Europe after the war

As the reality of the Second World War slowly recedes from living memory, its symbolic value continues to expand. However, it is the surrender of the German armed forces on 8 May 1945 rather than the end of hostilities on 2 September that has come to signify the dawn of a new era.1 Like the creation myth of a pagan religion in which order emerges out of chaos, it is the narrative of the rise and fall of the Third Reich that has lent legitimacy to the current international order.

The war in Europe also provides the kaleidoscope through which today’s political disputes are routinely viewed. While, in the West, Vladimir Putin is portrayed as another Hitler, he insists that Russia’s “special military operation” was launched to rid Ukraine of Nazis. Similarly, the propaganda war accompanying the conflict in Gaza is conducted in terms linked to World War II with claim and counter claim of genocide and anti-semitism. Even in domestic politics, the denunciation of individuals and groups as “fascist” has become so commonplace that the word has been emptied of meaning. 

Of course, beyond the political rhetoric, the Second World War wrought real change which has had a lasting legacy. But the post-war period was also marked by a return to older ideals, as Michael Ignatieff points out: 

“… the human rights instruments created after 1945 were not a triumphant expression of European imperial self-confidence but a reflection on European nihilism and its consequences … the end of a catastrophic world war in which European civilisation very nearly destroyed itself. Human rights was a response to … the discovery of the abomination that could occur when the Westphalian state was accorded unlimited sovereignty, when citizens of that state lacked criteria in international law that could oblige them to disobey legal but immoral orders. The Universal Declaration [of Human Rights] represented a return by the European tradition to its natural law heritage…”2

Religion and philosophy in Germany

It was the sundering of the Christian unity of the Holy Roman Empire by the Protestant revolt and the subsequent wars of religion (1618–1648) that necessitated the Treaty of Westphalia. This peace accord was based on the principle of cuius regio eius religio — “whose territory, his religion”. It also established recognition in international law that each state held unquestionable sovereignty within its territory.

The decline of the Empire was already well underway by the time the French Revolution ushered in laïcité and the relegation of matters of faith to the private sphere. Predictably, the elevation of human reason to the level of idolatry did not end well. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen in 1789 was followed by the Reign of Terror just four years later. 

In German Protestant principalities, the model of the state-church continued and even managed to accommodate some enlightenment ideas. It was this rather parochial world that produced Emanuel Kant. For Kant, the Revolution, despite its failings, was “a great liberating act” asserting “the value of individual souls”.3 Others, however, rejected it and the rationalism they associated with it. It was from this response that the romantic movement was born. 

German romanticism should not be mistaken for the wistful, otherworldly, idealism associated in England with the works of Wordsworth or Constable. It was far more visceral, violent and profound. In the view of Isaiah Berlin, the contradictory and turbulent nature of romantic thought meant that new vistas were continually being opened up. These vistas, he suggests “are not reducible, not embraceable, not describable, not collectable; you have no formula which will by deduction lead you to all of them.”4

The Romantic movement as represented by Johann Gottfried Herder, Kant’s friend and fellow philosopher, was a forceful rejection of rationalism. For Herder, the father of popularism, the individual could not be separated from his tribe or nation, and:

“…each human group must strive after that which lies in its bones, which is part of its tradition. Each man belongs to the group he belongs to; his business as a human being is to speak the truth as it appears to him; the truth as it appears to him is as valid as the truth as it appears to others.”5

The influence of nineteenth century romantic ideas on the understanding of the law resulted in the school of historical jurisprudence. This was a relativist challenge to natural law. For these philosophers, the law was a historical product of a particular Volkgeist; laws were not made, they were the time honoured customs that grew organically from the soul of the people.6

The formation of the Second German Reich in 1871, under the domination of Prussia, also led to Bismarck’s Kulturkamph and an attempt to subjugate the Catholic Church in the new empire. But it was not the dominance of German Protestantism but rather its collapse that was to leave a dangerous vacuum and provide “fertile soil for a dictatorship.”7

This danger was predicted in 1834, long before German unification. Heinrich Heine, a Prussian of Jewish descent was nominally Protestant, but no friend of Christianity. Nevertheless, he warned those who worked to overthrow Christian order of the forces they would unleash. In On the history of religion and philosophy in Germany he wrote:

