“European Impressions,” by Reinhold Niebuhr
May 12, 1947

A three months visit in Europe must not tempt the observer to too many neat generalizations. Yet one is bound to carry away certain impressions, from meeting with many Europeans in many nations.

The most vivid impression concerns the depth of the European pessimism. There is little confidence on the continent that another war can be avoided. This lack of confidence stems from some rather obvious facts, which Americans can discern as well as Europeans. But Europe feels itself closer to the vortex of the storms which devastate the world than we, even though we are, for the moment, the masters of whatever “destiny” human craft and cunning can contrive within the vast forces which move toward construction and destruction in modern history.

Perhaps Europe is more pessimistic than we for the same reason that the back seat driver is more apprehensive about possible accidents on the road than the driver. It knows that we are in the driver’s seat, and it is not sure about us. It tends to be rather grateful that we seem to be firm in trying to prevent Russian communism from filling the vacuum on the continent. But it thinks it discerns rather obvious signs of our inexperience in our new role of masters; and it is not at all happy about the loss of British strength. Sometimes the continentals seem to think that we are driving too fast, and speak rather fantastically about our “desire” for a war with Russia. Yet at the same time they express gratitude that we proved, by our policy in Greece and Turkey, that we are conversant with the strategic requirements of this tussle of power.

One cannot help but be struck in Europe by the tremendously important position which America has acquired in the counsels of the world, chiefly because of our dominant economic power. Europe may regard us with grateful or with apprehensive emotions, but it is very conscious of the fact that the lines of historical destiny now run out from our decisions. Despite my own feeling of the general inadequacy of any nation for the fateful role which we must play and my fear that we are especially inadequate in political wisdom, I felt more and more proud and grateful for the fact that our nation, still given to isolationist illusions several years ago, should seem so firm in its resolve to continue its responsibilities in Europe. I am furthermore just as certain as most Europeans that the strategic measures which we are taking, in Greece and Turkey for instance, are absolutely necessary; though it was rather silly to try to veil this strategy by talk of the necessity of preserving “democratic” governments in these two countries. Neither government is democratic by even a wide stretch of the imagination. What is at stake is not the internal structure of these nations, but the peace of Europe, which cannot be preserved if the communist tide inundates it.

Sometimes the fears of Europe are concerned with our willingness to remain in the game. Do we have lasting power? Are we not too far away to understand the importance of the issues? Will we not grow weary when it becomes apparent that no quick conclusion can be reached in any issue which now engages us? Sometimes the Europeans are afraid primarily because they think we do not have social and political insights to match our technical and strategic ones. They know that the Russian flood must not be allowed to inundate the continent. But they are not certain that we will have a social and economic policy wise enough to bring health to the world which we, for the moment dominate. Europe is not always certain of our motives either. It sees a generous America in the vast relief measures, official and unofficial, which we have sponsored. That is our right hand. But our left hand seems engaged in a mighty thrust of economic power. When we talk of “free trade” in idealistic terms Europe grows cynical and declares that we mean, the right of American business to use its superior technical force to drive competitors out of the market.

The final source of European apprehension about us concerns our own health. Europe is quite sure (and this is as true of business circles as of the left) that modern economy cannot be as unmanaged as we pretend. It is quite sure that it cannot afford the luxury of a completely unmanaged economy. But it is almost as certain that we can’t afford it either. I do not know how often I was asked the question about the imminent economic catastrophe in America. The fact is taken for granted. Only the degree of imminence seems to be the question. But European pessimism is derived not merely from apprehensions about us and about the Russians, these two curious new masters of modern destiny. Europe is pessimistic about itself. So many fine promises of wartime have not materialized. The unity between Christians and Marxists, gained in the resistance movements, has not been maintained. For that matter not even the unity between Lutherans and Calvinists, achieved in the Confessional group in Germany, has been preserved. “The ghosts of yesterday” said a former member of one of the resistance movements “stalk over the nations.” The old creeds have not been overcome by any genuine new impulse in either religion or politics. The age old struggle between a “Christian right” and the Marxist workers, has not been materially mitigated. Only in Holland and Denmark has a fresh start been made in political parties which are designed to break the fateful embrace between Christian and bourgeois interests on the one hand, and to mitigate the irrelevance of Marxist utopianism on the other. The Dutch and the Danish movements are promising—the Dutch being more powerful than the Danish. But they are isolated. Nothing is more pathetic than the liberal Marxists of continental Europe, mouthing revolutionary phrases in which they no longer believe, either because they think they have to match communist polemics, or because the frame of their thought represents the old wine skin into which they are futilely trying to pour the new wine of a more pragmatic politics. Nothing is more confused than this liberal Marxist middle ground, not knowing whether it hates communism or Christianity more, or rather knowing quite well that it hates communism more but not knowing how to come to terms with the deeper insights of the Christian tradition. Yet perhaps the Christian “right” is more pathetic. For here in the name of Christ, no great struggle for a new community in Europe takes place. Either the Christian right defends middle class interests in the name of Christ, or it defends the institutional interests of the church. This is partly true of the Protestant right but more so of the Catholic conservatism of Europe.

