Those of you who might want to add your names, please contact Dr Stefan Troebst, at Leipzig University: stefan.troebst@snafu.de.

In Europe, a great deal of time and effort is being invested this year, 2014, in commemorating the outbreak of World War I a century ago, and already there are signs of a disastrous narrowing of perspectives, in which the failure of diplomacy is being presented as the cause of the war. Since the 1920s, the question of war guilt has been the subject of bitter debate, but suddenly Europe is awash with a bewilderingly unanimous view that the imperial powers somehow sleepwalked onto the slippery slope to war in 1914 with no one ultimately bearing any identifiable responsibility. Although the war is universally recognised as the “seminal catastrophe of the twentieth century”, the concentration on the year 2014 is resulting in a failure to devote due historical attention to the consequences of that war for Europe. And yet 2014 challenges us to adopt precisely that kind of European perspective on the twentieth century. In this year we not only look back to the outbreak of World War I a hundred years ago. It will also mark the 75th anniversary of the start of World War II, which was triggered by Germany, and it is also 25 years since the peaceful revolutions against the Communist dictatorships and ten years since the European Union was enlarged to incorporate eight countries of eastern central Europe (ECE).

The Europe of dictatorships and World War II cannot be explained without reference to World War I. The establishment of new Communist regimes in ECE after 1945 and the division of Germany, Europe and the world, in their turn, were consequences of World War II. Democracy, freedom and international understanding, which gradually became common assets in Western Europe after 1945, were denied to ECE for another four decades. Even to the east of the Iron Curtain, however, new chapters were written in the history of European freedom in 1953, 1956, 1968, 1970 and 1980/81, culminating in the final triumph of democracy in 1989.

Through the revolutions of 1989 the peoples of ECE won back their freedom and independence. The revolutionary upheavals were not only the prerequisite for an end to the division of Germany and Europe but also injected fresh impetus into the European integration process, which reached its highest point yet with the first eastward enlargement in 2004 and the subsequent adoption of the Treaty of Lisbon. The peoples and states of the EU have learned lessons from history. They have pledged themselves to resolve conflicts by consensus and to work together for the good of the international community.

The division of Europe still affects the European perception of history. For western Europeans other than Spaniards, Portuguese and Greeks, the key moment when dictatorship gave way to democracy came in 1945. European public opinion – in so far as it exists at all – has a remembrance culture that is strongly influenced by the western European perspective. In the decades of division, the states and societies behind the Iron Curtain increasingly slipped below the radar of western Europeans. In 1989 the countries of ECE confronted the long-established historical narrative of western Europe with their own historical experience of two successive dictatorships. There was scarcely any knowledge in the western part of the continent about the legacy of the Communist dictatorships and the peaceful struggle for freedom east of the Iron Curtain, and this remains the case today. The western integration process is not the only foundation of the EU, for that Union it is also built on the quest for freedom on the part of the pro-democracy movements in ECE, of Solidarność and Charter 77 und and of the East German civil-rights movement. Its architects were not only western politicians such as Robert Schuman, Jean Monnet, Konrad Adenauer, Alcide de Gasperi, Paul-Henri Spaak and Willy Brandt but also central Europeans like Václav Havel, Tadeusz Mazowiecki and Bronisław Geremek.

Adopting an excessively narrow view of World War I in 2014 means squandering the opportunity to generate a debate on European history that focuses on the entire divided history – in both senses of the term – of dictatorship and democracy in twentieth-century Europe. Such a perspective would highlight the importance of the peaceful revolutions of 1989 in the history of European freedom. In the eyes of western Europe, these revolutions are still not so much part of Europe’s common history as the regional history of what remains an alien area known as ‘the East’. Anyone who speaks of 1914 and World War I must be aware that the war triggered developments which culminated in an Age of Extremes, an age that did not end for ECE until 1989. After the overthrow of the Communist regimes conflicts flared up which had their roots in World War I and the subsequent peace settlement and which had been put on ice, as it were, during the period when ECE was under foreign control. Whereas Czechoslovakia split peacefully into two states in 1992, wars and bloodshed were the fate of Yugoslavia. And now, 100 years after World War I, comes the shocking news from Ukraine, a country whose aspirations to statehood in the wake of that war were thwarted and which, on account of its overweening eastern neighbour, has scarcely ever had the opportunity to make autonomous decisions regarding its own future. The Russian annexation of the Crimean region of Ukraine is a throwback to the days when might was right and took precedence over the law.

It is right and proper that World War I should be commemorated in Europe in 2014. Yet just as, in evoking Verdun or Flanders, we must not close our eyes to the eastern battlefields, our perspective in 2014 must not be confined to World War I. In view of the legitimacy crisis that is currently engulfing the 28-member EU, there is a need for Europe to recognise its own common historical identity. This identity should not supplant our various national histories but should make it clear how these national histories are intertwined.

Particular importance attaches in this respect to the year 1989, which takes its place alongside the French Revolution of 1789 as a milestone in the history of European freedom and democracy. The plans of the European institutions and national governments for the 25th anniversary of the peaceful revolutions are far from reflecting the significance of these events in the context of our common history. Remedial action is needed here, not only in the light of the 25th anniversary of the end of dictatorship in Europe. The peaceful revolutions must become part of a European culture of remembrance that creates awareness, from Ireland to Cyprus and from Portugal to Estonia, of the history of both dictatorship and democracy in twentieth-century Europe.

2 April 2014

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