Franco-German friendship core of Europe

By Michael Clauss and Maurice Gourdault-Montagne Source:Global Times Published: 2015-5-7 22:03:01

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

This year marks the 70th year since the end of WWII. This anniversary gives all countries involved reason for deep reflection. It is not France's or Germany's intention or place to teach anyone lessons. However, we have a story worth telling.

The WWII, unleashed in Europe by Nazi Germany, caused death and suffering to countless millions and left scars that are not completely healed even today. The murder of millions of European Jews in the Holocaust by Germans and a world war on a scale never seen in history had left Europe in ruins. Not just physical ruins: European civilization, so it seemed, had been dealt a deadly blow.

When the European war ended in late spring 1945, most Germans were convinced that this was the end; not just for Germany as a free country, but also the end of all chances to live together with its neighbors in peace and mutual respect, let alone friendship. The French people in 1945 were victors but also victims. Their perspective was very different from that of Germany. But many of them will have shared the Germans' view that any hope of living with Germans in harmony or even friendship had died on the battlefields and in Nazi concentration camps.

And yet out of despondency and hatred grew hope. Thanks to politicians with an historical vision and countless ordinary people who decided, on the French side, to be generous and extend the hand of friendship to Germany, and, on the German side, to face the truth and to seek forgiveness and reconciliation, the miracle of Franco-German reconciliation happened.

This teaches us that, if there is determination and vision, any conflict can be overcome, even in the case of deeply-ingrained strategic rivalries between countries who had fought three bitter wars in the span of just over 80 years, who had never been able to settle their competing quests for regional dominance and who had always fought over territory.

France's and Germany's reconstruction after the war is inseparably linked to the European project, which remains the most successful project of sovereign nations joining together for a common purpose in world history. First the fusion of their coal and steel industries in the European Coal and Steel Community in 1952 (together with the Benelux countries and Italy), then the European Communities in 1958 and ultimately the EU and the currency union in the 1990s bound us together in a common destiny. The miraculous economic rise of both France and Germany, today two of largest economies in Europe, would have been unthinkable without European integration.

The foundation of the European project, embodied in the EU, rests on the reconciliation between France and Germany. Reconciliation with other victims of Nazi-Germany, such as Poland and the Netherlands, has been another indispensable component in the rebuilding of Europe. 

The decades of rapid economic growth early after the war might have made reconciliation a little bit easier. After all, cooperation clearly showed material rewards. However, the true test of Franco-German friendship came in the difficult years following the world financial crisis after 2008. The European debt crisis led some observers to predict the death of the Euro and even the collapse of the EU. They were proven wrong and will again be proven wrong. At every crucial stage, France and Germany were able to bridge differences and move Europe further ahead. Without a deep-felt belief that Germany and France are bound by destiny, this would have been impossible.

It is almost a miracle that even after the tough years of the financial crisis, which have required great sacrifices and hardships, the ties between the two countries have become even stronger: Four-fifths of the French population had a positive image of Germany in 2014, and France also consistently tops the charts in polls among the German population.

Reconciliation between France and Germany is an ongoing task. The fact that it has worked so well is no reason for complacency. A friendship taken for granted will weaken over time. Friendship has to be reaffirmed daily.

On the political level, it remains standard practice for our two countries to consult and coordinate with each other first before any major European or foreign policy decision that concerns us both. For example, Germany and France act in great unison on the Ukraine crisis. Our two cabinets meet every six months, a unique form of cooperation between sovereign states worldwide. And we are seeking to work even more closely together.

People-to-people exchange has been at the core of reconciliation since the beginning, especially youth exchange has been a key factor.

The Franco-German Youth Office which serves to foster cooperation between the two countries has brought some eight million youngsters from both countries together. In a space of only around 140 million people, this is a sizeable proportion of the population. It is a unique "laboratory" for transnational projects and European cooperation.

Franco-German reconciliation seems a miracle. In reality, it is a lesson not only in moral courage but in realism. Visionaries such as Charles De Gaulle and Konrad Adenauer, Giscard d'Estaing and Helmut Schmidt, Francois Mitterand and Helmut Kohl knew that the rebirth of Europe could only happen if centuries-old rivalries and resentments were put to rest.

All of these politicians were also aware of the tectonic shifts in the world in the second half of the 20th century. They wanted Europe to stay on the map and make a difference globally. They proved to Europe and the world that win-win-cooperation trumps zero-sum thinking.

Michael Clauss is the German ambassador to China and Maurice Gourdault-Montagne is the French ambassador to China.

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