MARK TURIN Distant Neighbours



© Mark Turin, 1997

The Italian journalist and commentator, Luigi Barzini, wrote his now infamous "The Europeans" in 1983. In it, he selected the choicest of European nations to write about: the British, the Germans, the French, the Italians and the Dutch. The absence of other countries is perhaps as revealing as is his choice of the above five. Somewhat insultingly, he lumped the Belgians in with the Dutch in the same chapter, entitled "The Careful Dutch". One of his most memorable sentences about both nations is worth citing in full:

"The both are stolid people, hard-working, parsimonious, earnest, unimaginative, methodical, meticulous, slow-thinking, and self-reliant." (p.202)

The list of adjectives which Barzini showered upon both peoples is neither altogether positive nor particularly incisive. When a writer chooses to use nine adjectives instead of two, one suspects that he hasn't understood his subject as well as he might think. Of course, some ring true but these are simply general features of industrious Protestant peoples with an abundance of sky. Quite what Barzini means by "slow-thinking" is never fully explained. Later on, Barzini makes a more insightful observation, this time about Dutch foreign policy:

"Holland is a tiny placid country surrounded by three strong, restless, well-armed, populous, ambitious, and occasionally dangerous nations: France, Britain, and Germany. Holland was inevitably shaped by all three." (p.206)

Again, if one can see through the superfluity of adjectives, he is making an interesting, if fairly obvious point. Sadly, he doesn't develop this much further (he has a great deal of ground to cover in a mere 17 pages) other than to suggest that when it came to the Common Market, the Dutch saw "Europe as a big Holland, threatened, as Holland always was, by bellicose unpredictable rivals" (p.212). What remains unsaid is whether or not Holland would feel closer to Germany had it not suffered so greatly during the Second World War.

The success of this book when it was first published was less for its penetrating insight into the psyches of the dominant European powers but more for its ability to sow the germ of an idea in the reader's mind which would then continue to be mulled over and perhaps sprout into a fully-fledged thought at some later date. Unashamedly echoing Max Weber's "The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism", Barzini poses the most interesting question of all at the end of a paragraph about religion:

"It is not clear to an Italian, however, whether Calvinists, driven by their stern religious code, become the best merchants, or whether merchants become Calvinists because Calvinism is a superior guide for the successful conduct of business." (p.207-208)
Answers on a postcard please.