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International > The 2014 Centenary and Franco-German relations

The 2014 Centenary and Franco-German relations

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Angela Merkel à Paris le 11 novembre 2009
© Reuters

Although preparations for the Centenary are at a very advanced stage in France, the same cannot be said for Germany where the First World War does not have the same symbolic value.

The scale of the commemorations planned for 2014 is an illustration, and a stark one at that, of the significance of the First World War for France. It’s not necessarily easy for a German observer to admit but that’s the way it is: the First World War, these four years during which France – at least according to most books – responded, united and ready for the sacrifice, to the gauntlet thrown down by world history, has become over the last ten to twenty years, a founding myth for modern day France. Among the symbolic references of the 5th Republic, the Great War has acquired a meaning comparable with that of the French Revolution of 1789.

Bearing in mind the historic hostility between France and Germany and the success of their reconciliation and their rapprochement, the French commemorative project for 2014 was intended to focus on the solid bond that is the Franco-German relationship today, the source of an enlightened and critical eye on the past.

However, the association that Germany has with the First World War has not only complicated the development of a German position, but it has made it fundamentally more difficult to understand French expectations. One example in particular illustrates very well the strong asymmetry in the perception of the years from 1914 to1918: The death on 12 March 2008, of Lazare Ponticelli, the last surviving First World War infantryman made the headlines of all the newspapers. An official commemoration was broadcast live on TV and teachers were asked to remind their pupils about the life of Lazare Ponticelli and the values he represented. In France, the death of each last surviving veteran was met by a mixture of respect and feeling of loss of a part of the national identity. In Germany, on the other hand, the death of the last German veteran – as far as we know-  Erich Kästner, who died several weeks before Ponticelli, passed unnoticed in German public opinion and with no official reaction whatsoever.

Staying with the subject, one only has to read Angela Merkel’s speech of 11 November 2009, during the joint Franco-German commemoration at the tomb of the unknown soldier under the Arc de Triomphe, to realise that, with all things said and done, from the German point of view, the First World War is largely overshadowed in the collective memory by more recent events such as the Holocaust and the horrors of the Third Reich, on the ashes of which, negative as they may be, was founded the Federal Republic which we know today. Nevertheless, the Great War continues to be of lively interest to museums and the scientific community: numerous projects of significant importance, such as 1914-1918-online, are currently underway but they concern essentially historians and the world of research.

So the different degrees of remembrance of the First World War highlight the absence of a collective European memory. However, the hundredth anniversary of the  “original catastrophe”  (Urkatastrophe) that befell Europe offers us the chance to celebrate the arrival of lasting peace on the continent and, on the German side in particular, to underline once and for all the symbolic recognition of Franco-German relations and European integration.

According to Arndt Weinrich, researcher at the Institute for German History

Full article published on 2 December 2011, full German version available