The notion of a ‘European’ culture has a long history. But it was only during the 1920s and ’30s that it emerged in an extraordinary burst of attention, as continental intellectuals created a vision of Europe as a distinctive cultural realm compared to the crass materialism of the United States and Soviet communism. This cultural vision was anchored by literature and the arts. In particular, it was seen as a defining feature of the bourgeois era. Literary figures like Goethe were cast as the embodiment of this European culture: cosmopolitan and sophisticated, curious and creative, committed to a high level of humane values.
For many people, European culture includes the heritage of various ethnic groups, religious traditions and a common language (the linguistic dimension is often referred to as a ‘language landscape’). It can also include certain aspects of the European Union, such as its promotion of wider liberty and a larger market than can be achieved within the confines of the nation state.
In the past, European culture was sometimes identified by its resistance to crass materialism and to the tyranny of totalitarianism. This ethos was seen as a distinctive feature of Europe and was reflected in the European arts of the era, particularly its fine arts and literature. European artists tended to view their work as semi-religious and apolitical, marking themselves apart from the populace at large, which was perceived as dominated by a religion of blind faith and superstition.
This European culture was then adapted to the political arena by the Enlightenment, a social and intellectual movement of the 17th and 18th centuries that sought reason over superstition. Its ideals influenced modern government and religion, including the development of parliamentary democracy in the west and the separation of church and state in many countries.
European culture also encompasses the continent’s history of exploration and colonialism. European countries ruled over parts of Africa, India, Asia and Australia for centuries and left a legacy of cultural and economic change in these regions. Today, the European Union promotes greater freedom and a larger market than is possible with the nation state and remains a powerful force for change in the world.