Wednesday 23 March 2016

War and Peace: the French and the Germans this time, by Leslie Wilson

Konrad Adenauer and Charles de Gaulle shake hands
in 1963. Photograph: Bundesarchiv,B 145 Bild-F015892-0010 / Ludwig Wegmann / CC-BY-SA 3.0 

The Regency dandy and Waterloo veteran, Captain Gronow, visiting Paris after the final downfall of Napoleon in 1815, wrote: 'The Duke of Wellington's conduct to the Parisians was kind and considerate…Blücher' (the Prussian general) was not so moderate in his conduct towards the French. His troops were billeted in every house; he obliged the inhabitants to feed and clothe them; and he issued an order.. commanding the authorities to supply each soldier with a bedstead containing a bolster, a woollen mattress, two new blankets, and a pair of linen sheets. The rations per day, for each man, were two pounds of bread of good quality, one pound of butcher's meat, a bottle of wine, a quarter of a pound of butter, ditto rice, a glass of brandy, and some tobacco.' The Prussian horses also received a liberal ration of oats, hay, and straw, all, of course, at the Parisians' expense, and another Prussian General took possession of Marshall Ney's house, together with his plate, carriages and horses. The Russians and Austrians, he noted, were similarly vindictive.

This shocked disapproval, from a francophile English gentleman, shows a marked lack of imagination; Prussians, the Russians, and the Austrians had endured years of occupation and invasion from French troops, which the British had not.

British accounts of recent history often talk as if Germany had only ever invaded France, rather than the other way round. Just going back as far as Louis the Fourteenth's time (though I could have gone back further); the War of Palatine Succession, which began in 1688, and was prosecuted in the interests of Louis's sister-in-law, the Duchess of Orléans, a great-granddaughter of James the First, and daughter of the Palatine Elector Charles (she was horrified by the invasion of her homeland), resulted in widespread destruction. Cities, towns and villages were razed to the ground and their inhabitants driven out to starve, crops destroyed. Destruction was a crucial war aim. Those picturesque ruined castles you can see from the Rhine steamers were knocked down then.

I often hear people say that Napoleon introduced liberal laws to Germany, and indeed, the emancipation of the Jews was clearly a step forward, but this was achieved at the cost of national humiliation. Napoleon put his puppet rulers in place of the German kings, princes and dukes, and introduced conscription. German young men were dragged from the plough and from their jobs and marched off to Russia, slaughtered at Borodino and froze to death alongside French conscripts on the disastrous retreat from Moscow.
Arc de Triomphe, commemorating
the soldiers who fought in the
French Revolutionary and Napoleonic
Wars, by Vassil, Wikimedia Commons.

As for the myth that Napoleon was a civilised conqueror; that may have been true for the upper classes, but in 1812, when the Grande Armée passed through Prussia on its way to Russia, 'Hans Jakob von Auerswald, provincial president of West and East Prussia, reported in April that the farm animals in East and West Prussia were dying of hunger, the roads were strewn with dead animals, and there was no seed corn left…It was said that those who still owned draft animals ploughed and sowed at night, so as not to see their last horse or ox carted off… there were numerous reports of excesses by the troops, especially extortion, plundering and beatings. One report from a senior official spoke of devastation 'even worse than in the Thirty Years' War.'

Taking this into account, the actions of the Prussians in 1815 are more comprehensible, as is also the 'Was für Plunder!' that Blücher is supposed to have exclaimed as he approached Paris as a conqueror. Also the song, 'Die Wacht am Rhein', (Guarding the Rhine) which is often evinced as proof of German expansionism, is about keeping the French aggressor out, he having been there too many times before.

