The German-French friendship

March 27, 2013

Near Weisskessel, Germany

By Fabrizio Bensch

Photos of significant gestures between two politicians often mirror the state of the relations between the two countries – and become part of our collective consciousness. As a photojournalist, I am often witness to politicians shaking hands or embracing as part of major engagements. Often it’s daily routine.

REUTERS/Bundesregierung/Guido Bergmann/Pool

However, these days if a German chancellor and a French president reach out for one another, this signifies an important development in international relations – and is a very significant symbol for a united Europe. Historically, relations were dominated by wars – for the generation of our grandfathers and grandmothers, seeing the other country as “the enemy” rather than a neighbor was a defining political and cultural force, which molded everyday actions and experiences.

At the borders where battles used to be fought, we can now pass through freely without immigration control and without having to switch currency. Rather than having francs and Deutsche Marks, French and Germans now both use the Euro. Trade is closely linked. When going shopping in a standard German supermarket, it’s possible to choose from baguettes, different French wines and a large selection of cheeses among other things. It is part of our normality; our everyday.

In the past, Germans and French have fought bitter wars with one another, and many German cities still bear witness to the numerous confrontations.

When Berlin was the state capital of Prussia in 1806, Napoleon led his troops through the Brandenburg Gate to demonstrate his power on his way to Moscow. He never reached Russia, and when his army retreated, it was crushed in the battle of Leipzig in 1813.

This battle was one of the largest in world history before the start of the 20th century – and today, relations have improved so much that we shake hands in the same spots where we used to fight.

The Siegessaeule (Victory column) in Berlin commemorates the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71. The monument itself is decorated with the cannon vessels of the French troops to signify Prussia’s victory over “the enemy”. Today, we know it is better known as the center of the Love Parade, which used to be held annually in Berlin.

The dream of a peaceful bilateral relationship was only possible after the horrors of the two world wars: in 1963, two statesmen saw a future in a united Europe and thus became a political force in world politics when they signed the Elysee Treaty. This contract laid the foundation for close relations between Germany and France, and thus marked the start of realizing the dream of a peacefully united Europe.

When I covered the 50th anniversary earlier this year, I witnessed both governments coming together under one roof – the German Bundestag and the French national convention. Only then was I struck by the significance of the gestures: I am part of a generation in which French and German politicians embrace.

This week I covered French and German soldiers of the German-French brigade at their camp in the Saxony-based Oberlausitz. I was able to see first-hand how soldiers from both countries jointly train for the fight against insurgents in an imaginary country.

The military training area was not far away from where Napoleonic troops took part in a battle against the Prussian-Russian soldiers in 1813. By coincidence 200 years later, I was covering soldiers in the same area and a bridge was built between the past and the present.

They speak German and French and work under the same commanding officer. This made me think of an iconic image from 1984 of great national and international importance: the German chancellor Helmut Kohl reaching out for the hand of French President Francois Mitterand during their state visit to the Douaumont cemetery in Verdun, where 150,000 French soldiers are buried. It is a significant gesture because it highlights both countries’ present and future commitment to peaceful relations as a historical legacy.

All this shows the international progress made by having a united Europe: nowadays it is a normal for soldiers to train together, whereas in past decades this would have been unthinkable. And in 2013, it is usual for politicians to shake hands and embrace as part of their political discourse, and I get to capture that with my pictures.

When I was taking pictures during the training routine in the icy snow of late March 2013, I realized how many decades and centuries it took to come to where we are today. “Au revoir, Auf Wiedersehen” said one soldier as I left at the end of the day – and I began to understand the dimension of our present day German-French relations on a whole new level.

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