Books of the Week: Jonah Goldberg on The Intelligent American’s Guide to Europe
Book of the Week
The Intelligent American’s Guide to Europe
There were certain books my father tried relentlessly to get me to read when I was a teenager. Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn’s The Intelligent American’s Guide to Europe (which is regrettably out of print) was probably at the top of the list. It would always work out the same way. He would look up something in the book he’d wanted to remember and then he’d end up reading bits and pieces of it for a couple days. Then, he’d walk into my room or catch me en route to it and say, “You really should read this.”
Now, I’m that guy. No, I haven’t started in on my eight-year-old daughter to read it, but I’ve pressed it on quite a few friends and colleagues like a 1970’s Hare Krishna in at the airport. And every time I pick it up, I spend a lot longer reading it than I planned.
Erik Maria Ritter von Kuehnelt-Leddihn described himself as a "extreme conservative arch-liberal” – by which he meant that he was for liberal societies but not necessarily democratic regimes or other forms of hyper-egalitarianism. He was a creature of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and one of its last great defenders in the English language (and the French, German, Spanish, Italian languages. In fact, he spoke something like nine languages and could read more than a dozen more).
There’s a myth that “independent thinkers” are always smarter than the conventional wisdom or the historical consensus. This is, of course, poppycock. One can be independently idiotic. The guy at the bus station ranting about how Matt Labash is the last king of Scotland is independently crazy. But the reason we have the myth is that there are some people who are capable of swimming against the prevailing tide. Of necessity, many of the founders of modern conservatism were such men. We know about the famous ones, Bill Buckley, Irving Kristol etc. But the lesser known geniuses are starting to fade from memory (Albert Jay Nock, for example).
Kuehnelt-Leddihn was one such genius. His Intelligent American’s Guide to Europe is like one man’s minority dissent from the majority report of liberal (and, often, conservative) historiography. Indeed, I believe it was in Guide that I first encountered the argument that Fascism was a phenomenon of the Left (an argument he later expanded in another book, Leftism). I don’t agree with everything Kuehnelt-Leddihn says, but everything he says is interesting, fact-driven and – almost always – counter-intuitive. For instance, he lays out the best defense of Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement I’ve ever seen. And, it’s all written in an almost ur-blog familiarity in which the author is simply telling you something you may or may not know over a cocktail, for hundreds of pages.
He was perhaps at his crankiest in his grumbling against democracy, which he saw as an offshoot of the French Revolution which, he believed, was not so much a revolt against monarchy as a revolt against God (it seems to me it was, at least, both). But, again, he was not an authoritarian. Even though he was a little put off with Edmund Burke, he shared Burke’s dislike of arbitrary power. He saw himself more in the tradition of de Tocqueville and he was a great lover of liberty who just happened to believed a liberal society could best be protected by illiberal institutions. ''Can anyone imagine Louis XIV (or for that matter Maria Therese) introducing the 1040 income tax form?” he asks in the Intelligent American’s Guide to Europe? “Or. . . or an edict prohibiting the consumption of Sauterne, Benedictine, Riesling, or beer? Apparently parliaments were necessary to introduce such coercive measures.”
Given events in Washington these days, that’s worth some mulling
The book itself is impossible to summarize because on every page there’s a fact you didn’t know, or didn’t know in the proper context (Quick what was the first European power to stand up to Nazi cross-border aggression? Answer: Mussolini’s Italy). It’s a swirling tour of European history from the dissenter’s point of view, from someone who knows it better than anyone of his, or perhaps any, generation.
Jonah Goldberg is a contributing editor to National Review, a Visiting Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning.
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