The epoch of empires is coming
Interview with Professor David Engels, Belgian historian of antiquity, lecturer at the Free University of Brussels, author of book on the historical similarities between the late Roman republic and the current European Union.
What do you think about the situation in Poland? Some Western media outlets carry stories about the rise of nationalism and the crisis of democracy.
As a historian of antiquity, I don’t follow Polish politics very closely and I don’t read Polish newspapers. However, I see a huge gap between what is portrayed in the media and what is really happening. If you read about Polish politics in the Western media, you find that a lot of the accusations against the Polish government have no comparison in other countries. Even the smallest proposal put foward by the Polish government is immediately treated as potentially nationalistic or xenophobic. But things that are much more dangerous in other countries, such as the Spanish approach to Catalonia, are met with silence and assurances that the EU never interferes in the internal affairs of its members.
I have felt good on recent trips to Warsaw, Krakow and Przemysl. As far as I could tell, lively, democratic debate exists everywhere in Poland.
There is no impression that it is an authoritarian police state. On the contrary, I felt that I was in a much more free and normal country than, for example, today's Belgium, where people with certain views are simply forced to remain silent. What’s more, the presence of police on the streets of Brussels is probably ten times higher than in Warsaw.
What is freedom of speech like today in “old,” “post-Carolingian” Europe?
Of course, we don’t live in an authoritarian state where voicing opinions that the government doesn’t like will put you in prison. It’s not like that. However, there is a widespread feeling that certain things cannot be said. For example, you can’t criticise mass immigration or the European Union. Some religious views, for example the Catholic view on abortion, can’t be voiced. Opinions like these are immediately qualified as extremist. Once you are identified as a conservative, you soon become a reactionary, then a fascist and then a Nazi. If you deviate once from the range of permitted views, you can quickly find yourself pigeonholed as an extremist.
This makes it very difficult for social and professional life to function normally, because people bypass you and avoid exchanging views because someone might say that they agree with your opinions. This very subtle and effective way to limit freedom of speech means that discussion of many problems is limited to a small group. A lot of people say, “I can’t say that out loud, because people will think that...” I don’t feel this oppressive atmosphere when I come to Poland or Hungary.
What are the reasons for this situation? Is this related to the left-wing revolution of the 1960s?
Yes, it could be one of the consequences of the cultural revolution of 1968. I think that it is also closely related to the sense of guilt after the war. This is understandable in the case of Germany. I’m not German, but I’ve worked in Germany for a long time and observed this situation closely.
The trauma of German guilt after the war did not disappear in decades after, but it actually increased. The sense of responsibility now seems greater than it was half a century ago. This process has extended into other issues and other countries. It applies not only to the war, but also to guilt about colonialism, to the wars of previous eras, to the Inquisition and the crusades.
Other nations are trying to develop their own approach to their colonial past. We are dealing with a common sense of historical guilt, even masochism, which is a consequence of this attitude. All this affects, for example, the attitude to the migration crisis. Every criticism of immigration or the way people from other cultures are integrated changes quickly and often without reason into a debate about racism. The Holocaust is brought up immediately, and anyone who does not express widely accepted political views becomes a Nazi. Even Jews who oppose mass immigration or who question the ability to integrate immigrants are called Nazis by the media. Of course, it’s absurd, but that's where we have arrived.
You are the author of a book on the similarities between the crisis of the ancient Roman republic and the crisis of the European Union. What common features do you see in these two distant processes?
I am first and foremost a historian of antiquity, and my knowledge concerns the history of Greece and Rome. A few years ago, I wrote a book about the analogies between the late Roman republic in the first century before Christ and the present times. I would like to emphasise that I am not writing about the fall of the Roman Empire, but about the crisis of the republic, its slow disintegration and transformation into an authoritarian state. This process seemed to me the key to understanding what is happening in today's Europe. There are many similar factors, such as the demographic crisis, the phenomenon of mass immigration. During the late republic, there was also a crisis in the traditional family and a high level of divorce. There was a decline in the traditional religion of republican Rome and an influx of new beliefs from the eastern parts of the empire, which grew increasingly strong in cities. There was an analogy to globalisation in the form of the romanisation of the whole known world, just like today globalisation takes the form of Americanisation. We see a crisis of participation in politics and the emergence of an economic oligarchy that used pseudo-republican decoration.
