When Europeans came to the Americas, they brought with them "Old World diseases" that decimated the Native American population. There's a big list of them here. Were there any "New World" diseases that affected the colonists?
The only ones I have ever seen were referenced in the Columbian Exchange as being passed to the Old World:
- bejel or nonvenereal syphilis
- Chagas disease which is more of a parasite from Central/South America
- pinta which is similar to bejel and another form of syphilis
Mostly the effects, if you believe Jared Diamond, came more from the crowded conditions of the European cities where many of the ships that came to the New World left from.
Some places that mention these: History Now - Columbian Exchange
European explorers encountered distinctively American illnesses such as Chagas Disease, but these did not have much effect on Old World populations. Venereal syphilis has also been called American, but that accusation is far from proven.
Of course you also have the discussion as to whether or not Syphilis came from the New World with Columbus' return, Did Syphilis come from the New World?
Viewpoint: Yes, syphilis originated in the New World and was brought to Europe by Christopher Columbus's crew.
Viewpoint: No, syphilis was a disease that had long been in the Old World; it was simply a coincidence that it flared up shortly after Columbus's return from the New World.
I also found this repeat on some of the other information that backs up what was said before: New World Infections
There were infections in the New World before 1492 that were not present in the Old (Chargas' disease, for instance). There were those it shared with the Old World, certainly one or more of the treponematoses (a category including syphilis) and possibly tuberculosis; but the list is short, very short. When we list the infections brought to the New World from the Old, however, we find most of humanity's worst afflictions, among them smallpox, malaria, yellow fever, measles, cholera, typhoid, and bubonic plague.
There is more here from Alfred Crosby on his book on The Columbian Exchange - worldwide impact of the New World
One of the main topics mentioned in Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel is that communicable diseases such as the Old World diseases (plague, smallpox, typhus, cholera and measles in particular) generally made their way to humans from close contact to domesticated animals (cattle mainly, but also pets and vermin).
Almost all the large mammals of the Americas died out after the last Ice Age (which is part of why most American civilisations were hunter-gatherers and none were as successful as the Eurasian societies that conquered them - it's worth reading the book if you want to know more about this, as I'm oversimplifying), so very few animals (llamas, alpacas and turkeys being notable exceptions) were domesticated in the Americas, so very few diseases evolved to infect Native Americans before 1492. A substantially lower population density in the Americas also meant that diseases were more likely to burn themselves out, as they had a smaller pool of potential infectees.
Very few diseases are thought to have moved in the other direction. Of these, the most notable is syphilis and, as MichaelF mentioned in his answer, the continent of origin of syphilis is still the subject of much debate.
- Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel, 1997, ISBN 0-3930-2891-2.
- European Diseases in the New World, online class from the University of Illinois at Chicago.
New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures
The New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures (NWT) is a translation of the Bible published by the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society. The New Testament portion was released in 1950,   as The New World Translation of the Christian Greek Scriptures, with the complete Bible released in 1961   it is used and distributed by Jehovah's Witnesses.  Though it is not the first Bible to be published by the group, it is their first original translation of ancient Classical Hebrew, Koine Greek, and Old Aramaic biblical texts.  As of March 2, 2020, the Watch Tower Society has published more than 220 million copies of the New World Translation in whole or in part in 200 languages.   Though commentators have said a scholarly effort went into the translation, critics have described it as biased. 
The forgotten “sleepy sickness” epidemic transformed victims into living statues, speechless and motionless, and scientists still don’t understand it
Just after the end of World War I, a bizarre disease known as the sleepy sickness, or lethargic encephalitis, devastated millions of people across the world and left doctors puzzled for decades afterward. According to some sources, around 1 million of those affected by the disturbing illness died, while many others were transformed into living statues and spent the rest of their lives trapped inside their bodies and locked in institutions, speechless and motionless.
Some of the finest scientific minds of the past 100 years have tried to provide the answers to what exactly caused the horrifying disease, or how to treat it, but, to date, nothing has been definitively proven and the sleepy virus remains one of the biggest medical mysteries of history.
