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From Athens to Auschwitz: The Uses of History.

From Athens to Auschwitz: The Uses of History. By Christian Meier. Translated by Deborah Lucas Schneider. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005. xii + 239 pages. (Originally published as Von Athen bis Auschwitz: Betrachtungen zur Lage der Geschichte, by Verlag C. H. Beck, Munich, 2002.)

Christian Meier is a prominent, and prolific, ancient historian, now retired, who taught for many years at the University of Munich. Several of his earlier books have appeared in English translation. This most recent volume is a reflective set of musings about, and analyses of, the idea and role of Europe in world history, whether Europe as a conceptual, cultural, and world-historical entity properly starts only (approximately) with Charlemagne, or rather with antiquity--with the classical Greeks and Romans--and with whether history does or should matter now, and in the anticipatable future. The book also explores Greek and Roman themes not only for their own sake, but also for their roles as prototypes for subsequent European civilization. Meier makes a case for the uniqueness of Europe's contribution to the world, and seeks to explain that uniqueness. This involves trying to understand how Europe came to extend its presence into most of the rest of the world, from the late fourteenth century on, where other centers of civilization remained homebound. Meier undertakes finally an investigation of how the phenomenon of the Holocaust should be understood by historians, and what its significance is for European history and for the place of Europe within world history.

The book is interesting, learned, wide-ranging. It also has limitations and confronts problems.

Whether it is more persuasive to regard European history as beginning essentially with the Dark Ages, and emerging from that period in two stages, the Carolingian period and the eleventh century, or, rather, to consider the history of Europe as a unitary phenomenon across a wider, larger canvas starting with the ancient Greeks, would seem partly at least to be a conceptual or semantical matter, of the "it depends what you mean" sort. Meier, as a classicist, seeks to make a case for appropriately grounding the world-historical Europe phenomenon, etiologically and ontologically, in antiquity. Historical continuity and connectedness may very reasonably be seen in terms of literate appropriation of texts and practices from before, where those texts and practices are seen as "ours," at earlier times; in those terms Meier's case seems quite convincing. The massive rupture of the Dark Ages was bridged by the survival of quite sizable bodies of texts (even with immense irrecoverable loss), together with prolific chiefly Roman ruins, known uninterruptedly as the work of an ancestral culture. The overwhelming majority of the present-day European population speaks languages that either evolved directly from, or that bear the very extensive and systematic imprint of ancient Latin (and Greek), and developed literatures, legal texts, and institutions self-consciously modeled on Roman and Greek forerunners.

Still, there are difficulties, or at least complexities, that stem from the specifically modern-European vantage point from which Meier surveys the terrain, of present and past, and which one might have expected an ancient historian specially to be free of. We do sometimes identify the prime objects of ancient historical attention as "Greece and Rome." The first of these poses challenges of focus. If Greece is the modern country of that name, it becomes immediately clear that this name will only quite inadequately identify the places and the people which produced the glories of Hellenic culture. Never united as a sovereign country in antiquity, the Greek lands and territories--Greek civilization--extended over a sprawling zone of the Mediterranean (and parts of the Black Sea) world. Greek colonies--full-fledged poleis--began to be planted in (what is now) Turkey in the eleventh century B.C., and steadily thereafter comparable communities also appeared, and endured, in Italy, coastal bits of France, Spain, Bulgaria, and elsewhere; they are found still earlier in Cyprus. Under Alexander, the Hellenic world extends of course vastly further to the east.

"Europe" is rather like "Greece." From the 1480s onwards, settlements of people from geographical-Europe appear in Africa, then the Americas, and in due course parts of Asia and the Pacific region. And in fact from well before that expansion got underway, significant parts of geographical-Europe had become lost to anything identifiable as a common civilization or culture, with progressive Ottoman Turkish conquest of the Balkans (including geographical-Greece itself), for a period of several centuries. Further, it is untrue that "Europe" expanded after 1500 into the wider world. Rather, the six major European states bordering on the Atlantic did so, followed in later periods, after their unifications, by Italy and Germany, and then by Belgium.

These points are not merely pedantic ones. Someone can, to be sure, write a history of any place--parish, city, county, sovereign state, maritime region, continent--and adopt a perspective that specially views larger themes and topics from the vantage point of any such place. And there is no question that there is such a thing as an idea of Europe, with conceptual boundaries and significance not to be tied too strictly or precisely to the formal bounds of the European continent and its offshore islands, though, arguably, not extending beyond that part of the earth's surface. One can, in this vein, insist on a contrast between metropolitan motherlands and colonies in thrall to them, culturally and otherwise. Still, the independence of the United States is over two hundred years old, and that of the Latin American republics not very much more recent. Most of these western hemisphere societies had established their independence from their imperial masters well before Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, and other European countries had established theirs, from theirs. (Meier himself unwittingly makes essentially the point intended more than once, for example, p. 2: "History is no longer just the history of Europe [with the possible inclusion of North America, as we sometimes still assume, consciously or unconsciously]; rather, European and North American history represents one history alongside others ..."; p. 174: "Human beings' potential ability to destroy all life on earth is a consequence of European history and European history alone, if we include Europe's most important offshoot, the United States"; compare p. 136: "From the eighteenth century on, Europeans and North Americans understood themselves in distinctly historical terms, identifying themselves as participants in a movement of forward progress ...") The older, and more plausible, world-historical civilizational identification is of "the West"--which may perhaps be identified as corresponding more or less to the Catholic-or-Protestant countries of western Europe and the new world countries their populations settled. (Just as several ancient Greek poleis, colonies of a city-state on the Hellenic mainland, themselves had colonies, so too European offshoot societies--most notably, the United States--themselves have had imperial possessions, much as most of the European Atlantic states have had.) The world-historical vantage point, surely, should not just be one defined by how things may look and feel in the first decade of the twenty-first century, or a few decades prior to that.

