Last week, all over Europe celebrations and commemorations were held remembering the end of World War II in Europe on May 8th, 1945. That day a war ended that had plunged not only Europe, but also the whole world into an abyss of nationalism, crooked ideology, and annihilation. For Germans, this day marks the end of our darkest chapter in history, for many other countries it symbolizes the victory of liberty, democracy, and humanity over oppression, totalitarianism, and the belief in national superiority
As important as it is to remember this day, simply revisiting this past event or commemorating for the sake of commemoration is not enough and does not do justice to the historical implications connected with the end of the war. History does not stand on its own, but always requires interpretation, analysis, and conclusions. In most instances this is the historian’s job, going through documents and sources, and presenting a feasible perspective on history. Ideally, there are lessons to be drawn out of this analysis. This anniversary, however, invites all of us, whether historians or not, to take a look back and evaluate events, people, and circumstances in order to assess our current situation and make provisions for the future.
Europe – then and now
On one side there is the history of a world and a continent after 1945. The end of World War II also marks the beginning on a true international community. For Europeans, it furthermore stands for the rise of a united Europe that would expand during the following decades to become one of the biggest unions of states in the world. To the fathers and mothers of the European Economic Community, the predecessor of the European Union, the war had to be taken as a loud call for change in a continent historically ridden by wars between nations and peoples. In the future, such horror was to be avoided at all costs. The following years witnessed the creation and nurturing of one of the most successful projects in international relations history: what began when France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg decided to concede certain sovereignty in exchange for international cooperation has since grown into a full-size political and economic union, encompassing 28 countries with 500 million people. The basic goal was achieved: EU member states did never go to war with one another again.
One the other hand, there is our contemporary situation. As opposed to the past, here everything is still open. These last few years have proven to Europeans that history is far from being over. For some this might have even been somewhat of a shock, after an interconnected continent with open borders, democracy, and free market access seemed to have signaled the reaching of the highest level of development, of peace and security. Today, Europeans find themselves in the most difficult crisis of post-war Europe: The very future and continuation of the union and thus the continent is at stake: questions of migration dominate our news, economic differences split-off entire blocks of countries within Europe, a resurge of nationalist ideology and practice seems to question past achievements altogether, the war in Ukraine challenges fundamental beliefs in state sovereignty and peace as a guaranteed privilege in Europe.
Beyond those immediate and difficult challenges, one can also identify another deeper EU – and also European – problem. A few days ago, historian and economist Daron Acemoğlu gave a speech at the annual St. Gallen Symposium. The bestselling author of “Why Nations Fail” described that the EU’s deeper problem was its loss of legitimacy. The increasing decline of mistrust in EU leadership is exemplified by a measurable return to the nation as basic unit of identity. According to Mr. Acemoğlu, the EU is overwhelmingly seen as an anonymous undemocratic technocracy without ties to local issues and questions. He asserted that what is most-needed now is a fresh start, a rethinking of fundamental structures and processes, including a strengthening of local chapters and involvement.
The 70th anniversary of the end of World War II is an opportunity to think deeper about these needed changes, it is an opportunity to turn away from detail-oriented short-term thinking to realigning ourselves with our core-principles and values of democracy, freedom, human rights, and equal opportunity for everyone. These values, born out of history, have tangible impact on our actions, for example when respecting the humanity of refugees or migrants, standing up for rights of minorities, seeking common ground in financial debates, working for peace by being willing to compromise and meet the other half-way. Most importantly, these values can and should guide us when realizing that Europe as such can only have a prosperous and peaceful future if we all work together as neighbors, finding strength in our diversity.
The development of the European Union, just as that of the United Nations, must always be considered against the backdrop of World War II with all its brutality and conflict. Without the abyss there would have been no ascent into the higher realms of cooperation and human rights. It almost seems that advancement and progress usually follows destruction and hatred – a morbid formula, yet history is full of it: the end of the Thirty Years war also marked the birth of the modern sovereign nation, the Napoleonic Wars left us with the Code Civil and basic human rights, the American Civil War ended slavery, the end of World War II heralded not only the beginning on an international community, but also the end of colonialism.
Because of that we should ask ourselves today, whether it is possible to take yet another step into the direction of overcoming differences and breaking down borders – precisely without having to go through violence and war. Are we able to break with this historical paradigm, learn form the past, and advance by insight and understanding, rather than by suffering and pain? This is where history becomes alive for all of us, teaches us valuable lessons, and helps to navigate our route in the future. By doing just that we take a step beyond simply remembering, but take an occasion such as an anniversary to draft new visions and see them through. This shows us that history, indeed, never ends.