The brain illness spread around the globe at the same time as the Spanish flu pandemic that killed over 50 million people, which explains why the sleeping-sickness epidemic has been largely overlooked by history, despite the fact that it left about 1 million people dead and deeply affected the lives of millions more.
Although most cases were reported months after World War I ended, it is believed that the epidemic began in 1915 or 1916 when soldiers who displayed incredible lethargy and confusion were examined by doctors in Paris. At first, they assumed that the main cause of these rather unusual symptoms was mustard gas, which had been used during the war, but their assumption proved to be wrong.
The condition was first described by Constantin von Economo.
A neurologist from Vienna named Constantin von Economo wrote a paper, “Die Encephalitis lethargica,” in which he gave an extensive description of the illness after witnessing similar cases in civilians. It didn’t take long before his name became associated with the new disease and lethargic encephalitis became known in Vienna as von Economo disease.
“We are dealing with a kind of sleeping sickness, having an unusually prolonged course. The first symptoms are usually acute, with headaches and malaise. Then a state of somnolence appears, often associated with active delirium from which the patient can be awakened easily. He is able to give appropriate answers and to comprehend the situation. This delirious somnolence can lead to death, rapidly, or over the course of a few weeks. On the other hand, it can persist unchanged for weeks or even months with periods lasting bouts of days or even longer, of fluctuation of the depth of unconsciousness extending from simple sleepiness to deepest stupor or coma,” wrote von Economo in his classic description, published in 1917.
Several years after von Economo published his paper, the horrifying epidemic began marching from house to house, taking its toll in human lives and leaving millions of people trapped in their own bodies.
Encephalitis lethargica literally translates to “brain inflammation that makes you tired,” but as mentioned above, it was commonly known as “sleepy sickness.” Sounds funny? Well, it wasn’t. At least not when one considers the numbers. Most accounts state that over one-third of those infected died, while around 20 percent survived but were more or less dependent on professional care. Sadly, less than one-third made full recoveries.
It affected people of all ages, but the most vulnerable to the disease were young people of between 15 and 35 years. From what is known, the initial stages of the infection were no different than that of flu infection: a high fever, headache, feeling tired, runny nose. There was no way for the infected to know that he or she was battling a deadly disease, which gave the virus just enough time to spread into the brain.
Encephalitis lethargica. Its sequelae and treatment – Constantin Von Economo, 1931: front page
Autopsies performed by von Economo determined that one of the main causes of death was a swollen hypothalamus. The hypothalamus is a small section of the brain that has a vital role in controlling many functions, among which is sleep. The inflammation of the hypothalamus caused by the infection led to damage of this section of the brain, which in many cases proved to be fatal.
About 10 years after von Economo published his description of the disease, the encephalitis lethargica epidemic began to disappear. While many scientists were convinced that encephalitis lethargica was a disease of the past, trapped somewhere between the pages of history, virologist Professor John Oxford thought that the game was not yet over. “I certainly do think that whatever caused it could strike again. And until we know what caused it we won’t be able to prevent it happening again,” he told the BBC.
Encephalitis lethargica did strike again, just as Professor John Oxford predicted. In 1993 a young girl named Becky Howells was diagnosed with the largely forgotten disease, and it took several years before she recovered. Since then more cases have appeared, and with the help of his colleagues Professor Oxford was able to point out the similarities between the patients.
It was concluded that many of the patients had sore throats before encephalitis lethargica struck, which, according to research conducted by doctors Russell Dale and Andrew Church, was due to a rare form of streptococcus bacteria. They noted that the massive immune reaction to the bacteria caused the immune system of the infected to attack the brain, resulting in brain damage.
It was certainly a groundbreaking discovery, but it hasn’t been definitively proven that the rare form of streptococcus bacteria is the cause of the disease. Research continues, and for now, encephalitis lethargica remains one of the biggest medical mysteries of all time.
