Watching the celebration of Franco-German friendship this past week in Ludwigsburg should give anyone a reason to believe in the power of reconciliation in international affairs. Both Chancellor Merkel and President Hollande testified to the singular importance of this particular bilateral relationship as both a symbol and an example of overcoming the dangers of war and building bridges of friendship.

Indeed, Franco-German relations have become a lesson for many other regions of the world to learn how one can lay aside the roots of conflict and clashes of armies. Speeches on the 50th anniversary of de Gaulle’s address to the youth of Germany in Ludwigsburg were also testimony to why that accomplishment was able to be achieved. The purposes of building Europe transcended the purposes of Franco-German conflicts in the past.

Of course, there were references to the fact that Germany and France continue to struggle and argue about the path forward for Europe.  The battle over the guts of the fiscal policies which will further guide the EU remains undecided. Yet those issues were set aside during the celebration of a half-century of efforts to strengthen the Franco-German partnership. When Charles de Gaulle and Konrad Adenauer met on that same spot in 1962 for de Gaulle to make a major address to the youth of Germany, they represented a very different Germany and a very different France facing each other less than twenty years after the worst war Europe had ever experienced.

Today the two neighbors look across the Rhine at each other in a Europe which has been enormously transformed and represents an environment in which so much of those relations are taken for granted. Along with that transformation comes a much more complicated network of connections that do not eliminate conflicts or arguments, even while the interdependence of France and Germany within an interdependent European Union has become both wider and deeper than ever before.

The continuing arguments and debates over the future course of the euro are today’s demonstration of the same type of arguments that were started six decades ago over the building of the very institutions that were to become the basis of the European Union. Back then the challenges that nations were facing in creating a basis for integration policies were just as difficult, but not many people would have perhaps believed then that Europe would be having the kind of arguments it is having today. Indeed many would have not expected Europe to be as far along as it is in the larger framework – beyond Cold War divisions, with a common currency and a far greater set of achievements in actually implementing what was seen as more dream than reality. This is all the more underscored when we look beyond Europe into the turmoil of other places. Apart from the clashes throughout the entire Middle East, particularly the bloody civil war in Syria, we see the continuation of wars and threats of war in Africa and now in East Asia, as China and Japan confront each other over uninhabited islands in the East China Sea.

Indeed, the transformation of Europe since 1945 is a result of circumstances which cannot be duplicated easily elsewhere around the globe. Yet, this transformation is also due to leadership and the commitment of those leaders to pursue the Europe that would not repeat the mistakes of it’s very troubled and bloody past.

Reminders of how difficult that process can be emerged in the Balkan wars of the 90s, with simmering fires remaining in that region to this day. All of the accomplishments in Europe today cannot and should not be taken for granted as permanent. It may do well to remember that in 2014 we will mark the hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War. During the run-up to that catastrophe there was much talk of the globalization of the world in its early 20th century environment, as trade and communication networks seemed to be binding Europe and the U.S closer together.  The opening pages of the famous book by Barbara Tuchman entitled The Guns of August seem to paint a picture of Europe that was interconnected until it bumbled into a war that killed millions and laid the foundation for its even more horrific second act twenty years later. The vast majority of Europe today is populated by people born after 1945. The scars of World War II are now played out more in history books and museums then in the personal experiences of a declining minority of people who carry the pain of that period.

It is all the more reason to have celebrations like those in Ludwigsburg last week to remind us of how far we have come, even if there is a long and difficult road ahead in sustaining the accomplishments. For Germany, the relationship with France is in an important testimony,  as are relations with Poland and with many other countries with whom the first half of the 20th century saw so much pain and suffering.

Chancellor Helmut Schmidt this week once again reminded his fellow Germans about their special responsibility for keeping Europe on a course that will lead to a greater European Union. He also urged Germans to remember the help it received in the past from Europe as it struggles with the current difficulties of the euro. There are always plenty of moments to remember all these milestones. But it will take an equally important appeal to keep in mind why those milestones not only call people to look back, but also to look forward.

This past weekend in Berlin, a ceremony was held to mark the opening of an exhibition to illustrate the future of a so-called Cold War Museum. The purpose of that museum will be to demonstrate how the conflict was part of a much larger framework that was global in its reach, its impact and its solution. Berlin has done much to make the memory of the wall a permanent feature of its landscape. The division of Germany is captured in the checkpoint Charlie Museum, the Bernauer Strasse Museum, in the so-called Tränenpalast Museum, and also in the Allied Museum, all of which are part of the narrative of Germany as ground zero in the Cold War.

The new Cold War center will now document how all of the events that shaped the city of Berlin and Germany’s division for decades after World War II were related to a worldwide set of events and decisions − which eventually reached another momentous milestone in on October 3, 1990 on the steps of the Reichstag. However, just as important as remembering these events is the need to recognize what the global connections, causes and consequences were at that time, so as to inform and enrich our deliberations and choices today and tomorrow.

Today, challenges that we struggle with in Europe or in the United States, in Berlin or in Washington, are not only a product of our local concerns. They often reverberate far beyond us and force us to look through many different lenses to understand what challenges and choices are at stake.

In Ludwigsburg this past week, the call was for shared responsibility to sustain the European vision. However, that’s not going to happen unless there is a political and institutional commitment to the future of Europe. There also has to be a biographical commitment. The young people of Europe don’t identify as much with the milestones of the past, but they must identify with some milestones yet to be set in the future. In her speech, Chancellor Merkel remembered that she was just a young child when Charles de Gaulle gave his speech in 1962, just one year after the Berlin Wall was erected. She said that she could never have imagined that she would one day be the leader of a unified Germany without that wall.

The question today is: what are those younger Germans and French now thinking and imagining about what they may become and what Europe might look like in their future? That will involve grappling with the rubrics cube of policy issues like the euro. It will also involve sharing a belief in the reasons those challenges need to be met.

My reminder about that need for a shared goal appears to me every time that I stroll through the Brandenburg gate. Then I always remember never to take anything either for granted or as not subject to change.

  • K Bledowski

    These are the right types of questions.

    Giving “those younger Germans and French” space to “think and imagine about what they may become and what Europe might look like in their future” would be a welcome departure from past practice. It’s about shifting ownership. Set-piece initiatives were once driven by governments because reconciliation could not spontaneously transpire and heal the wounds. Now the wounds are healed but the ‘post-reconciliation’ goodwill should not be taken for granted. Young Germans and Poles and French rightly demand a voice in all types of matters European: environment, foreign policy, sovereignty, or borders. Backtracking on integration here, advancing integration there, trading policies and striking policies, should all be on the table. The reason more young people are getting angry about “Europe” is because past policies had not reflected popular choices (think Maastricht or Lisbon).

    The author is right to bring out “identification with milestones” as a good point to start. If a new federated Europe is that desired milestone, then the work is cut out for policy makers. If the young Europeans won’t hear about a “transfer union”, then a scaling-down of the European house is in order. Nothing should be sacred or predetermined simply because it had been once thought as such.