The title of Douglas Murray’s book is eerily reminiscent of the unfolding pandemic which has hit Western Europe particularly hard. However, Murray’s book is about an affliction of a different nature, one which in his view, Europe allowed to spread partly due to its own delusions, guilt, misguided generosity, fatigue and an all-pervading sense of meaninglessness. His book, which opens with a simple yet bold and provocative statement viz. “Europe is committing suicide”, is an honest and thoughtful reflection on causes, failures and alternatives which could have avoided the slow death Europe is purportedly walking towards.
The book, written in easily accessible and fluent prose, is neatly divided in 19 chapters (with a grim introduction and numerous endnotes) and starts with the beginning of influx post-WW2 triggered by the labor shortage in a war torn Europe, meticulously highlights the policies, socio-cultural discourse and symptoms of a deeper ailment—which were ignored or not acknowledged—all of which laid the groundwork for a confused, but benevolent Europe and ultimately lead to a degree of openness which culminated in the migrant crisis of 2015, and is most likely to last beyond it with catastrophic ramifications for Europe’s future.
A frank, but mature and highly nuanced exposition, the book is replete with personal interviews, historical and eyewitness accounts, private conversations with migrants, frontline workers, lawmakers, officials in public services, all of which bring depth, gravity and authenticity to the subject which is so often marred with shallow, ephemeral debates and ad hominem pejoratives.
Needs, Excuses & Half-Truths
Murray’s tale starts with a Europe ravaged by war, seeking to re-build itself up by sourcing low-cost laborers from non-Western nations in the form of guest workers, hoping they would return back to their native lands after the end of their term, only to surprisingly discover that most of them would stay back not only to become permanent citizens but even bring along their families who would become permanent residents as well. The situation arose as a result of actions and policies adopted on the basis of arguments based on a genuine sense of repatriation towards the former colonies, economic benefits of cheap labor and higher GDP, advantages of multiculturalism, misrepresentation by various organisations on the nature of immigration, systemic failures to respond to and diagnose the internal socio-cultural issues of European societies and myopic policymaking by authorities—itself influenced and, at times, even shaped by questionable research and studies—among others.
Murray critically questions and challenges the merit and limits of each of these arguments with incisive analyses of popular narratives vis-à-vis the actual situation on the ground. The parts on GDP benefit and the European confusion on multiculturalism are articulated with admirable lucidity, supported by numerous data points, historical examples and real life experiences. A curious aspect, rather narrative peddled to promote mass migration—also called into question by him— is the attempt to reshape the story of Europe (as being a land of immigrants) in the image of North America: a delusion, which the author argues was never the case with Europe.
Throughout the book, the author exposes many cases of lies, deception, incompetency of ruling classes, distractions and whitewash by the fringes of academia (mainstreamed by biased reportage), misleading narratives of migrant success story, hounding by mainstream press of anyone even mildly suggesting a course correction, under and misreporting of crime—for several years—by authorities due to the nature of crime and the identity of perpetrators involved and many others which are often ignored by even the most astute and honest mainstream analysts.
The Immigrant Stories
Interspersed across the book, but particularly explored in Chapters 4 and 5, are the tales of migrants from Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa and even Eastern Europe and China trying to make their way into Europe via different routes, but principally through the islands of Lampedusa in Italy and Lesbos in Greece. These islands, we’re informed by the author, have been witnessing immigration for years but the situation turned more acute after the Arab spring and during the Syrian crisis. We learn about the genuinely tragic experiences—at the hands of criminally exploitative people smugglers and even during their journeys on the boats—many migrants go through while making it to the islands, and how it galvanized the public opinion which eventually forced the leaders of the EU to authorize border guards help ferry the hopefuls on the mainland.
Two pivotal moments in the 21st century, namely October 2013 drowning of more than three hundred people mainly from sub-Saharan Africa and the death of a three year old Aylan Kurdi, whose body washed up on a beach in Turkey, triggered an international outcry leading to governments across most of Europe to devise various initiatives to accommodate fleeing refugees and migrants. The author, while undeniably concerned about Europe’s future, displays remarkable sensitivity to human suffering and agony as is evident in his narration of the plight of migrants. Murray also gives an account of help extended by various NGOs to potential migrants and how over the course of time, the workers in host countries were surprised to discover that many of them possessed sufficient foreknowledge about their rights in the EU, key destinations and crossing points and other vital details needed to make their way into the intended EU country. These chapters also underscore how overwhelmed Greece, Spain and Italy were by the ever increasing number of arrivals. However, as Murray painstakingly chronicles, destination for most of the migrants were Germany and Sweden, and Southern European nations, for most, were merely a point of entry.
