From bitter enemies to firm friends: Germany and France have achieved true reconciliation over the last 50 years. The Elysée Treaty, signed back in 1963, can serve as an example to others.
It was a bitterly cold winter day on January 22 1963 when the then French President Charles de Gaulle and German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer met in the Elysée Palace in Paris. That evening the two heads of state and their delegations faced each other in an opulent, brightly-lit salon, full of mirrors, chandeliers and gold-leaf. After a few last declarations, de Gaulle and Adenauer put their names to the treaty of friendship, the Elysée Treaty. For the two countries it was an historic moment, charged with emotion.
The politicians embraced one another. De Gaulle kissed Adenauer's cheeks. They knew that they would be shaping the future course of Franco-German relations, and of European integration. Hope spilled beyond the reach of the room. At a late press conference, Adenauer spoke in French: "Without this treaty, there would be no union in Europe. The methods may change, but the most important thing has been laid down, and that's that we may never lose the trust of friends."
Milestone in history
The Elysée Treaty is a decisive milestone in the European history. The agreement paved the way for these two former enemies to become the most important partners in Europe. The treaty called for regular consultations between the French and German governments on all important matters, including foreign, security, youth and cultural policy.
According to Gérard Foussier, editor for "Dokumente" the magazine for Franco-German dialogue, even at the start of the 1960s, people were talking of arch enemies. "And we had to make sure that at least two of the larger European countries were able to speak of friendship and cooperation, not of bitter enemies," he told DW.
Model of reconciliation
Other European states often refer to the "model" of Franco-German reconciliation. That's the subject of a book by Stefan Seidendorf, published by the Franco-German Institute in Ludwigsburg. He describes how many of the lessons learnt from the treaty could be applied to other conflict situations.
Seidendorf points to the benefits of political representatives from both governments meeting regularly on all levels. "None of these various representatives can pull out of these meetings," he told DW. "And that takes on significance in times of crisis, when you'd rather not take part or you'd rather avoid the situation."
Often, however, little was discussed or achieved in the meetings. But, he says, there was always an opportunity to "understand the other side's position, and to be aware that the media were waiting for news outside the door. That sense of expectation, and that growing pressure encouraged them to reach compromises and to come to an agreement."
Hope for the future
Alongside the political exchange, Seidendorf says that the consequences of closer social cooperation have also been far-reaching. He calls de Gaulle and Adenauer "visionary" in the emphasis they placed on building up trust between young people in both countries.
The creation of the Franco-German Office for Youth was laid down in the treaty. Seidendorf calls it a "forward-thinking" project. The organization runs exchange programs for young people - since its foundation on July 5, 1963 eight million French and German youngsters have participated in some 300,000 programs.
One of the peculiarities of the treaty is that the youth office was formed as an international organization - so it was above the jurisdiction of the national governments and could not be abolished. That meant it could work on the same level as the governments, and that's why, according to Seidendorf, it's been able to make such a major impact.
Like a fragile rose
However, this was not always destined to be a success story. The German parliament, which had to ratify the treaty, added a preamble to the agreement, focussing on the need to also form a close working relationship with the United States, the United Kingdom and NATO. The French government followed through the aim of strengthening transatlantic ties and improving the standing of Europe in the rest of the world.
President de Gaulle is said to have told his inner close circle, "treaties are like roses and young girls, they have their time." When he came on a state visit to Bonn in July 1963, Adenauer seized upon the comparison: "Rose and young girls - of course they have their time," said the passionate gardener." But the rose - I really understand these things - is the most persevering plant. It survives every winter." De Gaulle indicated he was indeed convinced by the treaty. "A rose lasts only one morning, a young girl doesn't stay young forever. But a rose garden can go on blooming if you want it to. That's the case with this treaty which we have concluded."
Of course, there were hurdles to overcome and mutual prejudices to break down - but the Franco-German friendship has deepened over the years. Gérard Foussier from "Dokumente" calls it an exemplary experience. Particularly because they had to overcome such difficulties, he said, a friendship emerged which other countries could learn from.
"When we communicate that effectively, other parts of the world could say, maybe the time for us has come for us to think about how for example the Israelis and Palestinians could also make such progress," he said.
Author: Ralf Bosen / ji
Editor: Charlotta Lomas