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A Europe in the World? Twenty Years After 1989

What should Europe be in the 21st century - a superstate with a nation state-like function, a Europe with a unified foreign policy, or a partner in an emerging system of interactive global governance and regulation? Not just a Europe dealing effectively with the world but a Europe that actually is in that world.









own minds will not crumble so easily as

A Europe in the World?

the Berlin wall. Of course, unification in Germany has had its own complications.

Twenty Years After 1989

The little that I have read on the cultural

politics of German unification has alerted

me to continuing tensions as people from

Dipesh Chakrabarty the former East get portrayed as having

What should Europe be in the 21st century – a superstate with a nation state-like function, a Europe with a unified foreign policy, or a partner in an emerging system of interactive global governance and regulation? Not just a Europe dealing effectively with the world but a Europe that actually is in that world.

Based on a talk given at a History Forum held at the German Historical Museum, Berlin in April 2009.

Dipesh Chakrabarty (dipesh.chakrabarty@ is with the Department of History, University of Chicago, Chicago.

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november 7, 2009

cannot claim to be European in any personal sense. I was born and raised and educated in India where I obtained my first few degrees. I did my doctoral studies in history in Australia where I also taught for 10 years before moving to the United States where I have been since 1995. Yet, I have something invested in E urope and in what the fall of the Wall in 1989 symbolised, an investment both personal and impersonal, in that it is an i nvestment I have as an interested student of globalisation, in particular of the rise of China and India in the contemporary world.

Let me begin by speaking a little of my own personal “envy” – if I may put it so – of the historical luck of the Germans. I b elong to a particular language-group, the Bengalispeakers of the world. We were divided – or divided ourselves – in 1947 when British India was made into the two new states of India and Pakistan. The m ajority of Bengalis are Muslims, and a substantial minority Hindus. I am a H indu. On Partition, most Muslim Bengalis chose to stay in what became then East Pakistan and, in 1971, Bangladesh. Hindu Bengalis, on the other hand, formed the majority in the province of West Bengal in India. The division cost us both in material terms and in terms of real losses in the realm of culture – loss of linguistic, musical, and religious diversity and overlaps. But the division has proved to be much deeper and more complete than in the case of Germany. The walls we erected in our

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been burdened by their “backward” past – their Ostalgie – while Germany, thanks to its western side, wants to forge ahead t owards a European future. Still, as someone born to a partitioned land, I have a lways thought of 1989 as embodying a possibility for all divided peoples of the world: the hope of unification.

But my larger investment in 1989 can be connected back to what Timothy G arton Ash said in his opening remarks to the German History Forum held in Berlin in April 2009. He expressed the hope that post-reunification Germany, instead of b ecoming a “normal” nation state, would actually provide leadership for the development of a European foreign policy that was called forth, in Ash’s judgment, by a world in which Europeans, or even the west generally, no longer called the shots. In looking for a more European rather than inward-looking Germany, Ash indirectly recalled the dilemma that Thomas Mann famously voiced in 1945: do we want a Germanised Europe or a European Germany? It is, of course, well known that a European Germany was looked upon by many in the Federal Republic as an effective antidote to the recently witnessed e xcesses of the ugly sides of nationalism.

Ash was, of course, not simply repeating Mann; he had a very specific objective. E urope, suggested Ash, needed a unified foreign policy precisely because of developments that would have been difficult to foresee in the years when Mann spelt out


the choice that he thought the post-war r epublic faced. Ash was clearly referring to the contemporary global roles of countries such as China and India (or Brazil and Russia, to stay with the acronym BRIC). It was in that context that he wanted Germany to act like a leader of the countries that make up Europe today. Indeed, Ash’s question and Mann’s choice may be posed thus for the Europe of our times: What should Europe be in the 21st century – a superstate with a nation state like function, a Europe with a unified foreign policy, or a partner in an emerging system of interactive global governance and regulation? Not just a E urope dealing effectively with the world but a Europe that actually is in that world.

Europe in the World

What do I mean by Europe-in-the-world? Let me explain this as a student of imperial and colonial domination. There is no question that Europe and Europeans once dominated this planet. By the end of the 19th century, 80% of the surface of the earth was under the rule of one European power or another. Since 1945, however, we have seen a retreat of the colonial great powers of Europe and the rise of superpowers like the United States and once the Soviet Union as well. China and India t oday aspire to similar superpower status. China has already achieved a lot more of it than India. A superpower that dominates us surely dominates us economically, militarily and technologically. It also u ndoubtedly influences our imagination – the 20th century, which became the American century, cannot be imagined, for example, without the global dominance of Hollywood or American television. Yet a distinction remains to be made between European colonial domination of others and the sheer economic, military and cultural weight of a superpower. The distinction is this: when European powers became imperial-colonial “lords of the h umankind” from the period of the Renaissance to that of the Enlightenment and into the 19th century, they also gave their victims the terms and categories of thought with which to critique and challenge European domination. Two such great “weapons of criticism” forged in the European workshop of the 19th century – but with their intellectual genealogies stretching further back into history – were Marxism and Liberalism, both wielded with great effect by many decolonising n ations and thinkers who criticised European domination. No dominant power is ever totally benign. Today, I ask my Indian or Chinese friends this question:

I understand, and even support, your desires to be superpowers. But when you come to dominate the world truly and effectively, what terms of criticism will you provide to your victims so that they can criticise your domination?

Surely, technology, econo mics, and the media alone cannot produce such terms.