Technocracy, asymmetrical wars – not conflicts between countries, but wars of the state, which considered itself to be the guarantor of civilisation and human rights against barbarians. Terrorism, piracy... all phenomena that we can observe today. The main analogy is the slow, internal disintegration of a political system that has lost its ability to solve people's problems. The late republic was also characterised – similarly to today's European Union – by a helplessness, which the oligarchy exploited, but which was harmful to the majority of society. This led to internal disputes and civil wars. I believe that we are currently on the brink of similar developments in Europe. And then the only way out of the catastrophe is the transformation of the state into authoritarianism with a republican façade, a bit like today's Russia, Turkey or China. I think that this may happen in Europe in the coming decades.
Where will the centre of power be then?
It’s a very good question, because thanks to the Visegrad Group, Europe today is divided. The western part is liberal – in the sense we talked about at the congress, socially, culturally and morally liberal in the spirit of the continuation of 1968. Large parts of some countries in Europe have already been islamified. However, the eastern part of the European Union is trying to combat this trend. I don’t know how it will turn out because there are of course many differences between the current situation and the end of the Roman republic. History never repeats in the same way. Observing its general direction though, I believe that Western Europe will be much less politically stable than the eastern part of the EU. Problems with immigration, social unbalance and the economic stagnation will cause a general crisis, political instability and the domination of populist parties that won’t necessarily enter governments, but by there mere presence in parliaments they will force other parties to take account of their demands. I expect, therefore, that Western Europe is facing a slow decline and that it will be increasingly difficult to govern. For demographic reasons, we will have to deal with the growing role of Islam.
On the other hand, Central Europe has a good chance not to succumb to this evolution, both in terms of economics and migration, and become an island of stability.
Do you think that it is possible not succumb to migratory pressure?
I hope so. I think that it is primarily a political decision.
Is it possible to stop migration through political decisions?
At the moment it’s working quite well. Where I live, a third of the population has Muslim roots. To reach that kind of level, millions of people would have to come to Poland. Even if Poland or Hungary were to accept more immigrants, they would not reach that level easily.
Meanwhile, yesterday, at the Grand Project Poland Congress, we were shown a different vision. The well-known German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk explained that Europe should be "post-imperial," "post-heroic" and "post-religious"... In fact, post-everything... Just listen to what EU headquarters says and everything will be fine.
Sloterdijk said himself "should be." It's nice when someone says everything will be beautiful. I could also say that the Europe of the mass economy, hypercapitalism and cultural Marxism will work fine when people behave well. As we heard yesterday, there are no political problems in a state made up of angels. But the problem is that we are dealing with real history and real people, with real conflicts and with the specific cultural heritage that each of us has.
Calling for a European Union that will not be imperial may be admirable, but it’s absolutely naive. History has never been a story of pacifism. History has always been, and I am afraid it will always be, about the struggle of cultures, empires, nations and political and economic interests. History will always be about religions that want to expand their reach because they think they know the truth and want to spread it. So, of course, we can hope that the world will be good, but when we forget about historical experience, this kind of naivety becomes dangerous.
I also hope that the European Union can cope with all these problems and live in peace with its neighbours. That should be our goal, but we should remember the principle si vis pacem, para bellum. If you want peace, prepare for war. Sloterdijk, on the other hand, proposes to simply go beyond history. It would be possible if there weren’t any countries in the world outside the European Union.
What was missing in his speech was how to deal with the emerging Chinese empire, which is more powerful than the EU and the United States together. How to deal with the Islamic world, which is dynamic, expansive and seeking its own political path. There is also Africa, whose population is exploding and living in extreme poverty. These are all factors that can’t be ignored. We can’t say we now have the European Union, history is over and we all live in peace.
