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The New Europe: Yesterday's Ghosts

Courtesy Reuters

The Return of History

LAST YEAR was not a good year for Europe, and the disease was renationalization-on cats' feet in the West and on tank tracks in the East. History, it turned out, had not ended with the champagne party atop the breached Berlin Wall in November 1989, the reunification of Germany in October 1990 or the dissolution of the Soviet Union in December 1991. History in fact came back with a vengeance, and nowhere more fiercely than where it had been most suppressed: in the Soviet empire and in the artificial nation-state of Yugoslavia.

Nor was the return of history a mere accident. For 600 years European history has been written by states forming and reforming around the idea of the nation-state. In 1945 that saga suddenly ended. Two empires shouldered aside the notion of the nation-state-one formed voluntarily under American tutelage in the West, another held together in the Soviet grip in the East. But on December 25, 1991, the Red Flag was hauled down from the Kremlin, and the Soviet empire was no more. In the East, where nationality had been suppressed by an authoritarian regime and an alien universalist ideology, the end of the empire spelled the immediate rebirth of nation-states: Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Farther south, in the Balkans, a multi- national construction called Yugoslavia disintegrated loudly into a war that might yet spread to the entire region.

In the West the process was more subtle. To begin with, there had never really been an empire under an American flag; it was an American-sponsored community under U.S. protection whose members retained their sovereignty and much of their autonomy. But the community's original and most powerful raison d'etre-the Soviet threat-faded in 1990 when Soviet power began to recede from central Europe; it vanished almost completely, at least for the time being, on the day the Soviet Union collapsed. As a result American power also began to recede-a decline manifested by its waning relevance in a post-Cold War era.

The passing

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