President Havel gave the following address in Aachen on May 15, 1996.
Recently, when I looked into how Europe got its name, I was surprised to discover that many see its primeval roots in the Akkadian word erebu, which means twilight or sunset. Asia, on the other hand, is believed to have derived its name from Akkadian asu meaning sunrise.
At first sight this discovery does not seem very auspicious. In our minds the word twilight has been traditionally linked with notions of end, extinction, defeat, ruin, or approaching death. In certain respects, the conventional connection makes sense: twilight is indeed the end of something. At the very least the end of one day and the hustle and bustle that filled it. But it does not mean defeat, doom, or the end of time. Far from it: it is merely a punctuation mark in the eternal cycle of nature and life, in which one thing ends simply in order that something else may begin.
For people this may mean that the time of work, which is largely physical and directed toward the world around us, has come to an end, to give way to a time of quiet contemplation, reflection, evaluation, introspection—in other words, of inwardly directed endeavor. From time immemorial people have taken the evening to reflect on what they have done during the day. They have paused to look at things in perspective, to gain strength and resolve for the day to come. In somewhat simplified terms, one may say that dawn and daylight are a time of hands, while twilight is a time of the mind.
The somewhat melancholy associations we tend to attach to the word twilight may be the typical consequence of the modern cult of beginnings, openings, advances, discoveries, growth, and prosperity, of a cult of industriousness, outward activity, expansion, and energy, that is, of the characteristically modern blind faith in quantitative indices. Dawn, daybreak, sunrise, “the morning of nations,” and similar words, phrases, or metaphors are popular these days, while notions like sunset, stillness, or nightfall carry for us, unjustly, only connotations of stagnation, decline, disintegration, or emptiness. We are unjust to twilight. We are unjust to the phenomenon that may have given Europe its name.
It is true that a particular phase in the history of Europe appears to be drawing to a close. The extraordinarily fortunate amalgamation of classical antiquity, Jewish religiosity, and Christianity, combined with the fresh energy of the so-called barbarian tribes, led eventually to unprecedented progress in Europe, and in the end has brought humanity countless gifts and left its stamp on the entire planetary civilization of our time. Europe seems to have introduced into human life the categories of time and historicity, to have discovered the idea of development, and ultimately what we call progress as well.
Centuries from now, all European history may seem to have been no more than a single day filled with vigorous activity, magnificent human endeavor, great discoveries of the human mind, the release of enormous energies and the ethos of expansion related to it. From the secrets of Being and salvation to the secrets of matter, from the discovery of treasures hidden on faraway continents to political achievements like the recognition of human dignity and liberty, the rule of law, and the idea of equality before the law—these are all remarkable European discoveries which Europe has then spread further, often to the benefit of the world as a whole, often to its detriment as well.
The history of Europe has not only been a history of the spread of the ideals of salvation, freedom, progress, and humanity: it has also meant the brutal suppression of other cultures. It has meant conquest, plunder, colonization, and some highly dubious exports, of which I may mention only one, dangerous in the extreme, the effects of which I have experienced personally: communist ideology. And if the world in part owes beneficial and useful things such as democracy and the idea of human rights or the invention of television and the computer to the European spirit of progress and endless searching, it also has that same European spirit to thank for many of its huge social inequities, its arrogant anthropocentric treatment of the planet, the cult of consumerism, as well as the enormous stockpiles of unbelievably destructive weapons that often end up in the hands of highly suspect regimes. This double-edged European expansionism reached its sad climax this century in two wars into which our continent dragged the whole world.
The various benefits deriving from the European notion of progress have long since been adopted by other parts of the world as well. Many have embraced them so completely that they now surpass Europe precisely in areas where Europe once claimed lasting predominance. Europe has ceased to be the center of colonial power or the control room of the world, and it no longer decides the world’s fate.
