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East: Genscher Says 1989 was 'Deeply European Year'

  • Breffni O'Rourke

At a roundtable discussion in Prague, Germany's former Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher looks at some of the historical issues surrounding the collapse of communism in Europe a decade ago and also glances towards the future, to a united Europe.

Prague, 30 September 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Hans-Dietrich Genscher is not a man given to exaggeration. As Bonn's long-serving foreign minister, he exhuded an aura of calm and rationality which contributed to the trust Germany managed to build up through the years with its neighbors in Europe.

But at a gathering in Prague on Sept. 29 to mark the crumbling of communism in Europe just a decade ago, Genscher reached for hyberbole. He told the audience that the collapse of the Marxist system was the "deepest revolution in the history of mankind."

At the time, he said, two systems totally opposed to one another in political, social and spiritual ways, confronted each other on the world stage. On the one side stood democracy and market economics, on the other socialism as interpreted by Moscow. And they were not just ideologically opposed to one another, they were also heavily armed.

"And then suddenly, as though directed by a ghostly hand, the whole lot on one side disappeared. It is just not there, not through the use of atomic weapons, which so threaten mankind, but by the will of the people".

This was a revolution, he said, in which people more typically held candles and extended a helping hand to others, rather than engaged in violent activities. Genscher called 1989, the moment when the changes became unstoppable, as a "deeply European year". He recalled the struggle for freedom in the Czech lands by Vaclav Havel, Jiri Dienstbier and other dissidents, the work of the Solidarity Union in Poland, the activity of new political forces in Hungary, the persistence of activists in East Germany, and others. He said all these movements were interwoven on a European scale, in that one could not be effective without the other. "Since then, we have seen very different developments in the former Warsaw Pact countries. But they are all fixed on achieving the one aim, namely to gain membership of the European democratic community".

Genscher looked forward to the time when the Central and East European countries will be formal members of the European Union. Noting their slow pace towards membership, he said that also in past EU enlargements, there had been doubts and loud grumblings on the part of existing members about admitting economically backward candidates like Greece, Portugal, Ireland and Spain. But the previous enlargements had gone well, he said, and those yet to come would do so as well.

He said Germany feels a particular responsibility towards integrating its eastern neighbours, who were part of a region where Germany had waged many battles through the years.

Genscher deplored one tendency which he said is becoming stronger among the populations of present EU member states, and that is to regard the EU as some sort of "foreign power" which is overshadowing national sovereignty. He said it's pointless to regard Brussels as some sort of "occupying power", because modern democratic Europe belongs to the Europeans themselves.

The Prague roundtable which Genscher addressed was also attended by Jiri Dienstbier, now the UN Representative for Human Rights in Kosovo, and Michael Zantovsky, now a Czech senator, as well as others.

In closing remarks, another former German cabinet minister, Otto Graf Lambsdorff, returned to the theme of EU eastwards enlargement. Noting that Vienna lies further east than Prague, he criticized the fact that 10 years after the collapse of Marxism, the EU still had no new eastern members. He said a "political door" to the EU must be opened, even if the economies of the candidates are still unripe to meet the strict criteria for EU membership.