Unsurprisingly, the billionaire financier—who is by now fairly well known for his activism and advocacy for open societies—George Soros, and the NGOs funded by him, finds a mention here.
The Deeper Issues
Murray’s work is far from being a mere compendium of real life experiences and an exercise in citing statistics and anecdotes. It courageously ventures deeper into the moral, philosophical, historical and cultural crises as evident in various thought currents and events which laid the foundation upon which much of the pre and post-war Europe stands, and which led to what he refers to as ‘Europe fatigue’. The second half in general and chapters 13 and 16 in particular are marked by these deeper explorations and readers will discern why Murray is described by the Spectator UK as one of the sharpest minds in Britain.
Undoubtedly erudite, the author refers to previous works which had gloomily predicted the end of Western Civilization including Oswald Spengler and Nietzsche. Murray suggests that the decisive blows to Europe came from the twin rise of biblical criticism and Darwinian evolutionary theory, from which it never really recovered. The reader learns about the subtle—but one which manifests itself frequently in many spheres—notion of European’s weariness of history: an overpowering sense of tiredness, fatigue and loss; itself an end product of teleological view contained in certain philosophical-historical ideas pushed to their extremes, the strongest unfolding of which occurred in Germany but eventually took over the entire Western world. From that point on, they could not be stretched anymore without breaking themselves down, which they did, leaving behind a wreckage which Europe still finds itself shackled by.
This existential tiredness, Murray opines, is dangerous not only in itself, but even more so “because it can allow almost anything to follow in its wake”. It has left a gaping hole which Western civilization is filling up with endless consumerism (in the words of French writer Delsol “…if all hope is lost, then let us have fun!”), hedonism and experiments with self-replacement in the form of mass immigration, multiculturalism etc.
The author continues to trace the deeper causes and avers that the death and destruction brought about by the clash of belief and ‘non-belief’, various secular ideologies meant to replace the unfulfilled search for utopia in religion and anti-religion, rationalism and reason has made Europe scared of ideas themselves. Academia merely is a stand-in with its tools to analyze, dissect and deconstruct ideas but not let anyone delve too deep in them. Art has collapsed and there is nothing new being created except pointing at death, suffering and grief. Marcel Duchamp’s’ infamous Fountain (a urinal)—which the Indic audience may recall from Vishwa Adluri’s highly educative talk titled “The Death of Art, The Rise of Image”—also, or perhaps inevitably so, finds a place for itself. Art is gazing at the past only to remind one of the colossal devastation European soul has undergone, suggesting nothing which inspires and solves no problems. There are two contemporary, moving examples Murray cites which are both considered great only because, with minor re-arrangements, they point to what was uplifting, inspiring and purifying previously.
While these dynamics internally led to a hollowed out, nihilistic or hedonist Europe, externally they manifested themselves as a deeply held guilt for all the wrongs done during the past centuries. Thus, when the migrant crisis broke out in 2015, to be on side of migrants was a sort of redemption. While the case of Germany is understandable, the same narrative, Murray argues, played out across Europe. This deeply held guilt, in his view, is peculiar only to European nations and not felt by other countries, for example Turkey, which by law forbids any reference to Armenian genocide.
Ignored Seers, Alternatives & the Inevitable Future
In a tale which spans across most of Western Europe, Murray patiently narrates the stories of men and women whose observations and wisdom pierced through the fog of confusion and doubt, and who raised alarm years before others began to realize the quagmire they were walking into. Salman Rushdie, Oriana Fallaci, Pim Fortuyn, Ayaan Hirsi Ali and (perhaps by now the most well-known of them all) Michel Houellebecq are among the key thinkers whose works and thoughts we get acquainted with. These are seers who, according to Murray, saw through it all, blew the whistle well in advance and yet were made to shut up or ignored except by a tiny minority. The wakeup call eventually came in the form of the New Year’s Eve’s events at Cologne in 2014 and terrorist attack in Paris in 2015.
