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The Decline of the West?



     History does not advance in a straight line. Some historians take a cyclical view, others, like myself, a Hegelian view. The conservative society which dominated Western society until World War I collapsed and was replaced by the Paris of the bohemian années folles, the Berlin of the Weimar Republic, and the jazz age in the U.S. This world in turn collapsed in the reaction which led to World War II. The idiocy borrowed by Spaniards like Picasso was a harbinger of trouble to come in Spain.
     It was the spectacle of World War I and the Berlin of the Weimar Republic which inspěred The Decline of the West (1918-22) of Oswald Spengler, which had a great impact in Europe. Spengler, born in 1880, died in 1936, having witnessed the first years of the Hitler regime. Is history repeating itself?
     Events in Berlin this weekend suggest that it may be. The German government was involved in the enormous task of moving from its Weimar, namely Bonn, to Berlin. Youths chose just this weekend to stage their wild Love Parade, which attracted an enormous mob to Berlin from all over Germany and indeed from other countries like Hungary. Only good citizens can save the world, and nothing suggests that they realized that. They jabbered in crude German, and the lingua france was an even more primitive Enslish.
     Berlin authorities were properly concerned; the mob got much more publicity than the government. It remains to be seen whether the backlash will be similar to that which ended the Weimar Republic. It is possible. Combined with the threat in Latin America, it may lead to a reversal of democratic trends throughout the West.
     A ray of hope came from Los Angeles. In contrast with the professional thuggery of most sports, the women's world soccer championship charmed the world. The danger is that its financial success will have the corrupting effect of money on all sports. Shall we see women soccer hooligans?

Ronald Hilton - 07/12/99


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     Elena Danielson is a German specialist, but she does not share my Spenglerian fears about the future of Germany and the West:
     Like Prof. Hilton, I am normally very pessimistic about mob scenes and see them as symptoms of deep political problems. But in the case of today's Germany, I doubt the Berlin street party was problematical except perhaps for the street cleaning. I've taken two trips through Germany this year and made an attempt to talk with a wide variety of people, both conservative and leftist, older generation and younger.
     I stayed at a lovely medieval castle in Bonn and in a cheap student apartment in the eastern part of Berlin (complete with WWII bullet holes and modern graffiti). I made appointments with very senior and busy officials such as Joachim Gauck of the Stasi files, with the founder of Bremen university, with the chair of the Russian history seminar at Humboldt University, with bohemian musicians, a former Wehrmacht officer, and former communists.
     Coming to terms with a tragic history and burden of guilt was a constant theme with many variations. Despite the difficult subjects we discussed, without exception everyone I dealt with was unfailingly helpful, open and polite. I am not sure that I could say the same thing if I attempted to do something similar in the US. In the current New Yorker article on Berlin, the author (Kramer) disparages what she calls the tedious West German civility. Maybe that's the New York view, but I find German civility refreshing rather than tedious.
     The Germany society I lived in 30 years ago had an undercurrent of hostility that found expression in rude behavior, arrogant official pronouncements, and very violent student upheaval with a criminal component. During my recent travels I encountered lively, intelligent exchanges on differences of opinion in the best democratic tradition. The old hostility and intolerance I knew so well seems to have evaporated. Many people told me how much they admired Americans for being open and helpful. My young cab driver in Berlin knew the exact date of Reagan's "tear down the wall" speech, the driver was probably 8 years old at the time of the speech. How many Americans remember the speech much less the date and what it stands for?
     My comment: Elena's witness is much more recent and therefore better than mine. She takes a rosier view of humans than I, and it must affect our judgment. Whether the mob scenes of the Love Parade are as harmless as she says only time will tell. I hope she is right. Incidentally, far be it from me to defend New Yorkers.

Ronald Hilton - 07/13/99


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