I was in sitting in a small Lebanese restaurant in Basle talking with Christoph Keller, a Swiss journalist and author. Our subject was the question of what makes us Europeans. One thing, at least, we agreed on: if a European identity exists it is not a simple one. Identity only becomes simple when it is under threat. Some people believe this is indeed the situation now, and are making efforts to establish a simple European identity – for example by the well-tried means of creating an external enemy. Declaring war on terrorism, on Islamic fundamentalism or on Islam itself, they try to paint a picture in which there is a sharp contrast between an enlightened, rational Europe and an irrational religion rooted in violence.

These efforts fail to convince, however. They bear too much resemblance to the long-unmasked dogma that places civilized Europeans and savage barbarians at opposite ends of a scale. Christoph believes that Europe, like America, needs a flag and a constitution if it is ever to have a wide appeal, although he himself cares little for such things. Europe was the cradle of the nation state, but the continent has time and again torn itself asunder because of the resulting nationalism.

Our conclusion was a feeble one. Maybe, we decided, the mere fact that we could spend an evening confabulating about Europe's mutual bond exemplifies what we have in common. But now I would not like to leave it at that.

No more war

The unity of Europe is a long-cherished ideal. Even Napoleon dreamed of bringing it about. The roots of the present political unification of Europe lie, however, in the adage 'no more war'. The horrors of the World Wars were a dagger blow to the heart of the Enlightenment tradition, which had portrayed Europeans as rational, autonomous citizens standing at the helm of history. The Europe of Reason proved to possess a murky, irrational or even demonic side, that showed early signs in the nationalistic, militant euphoria that undermined the internationalism of the early years of the 20th century, and eventually made itself grimly obvious in Hitler's Final Solution.

After sixty years of relative peace and prosperity, 'no more war' seems to have become just a hollow phrase – or so some would claim when yet another discussion flares on that seemingly unreachable European ideal. They conveniently forget that, barely twenty years ago, a part of Europe was again scourged by conflict. The Balkans have of course always been seen as Europe's underbelly, so our self-image of European rationality survived, practically unscathed, the explosion of barbarity that was unleashed by the disintegration of Yugoslavia. Yet at the time the exiles and refugees from the Yugoslavian wars warned us repeatedly that the same thing could happen anywhere in Europe. After all, people in the multicultural, pluralistic Sarajevo continued to believe there was no place for hate or fanaticism in their traditionally tolerant city – until the contrary proved true.

Few listened to the warnings, but there is reason enough for us to take them seriously. The recrudescence of nationalism and xenophobia in (for example) France and the Netherlands gives us pause for thought. It is not only the dissonance between the ideal of reason and the often highly irrational real world that is at play, but another, equally deeply ingrained, tension is present in Europe. The shaky equilibrium between universality – the ideal of freedom, equality and fraternity for everyone – and particularity – the allegiance people automatically feel with their own surroundings – is teetering.

The uprooted

Few could claim more experience with these opposing forces than those whose country collapsed in a paroxysm of nationalism and hate: the exiles from Hitler's Germany and the refugees from Yugoslavia. The German emigrés of the 1930s, who were mostly Jewish and political refugees, found few willing ears for their warnings about Nazism. The receiving countries looked askance at them, believing them guilty of fouling their own nest, and many relentlessly pushed them back across the border. For years, repudiated refugees drifted without papers from country to country, until they succumbed to their uncertain existence, gained possession of a passport at last by roundabout means and all kinds of guile, or escaped to America.

Their loss of a homeland made them Europeans, like it or not. Emigré cafes in Paris, Prague and Zurich became the scene of vehement debates on the future of Europe. The experiences and insights of these uprooted individuals might well bring us closer to a European identity than the polished prose of senior European officials and politicians possibly could. After all, the emigré's survival depended on joint action by the countries of Europe against the barbarity taking place in their former homeland, and hence on a shared European ideal.

The chronicler par excellence of emigré life in the nineteen thirties was the German author Klaus Mann (1906–1949). He was one of the young intellectuals of the period between the Wars who believed in European culture, which he saw as an antidote to the nationalism that had wreaked so much havoc in 1914-1918. He fled Germany in 1933 because, he explained, he could no longer breathe; besides, the prospect of arrest was more than imaginary for this young homosexual writer.

The Volcano

The plot of Klaus Mann's 1939 novel Der Vulkan (The Volcano) unfolds in the German emigré milieus of France, the Netherlands, Czechoslovakia, Switzerland and other countries. In the novel, the actress Marion, who is modelled on Klaus's sister Erika Mann, arrives in Paris and visits a Russian emigrée who yearns still for the Russia of old. Marion does not share his nostalgia: 'We are not like those Russian emigrés who fled the Revolution. We left because we care about the future and oppose backsliding. We resist because we do not want Fascism to own the future; we want a different, better Europe for our children.'