“Christianity — and this is its greatest merit — has to some extent tamed that brutal Germanic lust for battle, but could not destroy it; and if ever that restraining talisman, the cross, breaks, the savagery of the old fighters will rattle forth again, the absurd frenzy of the berserker, of which the Nordic poets sing and tell so much. That talisman is brittle, and the day will come when it breaks apart miserably. The old stone gods will then emerge from their forgotten ruins and rub the dust of millennia from their eyes. Thor, with the giant hammer, will spring up at last, and destroy the Gothic domes. … Thought goes before deed as lightning before thunder. German thunder is certainly German; it is not very agile and begins to rumble very slowly. But it will come and when you hear crashing, as it has never crashed before in all of world history, you will know, German thunder has finally reached its goal. With this sound, eagles will fall dead from the sky, and lions in the most distant desert in Africa will put their tails between their legs and crawl into their royal caves. A play will be enacted in Germany which will make the French Revolution look like a harmless idyll.”8

The construction of a new Europe

The UDHR and the European Convention on Human Rights (its logical extension) were indeed a reflection on the nihilism Heine described. They were an attempt to turn away from the rule of the strong over the weak — lex-voluntas — and a return to the natural law tradition of lex-ratio — law as an appeal to reason. The Basic Law of the Federal German Republic adopted by the country’s Parliamentary Council on 8 May 1949 also reflected this desire. Article 1:1 on “Human dignity — Human rights — Legally binding force of basic rights” states, “Human dignity shall be inviolable. To respect and protect it shall be the duty of all state authority.”

But to dispel the ghosts of the past, purely human means are never sufficient. As we learn from the Gospel of St Matthew, when an unclean spirit returns to the house from whence it came and finding it empty, swept, and in good order, it will take seven other spirits more wicked than itself and the final condition of that dwelling will be worse than it was to begin with (cf. Mt 12:43–45).

The spirit of eugenics was never truly exorcised and has returned with the kind of tools and technology that were undreamt of 79 years ago. On Thursday 11 April, the Parliament of the European Union voted decisively to enshrine a right to abortion within the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. Meanwhile, euthanasia and assisted suicide have been legalised across a broad section of the continent and are poised to advance still further with debates taking place in France, Scotland and the Irish Republic. Birth rates continue to decline.

Cardinal Ratzinger spelt out the problem facing both Europe and the world. While the economic failures of Communism had been recognised, “so much so that former communists have unhesitatingly become economic liberals”, the unresolved issues of Marxism lived on. “The decline of a moral conscience grounded in absolute values is still our problem today,” he wrote in 2004. “Left untreated, it could lead to the self-destruction of the European conscience, which we must begin to consider as a real danger…”9

There is an unmistakable resemblance between the EU Parliament building in Strasbourg and the Tower of Babel painted by Pieter Bruegel. This resemblance could be interpreted in two ways: as an acknowledgement that the European project is either an act of hubris, doomed to fail; or an act of open defiance against God by a political caste determined to build a society that will reach to heaven. Given the EU’s conscious rejection of its Christian heritage, the second of these options would seem more likely. Although the memory of the Second World War seems, at times, to be all around us, the painful lessons it taught appear to have been forgotten.


  1. This is evident in the perception of the war crimes trials that took place in Germany and Japan. Although the atrocities carried out by Japan were as shocking as those of Germany, the Nuremberg Tribunal remains well known today, while the Tokyo trials are practically forgotten.
  2. Michael Ignatieff, The Tanner Lectures on Human Values, (Princeton University) April 4–7, 2000, p 288.
  3. Isaiah Berlin, The Roots of Romanticism (Princeton and Oxford, 2013), p 89.
  4. Ibid, p 120.
  5. Ibid, p 77.
  6. Heinrich A Rommen, The Natural Law (Liberty Fund, 1998), p 98.
  7. Joseph Ratzinger and Marcello Pera, Without Roots: The West, Relativism, Christianity, Islam, (trans) Michael F Moore (Basic Books, 2006), p 69.
  8. Heinrich Heine, On the History of Religion and Philosophy in Germany and Other Writings, Terry Pinkard (ed) Howard Pollack-Milgate (trans) (CUP, 2007), p 116.
  9. Ratzinger, p 74.