The euro crisis: What is really at stake?

Everybody understands that the euro crisis is about much more than the survival of the euro. But I am doubtful about how many understand what German chancellor Angela Merkel meant when she said that the issue is «the future of Europe».

If the euro breaks down, the European Union would lose much of its momentum. Collapse would be the biggest setback ever, and it would take years to recover. A smaller and more integrated euro core and a looser periphery could theoretically be better than the current arrangement. But that is a risky, second best solution. The collateral damage would be great, not least on the world economy. A collapse would most likely bolster the nationalist forces that are waxing in Europe now. It would be a serious setback for democratic, supranational integration, perhaps the most important political idea today.

At the same time a unique historical opportunity to use the crisis to relaunch Europe/the EU on a more dyamic path by strengthening its supranational elements would be lost. Europe as a whole has great potential if acting together (confer e.g. that athletes from the EU won more medals at the London Olympics, and European scientists far more Nobel prizes, than the U.S., China and Russia put together), but risks falling further behind if not. Even member states with strong economies, like Germany, would profit greatly from a «good» crisis.

If handled well, the crisis could spur reform and restructuring and thus the leveraging of Europe’s joint resources to become both more globally competitive and more socially just. The German/Nordic (Protestant) model should serve as inspiration. Jobs would be created, social and political polarisation prevented and Europe be revived.

More generally, successful crisis management could demonstrate the positive-sum rewards of supranational integration. It could also highlight the continued relevance of Europe’s unique heritage of compassionate rationalism, pointing out a sustainable middle way between American libertarianism and Chinese authoritarianism. Europe would have a future, and not just a past.

Productivity and the sociology of religion

Max Weber, a founder of sociology and author of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Photo from Wikipedia
Religious variation may be an important root cause of the euro crisis and indeed of global inequality too.

I have earlier argued that religion, or rather religious culture, has been a major determinant of north-south differences in Europeans» attitudes to European integration. But these days a far hotter issue is the north-south split in Europe over economic policy, spending, debt and the euro. Why is the northern part of the European Union, notably Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, Finland and Denmark, faring so much better than the south, notably Greece, Italy, Spain and Portugal? Why such differences between northern creditor countries and southern debtor ones?

Recently, I stumbled across some interesting sociological pointers (inspired by Max Weber) to this puzzle in an article by Lawrence E. Harrison, director of the Cultural Change Institute at the Fletcher School at Tufts University in Boston. The article is called «Do some religions do better than others?» and it appears in an anthology edited by Peter Berger and Gordon Redding, The Hidden Form of Capital. Spiritual Influences in Societal Progress, Anthem Press, London and New York, 2011. Indeed, Harrison provides important clues to understanding the problem of developmental differences and inequality at the global level.

Harrison has examined the performance of 117 countries, each with a million or more people of whom a majority identify with one of six religions: Buddhism, Catholicism, Eastern Orthodox Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Protestantism, as well as one secular code, Confucianism. He also included one country that is predominantly Jewish, Israel.  Lawrence did this by calculating the 117 countries» score on ten indices: The UN’s Human Development Index; UN data on literacy, UN data on female literacy; UN fertility data; Freedom House’s Annual Survey of Freedom in the World; the chronology of democratic evolution; World Bank per capita income data; WB income distribution data; World Values Survey data on trust; and finally Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index.

While stressing a number of caveats, Harrison draws nine broad conclusions from the data (as summarized by the editors in the book’s introduction):

