The year 2015 marks the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. Therefore, it invites a closer look at postwar Europe and its brief assessment. What happened to Europe then? Historically and politically speaking, Europe changed beyond recognition. For centuries, war was as unavoidable in the old continent as clashes over faith and (dis)loyalty to the king or the queen. After WWII, it became obvious that peace came as a new political identity of Europe.This was the second birth of Europe. Needless to say, this applied for a long time exclusively for Western Europe.
When the Iron Curtain was drawn, Europe found itself fundamentally split and divided. Whereas Western Europe laid the foundations of peace through NATO and historic reconciliation of old adversaries, first and foremost, Germany and France, Eastern and Central Europe melted into one in the political sense assuming the generic and stigmatizing name of Eastern Europe. To put it simple, for Western Europe, WWII ended on 8 May 1945. For the (re)occupied and (re)annexed lands of Eastern and Central Europe, with its states and peoples, this date signified the second phase of war, the latter assuming the form of George Orwell’s prophecy. From then on, war was peace, and peace was war.
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Czeslaw Milosz and Milan Kundera had an extremely sensitive grasp of this transformation. In his groundbreaking collection of political essays, The Captive Mind, for which Karl Jaspers wrote the Foreword (a symbolic gesture of a great antitotalitarian German philosopher who understood that the humanism of Communism as seemingly opposed to the exclusive barbarity of the Nazis was just a fraud and a naïve illusion of Western Europeans), Milosz wrote about the inability of Americans and Western European to understand the tragedy of half of Europe only due to the fact that they chose to believe that Eastern Europe was a natural zone of Soviet ideas, geopolitics and influence. They chose to forget Eastern Europe for the sake of their own convenience, safety, and security. This Western European strategy of forgetting was especially exposed in Milosz’s essay The Baltic Lessons as early as 1953.
Milan Kundera raised his voice later than Milosz – with an historic essay The Tragedy of Central Europe published in 1984. He mentions for the first time a curious fact that putting someone into the category of an Eastern European becomes an act of political stigmatization and betrayal, rather than a move toward an accurate political geography. He wrote that although Bratislava is merely 60 kilometers away from Vienna, Bratislava is in Eastern Europe, and Vienna in Western Europe. Prague is more westward geographically than Vienna, and yet it is Prague that solemnly joins Bratislava as a sister in the congregation of Eastern European capitals. This is to say that the concepts of East and West in Europe ceased signifying geography, history, and culture; instead, they have become purely political, since Vienna, Prague, and Bratislava are all Central European cities par excellence. (I would also add from myself here that 70 kilometers from Tallinn to Helsinki before 1991, curiously enough, drew the dividing line between the East and the West in the political sense.) Kundera warned the West that Eastern Europe has become the term referring to alienation and despair of half of Europe, also exposing self-deception, complacency, and hypocrisy of the West unwilling and unable to take its Significant Other, Central Europe, otherwise than Eastern Europe.
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The USSR remained for decades what it has been from its inception: namely, the gravedigger of Eastern and Central Europe, and a mortal threat to democracies and free nations of Western Europe. Challenged by protests in Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, and Poland in 1980, the USSR was doomed to inexorable failure. The Helsinki Accords in 1975, whose 40th anniversary we mark in 2015, was as instrumental in a gradual discredit and moral bankruptcy of the Evil Empire as Ronald Reagan who coined that term for the USSR. The Soviet Union assumed responsibility for human rights which gave new impetus and raison d’être to Russian, Ukrainian, and Baltic dissident movements. 1989 was truly the Annus Mirabilis, or the Miraculous Year, as Adam Michnik called it. The fall of the Berlin Wall sent the message to the world about the imminent demise of the USSR. In fact, the end of the war for Eastern and Central Europe was nigh. 11 March 1990, exactly twenty five years ago, marked Lithuania’s independence and its becoming the first breakaway republic of the USSR, which dealt a blow to the Empire. In 1991, it seemed that Europe began to live in the new political time zone.
Europe has become a different continent. The EU and NATO have provided a unique window of opportunity to overcome old traumas, uncertainties, and animosities. Central Europe and the Baltic States joined the exclusive club fundamentally changing the pattern of their history and politics. 2004 marked the point of no return for the Baltic States – accession to NATO and the EU. Franco-Germanic animosities, just like British-French tensions, were relegated to the margins and history becoming a joke. Equality between men and women, life without borders, and a humane attitude to LGBT people have become trademarks of European life.
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Two nations should be mentioned here as both were left out of this picture. One of them chose to turn down everything that present Europe is standing for –Vladimir Putin’s Russia which may well be described as being about everything Europe is not, from xenophobia and overt forms of fascism to the denial of human rights and political liberty. Another nation will sooner or later join the EU – for neither Europe nor peace is complete without Ukraine.