2. Plague of Athens: 430 B.C.
Around 430 B.C., not long after a war between Athens and Sparta began, an epidemic ravaged the people of Athens and lasted for five years. Some estimates put the death toll as high as 100,000 people. The Greek historian Thucydides (460-400 B.C.) wrote that "people in good health were all of a sudden attacked by violent heats in the head, and redness and inflammation in the eyes, the inward parts, such as the throat or tongue, becoming bloody and emitting an unnatural and fetid breath" (translation by Richard Crawley from the book "The History of the Peloponnesian War," London Dent, 1914).
What exactly this epidemic was has long been a source of debate among scientists a number of diseases have been put forward as possibilities, including typhoid fever and Ebola. Many scholars believe that overcrowding caused by the war exacerbated the epidemic. Sparta's army was stronger, forcing the Athenians to take refuge behind a series of fortifications called the "long walls" that protected their city. Despite the epidemic, the war continued on, not ending until 404 B.C., when Athens was forced to capitulate to Sparta.
China reports first H10N3 bird flu cross-species transmission to humans
In this Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2014, file photo, slaughtered chickens are displayed for sale at a wholesale poultry market in Shanghai. The Chinese government says a 41-year-old man has contracted what might be the world’s first human case of the H10N3 strain of bird flu, but the risk of large-scale spread is low. Associated Press
A Chinese man has become ill with what may be the first human case of H10N3 avian influenza, according to The Associated Press.
“This infection is an accidental cross-species transmission,” Chinese authorities said in a statement, the AP reported. “The risk of large-scale transmission is low.”
China’s National Health Commission said the 41-year-old man was hospitalized on April 28 and was diagnosed with the H10N3 avian influenza virus a month later on May 28, Reuters reported. Authorities did not say how the Zhenjiang city man became infected, but that he was in stable condition and was prepared to be released from the hospital, according to Reuters.
The World Health Organization says the transmission of avian influenzas to humans are rare and typically related to “direct or indirect contact with infected live or dead poultry.”
What is avian influenza?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, avian influenzas are diseases that occur naturally in wild birds, can infect domestic birds and do not typically transfer to humans. “However, sporadic human infections with avian flu viruses have occurred,” as reported on the CDC website.
- The “H” and “N” used to identify avian influenzas represent different hemagglutinin and neuraminidase proteins of the specific virus, according to the CDC.
- “Bird flu viruses can infect people when enough virus gets into a person’s eyes, nose or mouth, or is inhaled. This might happen when virus is in the air (in droplets or possibly dust) and a person breathes it in, or when a person touches something that has virus on it and then touches their mouth, eyes or nose,” said the CDC of avian influenza transmissions to humans.
Reuters reported that there hasn’t been a large infection of avian flu in humans since around 300 people were killed by H7N9 in 2016-2017.
The Spread and Eradication of Smallpox
Traces of smallpox pustules found on the head of a 3,000-year-old mummy of the Pharaoh Ramses V. By G. Elliot Smith, Public Domain.
A written description of a disease that clearly resembles smallpox appears in China
In China, people appealed to the god Yo Hoa Long for protection from smallpox. Image taken from Recherche sur les Superstitions en Chine (Research on Chinese Superstitions) by Henri Dore, Shanghai, 1911-1920. Bibliotheque nationale de France.
Increased trade with China and Korea introduces smallpox into Japan.
Drawing of a woman defeating the &ldquosmallpox demon&rdquo by wearing red. A myth commonly believed around the world advocated that red light would cure smallpox. In Japan, families who fell sick with smallpox set up shrines to the &ldquosmallpox demon&rdquo in their homes with the hope they would appease the demon and be cured. By Sensai Eitaku (鮮斎永濯, Japanese, *1843, &dagger1890) &ndash scanned from ISBN 978-4-309-76096-4., Public Domain]
Smallpox is widespread in India. Arab expansion spreads smallpox into northern Africa, Spain, and Portugal.
Figurine of Indian smallpox goddess Shitala Mata worshipped in northern India. She was considered both the cause and cure of smallpox disease. Symbolically, she represents the importance of good hygiene in people&rsquos health and motivates worshipers to keep their surroundings clean. Photo courtesy of the National Library of Medicine.