Civilisational Aspect

In other words, European colonial domination was different from superpower domination in that it had a civilisational aspect – I do not refer to the civilising a spect, I draw a distinction here, for the “civilising mission” was often simply an excuse for domination. I reject ideas about civilisational hierarchies but do find the idea of civilisation, a shared human civilisation on the planet, an extremely important part of our heritage. It was through this aspect that European powers invited criticisms of themselves. Anti-colonial thinkers often recognised this debt to E urope. I could have drawn on Frantz Fanon, the great anti-colonial voice of the 20th century, to make my point here. But let me stay with Rabindranath Tagore to explicate what I am saying.

Europeans brought the word “civilisation” to India. As Tagore remarked in 1941, the last year of his life, the word “civilisation” that had been translated into Bengali (and Hindi and many other Indian languages) as sabhyata actually had no equivalent in “our languages”.1 There is no doubt that people such as Tagore carried on through their lives a complex conversation with the west in which there was n ever a question of a complete rejection of European traditions that had played such a central role in their own making. In his 1941 essay on “Crisis in Civilisation”, Tagore – faced with the barbarism of the war – struck a despondent note on the question of European civilisation: “I had at one time believed that the springs of civilisation would issue out of the heart of Europe. But today when I am about to quit the world that faith has gone bankrupt a ltogether.” Yet it was Europe’s capacity to furnish itself with tools for self-criticism and, therefore, for self-improvement that impressed Tagore in the end.

Of the Spanish-English relations, for e xample, Tagore would say:

We have…witnessed from this distance how

actively the British statesmen acquiesced in

the destruction of the Spanish Republic. On

the other hand, we also noted with admira

tion how a band of valiant Englishmen laid

down their lives for Spain.2

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Economic & Political Weekly


The general principle involved here was spelt out as a part of a lecture he gave in 1923 and then reproduced verbatim in a letter written to an Oxford-based academic in 1934: “We have seen Europe cruelly unscrupulous in its politics and commerce, widely spreading slavery over the face of the earth in various names and forms. And yet, in this very same Europe, protest is a lways alive against its own inequities.”3

Decolonisation, the rise of the US, S oviet Union, and now of China, India, or Brazil have, of course, called a halt to the Europe that was built on 500 years of domination of other peoples. But the Europe that lives on is the Europe that has provided us with the critical political vocabulary with which inequality, oppression, injustice and human rights can be criticised. The vocabulary is now everybody’s. And in that sense, Europe is part of everybody’s heritage.

From this perspective, then, Thomas Mann’s or even Ash’s question becomes larger: how, indeed, would Europe, as it is newly constituted, play its part in the world to come?

First of all, the European Union (EU) is a great administrative model for many r egions of the world, including south Asia. The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation is modelled on EU. But it is hardly anything like the Union in Europe. Yet, imagine, how much easier problems such as “Kashmir” would have been if this region in effect were one common market with free movement of labour and capital.

Second, there need to be changes within Europe. We need a more inclusive Europe, not just with regard to outsiders but with regard to the population within the territory called Europe. The silent identification of western Europe with “modernity” and the rest of Europe with “backwardness” will have to be combated. This is, of course, an old habit of thought. There is a long tradition, for instance, of Germans seeing the Slavs or Russians as Asiatic, meaning “backward”. You only have to travel in eastern Europe to know that there is this kind of European Orientalism at work within the continent, an Orientalism that Edward Said did not study, but one that acts more or less similarly to the phenomenon he made famous. A version of this, as many academics have

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november 7, 2009

pointed out, still exists in post-unification Germany as well.

For an Inclusive Europe

An inclusive Europe, however, must mean something opposed to the idea of a F ortress Europe. I am not expressing a preference here for porous borders or the absence of immigration policies. That simply would be unpractical and irresponsible. What I have in mind is a fact and a recommendation that follows from this particular fact. The fact is that the world in the next 30 years is going to see more people (many of them in India and China), more failed states, and more political, e conomic and climate refugees and more migration and movement of peoples. The politics of cross-cultural understanding requires that we the middle and professional classes everywhere embody a d egree of cultural plurality, so that distinctions between cultural borders are somewhat blurred and every nation acknowledges the diversity that constitutes it. This is what will promote new creativities in the arts and the sciences, and new imaginations of society. Without the “chattering classes” embracing a sense of cultural plurality, there cannot develop the reflexive attitude with which to renew our shared European legacy.

The French thinker Etienne Balibar calls for a global recognition of the “postcolonial condition”. Balibar thinks of the contemporary world as postcolonial in two senses: (a) we live in times that come after the period of decolonisation of the world from European empires, and (b) we live alongside peoples whose ancestors have suffered in some form or the other from European domination.

“Fortress Europe” today for me does not necessarily mean a Europe that has its borders closed. Sheer demographics will force developed countries and regions to have an immigration policy. The debate is more about the impact of such immigration. Do we want immigrants to simply fit into “our” traditions and become “us” with different skin-colours? Or do we want them to be educated enough not only to internalise what we consider the best of our values but also to use their sense of historical difference to call them into question and thus help us renew them? It is the latter attitude that defines for me the o pposite of the F ortress Europe mentality today.


1 Rabindranath Tagore, “sabhyatar shankat” (“The Crisis of Civilisation”) in Rabindrarachanabali (The Collected Works of Rabindranath), Centenary Edition (Calcutta: Government of West B engal), 1961, Vol 13, p 407.

2 Ibid, pp 724-25.

3 The lines occur in a 1923 lecture entitled “The Way to Unity” and are repeated in a 1934 letter written in response to a letter from Gilbert M urray, published together under the title “East and West” in ibid, pp 349-462.

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