  1. Protestantism has been far more conducive to modernization than Catholicism, above all in the Western Hemisphere;
  2. The Nordic Countries are the champions of progress.
  3. Confucianism (a surrogate for Chinese culture, which includes several other currents including Taoism and ancestor worship) has been far more conducive to modernization than Islam, Buddhism or Hinduism.
  4. The most advanced Orthodox country, Greece, was the poorest of the European Union members prior to the 2004 accession. There are some parallels between the Orthodox Christian and Catholic countries. But there are also some apparent residues in Orthodox countries from the Communist experience.
  5. Islam has fallen far behind the Western religions and Confucianism in virtually all respects. There are some significant differences between Arab and non-Arab countries.
  6. Hindu India’s democratic institutions have held up well, and it has experienced rapid economic growth during the past two decades. But it has been very slow to educate its people, particularly its women, and it does poorly in the Corruption Perceptions Index.
  7. It is difficult to generalize about Buddhism, but the data suggest that it is not a powerful force for modernization.
  8. Traditional African religions are an obstacle to progress.
  9. Close parallels among the values propagated by Protestantism, Judaism, and Confucianism suggest the existence of a universal culture of progress. All three promote the values of control of destiny, achievement, education, diligence/work ethic, merit, saving, and social responsibility, albeit in different degrees. And those values tend to persist even in the face of secularization, as the Nordic countries demonstrate.

Instead of «spiritual capital», Harrison prefers the expression «cultural capital». He concludes that «by focusing on the values, beliefs, and attitudes widely shared in a society, [the notion of] «cultural capital» can illuminate both the sources of human and social capital and, most importantly, the avenues that offer the possibility of progressive cultural change».

The Forty Days of Musa Dagh

I recently read the great novel Forty days of Musa Dagh by Franz Werfel. It contains the dramatic story of the five thousand Armenians living in the north-eastern corner of the Mediterranean who in 1915 fled up the mountain Musa Dagh («Moses» rock») to avoid deportation and probable death at the hands of the Ottoman authorities. The Sublime Porte (government) in Istanbul was then proceeding with what has later been called the Armenian genocide. Recognition of what happened as a genocide remains politically controversial in many countries today. So is the academic discussion over the Ottoman Empire’s treatment of the Armenians. 
The map shows the ethnic composition of the Ottoman Empire about 1911. As can be seen, most Armenians lived in the east. Musa Dagh is located on the northern side of the bay that the eastern tip of Cyprus points towards.

(This is an English rendering of an earlier post published in Norwegian.)

The story

The «forty days» of Musa Dagh is the time it took from the seven Armenian villages fled their homes until those who survived were saved. The central figure in the novel is the aristocratic academic Gabriel Bagradian. In early 1915, after many years in Paris, he returns to the family estate at the foot of Musa Dagh together with his son Stephan and his French wife, Juliette. Bagradian understands that the Ottoman government is planning new massacres of Armenians (massacres also took place in 1895-96, 1908, 1909 and 1912) and persuades the seven villages closest to his estate to flee. Thanks to his leadership and experience as an officer in the Ottoman army, the Musa Dagh Armenians manage to withstand three Turkish attacks.

The attackers sustain heavy losses, but eventually mobilise machine guns, mountain artillery and troops to the extent that the Armenians are clearly doomed. They are also starved after all supplies have been exhausted and the Turish soldiers have made away with their cattle. But at the last minute a French naval cruiser emerges on the horizon. After a few warning shots, the Turks withdraw from the attack. The approximately four thousand survivors are taken aboard the cruiser and three other French and British ships. They are then brought to safety in Port Said in Egypt.


The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, which first came out in German in 1933, is based on a true story. Gabriel Bagradian’s real name was Moses Derkalousdian. In real life it took 53 days before the rescue came, but the Jewish-Austrian Franz Werfel changed that in order to recall the biblical Moses» forty days on the mountain and the forty days of deluge. Werfel’s description of the five thousand’s destiny and the Armenian genocide proved to be a prophetic warning of the Jewish Holocaust during the Second World War.

But even if Werfel clearly sympathises with the Musa Dagh refugees, the novel is not a completely one-sided story. There are many psychological, political and religious nuances. The refined intellectual Gabriel Bagradian is torn between his twin identity as a European and an Armenian. He shows himself to be a man of action by taking command of his countrymen against an outside threat, but succeeds militarily because of his European rationality and planning ability (in addition to his experience from the Balkan war in 1912).

