By Elisabeth Hellenbroich
“Versailles. A peace that brought no peace,” was the title of a forum the Konrad-Adenauer- Stiftung (KAS) of Mainz held on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the Versailles Treaty. The seminar consisted of short presentations, a panel discussion between representatives from France and Germany, as well as a plenary discussion with the invited guests. Keynote speeches which were given by German historian Professor Michael Stürmer and Professor Henri Ménudier (political scientist and Germany expert, Sorbonne), shed some light on the history of the Treaty of Versailles. The French speakers Richard Stock and Dr. Juliette Roy gave an impressive presentation about the initiatives that France and Germany had taken in the past decades that contributed to reconciliation between France and Germany, in commemoration of the victims of the First World War, and organized many encounters between young people from France and Germany. In light of the present day crumbling of the “Pax Americana” as guarantor of stability and the legacy of the Versailles Treaty the discussion with the plenum made an aspect very clear: what urgently is needed today is a stable global order based on a well-functioning German–French cooperation. This also includes the necessity to find a new approach for a strategic dialogue with Russia that will play an indispensable role in the search for peace solutions in the Middle East and other conflict zones in the world.
The message of peace from Fiquelmont
In a presentation with documentary material – a co-production between KAS (Konrad Adenauer Foundation) and the Centre Européen Robert Schuman (CERS) – the graduate political scientist Ingo Espenschied from the KAS talked about the historically significant discovery made in 1981 in the attic of the barn by French farmer Boulanger: it was a bottle, in which 6 German Hussars had left a message of peace for future generations. These German soldiers near Verdun had to witness “nationalism, militarism and slaughter on the battlefields at first hand, and had to faintly watch as the entire European continent fell by its own fault into the abyss,” Espenshied commented. As you can see from a CERS pamphlet entitled “Message of Peace from Fiquelmont – We are Brothers. For a United Europe and Friendship between Peoples,” the young soldiers in a dramatic appeal addressed future generations.
In the live documentary, quotes were given from the bottle post. They described how they were marching from Fiquelmont from July 1915 to August 1915: we went from Fiquelmont to the trenches along the stream of Rennesselle across from Hennemont. Later, we cultivated the surrounding fields and meadows. The terrible war was in their memory inextricably linked with the barn of Fiquelmont and they described how day after day, from the little window we could see the thick smoke of battle; we saw the blood-red explosions of the shells on the far hills and at night, feeling that we could never truly perceive the ultimate weary extent of the horror, we would watch the trails of the tracer bullets and thin white beams of the floodlights that swept the sky like menacing ghosts. And day after day we simply hoped for peace. A peace that never arrived! When will it come?
At the end of the message they write that war is a harshly dangerous undertaking, and the suffering borne by the populations of the occupied territories is great, very great, born of a bitter hatred provoked by the leaders, by those in power. We, the soldiers, don’t share these ideas. We abhor the war and we hope for peace. Which should be the legacy to our grandchildren as the price for this senseless fighting, and which should fill the hearts of this world, for and against, as a presentiment for one, as a reality for another, as happiness and hardship. Utopia and a possible Eden can be found in a united Europe, friendship between peoples and expression of the fact that we are united as brothers. Greetings to you, the unknown finder of these words.
(Follow the names of the 6 German soldiers who drafted and signed the appeal).
Historical consequences of the First World War
The general remarks made by the speakers underlined why the First World War burnt itself into the collective subconscious of Europe as a devastating bloody war with severe losses. Every forty seconds there was a fatal toll during the bombing and Verdun was the only major “mass battle” – called by the French “la grande guerre”. At the time, 500.000 German soldiers took part in the battle under German General von Falkenhayn, and 2.5 million artillery shells were fired. In September 1916 the battle of Verdun ended, 300 000 German and French soldiers were killed. It is only against this background that the message of Fiquelmont Utopia and possible Eden for a United Europe, a legacy for Europe gains momentum.
The Treaty of Versailles did not “end the First World War in strict terms of international Law,” Professor Stürmer stated at the beginning of his short speech. According to him the peace treaty was a “dictate” and the “Germans had played their cards badly.” One should understand the historical dimension of the First World War and the peace treaty on the background of the German / French war (1870/71), he said. For the French, this Blitzkrieg came as a shock. On January 18, 1871, there was the founding of the German Reich, the founding of a nation state in the Hall of Mirrors of Versailles. The French coal and steel region Alsace-Lorraine was then incorporated by Germany. The Germans wanted to have more prestige. The Chancellor of the Reich Otto von Bismarck, who resigned in 1890, was described by Stürmer as a prudent foreign politician, whose foreign policy dilemma was that he built a complex alliance system and at the same time tried to create a balance of power.
“The seminal catastrophe of the 20th century” (George Kennan)
The famous American diplomat and historian George Kennan, with whom Michael Stürmer had cooperated at Princeton University, had pointed out that Bismarck’s demise was a consequence of the alliance between France and Russia. In Kennan’s opinion, the outbreak of World War I was the “primal catastrophe of our century.” A look at the Ottoman Empire at that time shows that this empire, which was re-established as a republic under Kemal Attatürk, became dismembered. In Eastern Europe, on the other hand, the Bolshevik Revolution took place in 1917/18.
