European efficiency

They can "get there" on time, but where are they going?

Issue: "Beating the school rules," Sept. 23, 2000

The American dollar is whittling away at the new Euro, just as it has at the pound, the franc, the deutschemark, and virtually every other currency in Europe. Overall, Americans keep setting the pace for the whole world in terms of efficiency and productivity.

But don't try telling that to the folks who depend on the slick system of trains that ties the European community together with incredible dependability. Its efficiency puts America's railroads to awful shame.

Earlier this month, my wife Carol and I boarded more than a dozen different trains in all parts of the continent. Not once was a departure so much as 30 seconds late. The trains were smooth, clean, comfortable, and inviting. And, of course, they always deliver you to the center city rather than to an airport half an hour away from where you want to be.

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We used Eurail passes, which for about $470 allow foreigners to make unlimited use of all continental European train systems (both express and local) over a 15-day period. You can rack up thousands of scenic miles-over the lowland canals, through busy industrial areas, via surprisingly extensive farmlands, across the magnificent Alps, and along the Mediterranean coast. You travel in first-class comfort, often at speeds in excess of 120 miles an hour.

In this efficient system, mountains no longer stand in the way. The roadbed through the extensive Appalachian-style range between Hanover and Würzburg, Germany, for example, takes you on a straight shot through as many as 40 tunnels, keeping the run level and with barely a bend.

Such efficiency is impressive. But especially having just arrived in central Europe from Latvia, where we had spent two pensive hours in the dark but moving "Museum of Occupation," I couldn't help thinking how recently such efficiency had been put to sinister and horrible uses. German railroads ran on time even in the '30s and '40s, one key to the disciplined network of Hitler's incredible defense. Along with the Nazis, Russian railroads efficiently hauled human cargo, numbered by the hundreds of thousands, to misery, starvation, and death. You can't see those short, squat, faded four-wheeled freight cars sitting even now on railroad sidings without thinking how economically they carried what should never have been in them.

Streaking south of Copenhagen, Denmark, I glimpsed three sets of towers: a pair of church steeples, a pair of smokestacks, and a pair of TV transmitting towers. Three competing symbols, I thought, of how to reach beyond what we can immediately touch with our own hands. Or, from another perspective, Europe (and the world) prior to 1800, humankind between 1800 and our own time, and all of us from now on.

For from the perspective of time-motion specialists, of course, organized religion is hardly an efficient exercise. Certainly what you see superficially of religion in Europe today is not efficient. Big and costly buildings-especially cathedrals-are all but empty when it's time to worship. Indeed, it may not be for nothing that Protestantism gained association historically with the industrial revolution. Catholic and Orthodox worship practices are cumbersome and tedious in reaching their goals; the Reformation encouraged worshippers to set aside images, icons, and liturgy, and to focus more leanly on the Word, sacraments, and prayer.

But what do we say then if the world moves on now, as it seems certainly to be doing, to something leaner yet, to still new levels of efficiency-from a dependence on industry and manufacturing for human sustenance to a dependence on the so-called information economy? Is that an efficiency to be sought after? Punching computer keys and trading stock on the Internet may seem like more effortless ways to get through the day than manning a foundry or sewing uniforms-but are they spiritually any richer?

You have to wonder, as you walk up and down the historic streets of Europe's great cities, whether the people are a whit happier and the holes in their souls any fuller than when they were making horse carriages instead of Volkswagens and Volvos. Are the words they speak now over their omnipresent cell phones any more fulfilling or comforting than the Word they once heard from their great pulpits?

Europe today is starkly secular space. In a few dimensions, it seems to be running smoothly, accomplishing its desired ends with increasing ease. The nagging question remains, for Europeans and all the rest of us as well: What are those desired ends?

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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