Let's go back to history. Which of the ancient writers is the most relevant today and can tell us something important about our times?
I would mention two names. On the one hand, there is obviously Cicero. His analysis of the fall of his own state which he set out in De re publica is still relevant. Cicero explains how the republic was transformed into a more centralised state, unwittingly preparing the way for the form of state under Augustus. The second is Sallustius, a historian of the late republic with a pessimistic but realistic view of politics. He shows how the civil wars and riots of the first century before Christ did not happen by accident but were a consequence of the internal decline in morals. This diagnosis may be prophetic for our times.
The legacy of Europe is antiquity, but also Christianity. Do you think that Christianity still has a role to play in the history of Western Europe?
Christianity is at the root of our European identity, even more so than the legacy of the ancient world. After all, for centuries the works of ancient authors were interpreted through Christianity. In a sense, Christianity is Europe.
The result of abandoning and even fighting this heritage since the eighteenth century has been that in the long-term we have cut away our roots. Now we are bearing the consequences. For example, a modern democratic state has no foundations that guarantee its functioning. The way people relate to each other – loyalty, family, faith in God, morality – these are all things that can’t be included in a written constitution, but democracy doesn’t work without them. Because of the destruction of Christianity, democracy is slowly passing away and is in constant crisis.
At this point in time, it can be said that Christianity in Western Europe has actually disappeared. Even among those few people who can say that they have Catholic or Protestant roots. They say that they are Christians because they were baptised, but do they actually believe in anything or is it just an expression of a certain cultural affiliation? Few people can really be called Christian; the majority are, at best, monotheists who think that in the end all religions are the same, and the Holy Trinity or the Virgin Mary are only symbols. At the moment, there is little left of Christianity in Western Europe. If we look at statistics, more people now are practicing Islam than Catholicism.
I have little hope that, given the growth of Islam and the progressive social and economic disintegration in the West, people will rediscover Christianity to confirm their identity. When the pressure from outside is so great, you need to define yourself. Two generations ago there was no such need.
In the face of the mass immigration from other cultures, Europeans might want to define themselves as "us, or Christians." So, a form of Christianity may appear that defines itself in opposition to Islam. This new, maybe "second" Christianity could be more spiritual rather than being based on ardent faith and prayer. It will make a claim to the former European culture. It is also difficult to predict how much this process can become widespread.
This epoch is not the the first crisis of Europe. You also looked at the German thinker Oswald Spengler, who 100 years ago wrote about the "twilight of the West."
I am very impressed with Oswald Spengler. I can probably describe myself as one of only a few current Spenglerians, and I am the chairman of the Oswald Spengler Society. So, I'm a bit biased when it comes to Spengler. I also think that even today, in 2018, what Spengler predicted in 1918 is still 90 to 95 percent valid. What he predicted would happen in the future actually happened.
This does not necessarily have to lead to pessimistic conclusions. He expressed well the idea that all great cultures have their birth, origin, apogee, decline and death.
I think that our culture is moving slowly – like the Græco-Roman culture in the first century BC – to the end of its biological evolution. Towards a period of, if not post-history, then stagnation. We haven’t arrived at that point yet, but soon...
Unfortunately, I don’t believe in the advent of a real renaissance in Europe. Rather there will be a kind of stabilisation, the creation of slightly more conservative forms of government, a defence of European values that are passed on to our children. Perhaps, after a period of internal riots and even civil wars in Western Europe, we will achieve a period of imperial stagnation, where everything is well-ordered internally. We will seek to nurture the past rather than develop the future.
And what about the future of the world? Will we have a global civilisation, in which the world will look like San Francisco, with a multitude of nations, languages and races, or will it be a battle of empires?