As to what form that 'better future' might take, however, there was little consensus among the emigrés. They included socialists, communists, pacifists and liberals. Some of them were apolitical, and others rejected National Socialism on religious grounds; some hoped for a communist Europe, while others pictured new forms of humanism flourishing. But they all sensed the same responsibility: 'We emigrés represent the other Germany. We are the opposition to barbarism,' Marion says.

The daily life consequent to this choice is a hard one. Many emigrés are barely able to cope with it. The ultimate emigré nightmare, according to Klaus Mann, goes like this. 'You suddenly find yourself somewhere in Germany, and you wonder 'Why is it so long since I was last here?' Then it slowly dawns on you: you are on the run from your enemies. I must behave inconspicuously, you decide, or someone may recognize me. Why is everyone staring at me like that? I have one of those prohibited emigré newspapers sticking from my pocket. Everyone must have noticed it. Where can I go? Oh no, there's a storm trooper. And there's another. It's too late, I'm surrounded.'

Much though the emigrés loathe Hitler's Germany, many of them feel pangs of nostalgia – although they no longer know for what or for whom. 'How fine it must be never to have to wonder where your home is,' the Jewish professor Benjamin Abel thinks in his lonely room in Amsterdam, his gaze wandering to the bottle of sleeping pills on his bedside table. 'Where are they waiting for my capacities, and how can I put them to use? You lose all your self-esteem when no one needs you. How fine it must be to be free of all the doubts, disappointments and loneliness. To be delivered from the poisonous brew of hate and nostalgia.'

The gifted young poet Martin becomes addicted to heroine and is gradually destroying himself. Time and time again, the emigrés face the news of a suicide among their acquaintances. Marion's younger sister takes an overdoes of sleeping tablets when she learns she is pregnant from an emigré in whose company she felt at ease for the first time. After their one night together, he is carried off by the Swiss police and deported, to vanish forever from her life.

The title of Der Vulkan has a dual meaning. It refers both to the menace of National Socialism, to living on the edge of the collapsing old world, and to the anxieties that grip the uprooted figures of the novel. The precipice in the soul of the emigré meets up with the precipice facing enlightened Europe; the consuming fire in the depths of the mountain that is 'civilization' spews destructive lumps of glowing lava into the atmosphere. You must always be alert because you are always in danger. Nothing is certain.

Klaus Mann sees it as the end of an era; no one knows if there will still be a future. In the novel, it is Marcel, Marion's French lover, who proclaims the end of the great ideals. Mann has a good reason to choose an intellectual for this task of vilifying the bombastic slogans of the world leaders. Marcel declares democracy dead because it is just another of those Big Words, overused and drained of meaning. He joins the International Brigades fighting the Fascists in Spain, for he now believes in deeds not words. Intellectualism has become repulsive to him. He is prepared to martyr himself for the sins of the forefathers who have let things reach this stage. And he dies in Spain.

Permanent crisis

'L'Europe est finie,' wrote the French poet Paul Valéry just after the war. Klaus Mann agrees with him in a trenchant essay, 'The ordeal of the European intellectual'. Not only had the old Europe literally been destroyed, but the bombing of cities and the mass murder of Jews and other minorities undermined both a lifestyle and faith in the Enlightenment. Mann saw the postwar debates among existentialists, Marxists and nihilists as symptomatic of the general despondency and disarray of European intellectuals. First published in an American magazine in 1949 under the title 'Europe's Search for a New Credo', the essay morbidly concludes by suggesting that a mass suicide of intellectuals is the only way out of the impasse. And shortly after its publication, Mann was to take his own life by an overdose of sleeping pills.

Sixty years after the War, it all sounds familiar: the end of the grand narratives and the hollowness of the Big Words. We have become innured to these things, and we get bored when they come up for discussion yet again – just as we get bored with all the bombastic and abstract discussions about Europe. Klaus Mann, who himself was not untouched by twelve years of exile, genuinely felt pained by the non-arrival of that 'different, more humane, Europe' which had buoyed his optimism and that of so many others through the difficult years.

Klaus Mann saw the catastrophe of the Third Reich as the outcome of a long development that took in the slow dwindling of credence in the Divine, the Good and the Beautiful, in Civilization and Progress. Had Erasmus, Victor Hugo and Spinoza not believed in them, neither the Renaissance, nor the Reformation nor the French Revolution would have been possible. It was in the later half of the nineteenth century that European intellectuals lost this faith, according to Mann. He saw the disillusionment and guilt that afflicted Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Baudelaire and Dostoyevsky as forebodes of the present crisis. These were the thinkers who disclosed that Western Man, having always regarded himself as a rational being, was still possessed by demons and driven by irrational, barbarous forces. The Europeans lost their rationality together with their sense of the sacred.

