Europe is being torn apart; divided by the aftershocks of the financial crisis, Europeans seem able to find common ground only in a common enemy. To hear Geert Wilders of the Netherlands or the U.K. Independence Party in Britain tell it, the crisis is not just about refugees: The influx of primarily Muslims is a threat to Western civilization itself, on par with the Arab invasions of the seventh century and the Ottoman invasions of the 16th.
It’s no coincidence that my country, Germany, has also seen a resurgence of a once-common, but more recently discarded, term: “das Abendland.” In English it is usually translated as “the Occident,” but its literal translation is quite poetic: “the Evening Land.” The far right uses it as a synonym for Western Europe and its values; the anti-immigrant movement that sprung up at the height of the refugee crisis, usually referred to by its acronym Pegida, is known in full as Patriotische Europäer gegen die Islamisierung des Abendlandes (“Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamicization of the West”).
The term didn’t always have a sinister ring to it. Philosophy majors may recognize it from the German title of Oswald Spengler’s 1918-22 opus “Der Untergang des Abendlands,” usually translated, not quite accurately, as “The Decline of the West” (“Untergang” more accurately translates as “Downfall”).
Before that, “Abendland” was commonly used in the 19th century in connection with the rediscovery of the German past, specifically the music and architecture of the medieval period. The past and the homeland, “Heimat,” blurred together into the notion of a romantic Western European past, the Abendland, becoming a cultural and psychological bulwark against the disenfranchising anonymity of urban industrialization.