Sealed with a Kiss: Treaty Heralded New Era in Franco-German Ties

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Fifty years ago, German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer and French President Charles de Gaulle embraced after signing the Franco-German Friendship Treaty. Since then, the partnership between the two countries has become one of the cornerstones of European stability.

French President General Charles de Gaulle (right) and German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer embrace on Jan. 22, 1963, after signing the Elysée Treaty. Zoom
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French President General Charles de Gaulle (right) and German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer embrace on Jan. 22, 1963, after signing the Elysée Treaty.

Why shouldn't German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer and French President Charles de Gaulle have hugged and kissed one another on the cheeks -- once on the left and once on the right -- just as friends in France habitually do? After all, these two elder statesmen had been through so much together.

In the four years leading up to the signing of the Elysée Treaty, they had met 15 times, spent about 100 hours discussing the matter, and written each other 40 letters. In July 1962, they held a joint military parade on a World War I battlefield before praying together at Notre Dame Cathedral in Reims, both solemn yet visibly moved by the occasion.

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Photo Gallery: Celebrating 50 Years of Franco-German Friendship
The symbolism was impossible to overlook. Thirty-three French kings had been crowned in Reims, and it was fought over so bitterly in World War I that the French had dubbed it the "City of Martyrs." The cathedral itself was emblematic of the two countries' entrenched animosity, and was hit by some 300 German shells and grenades in World War II. This was therefore the location chosen by the highest-ranking representatives of these former "sworn enemies" to celebrate mass together in 1962 in what de Gaulle hoped would "seal reconciliation between Germany and France." His historic words were later immortalized in a commemorative plaque. But the highpoint still lay ahead.

Almost Stereotypical Reactions

Two months later de Gaulle won the hearts and minds of young Germans when, during a speech in Ludwigsburg, he called them "children of a great nation."

Finally, on Jan. 22, 1963, the spectacular developments came to their resounding climax: Under the lights of the mighty crystal chandeliers of the Murat Salon at the Elysée Palace in Paris, Konrad Adenauer and Charles de Gaulle signed the Franco-German Friendship Treaty calling for permanent, close cooperation on foreign policy, cultural and youth affairs.

After the signing, the reactions by the two leaders were almost stereotypical: On the one hand there was the passionate Frenchman, who enthused, "My heart overflows and my soul is grateful that I have signed this treaty with the chancellor. No-one on this planet can fail to appreciate the immense importance of this act. It not only turns the page on a long and bloody era of fighting and war, but also opens the door to a new future for Germany, for France, for Europe and therefore for the world!"

On the other hand there was the sober German, who uttered just a single sentence: "General, you have spoken so eloquently that I cannot add anything to your words."

Nonetheless, this constituted a German "I do" to a political marriage. So why shouldn't the two then kiss? There was a brief pause before tall, 72-year-old de Gaulle emphatically took thin, 87-year-old Adenauer into his arms and gave him a brotherly kiss. Although the Süddeutsche Zeitung noted that the German chancellor was "somewhat clumsy" with his first kiss, he immediately recovered and, "with a deft twist of the head," presented the Frenchman with his right cheek while shyly puckering up his own lips.

A Resounding Success

This moving moment occurred half a century ago, and despite some minor structural errors, the Elysée Treaty has undoubtedly been a resounding success, for it institutionalized the bond between the two European countries to such an extent that it remains unshaken by day-to-day political wrangling.

Today there is a Franco-German military brigade and there are countless twinned cities and towns. Thanks to the work of the Franco-German Youth Office, hundreds of thousands of young people have discovered -- and often fallen in love with -- their European neighbors. Paris and Berlin have often been the driving forces of European policymaking, and even though relations have on occasion cooled temporarily, their close cooperation has never been in any real danger of collapse. It is therefore hardly surprising that both countries look back fondly on this historic agreement.

On the 40th anniversary of the signing of the treaty, the entire German parliament, the Bundestag, traveled to France for a joint session with its French counterpart at Versailles Palace -- ignoring a call by Germany's mass-circulation Bild newspaper not to waste money on such a costly "binge."

Once again the choice of location was deeply symbolic, since Versailles had been the site of humiliation on both sides: In 1871, the Germans chose the palace's Hall of Mirrors to declare the formation of the German Empire following their victory over Napoleon III's troops in the Franco-Prussian War. And in 1919, it was there that Germany was forced to accept the tough terms of the Versailles Treaty.

Fundamental Contrasts

Since the conclusion of the Franco-German friendship agreement, it has sometimes seemed that the warmer relations have been, the more choreographed encounters have appeared. In particular, the ritualistic praise heaped upon the treaty has almost completely obscured the fact that it was at first extremely controversial.

