Understanding history for the future

Article published on May 9, 2005
community published
Article published on May 9, 2005

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

How does the EU generation come to terms with Europe’s past? A French girl in Berlin and a German girl in Paris think about history and what we can learn from it.

“Long live Bonn, long live Germany, long live the Franco-German Partnership.” These were Charles De Gaulle’s words when he visited Germany in the autumn of 1962. Just a few months later, on January 22, 1963, Konrad Adenauer and Charles de Gaulle laid the building blocks for the current close relationship between these neighbouring countries and for European integration. Of course, the history of bilateral relations between Germany and France is complex and includes three major wars over the past 150 years. Germany’s occupation of France during the Second World War also influences the negative images of Germany held by many French people. So how do German and French youth deal with their history today? Has the past been forgotten or does it remain alive in the present? Clemence Delmas (French, 26) and Ruth Bender (German, 22) describe how they see history and their future.

Clemence: “I’ve ‘occupied’ Berlin for six years!”

I relish the lovely Berlin summers after surviving the grey winters. I eat monster-sized éclairs and say the word balcony with a German accent. I use a communist-era motorbike to get around and even my cat is German. I blend right in! Still, there are some things I cannot do. The way Germans take forever to make a decision is too democratic for me (remember, centralisation has its benefits…). Having rolls and cold cuts for dinner is just depressing and I don’t like the word Auslander, which means “foreigner”.

My great- great-grandparents would not be very happy if they knew that one of their own descendants lives in Prussia today. They fled Alsace-Lorraine in the late 1800s so that their children would not grow up “German.” On the other hand, my grandparents made sure that their children learned German early on. Today, 50 years later, my father and aunt still keep in contact with their German pen-pals, whom they visited so long ago. Moving to Berlin, though, had little to do with my family history. I love this chaotic city and its university system, so I stayed.

Although the French often have little interest in Germany, there is a lot they can learn from their neighbours. For one, education is more accessible for people of all ages in Germany than in France, although the Germans want to copy French style elite education and elongate the school day (at the moment, school in Germany finishes at 1pm). There are so many community colleges where one can learn computer skills, foreign languages or tango cheaply. At the Federal Centre for Political Awareness, everyone has access to a whole range of publications on politics and history. The French would also benefit if they emulated Germany’s confrontation with its past. Germans often envy the ease of French patriotism. Perhaps the French should put their national pride in context and take a hard look at their own history and its present consequences. The dark side of France’s past is explained away as the betrayal of French civilisation. This is how France’s image remains untouched and a concept like collective guilt remains unknown.

In contrast, second and third generations of post-war Germans have a lot to be proud of: they have a true democracy and have confronted their past courageously and thoroughly in a way that would be inconceivable in France. Of course, having a more positive national identity would help improve the integration of immigrants. If native Germans are not proud of being German, why should immigrants view the national community as something worth belonging to? My parent’s generation has reconciled with Germany. The youth of France and Germany must now continue a critical and constructive exchange.

Ruth: “I’m not your everyday German”

I am German, but I could never say that I am proud to be so because that sounds so strange. With the horror of Nazism, German identity became a complicated and controversial affair. My friends abroad say that I’m not your everyday German. My best friends in Germany are Jewish and I’ve visited Israel twice. Currently I’m living everywhere but Germany. Is this so out of the ordinary for Germans? What does it even mean to be German today?

Dealing with history was part of growing up. For many years my mother worked for the Society for Christian and Jewish Cooperation in Frankfurt and talked to my sister and me about the third Reich. Few of my grandparents’ generation could bring themselves to talk about their experiences during Nazi Germany. My parents’ generation reacted to the past through revolt or claiming ignorance. My generation, the third generation, has a special concern for Germany’s future. We will be the last ones able to ask the few living eyewitnesses about what they saw during the Nazi period. I’ll never forget when the Auschwitz survivor Arno Lustiger visited my class in primary school. His stories really moved me and I wondered how he could stand to stay in Germany after the war. He explained, “I am here today to tell you young people my story so that you can learn not to repeat the past.” It really took a long time before victims and perpetrators had the courage to tell their stories just as it did for France and Germany to build their friendship. The sensibilities of my grandparents’ era will follow Germany for some time to come and each person has to learn to deal with his own past.

Although some Germans think this topic has been over-examined, I disagree. Only when we are conscious of the atrocities of the past can we look forward to a new Germany and a new Europe. Forty years ago, Adenauer and De Gaulle took the first step, and today it’s up to each person, not just in Germany or in France, but around the world, to understand history so we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past.