Think of culture, of literature, music, philosophy, the fine arts, and it means thinking of Europe. “The idea of culture, of intelligence, of great works,” wrote the French poet and essayist Paul Valéry in 1919, “has for us a very ancient connection with the idea of Europe.” In an anthropological sense, of course, all peoples possess culture. But high culture—as conceived of by most people—continues to be essentially European. The notion that there is an essentially European culture, and that culture distinguishes Europe from the rest of the world, is very much alive. This idea, which Valéry thought “very ancient” even in 1919, animates political discussion all over Europe today.
The idea of a coherent European culture is actually quite new. Scattered uses of the phrase appeared in the 19th century, but it was only in the 1920s and 1930s that the idea came of age. Those decades saw an unprecedented burst of attention for the idea of Europe, in which the age’s leading liberal intellectuals developed a compelling vision of the continent’s purportedly shared cultural identity. Influentially, Valéry cast Europe as a shared, intangible inheritance, rooted in “a desire for understanding and exchange” among its nations. He thought this shared desire had produced a “European spirit.” For the Austrian playwright and librettist Stefan Zweig, non-material values defined Europe. Zweig thought Europe expressed its defining quality through cultural exchanges in the “supranational realm of humanism.” In 1932, bourgeois intellectuals across Western Europe celebrated the centenary of the death of the great German poet and polymath Goethe by casting him as the very model of European culture. Goethe was the embodiment of their ideal of Europe: cosmopolitan and sophisticated, curious and creative, committed to the highest humane, Christian and Enlightenment values.
For all of its optimistic rhetoric, it was fear that birthed this vision of European culture. The First World War, and the economic and political chaos that followed, led to a new call for European unity. By coming together politically and economically, supporters insisted, Europeans could avoid another catastrophic war and defend their primacy in the world. For Europe’s bourgeois intelligentsia, European unity presented an essentially moral or spiritual problem. The Great War had included a searing propaganda battle, in which French and British intellectuals cast out a “barbarian” Germany from the community of civilized nations. Germany’s cultural elite responded by embracing the specificity of Germany’s virtuous Kultur against a supposedly decadent and vacuous West. As the German sociologist Georg Simmel declared in 1917: “The spiritual entity that we called Europe has been destroyed and it is unlikely to be rebuilt…..”