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Count Richard Coudenhove-Kalergi: The prophet of "Paneuropa" who defended Western values (photo: Stringer/Getty Images)

It was Horace Walpole, that pioneer of all things Gothick, picturesque and romantic, who was also the first to imagine the decline and fall of European civilisation. In 1774, he wrote to a friend: "The next Augustan age will dawn on the other side of the Atlantic. There will, perhaps, be a Thucydides at Boston, a Xenophon at New York, and, in time, a Virgil at Mexico, and a Newton at Peru. At last, some curious traveller will visit England and give a description of the ruins of St Paul's, like the editions of Balbec and Palmyra."

Today, 240 years later, we no longer smile at what was for Walpole a jeu d'esprit — his reference to Baalbek and Palmyra in Lebanon and Syria respectively betrays the bibliophile's flourish, inspired by British travellers who produced the first accurate and elegantly illustrated accounts of these magnificent Graeco-Roman ruins. For us, the thought of a ruined and desolate Europe is no mere fantasy, but a real possibility. After all, the continent has been devastated twice in the last century and the eastern half has still only partially recovered from that catastrophe.

The West has not, as Walpole's remark reveals, always been coterminous with Europe. For his era, the West still meant the New World, the Americas. As Giorgios Varouxakis has shown, however, the first to use "the West" in its modern sense of a Western civilisation that includes both Europe and America was the French founder of Positivism, Auguste Comte, in 1848. Comte himself used the term "the republic of the West", but his English follower Richard Congreve took the idea further in 1866, proclaiming that "the leadership of the human race is invested in the West" — a leadership, however, that was not imperial but cultural, the "advanced guard of Humanity". The Positivists, like the Hegelians before them, believed fervently that history was on the side of the West, which the rest would emulate in due course.

For the subsequent century and a half, this Western vanguard has consciously acted as a model for mankind. Throughout that time, the British and later the Americans, with help from other English-speaking peoples, have borne the main burden of defending Western civilisation, at great cost to themselves but incalculable benefit to the rest, including Europeans. Now, it seems, many Europeans may be tiring of the West's self-appointed mission. They exhibit the symptoms of war-weariness, albeit without having needed to defend themselves for decades. Such an attitude would be culpable even if the West lacked enemies; but today, as in the past, they are legion.

Looking back seven decades to the late 1930s and '40s, the last time the West found itself in such an enfeebled state, we find that a few voices were raised against the prevailing fatalism. I want to recall three who are either forgotten or remembered for the wrong reasons.

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