The German Emperor Wilhelm II was characterized by Stürmer as a man who at the time dreamed of a world empire with colonies, science and technology, which was to become the number one in Europe. The Germans at that time felt surrounded and Europe was sitting on a “powder keg.” When the Austrian heir to the throne, Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, war broke out between Serbia and Austria / Hungary. At that time, Russia sided with Serbia as a protective power and declared war on Vienna on August 1, 1914. On August 6, the German Kaiser turned to the German people. He spoke of humiliation and declared that the sword must decide. Any wavering, any hesitation would constitute a betrayal of the fatherland. What was lacking in Europe at the time was “trust,” Stürmer remarked.
The German historian Stürmer added that the Treaty of Versailles did not succeed in creating a balance of power in the sense of the “Viennese peace order” at the beginning of the 19th century. “What was lacking at that time was diplomatic strength.” While the Treaty of Vienna (1815) wished to create a balance of forces along the line “never again war and revolution,” what would have been needed in Versailles, were the “independence of statesmen” and an intelligent policy on the German side. “The peace of 1945 brought peace to Germany. Chancellor Adenauer, who always drew a great deal of knowledge from his reading of the NZZ (Swiss newspaper Neue Züricher Zeitung) at that time, understood the world antagonism between the Soviet Union and the USA: “He introduced German interests into world politics and contributed to a world peace based on unity and freedom.” There are two models: The “Vienna Peace Order” and the “Pax Americana”, which is in acute danger, Stürmer concluded..
Professor Ménudier emphasized in his keynote address that Versailles was deliberately chosen as a “set”. The French wanted to show the power of the country and its culture. That’s why there was a “dictate”, which failed despite hardship. He recalled the fact that between 1870 and 1945 there were three Franco-German wars (in a period of 75 years!). On May 9th 1950, there was however a moment of great fortune, when French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman proposed his plan for European unification based on a European coal and steel (ECSC) agreement. It was supported by German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer and laid the foundations for Franco-German reconciliation, thus becoming the main axis for stability in a new United Europe. Since then, there is peace. The First World War, Ménudier underlined, with an estimated nine million combatants and seven million civilian deaths as a direct result of the war, leaving behind widows and orphans created and immense material devastation. 11 new states were created between 1918 and 1923; many new borders were designed, and many minority problems which erupted in many places were the result. France, according to Ménudier, wanted to “dismember” Germany and receive reparations. Wilson wanted a just peace, based on the self-determination of the peoples, with far-reaching consequences for the colonial empires: but his proposals were rejected by France and Britain. Germany was obliged to pay 132 billion gold marks as reparations. The 1925 Locarno contract, concluded between Aristide Briand and Gustav Stresemann was from the German side the attempt to find a way out of its political isolation and to find ways of rapprochement. Although there have been many problems since Versailles to this day, Méndudier emphasized that “we in the EU have been very fortunate that Europe has been created by Schuman and Adenauer.”
Common culture of remembrance
The Director of the Prisoners of War Memorial, Dr. Juliette Roy, during the panel discussion, described her work primarily with young people, which has the aim to create a common Franco-German culture of remembrance. Both nations needed time to write their history as “catharsis”. The “transfer of knowledge” and the “memory” is a cornerstone in the creation of a common “culture of remembrance.” Many successful encounters with pupils and students of both countries have taken place, as also Richard Stock from the European Robert Schuman Center explained and they tried to give teenagers a moral orientation. At the occasion of the 100th anniversary in Verdun in May 2016, 4000 young people from France and Germany were gathered and today Verdun is t h e European place of remembrance.
Stock emphasized that each of the countries and regions affected by the First World War still claimed its own “narrative.” Like the previous speakers, he underlined that the Versailles Peace Treaty was less a contract than a “dictate” and that “the historians of the present time agree.”
The author of this article asked, during the plenary discussion, how to proceed on the background of this 100-year history and what was the thinking about President Macron’s interview with the Swiss RTS (June 11), in which French President Macron had demanded to seek a strategic dialogue with Russia, which historically is part of Europe and its culture of remembrance. In his answer, Professor Stürmer made reference to the “crumbling Pax Americana,” which is happening right in front of our eyes. The Americans wage an imperial fight against China and, unlike Berlin, President Macron has a sense that we in Europe need Russia, which is part of Europe and its history, and build a new strategic relationship with it. If Europe wanted to find a balance, it would have to do it, Stürmer said: “I plead for a realistic Ostpolitik.” He also referred to the “dangerous weapons development”, adding that America does not create a stable balance. “We have no capable diplomats and we live in an increasingly dangerous world”. He linked this with a critique of what he qualified as “very restrained” security policy of Europe. Professor Ménudier complained that French President Macron had received very little support from the German side, in response to his many suggestions and that he wished that the thoughts of Macrons were taken more seriously. He described the Federal Chancellor more as a “steward” than as a “designer of the future of Europe” while Macron had shown more leadership and initiatives for Europe.
The discussion with the plenum made clear that in light of the dissolution of the Pax Americana as guarantor of a stable world order, the question of the legacy of the Versailles must be taken even more seriously. Hence it is urgently necessary to reorganize the global world order that should be based on a well-functioning German-French cooperation. This includes the need for a new strategic dialogue approach with Russia, which will play an indispensable role in the search for peace solutions in the Middle East and other conflict zones of the world in the future.
The peace message from Fiquelmont must be carried into the next generations and should be preserved by them, according to the Chairman of the KAS Philipp Lerch: “We have to make new encounters possible between people of all European countries – also on the former battlefields, in silent memory and with the courageous intention of preserving European peace and consolidating the European Union.”