Leon Botstein is President of Bard College
The popularity of radical anti-immigrant nationalism in Europe, from Britain to Russia, and in the United States—the recent defeat of a right-wing candidate in the Austrian presidential election notwithstanding—unmasks a startling irony in the way history influences the present. Among the most common complaints leveled at the migrants and refugees now in Europe and the millions who seek to follow in their footsteps—primarily Muslims—is their unwillingness and failure to adapt to Europe and assimilate.
The controversies over burkas, head scarves and mosques suggest a widespread anxiety that the new populations, and therefore potential citizens of the future, will undermine and change cherished definitions of European national identities based on shared religion, shared language and, since the 20th century, a commitment to secular traditions, in which political practices and public culture presume a separation of church and state. The new immigrants, and their predecessors, particularly those in France who came after the independence of Algeria, are seen as determined to retain the customs, laws and way of life, and therefore the identities, they came with, all alien to long-standing, seemingly coherent but distinct national characters—English, Polish, Hungarian, Italian, Russian and Dutch—each rooted in a common history, Christian faith and a shared language.
The several generations of Muslim immigrants to Europe since the end of World War II may not be deeply versed in European history, but it would be hard for them not to sense the widespread and unavoidable shadow cast by the Holocaust and the liquidation of European Jewry between 1933 and 1945. Little in post-1945 European politics has not been shaped by the effort the grapple with the consequences of Fascism during the interwar era and the war itself, particularly the extermination of the Jews.
The ugly fact in that history is that the Jews, once Europe’s most visible and shared minority population, became more hated the more they successfully adapted and assimilated into European national cultures. Rabid political anti-Semitism—whether in France during the trial of Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish military officer falsely accused of espionage; or at the turn of the century in Vienna when the city’s mayor, Karl Lueger, pioneered the use of anti-Semitism as a successful electoral strategy; or later, in Germany, when the assimilated Jew par excellence, the wealthy and brilliant foreign minister Walther Rathenau was assassinated by right-wing operatives in 1922—was directed not against pious Jews in black hats, who kept the Sabbath, deferred to rabbinical courts and ate strictly kosher food. Virulent modern anti-Semitism was directed against Jews who willingly shed all that, and became loyal, successful citizens of France, Austro-Hungary and Germany. Their command of the language, dress and social and cultural habits of Europe’s nations made them indistinguishable from their Christian counterparts.
What enraged the majority population in late 19th-century and early 20th-century European nations was not difference but rather sameness, and in particular exceptional sameness: the triumph of Jewish adaptation and assimilation. The composer Richard Wagner in 1850 argued that what made the Jews dangerous and insidious was that they were integrated and unidentifiable. By entering the elite of the nation their essentially subversive presence suddenly became invisible and powerful. Jewish bankers, manufacturers, scientists, writers, doctors, lawyers and artists were now Englishmen, Frenchmen and Germans. They were the real problem, not the pious Yiddish-speaking anonymous Jew with his foreign and unfamiliar ways living in a ghetto.
How did Europe respond? It forcibly stripped its major minority that between the late 18th century and 1933 became a significant defining element in national cultures—as was the case in Poland and Hungary it of its hard earned and fragile equality. It then incarcerated it, expelled it and finally murdered it. Germans and Austrians initiated the Nazi “Final Solution”; but its success depended on enthusiastic cooperation throughout the nations of Europe, with few notable exceptions. It is, therefore, all the more admirable that the Germans and Austrians seem to lag behind in the rise of European populist nativism.
The lesson of this history, whether conscious or implicit, cannot be escaped. This dark past fuels an unspoken argument against assimilation and adaptation. It justifies inherited tradition and identity. Why should young Muslim Europeans, who witnessed the disappointments and resistance to integration on the part of their parents and grandparents, much less new arrivals, embrace European customs, mores and religions, and seek to disappear as a distinct group within the various European cultures when the lesson of European history is that the last time a visible minority sought to do so it met its destruction at the hands of the world into which its members sought entrance through assimilation?
Turning to post-Donald Trump America, the European predicament offers a cautionary comparison. White America has prided itself as a nation based on acquired citizenship, freedom of religion and the rule of law, and formed by immigration. But that ideology was dominant two generations ago. The defining distinction, from the beginning, has been race and color, not religion or nationality. What post-Trump white America has expressed by endorsing Trump’s campaign to “Make America Great Again” is not merely anger against elites in general but targeted resentment against the recent history of success by Americans of color. The racism in this year’s election was not about an older stereotype of the Willie Horton-type, but directed against Barack Obama. It is precisely the parity in the achievements of black Americans, those who have become CEOs, scholars, scientists, artists, doctors, lawyers and politicians—and now even president—that has fueled the resurgence of intolerance and anti-immigrant sentiment.
Our challenge is to confront and diffuse the hypocrisy that exists between our ideals; our rhetoric about America as a place of freedom, tolerance and justice for all, a nation in which the Constitution and the Statue of Liberty are our guiding symbols; and our actions. Those of us who are in the dwindling white majority need to persuade our fellow citizens that overcoming prejudice is tested not by embracing those subordinate to us in class and status but by celebrating the reality of successful integration, the leading presence of citizens of color into the nation’s elite. Doing that will benefit all citizens and make America “great.” The time is now to revive the American dream of a “melting pot” out of which prosperity and dignity for all can emerge.