My life has orbited around Europe – more specifically, German-speaking Europe, and most specifically, Austria. After all, I’m a retired professor of German language, literature, and culture. When I first visited Europe, in the summer of 1975, my orbit and the orbit of my country, the United States, were more nearly concentric than they are now. 

In 1975, it had been thirty years since the USA and its European allies defeated the Third Reich. (For the sake of comparison, 2019 marks thirty years since the Berlin Wall fell.) After three decades that had seen the military occupation of Germany and Austria, the formation of NATO, and the rise of the Cold War, American interests in Europe were immediate and obvious.

On our summer study program, we met with members of the Bundeswehr, the German Federal Army, which, we were told, had only two units not directly under NATO. We witnessed manoeuvres preparing for a possible invasion by the Warsaw Pact. We spent a few days in Berlin, where a friend and I attended the German-American Friendship Festival. 

This was post-Ostpolitik Berlin, in an era of détente. In 1971, the Four Power Agreement on Berlin had reasserted and re-regulated the city’s occupation by the USA, the USSR, the UK, and France. The Basic Treaty between the Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic had been signed in 1972. In that summer of ‘75, the first Conference on Cooperation and Security in Europe was being held in Helsinki, including countries of western and eastern Europe and – of course – the United States. 

In Berlin, the Cold War was still an immediate presence. My nineteen-year-old self was stunned to see the Berlin Wall not as a picture, but in real life, guarded by machine guns in towers, and reinforced by barbed wire and mine fields. Checkpoint Charlie, the barren Potsdamer Platz, the Brandenburg Gate just beyond the wall that bisected central Berlin: here was the symbolic front line between East and West, and the United States was a major guarantor of the fearful stability it provided. 

World War II and its aftermath were also physically present in many ways: the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, preserved as a ruin to warn us what war can do; bullet scars on buildings, especially in the east; the memorial at Plötzensee, where political prisoners were held and executed by the Nazi regime; the remains of the Anhalter Railway Station.

Our last assignment for the summer was to write a paper reflecting on our experience. I titled mine “Unter zwei Schatten” – “Under Two Shadows,” meaning the Second World War and the division of Germany. It was largely based on conversations I had while riding around with my Eurail Pass. 

I talked with as many Germans as I could, practicing my language and finding out about the place. It was easier to talk to people of my parents’ generation than people my own age. Anger at the West German alliance with the US, a country that had waged a devastating war in Vietnam and seemed to still be occupying Germany, meant that Americans were personae non gratae among many younger West Germans. In one train compartment, I chatted with some Norwegians who were about my age, while a young German woman immersed in Worte des Vorsitzenden Mao Tsetung studiously ignored me.

Once I spoke with an older woman from East Germany. She could travel in the west, she explained, because the East German government didn’t mind if pensioners defected – they were drains on the state coffers anyway. Did she plan to stay in West Germany, where she had family? No, the east was home, and at her age, she didn’t want to leave. 

In another conversation, I talked to a middle-aged man who had been a US prisoner of war in a camp in Arkansas. He had nothing but good words to say about his American hosts. He was treated well, he ate well, and best of all, he was away from the fighting. 

The United States had helped establish democracy and stabilize the economy in Western Europe, and was rewarded with vast influence and growing markets. And there I was, benefitting from this post-war peace and prosperity.

The history that undid that Europe is well known. Just fourteen years after my trip, Gorbachev’s reforms had loosened the Soviet grip on eastern and east-central Europe and the Berlin Wall was opened. Less than a year later, the Germanies united. 

The role of the US was no longer so clear. The Americans closed bases and reduced personnel in Europe. The EEC had become the EU, and solidarity within Europe was more crucial than solidarity with the US. 

The United States became deeply involved, not to say bogged down, in southwest Asia, and China loomed as the chief rival after the Soviet Union’s demise. It had leapfrogged Germany and Japan to become the world’s second-largest economy. The centre of my country’s orbit was shifting eastward and southward.

There were good reasons for considering the United States a basically European country. In North America, many of Northern Europe’s fundamental values flourished: Protestantism and its work ethic, post-Enlightenment liberalism, colonialism, nascent capitalism, and the seeds of industrialism. America derived its culture from Europe and transformed and adapted it. 

The steady stream of European immigration in the nineteenth and early twentieth century enriched and diversified this culture, adding eastern and southern Europeans, and Catholics, Jews and Eastern Orthodox to the mix. 

Since World War II, however, immigration from East Asia, the Middle East, and of course Mexico and Latin America, has increased, making America less European in this way too. Our adventures in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq contributed to that. Soon, minorities as a whole will outnumber the traditional majority of white Christian European-Americans. 

It seems paradoxical that many Americans most uncomfortable with this sort of de-Europeanisation of America also join President Donald Trump in his dislike and distrust of Europe. Trump has referred to the European Union as a “foe”, and his administration has unilaterally downgraded its diplomatic status to that of an international organization. 

This can be explained by the distinction between a national Europe and a political Europe. The Europe the American right wing rejects is the Europe of social democracy and international cooperation. The Europe that the American right (along with the European right) embraces is the Europe of nations, the one that thinks European civilization can only be preserved by individual nation states defending their sovereignty at any price. 

As my country’s orbit necessarily shifts to a more global (but not globalist!) focus, I still orbit Europe. I’m too old to change. My field is becoming a relic, as more schools and universities drop German programs. I can’t shake the feeling that the European heritage of humanism and enlightenment is being shed too. That’s a shame. We could probably still use it.