In order to ameliorate the situation, the author suggests alternatives to mass migration—which should first start with an honest and sincere acknowledgement that the EU leaders made mistakes—by adopting measures such as settling migrants to countries which are neighbors to their country of origin, processing asylum claims outside Europe (with particular emphasis on Australia’s example), setting up migrant camps in Africa (with possible EU funding), preferential treatment for workers from Southern European countries which are culturally similar and have a substantial base of unemployed workers and pan-European effort to deport the existing migrants living without a legal asylum claim. These steps should also be supplanted domestically, by broadening of acceptable political spectrum via inclusion of parties hitherto considered unacceptable (due to their Fascist or racist origins) but have cleansed themselves of any such position; by making charges of Racism/Fascism very costly, which are often made very loosely—and in author’s view should be used with extreme caution in the European context—in contemporary European discourse and by simultaneously engaging with both the glorious as well as painful and ugly facets of European past.
However, in the end, despite numerous suggestions and considering various scenarios, the author—while repeatedly acknowledging that the future is difficult to predict—posits that the same politics is likely to continue which has brought Europe in this difficult condition: the arrivals are here to stay for a long time to come to inevitably change the face of Europe; instead of a decisive U-turn, the trend of mass migration will continue; the line between legal, illegal, economic and political migrants (or asylum seekers) will continue to blur; native Europeans will perhaps move to rural communities—a trend already being noticed; the foreign policy will become even more uncoordinated (because mass migration has made international politics directly relevant to domestic politics); public sentiment will sour, the socio-political and cultural discourse is likely to be vitiated even more; politicians (who in the past across key European powers have indulged merely in symbolic issues such as— but not limited to—debates related to swimwear in France, vans with warning messages which were meant merely to placate the electorate in UK, distracting discourse on counter-terrorism in Germany etc.) will continue to take “career-friendly” positions, offering only mild palliatives and more symbolic gestures, and will repeat the same mistakes in a merry-go-round fashion; and eventually, Western Europe will become a large scale UN, “a nation of immigrants” but not Europe anymore.
Final Thoughts & the India Perspective
Despite its numerous qualities and insights the book is not without its flaws. While reflecting on the depth of European cultural moorings (“the foundational myth” as he refers to it at one place), Murray confines it to the organized religion in Europe. There are many disparate, though not so vocal, voices within West which would disagree on this and point towards a Europe much of whose thoughts pre-dates organized religion. Murray dilates quite a bit upon colonization and laments the fact that numerous apologies offered by European leaders over the course of time have not quelled those seeking repatriation. While a discussion about colonization and its seminal impact on colonized nations are beyond the scope of this review, it is worth noting that the book is at its weakest point while discussing it, for it fails to understand that mere apologies, or even strange events like the parades of former slave owners (book provides an example of one such eccentric case) does not undo the colossal loss suffered by former colonies: both material and, even more so, spiritual and identitarian. Similarly, oversimplification and reduction of complex histories in statements such as “The conquering of one group by another and the ill-treatment of the losers by the victors is the story of most nations on earth”, leaves one wondering if it is the same author—in this case apparently ignorant—we are reading who otherwise does a near perfect job of masterfully diagnosing Europe’s afflictions.
Murray asserts that West is learning it the hard way that the liberal post-Enlightenment values are not universal and are under serious threat due to the influx of new arrivals totally different in their cultural outlook. However—and as many readers would realize—a large part of the East did not, or only partially so (and that too under immense economic and socio-political pressure), accept the so called self-evident truths of Enlightenment values. In fact, within the West many thinkers such as Orwell, Tolstoy, Solzhenitsyn, Laurence, Rilke, Eliot and Yates, to name a few, opposed them too—some of whom, though in a slightly different context—are indeed acknowledged by the author himself.