It's a sorry story. France takes Alsace-Lorraine from Germany; Germany takes them back, by which time these provinces feel French, for all the Alsaciens still speak a recognisable (to me, since I visited the Rhineland so much as a little girl) form of Rhineland dialect. The Germans invade France in 1870 to 'settle them once and for all.' But no country ever is settled once and for all. In 1918 the French press for punitive terms in the Treaty of Versailles, and occupy the Rhineland (also with the intention of 'settling them once and for all). Hitler (the man whose territorial ambitions even outstripped Napoleon's) invades France in 1940, to wipe out 'the shame of Versailles', and marches his troops down the Champs-Elysées and under the Arc de Triomphe. Horrific crimes are committed in France (some of them, it must be said, by Pétain and his collaborationists, but it's the presence of the Nazi conquerors that facilitates the worst modern excesses of French antisemitism).

Only then, things change. Post-war - not immediately, the wounds are too raw - but eighteen years later, comes the Franco-German friendship pact. De Gaulle stands in front of City Hall, Bonn, waves his arms in the air and shouts in French and German: 'Long live the great German people!' This is De Gaulle, who has good reason to hate the Germans. 
Brandenburg Gate, a Peace Gate originally.
Napoleon marched his troops through it and
took the Quadriga (bronzes on top) away to Paris.
It was taken back in 1814. Photo: Norbert Aepli,
Wikimedia Commons.

For many reasons, not least the desire to create what is nowadays the European Union, the French and the Germans decide to heal the wounds of the past. German and French statesmen commemorate the victims of Verdun together. The German president, Joachim Gauck, and François Hollande, visit the town of Oradour together, the location of a horrific massacre by the SS in World War Two. Perhaps far more significantly, a Franco-German exchange programme was instituted in 1963, under whose auspices more than eight million young Germans and French people have visited each other's schools, homes, and countries. There are countless other initiatives.

Part of this process, as I said in my February blog, is the Dufours and the Bakers (Mrs Baker having been born German) forging a close and loving friendship, in spite of Marc Dufour having been in the Resistance during the war, and having seen the worst side of Germany. 
Dufours and Bakers having fun in the 60s.

Of course everything in the garden isn't totally rosy. On the other hand, I have never, in fifty-plus years of spending holidays in France (and I speak fluent French) had any unpleasantness from French people who knew I was half German, as opposed to in my own country. French people tend to remark that the war was a long time ago, and that the old enmities have nothing to do with the present generation. I know British people don't always have a positive view of what is sourly called 'The Axis', yet considering the importance of that 'inherited enmity' in the genesis of both World Wars, I am certain that the rapprochement has been a vital force for peace.

I've heard a lot of people, recently, saying that it's not the EU that's kept the peace in Europe since 1945, but NATO. This is the mantra that if you want peace, prepare for war. But the Germans and the French prepared for war for hundreds and years, and itgenerally led to war. The East-West stand-off and buildup of weapons almost led to accidental nuclear war in the '80s (when the Russians thought they saw nuclear-armed Cruise missiles coming over and were on the point of launching the SS20s in response).

I wonder why it should be so far-fetched to suggest that economic cooperation and international peace-making lead to peace? After all, people all over the world live at peace with one another far more often than they fight.

Compare this Franco-German friendship initiative, with Britain, where (sorry, I know I've said this before) too many of my fellow-countryfolk are still fighting World War Two in their heads. It's an important motif for the 'Out' campaign, isn't it? Once again, according to too many people, we have our backs to the wall, fighting a foreign invader who wants to straighten out bananas, take over our sovereignty, impose brutal measures on us (like maternity leave, environmental protection, inoculation of our hens against salmonella so we can safely eat soft-boiled eggs, inspection of pig carcases against roundworm, and waste recycling, so that our country doesn't become one massive landfill site). Behind the EU (according to this rhetoric) stands Nazism.

If only we could have instituted a similar programme, and encouraged Brits to travel to Germany and meet the ordinary people there (still very much a minority pursuit). Maybe there's still time to start?

1 comment:

Miranda Miller said...

I agree, Leslie, that the level of debate has been very parochial and disappointing so far. Do we want to live in a polluted tax haven the size of a postage stamp under the hereditary rule of Old Etonians?