As much as it is lauded today, the agreement isolated Adenauer for a period within his own political party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU). And even in the days leading up to the signing, several close colleagues warned him against such a move. The reason: Although the two countries were both genuinely interested in reconciliation, some of their foreign policy goals were diametrically opposed.

For example, de Gaulle vociferously opposed allowing Britain into the European Economic Community (EEC), the forerunner to the European Union, while Adenauer favored it. De Gaulle wanted "a Europe of nation states" and was wary of supranational bodies like the European Parliament. However, Adenauer knew that Germany's only slightly curtailed foreign-policy supremacy meant it would gain most from EEC member states handing over lots of national decision-making powers to Brussels.

The Start of an Unexpected Friendship

The biggest difference between France and Germany was over their relationship with the United States. De Gaulle dreamed of a strong, independent Europe; a kind of third force alongside the superpowers of the time, one that could also be emancipated from US dominance within NATO. As one of only a handful of nuclear states, France wanted to play a leading role in this Europe, and hoped Germany would back Paris up as an economically strong junior partner. Pro-America Britain could only jeopardize the fulfillment of this vision.

For his part, Adenauer knew that West Germany was particularly dependent on military protection from the US and Nato. He was therefore at pains to prevent his close ties with the self-confident general from annoying Germany's vital partner in Washington.

The German chancellor had feared the worst when de Gaulle was elected president in 1958. Adenauer even believed he and the Frenchman were "so fundamentally different" that communication between them would be "extremely difficult." However, their very first face-to-face meeting brought an amazing turnaround: The general suggested close cooperation on foreign policy, and the chancellor was "pleased to discover a completely different person to the one I had worried I would find."

Forging Even Closer Ties

Adenauer's faith in his French colleague grew further when de Gaulle supported the Germans at critical moments, particularly during the 1961 Berlin Ultimatum -- when the Soviet Union demanded that Western forces leave the western half of the city -- and the subsequent construction of the Berlin Wall later that year. At the same time, the chancellor was disappointed about what he considered to be Washington's and London's insufficiently tough stance against Moscow. After a meeting with US President Dwight Eisenhower and British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan in May 1960, Adenauer noted: "My overall impression was depressing and has strengthened my resolve to forge even closer ties with France."

Two years later, the US decided on a fundamental shift in its military strategy: Henceforth, a Soviet attack would no longer automatically trigger a nuclear response from Washington. Convinced that this undermined the previous policy of a resolute West willing to stand up to the USSR, Adenauer bet everything on his French connection -- to the dismay of the pro-American German Foreign Ministry in particular.

Shortly before Adenauer's trip to France in 1962, his ambassador to Paris, referring to the West German capital city at the time, warned him against letting de Gaulle "ensnare" him in "a Bonn-Paris axis." The diplomat thought there was a real "danger" de Gaulle would offer Germany a "friendship pact." But the chancellor ignored the dire warnings. In fact, he told advisor Horst Osterheld that he was willing "to put up with a few years of tense relations with the Americans." After all, he was more interested in betting on the "German-French and European horse".

'You Mustn't Sign!'

As a result, the chancellor put his party, the CDU, through a veritable test of endurance, as the Atlanticists in its ranks traded insults with the Gaullists. The debate got even more intense in January 1963, when Adenauer announced his intention to sign a treaty with France. This prompted the German Foreign Ministry to declare that an international agreement required parliamentary ratification because de Gaulle's anti-American stance risked angering the US. Leading officials therefore urged the chancellor to sign just a non-binding declaration or a protocol.

It was at precisely this point that de Gaulle unintentionally drew his friend Adenauer even closer to his side. At a press conference on Jan. 14, 1963 -- just eight days before the signing of the Franco-German Friendship Treaty -- de Gaulle rather undiplomatically rejected Britain's membership in the EEC.

The announcement drove the German chancellor's critics into a frenzy. As late as Jan. 20, fellow CDU politician Walter Hallstein -- the first European Commission president -- warned Adenauer about the possible consequences of signing such a treaty. A day later, state secretary and later German President Karl Carstens said: "Chancellor, you must appeal to de Gaulle's conscience so that he changes his position on England. If not, you mustn't sign the treaty!"

But Adenauer refused to be swayed. Even so, de Gaulle's satisfaction only lasted a few months. Although the German parliament, the Bundestag, ratified the Treaty in May 1963, it added a preamble stressing Germany's interest in accepting Britain into the EEC and maintaining close ties with the US.

To which a melancholy de Gaulle commented: "Treaties are like young girls and roses. They don't keep forever." In his eyes, the preamble had rendered the agreement useless. Fortunately, he was wrong.

This article originally appeared in German on einestages, SPIEGEL ONLINE's history portal.

Translated from the German by Jan Liebelt

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