The Cologne Riots & the Loss of a Moral Language
Jane Clark Scharl
On December 31, 2015, a mob of young Arab and North African men, perhaps as many as 1,000, assaulted, groped, harassed, and in some cases even raped European women in Cologne, Germany. It took almost a week for police to collaborate social media reports of the crime wave, and even longer for authorities to take much action. In the face of mounting criticism, the head of police resigned and Chancellor Angela Merkel faces unprecedented criticism for her open-door policy on immigrants. Now the story is spreading to Sweden, where police are being accused of covering up similar attacks by Muslim immigrants.
This is a nightmare situation for millions of people, including peaceful immigrants, the Europeans who opened their doors, and German politicians and police. And it is probably not over, because what is happening in Europe is a full-on cultural clash between convictions that are incompatible.
Blaming all immigrants is not the solution, nor is wholesale condemnation of German leaders. But people must realize that the cultural conflict simmering in Europe is not trivial. It is not one that can be solved by saying that “all cultures are equal,” or “you do you.” It is one rooted in fundamentally different understanding of right and wrong, and of the value of human persons, especially women. And secularist Europe is unprepared to deal with it, because conversations about objective morality, notions of good and evil that transcend cultures, eras, and individual experiences are totally taboo. The fallout of the attacks highlights a fatal, and recurring, flaw in modern European political optimism: the denial of original sin and the subsequent inability to apply moral terms to cultural differences.
The Promise of Perpetual Peace
In 1795 Immanuel Kant published a slim volume entitled Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch. In this Kant suggests the possibility of an eternal peace among nations, and guarantees that it will occur when certain criteria are met, specifically: 1) all nations are republics, 2) the rights of nations are protected by a federation of states, and 3) all people have a right to hospitality, not hostility, in other states (provided they abide by the laws of the state).
Kant is completely certain that such peace is possible because of his convictions about human nature. He does not believe that peace among nations has anything to do with cultivating morality in humans. Original sin—the Christian doctrine that all humans grapple their whole earthly lives with evil desires rooted in their very being because of Adam’s fall—loses its significance. No longer does evil have cultural or social consequences, nor does it need to be addressed by political or legal leaders. Quite the contrary: Peace depends on constructing legal systems that coerce humans, no matter what their inclinations, to perceive their own best interest in maintaining peace, both among individuals and among nations.
Kant goes even further, declaring that due to the natural progress of history (always an alarming premise), we cannot avoid perpetual peace. It is absolutely certain, Kant believes, because eventually all people will be motivated by economic growth, and in an increasingly globalized world, he argues, such growth will be incompatible with war. “Perpetual peace,” Kant asserts, “is guaranteed by no less an authority than the great artist Nature herself,” the omnipotent goddess of the Enlightenment.
Ever since its publication, it has been difficult for Europeans to break the spell of Kant’s essay. Perpetual Peace is rooted in a basic optimism about mankind, specifically in the promise that mankind’s salvation can (and will) come from Nature. Despite his downplaying of the importance of individual morality, Kant assumes that individuals share a rational understanding of what is in their own best interest: prosperity, survival, self-fulfillment. He rejects what Alexander Solzhenitsyn reminded us almost two hundred years later, after two of the most self-destructive regimes in history threatened to end the world: i.e., that people easily forget what evil really is. Evil is not simply irrationality, despite what Plato says; it is an all-consuming desire to assert oneself, even if doing so means destroying everything.
But understanding evil is not a matter of “preference” or “expression;” it is the difference between existence and eradication. As Solzhenitsyn so beautifully said, the line between good (selfless love) and evil runs down the middle of every human heart, and every family, and every culture. Humans are not merely minds poised to make the most “rational” decision. We are also hearts, and our hearts are full of hunger. This hunger, if not moderated by moral cultivation, does not stop at the borders of its own “reasonable” best interest.
The Shadow of History
The specter of the Second World War looms over the situation in Germany, as it does over much of the country’s foreign policy. In the backlash to the Cologne attacks, some Germans attacked groups of immigrants, and across the country the police have been enforcing strict anti-German-nationalist laws. There are complaints that the German police have been quicker to punish their own people than the offending mobsters. The media has certainly been quicker to report German backlash than to condemn forthrightly the actions that prompted that backlash. In the first days of January, German authorities seemed to hope that it would all blow over. Of course, it did not.
German migrant policies are motivated at least partly by a desire to demonstrate the country’s whole-hearted rejection of the Third Reich’s nativist/nationalist philosophy. But they do this by minimizing the cultural differences between Muslim immigrants and German citizens—cultural differences that cannot safely be minimized. With this devastating naivety, the German government runs the risk of imitating not its former self, but another group prior to the Second World War: the Allies.
