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Opinion: European unity is key

Remembering the First World War has an important function. Reconciliation and a united Europe are vital. That's what the French and German presidents showed at the commemoration event in Alsace, says DW's Bernd Riegert.

National anthems, flags, guests of honor, a bow to the fallen, a warm hug and the two presidents inconspicuously holding hands - today's images from Hartmannswillerkopf in the Vosges mountains of Alsace were touching. They won't, however, become engrained in the collective consciousness like the images of former French President Francois Mitterand and former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl standing before the Verdun war graves in 1984 while holding hands.

At the time, Mitterand and Kohl signaled the successful reconciliation of the longstanding enemies France and Germany. "Europe is our fatherland," they declared back then.

Today, 100 years after the outbreak of the First World War, French President Francois Hollande and German President Joachim Gauck signal that we have learned from excessive nationalism and savage massacres. The reconciliation between France and Germany obliges both nations to keep building a common Europe.

Deutschland Frankreich Geschichte Helmut Kohl und Francois Mitterand in Verdun

A historic moment: Kohl and Mitterand holding hands at Verdun

A model for the Middle East and Africa?

Gauck described the European Union as "not a mere historical happenstance, but, instead, a lesson from history that has been institutionalized." Hollande went a step further, describing the peace project of Europe, which has its roots in the horrors of both World Wars, as a possible model and inspiration for other parts of the world.

If arch enemies can reconcile after causing each other misery for hundreds of years, why shouldn't this also be possible in the Middle East or in Africa, he asked. The same applies to Europe as a whole, he added. Hollande said France is willing to do more to promote reconciliation between Ukraine and Russia, while Gauck avoided specifics in his address and remained more reserved.

What's important is that both leaders signaled to Russia that we don't live in a world made up of the nation states of 1914 anymore. Today, the people of Europe work together. And today's Russia shouldn't head down the same wrong path as the Russian Empire did back then.

The message from Hartmannswillerkopf goes: War can no longer be a political tool in Europe, despite its emergence in the Balkans and in Georgia in recent decades - and the current developments in Ukraine.

Gauck issued a clear statement: "Only with one another!" He said Europe has raised a profoundly peaceful generation. "Hereditary" enemies, such as Hollande and Gauck's grandfathers and fathers, do not exist anymore.

Hollande addressed the French people regarding the alarming increase of the nationalistic Front National party in his country and stressed that Europe does not remove people from their homes. The love of one's native country - patriotism - should be understood as a will to live together, he said.

Limited difficulties compared with the past

Portrait of Deutsche Welle's correspondent Bernd Riegert

DW's Europe correspondent Bernd Riegert

Hollande is right when he says that the Europe of today isn't ideal and continues to face controversies. It needs more growth, jobs and solidarity. But it remains a guarantee for peace and freedom. After the experiences of both World Wars, Europeans don't have any other choice than to endure this "extraordinary adventure in the history of mankind," as Hollande put it.

The German president also rejected populist opponents, saying that although Europe still faces difficulties, the generations of Europeans' ancestors would have been glad if today's problems were all that they had to overcome.

Hollande went on to offer some insights into his own family history. Neither of his grandfathers talked much about the experiences they had during the war because they simply couldn't bear talking about it, Hollande said. His conclusion, however, is that today we are not allowed to remain silent. We have to remember and commemorate in order to prevent unnecessary deaths and the horrors of the war from happening again. Gauck summed up with an appeal for a new mindset and renewed remembrance.

Both presidents gave important speeches. They won't reach the historic dimensions of the gesture by Mitterand and Kohl, whose commemorative act would be hard to repeat or outdo.

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