His ambiguous identity also influences his increasing alienation from his socialite, impractical French wife and ditto infatuation with the young Armenian girl Iskuhi. All three have their lives destroyed by the forty dramatic days on Musa Dagh, despite the eventual rescue. Bagradian’s son Stephan has by then succumbed. We understand that his French upbringing had made it impossible for him to survive the brutal stresses of Asian «barbarism.» In the end, Gabriel realizes he has lost everything and decides not to be rescued.

So it is finally Europe (in the shape of French and British warships) that saves the seven Armenian villages of Musa Dagh, in what was perhaps the first humanitarian intervention in world history. The story also features a representative of European «civil society», the Protestant pastor, Orientalists and humanist Johannes Lepsius (a historical figure), who appears to be the only European who really cares about the Armenians» fate. His attempt to convince the German Foreign Ministry to take action founders on great power politics, but Lepsius manages to collect large sums of funds for the Armenians. He is also rejected by the Sublime Porte, but gets help from a group of Islamic traditionalists. They condemn the regime’s Young Turkish nationalism in favour of the idea of ​​a supranational Islamic umma in which Christians and Jews can practice their religion as long as they pay taxes and otherwise adapt, just as they had in the old Ottoman Empire.

Aftermath and interpretations

Turkish authorities have stubbornly refused to accept that there was  an Armenian «genocide» in 1915-1916. Several times, they prevented Hollywood from making a movie about Werfel’s book, which had become an international bestseller.

The American historian Donald Quataert argues that only Armenians in eastern Anatolia were displaced. Armenians living in the Balkans or in western Anatolia were not. The reason may have been that the Sublime Porte thought Armenians sympathized with Russia, which crossed the border into eastern Anatolia in 1914.

Quataert also refers to numerous government documents ordering local authorities to take good care of the displaced Armenians during their eastward march. Yet he admits that Ottoman officers, troops and officials murdered a great number of Armenian civilians, including women, children and elderly people.  Approximately 600,000 individuals perished in this way, according to Quataert.

Quataert therefore rejects Turkish nationalism as the reason for the massacres. Nor does he believe that nationalism caused the Ottoman Empire’s demise in 1922. The vast majority of citizens, Armenians, Bulgarians, Serbs, Arabs, Kurds, Turks, etc. as well as both Christians and Muslims, would in his opinion have preferred the old multi-national and multi-religious empire to survive.

According to Quataert, nationalist movements were mobilised by a small number of people who sought political and economic advantages they could not achieve in the setting of the traditional Ottoman Empire. Crucially, they gained support from the western powers. France and Great Britain indeed eventually took control of large, formerly Ottoman areas, especially in the Middle East. If this is right, it gives a slightly different perspective on Europe’s role during the Ottoman end game than the one Franz Werfel provides.

Quatert appears to be an impartial and respected historian. In 2006, he resigned as chairman of the American Institute of Turkish Studies after the Turkish ambassador had threatened to stop financial support because Quataert had called for continued study of the Armenian «genocide».

The revisionist Israeli historian Efraim Karsh however deplores the «politically correct» notion that every problem in the Middle East is the fault of the Western powers. He claims that the Sublime Porte’s decrees to take good care of the Armenians during the 1915-16 deportations were window-dressing. According to Karsh, many Armenians in the Balkans (Thrace) and Western Anatolia, including Istanbul, were also displaced and killed. All those who held public office or worked for the government also lost their positions. Karsh cites estimates of up to 950,000 fatalities.

Karsh moreover argues that the Ottoman government itself was responsible for the dissolution of the empire in 1922. Despite insistent requests for neutrality from the entente powers Britain, France and Russia, the Sublime Porte decided to enter the First World War on the German side. According to Karsh, the driving force was a Turkish nationalist-Islamist dream of a revitalized empire. Therefore, the British army crushed the Ottoman Empire and a new state system appeared in the Middle East.

Franz Werfel: Forty days of Musa Dagh. Norwegian edition, 1965
Donald Quataert: The Ottoman Empire, 1700-1922. Cambridge University Press, 2000.
Efraim Karsh: Islamic Imperialism, A History. Yale University Press, 2006.