This is not to say we can compare Muslim immigrants to Europe with Germans themselves during the 1920s. Only the most general similarities exist. Germany was a pariah nation in post-World War One Europe, frustrated with its disenfranchisement and unsure of its national future, and so today are Muslim immigrants, especially Syrians. Some Germans (but by no means all) held profoundly different convictions than the rest of Europe, including a contempt for democracy. Some Muslim immigrants (but by no means all) disdain democracies and also have a markedly different view of women than do Europeans. Germans found themselves receiving assistance, especially during 1929 and 1930, from the victorious Allied powers, a group that at least some Germans held in contempt. Muslim immigrants find themselves seeking refuge in European countries like Germany and France, which have cultures that at least some of them hold in contempt. Beyond this, comparison is futile, and unnecessary. The more interesting comparison is between the actions of Great Britain, France, and the United States post-Versailles, and European leaders today, all of whom share that Kantian political optimism without any of Kant’s reservations.
In 1932, as Germany had begun rearmament in earnest and the Black Shirts (the future SS) were gaining political sway, Great Britain prevailed upon France to destroy a large portion of its heavy artillery. In retrospect this is shocking, but it was characteristic of the Allies’ attitude in the years between the Treaty of Versailles and a remilitarized Germany’s aggression against Austria in 1938.
Winston Churchill, in the first part of his autobiographical history of the Second World War, records this little-told period of history in great detail. British leaders reasoned that it was unfair for so powerful a nation as Germany to be “kept down” in comparison to its neighbors. They felt that justice compelled them to level the playing field in Europe, and since the Treaty of Versailles prohibited Germany from increasing its artillery, the only possibility was to slash militaries across the rest of Europe. At the same time, however, Germany was steadily and secretly defying the terms of the treaty by amassing a military of both men and machines.
In The Gathering Storm, Churchill dispels the fancy that the Second World War was an unavoidable outcome of the Treaty of Versailles, and the even hazier historical-fatalist view that the war was bound to happen because of global tides of nationalism. Often we—the uninitiated—view history, especially military history, as the struggle of individual humans or nations against the grip of fate. Churchill reminds us that this is absolutely not the case. History does not determine human action. At countless moments throughout the 1920s and the early 1930s, the Allies could have stifled German rearmament with a single, non-military effort. But for a number of reasons, they did not.
One of those reasons was a refusal to characterize accurately the radical branch of German culture that eventually became the Nazi Party. Great Britain, France, and even the United States did not feel confident about making a moral judgment about certain factions within German society. They did not identify and challenge evil when they saw it. As a result, those radical factions came to “have that wonderful, scientific, intelligent, docile, valiant people in their grip,” as Churchill said about Germany in 1934, when he warned Parliament (not for the first time) about the coming disaster.
A Moral Language
It is rare to hear an individual speak a truly moral language, one that acknowledges the difference between good and evil (not merely between right and wrong), that values the dignity and value of each human life but has the conviction to give a forthright epideictic: rhetoric that boldly praises good and condemns evil. Churchill spoke such a language about Nazi Germany, as did Ronald Reagan about the Soviet Union. Solzhenitsyn spoke this language when he condemned evil wherever we find it, whether in our own heart or at the heart of a nation or culture, and praised good wherever we find it, whether in our least favorite neighbor or the country that most irritates us.
But to speak this way, we have to be able to recognize and name good and evil. This, unfortunately, is exactly what we are losing the ability to do. Instead, our language promotes acceptance, tolerance, affirmation, and strictly prohibits the use of terms that could assign praise or blame to any action, individual, or group. We depend on Kant’s promise of perpetual peace, rooted in individuals’ rational participation in a mutual “best interest,” which excuses us from the challenge of moral formation, as well from the cultivation and application of a rigorous moral language of praise and blame.
The actions of the Cologne mob are, very simply, evil. They would be evil from any group in any time, in any place. But in this instance, they are rooted in cultural disdain of women and disregard for laws protecting women. European leaders lack the clear-cut moral language that would allow them to say that some cultures are worse than others at certain things.
Kant was wrong. There is no peace guaranteed by Nature. The only thing guaranteed by Nature is what Solzhenitsyn saw: a relentless struggle between good and evil. Peace demands a rigorous moral education that teaches us to see and name good and evil wherever we see it, but most importantly in our own hearts. But the whole spirit of the age today condemns such an education, and such a brutal self-examination. The language of the day is of “tolerance,” “identity,” “expression,” “self-discovery,” “acceptance,” “celebration.” We have “inspirational individuals,” not moral heroes. So when we are confronted by evil, like that in Cologne on New Year’s Eve, we literally have no words. A world in which we cannot speak about good and evil is, as Churchill warned almost one hundred years ago, the most dangerous of all worlds.