PARIS – Armistice Day is always a very solemn event here in Paris and across France. Even the weather provides a dramatic backdrop: dark, thick, low-lying clouds and rain showers add to the aura of wartime loss and tragedy.
But this year’s ceremony held special significance.
Last week, at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of November, France’s heart-stirring `La Marseillaise,’ originally called the `War Song of the Army of the Rhine,’ was played as usual beneath the nation’s most hallowed site, the Etoile, or Arc de Triumph, beneath which burns the Eternal Flame that commemorates France’s war dead.
But then Germany’s national anthem rang out. For the first time, a German chancellor joined the president of France to commemorate the ghastly losses of World War I. Bells tolled to remember the nearly six million French and German soldiers killed or wounded in the Great War.
France’s former President, Jacques Chirac, who remains France’s most popular, respected political figure, had invited Germany’s former chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder, to attend a previous ceremony at the Etoile. But Schroeder declined, fearful of provoking anti-German sentiment.
Not so this time: the stolid German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, stood shoulder to shoulder with France’s President Nicholas Sarkozy to proclaim Franco-Germany amity a `national treasure’ and vow to defend it at all costs.
Twenty-five years earlier, Franco-German reconciliation was cemented by two great European leaders, France’s Francois Mitterand, and Germany’s Chancellor Helmut Kohl. In 1984, they met on a dark, windswept day on the nightmare battlefield of Verdun, the graveyard of nearly a million French and Germans soldiers.
In an impromptu gesture, these two most formal of statesmen silently linked hands, bowed their heads and stood before the ossuary containing bone fragments of 120,000 unknown soldiers. I have never seen a more moving spectacle. Millions of French and Germans wept as they saw the ceremony on TV.
There could have been no fitter nor more touching symbol of Franco-German reconciliation than their beau geste. The two leaders swore on the dead before them that henceforth France and Germany were brother nations. Teuton and Gaul would never war again.
Most Europeans now understand that in 1914 Germany was dragged into a great war it did not want. In 1918, it was forced to bear full responsibility for the war begun by Serbia and Austria-Hungary, then torn apart and humiliated by the British and French victors. Adolf Hitler was the inevitably reaction to the folly of the wicked Versailles Treaty and its companion pacts. The modern Mideast and Balkans are still roiled by this rapacious treaty.
In 1994, in another remarkable first, a contingent of German soldiers led by a German general marched down the Champs Elysee in the national 14 July military parade, cheered on by Parisian crowds. Such a gracious act would have been impossible in North America where the constant incantation of World War II myths has become a virtual state religion.
It used to be said: `Germans love the French, but do not respect them. French respect the Germans, but do not love them.’
That was long ago. The new generation of French and Germans has been educated to esteem and value one another as the core members of united Europe. Each summer, French schoolchildren used to be sent to towns in Germany that were twinned to their home towns, and the same for German children. It was this kind of patient peacemaking that eventually healed the scars of three wars and dispelled seventy years of accumulated hatred and nationalist dementia.
As one who has walked almost every Franco-German battlefield, these ceremonies on the Champs Elysee filled me with awe, profound emotion – and hope.
Hope that if France and Germany, who lost millions of their sons in fratricidal wars can truly become genuine brother nations, there is hope for Arabs and Jews, Pakistanis and Indians, Turks and Armenians and other warring peoples.
The Franco-German border hardly exists any more. Only an occasional discreet sign marks the frontier over which millions of French and Germans fell.
Today, the Berlin-Paris entente is the world’s most important alliance. NATO is clearly unwinding as its raison d’être no longer exists.
Germany and France united together form the keystone of the European Union. Much of the credit goes to France’s President Charles De Gaulle, who had the courage and foresight to surmount wartime hatreds and lay the foundations for a peaceful, modern Europe. And to Robert Schumann, who created the European Steel and Coal Community, which developed into the Common Market, then European Union.
Britain would have made the ideal third key member. But Britain is so tied to America, it has become a negative influence on the European Union – some would say a Trojan Horse. The EU should demand Britain act as a full member or leave the union.
Today, the European Union (not counting its new, often deeply corrupt East European members) leads the world in human rights, environmental protection, culture, good governance, respect for animals, and civilized behavior.
As Europe continues its slow, painful process of continental unification, by contrast, we sadly see the US slipping ever backwards. The imperial war in Afghanistan is consuming Washington and now threatens to undermine the presidency of Barack Obama.
Europe long ago learned the painful lessons of colonial wars – and wants no more of them. America, it seems, still has many lessons to learn.