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Europe: D-Day Commemorations Look To Past To Find The Future

  • Breffni O'Rourke

One striking feature of yesterday's D-Day commemoration in Normandy was the sense of reconciliation between France and Germany. For the first time, a German leader took part in the anniversary ceremonies, and that transformed the occasion from a remembrance of past military struggles to a celebration of European unity.

Prague, 7 June 2004 (RFE/RL) -- German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has become the first German leader to attend official commemorations marking the allies' D-Day invasion in 1944 to liberate France.

Schroeder yesterday attended the 60th anniversary of the allied landing in Normandy to battle Nazi Germany. In his address, he called the Nazi era in German history "nationalist insanity."

Some 4,000 allied soldiers died during the first day of the landings alone – including Americans, British, Canadians, Poles, Free French, and others. The defending German forces also suffered increasingly heavy losses as the days went on.

Schroeder hailed the bloody invasion as a great day for Germany, in that it opened the way to the final defeat of the Hitler tyranny and thus for the restoration of democracy in his own country.

"It is a good day today, on 6 June 2004, to thank France and its allies for everything they did for Germany and its democracy," Schroeder said.

Schroeder was attending the ceremonies at the invitation of French President Jacques Chirac. Chirac said in a speech yesterday, "As we commemorate those decisive moments in our history, I wanted Germany to remember with us those hours when the ideal of freedom returned to our continent. For several decades now, the bitter enemies of the past have been building their present and looking to the future together."

In those words, Chirac was setting out what Paris sees as the key importance of French-German relations in European affairs. He was using the highly charged atmosphere of the Normandy anniversary to raise the relations to a new emotional level.

"With respect for history, the soldiers, the suffering, and the blood that was shed, we are celebrating together the victory of peace and democracy. We hold up the example of French-German reconciliation to show the world that hatred has no future, that a path to peace is always possible," Chirac said.

Alexander Smolar, who is chairman of the Warsaw-based research institute, the Stefan Batory Foundation, points out how things have changed in the decade since the last big D-Day commemoration in 1994.

"As you know, [then French President Francois] Mitterrand wanted to invite [then German Chancellor Helmut] Kohl and that provoked some [negative] emotional movements on both sides 10 years ago. And now -- this is what is interesting about this invitation [to Schroeder] -- is that it did not pose any problem; the war is really over," Smolar said.

Certainly the last decade has seen enormous strides in French-German friendship, despite differences in temperament.

On major issues facing the EU, Paris and Berlin discuss their positions in advance, and then show a united front to the other EU members. In an unprecedented move, Schroeder even asked Chirac to represent him at a European Union summit.

On a purely practical level, Paris and Berlin both realize the need to stick together in an effort to maintain influence in the expanding EU. In May, the union admitted 10 new members and more are foreseen in the next few years. That complicates decision making and means it will be harder for France and Germany to get their way unless they can carry more of the smaller members with them.

But despite their closeness, Smolar says Germany and France do in fact have genuine differences in view.

"Fundamentally, I think their relationship will be mixed, ambiguous, complex; [for instance,] quite obviously Germany tries to move a certain way in the direction of the United States, which is not the case of France, although everybody is interested in lowering the level of emotional confrontation with the United States," Smolar said.

Smolar says both Paris and Berlin will still be looking for other allies who complement their own interests.