In what can only be considered a strange twist of fate (or one of those many ironies of history), Murray cites French philosopher Chantal Delsol to highlight why the Eastern Europe is different and is unlikely to walk into Western Europe’s path. The irony here lies in the fact that Eastern Europe—somewhat, but not entirely, like the East or Asia—has long been considered a strange, uncultured, under-developed and even barbaric region which was simultaneously a source of curiosity and a target of derision, as could be seen in much of the 19th, 20th and even 21st century literature and pop-culture. It is the same Eastern Europe which, to an extent, provides some thoughts and ideas as to why it is has not fallen in the same trap that Western Europe finds itself into (the readers may again be reminded here of the interesting parallels with the ongoing viral pandemic).
The book contains a lot of interesting—many of them not so well known—facts like the phone call made by Angela Merkel to Benjamin Netanyahu during the height of crisis in 2015, the strange case of a terrorist who, perhaps a first in the world, was unwittingly rescued and funded by EU taxpayers to carry out an attack on Europe’s soil, Britain’s kilometer long wall to restrict migration, the analogy of Europe’s changing demographics with the Ship of Theseus, the “made for TV” emotional, sensationalistic moments and many more.
To a discerning Indic mind many insights and observations by Murray are profound and present numerous important lessons for India. Observations like “After all, how long can a society survive once it has unmoored itself from its founding source and drive?” or “the life of mere consumer lacks any real meaning and purpose” should elicit a grave introspection and re-assessment of: the nature and impact of economic and developmental policies; the Indian Constitution as it stands today with respect to the native traditions, practices, knowledge systems, philosophy, civilizational wisdom and spirit of India; the higher education policy with its attraction of merely securing a cushy corporate profile and the so called “modernism” and consumerism which has already swept India’s tier-I and tier-II cities, threatens our small town backyard and now even our villages (readers may find it a digression, but mushrooming of English medium schools in villages is a growing phenomenon and has numerous implications for the future of India), to name a few.
Europe’s situation becomes all the more instructive because as India struggles to secure its place among more prosperous nations, it must carefully take note of the fact that despite being the most prosperous economic bloc in the world (with the highest standards of living), EU finds itself in a cul-de-sac due to bad ideas, cultural hollowness, self-defeatist actions and consistently conflicted views of its political leaders, even though the culture that threatens it is technologically, rationally and materially way behind it. Another argument which stands out for its profundity is that of Europe’s survival and prospects for future based on its attitude towards its architectural and cultural heritage sites. Readers may want to pause here and reflect upon how are India’s architectural wonders, those marvelous, intricate and sublime monuments made by artisans and sculptors—whose names, for the most part, are unknown to us—are treated by us. Do we find these sites clean, well maintained, alive and pleasant or do they invoke a feeling of self-pity at their shambolic state; apathy by tourists who disgrace it by graffiti; nausea at the garbage and filth deposited merely a few yards away from the main site; carelessness by government departments who are ready to bulldoze them for their “development” plans and an increasing lack of appreciation by many—if not all—locals who have forgotten its value and merely see it as a means of making money? Just as the attitude of Europeans towards their architecture and monuments will decide their future, so will our attitude towards our architectural sites will decide ours.
Just as Europeans are realizing that Europe can’t be for everyone, and that while individual, talented and highly skilled migrants are beneficial and contribute positively, the same cannot be said about unchecked mass migration, so must India understand—given its historical context—that Indian nation cannot afford to have drastically altered demographic composition, even as it goes against every lesson of its history and polity.
Lastly, India, for thousands of years of its existence has seen numerous communities arrive, settle down and adopt India as their motherland. India lived and breathed diversity in the very socio-cultural texture of its society – a diversity which is so singularly unique that the very term Indian sub-continent, is attributed to it being mistaken for a continent containing many different nations (a fact which has also been exploited by those who wish to not even consider India a nation) by the British! Thus, we only need to be informed, rejuvenate, re-acquire and re-imagine our own, innate civilizational spirit which has maintained this mind-boggling diversity in the first place and avoid newly fangled, nearly evangelistic (and, at its heart, synthetic) notions of diversity as is prevalent in the West.
Douglas Murray’s The Strange Death of Europe is a riveting, painstakingly well researched, brilliantly argued, deeply engaging and sobering read – one which conveys a humbling message: regardless of how refined, developed, sophisticated, freedom-loving, and opulent a culture is, in a short span of time, and right in front of your eyes, it may disappear forever.
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