Seeing history through the others’ eyes [Archives:2007/1018/Reportage]

January 22 2007

Ambassador Gilles Gauthier and Ambassador Frank M. Mann
In remembrance of the Elysee-Treaty of 1963, the 22nd of January is celebrated as the French-German Day. Is this a mere confirmation of a longstanding and world-wide known friendship between two countries? Upon taking a closer look, this date turns out to be the turning point of one of the most ambivalent, sometimes tragic, but in the end fortunate developments of a bilateral relationship between nations.

Historically, the 22nd of January is a date pointing to the future. The “Treaty on the French-German Cooperation” was concluded 44 years ago by both sides as a tool to reach their distinct objectives. Today, the anniversary describes a success story of convergence, reconciliation and gradual acceptance of the other. Yet, the common past of the two countries goes back even further: Their competition during the race towards the top during the period of Industrialization turned into an arch-enmity after the French-German War in 1870/1. The atrocities of World War I and II seemed to cement the gulf between the opponents forever.

So how could this relation be transformed to one of the closest friendships and partnerships in Europe? Following the foundation of the Federal Republic of Germany, it was the will to reconcile that characterized the beginning of the European Unification in the 1950s with an attempt to share coal and steel, i.e. means of war.

Both countries wanted to avoid atrocities of previous wars for the generations to come. Images of the French-German summits of the last forty years speak for themselves: First, the embrace between Konrad Adenauer and Charles de Gaulle in 1963. Then the silent commemoration of Helmut Kohl and Francois Mitterrand for the victims of Verdun in 1984, hand in hand. And finally, the first invitation of a German Chancellor to the celebration of the landing of the Allied Forces in Normandy in 2004: Gerhard Schroeder and Jacques Chirac demonstrated the French-German reconciliation with a heartfelt embrace.

If France, in 1963, aimed at preventing further confrontation with Germany, today it expects that the German EU Presidency furthers European interests in a decisive manner. By adding his own version of the treaty's preamble in 1963, Adenauer had strived for Germany's renewed independence, for its reunification and its inclusion in NATO.

Today, more than ever, Germany assumes responsibilities within the European and the international network of states. What lies between now and then is the European integration, often considered ponderous but in reality moving extremely fast. As European nations, France and Germany have demonstrated to the world how former enemies can join forces and form a fruitful partnership for the benefit of the whole continent. It was proven that finding common solutions built on shared interests is the only way to turn rivals into winners: foes became friends and paved the way for the development of the EU.

Just as much as both sides had struggled to get close to another on the political level, the citizens had to come to trust each other. How deeply this trust is rooted nowadays is reflected by the completely natural way the post-war generation and their descendants are dealing with each other. The founding of the “French-German Youth Association”, also in 1963, and hundreds of community twinning agreements between French and German villages and cities have opened the way for encounters of young and old citizens in both countries which have often led to deep and long lasting friendships.

Another prominent example for this development is the founding of a German-French “Youth Parliament” in 2003. One of its initiatives was to suggest a history book called “Histoire-Geschichte” for French and German High School students that was eventually conceived under the patronage of French Minister of Education and Minister-President of the Saarland. The first volume on “Europe and the World since 1945” has already been in use since the winter term 2006/07. The other two volumes, “From the Ancient World to the Age of Romanticism” and “From the 19th century to 1945”, will be presented in the course of the next two years.

The preface to the first volume points out that “the book is not a presentation of French-German history, but a French-German history book”. It is not only the history of one's own country that is meant to be taught and assessed but also common European history – at the same time and in particular from the view of the neighbouring country.

What is notable about this textbook is that, while the initiative came from the political side, it was developed purely by German and French historians. “We must not leave out any taboo subjects,” assured the French Minister of Education. Controversial subjects, like the Treaty of Versailles, were simply presented as the controversies they are. In this way, the innovative textbook also turned out to be a historiographic document of a critical discussion on the past.

The complete three volumes of this book might be considered just another step on the path of two distinctive soloists towards their successful duet. As a daily companion in their school bags however, it will form the perception of French and German students of their common history and of a new Europe which is developing. It is a stronger symbol than any monument could ever be for the eventful French-German history, during which foes became friends. It will help the youth in both of our countries to see through each others' eyes.