“History”, in the view of Henry Ford whose invention of the Model T was itself to change the course of history, is ‘bunk.’
One prominent architect of Europe as we know it today, Jacques Delors, made clear that he took exception to this dismissive, philistine aphorism.
When Jacques Delors, as newly designated Commission President, met the COMECE bishops on the top floor of the Berlaymont in the spring of 1992, he told them how he prepared himself for his task at the helm of the European union. He spent the summer of 1991 reading a thousand pages of European history. Nothing, he claimed, could have better prepared him for his task.
In this Year of the Citizen, the European Parliament has set itself to remind all who cross the piazza leading to the parliament building’s main entrance that the European project has its own history. Key events and crucial moments in the past seventy years of Europe’s life have made it what it is today and defined its profile.
Thirty-six enormous banners, emblazoned with dramatic photos, many of which have acquired iconic status, take us from the wrought-iron gates of Auschwitz through the signing ceremony of the Treaty of Rome, the carnation revolution, the fall of the Berlin Wall, Queen Elizabeth II’s visit to Ireland to the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize award ceremony in Oslo. The visitor sees reminders of landmark moments, building blocks, turning points in which the European citizen of today deservedly takes pride.
There is an ideological filter always at work when historical events are being assessed. It can be argued that the EP omitted the most significant moment in the sixty seven years between 1945 and 2013: the election of Pope John Paul II in 1979. As we welcome Pope Francis we will keep a watching eye on how he will fit into the unfolding search for European identity.
In much of Europe, history is no longer a mandatory school subject. With the push towards science and technology, there are alarming signs that the young are less interested in studying our past. The popularity of the DISCOVERY and HISTORY channels on cable TV and the enduring fascination with costume drama [the Tudors and the Borgias enjoying a particular pulling power] suggest many of an older generation are still interested in the dramas of bygone days. Nonetheless, the declining sense of our history is disturbing.
As we prepare for the EP elections in June of 2014 and reflect on Europe and on our capacity to re-define it at a critical juncture, we cannot move the project forward unless we appreciate from where we have come and, as the EP banner display reminds us, how much has been achieved.
Jacques Delors did not elaborate oh just how his thousand pages had entertained or enriched him. Nor did he share what precise lessons the reading exercise taught him. But, perhaps, his 1992 appeal to the COMECE bishops to provide the emerging new Europe “with a soul “may well be a back-handed tribute to just how much the pursuit of spiritual values contribute to the European identity. Much history has been made since 1992, and Jacques Delors made his own contribution. It is hard to dismiss his summer reading as a waste of time.
Patrick H. Daly