The Ambassador's Speech at the Peace and Reconciliation Award Ceremony - Élysée Treaty Commemoration
„There is the German Fatherland
Where Wrath devours French trumpery
Where each Frenchman is called enemy …”
These lines are part of a German poem composed more than two hundred years ago. First, this poem tries to answer the question of what is Germany, explaining that she is essentially defined by language, Germany being there wherever German is spoken. And then, with the lines quoted, Germany is defined by an antagonism, by her enmity to France. This poem was at the beginning of what was to be called the German-French hereditary enmity.
This was not a calculated enmity, owed to interests best to be preserved in ever changing alliances of ruling houses, where today’s foe is tomorrow’s friend and can become your foe again the day after, like in the preceding 150 years. No, it was an existential enmity which you cannot escape, which is imposed onto you as an ineffaceable trait on the day you enter life until you die, and which you pass on to your children and grandchildren. It was a celebrated enmity you were proud of and did not try to overcome. Being German was glorified and being French was bedeviled.
Not everybody agreed. Germany’s greatest poet, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, said at the same time, after the end of Napoleon’s occupation of Germany:
“I don’t hate the French, even if I thanked God when we got rid of them. How could I … have hated a nation which belongs to the most cultivated on earth and to which I owe a great part of my own literacy? Anyway, it is a peculiar thing with national hatred. It is on the lowest levels of culture where you will find it strongest and fiercest. But there is a level where it totally disappears and where one virtually stands above the nations.”
This voice was not heard for a hundred years. Instead, hatred between the Germans and the French entrenched ever more deeply during the 19th century, culminating in a war in 1870/71 and again in the devastating World War I 1914/18. This last war displayed such horror, with hundred thousands of young soldiers paying the ultimate price for little or no gain at all on the battle fields for the vanity of their superiors, that indeed, today, on this very day one hundred years ago, on the 22nd of January 1917, Woodrow Wilson, President of the United States, translated this idea of cultures standing beyond nations into the sphere of politics with the following words:
“… peace must be followed by some definite concert of power which will make it virtually impossible that any such catastrophe should ever overwhelm us again.”
This idea lead to the founding of the League of Nations after the war, the precursor of the United Nations, the most solemn task of which was the mediation in conflicts and the preservation of peace treaties. Both Germany and France became members, and then two statesmen, the Foreign Ministers of France and Germany, Aristide Briand and Gustav Stresemann, managed to overcome the enmity between both nations for the first time by concluding the Treaty of Locarno in 1924, leading away from confrontation to cooperation in security issues. In 1927, Briand and Stresemann were rewarded with the Nobel Price for Peace for their efforts.
This however was only an ephemeral achievement, and hatred, delusion and a criminal organization of unimaginable magnitude, the Nazis, prevailed in Germany and plunged the world into an even more devastating war which swept the whole world and only ended in 1945. Now, after three wars in the course of 75 years, more than seventy million dead in Europe, Africa and the whole World, thirteen million in Germany and France, devastated countries and destroyed towns, everyone had to acknowledge the conclusion Woodrow Wilson had drawn already in 1917 that this should never be allowed to be repeated. This conclusion was the precursor of the Élysée-Treaty of 1963, concluded by the French president de Gaulle and the German chancellor Adenauer.
At its beginning, the Élysée-Treaty, called French-German friendship treaty, was nothing else than an uncovered check onto the future. Let’s not forget that up to this point, there was no friendship. It was enmity ruling between both people, the spirit of revenge was cultivated, and bogeymen, mourning and traumata resulting from the wars and the humiliation of the defeated were passed on from fighting grandfathers to parents and children. I was a little child then, and in my childhood, the antagonism between French and Germans was still deeply rooted in many people, and many have equated enmity to France with patriotism. And now, some politicians tried to overcome this by prescribing friendship to the enemy!
But then, the miracle happened. French and German people met, they got to know each other, partnerships started, eventually developing into friendship. How was that possible? The secret was that it did not only happen at the political level but also at grass root level: first and foremost, there was exchange between the young people being the future of our relations, between schools and universities; between cities; a German-French university and a German-French battalion were founded; exchange in the diplomatic service and so on. As you might have kindly noticed, joined invitations of the German and French ambassadors in foreign countries are part of this partnership, too.
The German-French reconciliation is the result of an enormous collective effort to overcome the enmity between our peoples passed on by our ancestors. It needed indefinitely more strength and courage to confront the old stereotype bogeymen than to cultivate them. But our example shows that it is possible. We can reject the heritage of our parents and grandparents if it is evil and destructive. We are not slaves of their conflicts. We do not need to continue them. We can shake them off and reshape our relationships. And this is a message we deem worthwhile to deliver elsewhere, and this is why we invited you today.
Having traveled through Uganda, we have witnessed that this beautiful country has had its share of conflicts and traumata, too. Civil war, regional antagonisms, ethnical strife, domination by power and not by law and just too much violence and crime have beset Ugandans. To us, it does not seem that this somber past has been dealt with properly yet. Can our experience contribute to this task?
We are well aware of the fact that there are few things more dangerous in political life than comparisons of individual situations. They are not transferable. Therefore, we must be very careful in learning from them. But then, there are some common denominators in overcoming human conflicts in the whole world. Elements are dialogue, truth seeking, transitional justice, forgiveness and asking for it, reconciliation and awareness of the fact that you can win the future only together and not against each other. This demands courage, and with our example and with our function today we want to encourage.
We have met individuals and organizations in Uganda trying to take up the task of disenthralling their society from the ghosts of the past. They deserve our, they also deserve your support and encouragement. Today, we invited some representatives from one of the most haunted regions of Uganda, from Gulu and Acholiland whom you can interact with later on.
Thank you very much.