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Reconciliation at Hartmannswillerkopf in Alsace

During World War I, Hartmannswillerkopf in Alsace was the scene of fierce battles between France and Germany. Now a memorial site will serve as a place of remembrance and reconciliation.

On Friday, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier and French leader Emmanuel Macron dedicated a new memorial to friendship between their two countries.

Standing atop the nearly thousand meter high (3,100 foot) Hartmannswillerkopf in the Vosges, one can see vast swaths of the Upper Rhine and the Alsace. To control the summit is to control the entire region that surrounds it. That, at least, is what generals during World War I thought – both German (Alsace was part of the German Empire at the time) and French.

The first battles for control of Hartmannswillerkopf, also known as Hartmannsweilerkopf or Vieil Armand in French, began at the end of 1914. The skirmishes regularly flared and faded, and in the end, they would go on for almost a year and a half.

Trenches, bunkers and underground shelters

Some 60 kilometers of trenches, bunkers and underground shelters

The ridge changed hands several times during that period. Whoever happened to control it at the time made great efforts installing extensive military structures. Today, one can still view some 60 kilometers (37 miles) of trenches and 600 bunkers and underground shelters.

No victor despite heavy losses

As was the case with so many other World War I battlefields, fighting was fierce at Hartmannswillerkopf, yet there was never a clear military victory for one side or the other. In winter, battles took place in ice-cold temperatures and deep snow – when it was warmer, soldiers sometimes stood knee-deep in a swamp of feces and body parts. Dysentery, cholera and typhoid fever spread among the men.

A painting that captures horror of the battles in Hartmannswillerkopf

A painting that captures horror of the battles in Hartmannswillerkopf

Nevertheless, neither side capitulated. When the peak fell to the Germans, French General Joseph Joffre gave the command: "The Hartmann must be reconquered." His German counterpart, General Hans Gaede, replied: "I keep watch over the Rhine." Losses in the merciless trench war were staggering: Between 25,000 and 30,000 dead on both sides, as well as twice as many wounded each. French soldiers dubbed Hartmannswillerkopf the "mountain of death," or the "man-eater."   

When the front moved north from the summer of 1916 onward, military leaders from both sides began withdrawing troops from Hartmannswillerkopf. At that point, the mountain lost its strategic value. Thereafter, it was mainly the site of artillery duels that transformed the wooded ridge into a cratered moonscape. Hundreds of thousands of grenades were launched in an attempt hold the mountain – to no avail. In the end, neither side won an inch of territory. 

In 1918, the former forest in Hartmannsweilerkopf was completely destroyed

In 1918, the former forest in Hartmannsweilerkopf was completely destroyed by heavy artillery fire

First shared war memorial

Although fighting at the peak turned out to be as militarily senseless as so many other World War I battles, and generated such loss of life, the site never received as much recognition as battlefields like Verdun – not even in France. Numbers of casualties in the Battles of Verdun and the Somme were far higher.

Nonetheless, Hartmannswillerkopf did become a symbol, albeit one that was purely national in nature. In 1932, the French constructed a necropolis to house the remains of some 12,000 dead and the former battlefield was declared a historic preservation site. Then French President Albert Lebrun attended the dedication ceremony. There was no sign of reconciliation with Germany at the time, quite the opposite in fact. One year later, Adolph Hitler would come to power.

The cornerstone for the memorial was laid in 2014

The cornerstone for the memorial was laid in 2014 by French and German presidents Hollande and Gauck

As history would have it, another far deadlier war was to come before a French president would once again visit the site. It was in 2014, to mark the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I, that Francois Hollande became just the second French president to visit Hartmannswillerkopf – at his side, German President Joachim Gauck. The two men were there to rededicate this site of senseless death and enmity as one that would become a place for French-German reconciliation.

It was then that they laid the cornerstone for the museum to now be inaugurated. It is the first shared French-German memorial dedicated to reminding future generations of the fate of those men who fought and died in the trenches of World War I.

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