Hollande and Merkel heed lessons of Battle of Verdun

Ceremony marks charnel house fight that killed 300,000 French and Germans

 German chancellor Angela Merkel  and French president Francois Hollande light an eternal flame inside the ossuary at Douaumont cemetery in memory of the 130,000 soldiers whose remains are buried at the site during ceremonies to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Verdun near Verdun, France on Sunday. Photograph:  Sean Gallup/Getty Images

German chancellor Angela Merkel and French president Francois Hollande light an eternal flame inside the ossuary at Douaumont cemetery in memory of the 130,000 soldiers whose remains are buried at the site during ceremonies to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Verdun near Verdun, France on Sunday. Photograph: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

 

President Francois Mitterrand and Chancellor Helmut Kohl created the most enduring image of Franco-German reconciliation when they clasped hands before the white crosses of Douaumont cemetery on September 22nd, 1984. 

It was, Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Sunday, “a gesture worth a thousand words”.

The greatest challenge facing Volker Schlöndorff, the German film-maker who orchestrated Sunday’s centenary of the Battle of Verdun, was to find an equally powerful image. Schlondorff had 3,400 French and German children, all born after 2000 to symbolise the 21st century, run out of the woods, feign combat, death and resurrection.

As the Republican Guard played Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, the youths echoed Kohl and Mitterrand’s gesture, holding hands among the tombstones.

Earlier, when Merkel and president Francois Hollande reignited the flame inside the Douamont ossuary that holds the bones of 130,000 unidentified French and German soldiers, Merkel looked particularly moved. The leaders embraced several times throughout the day, but the fervour with which they grasped each other’s hands before the flame was most memorable.

Their speeches conveyed a shared diagnosis of Europe’s troubles, and shared anxiety over its future. 

“War is possible,” Merkel warned. “We must remain vigilant to avoid it . . . All these dead are the victims of nationalism, of stubborn blindness and the failings of politicians.” 

Whether it was a question of economic crisis, refugees or other challenges, the German chancellor continued, “If we reason in national terms we cannot advance. We cannot defend our values.”

France and Germany “have a special role to play in the heart of Europe”, Merkel continued. “The Battle of Verdun gave the impression that the heart of Europe was going to stop.”

Hollande appeared to allude to the Brexit debate, as well as the rise of extreme right-wing populists. “Disenchantment has given way to bitterness, doubt to suspicion and, for some, rejection or even separation,” he said.

Inward-looking forces were at work, Hollande continued. “They are cultivating fears and instilling hatred.  Exploiting weakness, delays and errors, they denounce Europe as the cause of evil, forgetting that Europe was born of misfortune. Our sacred duty is written in the ravaged earth of Verdun . . . to protect our shared house, Europe.”

Europe remains fragile, Hollande warned. “It would take infinitely less time to destroy it than it did to build it.”

The battle

France’s rival leaders in the second World War both fought at Verdun. Marshal Philippe Pétain became the leader of collaborationist Vichy France on the strength of his reputation as “the hero of Verdun”.  The younger De Gaulle and his unit had been taken prisoner there.

For France, Verdun encapsulates the first World War, much as the Battle of the Somme symbolises the conflict for Britain. It was statistically the battle in which the most French fought. By the war’s end, a majority of survivors could say, “J’ai fait Verdun.” 

No British soldiers fought at Verdun, where a half million Germans were pitted against a half million French. Three hundred thousand men died, nearly equally divided between the two sides. Another 400,000 were wounded. After 10 months, the French took back the positions the Germans had seized in the first part of the battle. Nothing had changed.

The drums played on Sunday were a reminder of the 60 million artillery shells that pounded an area scarcely larger than Dublin’s Phoenix Park.  The French adopted the expressive German term trommelfeuer – drumfire – for the constant din.

So many shells remain unexploded that it is still forbidden to build or cultivate the land. 

Remains and mud

Hollande paid homage to the north African Arabs, black Africans and far east Asians who fought on the side of France. “They were humans in an inhuman world,” he said. “One hundred years later, these dead have no uniforms, no religion. We do not distinguish their nationality or origin . . . This place is our national memory transformed into the memory of Europe.”

Controveries surrounding commemorations say a great deal about one’s era. Fifty years ago, de Gaulle angered some by refusing to allow Pétain’s ashes to be brought to Verdun.

This month, the mayor of Verdun angered others by cancelling the concert by “Black M” that was scheduled to close Sunday’s ceremony. The singer, whose real name is Alpha Diallo, had in the past used a racist word for Jews and called France “a country of kuffars [infidels]”.