It seems to me the time has come for us to pause and reflect upon ourselves. I believe we are facing a great historical challenge, a challenge to grasp and put into practice at last what is implied in the word twilight. We should stop thinking of the present state of Europe as the sunset of its energy and recognize it instead as a time of contemplation when the work of the day ceases for a while and, as the sun goes down, the rule of thought sets in. This does not mean we need be estranged from ourselves and the world we live in. It simply means taking a calm look back at what we have accomplished, assessing the meaning and the consequences of our efforts and making a few resolutions for the day to come.
At no time in its modern history, I think, has Europe had a better opportunity to do so than now, and it would be a serious mistake for us not to grasp it. With your permission, I shall try to outline a few subjects to which we should give serious thought if we are to make the best use of this time of evening meditation. This time should not be an occasion for exhausted slumber after work, or nostalgia for the achievements of long ago, but rather a time to articulate Europe’s task for the twenty-first century.
The term Europe has essentially three meanings. The first one is purely geographical, determined by the lines on the map on the wall of every elementary schoolroom, and in every atlas.
The second meaning of the term Europe refers to those countries in Europe that were spared the experience of communism, and that are now, for the most part, members of the European Union. It thus embraces the part of Europe that has been able, over the past decades, to cultivate a democratic political system and a civil society that is relatively stable politically, that enjoys economic prosperity, and has step by step become integrated into a single large political and economic league. This Europe is certainly attractive to everyone else, and it is no coincidence that the slogan “Return to Europe” is reiterated, often to a tiresome degree, in many countries that do not belong to this group. The phrase essentially means admission to the club of those nations historically fortunate enough to have been on the other side of the Iron Curtain.
Europe in this sense of the word, however—and let us be frank here—shows relatively little concern for the challenge I have just mentioned, that is, the challenge of rising above its daily labors and undertaking a profound examination of its role in our civilization. Stretching the point a little, we might say that this Europe is far more preoccupied with transfer payments from Brussels or the export of beef from cattle suspected of madness. For all the fine words it offers us from time to time, it is still a rather self-centered Europe, concerned more for its immediate economic interests than for global philosophical considerations.
But there is also a third meaning of the word Europe. This Europe represents a common destiny, a common, complex history, common values, and a common culture and way of life. More than that, it is also, in a sense, a region characterized by particular forms of behavior, a particular quality of will, a particular understanding of responsibility. As a consequence, the borders of this Europe may at times seem fuzzy or variable: it cannot be defined by looking at a school atlas or studying a list of member states of the European Union or of countries that could join should they wish, such as Norway, Switzerland, or Iceland. This is why any discussion of this third Europe is more difficult, and occurs less often. Yet this is precisely where all debates about Europe and its future should begin.
It seems to me, in other words, that the starting point of all our twilight meditations should be a discussion about Europe as a place of shared values, about European spiritual and intellectual identity or—if you like—European soul: about what Europe once was and what it believed in, what it is and believes in now, what it should be or could be, and what role it could play in the future.
Don’t worry: I shall not try to answer these questions here. Others are better equipped to do so, and countless books have already been written on the subject. I shall simply mention a few aspects of Europe that I think deserve our attention at this moment.
The first of these is that Europe, in the third meaning of the term, has always been and still is a single indivisible political entity, however immensely diverse and intricately structured it may be. This is not just a consequence of geography, that is, of the fact that many loosely related peoples are concentrated on a relatively small peninsula and its immediate vicinity. What is more important is that the millennia of common history shared by its peoples, who often lived in differently constituted multinational empires, have molded Europe into a single intellectual unit or sphere of civilization, interwoven by so many political connections that severing any of them might, in certain cases, lead to its total disintegration.
This apparently banal fact, however, has important political consequences. It means that unless the future order of Europe is founded on a clear awareness of this interconnectedness, it will ultimately bring no benefit to anyone. We simply cannot imagine a Europe that continues to be divided, not by the Iron Curtain this time, but economically, into a part that is prosperous and increasingly united, and another part that is less stable, less prosperous, and disunited. Just as one half of a room cannot remain forever warm while the other half is cold, it is equally unthinkable that two different Europes could forever live side by side without detriment to both. And the more stable and prosperous one would pay the higher price.
