My wife and I just returned from a very busy three-week tour of Rome and Central Europe, including stays in Warsaw, Krakow, Budapest, Vienna, and Prague, and other interesting stops between in places like Auschwitz and Birkenau, Czestokova, and the Slovak Republic. Lots of history here, and it was greatly enhanced with several cultural events as well as commentary from our tour guide, who holds a graduate degree in European history, in addition to the very knowledgeable local guides.
Impressions? There were several. First, in all this history of the various founding tribes and their many conflicts over the centuries, one important characteristic of European history and culture stands out, particularly in contrast to American culture. This is that European (particularly continental Europe) loyalty is mainly expressed in terms of two aspects—religion and language—and that citizenship is not an important factor in this mix. I have often commented about American exceptionalism, and here is an area in which I think it is most manifest. Uniquely among the world’s nations, citizenship is a primary element of American cultural loyalty to a set of ideas, and this has made a huge difference in our development.
Second, after witnessing almost constant daily anti-American demonstrations in London last year, I expected at least some of that phenomenon in continental Europe. To my pleasant surprise, in all our travels, there was not one incident of anti-Americanism or any physical evidence of it, either in the streets or in the media. In fact, the only criticism of the U. S., in English at least, was in the editorial pages of the International Herald Tribune, a publication of the NYTimes.
Third, we probably toured or at least visited about 50 churches, cathedrals, and synagogues, and all of them were fascinating. Of course, it was no surprise that many of them are now operational mainly as museums—revered for their beauty, but also for their quaintness, almost as relics from a world that many in the last two generations no longer recognize. This was true to a greater or lesser extent in all places we visited, but Poland was an exception in many ways. In fact, Soviet assimilation, collectivization of agriculture, and other totalitarian measures didn’t work with the Poles very well. It’s therefore no surprise that they led the purge of Communism in the 1980’s. This is part of the same resilience that caused them to persevere as a culture while not even being on the European map for 123 years. It’s no coincidence that the church remains strong here.
One final point. It was well noted that the Slovak Republic approved a flat income tax rate almost immediately upon achieving independence in 1993, and that their average annual per capita income has increased almost 450% since then. Poland and even Russia are currently considering the adoption of a flat tax. When will we learn?
Great trip, good to be back home, lots to be thankful for as Americans.