Centenary of the First World War
Exactly 100 years ago, Germany and France went to war against each other, a war which was to involve 72 countries and plunge 65 million men into slaughter. Everything moved very quickly following Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination in Sarajevo on 28 June. (…)
On 28 July, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia; on 30 July, Russia – Serbia’s protector – mobilized its soldiers. On 1 August, Germany rallied behind the Austro-Hungarian Empire. France and Russia immediately ordered a general mobilization, and on 3 August 1914, it was war.
The war hadn’t waited: the previous day in Joncherey, not far from here, a German soldier and a French soldier were killed: Albert Mayer, aged 22, and Jules-André Peugeot, aged 21. The first two names on a long list which was to number several million: 1,500,000 on the French side, two million on the German side. I’m not forgetting the wounded, the crippled, the gas victims, those with severe facial injuries whose bodies, faces, would bear the scars of the conflict for the rest of their lives.
The First World War left its mark, too, with battlefields which today have become places of remembrance: Hartmannswillerkopf is one of them. The French used to call it – and still do – the Vieil-Armand, then “the man-eating mountain”. The mountain was to devour 30,000 soldiers. (...)
A binational museum is soon to be built. It will symbolize the reconciliation between France and Germany, and, above all, the desire to forge a common remembrance together. Vieil-Armand has 1,256 graves and, next to them, the remains of 386 soldiers who, along with many others, couldn’t be identified. This is why our two nations share the same grief – they are unable to tell whether these unknown soldiers are French or German. (…)
Both my grandfathers fought in the war – this one and the one which followed. Both of them found it hard to talk about what they had endured, what they had lived through. They remained silent – no doubt out of sensitivity, but also purposely – about the horrors of the war so that the idea of peace should be better ingrained in us, in me personally.
Well, we must do the complete opposite today. We, the descendants, have a responsibility to recall the suffering, the suffering they went through, to get a better understanding of the barbarity and prevent any return. (...)
France and Germany, beyond the suffering and bereavements, were bold enough to make their peace with each other; it was the noblest way to honour the dead and offer the living a guarantee of peace. Chancellor Adenauer and General de Gaulle had this courage when they signed the Elysée Treaty in 1963, whose anniversary we celebrated, once again, together. Later, Chancellor Kohl and President Mitterrand caused a great outpouring of emotion when they joined hands in Verdun on 22 September 1984. From a place of desolation, they expressed a promise for the future, a hope.
We shall be doing this again later, President Gauck, when we lay the foundation stone for Hartmannswillerkopf’s Franco-German Historial (1). This museum will be the first Franco-German institution devoted to the Great War. Sealed in its foundations will be the message of peace which young German and French people wrote together for future generations.
In this way, Vieil-Armand will no longer evoke only the soldiers who confronted each other 100 years ago; it will be one of the symbols of Franco-German friendship and peace. (…)
Peace isn’t something so natural, so firmly established that we no longer have to do anything to preserve it. It is each generation’s responsibility to defend it always and pass on the awareness of its fragility to the next. This is a job which unites us, Mr President. France and Germany, which fought each other so many times over a whole century, are setting the world an example. It is a strength and an invitation wherever peace is threatened, wherever human rights are flouted, wherever the principles of international law are short-changed.
This is what we, France and Germany, are doing to find a way out of the Ukraine crisis, open the door to dialogue and negotiation and also punish the violations of Ukraine’s territorial integrity. In the same way, when innocent people are persecuted on the grounds of their origin, opinions, religion, when they are victims of their own government or when they’re hit by terrorism, obscurantist factions – as are the Christians in Iraq and women in Nigeria –, then France and Germany must make their response heard and calm the cries of distress.
This is also what we are doing in Africa: in the Sahel, to stop terrorist groups; it is what we are doing in the Central African Republic, where there was a risk of genocide; and it is what we have got to do time and again in the Middle East to put a stop to the massacres. We must strive to impose the ceasefire in Gaza today more than ever and end the civilians’ suffering. I say this here, at a place of remembrance.
But to those who have lost faith in the Middle East peace process, what finer message can we deliver than today’s. The history of France and Germany shows that will can always triumph over fate, and that peoples who were viewed as born enemies can, in a few years, make peace with each other. That is the image we must give for all peoples who have concerns about the future and who are still in conflict today. (…)./.
(1) A memorial to the history of, in this case, the First World War (from the words “history” and “memorial”).