Half-century after World War II, Europe looks for symbols of a united future

But slow reaction to Balkans war, rise of neofascism taint continent's progress

FIFTY years after a horrific descent into totalitarianism that left it ruined, has Europe outlived its old demons, and is it ready to take its place as a strong, prosperous, and democratic world power?

The programmed absence of any German representation at the June 6 commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Allies' Normandy invasion caused European ink to run: Much of the commentary took the ``ostracism'' of a now-solidly democratic Germany as a sign that Europe is still not beyond the divisions and exclusions that stain its past.

In recent weeks, the strong showing of Italy's neofascist National Alliance in national elections and the naming of five neofascist ministers to the government have further stoked discussion about just how much progress Europe has made.

Marching Germans

In this context, a little-publicized decision by French President Francois Mitterrand to invite members of the Eurocorps, an embryonic multinational corps including German soldiers, to participate this year in France's traditional July 14 military parade, is significant. Despite the risk that the sight of Germans marching down the Champs-Elysees might offend some older Parisians - who remember occupying Nazi troops doing the same in 1940 - the French president meant to signal his conviction that, despite all the current high-profile symbolism of the past, Europe is constructing its future.

``Europe right now is a glass that is both half empty and half full,'' says Josef Janning, deputy director of the Research Group on European Affairs at the University of Mainz in Germany. ``While Western Europe, including the former Fascist powers, has succeeded in becoming modern and democratic in its organization, we are still archaic in our pattern of reaction to new European conflicts. That leaves us vulnerable to our past.''

Mr. Janning says President Mitterrand's gesture is ``highly symbolic,'' in part because the Eurocorps does not become operational until the end of 1994. But he says Europe needs a new symbolism if it is to outgrow its past. Recalling that German soldiers distributing food aid in St. Petersburg, Russia, in the winter of 1992 wore civilian clothes so as not to offend a city that had been purposefully starved by the Nazis in WWII, he says, ``I think that rather they should have worn their uniforms to make the point that things have changed, that Europe is making progress.''

Similarly, French historian Joseph Rovan says more should be done to build the symbolism of Europe's progress by making June 6 as much a reference to the future as to the past.

``June 6 also made possible the creation of the European Union,'' he wrote recently in the Paris daily Liberation, ``and consequently the establishment of a relationship of equals with America, in a rebalanced alliance founded on a community of interests and values.''

Both Mitterrand and President Clinton made a point of citing Germany's rank among their foremost allies in their D-Day speeches. Mr. Clinton vaunted both the established and still-emerging signs of Europe's progress, speaking not just of Germany, but of European economic integration, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and Russia's shift to democracy.

Emphasizing that an armed conflict among the 340 million Europeans of the European Union had become ``inconceivable,'' Mitterrand applauded that progress, but noted that war and Europe were not yet divorced, a sad fact exemplified by the war in former Yugoslavia.

Many French and other European intellectuals said commemorations of Normandy would ring hollow if the West, primarily Europe, continued to allow what they consider fascist tentacles with roots in Nazism to strangle pluralism in Bosnia-Herzegovina. More than one European observer winced when Clinton quoted a preinvasion entry from Anne Frank's diary: ``I have the feeling friends are approaching.'' They winced not because those friends failed to reach the little Dutch girl in time, but because similar ``feelings'' expressed on television in the past two years by besieged Bosnians have gone largely unanswered.

On an official visit in Paris June 7, Clinton brought his French hosts the same message he expounded in Brussels at January's NATO summit: America's interest lies in a Europe that is strong politically, militarily, and economically, and which is capable of assuming more responsibility for the whole continent. He was to develop that theme in a speech June 7 on enduring US-European relations at the French National Assembly.

Clinton addresses Assembly

Clinton is only the second US president to speak in the Assembly's Bourbon Palace across the Seine from the Place de la Concorde. In a 1919 speech there, Woodrow Wilson told the French the US had come to Europe to fight in World War I so that France would never have to ask for an American rescue again.

Then came WWII and D-Day.

That the kind of conflict that caused more than 1 million US troops to cross the Atlantic now seems ``inconceivable'' in Europe is progress, as is development of the European Union and its continuing integration of the newly democratic East.

Yet while Europe's national rivalries have waned, the same can hardly be said of cultural and ideological conflict.

``The return of ideologies based on refusal of the other is the new ugly beast menacing Europe,'' EU Commission President Jacques Delors said recently. Despite its progress, Europe has yet to stamp out the dark forces that led to the Normandy invasion a half-century ago.

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