At the beginning of 2014, history takes us back to the beautiful summer of 1914 when, in just a few days, the world toppled into the horror of a seemingly never-ending war. Out of the 39 million people in France, 1.4 million would lose their lives in that war, without counting the 800,000 handicapped and 4 million injured, or forgetting the 40 thousand square kilometres of our national territory that were devastated.
On 11 November 1918, observers noted that joy was more contained in Paris than in London, despite Alsace-Lorraine having been restored to France. Indeed, the pride of victory and the relief brought by the end of fighting were mixed with the sorrow caused by the carnage that had spared not even a single French family. Between the wars, France was a country of veiled widows, war-orphans and walking wounded. The monuments to the dead in even the smallest of our villages still attest to that.
It is no surprise, then, that France later hesitated to plunge into another slaughter. Before travelling to Munich in 1938, the French President gathered his thoughts in the cemetery of Verdun, where he had fought. The cemetery remains overwhelming in a landscape that is still gloomy and moon-like almost 100 years later. “Never again”, intone the endless rows of graves. In May-June 1940, at a time when the United Kingdom and France stood proudly against Nazism, another invasion killed 90,000 French soldiers in six weeks. Misfortune and occupation followed, with half a million dead.
And yet, my country, exhausted by its trials and tribulations and invaded three times in 70 years, decided not to prepare yet another round of the never-ending cycle of confrontation but to place reconciliation before revenge. Charles de Gaulle, wounded and taken prisoner in the First World War, and saviour of the nation in the Second, attended mass with Chancellor Konrad Adenauer in Rheims, where our kings were crowned in the cathedral whose destruction in 1914 symbolized the barbarity of war. It was at Verdun, the most bloody battle in history, where over 700,000 French and German soldiers died, that President Mitterand and Chancellor Kohl held hands before the monument to the dead.
Germany and France have achieved what no one could have hoped for even believed back in 1918 or 1945. They reconciled. The two peoples no longer consider themselves to be hereditary enemies and no longer fear or hate one another. It was a long road for both sides; the memories were deep-rooted and bitter. Prejudice was strong. It took the genius of the few, the will and courage of the many, imagination and time. It took imagination to create common institutions in which the young people of both countries learned to know each other and their parents learned to cooperate, and time for new generations that were not damaged by war to emerge. Today, the Germans and the French have written common history books in which, together, they spell out a shared story despite a history that so often brought them to blows. History is not destiny. The Germans and the French have proved that.
But there is history as tragedy that envelops peoples, and there is the more modest history narrated by men since the days of Herodotus and Thucydides. That history reflects the passions, prejudice and ignorance of its writers and readers, and, with the advent of compulsory education in the nineteenth century, became an instrument for forging national identities that defined themselves exclusively by opposition to one’s neighbours. It is about this history that the Jordanian presidency has asked us to reflect.
No diplomat would deny that this history is omnipresent in our work. With every conflict, we look to history to understand it, as if only the past can explain human fury — as if each of us has inherited hatreds and fears, the new incarnations of original sins, that make us future Cains and Abels from our very birth. If that were indeed the case, then that history would need to be exorcised. Like the French and Germany teachers, we would need to excise the history books of the hatred and fear they contain. Like the young people of France and Germany, we would need to visit one another on vacation.
What should we make of this inevitability of history that hangs eternally above us? Let us consider France in the nineteenth century. Russia, the symbol of Eastern despotism and oppressor of Poland, in 1891 became, at the drop of a hat, the closest of our allies and friends. Similarly, in 1890 the hereditary enemy of France was not Germany but Great Britain, with which we were repeatedly on the verge of war in those years. If we allied ourselves with Russia, it was probably more in opposition to Great Britain than to Germany. In 1904, the conclusion of the Entente Cordiale buried, in a matter of mere months, a hatred and rivalry that observers of the time would have deemed to be irreconcilable.