A battle of empires, clearly. Even the very idea of globalisation is flawed. The only civilisation that has become globalised and diversified is the European civilisation. You mentioned San Francisco; the same can be said about Paris or London, where we see people from all cultures, with different origins. But this is all about Europe and the USA.
When we go to China, for example, to Beijing, we don’t see masses of people from the Islamic world, from Africa or Europe, only Chinese. They live in a self-sustaining world, where knowing English isn’t needed to move forward. It’s similar in Baghdad, Cairo, and even in India. I would say that we are already living in a world of huge cultural and often political blocks: China, India, the Islamic world, also the southern part of Africa now in a state of chaos. All these regions are homogeneous in terms of culture, and often politics. The only part of the world that has really undergone globalisation is Europe.
We should not be under the illusion that just because our countries have been "mixed up," it is the same all over the world. On the contrary, the only culture that is disappearing amid globalisation is European civilisation.
Chinese civilisation is not being mixed with other cultures. What is actually happening is that everyone is rediscovering their identity. In recent years, the Chinese have made a huge effort to renew their traditions from before the revolution, resurrecting Confucius and Lao Tse. Muslims are convinced of the need to return to the ancestry of their ancestors, while India is often seen as a nationalist country. We see everywhere the creation of cultural blocks, apart from in the West, where we try to be open and tolerant and we are increasingly influenced, and partly flooded by other civilizations.
The last question is addressed to you as a historian of antiquity. So many generations have worked on this era. Is there anything new to discover?
Of course, I could say that you can always re-interpret old texts and see new meanings in them. Yes, we can do new things. On the one hand, we are studying the margins of the ancient world, a trend that has become very strong. We are discovering epochs and sources that we have not sufficiently into account. For example, I am a specialist in Seleucus, one of the Hellenistic successors of Alexander the Great, who ruled over Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. Many new sources have been discovered: inscriptions, coins and archaeological finds that have helped us understand this huge empire. However, just a few decades ago it was almost unknown, because there were few traces and preserved sources left. So, there is still much to do, at least on the edge of the ancient world. And of course, we're still discovering new papyri, and work on papyrus from Herculaneum and Pompeii continues.
Of course, we won’t discover a new Roman Emperor, because we know who they all were, so there are limits on how far we can expand our knowledge. But there are still many gaps in this knowledge and hope that they will be filled in. On the other hand, we are still reinterpreting old texts – Cicero, Virgil, Livius, Sallustius and Polybius – again and again. The work has been known for centuries, but every generation of scholars redefines its attitude to what was written by authors so important for the emergence and development of European culture.
One of the many problems we have with our identity is that relationship between contemporary education and the roots of Europe, such as antiquity, early Christianity or the Old Testament has disappeared. All these sources, from which our culture grew in the second millennium, have ceased to form the basis of education, and interest in them is limited to a small group of specialists.
We are paying the price for this today. A generation has emerged that does not feel any connection or sense of solidarity with its past. For my students, ancient Rome is as distant as ancient China. The sense of any intellectual continuity has vanished. This resignation from general education has resulted in my students perceiving what happened before World War II as foreign. They do not know that they are the spiritual and cultural descendants of the nineteenth century. They are already living outside history.
This is a serious problem that a good educational system and good cultural management will have to face to restore the sense of our identity. Because without a sense of identity, which we see today in Western Europe, we are defenceless in the face of the pressure from cultures such as Islam, which is firmly rooted in its past, its founding myth and its vision of family and society. Europe has been deprived of all this. A great vacuum of identity has arisen, which other forces can easily fill.
Interviewed by: Antoni Opaliński
Source: "Kurier WNET"
In 2005, he defended his PhD thesis in ancient history at the University of Aachen, and later received professorship at the Department of History of Ancient Rome at the Free University of Brussels. In 2012-2017, he was the director of the journal "Latomus. Revue & Collection d’études latines." He is the author of over several dozen articles in specialist press and several books, including Le Déclin. La crise de l’Union européenne & la chute de la République romaine (Paris 2013).