Europe’s titans celebrate 50 years of friendship

‘An ever-closer union’: The rulers of France and Germany celebrate their ‘intimacy’ in 1962.

France and Germany were once the warring giants at the heart of a troubled continent. Then, in 1963, the Elysee treaty made them best of friends. But will the relationship last?

President François Hollande of France is an anti-American patriot, passionate about national identity and suspicious of big business. Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany, is a conservative capitalist who aims to spur the nations of Europe to ever-greater ‘unity and integration’.

Their philosophies are miles apart; and their personal relationship is said to be little closer. Yet this week Europe’s two most powerful rulers stand side by side as their countries celebrate fifty years of a ‘friendship’ that has shaped their shared continent.

In 1945, as the two powers emerged from half a century of waging war against each other in the bloodiest conflicts ever fought, this warmth would have seemed deeply improbable. The two world wars killed over eight million French and German citizens, while their struggle for European dominance sucked in nations as far afield as Australia and Japan.

But the enmity stretches back beyond 1914. French and Germanic nations have been at each other’s throats for much of the last 400 years, starting in the 16th Century when an empire ruled from Austria challenged French control of Central Europe. The ensuing ‘Thirty Years War’ annihilated a third of the German population.

Over the next two centuries another German power emerged: Prussia. Tensions with France grew, and in 1870 they exploded into the Franco-Prussian War. The upstart Germans vanquished their proud rivals, and France surrendered to the new German Empire in the Palace of Versailles.

So when, two world wars later, Konrad Adenauer of Germany and Charles de Gaulle of France met in Paris in 1963 to sign the Elysee Treaty, centuries of hostility came to an end. The two countries, they agreed, would be at the heart of an ‘ever-closer union’; no important decisions would be taken without mutual consultation.

And so it has proved: after decades of peace and cooperation, Germany and France now form the core of a 27-nation European Union. But with the common currency in crisis, this crucial relationship has grown strained. Will it last?

A strained relationship

It must, some argue: the alternative is a return to bitter rivalry and conflict. ‘Nobody should believe that another half century of peace in Europe is a given,’ says Angela Merkel – ‘it’s not’. For the stability of the continent and for global prosperity, claim Europe’s leaders, this is the most important relationship in the world.

But others believe that this relationship has run its course. The Elysee Treaty ended centuries of war, they say: that is worth celebrating. But France and Germany are different countries with different goals and it is time their rulers accepted it. This cheering and hand-holding, says French newspaper Le Monde, is nothing but ‘a festival of hypocrisy.’

You Decide

  1. Is it reasonable to fear a Third World War starting in Europe?
  2. Can two independent nations really be ‘friends’? Or does every country simply look out for its own interests?

Activities

  1. Draw a political cartoon to represent the relationship between France and Germany as you see it.
  2. ‘Rivalry between France and Germany was the most important cause of both the First and the Second World War.’ Write a brief essay outlining the extent to which you agree with this statement.

Some People Say...

“War is the natural state of Europe.”

What do you think?

Q & A

What difference does this ‘friendship’ make to me?
Plenty: it’s the foundation of the European Union. If you live in Europe, the EU plays a role in many aspects of your life, from defining fundamental rights to regulating the things you can buy and sell and providing subsidies for some industries. And even if you live elsewhere, the EU is a powerful force in diplomacy and the global economy; without it, international relations would change drastically.
But could there really be another war?
Modern Europeans are generally very suspicious of war: only eight percent ‘strongly agree’ that it is sometimes necessary, compared to 49% of Americans. But the pressures of economic decline and global warming could cause serious tensions in Europe over the next century, and not everybody is optimistic.

Word Watch

An empire ruled from Austria
This was the Northern half of the Habsburg Empire, comprising the Germanic Holy Roman Empire, the Kingdom of Hungary and several smaller powers.
German Empire
Until 1871, Germany was fragmented into many small kingdoms, principalities and republics. But many longed for a united Germany, and in 1871 this dream was achieved by a mixture of Prussian might and clever diplomacy by the famous Otto von Bismarck.
Palace of Versailles
This grand, decadent palace, located just outside Paris, is the symbol of French glory and might. For a foreign enemy to use this as the site of their greatest triumph caused enormous shock and humiliation – even sparking a small civil war.
Konrad Adenauer
Known as ‘Der Alte’ (or ‘The Old One’), Adenauer was the oldest-ever democratically elected leader. He oversaw Germany’s recovery from defeat in World War Two and established West Germany as a firm friend to America and the West.
Charles de Gaulle
After leading the French Resistance to German occupation in World War Two, de Gaulle dominated French politics for almost three decades. Many consider him to have shaped modern France.
Common currency in crisis
Many of the 17 EU countries that share the Euro as a currency have built up unsustainable debts that would usually require action such as devaluation by a national bank. But with a shared currency this is impossible, and European leaders are engaged in a frantic struggle to hold the Eurozone together.

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