Contesting the origins of European liberty: The Europoean Union narrative of Franco-German reconciliation and the eclipse of 1989
by Stefan Auer
The European Union loves anniversaries. To the extent that the EU seeks to foster European identity, it is not surprising that it is increasingly deploying tools and methods that states used to create nations: commemoration of key moments in the nation's history served as rallying points for national attachments, creating or strengthening a sense of national identity.
Europe is different from nations. The European Union is not a state and Europe struggles to turn its history, or, to be more precise, its many histories, into one unifying narrative. From the outset, the European project was based on a somewhat paradoxical relationship with its past. Europeans were initially united more by what they rejected than that to which they aspired. In 1945, the great French poet, Paul Valéry, described the European predicament: "We hope vaguely, we dread precisely". What people vaguely hoped for was peace, what they dreaded was the devastation of past wars. To find more positive sources of identification in their past, Europeans had to reach back further to the Enlightenment and its cosmopolitan ideals, which found expression in Beethoven's Ninth Symphony with Schiller's Ode to Joy. It is thus fitting that the EU adopted the tune of the Symphony's finale as its anthem in 1986.
However successful the project of European unity has been in securing peace and prosperity underpinned by a strong commitment to liberal democracy, it was initially limited to western Europe. The collapse of communism enabled Europe to reach beyond these limitations. For the first time in their turbulent histories, the nations of Europe in the West and in the East could pursue unity together. The peaceful revolutions in central and eastern Europe gave the European Union a new set of images and a date to remember: 9 November 1989, the day on which the Berlin Wall lost its purpose.
One of the first public celebrations of this event was the performance in the Schauspielhaus Berlin (East Germany) of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony by a multinational orchestra with musicians from Germany, Russia, the UK, the US and France, and conducted by Leonard Bernstein. Responding to the spirit of the time – the concert took place only a few weeks after the demise of the wall – Bernstein felt justified in making a small but significant change to Schiller's lyric, substituting the word Freiheit (freedom) for Freude (joy). Ever since, the liberation of 1989 and Beethoven's famous finale seem to have gone hand in hand as two positive symbols of European unity. The same music accompanied celebrations of the "big-bang" enlargement in May 2004, which brought eight countries from the former eastern Bloc into the EU, followed by the admission of Bulgaria and Romania in January 2007.
Twenty years after the demise of communism, the EU has succeeded in giving itself a new institutional architecture through the adoption of the Lisbon Treaty. However, the new Europe of 27 member states needs more than new institutions: it requires a new self-understanding. Judging from a number of recent attempts by key EU actors, achieving a basic agreement about the "meaning" of decisive events in Europe's recent past, including 9 November 1989, might prove at least as troublesome as the protracted process of institutional reform. The politics of identity is fraught with difficulties and the main aim of this paper is to show the limits of EU identity politics, with a particular focus on the legacy of 1989 in Poland, Germany and Europe at large.
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