So it is not true that the united part of Europe would suffer if it expanded. On the contrary: in the long run, it would suffer only if it failed to expand. In fact Europe, as a phenomenon of civilization, now has an historically unprecedented opportunity: it can remake itself on the principles of agreement among all those concerned, the principles of equality and peaceful and democratic cooperation. If it squanders this opportunity in the name of short-term, particular, or even exclusively economic interests, it will have to pay for it. It would open the door, in both of its halves, to all those who prefer confrontation to dialogue, who would rather define themselves in opposition to others than as neighbors. It is no good pretending that people of this type no longer exist. To put it another way: if democrats do not soon begin to reconstruct Europe as a single political entity, others will start structuring it their own way, and the democrats will have nothing left but their tears. The demons that have so fatally tormented European history—most disastrously of all in the twentieth century—are merely biding their time. It would be a tragic mistake to ignore them because of technical preoccupations with transfer funds, quotas, or tariffs.
The European Union is an unprecedented attempt to create of Europe a single region held together by a sense of solidarity. I know that neither the European Union nor the North Atlantic Alliance can open its doors overnight to all those who aspire to join them. What both most assuredly can do—and what they should do before it is too late—is to give the whole of Europe, seen as a sphere of common values, the clear assurance that they are not closed clubs. They should formulate a clear and detailed policy of gradual enlargement that not only contains a timetable but also explains the logic of that timetable. Six long years have passed since the Iron Curtain came down, and it makes no sense to deny that—despite certain promising halfway steps—little has actually happened to bring this larger unity about.
Let us now turn from these rather external matters to the fundamental ones.
One of the great European traditions—a tradition that Europe increasingly forgot in the first half of the twentieth century—is the idea of the free citizen as the source of all power. After World War II, having learned a lesson from the horrors inflicted by fanatical nationalism, the free part of Europe rededicated itself to this tradition and made it the foundation of reconciliation and cooperation. And although European integration began primarily as economic integration, it was nevertheless obvious what its political points of departure and its political objectives were. The hope was to bring about a great renaissance of the civic principle as the only possible basis for truly peaceful cooperation among nations. The point was not to suppress national identity or national consciousness, which is one of the dimensions of human identity, but rather to free human beings from the bondage of ethnic collectivism—that source of all strife and enslaver of human individuality.
As paradoxical as it may sound, European unification has never meant limiting freedom in the sense that particular civil rights are expropriated by a power that is increasingly remote from the citizen. Quite the contrary—it has been a process of enhancing people’s freedom not only by liberating them from the fear of others but also by offering them more latitude to fulfill themselves as citizens. It seems to me that only now, with the European Union launching a new round of talks on its future (which among other things involves a discussion of its common foreign and security policy) are Europeans and European politicians beginning to recognize this deeply political dimension of the unification process. And I wonder whether some of them are not a little daunted by the magnitude of the task they have undertaken, now that its profound significance is becoming so clear. If it exists, such discouragement is all the more dangerous now, just when Europe has the opportunity I have just mentioned—the opportunity to establish itself on democratic principles as a whole entity for the first time in its history.
How can we counter this loss of heart? Where can we find the courage to pursue truly broad-minded solutions? How can we look beyond our immediate and particular interests to seek a better future for the entire continent?
In my view relatively little is needed. We need only to remind ourselves of the anthem of the European Union. Does not Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” offer an answer to this question? When it points out that life in the sacred circle of freedom requires giving allegiance and commitment to “the judge above the stars”? What else can this mean but that freedom and responsibility are two sides of the same coin and that freedom is thinkable only when it is based on a sense of responsibility toward an authority that transcends us?
