Europe's brush with its past

However the crisis in Ukraine plays out, it has had a profound affect on the thinking of European leaders. Overnight, a continent that seemed to be on a holiday from history has had to grapple with the question of what it stands for.

Max Vetrov/AP

To people planning summer travel, Europe can seem like a vast museum, its dramatic past bottled up in carefully tended castles and cathedrals, its old grudges and intrigues safely sealed behind display glass. Tour groups amble across fields where armies fought epic battles in the last century. Twenty-five years after the Berlin Wall came down, you can still buy relics in gift shops (there was, after all, a lot of concrete involved), but the wall itself – the massive barrier that once marked the edge of the free world – is memorialized only in a few remnants and a tiny cobblestone path embedded in the pavement of a city that has otherwise left those days far behind.

Europe’s modern pursuits run in the direction of tech exports, green energy, and multicultural accommodation. A member of the German parliament says his fellow Germans today prefer to see their country – whose ambitions tore the Continent apart in the first half of the 20th century – as a “big Switzerland,” steering away from international conflict, refraining from military engagement, and concentrating instead on business and quality of life. A senior official in Germany’s Foreign Ministry describes the prevalent feeling of post-cold-war Europe as “perfectly safe and secure.”

Then came Crimea. It would be hard to overstate the mental shift that seems to have taken place over three short months. European politicians, diplomats, and business leaders that a group of editors and I met last week (the visit was arranged by the Robert Bosch Foundation and Johns Hopkins University) see Crimea as a turning point as important as 1989, when the Berlin Wall was breached. The head of the German parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, Norbert Röttgen, describes Crimea as much more than a peninsula opportunistically grabbed by Russian President Vladimir Putin. “If it was only about Crimea, it would be serious enough,” Mr. Röttgen says. “But this affects the validity of the European peace order that emerged at the end of the last century.” 

Janusz Reiter, who watched Europe’s evolution from both sides of the old Iron Curtain and has served as Poland’s ambassador to the United States and to Germany, describes a continent where “we lived in a post-national reality and were enjoying it.” Because of the crisis in Ukraine, he says, Europe is “returning to history.” The US is no longer likely to act as Europe’s shield, and after Iraq and recent spying revelations many Europeans don’t want that anyway. It will be up to Europeans to meet Mr. Putin’s challenge.

Admittedly, those views may be overly dramatic. I’ve visited Europe over the years and interviewed officials in both the cold-war and post-cold-war eras, but I can’t judge whether 2014 is a watershed year. Putin might rethink his nationalist, anti-Western aggressiveness. He clearly has enjoyed the applause from Russians for standing tall, but he knows that militarism hurts Russia economically and that a weak economy will undermine his popularity. Europeans could wake up in a few months feeling safe and secure once again.

If nothing else, however, Crimea has shifted European thinking. Europe’s past of nationalism and conflict must stay in the museums and history books. But democracy, human rights, free markets, and peaceful resolution of disputes – ideas born in Europe but not practiced there until very recently – must now be defended by the Europeans who have embraced them.

John Yemma is the Monitor's editor at large. He can be reached at

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