My grandfather and father served in the First and Second World Wars. Two generations, severely damaged psychologically and morally, writes German Ambassador to Lithuania Matthias Sonn.
The European peace, freedom and prosperity in which I was allowed to grow up, in contrast, has now lasted more than seventy years. Do we appreciate our almost unbelievable fortune enough? Are we doing enough to preserve it? As Germans, as Europeans?
Every year it touches me like a miracle: together with the then main opponents, with the colleagues of France and Great Britain, the German ambassador commemorates the armistice of November 11, 1918. Almost everywhere in the world.
November 11, 2018 gained a very special importance for Lithuania – for the first time in centuries, independence as a sovereign state was achieved. The documentary evidence can be admired right here in Vilnius, in the “House of Signatories”. This history was exhaustively highlighted on its 110-year anniversary in 2018.
Let me today take a wider angle of view, and look at November 11, 1918 as a European date.
The balance: 17 million dead, not even counting the 20 million victims of countless follow-up wars, epidemics and disease, revolutions, famines and expulsions.
Wide stretches of land in the old heart of Europe where we still see today, one hundred years after the armistice, the devastations of four years of trench warfare. Scabbed over, but not healed.
Involved: six major European powers, plus numerous smaller states and entities. For three of these centuries-old empires, Austria-Hungary, the Russian Tsarist Empire and the Ottoman Empire, the First World War was the end. For Europe as a whole, it was the end of a worldwide, unchallenged dominance. Losers everywhere, even the victorious powers in Europe economically ruined, politically and morally crippled shadows of their former self. A lost generation of human wrecks.
The post-war order - envisioned as a "Peace to end all War" (Woodrow Wilson), it actually turned into "a peace to end all peace," a series of treaties that made the great subsequent conflict at least very likely, almost inevitable according to some historians. Massive dangers for democracy: soon totalitarianisms, right and left, raised their heads threateningly. Even today, borderlands of the former empires suffer from violent instability.
Have we learned, we Europeans? Yes, but only after the even worse devastations of the second great European firestorm, after 1945. It is often said that the First World War was in fact a thirty-year war, from 1914 to 1945.
What have we learned? The path to the abyss begins with a nationalism that defines its own country, its own people ethnically and exclusively, and places it above others. Which does not recognize the people of other languages, cultures, skin colours, religions and political convictions as equals, with the same human needs and talents at their core, but defines them as fundamentally different, excluding them as inferiors. Their disenfranchisement, their oppression as enemies, is then only one logical step away.
What have we done? 30 years after the 1918 ceasefire, the young United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. It draws the direct lesson from the totalitarian horrors of the first half of the 20th century: all people, wherever they may be, in principle enjoy equal individual rights, which must be enforceable nationally and internationally. On December 10 we celebrate the anniversary of this fundamental source of international law.
With the help of the US, we Western Europeans rebuild not only our physically ruined half-continent piece by piece, but also our democracies and their rule of law. Above all, however, we erected a common structure, which is also first of all a legal edifice: today's European Union. From 1990, those Europeans who had previously been unable to exercise their right to do so joined us enthusiastically.
Europe, whole and free.
And today? Can we Europeans now rest comfortably on the historic success of this work of peace? Can other continents say today: this does not concern us, this is not us? Everyone may find his or her own answer here.
Mine would be: a single glance at the state of our world today, even in comparatively idyllic Europe, shows us how endangered justice, freedom and democracy always remain. Let us defend them together, day after day!
I am proud that my country can today, especially here in Lithuania, contribute to this defense. Day after Day.