The concept of a metaphysically anchored sense of responsibility has been a cornerstone of the values that underlie the European tradition. And it seems to me that the time of twilight, taken as an opportunity for self-reflection, is a direct invitation to rededicate ourselves to this European tradition and to admit clearly that there are values transcending our immediate interest, that we are not accountable solely to our party, our electorate, our lobby, or our state, but to the whole of humanity, including those who come after us, and that the ultimate worth of our deeds will be decided somewhere beyond the circle of mortals who surround us. In the language of today’s world, this means nothing more and nothing less than to heed the voice that calls to us from the depths of our conscience.
In a somewhat exalted fashion we might say that the task of Europe today is to rediscover its conscience and its responsibility, in the deepest sense. That means not just responsibility for its own political architecture, but also for the world as a whole.
We are all familiar with the threats that hang over the world today. We all know that the planet’s resources are limited and that sooner or later the idea of constant growth will clash with these limitations. We all know about the deepening abyss between the rapidly increasing population of the poor and the stagnating population of the increasingly rich. We all know we are damaging nature, the air, and the waters around us. We all know what conflicts lie dormant within humanity, now that a single global civilization is pushing people from different spheres of culture ever closer together, thus inevitably arousing their determination to defend their identity against this pressure toward uniformity.
But what are we doing to avert these dangers or to confront them? Very little, I’m afraid. We withdraw into our shells, assuring ourselves that none of this is our affair, as if we had entirely forgotten the “judge above the stars” of whom the European anthem reminds us. It is as if, while constantly talking about Europe, we have entirely ignored one of the pillars of the European tradition—universalism, the commandment to think of everyone, to act as everyone should act, and to look for universally acceptable solutions.
Humanity is entering an era of multipolar and multicultural civilization. Europe is no longer the conductor of the global orchestra, but this does not mean it has nothing more to say to the world. A new task now presents itself, and with it a new meaning to Europe’s very existence.
That task will no longer be to spread—violently or nonviolently—its own religion, its own civilization, its own inventions, or its own power. Nor will it be to preach the rule of law, democracy, human rights, or justice to the rest of the world.
If Europe wishes, it can do something else, something more modest yet more beneficial. It can become a model for how different peoples can work together in peace without sacrificing any of their identity; it can demonstrate that it is possible to treat our planet considerately, with future generations in mind; it can demonstrate that it is possible to live together in peace with other cultures, without people or countries having to deny themselves and their truth in the process. Moreover, Europe has one final possibility, if it so desires: it can reclaim its finest spiritual and intellectual traditions, and go back to the roots of those traditions and look for what they have in common with other cultures and other spheres of civilization, and join forces with them in a search for the common moral minimum necessary to guide us all so that we may live side by side on one planet and confront jointly whatever threatens our lives together.
Europe’s task is no longer, nor will it ever be again, to rule the world, to disseminate by force its own concepts of welfare and what is good, to impose its own culture upon the world or to instruct it in its proper course. The only meaningful task for the Europe of the next century is to be the best it can possibly be—that is, to revivify its best spiritual and intellectual traditions and thus help to create a new global pattern of coexistence. We shall do most for the world if we simply do as we are bidden by our consciences, that is, if we act as we believe everyone should act. Perhaps we will inspire others: perhaps we won’t. But we should not act in the expectation of that outcome. It may be hard to abandon the belief that it makes no sense to live by an imperative from above as long as others do not live by it or are not prepared to do so. But it can be done. And it is not impossible that this is, in fact, the best thing Europe can do for itself, for the restoration of its identity, for its own new dawning.
Europe will only be able to bear the cross of this world, and thus follow the example of Him in whom it has believed for two thousand years, and in whose name it has committed so much evil, if it first pauses and reflects upon itself, when—in the best sense of the word—it lives up to the potential inherent in the twilight to which it owes its name.
—Translated from the Czech by Alexandra Brabcová and Paul Wilson
June 20, 1996