Similar examples are manifold, and not only in France. So-called historical conflicts are not perforce eternal. After all, Iran was long Israel’s ally. In other words, it is not history that causes or fuels conflicts. It is conflicts that fashion history in their own image. Two countries that clash or come together do so for reasons of interest, and not because of some sort of eternal destiny. They need to look to the past to provide justification for their hostility or friendship, and they find it without great trouble because history is very accommodating.
History is accommodating because its origins are dubious. It sees itself as a science, and has increasingly become so, but it is written by men. Men have a nationality; they have religion and passions. They are forced to base their versions of history on documents that may be too few or too many, to formulate hypotheses and to make choices. History is human and therefore fallible. Thank God, we are no longer in an age when French Hellenists chose Athens and Germans chose Macedonia as reflections of their views of themselves and of their countries. Thank God, today’s historians are distancing themselves from such biases.
But the average citizen is less subtle, the journalist less scrupulous and the politician less knowledgeable than the historian. It is all too easy for them to find justification in the folly of their ancestors for today’s follies. They will always find it easy to do so. Their neighbours will be, successively, the best of allies or the worst of enemies, since the past justifies everything. “History can be raped so long as the resulting children are good-looking”, Otto von Bismarck is supposed to have said, and he knew what he was talking about. Man continues to rape history, but sires nothing but monsters in his own image. The origin of conflict is to be found not in history but in men. History is but an instrument; to forget that is to confuse the weapon with the assassin.
What are we to do with this history? Shall we imitate the Germans and French and extirpate our prejudices without mercy? Is that possible, or even desirable? Certainly, the question may seem paradoxical, but it remains true that the Franco-German experience is too specific in nature to serve as an example to others. On the one hand, one of the two partners accepted its primary responsibility as part of a brave exercise in soul-searching that far transcended the context of its relations with its neighbours; on the other, it required a common threat to compel them to set aside their suicidal quarrels.
If we set aside such exceptional conditions, we will see that in seeking to neutralize history we come up against the instinctive refusal of the average citizen to believe that the world’s trials and tribulations reflect anything but a faceless inevitability. Man needs a name for his misfortunes. Man needs to feel that he is on the side of justice and reason. He needs a meaning for the sacrifices he and his fellows make. History is therefore necessary, indeed indispensable to him because of its certainties, its explanations and above all its condemnations. We will never deprive people of that need; worse yet, in seeking to do so we may revive disputes that had almost been forgotten and make such fading quarrels topical once more as we come up against people’s refusal to renounce their own convictions. Indeed, a history without guilty parties would force them to admit either to their own share of responsibility for the tragedy, or to their own powerlessness to prevent it. In either case, they will feel that it strips them of their dignity.
No, there is only one solution, and it is not reason. It is time. “Time solves all”, said the poet. Yes, time flows slowly, but even in Europe, with its long memory and many follies, we have forgotten Joan of Arc and Waterloo, and are currently forgetting the Kaiser. We will forget our other misfortunes.
I should like, therefore, to conclude with a paradox. France — a country that in the past century endured a relentlessly tragic history that threatened to overwhelm it and yet was able to transcend the resulting hatred and fear — advises that history be left to its proper place in the debates of historians, so long as they are free to say what they wish and have free access to the archives they need. States should not meddle in history. That is neither their mission nor their remit. However, it is not forbidden to demand that they show a minimum of respect for the feelings of others and for restraint in self-expression that is mindful of the passions that threaten to flare up at any time. In a word, they must exercise the prudence necessary to ensure that history does not seek vengeance for what humankind has inflicted upon it. In hearing some of the statements made here today and considering various approaches, such a call does not seem useless. Franco-German reconciliation was certainly a unique event, but it could serve as inspiration for resolving other disputes.
I cannot conclude without turning again to the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War — a disaster that resulted in the countless ills of the twentieth century. No one wanted the war, yet no one knew how to avoid it. Let that impotence reminds us that we still live on the brink. There may be no longer be any archdukes, but we still have human folly. That is what we must be wary of — what we must exorcise — knowing that it lurks always, whether at home or abroad. Peace is never a given, as the cemeteries of Verdun serve to remind us.