GOOD NEWS: Just before Christmas, Germany and the Czech Republic made some mutual amends. The Czechs apologized for the violent expulsion of Sudeten Germans at the end of World War II. Germany, for its part, expressed regret for its invasion of then-Czechoslovakia in 1938. An ugly chapter in European history more or less closed, this symbolic handshake between nations marks a bright spot in an otherwise bleak winter season. Even as Germany and France have made remarkable strides in forging a genuine working relationship based on economic, cultural and even military ties—German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and French President Jacques Chirac ended the year by jointly signing off on a single European currency—so much remains to be done to address, in the words of Daniel Tarschys, secretary-general of the Council of Europe, the “horrors that we Europeans have consigned to collective oblivion.”
Writing in the International Herald Tribune, Tarschys believes that ignoring misdeeds of the past puts the future of a harmonious community of European peoples at grave risk. Televised images of the brutal war in Chechnya, he says, horrified the nations of Eastern and Central Europe, which only relatively recently escaped the yoke of Soviet domination. Sad to say, the atrocities committed in Bosnia and throughout the former Yugoslavia fell short of moving the Western European powers to action. Along with other accused war criminals, Serb President Slobodan Milosovic, his co-responsibility for the bloodshed beyond question, is still at liberty. He has been busy rigging elections in a bid to cling to power. Ironically, many of his opponents among the student movement, far from calling for democracy and pluralism, exhibit a frightening brand of ethnic chauvinism. How can Serbia's neighbors be expected to sit idly by?
Recently reviewing a book on the persecution of the Jews at the hands of Nazi Germany, Father Richard John Neuhaus noted that “the Holocaust is our only culturally available icon of absolute evil.” Reporting that he has since been inundated with letters complaining that so many others have suffered as well, he makes it clear that with “culturally available” he means that all agree on the facts (save for extremists). Clearly, Europe must learn to hold up a range of “icons of evil” for all its people to see.
Armenians seek recognition of their suffering under Turkish rule; the whole truth of ethnic cleansing, rape and a host of other brutalities in the former Yugoslavia must also be brought to light, and punishment meted out to the perpetrators. Romanians must learn to be kinder hosts for their country's ethnic Hungarians. Poles must come to terms with their once dominating kingdom's mistreatment of Ukraine. The Swiss are called to admit their role in making profits of looted Jewish property. France and Germany must learn to be hospitable to their guest workers. The British made grave errors in Ireland, including the deliberate targeting of innocent civilians; Irish militants resorted to terror, which can never be justified, no matter how noble the ultimate goal of whatever liberation movement. French- and Flemish-speaking Belgians must learn to accept one another. All Europeans should treat Gypsies and all minorities with respect.
On a lesser scale, Dutch youth must learn to embrace their German neighbors and let go of stubborn stereotypes born out of their parents' and grandparents'war experiences. And the French must overcome their xenophobia, which was most recently on display when French officials, media and workers expressed outrage that a Korean company, promising investments and jobs, might gain control over a domestic company. This is but a sampling, of course, of wrongs to be righted, as all Europeans must learn to see beyond the confines of national frontiers—as well as cultural, social, economic, and political dividing lines—that are bound for obsolescence one way or another, either by brutal force, impersonal market mechanisms or free choice. In the '30s, Spanish philosopher and historian Jose Ortega y Gasset warned that the individual nations of Europe can be likened to birds in a cage, desperate but unable to spread their wings. Europeans, eager to shake off spiritual cobwebs, hanker for living space in the broadest sense of the phrase.
Last summer, Pope John Paul II, speaking in Berlin's Olympic Stadium, the very site where Adolf Hitler was idolized at mass rallies, called Germans and, by extension, all Europeans, to be mindful of their responsibilities toward the weaker members of society.. The Church, John Paul has made abundantly clear, is preparing to acknowledge the mistakes of its past, ad intra and ad extra, in order to begin the third millennium with a clean slate. Its soul-searching can act as a beacon for the European community of peoples.