Smallpox spreads to Asia Minor, the area of present-day Turkey.
The map shows the Ottoman Empire in 1801, which then extended from Turkey (Anatolia) to Greece, Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania, as well as northern Africa and parts of Middle East. Smallpox is thought to arrive to the area from Asia through major trade routes, like the Silk Road.
Entrance into Europe
Crusades further contribute to the spread of smallpox in Europe with the European Christians moving to and from the Middle East during the next two centuries.
Smallpox moves north
Population expansion and more frequent travel renders smallpox endemic in previously unaffected Central and North Europe, with severe epidemics occurring as far as Iceland.
Smallpox is widespread in many European countries, and Portuguese expeditions to African west coast and new trade routes with eastern parts of Africa introduce the disease into West Africa.
Statue of Shapona, the West African god of smallpox. Smallpox was thought to be a disease forced upon humans due to Shapona&rsquos &ldquodivine displeasure,&rdquo and formal worship of the god of smallpox was highly controlled by specific priests in charge of shrines to the god. People believed that the priests themselves were capable of causing smallpox outbreaks. Even though the British colonial rulers banned the worship of Shapona in 1907, worship of the deity continued. Source: CDC, photo credit James Gathany.
European colonization and the African slave trade import smallpox into the Caribbean and Central and South America.
Illustration by the Franciscan missionary Bernardino de Sahagun who wrote detailed accounts of the Aztec history during his life there from 1545 until his death in 1590 into 12 books entitled &ldquoGeneral History of the Things of New Spain.&rdquo Introduction of smallpox into Mexico by the Spanish around 1520 was one of the factors that led to the demise of Aztec Empire. Scanned from (2009) Viruses, Plagues, and History: Past, Present and Future, Oxford University Press, USA, p. 60. Public Domain.
Variolation&mdasha process of grinding up dried smallpox scabs from a smallpox patient and inhaling them or scratching them into an arm of an uninfected person&mdashis being used in China (inhalation technique) and India (cutaneous technique) to control smallpox.
A container from Ethiopia used to store the powdery variolation material, which was produced by grinding up dried smallpox scabs taken from a smallpox patient. Source: CDC, photo credit Brian Holloway.
Increased use of variolation
Variolation (cutaneous technique) is a widespread method for preventing smallpox in the Ottoman Empire (former Asia Minor, present-day Turkey) and North Africa.
Smallpox spreads into North America
European colonization imports smallpox into North America.
Variolation is introduced into England by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, the wife of the British ambassador to Turkey.
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, the wife of the British ambassador, learned about variolation during their appointment in Turkey. A survivor of smallpox herself, she had both of her children variolated and was the foremost person responsible for the introduction of the technique to England.
In 1796, Edward Jenner, an English doctor, shows the effectiveness of previous cowpox infection in protecting people from smallpox, forming the basis for vaccination.
Edward Jenner (1749&ndash1823). Photo courtesy of the National Library of Medicine.
Smallpox is widespread in Africa, Asia, and South America in the early 1900s, while Europe and North America have smallpox largely under control through the use of mass vaccination.
The map shows the worldwide distribution of smallpox and the countries in which it was endemic in 1945. Source: CDC, photo credit Dr. Michael Schwartz.
After a global eradication campaign that lasted more than 20 years, the 33rd World Health Assembly declares the world free of smallpox in 1980.
WHO poster commemorating the eradication of smallpox in October 1979, which was later officially endorsed by the 33rd World Health Assembly on May 8, 1980. Courtesy of WHO.
Urbanization and the Spread of Disease
We arrive at where we began, with rising global connections and interactions as a driving force behind pandemics. From small hunting and gathering tribes to the metropolis, humanity’s reliance on one another has also sparked opportunities for disease to spread.
Urbanization in the developing world is bringing more and more rural residents into denser neighborhoods, while population increases are putting greater pressure on the environment. At the same time, passenger air traffic nearly doubled in the past decade. These macro trends are having a profound impact on the spread of infectious disease.
