Minister Fabius, my dear Laurent,
The French and German foreign ministers are just back from joint travels abroad lasting several days. At the end of their trip they’ve now arrived at the residence of the German ambassador in Paris – to take part in an event to commemorate the First World War.
However normal Franco‑German friendship may seem to us today, this is still a moment that should give us pause for thought.
That such friendship is possible at all is nothing short of a miracle.
The contrast to the lowest point in our relations from 1914 to 1918 could not be greater. The cruellest fighting ever seen between Germans and Frenchmen took place on the battlefields of Verdun and the Marne. German Chief of Staff von Falkenhayn spelt out his intentions in spine-chilling language. France was to be “bled white”, he declared, meaning its soldiers must be cut down to the last man.
No one mindful of such sentiments will be surprised to find that, where the First World War is concerned, there no such thing as a shared bi‑national culture of remembrance. But that’s not the whole explanation, as you’ve rightly pointed out, Professor Weinrich. One reason for this difference may be that the First World War was largely fought on French soil, as the endless rows of graves in military cemeteries there remind us to this day.
Another reason is that our memories of World War I have been overshadowed by the crimes against humanity perpetrated by Germans between 1939 and 1945.
Despite the many differences in our national remembrance cultures, however, the most important lesson history holds is one to which we both subscribe. Never again war in Europe’s heartlands! Following the horrors of two World Wars the past six decades have brought reconciliation and the creation of a genuine European community – a great achievement.
Today the European project is firmly written into our mental map of the world.
And that means not self‑isolation behind national borders, but encounters on campsites in Provence or the techno clubs of Berlin. It means not drivel about hereditary enemies but long discussions by young people in our university towns over red wine and cheese.
My generation was the first generation of young Europeans to experience such things in the 1970s. Back then we of course set off to drive through France in an old Deux Chevaux, with sticky gears and a hand crank in the boot – useful when the ignition went on strike, as it often did.
Even today such experiences are tremendously important for young people growing up in a united Europe – although nowadays they’re more likely to be travelling by easyJet than a 2CV or “duck”, as we call it in Germany. All this may seem perfectly normal now. But considering what happened 100 years ago, it’s an absolutely incredible achievement.
And it’s part of this achievement that the business of politics doesn’t now happen in the trenches but in interminable nights negotiating in Brussels. Those may be tough, of course. But for the first time in our continent’s history we now have institutions created to serve the common European good. In the course of the past six decades and despite undeniable setbacks and shortcomings, this idea has brought us unparalleled freedom, prosperity and democracy. And in this Europe – a Europe of bi‑national youth offices, school exchanges, Erasmus flat‑sharing and negotiating marathons – a crisis such as occurred in 1914 is now unimaginable!
When, moreover, our two nations look back at the events of 100 years ago, we take exactly the same view. What happened then was the ultimate failure of diplomacy. In retrospect we find it deeply shocking that those on all sides in charge of their country’s foreign policy in 1914 generally lacked both the will and the ability to prevent the pending catastrophe or chose indeed to ignore it.
In recent weeks my ministry, the Federal Foreign Office in Berlin, has held a series of events focusing on the July crisis in 1914 and the failure of diplomacy at that time. One thing that emerged here, especially with regard to our two countries, was that the prevailing balance of power and its horrendous collapse in 1914 had in part to do with the lack of communication between Berlin and Paris.
In the early 20th century conflict between France and Germany was held to be almost a law of nature. Neither politicians nor diplomats had the means or any desire to seek talks on conflicts of interest that might arise. The other side’s concerns and motives remained in the dark. The readiness to compromise which some might have felt failed to find a voice. And so amidst the patriotic cheering and warmongering, diplomacy quietly threw in the towel. That’s how the crisis culminated in a cataclysm.
So when we criticise today the failure of diplomacy 100 years ago, we are highlighting also how urgently diplomacy is needed at the present time. What’s happening right now is probably diplomacy’s greatest test since the end of the Cold War. There is widespread fear of a new division of Europe, of spectres from the past returning to haunt us. To put it bluntly, Ukraine is now gripped by fear of war.
That’s why what we urgently need now is vigorous, wise diplomacy that opts not to cease communication but actively seeks to prevent a new division of Europe. A hundred years after the outbreak of the First World War and seven decades after the end of the Second World War, our goal is to prevent any return to thinking in terms of spheres of influence. This kind of logic has demonstrated once and for all that it does Europe absolutely no good.
For Laurent and myself as well as our European colleagues one thing is vital. We stand for cooperation in and with our neighbourhood – in Ukraine as well as with our other eastern and southern neighbours – and that specifically includes Russia.
Laurent and myself are just back from a 3‑day trip together that took us to Moldova, Georgia and Tunis. The logic of spheres of influence and zero‑sum games is something we have dispensed with. The lessons of history make us immune to such attitudes – that is the message of this evening.
I am most grateful to my colleague and friend Laurent Fabius for sparing the time to join us this evening in Palais Beauharnais. I am most grateful to Arndt Weinrich and Jean‑Jacques Becker for giving us the benefit of your historical expertise. Michaela Wiegel will do her usual splendid job leading us through the evening. And now let me wind up by thanking you, too, Ambassador Wasum‑Rainer, as well as your embassy colleagues for your excellent organisation and hospitality this evening.