Europe to mark decades of change
2009 will be a banner year for commemoration.
Berlin -- Europe is gearing up to mark a series of major anniversaries next year, defining moments both in terms of European as well as world history.
Besides the 70th anniversary of the start of World War II, which began when Hitler's troops marched into Poland on 1 September 1939, 2009 will also mark the 20th anniversary of the fall of communism across central Europe.
Starting with democratic elections in Poland in June 1989, the year of change across Central Europe culminated in November of that year with the fall of the Berlin Wall. That event became a symbol of the end of the Cold War and Europe's postwar divide.
The breaching of the Berlin Wall also helped lead to the unseating of the Soviet-backed government in Prague and the gruesome end to Romanian President Nicolae Ceausescu a few weeks later on Christmas Day.
Ceausescu and his wife were executed by firing squad following a bloody revolution in the country to unseat the hated dictator.
But decades later, both Eastern and Western Europe are still grappling with the events surrounding the Second World War and the fall of communism, as well as struggling to forge a new identity in a world now shaped by fast-paced globalization.
"The common past is a chance for the future," Polish Foreign Minister Radoslav Sikorski said in a speech delivered in Berlin in December 2008. "The events followed a decades-long struggle by those who refused to abandon their freedom."
But a new study says that Germans living in the country's former communist East feel they are second-class citizens in the unified Germany that emerged following the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Undertaken by the University of Bielefeld, the study revealed lingering resentment in the East about life since a popular uprising in late 1989 paved the way for the collapse of East Germany's Stalinist government.
Further complicating the celebrations for the fall of the Berlin Wall is that November 9 is a strangely recurring date in German history.
Besides the breaching of the wall, it also marked Hitler's stepped-up reign of terror against Jews on Kristallnacht (The Night of Broken Glass) and the failure of his Beer Hall Putsch in Bavaria in 1923. Kaiser Wilhem II also abdicated on 9 November 1918.
Triggered by former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's drive for glasnost (openness) and perestroika (economic change) the fall of communism across central Europe in 1989 also ultimately helped to loosen the communist grip on Moscow and to pave the way a few years later for the collapse of Soviet Russia.
Not unconnected with these events are a series of other commemorations that are also to take place in Europe in 2009, including the ceremonies surrounding the 60th anniversaries of the creation of the Federal Republic of Germany and the formation of the US-led NATO security alliance.
Next year will also mark the 10th birthday of the euro, which became the currency for financial transactions in a group of what was then 12 European states on 1 January 1999. Euro coins and banknotes were issued three years later on 1 January 2002.
But, in a sense, all these strands of history lead back to the September day nearly 70 years ago when the Nazi troops crossed the border into Poland, sparking six years of war and unleashing the barbarity of the Third Reich on Eastern Europe.
It is, however, a measure of the ongoing fascination with the horrors of Nazism that there seems little end to the book and movie industry that has grown up around it.
British historian Richard Evans has just published The Third Reich at War, the final installment in his trilogy of books on Nazi Germany.
New York-born director Bryan Singe's Operation Valkyrie about the 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler and starring Hollywood actor Tom Cruise was released at the end of December.
Meanwhile, nearly 20 years after the communist governments of central Europe fell like dominoes, the region's new political leadership is still trying to sweep away the industrial and social debris left by decades of command economics and to hammer into place new western-style economic systems.
It is a process that is now likely to be made more complicated by the economic downturn rapidly taking hold around the world and across central Europe.