By Elizabeth Pond
In 1945, shortly after the terrible third German-French war in as many generations, Wendelgard's extended family met again on their estate near Stuttgart. She was 19 years old. Over soup, her uncle proclaimed, "I never did like the French."
"It's because of you that so many of my friends died," retorted Wendelgard's cousin and threw his soup at the uncle.
On January 22, thanks to the revulsion of that post-World War II German generation, Paris and Berlin will celebrate the golden jubilee of their counterintuitive "marriage." On that day 50 years ago, Chancellor Konrad Adenauer and President Charles de Gaulle signed an unprecedented treaty of friendship. This, along with the experimental European Community and the NATO alliance, has now given a war-prone Europe its longest peace in history.
It's one of those miracles that has come to seem so natural that it is taken for granted. Today's German and French youths find it bizarre that their great-grandparents could ever have considered each other archenemies—and, more mundanely, had to show their passports every time they strolled into the neighboring land to buy authentic croissants or bratwursts. For their part, German media have forgotten their awe of yesteryear at the sheer novelty of French-German amity and fret that all the jubilee celebrations are just so much "hypocrisy," given current strains between Paris and Berlin over everything from nuclear energy (zero tolerance in Germany, 78.8 percent of total energy in France) to the euro crisis (growth vs. austerity, to simplify).
After tens of thousands of German and French children have by now lived with host families or attended schools in their partner country, Ulrike Guerot of the European Council on Foreign Relations points out, much has been accomplished. Fear of the other has evaporated—so much so that Guerot’s own 19-year-old son asks her what's so special about the European integration that she has devoted all of her professional career to promoting.
As the latest opinion polls show, between 80 and 90 percent of French and Germans say they approve of their two countries' friendship and see it as crucial for Europe. (The French political elite remain more suspicious of their eastern neighbor, whose population swelled to a third larger than France's after the unification of West and East Germany a generation ago. But whatever their rhetorical qualms, the French elite too are acting on the foundation of bilateral friendship.)
On an official level, the French and German cabinets meet regularly—as they will do once again in Tuesday's display of togetherness. So do members of parliament; more than a thousand will cram themselves into the Reichstag to hear announcements of further cooperation and initiatives. And although Christian Democratic Chancellor Angela Merkel on the eastern side of the Rhine doesn't enjoy as close relations with Socialist President Francois Hollande on the western side as she did with his conservative predecessor, their two countries still operate in tandem as the "motor" of the European Union. If Paris and Berlin can compromise on some policy, this usually means that northern Europe will follow Berlin's lead and Mediterranean Europe will follow Paris's lead to a common position.
On a community level, dozens of French and German cities that are twinned will act out their own pageants in January and later in this jubilee year. And in a live broadcast by the French-German Arte TV channel some 200 French and German young people will open Berlin's anniversary festivities by sharing with Merkel and Hollande their views on life in the "ever closer union" of Europe that the original European Community treaty ordains. By now—unlike in the past—common memories unite rather than divide the two nations, maintains Sorbonne historian Corine Defrance.
As French-German rapprochement now moves from its romantic to its post-romantic era, as Guerot puts it, does it have any relevance elsewhere in the world? Does European reconciliation, with the prosperity and secure peace it has achieved, offer any useful lessons to today's Chinese and Japanese? Or Kikuyu and Luo? Or Malians and Tuareg?
Hopefully it does. There must be 19-year-olds in these communities too who would gladly exchange long-nursed enmity and the threat of war for the luxury of being nonchalant about reconciliation.
Elizabeth Pond is a Berlin-based journalist and author of The Rebirth of Europe.
[Photo courtesy of Ruskpp]