member countries. This time, in those countries where a referendum took place, voters flatly rejected it: 55 percent of the French and 61.5 percent of the Dutch voted against the proposal. The elites’ reaction was patronizing. The Constitution was dropped, all right, but most of its content was incorporated into the 2007 Treaty of Lisbon, which was ratified by parliaments only. The Christian Democracy that was instrumental in stabilizing postwar Europe had become part of a top-down social bureaucracy.

The drafting of the European Constitutional Treaty was a particularly sorry affair for the legacy of Christian Democracy. The Convention on the Future of the European Union met in Brussels from ­February 2002 to July 2003. It was a hodgepodge of nonelected delegates. Some were designated by the E.U. Commission and Parliament, and the rest were handpicked by national governments. The Christian Democrats insisted on a subsidiarity principle that would protect the local and national democratic powers against interference from the superstate. They also demanded recognition of Europe’s cultural identity in the Constitutional Treaty, including its Judeo-Christian roots. They won on the first count (though in practice, the principle of subsidiarity has been largely ignored). They were overruled on the second count by the majority, led by Social Democrats, who wanted Europe to be a purely Rawlsian-Habermasian project, a regime based on the twenty-first century’s claim to have distilled the universal dictates of reason into abstract and secular “human rights.”

Eager to find some way to acknowledge that Europe did not begin with the Enlightenment, the Christian Democrats submitted a compromise paragraph to the Convention. The following words were to be inserted into the Constitution’s preamble: “Drawing its inspiration from the cultural, religious, and humanistic heritages of Europe, which, initially nourished by the Hellenistic and Roman civilizations, and later traversed by a spiritual thrust still present in its patrimony and by the Enlightenment’s philosophical streams, anchored in social life a special vision of the central role of human persons. . . .” Pagan Greece, pagan Rome, and the neo-pagan Enlightenment were called by name, but the Jewish and Christian traditions, which have played and still play a decisive cultural and ethical role, merited only a tortuous circumlocution: “a spiritual thrust still present.” It was like the Victorians who wouldn’t dare explain what “unmentionables” might be. But even that was too much for the Convention, which deleted mention of “a spiritual thrust” from the final version.

Instead of rebelling against this hypocrisy and nonsense on such an essential issue, the Christian Democratic political class caved. Perhaps some imagined that Christian values could be introduced at a later stage. Perhaps the members of the CDU/CSU—a powerful force in European matters—calculated that they would be the real leaders of the E.U., anyway. It seems, however, that the main reason lay elsewhere. By the first decade of the twenty-first century (and probably sooner), nominally Christian politicians were not Christian anymore, or at least not Christian enough to challenge the rest of the political class, as their forefathers had.

Utopia without Christian Ballast

The fracas over the E.U. Constitution may seem minor. But the erosion of the churchgoing base of Christian Democratic parties and the apparent decline in Christian conviction among Christian Democratic leaders has had important consequences. Without a Christian Democratic movement with a strong religious anchor, how can Europe respond to an unprecedented demographic and ethnic ­transformation?

In 1950, there were about two million Muslims in Europe (U.S.S.R. not included): 0.2 percent of 350 million inhabitants. In 1990, according to conservative estimates, there were at least thirty million Muslims: 6 percent of 500 million. In 2010, forty-five million out of 530 million: 8.49 percent. The figures for 2019 were assumed to be well beyond fifty million: 9.26 percent of 540 million. All in all, the yearly rate of Muslim demographic growth in Europe, which was estimated at 4 percent thirty years ago, is now estimated at 8 percent. At the same time, the native, non-Muslim population is declining.

