As Europe remembers the shame of the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact of 1939 and the Munich agreement of 1938, and as it prepares to celebrate the fall of the Berlin wall and the iron curtain in 1989, one question arises in our minds: Have we learned the lessons of history? Put another way, are we able to avoid repeating the mistakes that cast such a dark shadow over the 20th century?
To deplore or celebrate past events is a futile act if we remain blind to their lessons. Only if these events teach us how to act differently – and more wisely – do such commemorations have any value.
Looking at Europe today, it is abundantly clear that history has not come to an end and that it remains tragic. Twenty years after the emancipation of half of the continent, a new wall is being built in Europe – this time across the sovereign territory of Georgia.
This presents a major challenge for the citizens, institutions and governments of Europe. Are we willing to accept that the borders of a small country can be unilaterally changed by force? Are we willing to tolerate the de facto annexation of foreign territories by a larger power?
In order for the forthcoming historic commemorations to be meaningful both for Europe´s collective identity and for its future, we urge the EU´s 27 democratic leaders to define a proactive strategy to help Georgia peacefully regain its territorial integrity and obtain the withdrawal of Russian forces illegally stationed on Georgian soil.
Nobody wants a confrontation with Moscow or a return to the hostile atmosphere of the cold war. But, equally, it is essential that the EU and its member states send a clear and unequivocal message to the current leadership in Russia.
As the commission set up by the European Union and headed by Heidi Tagliavini prepares to publish its report on the causes of the Russian-Georgian war, we call on all Europeans to remember the painful lessons of our recent past.
First, a big power will always find or engineer a pretext to invade a neighbour whose independence it resents. We should remember that Hitler accused the Poles of commencing hostilities in 1939, just as Stalin pinned the blame on the Finns when he invaded their country in 1940. Similarly, in the case of Georgia and Russia, the critical question is to determine which country invaded the other, rather than which soldier shot the first bullet.
Second, the failure of western democracies to respond to the dismemberment of a friendly nation, albeit a small one, can have very serious global consequences.
The European Union was built against the temptation of Munich and the iron curtain. It would be utterly disastrous if we were to appear in any way to condone the kind of practices that plunged our continent into war and division for most of the last century. At stake is nothing less than the fate of the project to which we continue to dedicate our lives: the peaceful and democratic reunification of the European continent.
Vaclav Havel, Valdas Adamkus, Mart Laar, Vytautas Landsbergis, Otto de Habsbourg, Daniel Cohn Bendit, Timothy Garton Ash, André Glucksmann, Mark Leonard, Bernard-Henri Lévy, Adam Michnik, Josep Ramoneda