A French officer, played by Pierre Fresnay (on the left), and his German counterpart, played by Erich von Stroheim, in Jean Renoir's "La grande Illusion" (1937).

European cultural identity? A matter of dialogue.

In the midst of the World War One, Marcel Proust created characters who, in spite of the conflict, were attracted by German culture. Proof, according to semiotician Umberto Eco, that cultural exchange has contributed more than anything else to the building of today’s Europe.

Published on 11 November 2013 at 10:48
A French officer, played by Pierre Fresnay (on the left), and his German counterpart, played by Erich von Stroheim, in Jean Renoir's "La grande Illusion" (1937).

Those who practise the same profession as me make titanic efforts to avoid congresses, symposia, and interviews on the obsessive theme of European identity. It is a question that is not new, but one that has become a burning issue in recent years, at a time when people often deny its existence.

Many of those who reject European identity are largely unencumbered by cultural baggage apart from an almost congenital xenophobia, which would like to see the continent broken up into a patchwork of tiny homelands. They are unaware that it is an identity which has been in the making since the founding of the University of Bologna (in 1088), and the “vagrant clerics” of all kinds who roamed across the continent from university to university — from Uppsala [in Sweden] to Salerno [Italy] — communicating in the one common language they knew, Latin. European identity, it seems, is only perceived by educated people. And that is sad, but it is a start.

Germanophile speeches

In this regard, I would like to quote a few pages of Proust’s Time Regained. The scene takes place in Paris during World War One. At night, the city fears the arrival of Zeppelins, hovering over the rooftops. The people blame the hated boches for all kinds of atrocities. Yet these pages of Proust give off a Germanophile fragrance that permeates the conversations between the characters.

Charlus is a Germanophile, even if his admiration for the Germans seems less linked to cultural affinities than to his sexual preferences: “‘Our admiration for the French should not make us belittle our enemies; that would be to diminish ourselves. And you do not know what a soldier the German soldier is, you who have not seen him as I have, goose-stepping on parade.’ Returning to the ideal of manhood that he had outlined to me in Balbec […], he told me: ‘You see, the superb and strapping fellow that is the boche soldier, a strong, healthy being, who thinks only of the greatness of his country, Deutschland über alles.’”

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Let’s leave Charlus and the literary reminiscences we have discovered in his pro-German speech, and move on to Saint-Loup, a brave soldier who is later killed in combat. ”[Saint-Loup], to make me understand certain oppositions of light and shadow that had been ‘the enchantment of his morning’ […] was not afraid to allude to a page of Romain Rolland, or even of Nietzsche, with the independence of those men who had been in the trenches, and who, unlike those who stayed in the rear, never had the slightest fear of pronouncing a German name […]. Saint-Loup spoke to me of a melody from Schumann; he gave the title only in German and told me straightaway, without any dithering, that when at dawn he had heard a first chirp at the edge of a forest, he had been enthralled as if this bird had spoken to him of that ‘sublime Siegfried’ that he very much hoped to hear after the war.”

Nothing that a war can wipe away

Or: “I learned that Robert de Saint-Loup was killed two days after his return to the front, covering the retreat of his men. Never had any man fed less on hatred of a whole people than he [...]. The last words I had heard from his mouth, six days earlier, were those that began a song by Schumann, which he hummed to me on my stairs, in German; but because of the neighbours, I had to shut him up.”

And [[Proust hastens to add that even then, nothing in French culture proscribed the study of German culture]], which could be undertaken albeit with a few precautions: ”A professor wrote a remarkable book about Schiller, and it was reported in the newspapers. But before talking about the author of the book, he wrote, as if it were a licence to publish it, that he had been to the Marne, at Verdun, and that he had five citations, and two of his sons had been killed. After that he praised the clarity and depth of his book on Schiller, who could be described as “great” only as long as you said, instead of ‘this great German’, ‘this great Boche’.”

This is what constitutes the basis of the European cultural identity: an enduring dialogue between the literatures, philosophies, musical and theatrical works. Nothing that a war can wipe away. And it is this identity that is the foundation of a community that resists the biggest barriers, that of language.

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