Another factor has amplified the demographic and cultural problems Europe faces. Muslims tend to be more family-oriented than Europe’s non-Muslims, and they have more children. A 2015 investigation of the religious beliefs of French teenagers gives us a glimpse of the future. According to the study, 38.8 percent do not identify with any religion, 33.2 percent identify as Christian, 25.5 percent as Muslim, and slightly more than 1 percent as Jewish. The same study reports that only 22 percent of non-Muslims who still claimed to belong to a religion (and only 40 percent of self-described Catholics) described their religion as “something important in their life,” against 83 percent of Muslims. These results suggest that if religion becomes important again in French society, Islam stands a better chance to attract converts than Christianity.

European Liberals, Social Democrats, and the hard left have engaged for decades in what is best described as a complete denial of the dramatic increase of Islamic populations in Europe. The political establishment has refused to address its social, cultural, or political implications. They have entertained the Rawlsian-Habermasian delusion that liberal democracy and the mores of Western life will flourish in a multicultural environment. They are convinced that Islam is prepared to become another “identity” in pluralistic societies governed by “neutral” norms. Christian Democrats have not been too dreamily utopian, but they have been of two minds. And, as was the case with the European Constitution, when it comes to practical policies they eventually betray themselves and their constituencies.

In the summer of 2015, the rise of the ferocious ISIS caliphate in Syria and Iraq prompted a mass exodus into neighboring countries, particularly Turkey, and then toward the E.U. Most ­European countries realized that this migration would soon get out of control and took steps to close their borders. The German Chancellor Angela Merkel, leader of the Christian Democratic Union, was at that time the most powerful person in ­Europe. She had made repeated statements about the failure of “multiculturalism.” She decided that the European public needed to be taught a lesson about the difference between legal and illegal immigration. To that end, her press office staged a meeting with school­children in Rostock on July 16.

Rostock is no ordinary place. A city in ­Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, the poorest region in the former East Germany, it is marred with unemployment and high numbers of non-European “asylum seekers.” In 1992, it had been the scene of xenophobic violence. Among the youngsters Merkel met was a Palestinian teenage girl called Reem Sahwil. The young woman explained that her family, which had been in Germany for four years as “asylum seekers,” was facing imminent deportation. She asked the chancellor whether they could be allowed to stay. True to her “Empress” image, Merkel rejected the request: “You are a very nice person but you know that there are thousands and thousands of people in Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon and if I say ‘you can all come’ and ‘you can all come from ­Africa,’ we just can’t manage that.” Anybody would have predicted that the girl would burst in tears upon such words—that is to say, anybody but the chancellor and her advisers, who panicked when they realized that the whole episode looked like an epitome of German ­insensibility and arrogance.

Just six weeks later, Merkel reversed her stand, regarding both the Sahwil family and the “thousands and thousands” waiting for asylum and economic opportunity in Germany—more than one million people, mostly single young men, as it turned out. She issued an open welcome. And she suggested that all European Union nations should do likewise, in proportion to their populations. It didn’t matter that the young Reem Sahwil’s dream, as she explained to the press, was in fact to “return home . . . once Israel is no longer there, rather only Palestine.”

Merkel’s about-face was applauded hysterically by the ruling class and widely rejected by everybody else. It set in motion a chain of events that neither Merkel nor anybody else could control.

Headless Counterrevolution

The mass entry of asylum seekers has fueled political change in Europe. The legitimacy of European institutions is now openly questioned. New “independence,” “populist,” and “rebel” parties challenge the traditional parties. The great power that came from the de facto alliance between Christian Democrats and Social Democrats—the configuration that has dominated European politics for three generations—is draining away. Though the Socialists have suffered the greatest electoral defeats, the Christian Democrats have endured serious losses as well. It is not clear that either movement has a future.

Germany offers clear indications. Christian Democrats have remained solidly entrenched in German politics for nearly seventy years. On September 24, 2017, however, they dropped to 32.9 percent (from 41.5 percent in the 2013 election). The Social Democrats, their pseudo-rivals and actual allies, fell to 20.5 percent. Small parties—the Liberals, the Left Party, the Greens—garnered 8 to 10 percent each, totaling 28.8 percent of the vote. But a new right-wing populist party, Alternative for Germany (AfD), defined solely by its opposition to immigration, bypassed these small parties. It rose from 4.7 percent with no seats in the Bundestag in 2013 to 12.6 percent and 94 seats. Two years later, in the European Parliament election of 2019, CDU/CSU fell again to 28.9 percent, and SPD to 15.8 percent, while the Greens rose to 20.5 percent and AfD reached 11 percent.