As organizations and governments around the world ask for citizens to practice social distancing to help reduce the rate of infection, the digital world is allowing people to maintain connections and commerce like never before.
Editor’s Note: The COVID-19 pandemic is in its early stages and it is obviously impossible to predict its future impact. This post and infographic are meant to provide historical context, and we will continue to update it as time goes on to maintain its accuracy.
Update (March 15, 2020): We’ve adjusted the death toll for COVID-19, and will continue to update on a regular basis.
Plague is an ancient disease that was described during Classical times as occurring in North Africa and the Middle East. It is sometimes presumed to be the disease behind several historic epidemics, such as the pestilence described as striking the Philistines in the biblical book of 1 Samuel. Unequivocal evidence for its early existence comes from the discovery of genomic traces of Y. pestis in the teeth of Neolithic farmers in Sweden dated to roughly 4,900 years ago and from analyses of ancient DNA in the teeth of Bronze Age humans, which indicate that Y. pestis was present in Asia and Europe by between 3000 and 800 bce . It is impossible, however, to verify the true nature of these early outbreaks.
The first great plague pandemic to be reliably reported occurred during the reign of the Byzantine emperor Justinian I in the 6th century ce . According to the historian Procopius and others, the outbreak began in Egypt and moved along maritime trade routes, striking Constantinople in 542. There it killed residents by the tens of thousands, the dead falling so quickly that authorities had trouble disposing of them. Judging by descriptions of the symptoms and mode of transmission of the disease, it is likely that all forms of plague were present. Over the next half-century, the pandemic spread westward to port cities of the Mediterranean and eastward into Persia. Christian writers such as John of Ephesus ascribed the plague to the wrath of God against a sinful world, but modern researchers conclude that it was spread by domestic rats, which traveled in seagoing vessels and proliferated in the crowded, unhygienic cities of the era.
The next great plague pandemic was the dreaded Black Death of Europe in the 14th century. The number of deaths was enormous, reaching two-thirds or three-fourths of the population in various parts of Europe. It has been calculated that one-fourth to one-third of the total population of Europe, or 25 million persons, died from plague during the Black Death.
For the next three centuries, outbreaks of plague occurred frequently throughout the continent and the British Isles. The Great Plague of London of 1664–66 caused between 75,000 and 100,000 deaths in a population estimated at 460,000. Plague raged in Cologne and on the Rhine from 1666 to 1670 and in the Netherlands from 1667 to 1669, but after that it seems to have subsided in western Europe. Between 1675 and 1684 a new outbreak appeared in North Africa, Turkey, Poland, Hungary, Austria, and Germany, progressing northward. Malta lost 11,000 persons in 1675, Vienna at least 76,000 in 1679, and Prague 83,000 in 1681. Many northern German cities also suffered during this time, but in 1683 plague disappeared from Germany. France saw the last of plague in 1668, until it reappeared in 1720 in the port city of Marseille, where it killed as many as 40,000 people.
After those last outbreaks, plague seems to have disappeared from Europe, with the exception of an area at the Caucasus border. Various explanations have been offered: progress in sanitation, hospitalization, and cleanliness a change in domestic housing that excluded rats from human dwellings abandonment of old trade routes and a natural quiescent phase in the normal rise and decline of epidemic diseases. Although some of those factors may have been at work, many of those explanations were premised on the notion that plague had become firmly established in black rat populations in Europe. But whereas the plague bacterium had disappeared from much of the continent, rats remained. Modern research has suggested that plague arrived in Europe via maritime trade routes from Central Asia—namely, those that comprised part of the Silk Road. The disease may have arrived in waves, having been reimported multiple times, as a result of climate fluctuations that affected rodent populations in Asia.
At the time of the plague outbreaks in Europe, the disease was poorly understood from a medical standpoint, as the very concept of an infectious organism was unknown. As late as 1768 the first edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica repeated the commonly held scientific notion that plague was a “pestilential fever” arising from a “poisonous miasma,” or vapour, that had been brought “from eastern countries” and was “swallowed in with the air.”
