Presidents open Franco-German WWI memorial centre
First World War – Commemoration of the Armistice/inauguration of the Hartmannswillerkopf memorial centre – Statement by M. Emmanuel Macron, President of the Republic (excerpts)
Hartmannswillerkopf, 10 November 2017
We have come here to Hartmannswillerkopf not only to commemorate one of the most violent and bloody battles of the Great War. We have come here to take in the still-pervading smell of suffering, we have come to taste the bitterness of the fighting that was waged, because throughout these woods, on these paths we trod a few moments ago, in these trenches a few metres apart, in these barrack buildings, in this barbed wire, in this telephonist’s shelter riddled with bullets and shell holes, we believe we can see once again the faces of the dead, and hear again their distress, and we grasp the full absurdisty into which they were all plunged.
In the space of a year, eight assaults were carried out. Eight times this mountain changed hands. With each assault, more men, more shells and more ammunition were involved in the fighting. And with each assault there were more deaths, whole waves of French and German soldiers swallowed up by this mountain, which ended up being called “the man-eater”.
The bodies were absorbed by the mud and snow, and those who survived were devoured by the cold. After one year of bloody attempts, the soldiers buried themselves in the trenches. Germans and French, separated by just a few metres. So began their endless waiting game.
Visitors here can still see traces of all this. There were no real winners in Hartmannswillerkopf. There were, above all, people who died. We don’t know exactly how many; probably 30,000, perhaps more, were wounded. (…) Twelve thousand soldiers lie under the shield on the crypt – Germans and French, united in anonymity.
We can’t take one step here without the memory of that violence resurfacing, and everywhere we notice the presence of those who died. A crypt was created, a memorial, a necropolis, a cross, and now a museum and memorial centre, the unprecedented result of close cooperation between our two countries but also of involvement by French local authorities – particularly the Grand Est region, Haut-Rhin Departmental Council and the Thann-Cernay Community of Communes –, the German Länder, French and German private sponsors, particularly the VDK [German war graves agency], and the European Union.
It’s the first totally binational Great War memorial site. A memorial site in two languages, a place of two memories. (…)
Today is exactly a day before the last year of the Great War is commemorated. More than ever, this final year must proceed in a spirit of reconciliation. In this regard, President Steinmeier’s presence at this spot, echoing President Gauck’s on 3 August 2014, is more than a gesture of friendship. He has set an example through his involvement since 2014 in detailed discussions on German remembrance. His commitment to Europe over many years – and I can testify to it – is the best response to what we see here.
Through him, the whole German people express to us their fraternity and respect. Through him, today, I express to the German people the French nation’s fraternal greetings and our unwavering bond.
We’re too aware here of what has divided us to underestimate what unites us today. At a time when Europe is doubting itself, at a time when some of its peoples are expressing their fear of the future by placing their fate in the hands of leaders who feed off anxiety, Franco-German harmony must not be seen as a confiscation of the European ideal; on the contrary, Franco-German harmony is the most brilliant example of what our desire for peace can achieve. Over the course of time, we’ve replaced an implacable desire for revenge with political, economic, diplomatic, scientific and educational cooperation, and genuine friendship. (…)
So the radical reform we’ve got to carry out in our Europe today is about rediscovering the essence, the strength of this common ambition; it’s about forgetting nothing when it comes to our shared scars or our shared memory; it’s also about carrying out radical reforms on the basis of a common sovereignty, i.e. a Europe which protects our fellow citizens rather than one which becomes divided through its internecine warfare; it’s about wanting to restore the unity of our shared project and its ambition rather than seeking our defeat by pitting people against one other, it’s about wanting a democratic Europe which responds to our fellow citizens’ aspirations in the dawning century. (…)
Very soon I’ll be inviting the leaders of countries once at war to meet in Paris on 11 November 2018. But reconciliation is also national. This is why, around 11 November 2018, I’ll be visiting areas of the country which were ravaged by war and are today ravaged by crisis, because patriotism doesn’t mean being opposed to the rest of the world, it means standing solidly as a nation, an open nation; it means keeping the Republican project alive in the European project and involving in it all those who feel excluded, all those whom we’ve failed to bring into it. (…)
In the aftermath of the war, the world again succumbed to the worst because we made peace without achieving reconciliation with one another. This, too, is something we must remember. People have dignity, and it’s clearly in vain that we believe we can subdue them; in reality we humiliate them.
To understand this, it took a second world war, even more atrocious than the one which should have been the war to end all wars, a war which killed millions, a genocidal war, a war which severely dented Europe’s conscience and bled us dry. This is why 2018 won’t be a year of triumphalism but will hold a mirror up to our world today, which still so often chooses to act radically, brutally and violently in response to problems which instead call for dialogue and reaching out, whatever burden of suffering these problems carry.
The France of 2018 wants to view itself with dignity in the mirror of 1918; our pride must be in showing that we have learned, that we have drawn lessons from the horror and devastation. We must relearn these lessons every day and constantly pass them on. The museum and memorial centre we are at today is the shining symbol of this.
So yes, the best response to this shared memory, to these tragedies, is the friendship between Germany and France, the bridges built between women and men, between families, between young people; the best response is Europe, our Europe.
I hope it will long continue to be how we want to respond and I hope this memorial, this museum we are at, will long continue to be the living source from which the harmony between our nations will be forged. We owe it to our history, we owe it to our dead, but we owe it above all, cher Frank-Walter, to our young people./.