In France, socialist president François Hollande observed in a book published in 2016 that one year after the Paris Bataclan massacres, immigration was leading to a “partitioned country.” A few months later, in the presidential election of April 2017, ­Hollande’s successor, the socialist candidate Benoît Hamon, only received 6.3 percent of the vote. The right-wing populist Marine Le Pen won 21.3 percent, and the left-wing populist Mélenchon 19.58 percent. Fillon, the conservative candidate, garnered 20 percent, in spite of rumors of corruption. The real winner, though, was Macron, with 24 percent. An establishment man who presents himself as an outsider, Macron easily won the second presidential round against Le Pen, with 66 percent of the vote.

Two years later, however, Macron was almost toppled by the Yellow Vests protests, an unprecedented wave of urban and rural riots around the country. Protracted strikes followed in the winter of 2019. Clearly, populist France’s anger was not over. In the European election of 2019, Le Pen’s National Front, rebranded the National Rally, came in first with 23.34 percent of vote, followed by LREM, Macron’s party, with 22.42 percent. Conservatives fell to 8.48 percent, Socialists to 6.19 percent.

In Italy, the left-wing populist Five Star Movement achieved a spectacular victory on March 4, 2018, with 32.66 percent of the vote. The League, a more conservative populist party, won 17.35 percent, followed by two far right parties, Brothers of Italy and Us For Italy, which together garnered 5.65 percent. The populist and anti-establishment total was thus a stunning 55.68 percent. In the 2019 European Parliament elections, 34.26 percent went for the League and 17.06 percent for Five Star. This result prompted the latter group to enter into a coalition with the center-left democratic party. More political turmoil is expected in Italy as right-wing populism grows and establishment forces try to keep it out of power.

In Spain, the Popular Party was not so much defeated by the socialists in 2017 and 2019 as weakened by its own concessions to the left, leading to the ­departure of its most conservative constituency, which now votes for the Vox party. In the general election of November 2019, the socialists won 28 percent of the vote but were bypassed by the combined Popular and Vox total of 35.9 percent of the popular vote. In practical terms, however, the conservative vote did not lead to a parliamentary majority, as Vox has been deemed “far right” and kept out of power.

Populist parties are on the upswing in the Netherlands, various parts of Belgium, Austria, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Switzerland, and Norway. At the same time, “national identity” parties have consolidated power in Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Romania, and Bulgaria.

Some note that Western democratic Europe is clashing with the formerly Soviet-dominated, nondemocratic Europe. Others speak of the affluent “core” Europe versus the poor “peripheral” Europe. These are real divisions, but they are not the essential political reality at present. Populists and those rebelling against the E.U.—an emblem of the power-sharing alliance of Christian Democrats and Social Democrats that has dominated for a long time—­succeeded in seizing power in the U.K., the Western democracy par excellence. The same has happened in Italy, a founding member of the E.U. In Italy, moreover, the right-wing populist League got its highest returns in the “core” and affluent North, rather than in the “peripheral” and poor South. Even in France, Macron presents himself a rebel of sorts. There can be no doubt: Europe’s postwar (and post-1989) political configurations are being swept away. The continent is looking for new ways and paradigms.

Recovering Christian Democracy

How shall we think about these ­changes? According to the Confucian view, as long as man fulfills his role in the world through appropriate rites and virtuous behavior, society enjoys harmony, peace, health, prosperity. But if man neglects these rites and this virtue, chaos is substituted for harmony, war for peace, illness for health, destitution for prosperity.

