We live in the past. It’s hard to escape the conclusion when regression is more fashionable than progress. Wherever we turn, politics is about turning the clock back. Whether it’s gassing civilians, or blaming Jews for Europe’s refugee crisis, we insist on holding up the 19th and 20th centuries as though they are standards for the world we want to live in today.
In terms of lifestyle, there’s not much to object to. Most of the mod cons we hold dear were invented over the last hundred years. Whether it be mobile phones or microwaves, enough got made in recent decades that we feel comfortable in wanting to be like our parents. There’s not a lot to give up on if we are careful to not travel too far back. The past doesn’t feel primitive anymore.
The irony is that this impulse shows how little progress the wolrd has made since WWII. Though the 1970s, for example, from a distance appear far more liberal, things appear less complex then. Mass immigration to Western Europe had just begun and the Americans had only just started to implement legislation influenced by the civil rights and environmental movements.
The problem is that when we push so hard to go back in time, we can’t control everything that comes with it. It’s like a seance which inevitably summons up demons. This is the problem with the West’s insistence on contuing to fight the Cold War over the last two decades.
Unable to stop itself from continuing its march into the post-Soviet sphere, the European Union and NATO inevitably find themselves subject to a renewed conflict with Moscow, albeit one in which the Russians have dispensed with any pretence to liberalism and democracy.
This time out, the socialists are nationalists, indistinguishable, economically, from their stock market-loving opponents. But, in keeping with the past, from Syria to Hungary, the Russians remain as combative as ever, battling the West for markets and minds. It’s a perfect recipe for nostalgia, even if the conflict is something most would do without.
This is what makes cities like Berlin so contemporary. Having been destroyed in WWII by both Allied and Soviet forces, the German capital’s only historic landmarks of any consequence are those which make reference to the East-West conflict. Whether its obvious or not, Berlin and the 20th century are, in most of the city’s neighbourhoods, synonyms for one other.
The problem is that Europeans need more than a century to reflect on, in order to imagine a better future. The preponderance of Nazi and Communist signifiers, to the exclusion of other influential historical markers, has a dumbing down effect, making fascism and socialism once again the only binaries.
While there’s nothing wrong with the latter, the persistence of the former locks it into a nostalgia exercise. What we need now, more than ever, are physical experiences of politics that push us into the unknown. That’s a tough call, particularly in European cities which are always testimonies to history, albeit broader than Germany’s historic seat of government.
At least Berlin’s reconstruction remains incomplete. Who knows what a fully rebuilt capital will do to Europe’s political imaginary. With the clouds of war again forming again on the horizon, it’s time to find the future elsewhere.
Commentary by Joel Schalit. Photographs courtesy of the author. All rights reserved.