The pestilential poison disturbs all the functions of the body for unless it be expelled to the external parts, it is certainly fatal.
Expulsion of the poison was thought to be best accomplished by either natural rupture of the buboes or, if necessary, lancing and draining them. Other recommended means were bloodletting, sweating, induction of vomiting, and loosening of the bowels.
During the 18th and early part of the 19th century, plague continued to prevail in Turkey, North Africa, Egypt, Syria, and Greece. Once it was a maxim that plague never appeared east of the Indus River, but during the 19th century it afflicted more than one district of India: in 1815 Gujarat, in 1815 Sind, in 1823 the Himalayan foothills, and in 1836 Rajasthan. These outbreaks merely set the stage for the third great plague pandemic, which is thought to have gained momentum in Yunnan province, southwestern China, in the 1850s and finally reached Guangzhou (Canton) and Hong Kong in 1894. These port cities became plague-distribution centres, and between 1894 and 1922 the disease spread throughout the whole world, more widely than in any preceding pandemic, resulting in more than 10 million deaths. Among the many points infected were Bombay in 1896, Calcutta in 1898, Cape Town and San Francisco in 1900, Bangkok in 1904, Guayaquil (Ecuador) in 1908, Colombo (Sri Lanka) in 1914, and Pensacola (Florida) in 1922. Almost all the European ports were struck, but, of all the areas affected, India suffered the most.
The third plague pandemic was the last, for it coincided with (and in some cases motivated) a series of achievements in the scientific understanding of the disease. By the end of the 19th century, the germ theory of disease had been put on a sound empirical basis by the work of the great European scientists Louis Pasteur, Joseph Lister, and Robert Koch. In 1894, during the epidemic in Hong Kong, the organism that causes plague was isolated independently by two bacteriologists, the Frenchman Alexandre Yersin, working for the Pasteur Institute, and the Japanese Kitasato Shibasaburo, a former associate of Koch. Both men found bacteria in fluid samples taken from plague victims, then injected them into animals and observed that the animals died quickly of plague. Yersin named the new bacillus Pasteurella pestis, after his mentor, but in 1970 the bacterium was renamed Yersinia pestis, in honour of Yersin himself.
It remained to be determined how the bacillus infected humans. It had long been noticed in many epidemic areas that unusual deaths among rats preceded outbreaks of plague among humans, and this link was particularly noted in the outbreaks in India and China. The relationship was so striking that in 1897 Japanese physician Ogata Masanori described an outbreak on Formosa as “ratpest” and showed that rat fleas carried the plague bacillus. The following year Paul-Louis Simond, a French researcher sent by the Pasteur Institute to India, announced the results of experiments demonstrating that Oriental rat fleas (Xenopsylla cheopis) carried the plague bacillus between rats. It was then demonstrated definitively that rat fleas would infest humans and transmit plague through their bites. With that, massive rat-proofing measures were instituted worldwide in maritime vessels and port facilities, and insecticides were used in areas where plague had broken out. Beginning in the 1930s, sulfa drugs and then antibiotics such as streptomycin gave doctors a very effective means of attacking the plague bacillus directly.
The effectiveness of these measures is told in the declining numbers of plague deaths over the following decades. From a maximum of more than one million in 1907, deaths dropped to approximately 170,000 per year in 1919–28, 92,000 in 1929–38, 22,000 in 1939–48, and 4,600 in 1949–53. Plague is no longer an epidemic disease of port cities. It is now mainly of campestral or sylvatic (that is, open-field or woodland) origin, striking individuals and occasionally breaking out in villages and rural areas where Yersinia is kept in a constant natural reservoir by various types of rodents, including ground squirrels, voles, and field mice.