Although there is no doubt much that could still be said about this analysis, my concern for the moment is that Klaus Mann did not see the War as a kind of industrial accident, but as the long-smouldering eruption of Europe's true nature. The sinister forebodings of nineteenth-century pessimists were surpassed by the appalling reality of the twentieth, Mann wrote. He was referring not only to the gas chambers, the bombs and the propaganda, but also the 'fiendish tastelessness of commercial entertainment, the cynicism of the ruling cliques and the stupidity of the misguided masses, the cult of high-ranking murders and money makers, the triumph of vulgarity and bigotry, the terror of ignorance ...'. It was impossible to rationalize 'the nightmarish world of Auschwitz and the comic strips, of Hollywood films and bacteriological warfare'.

The upshot was that we no longer understand the world; we exist in a permanent state of crisis. In this situation, Klaus Mann's sympathy went to the doubters. He was irritated by those who come up with simple answers and who would like to impose a simple identity. Shutting yourself off in a national identity was not an option; on the contrary, the peoples of Europe belong together, and it was the apocalypse of the First and Second World Wars that forged their sense of continental solidarity. Regional differences still exist but we all 'still belong to the same tragic but proud and distinguished clan.'

Klaus Mann's answer to this situation demonstrates not only his dismay and repugnance at the new world, but also his unshaken attachment to the old. He hoped for a movement of despair and disgust. He relished the idea of a wave of suicides among European intellectuals. The best thinkers must follow the examples of Virginia Woolf, Stefan Zweig and Jan Masaryk. That would be the only way to shock the world out of its lethargy. Then, perhaps, they would perceive their true situation. Klaus Mann concludes with Kierkegaard – and these are among the last words he would write before his death – 'infinite resignation is the last stage prior to faith.' There is hope in this life, but solely 'by virtue of the absurd, not by virtue of human understanding.'

A sense of belonging

The writings of Klaus Mann make at least one thing totally clear. Anyone who hopes to dodge despair and the lava bombs of the Volcano and prefers a simple, palatable conception of Europe as the continent of Enlightenment must have misunderstood the? true nature of Europe. Mann does not doubt the existence of a European identity, but not as an excuse to flaunt our 'Enlightened' civilization. His own experience of Europe gives him little reason to do so.

Klaus Mann's arguments are corroborated by a much more recent episode of emigration that makes it difficult for us to dismiss his insights as dated and invalid. First screened in 2007, the film My Friends by the Amsterdam director Lidija Zelovic who fled Sarajevo in 1992. It follows her on journeys to Canada, Scandinavia and Sarajevo, places where her childhood friends now live. She is curious about how they are doing and hopes to arrange a reunion on her wedding day. Zelovic is beset by the question of who she is and where she belongs. As in the works of Klaus Mann, Zelovic's films interweave her personal life with politics. Both of them portray the hope and fear of a generation of European emigrés.

My Friends starts with Zelovic telling a joke about a Bosnian who visits Britain for the first time. He drives off the car-ferry and onto the roads of England. The radio warns of a ghost rider on the motorway. 'Only one?' he thinks in amazement, 'They are all driving on the wrong side here!'

'When did I first get the feeling that everyone was going the wrong way?' Zelovic wonders. 'When was it that life became complicated and contradictory? Was it when I realized I didn't know what to believe any more?' Later in the film she says, 'It is great to believe in something. I used to believe in Tito and Yugoslavia. It was a kind of religion, although with a different kind of a God. Oh yes, I was good at it. I even believed that everyone I knew believed the same: we were all proud Tito pioneers who would grow up to become communists like our parents. The path was simple and beautiful. My life and that of my friends was alike.'

Now, over twenty years later, the life of Zelovic and her friends is far from simple. They live far apart, and despite her visits and journeys she is unable to reconcile their conflicts. Acrimony and distrust have grown between Olja, of Serbian ethnic origins, and Emina whose background is Bosnian and who lost her mother to a Serbian grenade. Olja feels she is being made a scapegoat, and rejects responsibility for the tragedy of her childhood friend. Jasna has returned to Sarajevo after years in Australia, intent on building up a new life in her native city. All four of them have lost their homes, and the lives of all four have taken different courses because of the war.

