Acton Commentary

1968 - The Year “Old Europe” Died


Some describe them as history’s most radical generation. Others consider them Europe’s most self-indulgent age-group. Debate over the significance of Europe’s generation of 1968 will surely be engaged this May, which marks the 40th anniversary of the 1968 student revolts that changed Western Europe’s face, perhaps forever.

For West Europeans, 1968 is invariably associated with the student upheavals that shook entire societies that year, bringing Charles De Gaulle’s government to its knees. Ironically, De Gaulle partly owed his survival to the French Communist party’s unwillingness to support the students because a student-led revolution did not accord with the comrades’ vision of how to overthrow capitalism!

The students’ motivations were complex and not always especially rational. In Germany, some were disturbed by their parents’ acquiescence in Nazism. Others, less nobly, were driven by neo-Marxist and anarchist ideologies.

Though 1968 did not overthrow any government, it did begin the ’68ers’ long march through Western Europe’s institutions. In the universities, ’68ers established a dominance that remains today. This has turned many Western European universities into Stalinist-like regimes of leftist political-correctness, reducing authentic university life to ashes.

The damage to Western European culture has been incalculable.

We see it in many Western Europeans’ inability to condemn Marxism. While fascism is rightly excoriated, many Western Europeans’ attitude to an ideology that killed millions and destroyed entire economies is one of indifference.

Then there was the successful resistance to efforts to have the draft European constitution note the simple fact that Christianity was the decisive religious influence upon the formation of European identity. This refusal is like saying Islam was irrelevant to Saudi Arabia’s founding. A civilization is in trouble when its public institutions engage in historical denial.

Not everything about pre-1968 Western Europe was good. Yet the ’68ers’ legacy surely contributes to the pessimism and cynicism that routinely emerges in polling of contemporary Western European attitudes towards, well, everything.

Especially damaging has been their establishment of the “hermeneutics of suspicion” – the tendency to view the expression of an idea as always an attempt to disguise the power-interests allegedly served by the idea – as the default position in European intellectual life.

Once a culture begins inculcating self-suspicion to this degree, self-implosion is not far away.

Throughout Western Europe, critique of these developments is rare. One person, however, unafraid to challenge this situation is the scholar-pope Benedict XVI.

Benedict is intimately familiar with the ’68ers. He witnessed their antics first-hand while teaching theology at the University of Tubingen in 1968. In his Memoirs (1998), he recalls how “the Marxist revolution kindled the whole university with its fervor, shaking it to its very foundations”.

Then-Professor Ratzinger was especially disturbed at how Marxist categories were transplanted onto Christian concepts, with the party assuming God’s place, and Christianity trivialized to a determination to realize heaven-on-earth – whatever the cost.

But rather than pursuing an old-fashioned culture war, Benedict’s challenge to Western Europe’s post-’68 consensus has surprised many.

First, Benedict treats his audiences as if they are adults with attention spans that exceed twenty seconds. Perhaps that explains why Benedict has thousands coming to listen to him most Wednesdays in St Peter’s Square.

Second, Benedict engages serious matters with a clarity that cuts through the clichéd empty phraseology of Western Europe’s political classes.

Third, Benedict’s arguments go to the heart of Western Europe’s civilizational crisis. He has forced open public discussion of fundamental questions that ’68ers invariably ignore.

His famous 2006 Regensburg lecture, for instance, not only initiated an overdue conversation about Islam’s understanding of God, but also identified Europe’s problems as flowing partly from modern Europeans’ truncated grasp of the nature of reason.

Is Benedict having an impact? Jürgen Habermas, the atheist German philosopher widely regarded as 1968’s intellectual godfather, is certainly paying attention. He argues Benedict is asking questions about human reason that Europeans cannot avoid if Europe is to have a future.

Voltaire is surely spinning in his grave to know that 21st century Europe’s apostle of reason – reason in all its fullness rather than a narrowly technical-utilitarian understanding – is the Roman Pontiff.

Many ’68ers quietly scoff at Benedict, convinced that he and Christianity are irrelevant in the brave, rather un-European world they have created. They forget, however, that Benedict is notoriously uninterested in tomorrow’s headlines. He thinks in centuries.

Benedict’s intellectual lodestar is St Augustine. Augustine died in Hippo in 430 AD, while that North African city was under siege from the all-conquering Vandals. Augustine’s ideas, however, went on to fundamentally shape Western civilization. The Vandals – and the Arian heresy they espoused - eventually disappeared into the dust of history.

Perhaps, as Shakespeare wrote, “what’s past is prologue”.

Dr. Samuel Gregg is research director at the Acton Institute and author, most recently, of The Commercial Society (2007).