In the 21st century plague was relatively rare. From 2010 to 2015 just 3,248 cases of plague, with 584 deaths, were documented worldwide. The main regions of plague included western North America the Andes region and Brazil in South America a broad band across Southwest, Central, and Southeast Asia and eastern Africa. By 2020 most cases occurred in Madagascar, Peru, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
With the rise of global terrorism, plague has come to be seen as a potential weapon of biological warfare. During World War II Japan is said to have spread Yersinia-infected fleas in selected areas of China, and during the Cold War the United States and the Soviet Union developed means for spreading Yersinia directly as an aerosol—a particularly efficient way to infect people with lethal pneumonic plague. Such an attack might cause a high casualty rate in only limited areas, but it might also create panic in the general population. In response, some governments have developed plans and stockpiled medications for dealing with emergency outbreaks of plague.
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica This article was most recently revised and updated by Kara Rogers, Senior Editor.
History of Europe
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History of Europe, history of European peoples and cultures from prehistoric times to the present. Europe is a more ambiguous term than most geographic expressions. Its etymology is doubtful, as is the physical extent of the area it designates. Its western frontiers seem clearly defined by its coastline, yet the position of the British Isles remains equivocal. To outsiders, they seem clearly part of Europe. To many British and some Irish people, however, “Europe” means essentially continental Europe. To the south, Europe ends on the northern shores of the Mediterranean Sea. Yet, to the Roman Empire, this was mare nostrum (“our sea”), an inland sea rather than a frontier. Even now, some question whether Malta or Cyprus is a European island. The greatest uncertainty lies to the east, where natural frontiers are notoriously elusive. If the Ural Mountains mark the eastern boundary of Europe, where does it lie to the south of them? Can Astrakhan, for instance, be regarded as European? The questions have more than merely geographic significance.
These questions have acquired new importance as Europe has come to be more than a geographic expression. After World War II, much was heard of “the European idea.” Essentially, this meant the idea of European unity, at first confined to western Europe but by the beginning of the 1990s seeming able at length to embrace central and eastern Europe as well.
Unity in Europe is an ancient ideal. In a sense it was implicitly prefigured by the Roman Empire. In the Middle Ages, it was imperfectly embodied first by Charlemagne’s empire and then by the Holy Roman Empire and the Roman Catholic church. Later, a number of political theorists proposed plans for European union, and both Napoleon Bonaparte and Adolf Hitler tried to unite Europe by conquest.
It was not until after World War II, however, that European statesmen began to seek ways of uniting Europe peacefully on a basis of equality instead of domination by one or more great powers. Their motive was fourfold: to prevent further wars in Europe, in particular by reconciling France and Germany and helping to deter aggression by others to eschew the protectionism and “beggar-my-neighbour” policies that had been practiced between the wars to match the political and economic influence of the world’s new superpowers, but on a civilian basis and to begin to civilize international relations by introducing common rules and institutions that would identify and promote the shared interests of Europe rather than the national interests of its constituent states.
Underlying this policy is the conviction that Europeans have more in common than divides them, especially in the modern world. By comparison with other continents, western Europe is small and immensely varied, divided by rivers and mountains and cut into by inlets and creeks. It is also densely populated—a mosaic of different peoples with a multiplicity of languages. Very broadly and inadequately, its peoples can be sorted into Nordic, Alpine or Celtic, and Mediterranean types, and the bulk of their languages classified as either Romance or Germanic. In this sense, what Europeans chiefly share is their diversity and it may be this that has made them so energetic and combative. Although uniquely favoured by fertile soils and temperate climates, they have long proved themselves warlike. Successive waves of invasion, mainly from the east, were followed by centuries of rivalry and conflict, both within Europe and overseas. Many of Europe’s fields have been battlefields, and many of Europe’s cities, it has been said, were built on bones.
Yet Europeans have also been in the forefront of intellectual, social, and economic endeavour. As navigators, explorers, and colonists, for a long time they dominated much of the rest of the world and left on it the impress of their values, their technology, their politics, and even their dress. They also exported both nationalism and weaponry.
Then, in the 20th century, Europe came close to destroying itself. World War I cost more than 8 million European lives, World War II more than 18 million in battle, bombing, and systematic Nazi genocide—to say nothing of the 30 million who perished elsewhere.
