German-French Relations

European journalists have created a new character, “Merkozy.” This androgynous superhero is entrusted to rescue the Euro, the European Union, and whatever else is currently going downhill on the old continent.

The desire for strong leaders is nothing new, but creating the hero by fusing the German chancellor–Merkel–with the French president–Sarkozy–is remarkable considering the history between the two countries.

Until the mid-20th century, Germany was France’s Erbfeind (archenemy), and vice versa. And you couldn’t really blame the French, for three times in about seventy years, between 1870 and 1945, German armies defeated them and devastated their territory.

The first time, in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870/71, it was Napoleon III. who declared war against Prussia, but most historians agree that the German chancellor Bismarck had cleverly maneuvered the French into a position where they would be blamed for the outbreak of the war and Germany would win. Not only did Germany win, but Bismarck used the occasion to announce the founding of the German Empire and to crown the new German Emperor in the heart of defeated France, in Versailles.

The second time France was devastated by German armies was during World War I. To be sure, Germany lost that war, but German armies had initially invaded by violating Belgium’s neutrality and the four years of trench warfare along the Franco-German border caused extreme destruction and mass death among French soldiers and civilians. The French hardly felt as victors in the end. Moreover, the conflict dragged out after 1918, because France occupied Germany’s industrial region, the Ruhrgebiet, until 1924, trying to make sure that the Germans will not rearm and that the industrial profits would be used for the payment of reparations to France.

Finally, something similar played out during World War II, when Germany again invaded through neutral Belgium, occupied France and Paris, and then destroyed a big junk of France’s territory when retreating from the Allied armies that had landed at the beaches of Normandy and were pushing the Germans back to the Rhine.

So, it’s probably understandable that there was some mistrust against the Germans after 1945. What’s fascinating is that despite all this the two nations could not collaborate closer at the moment. So what happened?

A lot has probably to do with generational change, but there is at least one formal event that allowed the two nations and their people to overcome old animosities: The so-called Elysée Treaty, signed by Charles de Gaulle and Konrad Adenauer in 1963. To put it simply, the treaty obligates the two countries to consult with each other in all important aspects of foreign policy, security issues, cultural policy, and youth policy.

This treaty has endured, despite some up and downs in the personal relationships between the various leaders of the two countries.

Indeed, the relationship is so good now that a majority of French people in a recent survey by the newspaper Le Parisien said they have more trust in the problem-solving skills of Merkel than in their own president (reported by the Süddeutsche Zeitung).

The good relationship is also visible in the gentle mockery of Merkel in the political cartoons of one of France’s most famous cartoonists, Jean Plantu. You can see some of his work below.

A link to his website is here.

If you’d like to hear more about the history of the French-German relationship, as well as about the current issues in politics, there’s a promising lecture at the Atlanta German Cultural Institute on Thursday evening by Dr. Vicky Birchfield, titled “From the Elysée Treaty to Merkozy: Taking Stock of French-German Relations and the Future of the European Project.”