France is rich

The magazine - No. 62

Twenty-three armed conflicts in 500 years, plus two world wars with millions of deaths. A new war every 20 years. Anyone who is 80 years or older today grew up with the stony truth: The French are the enemy, and they will always be. Isn't it necessary to call two countries, which fought with each other as often as France and Germany, as hereditary enemies?

Hereditary enmity is like so many catchwords: They hit, but they often don't. For a long time in the past 500 years there was no “Germany”. It is true that an emperor ruled over the “Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation”. But he mostly came from the House of Austria, from the noble family of the Habsburgs. And anyway: The empire was more of a patchwork of hundreds of small and micro states, each with their own tariffs, their own units of measurement, and their own wars.

Not Germany, but the House of Austria was therefore long considered France's greatest adversary. Mostly French troops tried to conquer territories in the east, with more or less great success. That didn't change either when a new state became more powerful and powerful in the northeast of the Holy Roman Empire in the early 18th century: Prussia. The country was still a regional power, not a big player on the European stage. Not yet.

At that time, the noble houses of Europe made politics on the battlefield (through wars) and in bed (through clever marriage). Not much was inherited - except for diseases due to frequent inbreeding. Alliances were forged and then fell out again, sometimes within a few years. France and Prussia also had such an on-off relationship.

Friedrich II., Known as "the great", becomes king in Prussia in 1740. He is a mystery to the French. Friedrich writes and speaks excellent French, even better than German - that's enough to scold him. Voltaire, France's sharpest-tongued philosopher, was a guest at his palace in Potsdam for three years. Friedrich calls it "Sanssouci" and not, as it would be called in German, "Carefree". But no matter how much the French praise Upper Prussia for his philosophical vision, they are just as suspicious of his military adventures in Silesia and Saxony.

France soon had other concerns than the enemy in the east. After the revolution of 1789, the Corsican Napoleon Bonaparte came to power in France. With his “Grande Armée” he conquered territories from Gibraltar to Danzig, and he also took the Holy Roman Empire. He triumphantly passes through the Brandenburg Gate. France is now at the height of its power, Germany more fragmented than ever. It will not recover from this hurt for a long time.

Napoleon knows how to lure the vanquished. He turns the electors of Saxony, Bavaria and Württemberg into kings, because nothing is as captivating for sole rulers as a new ermine fur. But the flattery helps Napoleon only briefly. In 1812 he was overwhelmed by his hunger for power. In the Russian campaign he lost the battle for Moscow, only a fraction of his Grande Armée survived the retreat. With 675,000 men, including up to 200,000 Prussian, Saxon and Bavarian soldiers, Napoleon went to war. He came back with a total of only about 100,000 half-frozen invalids.

The occupied German states, above all Prussia, never wanted (or had to) go to war for this tyrant. They were tired of the French, this invasive people, who always knew everything better and always seemed to have everything earlier: the nation state, the revolution, the rule over Europe.

The writers, too, rose up against the occupiers with their pens and rifles. In order to call the Germans, who primarily felt like Prussians, Bavarians and Württembergians, to arms across all regional borders, they invented a caricature: here the noble Germans, there the cunning French. The greater the hatred of France, the more patriotic the feelings. Because nothing unites like a common enemy. In the Wars of Liberation from 1813 to 1815, the Austrian, Prussian and Russian troops drove Napoleon back across the Rhine.

One who stood out in particular with his hatred of the French was the writer Ernst Moritz Arndt. His books and poems became phenomenal bestsellers, published hundreds of thousands of times. "I hate all French people without exception in the name of God and my people," wrote Arndt. “I teach my son this hatred. I will work my whole life so that the contempt and hatred of this people will take root in German hearts. ”If hereditary enmity were really hereditary: This is where the mutated gene would be found.

And on the French side? You read another bestseller, “De l’Allemagne”, and learned that Germans are good at poetry, but also drink a lot of beer. The author Germaine de Staël had toured Germany several times and now portrayed the neighbors as a people of “poets and thinkers”: a bit strange and melancholy, but also clever.

However, enthusiasm for Germany in France soon faltered. Again it was a Prussian leader who came to power and who impressed and disturbed the French in equal measure: Otto von Bismarck, Prime Minister of Prussia, led a regiment with "blood and iron". His campaigns against Hanover, Hesse and Denmark in the 1860s made France shudder. How powerful could this Prussia become?

It is also Bismarck who conjured up the Franco-Prussian War of 1870/71 by means of a ruse. Both France and Germany are not innocent of this. This time the Germans bring the French to their knees and conquer Alsace and Lorraine. The Germans cure their inferiority complex by humiliating their neighbors. The founding of the German Empire is announced in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, the splendor of the French kings. The Germans behave like a poacher who first kills the elephant, then puts the boot on the tusk and finally takes a selfie. An unspeakable disgrace for the French.

During and after the war, the term “hereditary enmity” was used literally. In the newspapers, on posters and in the history books of France there is talk of the "bleeding wound" of Alsace and Lorraine. Some even demand vengeance, in French "revenge". Even in churches it is preached that the Germans and the French have been irreconcilable enemies for centuries.

A good 100 years later, this seed is growing. In 1914, both sides entered the First World War with the slogan “civilization against barbarism”. The barbarians are always the other. The French still don't understand the Germans. The neighbors seem to be schizophrenic: dreamy with their heads, bellicose with their fists. As a “blank with inventor patents; The French writer André Suarès characterized the Germans in 1915 as a doctor of the art of murder, of lying, of the art of defamation, of setting fire.

The memory of the First World War is still fresh when German divisions roll towards Paris again in 1940. France quickly surrenders, also to prevent worse - and collaborates. Only the Resistance under Charles de Gaulle, but above all the Allied troops, succeeded in retaking the occupied country in 1944.

It took five years before Ludwigsburg and Montbéliard began their first Franco-German town twinning after the war. Today around three quarters of all Germans and French live in cities and municipalities with a partnership. From the late 1940s, two dozen German and French historians and history teachers set about eradicating the legacy of hereditary hostility. The hatred should not be passed on to future generations. The questions they need to clarify couldn't be more intricate. Who was entitled to Alsace-Lorraine and when? Were Napoleon III. and Bismarck warmongers? And who started the First World War? Figuratively speaking, this meeting is the germline therapy of hereditary enmity.

The Franco-German rapprochement was sealed in 1963 with the Élysée Treaty. In the cathedral of Reims, President Charles de Gaulle and Chancellor Konrad Adenauer shake hands beforehand. Eighteen years after the end of the war, de Gaulle, of all people, the hero of the Resistance, the conqueror of Paris, negotiated the rapprochement. Apparently it is not too difficult for him. "Our greatest hereditary enemy is not Germany, but England," he confides in an advisor.

If you follow the expression “hereditary enemy” through the centuries, quite a lot was indeed inherited: sometimes the Habsburgs considered the Ottomans to be the hereditary enemy, then the Netherlands Spain, then Spain England, then England France, then France Germany. Which says more about the term “hereditary enemy” than about these countries and their relationships. In any case, the domino game of power ended 72 years ago, calculated in units of hereditary enmity: for three wars that did not take place. From this point of view, it is a miracle that the European Union did not receive the Nobel Peace Prize much earlier.