Therefore, the upkeep of proper rites and true virtue is the main purpose of the state. “Dynasties” and ruling elites attain legitimacy insofar as they achieve that end. To use the well-known Chinese expression, the “Mandate of Heaven” is bestowed upon them. If they fail, the mandate is withdrawn and given to a different dynasty or elite. Breaches in harmony, abnormal circumstances, and ominous incidents are warnings to the ruling class. They signal the rulers’ need to mend their policies and “rectify” their societies. If the rulers don’t heed the warnings, they will be unceremoniously swept away.

Can we say that the Mandate of Heaven is being removed from the Christian Democratic–Social Democratic “dynasty” that ruled Europe for more than seventy years? I venture the answer “yes.” The reason is simple. This ruling class has lost touch with the essential values it was empowered to defend and sustain. The Social Democratic movement abandoned its working-class base, becoming a postmodern “progressive” party, preoccupied with utopian multicultural dreams. The Christian Democrats have followed suit, less out of conviction than from a lack of conviction. As the Social Democrats moved left, the way was open for politicians like Angela Merkel to redefine the center-right as center-left, a moderate version of the increasingly radical left.

For the last two decades, this tactic has been sustained by a social consensus according to which anything to the “right” of Christian Democratic positions is “far right,” and thus to be condemned by all responsible people. This social consensus, understandable three generations ago in the aftermath of fascism, is now perverse. It writes a blank check to supposedly center-right establishment parties, allowing them to move as far left as necessary to co-opt old-fashioned Social Democrats and stay in power. The consensus is breaking down, not because there are not dark forces in European politics, but because Christian Democratic leaders have so thoroughly abused the “far right” label that it has lost currency.

What, then, should be done?

The Enlightenment nurtures in its devotees a totalitarian drive toward social engineering. It stimulates fantasies of wiping the slate clean, of refounding society—even humanity—on an entirely new (and supposedly pure) basis. In a moderate form, this impulse expresses itself as a spirit of reform and incremental improvement. But the Enlightenment is not by nature moderate. It is radical, and modern European history shows that the Enlightenment and its twentieth-century political epigones, communism and fascism, can be moderated only if counterbalanced by a Christian Democratic movement.

If Europe is to have a future—and that future would include the Enlightenment’s contribution—then Christian Democracy must become Christian again. This is not an anachronistic hope. There are substantial remnants keeping the Catholic, Protestant, or Orthodox faith unadulterated. They can serve as the anchor of a renewed Christian politics.

And there is a much larger constituency of lost and perplexed Christians. They tend to describe themselves as nonreligious, but in fact they desperately seek their roots. This constituency may constitute a majority. The “far right” parties now on the rise draw votes from the lost and perplexed Europeans who half-know that Christianity is at the foundation of what they fear will be lost. This is why Matteo Salvini makes a show of his rosary beads. These perplexed voters—whose numbers are growing—need an elite worthy of their confidence. That “new dynasty” can, perhaps, be populated by the substantial remnant of serious Christians.

Let us not meet the utopianism of the Enlightenment with our own dystopic pessimism. There is the striking example of Christianity’s fathers and teachers in spiritual matters, the Jews, who underwent all manner of terrible trials in the past century, but were nonetheless able to resurrect their corporate identity, not just as a secular nation, but as a religious, indeed biblical nation. Such feats are not accomplished by the sorts of men who desire sinecures in establishment institutions or who swim easily in the current of accepted opinion. They require the courage and determination of a few who understand the duty of a leader, which is to secure the Mandate of Heaven.

Christian Democracy must become assertive again, and that means Christians must become assertive again. Their modern record is impressive. They were for two hundred years the perennial Resistance party against totalitarian utopias. They were the prime agents of peace and reconciliation among the warring empires. They built the House of Europe. They should reclaim it from its travesty, the E.U.’s Tower of Babel. 

© Michel Gurfinkiel & First Things, 2020

Michel Gurfinkiel is the former editor in chief of Valeurs actuelles.


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