The German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer was 87 years old, the French President Charles de Gaulle 72. And yet these two old men stood for a new beginning in the relations between Germany and France. On January 22, 1963, in the French President’s official residence, the Élysée Palace, they shook hands and even exchanged a fraternal kiss. And they signed a treaty declaring the long-held enemies to be friends.
The Second World War was less than 18 years ago. Millions of veterans on both sides still had fresh memories; German propaganda had drummed into schoolchildren long before Adolf Hitler that France was the hereditary enemy. For centuries, Germans and French had fought each other.
Precisely because Adenauer and de Gaulle brought war experience with them, even from two world wars, they “gave the matter all the more credibility,” says Frank Baasner, director of the Franco-German Institute, of Deutsche Welle. Nevertheless, according to Baasner, the friendship treaty would not have been possible without the people of both countries. Long before the signing, “there was a very beautiful, amazing, courageous rapprochement between people in society. It was the culmination of a rapprochement process that came from society. We should not forget that.”
But it wasn’t just about gestures of humanity. Both Adenauer and de Gaulle each pursued strategic goals. And some of them contradicted each other. “On Adenauer’s side, the priority was very clear, that was really his credo: we want to anchor ourselves in the West. And that meant partnership with the USA, and it meant reconciliation with France,” said Frank Baasner.
De Gaulle, on the other hand, wanted to tie West Germany to France to prevent it from allying with the US and Britain against France. Just a week earlier, de Gaulle had vetoed Britain’s entry into the European Economic Community, the forerunner of the EU. US President John F. Kennedy even tried to prevent the Élysée Treaty.
He couldn’t. However, he managed to get the German side to insert a preamble shortly before the treaty was ratified in the Bundestag, which made it clear that cooperation in NATO and the partnership with the USA would not be impaired. Paris gave the green light to the outside world. But de Gaulle is said to have raged behind the scenes. “The Americans are hollowing out our treaty,” the president complained, as his confidant Alain Peyrefitte later said. “And why? Just because the German politicians are afraid that they won’t crawl deep enough before the Anglo-Saxons,” de Gaulle is said to have said.
Despite this initial friction, the Élysée Treaty is considered a great success overall. His goal was, through regular consultations between the governments in foreign and security policy, “to achieve a similar attitude as far as possible”. “I think a lot has happened during the collaboration,” says Frank Baasner. The French side noticed “that the Germans, despite their strong ties to the USA, did not throw the matter away, but then filled out the contract after all”.
But not only politicians and high officials should come together, but also ordinary people. In July 1963 the Franco-German youth organization was founded. To date, it has brought about ten million young Germans and French people closer to their respective neighboring countries through exchanges.
Numerous town twinnings emerged. The Franco-German military brigade has existed since 1989. Three years later, the binational cultural broadcaster Arte went on the air.
On the 40th anniversary of the Élysée Treaty in 2003, both sides agreed on regular joint Councils of Ministers. In his famous Sorbonne speech on the future of the EU in 2017, President Emmanuel Macron also called for the Élysée Treaty to be re-established. This resulted in the Aachen Treaty in 2019, which includes a Franco-German parliamentary assembly and a citizens’ fund to bring people even closer together.
The respective couples at the head of their states or governments were very different at times and harmonized better and worse. The hands-on SPD chancellor Helmut Schmidt and the aristocratic liberal Valéry Giscard d’Estaing shared a deep friendship in the 1970s. Together they laid the foundation for a single European currency. The Christian Democrat Helmut Kohl and the Socialist Francois Mitterand were divided by party affiliation and mentality, but the picture from 1984, of the two holding hands in memory of the dead of the world wars in the Verdun military cemetery, was a particularly strong symbol of reconciliation.
The cautious Angela Merkel and the hyperactive Nicolas Sarkozy also worked very closely together in the euro crisis from 2008, so that the media created the word symbiosis Merkozy. The term Merkron (for Merkel and Macron), on the other hand, never really caught on because the two didn’t harmonize very well, and a combination of words from Emmanuel Macron and Olaf Scholz, the currently incumbent German Chancellor, was not even tried.
When they appear together, Macron and Scholz like to ritually reinforce the close relationship between the two countries, but there hasn’t been much of a personal closeness so far. There is also a political crunch at the moment, for example in dealing with the Ukraine war. Macron and Scholz only traveled to Kyiv together late. When it comes to arms deliveries to Ukraine, Scholz is always more hesitant than Macron. When asked about a gas price cap, Macron even publicly warned that Germany was “isolating” itself in Europe – an affront to Berlin. Both sides are also making very slow progress on joint armaments projects, such as the development of a combat aircraft.
Frank Baasner from the German-French Institute does not want to overstate the problems. “The ability to find dialogue even in crisis situations is not gone. It’s true, there are differences of interest, and the strategic orientations may also be different. Germany has always struggled with something like a geostrategic view of the world, France has always done that. Now Germany may be ready to do the same.” In this respect, he sees good chances that both partners will find closer together again.
And what about the language? The number of German-speaking schoolchildren in France has been declining significantly for years. A lack of teachers and a lack of interest are responsible for the decline in France. The situation is similar on the German side with the interest in French. Giscard d’Estaing is said to have sighed in an interview about the language problem between the two sides: “On s’arrange avec l’anglais” – one makes do with English.
Author: Christoph Hasselbach
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The original of this article “German-French friendship put to the test” comes from Deutsche Welle.