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From enmity to friendship

Michael Marek / cmkJanuary 22, 2013

On January 22, 1963, Germany and France sealed their friendship with the Elysee Treaty. The relationship has seen many highs and lows, but over the last 50 years it has become the engine that drives the European Union.

Image: picture-alliance/dpa

"My heart is overflowing, and my soul is grateful," said an emotional French President Charles de Gaulle in fluent German, shortly after he and German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer signed the Elysee Treaty in January 1963.

The heartfelt words were followed by two kisses on the cheek and a boisterous hug, leaving a flustered Adenauer to say, "I have nothing to add."

'Michel' and 'Marianne'

The Elysee Treaty was signed on a cold winter day in Paris, at the official residence of the French president, the Elysee Palace. Eighteen years after the end of World War II, the two neighboring countries were pledging to discuss all important policy matters, including those related to foreign affairs, defense, education, youth and culture.

Regular meetings between the government heads, ministers and senior officials were to ensure the implementation of the treaty. The German "Michel" and the French "Marianne," representative figures of the two countries who were once bitter enemies, had become partners. That was the political message sent by Adenauer and de Gaulle.

The process of political reconciliation between the two countries had already begun a few years earlier. Robert Schuman, foreign minister from 1948 to 1952, and de Gaulle, elected president in 1958, were among the driving forces.

For his part, Adenauer knew that he was at the end of his political career. The chancellor wanted to leave his successor with a stable foreign policy, but he was reluctant for Germany to part ways with the US and with NATO, as per de Gaulle's wishes.

Deutschland Frankreich Konrad Adenauer Charles de Gaulle Elysee Vertrag
A great gesture of friendship - Adenauer and de Gaulle embraceImage: AP

Two statesmen - one vision

But one vision united the two leaders: a strong Europe that would enter the world political scene independent from the US, not against it. This was the vision that the two statesmen promoted on visits to each other's countries.

From July 2-8, 1962, Adenauer paid a state visit to France. The chancellor and de Gaulle visited the Reims Cathedral together, emphasizing the personal relationship between the two politicians.

Two months later, from September 4-9, de Gaulle visited West Germany and reaffirmed his readiness for reconciliation. In Ludwigsburg, the president addressed German youth.

"I congratulate you on being young Germans, that is, children of a great nation that has sometimes committed big mistakes in the course of its history, but a nation that has also bestowed intellectual, scientific, artistic and philosophical values on the world," he said.

Charles de Gaulle bei Konrad Adenauer in Bonn
Rapturous applause awaited Charles de Gaulle in BonnImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

Amendments in the Bundestag

One week before the signing, however, the Germans saw signs of discord as de Gaulle rejected the inclusion of Great Britain into the European Economic Community (EEC).

Many members of the Bundestag, the lower house of parliament, felt the treaty was in danger, especially since de Gaulle was forcing Germany to choose - against the US and Great Britain, and for France with its nuclear arsenal, the Force de Frappe.

Nevertheless, the Bundestag approved the treaty on May 16, 1963 with a large majority. However, it was expanded by a preamble seen as a clear criticism of de Gaulle's policy. It stipulated that contracts with other countries would not be affected by the Elysee Treaty, allowing Germany to maintain partnerships with the US and NATO.

On June 14, the French National Assembly also approved the Elysee Treaty.

Rose philosophy

Critics at the time said treaties were seldom long-lasting, and compared the Elysee Treaty to roses, doomed to wilt eventually. Adenauer, himself an avid rose grower, had a ready answer: "But the rose - and I understand something on the subject - is the hardiest plant that we have."

Adenauer was right. A half century later, the Elysee Treaty is still a key document of reconciliation. And it's not the only sign of cooperation between the two former enemies.

Since 1988, Germany and France have established a common defense and security council, a financial and economic council and councils devoted to culture and environment. With the formation of a mixed Franco-German Brigade, a joint army corps was set up and has since been further developed and incorporated into the EU-wide Eurocorps.

Bildergalerie zum deutsch-französischen Verhältnis
Kohl and Mitterand at the 41st French-German summit in 1983Image: AP

The political teams of former chancellors and presidents, Helmut Schmidt-Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, Helmut Kohl-François Mitterrand and Gerhard Schröder-Jacques Chirac made use of the treaty and turned both countries into trailblazers of European integration.