by Barry Edelson


France and Germany on Verge of War (Again)?

Rhine castle
Wilkommen, sort of


Crossing the Rhine at a lovely place where it forms the border between France and Germany, we are told by a local German guide where the border station used to be. "This is where people used to be stopped," he says, with more than a hint of nostalgia. We are in Alsace, a region that alternated several times between French and German rule for much of the 19th and 20th centuries, and where blood still evidently simmers on both sides about the myriad depredations visited by one nation upon the other. Make no mistake: these references to unwanted people getting across the border are not about dark-skinned Moroccans or undesirable Turks. The Germans are clearly talking about the French, and vice versa. To outsiders, the open borders of Europe seem a triumph of international cooperation and a wonder of the post-war world. One would have thought that, for the local populations of both countries, the convenience of unencumbered access and unfettered commerce across the river would alone far outweigh any lingering sense of mistrust of their near neighbors. It is not as if the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 were actually in the memory of anyone still living, or as if the entente of Germany and France since 1945 were not as enduring as that between any former enemies anywhere on the planet. Nonetheless, someone ignorant of history listening to some of the local people talk could easily be led to believe that these events occurred just a few weeks or months ago.

Most of the derogatory comments that the French and Germans make about one another are downright silly. A different German guide says, "Be careful crossing the road in France; the cars here have no brakes." In Colmar, our attention is directed to an old-fashioned iron sign hanging above a butcher's shop, depicting St. Anthony and a pig: the saint is on the west side of the sign, we are told, representing France, while the pig on the east side (need I say it?) is Germany. As we passed castle upon castle while sailing along the "Middle Rhine", our otherwise charming and artless German guide could hardly avoid telling us, over and over, how each of these fortresses was, at some point in its history, sacked by French invaders.

Putting this casual inanity aside, one could form a different impression entirely. It is hard not to notice the mingling of French and German shops and restaurants in Strasbourg, for example, just a few miles inside the French border. Of course, Strasbourg is the seat of the (superfluous) European Parliament and is thereby obliged to be a symbol of Eurocentric triumphalism.
St. Antoine and the Pig
St. Antoine and his German friend
(The city also probably owes the preservation of its surpassing loveliness at least in part to massive inflows of European financing.) Still, the peaceful mingling of peoples all along this section of the Rhine has been going on now for decades without serious incident. Business, friendship and romance must surely flourish amongst these deeply interconnected people. Most seem clearly at ease with the situation, and take full advantage of it, despite the deathless dinner-table jokes about French manners and German cuisine.

It is understandable that an unquestionably brutal history of invasion and counter-invasion still chafes a bit in some people's minds. But whether these expressions of mutual disregard are mere benign manifestations of national chauvinism, or represent actual fear of a detested enemy, it is difficult to say. If not for the persistence of neo-Nazis in Germany and Austria, some of whom have risen to positions of political prominence, and the perennial electoral success of Jean-Marie Le Pen's xenophobic National Front in France, it would be easy to dismiss these casual comments as trivial nonsense. However, it is not difficult to imagine political and economic circumstances in which demagogues on both side of the now permeable border could stir up just enough passion to cause serious trouble. The leaders of Germany and France may enjoy perpetually friendly relations and together form the backbone of the European Union, but that doesn't oblige the citizens of either nation to have warm feelings towards the citizens of the other.

As Americans and Europeans go to great pains attempting to bridge divides among violently divided peoples, from Northern Ireland to Israel/Palestine to the Korean Peninsula, the Alsatian lesson is a salient and humbling one. As the victors in the war against fascism, we have tended to measure the resolution of all subsequent conflicts against the standards set by that uniquely decisive outcome. But without the occupation of Germany and Japan by armies of unprecedented size, without the Marshall Plan and Bretton Woods to rebuild and normalize the post-war economy, and without the United Nations, NATO and ultimately the Treaty of Rome to bind former enemies into international institutions from which it would be fiendishly difficult to disentangle themselves, the European tranquility that we now take for granted might never have come into being. Patriotism and prejudice were bludgeoned into submission, and cemented over by a great prosperity. And it was no sure thing, especially set against Soviet hegemony over Europe's eastern half. None of the other intractable conflicts of the world have any hope of enjoying such a fortuitous confluence of events to ensure their security and prosperity in a post-conflict environment.

It is surely an exaggeration to suggest that France and Germany are on the verge of their umpteenth war. But no one who has witnessed the nationalist hysteria that infects portions of every nation's body politic from time to time should be surprised, should the unfortunate day ever come, if millions of French and German youth willingly take up arms to defend their countries once again. If this is true of one of the most stable relationships in the civilized world, then we ought not to harbor unrealistic expectations on behalf of any people for whom the very existence of their enemy is ingrained in their cultural identity. Governments can open borders, but they can't make people walk to the other side.

August 28, 2010


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