What this points to in Meier's book is its taking a more parochial stance than its author clearly intends. There is, I think, a problem of conceptual focus in the claimed target of attention, and in the horizons of analysis and reflection that From Athens to Auschwitz adopts. Though he makes it clear that he means to write as an ancient historian, and as a world historian and historical methodologist, Meier in fact comes across as a (very thoughtful and widely read) citizen of the European Union, still more, and more frequently, as a citizen of Germany, who is reflecting upon, and often troubled by, how things look and feel from those locations, on the current scene. It is not obvious, or clear, though, that "Athens," as idea or foundational conceptual/cultural reality, "belongs" to a citizen of Frankfurt, Dublin, or Riga more than it does to a citizen of Boston, Vancouver, Melbourne, or Buenos Aires; or, for that matter, that "Auschwitz" belongs, in the same sense, to citizens of more than one or two European countries. Being European (in the geographical, or in the more elusive but still continental, ideological sense) is not a necessary condition of claim to being an heir of "Athens," nor is it a sufficient condition of claim to (or of being branded with) responsibility for "Auschwitz."

It seems evident that many Europeans--citizens of the European Union--are, currently, in a pensive, disquieted mood, and citizens of Germany especially so, in particular ways. (Those of France also are.) There is high unemployment set against a recent-historical backdrop of great affluence and consumerist culture. There is also a very low birthrate, hence an aging population, particularly marked among the native-born. Immigrant communities, especially of Muslim character, pose destabilizing kinds of problems. Whether the European Union can or should advance its union, in political and military directions, is an ongoing question of the day. There is much to knit brows on the northeastern side of the Atlantic.

Meier is preoccupied also by the role of his own profession, that is, of the profession of historian, on the current scene. As he sees it, Europeans (Germans?) formerly cared about history and hearkened to what historians might have to tell them, but do so no longer. They (the Europeans, or Germans) now evidently find the idea of History essentially meaningless, or, less intellectually, are simply ignorant of it, and, their attention focused on the consumerist gadgetry of modern life, have no desire to diminish that ignorance. I found this part of Meier's concerns somewhat puzzling. In all societies, only a minority ever read or listen to the work and published analyses of historians (quite apart from historians' fellow historians). Still, I would have said that, at least in the cultural contexts of which I am aware, that minority is not negligible in size. Historians' books, both on smaller-scale themes and on grand and sweeping topics, often are widely read, even best-sellers. I know of no statistical information in this area, but I would be surprised to learn that there has been a dramatic drop in nonhistorians reading and thinking about historians' work. Is it otherwise, possibly, in Germany? Or perhaps I missed what Meier's point or concern was in this regard.

It is a truism that elder statesmen, reflecting on the decades of a productive career and changes in the times, find much to deplore in recent currents. And it does really seem that many Europeans--perhaps especially citizens of France, Germany, and the Benelux countries--have currently a sense of directionlessness, crisis, or anomie. Yet historians, of all people, should know that there will for quite a foreseeable future be a day after tomorrow, and a day after that, from which there will be a past to seek to understand and to integrate into a fabric that can illuminate the present and be aimed at anticipatory guidance for the future.

Because of the European Union, probably very many more Europeans identify themselves now as European than formerly was true. Britons typically and famously have seen themselves just as Britons, and definitely not Europeans (though, interestingly, John Stuart Mill, in On Liberty [1859], and elsewhere in his work, writes, at least some of the time, with a self-consciously European sensibility). French people likewise have seen themselves principally as French. (Without France, Victor Hugo said, the world would be alone.) Those "most European," it seems, are people of Germany, and perhaps of the Benelux countries. (A recent study of Friedrich Nietzsche claims him, specially, as "a good European.")

The translation of the book does not seem entirely satisfactory. The prose is often somewhat stiff, and occasionally artificial; the original would be neither. On page 56, we encounter a howler, with what are clearly intended to be the patristic fathers referred to as "the patriarchs."

Let me end on a more positive note. Meier's book displays great synoptic learning, and a wide, reflective acquaintance with nineteenth- and twentieth-century (especially German-language) literature. It is enjoyable to read, to be informed by, and to think along with--sometimes to feel prompted to contest--the work of someone who knows and loves classical antiquity passionately, and who is reaffirming, wholly correctly, its continued important presence in the modern world.

Peter Loptson

University of Guelph

Guelph, Ontario, Canada
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Author:Loptson, Peter
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2006
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