As well as the dead, the wars left lasting wounds, psychological and physical alike. But, whereas World War I exacerbated nationalism and ideological extremism in Europe, World War II had almost the opposite effect. The burned child fears fire and Europe had been badly burned. Within five years of the war’s end, the French foreign minister Robert Schuman, prompted by Jean Monnet, proposed to Germany the first practical move toward European unity, and the West German chancellor Konrad Adenauer agreed. Others involved in that first step included the statesmen Alcide De Gasperi and Paul-Henri Spaak. All except Monnet were men from Europe’s linguistic and political frontiers—Schuman from Lorraine, Adenauer from the Rhineland, De Gasperi from northern Italy, Spaak from bilingual Belgium. Europe’s diversity thus helped foster its impulse to unite.
The Danger of Keeping Secrets
They may very well be right. Though not all truths need to be shared with everyone—or even anyone—to maintain a healthy and happy life, concealing some truths is like swallowing slow-acting poison: one's insides gradually rot. How does one tell the difference between the kind of secret one should keep and the kind one shouldn't? Perhaps a good guide would be this: the kind of secrets that shouldn't be kept are those that allow us to behave in a way that causes harm to others or to ourselves. All-to-common examples of this include addiction (to alcohol, drugs, gambling, sex, and so on) as well as infidelities (to spouses, business partners, friends, and so on). Keeping these kind of secrets allows the detrimental behavior to continue. Confess such secrets to the right people and it becomes much harder for the harm such secrets enable to continue.
But though revealing that we have a problem with alcohol or drug addiction often represents a necessary step toward recovery, the virtue of confessing infidelities—especially if they were one-time occurrences only—is far less clear. If a man cheats on his wife once, regrets it, and resolves never to do it again, will he do more good than harm in confessing or more harm than good?
Though one could imagine several results from such a confession—from the scenario in which his wife forgives him and the relationship ultimately continues intact after a period of healing, to the scenario in which the marriage continues but in a shattered form, to the scenario in which the relationship ends horribly and painfully—there are reasons to think that not confessing might in some instances be worse. Such situations are always nuanced and need to be considered on a case-by-base basis, but if you do decide to confess, it will likely:
- Reduce your guilt. Though people who maintain such secrets do so ostensibly to prevent the last two scenarios I listed above, keeping such secrets has its costs. Though confessing by no means guarantees a release from guilt, it's likely the only way to make such a release possible. Certainly, confessing with even a genuinely contrite heart may not move the person you've hurt to forgive you, but it will open up an even more important possibility: that you will be able to forgive yourself. Was Raskolnikov better off for eventually confessing he murdered the old woman in Crime and Punishment even though doing so landed him in prison? A debatable point, but Dostoyevsky seemed to think so.
- Prevent the person or persons who would be hurt by learning the secret from finding out about it from someone else. Though revealing the secret yourself will cause pain, having them learn it from someone else will undoubtedly cause even more. You very well may risk the end of the relationship, but depending on how likely you judge it that your secret might be revealed from other sources, you need to decide which path is riskier.
- Reduce the number of your offenses. It's one thing to do something hurtful to someone. It's another to do so and keep it from them. While the former is often hard to forgive, the latter is even harder.
Deciding not to reveal a hurtful secret is usually easy, while deciding to reveal it is hard. But if it's a secret you're withholding from someone with whom you're intimate—a spouse, a parent, a sibling, a best friend—even if it need never come up, it represents a barrier, a schism, between you and that person. Maybe you can tolerate that schism by simply not thinking about it. But maybe you can't. Which is why, I suppose, a good rule of thumb by which to live your life is to try not to have any secrets to keep at all—that is, to not do anything you can't tell the people who matter to you most.
Dr. Lickerman's new book The Undefeated Mind: On the Science of Constructing an Indestructible Self will be published on November 6. Please read the sample chapter and visit Amazon or Barnes & Noble to order your copy today!