A European story

Some historical lessons are never learned, some are learned belatedly. One hundred years after the beginning of World War I, the Balkans are engaged in a painstaking yet enduring process of consolidating peace and stability by pursuing EU integration.

It was thought after 1945 that Europe — after two world wars, millions of victims, and near total destruction — would in the future avoid full-scale violence. But this did not reckon with the nefarious effects of the legacy of authoritarian rule and the lack of democratic institutions. Forty-six years after the end of World War II, war again erupted in Europe, in the Balkan Peninsula. Yet it was not a Balkan war; it was a war in one Balkan country: Yugoslavia.

In 1989, the rallying cry of the soon to be post-communist countries was a “return to Europe.” The goal was the reunification of a Europe whole, free, and at peace. There was a sense that the wrongful division of Europe at Yalta and Potsdam were being righted. There was no time to lose. The moment of the bringing down of the Iron Curtain, of the Berlin Wall in 1989, was a long-awaited vindication of the right of people to freely choose their side. History opened a door, but the process did not end.

Three communist federations disappeared in short succession: the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia. The first disintegrated more or less peacefully, the second through a so-called Velvet Divorce, while the third descended into all-out war. The European Community and the world were caught off guard, believing like most of Yugoslavia’s 22 million citizens that war was not possible in Europe again.

Generations had been brought up on the lessons of World War I and II, on the lessons of the Holocaust, the death camps visited by school children, but that proved no bulwark to renewed deadly conflict in Europe. It was not enough to read and learn the history of 20th century Europe.

Some have called the violent disintegration of Yugoslavia the “unfinished business of Versailles,” where in 1918, under the guidance of Woodrow Wilson, David Lloyd George, Georges Clemenceau, and Vittorio Orlando, two completely new European countries emerged from the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires: Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia. Different times, different historical circumstances, but an arc of history links the creation and the implosion of Yugoslavia.

The European Union, in turn, arose from the ashes of Europe’s destruction. To avoid repeated bloodshed in Europe, statesmanship, leadership, and vision led to the creation of institutional structures and conditions that have fostered one of the most successful political peace projects the world has witnessed. Today, in spite of all of the travails of the EU and eurozone, the force of attraction of that peace project still exerts its soft power in the Balkans. And although Euroskepticism is on the rise, underpinned by grave levels of unemployment and rising inequality, and the forthcoming elections for the European parliament are expected to benefit more populist, nationalist, and inward-looking forces, those countries in the Balkans that have a euroatlantic membership perspective are determined to pursue their path forward.

Last year, Croatia became the 28th member state of the EU at a time of rising enlargement fatigue. In fact, it is a testimony to the EU’s peace project that a historical agreement was reached in April last year between the prime ministers of Serbia and Kosovo with the mediation of the EU’s Catherine Ashton. To reach a compromise on a challenge that had long seemed intractable is a sign that some lessons of history are being learned for the common good of those concerned.

The loss of memories of conflict, so present among the immediate post-war generations, compounded with the experience of protracted economic hardship and the loss of perspective for ever more unemployed youth, breeds wariness and a loss of trust in politics, institutions, and elites. War in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s was a reminder of what could go wrong. As the EU confronts its governance challenges, and there appear renewed temptations to fall back on retrenchment and nationalism, the memories of destruction must inform the search for prudent solutions that avoid the extremes of suffering and destruction.

Ivan Vejvoda is senior vice president for programs at the German Marshall Fund of the United States