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Europeans Celebrate Fiftieth Anniversary of Historic French-German Elyseè Treaty (1/22)     Print Email

By Michael D. Mosettig, former Foreign Editor of PBS News Hour

Twice in the past 100 years, leaders and representatives of France and Germany have gathered in glittering salons, amid gold trimming and mirrors, in Paris and its environs to sign historic treaties. The first, at Versailles in 1919, was an act of vengeance against a defeated Germany and helped pave the way for another war twenty years later.

The second, at the Elyseè Palace, on January 22, 1963, fifty years ago today, put a seal on Franco-German reconciliation and helped set the foundation for the longest period of peace in European history.

But as the leaders and parliamentarians of Germany and France celebrate the 50th anniversary of the treaty in ceremonies and concerts in Berlin, it is worth remembering the series of events that produced one of the most dramatic two weeks in post-war Europe. Those were moments of great drama, fully covered by an American press, far more attuned than now to Europe and international news, moments that riveted Washington as well as European capitals and left indelible memories for this journalist then a young man itching to be a European correspondent.

The Elyseè treaty put into writing what was becoming the central reality of European politics -- that France and Germany were putting aside historical enmity to become jointly the engine of an increasingly united continent. Its political texts were supplemented by programs to bring the German and French people, especially their youth, into more inter-action with each other.

Even so, the treaty was the product of some historical accidents. When Charles de Gaulle returned to power in 1958, his initial objective was to enter a nuclear directorate with the United States and Britain. Only when he was rebuffed, says German journalist and scholar Alexander Privitera, did de Gaulle focus attention on what was then West Germany and its chancellor Konrad Adenauer. In Adenauer, de Gaulle found a most willing partner. The German leader believed his country's best future was to be anchored firmly in the West and with its European neighbors.

Britain, then as now, was keen to protect its relationship with the United States. But at the same time, it had nagging doubts about its post-war decisions to stand aside from unification efforts on the continent that had begun with the Schuman Plan a decade earlier and that had evolved into the Common Market of six continental nations. Britain seemingly resolved those doubts 1961, with the decision of Prime Minister Harold Macmillan to enter negotiations to join the Common Market. That decision had the full support of the United States, expressed by President John F. Kennedy on July 4, 1962, in a speech at Philadelphia's Independence Hall declaring that inter-dependence between the U.S. and a Europe should include Britain as an integral part of Europe.

Within six months of Kennedy's speech, these three streams would come together -- and produce a flood. 

By January 1963, the world had changed dramatically, brought to the brink of nuclear war and then off of it during the Cuban missile crisis the previous October. According to de Gaulle's major French biographer, Jean Lacouture, the resolution of that crisis convinced de Gaulle, who had steadfastly supported Kennedy over Cuba,  that the Cold War was now on a much less dangerous path and he could more freely take decisions independent of Washington. Meanwhile, Britain was going through another of its periodic crises over how to equip and pay for its nuclear forces. Late in 1962, Macmillan and Kennedy reached a deal in Nassau that basically put Britain's nuclear weapons under U.S. control. Kennedy unsuccessfully offered de Gaulle, who wanted an independent nuclear force, something similar. The Anglo-American accord convinced the French leader yet again that Britain's principal loyalties were to the U.S., not Europe.

Those events coincided with British negotiations for entry into the Common Market that were sputtering along. In two summits, Macmillan and de Gaulle appeared to cut the Gordian knot, but both meetings produced more ambiguity than resolution.

Finally, on January 14, 1963, an expectant international and French press corps gathered at the Salon des Fetes at the Elyseè Palace for one of the most dramatic press conferences of de Gaulle's 11-year presidency. And he declared Britain unfit for membership. A Common Market with Britain "would seem like a colossal Atlantic community under American dependence and direction, and that is not at all what France wanted to do and is doing, which is a strictly European construction."

So it was amid turmoil across Europe, where the reaction to the de Gaulle press conference was overwhelmingly negative, that the great act of reconciliation took place just a week later in the same Elyseè Palace. De Gaulle had made a triumphant tour in Germany the previous year, speaking to Germans in their language (which he perfected as a World War I prisoner) amid commentary that at that moment he could have been elected President of Europe. 

As an article on the Deutsche Welle website noted, "It was a highly emotional moment in history," as the two delegations, led by de Gaulle and Adenauer, met on bitterly cold, dark winter day. After some brief remarks, the two leaders signed the treaty, embraced and de Gaulle kissed Adenauer's cheeks. At a press conference later, Adenauer said in French, "Without this treaty, there would be no European unity."

And a week after that, the French foreign minister, formally delivered the veto on the British application.

In an article on the website of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies, Privitera described the treaty as marking the end of the first phase of Franco-German reconciliation and "was far from a turning point in the relationship of the two nations."

Indeed, in West Germany in 1963, factions inside Adenauer's government were wary of a complete embrace of de Gaulle and angered at his rejection of Britain. The German parliament ratified the treaty only after asserting that NATO remained the country's paramount alliance.

Fifty years ago Germany willingly acceding to France playing the dominant diplomatic role in Europe.   Now it is Germany that is the dominant power, economically and politically, and a succession of French leaders have tried to figure out how best to play the role of junior partner.

As my European Affairs colleague and historian Garret Martin pointed out in a recent conversation, Britain eventually did enter the European Community but only after its rules and ways of doing business were set.

And some economic and cultural forces remain impervious to diplomatic and political developments. One article of the Elyseè Treaty focused on encouraging French and German youth to learn each other's languages. A Eurostat survey for 2010, showed a third of German students studied French, barely a quarter of French students studied German and more than 90 percent of both learned English.