top of page

Will lessons from history be learned?


Speech of Walter Schwimmer, former Secretary General of the Council of Europe

St.Petersburg, March 29-30, 2014, International Conference against fascism and anti-Semitism

“Throughout its history Europe has been a continent of contradictions, of tremendous economic, scientific and cultural achievements on the one hand and many tragic conflicts and wars on the other. The last century brought the culmination of the tragic history, adding two world wars, unspeakable atrocities, the wholesale slaughter of Europe’s Jews, the liquidation of entire social classes and the expulsion of millions of people from their homes. Estimates for the total casualties of the war suggest that some 60 to 65 million people died in the war, including about 20 million soldiers, that means 40 to 45 million civilians. Many civilians died because of disease, starvation, massacres, bombing and deliberate genocide. Only the Soviet Union lost around 30 million people during the war, almost half of all World War II deaths. So one can say this was the most dramatic lesson given by history to Europeans, about the consequences of war, and in particular of inhumane ideologies, dictatorship, racism, militarism, violation of human rights. But did history this time find anyone to learn this lesson? 

The second and hopefully last World War ended 65 years ago. 3 months before the end of the fighting in World War II the leaders of the Anti-Hitler-coalition signed in Yalta the “Declaration of Liberated Europe” aimed at establishing “conditions of internal peace” and “governmental authorities representative of all democratic elements”. The fighting ended in May 1945 and the war left a devastated Europe where only the territorial decisions but not the principles of Yalta were implemented. The Eastern part of the continent had to wait more than 4 decades for democracy. The Anti-Hitler-coalition disappeared and instead of it Europe was divided along an ideological rift and saw the confrontation of two military alliances in the so-called Cold War.


All efforts to unite Europe, the Hague conference 1948, the foundation of the Council of Europe in 1949 were therefore incomplete from the beginning. The today’s 47 member countries’ Council of Europe was founded in 1949 by only 10 Western European democracies and the European Coal and Steel Community of 1951, germ cell of today’s 27 members European Union had only 6 founding states. For four decades Europe was breathing, to quote Pope John Paul II, with one lung. Despite several severe conflicts, like the building of the Berlin Wall or the events in Hungary 1956 or Prague 1968, armed confrontations of the two sides were avoided through a balance of power, or some would say a balance of deterrent or threat. But there were also periods of détente or in Russian "razryadka“, e.g. the Helsinki conference of 1975 which lead to the creation of the OSCE, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe.


Despite the ideological rift and the difference between democratic and communist regimes there had always been a common sense that people on both sides of the European divide had a shared destiny and shared responsibilities too. An Austrian chancellor, Josef Klaus used already in 1969, addressing the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe the metaphor of the “common European home”, reminding the audience that Europe does not end at the Iron Curtain, 60 km east of Vienna. 20 years later, Mikhail Gorbachev addressed on 6 July 1989 the same Assembly and declared: “The idea behind the concept of the Pan-European home excludes the probability of armed conflict, and indeed the possibility of using or threatening to use force.”


1989 brought the fall of the Iron Curtain and the Berlin wall and the historic chance not only to learn but toimplement together the lessons from history, in particular from the biggest European tragedy, WW II and to create an area where the “internal peace” mentioned in Yalta was not secured by military means but by a common commitment to democracy, rule of law and human rights. “Like a river returning to its bed, Europe has reconnected with its past and its true geographical dimension”. So was the Europe of 1989/1990 described by the then French president Francois Mitterand.


One could argue that this marked the real end of World War II, the final line to this chapter of history in the mind of the Europeans. The accounts left open by the First and Second World Wars were finally closed off, the order shaped by the Versailles treaty of 1919 and the Yalta agreements of 1945 lost its raison d’être! Europe has found after its undoubtedly cultural identity also its political identity which is based on unity in diversity.


This new Europe consists of 49 sovereign states, large and small, 47 of them are members of the Council of Europe, 27 decided already for deeper integration within the European Union. There are peoples of Baltic, Celtic Germanic, Latin,Slavic, central Asian and other origins, People with different beliefs – Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant Christians, Jews, Muslims and others, including agnostics and atheists. There are some 200 language communities in Europe; all of them entitled to equal rights, to preserve their identities, their cultural heritage and traditions. No one superior, no one inferior! The new Europe has to be based on equality and mutual respect.


A severe set-back were of course the events between 1991 and 1999 in former Yugoslavia. It was not granted to the peoples of that region to find their way to independence in the same peaceful manner as for example the country where we are meeting now. The peoples of Bosnia, Croatia, Montenegro and Serbia had again to experience war, atrocities, genocide, ethnic cleansing; we wrongly thought that all would belong to the past only. Does it mean, that the Austrian poet Ingeborg Bachmann was right, when she wrote: “History is always teaching lessons, but it never finds anyone to learn them”?


The more a declared belief of “Never again”, never again of solving conflicts by military means, never again of genocides, never again of racist policies, never again of dictatorships, has to be the foundations of a Europe of democratic security. But this must apply for the whole of Europe; the common home of Europe cannot be a Europe of exclusion but should be a family of inclusion. As the Council of Europe as the oldest institution of European unification was joined by all the new democracies of Central and Eastern Europe including Russia and other former Soviet republics, it is clear that Europe is larger than the European Union and will still remain larger for decades.


Reconciliation of former enemies has been seen throughout Europe, for example between France and Germany, Austria and Italy, Germany and Poland, Russia and Germany. The most recent evidence was the common commemorative ceremony of the Polish and the Russian Prime Ministers for the victims of Katyn and the very touching gestures of the Russian President including his participation in the funeral in Krakow after the tragic air crash in Sverdlovsk. Reconciliation is taking place also in South Eastern Europe. The enemies of yesterday are sitting together in a Regional Council and are co-operating in a recently created free trade area. I do not want to hide that there are still problems, like the functioning and complicated structures of the common state institutions in Bosnia-Herzegovina and a fair and just solution for all inhabitants of Kosovo. But in the spirit of the new Europe dialogue and mutual understanding should help to solve these problems too.


But the new Europe cannot be only a Europe of statesmen and politicians; it has to be an open Europe of citizens. We have of course a Schengen area of free travel without restrictions. and I came to Strasbourg from Vienna without border control, unbelievable just 25 years ago.  But still many Europeans need visa to enter this zone. Recently the visa request was lifted for the citizens of some Western Balkan countries what I welcome very much. But I cannot but appeal to the leaders of Europe, don’t stop that process but continue with other and to the end with all European countries. I am dreaming of an open Europe of 800 million people from the Azores in the Atlantic to Vladivostok on the Pacific, from Iceland in the Polar Sea to Cyprus in the Mediterranean.


The lesson learned from history is that we need dialogue and cooperation of all at a Pan-European level as well as at regional level. The new Europe after 1989 has to be inclusive, not exclusive, a Europe of equal partners, putting hereby a final line to the history of wars and violence on this continent. But the peaceful Europe of today cannot be taken for granted. It may be threatened by terrorism, extremism, xenophobia, racism, anti-Semitism as well as Islamophobia. But we can counter these threats, by upholding democracy, rule of law and human rights, mutual respect, in particular respect for diversity, for the otherness, in particular of minorities, for the cultures and traditions of European partner-nations and by education for democratic citizenship. Never again military confrontation, never again inhumane and authoritarian ideologies, this is the legacy of 65 millions killed in World War II and of hundred of millions of Europeans who suffered during and after the war.


So I asked myself in the morning of this dark day February 24, when will the lessons of history finally be learned?

bottom of page