The French and the Germans have been great rivals in the last 150 years.
In 1871, the Prussians, declared victory over France in the Franco-Prussian war by crowning their king in the French royal palace at Versailles – nothing short of a sacrilege. France was widely regarded as Europe’s strongest military power of this era.
These wounds opened up further and were daubed with salt through two devastating World Wars. Most of the First World War on the Western front and its 4 year long trench stand-offs were fought within the borders of France. Large expanses in France are still unusable today due to unexploded shells from these battles.
Once Germany lost the First World War, the treaty of Versailles (I wonder if this name was mere coincidence) imposed stringent conditions on the German people. Based on a deficit of trust German people had to pay reparations, cede territory and adhere to stringent economic sanctions.
The terrible aftermath of the treaty of Versailles plunged relations between the two countries further, culminating in Adolf Hitler declaring war on France. The Second World War saw the Nazis occupying France for 4 years. Together, both wars had claimed more than 10 million French and German lives.
But French and German relations today, about 60 years after this period of devastation, couldn’t have been stronger. The two countries have an excellent understanding and it was their partnership that led to the European Union’s formation. The ministerial cabinets of both countries meet at least twice every year. Great student exchange opportunities between the countries ensure that this friendship grows stronger with the next generation.
How could this happen? How could such bitter rivals turn into thick friends within 40 years, a rivalry that spanned centuries and with wars that wiped out more than 10% percent of their collective populations? This was the question I posed to a couple of French friends who visited us in Berlin.
Their response was intriguing. The French and the Germans aren’t close friends in spite of their violent past, but because of it.
Charles De Gaulle and Konrad Adenauer, the leaders of France and Germany after the war, signed the Élysée Treaty. This time, they based the treaty on trust, seeing as how mistrust had only yielded another war that was far more devastating than the first one. A string of joint measures ensured that this friendship grew stronger with every passing decade. Both nations were committed to ensure that violence never broke out between them. Never again.
By doing so, they demonstrate that the worst of rivals can put their past behind them to foster a friendship that transcends it.
The wrong lesson to take from this story is that these periods of carnage were necessary evils. That is the cynical view.
The alternative is to foster what Nicholas Taleb terms as being antifragile – to use our adversities to grow stronger rather than crumble under their toll. In the aftermath of every period of difficulty and turmoil, there is a shining opportunity to get stronger and ensure that those periods would never come to pass again.
It depends on which pair of eyes we use to examine our past – the ones that Hitler used, as he declared war, or the ones that De Gaulle and Adeneuer used to usher a golden era of friendship between two pivotal members of the European Union.