Anti-German Memory in France

Giampiero Bordino
Professor in Contemporary History and Political Analyst, President of the Einstein Center for International Studies


Robert Belot
La mémoire anti-allemande en France. Henri Frenay et l’affaire Speidel (1957)
La Presse Fédéraliste, Lyon, 2022

It is well known that historical memory, sedimented over time, is a fundamental variable in the cultural and political debate across all countries in Europe and around the world. Memory, even if contested, biased and in some cases even repressed, inevitably emerges from the past. Albeit in different forms and measures, it conditions the orientations and choices of all actors in the public debate. "Coming to terms" with memory is, in short, inevitable.

In the book by Robert Belot, professor of European history at the Jean Monnet University of Saint-Etienne, the "case" observed and analyzed is that of anti-German memory in France in the years following World War II, with specific reference to the story of a senior German officer, Hans Speidel. While he had been one of Hitler’s army generals, after the war he was later proposed and appointed in 1957 as supreme commander of NATO ground forces in Central Europe. Speidel was the first German to hold such a senior position in the Western military organization, only twelve years after Germany's surrender and the end of the conflict. In France a debate, which is amply and analytically documented in Belot's book, over the appropriateness of his appointment ensued and widespread opposition to this choice emerged. This opposition was fueled precisely by the anti-German memory that is still present and alive in French society. In particular, unsurprisingly, Resistance and Jewish organizations lead the protests against the proposed appointment of Speidel to a top position inside NATO.

In this context, the figure of Henri Frenay, former protagonist of the anti-Nazi and anti-fascist struggle, founder of the Combat movement during the Resistance, minister in General De Gaulle's government and emblematic figure of the European Union of Federalists (UEF), stands in stark contrast to the widespread anti-German orientation. Frenay, building on the legitimacy he acquired due to his past as a fighter against Nazism, was an advocate of the path of reconciliation with Germany, even of its inclusion in the European (then the European Defense Community, EDC, which, however, will not come into being due to the opposition of the French National Assembly in 1954) and the western (NATO) military organizations. For reconciliation’s sake, he believed Speidel's appointment may represent an important and significant step. Freney sees reconciliation with Germany from the perspective of building the political unity of Europe. France's victory is "an illusion," whereas in fact only Europe can win. "Nationalism and sovereignism," Frenay argues, "are roads that cannot lead anywhere”. In essence, reconciliation and the legitimization of Germany's role, including its military role, are the necessary conditions for achieving the unification of Europe, without which no European country, no matter how large and powerful, as France is, really has a future.

Memory, therefore, cannot and must not be erased, but at the same time  cannot and must not paralyze the path toward a new arrangement in Europe, which on the one hand would make new wars between Europeans impossible and, on the other hand, would allow Europe to really "weigh" in the world affairs, projecting its interests and values. No "ontological" view of historical experiences and identities, seen as immutable and permanent in time, is compatible with the project of building Europe and, further on, the cosmopolitan project of building the unity of the world, which needs to be achieved at some point, unless humanity wants to commit suicide sooner or later.

Frenay understood this, and his commitment to a historical memory that is to be no longer divisive in the specific French case, is an important contribution in this direction, which can still guide and inspire our reflections and choices today.


Translated by Jean-Marie Reure

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