Zelovic herself decided to put down new roots in Amsterdam. While she expertly manoeuvres a buggy with her son, now nearly one year old, through the traffic of Overtoom, we talk about estrangement, identity and Europe. Zelovic's tales of discussions among refugees from former Yugoslavia, their difficulties with papers and the despair at ever feeling at home anywhere again, all sound like echoes of Klaus Mann's novel.

The same is true of her successive rebuffs by the Dutch, French and Danes: 'Are you really a European? What happened to your country has nothing to do with our Enlightened traditions; the Balkans is a backward region where reason has never taken root.' But when I ask what Europe means to her, Lidija struggles to explain. 'Europe is familiar, it's a place you belong to and where you want to belong. Even if you lost your homeland, a sense of belonging is possible in other European countries.'

We arrive together at the same conclusion: the European identity lies in a shared history of mutual conflict. Maybe it is indeed the suffering and failures that bind us, but if so it is because we all interpret them as a dereliction of our own ideal of civilization. Europe is the struggle between reason and unreason, between civilization and barbarism, as well as the projection of that barbarism onto others. Europe matters because Europe is always at risk – as it is now, too. There is no reason to yawn with boredom when someone says that Europe's justification lies in the prospect of 'no more war'; for Europe has never succeeded in rallying to that banner.

Without identity

The long-ingrained psychoses of Europe, those of self-overestimation and self-idolization, are flaring up again. Klaus Mann described Europe as a tragic but proud tribe. Those who ignore the tragedy are left with nothing but empty, bombastic pride. The latter is evident today in the calls for a clear-cut national identity, which can only take the form of excluding others. This looks more absurd than ever in today's globalized world. However much you sympathize with the longing for a foothold and with the uncertainty that people feel in the current political and economic climate – especially in combination with a worldwide malaise – a new nationalistic myth is extremely dangerous. However, it is no use looking for a rebuttal in the form of an equally strong counter-identity. If we are to do justice to the European soul, we must find a different answer.

I would like to return to the conversation I had with Christoph Keller in Basle. On reflection, it was mistaken to believe that an identity becomes simple only when it is in peril. It is the construction of a simple identity under the pressure of a threat, whether real or imagined, that is dangerous. The conclusion we drew was perhaps not so vapid: there are no simple answers, but it is in discussion and doubt that the true identity of the Europeans is to be found.

Identity is not something you can establish remotely, by looking back to Europe's past. It only has meaning when it is inchoate and you are part of it yourself. Identity is after all intangible; it is always on the path ahead of you and you never actually get there. As the German Romantic poet Novalis wrote around 1800, 'Wo gehen wir hin? Immer nach Hause.' (Where are we going? We are forever on our way home.') But nothing is riskier than declaring that you have arrived if that is untrue. Nostalgia does not exist without uprooting. Unrest and uncertainty typify our hard-fought Europe. The cultural philosopher Ton Lemaire declared criticism and doubt as the best things about European culture. Scepsis and incessantly asking what things mean have been at the heart of modern Europeanism since Voltaire, Descartes and Kant.

So it is the emigrés and refugees, the vagrants and the rootless, who represent the soul of Europe. Their experiences must be an ingredient of our thinking about a European identity. And given that, are we not entitled to wonder what right certain political parties have to place so much emphasis on national identity? A party like the Dutch GreenLeft, which opposes the nationalistic tendencies in other leftist parties such as the Socialist Party and the Labour Party, could connect the concept of identity to the 'uprooted' members of society and could consider in this light how to give a higher profile to participation in European politics.

It is at least clear that Project Europe is doomed to remain 'soulless' as long as it remains solely the province of high-profile politicians who set limits and impose rules. The characters in Klaus Mann's Vulkan hitch their identity to the hope of a better future. After all they have been through, they no longer know who they are, but they do know who they would like to become. In other words, there is no such thing as a European identity, but, if we wish, there can be a shared future for people from differing traditions and cultures, linked by nostalgia and alienation. 

This article also appeared in the first edition of the Green European Journal.


  • Klaus Mann, Der Vulkan, Roman unter Emigranten, Reinbek bei Hamburg, 1989.
  • Klaus Mann, The Ordeal of the European Intellectuals / Die Heimsuchung des Europäischen Geistes. Ein Literarisches Testament, München 1989.
  • Robert Musil, Das Hilflose Europa, Munich 1961. (texts dating from 1920s)
  • Ton Lemaire, Twijfel aan Europa? Zijn de intellectuelen de vijanden van de Europese cultuur?, Baarn 1990.
  • Pim den Boer, Europa. De geschiedenis van een idee, Amsterdam 1997.
  • Friends. Directed by Lidija Zelovic-Goekjian, production company Pieter van Huystee Film & Zelovics Productions, broadcast on 6 September 2007 by IKON Television.