The greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.
--Russian President Vladimir Putin on the collapse of the Soviet Union

Ultra-liberalism is the new communism of our age.
--French President Jacques Chirac on proposals to move the European Union toward more reliance on free markets

The Lord God allowed nazism twelve years of existence... Divine Providence allowed that bestial fury to be unleashed for only those twelve years.
--From the chapter "The Limit Imposed Upon Evil in European History" in John Paul II's last book, "Memory and Identity" (2005)

If you thought the mind of Europe had become bleached, bland and predictable, think again. The two presidents and the late pope provide dramatic evidence of the mix of sensibilities still at work in European history.

It was, you will recall, into the icy blue eyes of Putin, a product of the Soviet KGB culture, that President George W. Bush looked and saw a soul he rather liked. But Putin does not like what he sees where the Soviet Union once was. Former captive nations are no longer captive; he must struggle to suffocate the emergence of a civil society--of power centers beyond Kremlin control.

Putin wants to be president of a superpower, but Russia's GDP is not much bigger than the economic product of Los Angeles County. In 2006 he will be host of the leaders of the G8 countries, a group of developed democracies. Russia is neither developed nor democratic, and its leader has no plausible plan to make it the former and no apparent desire to allow it to be the latter.

Chirac, too, wants to lead a superpower--Europe, further consolidated by the proposed constitution written under the auspices of a former president of France, Valery Giscard d'Estaing. But polls indicate that on May 29 the French people will vote against the constitution, partly as a way of voting against Chirac to express domestic grievances.

Chirac's grievance is against "ultra-liberalism," a.k.a. "Anglo-Saxon liberalism." The Stalins of this "new communism" are people like Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and even Tony Blair--people who broadly favor free markets allocating wealth and opportunity. Chirac and likeminded Europeans believe this sacrifices the social softness of welfare states on the altar of individualism. So Thatcher's privatization of public housing, Reagan's tax cuts, plus free trade and globalization are somehow akin to communism. Minus, of course, the gulags, the KGB, etc.

In today's wired world, where global crowds gather for broadcast spectacles, there is the "What was that all about?" phenomenon. One such was the intense but evanescent world derangement over the 1997 death of Princess Diana. Another was the astonishing fascination with the death of John Paul II.

He, unlike the princess, was a huge and hugely constructive historic figure, and the drama of his death played out on a magnificent architectural stage, and with a majestic liturgy free of the Elton John kitsch of the princess's funeral. Furthermore, the end of a 26-year pontificate was bound to produce the sort of media arms race made possible--and, in a way, necessary--by the ravenous maw of 24/7 broadcast journalism. This partially explains how a rapt world audience was generated.

But what was the popular intensity really about? How many of those watching really fathomed the religious mentality--see the pope's words above--with which they briefly sojourned as electronic pilgrims, or perhaps electronic tourists, at the Vatican? Surely most of the millions who, a month ago, were suffused with warm if vague feelings of moral sympathy with John Paul II recoil from the idea that a merciful God "allowed" the Nazi slaughter of innocents for "only" a dozen years.

There is nothing novel--quite the contrary--about a providential theory of history. But it is difficult, to say no more, to square that belief with belief in free will. So do even 5 percent of today's Europeans think of history--meaning life--the way John Paul II did?

Benedict XVI, John Paul II's closest intellectual associate in the church hierarchy, was chosen by an electorate of 115 cardinals, 113 of whom were selected by John Paul II. The new pope says that one reason he chose the name Benedict was to honor Saint Benedict, the sixth-century founder of a monastic order important in the conversion of Europe. The pope wants the name Benedict to be "a strong reminder of the unrenounceable Christian roots" of European civilization.

But today those roots have only a slight and dwindling presence in Europe's social soil. If Benedict XVI intends the re-evangelization of Europe, the difficulty of his task was demonstrated four days after his election. In Spain--supposedly Roman Catholic Spain--the Parliament passed legislation legalizing same-sex marriages.

The sinister ingenuousness of Putin's nostalgia for the Evil Empire. The surreal weirdness of Chirac's rhetoric. The radical disjunction between the mind of the much-celebrated John Paul II--whose disciple Benedict XVI is--and the way Europeans think and live. These are three symptoms of interesting--and dismaying--facets of the contemporary European mind.