In both Italy and France some generous new lay Catholic impulses emerged from the resistance movements. But the hierarchy has moved in on these Catholic parties. When communists supported Catholics in Italy in order to write into the very constitution the religiously restrictive legislation contained in Mussolini’s accord with the Vatican, a new despair gripped the people of Europe who are trying to preserve the middle ground of democracy against both communism and reaction.

One feels that only the insights of the prophets of Israel can do justice to the tragedy of a great European culture, failing to repent under the divine judgments which have shaken it to its foundations. This is the kind of defiance of divine judgment of which the prophets are constantly speaking and which Isaiah predicted in a dark moment would last “until the cities be wasted without inhabitant and the houses without man and the land be utterly desolate.”

There are some creative impulses in the church life of Europe, particularly the ecumenical movement itself. But one does feel that the churches from the various nations, as well as our own churches within one nation, have not really begun to be ecumenical in the sense that they are anxious to learn from one another or to borrow each others treasures of faith and grace. Thus, for instance, continental Calvinism is liturgically bare beyond belief, while the Lutheran churches have a beautiful liturgical service. Continental Calvinism does seem unimaginative, particularly when one sees how it is unable to make any effective use of the many beautiful medieval churches which it has inherited. In them the choir is closed off and made into some kind of Bible study room or put to other purposes. Evidently the cruciform plan of the church must be obscured and in any event there must be no altar. The loss in beauty is considerable, not to speak of the loss in sacramental character of the service.

There are of course some very robust religious qualities in this continental Calvinism. But even when it deals with the political realities of its world with a sterner hand than Lutheranism, it sometimes falls into a legalism which is pretty graceless. In Holland, under the leadership of Dr. Henrik Kraemer there is a new movement in the church, which has many dimensions and interests, one of which is to challenge the intimate embrace between religious legalism and bourgeois economic interests.

On the other hand it would be wrong to regard only Calvinism as fruitful in the social and political sphere. A visit to Scandinavia reminds one that the well known faults of German Lutheranism, its uncritical attitude toward government, and its tendency to a transcendentalism which lives above the realm of man’s social problems, may well be more German than Lutheran. For these Scandinavian countries have the same kind of political wisdom and the same capacity to make slow and creative adjustments to new situations which we in the Anglo-Saxon world have long associated with British genius.

It might be worth observing that the Barthian influence seems on the whole to be most creative in the Calvinist churches. There it acts as a leaven to leaven the lump of what is often a graceless legalism. It is probably not so good for Germany, for there it would seem to accentuate an already strong tendency toward transcendentalism. Barth’s own political judgments are very shrewd but they are not a part of his theological approach. In Scandinavia they do not seem to pay too much attention to his thought, or at least they are not seriously disturbed by it, though everyone rightly expresses appreciation of the contribution his genius has made to the quickening of theological thought. In Germany it seems not only to accentuate the tendency to pure transcendentalism, but also to issue in a Biblicist literalism or fundamentalism, which is foreign to Barth himself but seems to grip his followers.

A note of American criticism of European church-state relations might well conclude a report on European Christianity. The intimate relation between church and state, prevalent almost everywhere in Europe, preserves the formal idea of a national Christian culture. But these Christian nations of Europe are certainly as secular as our own country and possibly more so. And there is no line where the church ends and the national society begins. There is, therefore, no challenge for men to declare themselves for the Christian faith, a challenge which sectarian Christianity introduced into American church life, and for which we may well be grateful. Furthermore there is not sufficient tension between the church as a community of grace and the national community under this official arrangement. Our own American Christianity may seem very heterogenous from the standpoint of Europe. But it has some genuine contributions to make to the ecumenical movement. One of these is certainly the sense of the church as a unique community of grace, distinguished from the general community. Europe thinks we do not define the church with sufficient theological precision. But an American may well counter that Europe has all the theological definitions; but the substance is frequently lacking.