Dividing and Uniting – German-French Relations in Europe

“Europe is an ambitious project, it is an active utopia, struggling to coalesce and consolidate
the otherwise disconnected, multidirectional actions. How active that utopia will ultimately
turn, depends on its actors.” (Zygmunt Bauman).
Let us examine Europe and let us therefore look at this quote, that defines the European
Union as a new project of the European countries, an active utopia that tries to consolidate
actions and, above that, countries. Countries with different backgrounds. Countries with
different histories and cultures, composed of people sharing values but also disagreeing on
values and ideas.
If we look at the EU’s balance sheet we, despite all criticism, still come out with a positive
figure. In fact, Europe has been living the longest period of peace ever. However, where
does this sudden change come from? One or two centuries ago nobody would have been
surprised seeing one country in Europe going to war with her neighbour just to achieve a
political aim. Two very good examples here are Germany and France. The very two
countries in today’s world everybody sees as the responsible and leading forces in the EU;
France for example lobbying for a closer Union for years by now.
How is it possible that two countries that have basically been in war for two centuries put
aside their differences in order to build something new, something better?
Over the past two hundred years, the war between Germany and France was on and off
every couple of decades, peace never lasting for even one generation.
Starting in 1789 with the French Revolution, the European monarchical powers – including
Germany – declared war against the new French Republic. This war was continued under
Napoleon who defeated the German states and their allies. When Napoleon brought the war
to an end, a hard price had to be paid – especially by Prussia, the major country amongst the
various states in central Europe – namely marching into Berlin and taking the Quadriga,
which shows the Victoria, the goddess of victory, and her four horses leaving the
Brandenburger Gate as an empty reminder of the loss and the humiliation.
It would not be the last time that the Brandenburger Gate was used in the same way.
Almost for one decade would Napoleon rule over Western Europe and the various states
there that would later form the German Empire.
However, while the Western states were integrated into the new French Nation by contracts
and alliances, the states in Eastern Europe were left alone, licking their wounds waiting for a
chance to return.
The humiliation was not forgotten, and reforms and new alliances were made in order to go
to war against the archenemy.
The French Republic was defeated, the European Monarchies were reinstated and for a few
decades there was peace only disturbed by Revolutions and Revolts, until in 1870 France
was again being challenged by Prussia and especially by Otto von Bismarck, who attempted
to form a German nation.
Another war was fought and this time it was France to be humiliated. The German Empire
was founded and, to make the humiliation complete, the national holiday of the newly
founded country would be the day on which the German army had defeated the French at the Sedan. It would be referred to that day as the “Day of Sedan”.

In addition to all that, the foreign policy of the German Empire in those years was only aimed
at one thing: the isolation for France.
Keeping France weak and Germany in the centre of many different agreements, which
would ensure that a new war between Germany and France would turn out in the favour of
France of course did not take this humiliation, as Germany did not take it before, and waited
patiently for its revenge. With the dead of the first German Emperor and soon after the end
of Bismarck’s leadership in the Empire, Germany would become the isolated country
amongst the European powers, and with the outbreak of the First World War, French and
Germans would again be fighting a war with one another.
It could have gone either way, the circle was not supposed to be broken. With Germany’s
defeat in the First World War France had its platform to lobby for the complete humiliation of
the German Empire. The Treaty of Versailles was in Germany always defined as a
“shameful peace” and it was one of the means that made it possible for Hitler to take power
only a decade later.
The horror of the Second World War was unleashed by Nazi-Germany under Hitler and ever
unmatched. When the war ended in 1945, the allies had to deal with the question “what
should happen to Germany?”
France lobbied strongly for the complete dissolution of Germany, breaking it up in many
small states in order to – once and for all – destroy the enemy of the past two centuries.
However, a different paths was chosen. Western Germany remained intact, and throughout
the 50s Germans and French did not attempt to keep each other small, but to lift one another
Throughout many different organizations, the European communities were established. Yes,
the aim was mainly to control one’s neighbour, the same seighbout who had caused so
much pain in the past, but as time went by the European countries realized that apart from
the control they also benefited from working with each other, and not against each other.
Today, we are experiencing the longest period of peace ever in Europe, and new
generations have never experienced war and only know about it through history books.
Germany and France – once united only in their hatred for the one another – are today the
main actors in the active Utopia that is Europe.
We now have to ask ourselves how these two enemies were able to put all that bad blood
behind them in order to work together and build a new world.
How was it possible to keep the bands of friendship strong also and especially in times of
Looking at all the conflicts going on today, this might be a history to learn from.

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