National commemoration of the 91st anniversary of the 1918 Armistice
Paris, November 11, 2009
Your presence with us on this 11 November is an exceptional gesture of friendship – every French man and woman grasps its significance.
Together, a few moments ago, we rekindled the flame which burns on the tomb of the Unknown Soldier, building on Chancellor Kohl and President Mitterrand’s gesture in Douaumont 25 years ago.
In France there are no longer any surviving Great War veterans. The last died last year. He was born in northern Italy. At the age of ten, he made himself a pair of shoes to go to France, on foot. When war broke out he was 16. He signed up, lying about his age. “I was Italian”, he said later, “but I wanted to defend France who had taken me in. It was my way of saying thank you”.
His name will live on because he was the last. But he was one of millions, known and unknown, who for four years fought in the foul mud of the trenches, overcome with fatigue, with fear in their bellies, killing so as not to be killed.
In the midst of murderous folly for which none of them were responsible, but which embroiled everyone, there were pure hearts, admirable gestures and acts of bravery. They were millions of ordinary men who behaved heroically. They kept going through the worst ordeals. Discipline and survival instinct don’t explain everything. Most of them had an absolutely unshakeable love of their country. France can’t forget those who sacrificed their lives. And not simply those who died in combat and whose names are engraved on the war memorials of our smallest villages, but all the others too, all those who came back bearing on their bodies and in their souls the indelible scar of unspeakable pain: I’m thinking of the vast numbers of the disabled, disfigured, gassed, those haunted for the rest of their lives by the memory of corpses trampled on during the onslaughts, the terrible cries of the injured abandoned between the lines, faces of comrades, friends, brothers mown down by hails of bullets.
With the death of the last surviving French First World War infantryman, we have lost the last witness whose real suffering could still give such force to the cry: “never again!”
It’s when all the witnesses have disappeared that we have to take care that history doesn’t kill the memory.
We are here because, for so long, every year 11 November has been for all the survivors the day of remembrance, because every year the veterans, fewer and fewer in number, have come to pay tribute before this tomb not to celebrate their past glory, but so that no one forgets where men’s folly can lead.
We are here to continue doing this, to continue after them…
We are here because we owe it to them. Because we owe it to our children.
By rekindling together the flame of remembrance, we have symbolically expressed, Chancellor Merkel, our two peoples’ common will to keep this memory alive in our hearts for ever. Since, this 11 November, we aren’t commemorating the victory of one people over another, but an ordeal as terrible for the one as for the other. I mean that German orphans cried over the deaths of their fathers in combat just as French orphans did. I mean that German mothers felt the same pain as French mothers in front of the coffins of their sons killed in action.
We realize the absurdity and suicidal nature of war when we think about the sons and mothers who shed so many tears on both sides of the Rhine, the 20 year-old boys killed in the prime of their youth, about those shot as an example, still waiting to receive justice, to the Alsatian and Lorrainer malgré nous (1) placed by history’s vicissitudes between two mother countries, who fought in German uniforms with French hearts, and whose tragedy will remain forever one of the most poignant of our common history.
Thinking about them all, after fighting each other so much and suffering so much, our two peoples understood that to put an end to the misery they had to reach out to each other.
Franco-German friendship has been sealed by the memory of the German and French blood eternally mingled on the soil of Verdun, the Chemin des Dames (2), and banks of the Meuse. And when in Douaumont we go from the French cemetery to the German cemetery, in the heavy silence of these places where so many fallen sleep, we retrace in our heads the path leading from war to peace.
We didn’t succeed in achieving this peace in 1918, not only because the victors lacked generosity, but also because they refused to see the tragic fate linking them to the defeated which the unspeakable horror of the war had just revealed.
This peace we have been building ever since the day when our two peoples decided together to build Europe. Then, and only then, did they put an end to the fatal tit-for-tat spiral of European civil war, true at last to the values of civilization which they had both inherited and had historically made Europe great and France great.
For nearly half a century we have together been building the future, each of us sincerely and deeply loving our country, but now refusing to confuse love of our country with hatred of the other’s.
We share the same values, the same ambition for Europe, the same currency. Consequently, it is natural for our German and French policies to be conducted more and more closely.
The friendship of Germany and France is a treasure. We owe it to our parents, who have suffered so much from the confrontation between our two countries, and to our children to do the utmost to safeguard this treasure and make it bear fruit.
We also owe it to Europe’s peoples. We owe it to all the world’s peoples.
When Germany and France make joint proposals and act together, then Germany and France achieve great things.
General de Gaulle’s words back then to Chancellor Adenauer have stood the test of time: “without forgetting anything of the past, our two peoples have decided to look to the future together”.
And, this morning, the small flame burning under this Arc isn’t for our two countries just the flame of remembrance, but also the flame of hope.
Chancellor Merkel, by accepting France’s invitation, you have this morning made a historic gesture which is an honour for France and for the French. You are welcomed this morning, Mrs Merkel, as a great friend of France.
Long live France, long live Germany, long live the friendship between our two countries which, never again, will have to go through war./.
(1) Literally, “in spite of us”: the soldiers from Alsace and Lorraine whom, in 1942-1944, the Germans had forcibly drafted into the Wehrmacht or Waffen SS.
(2) Le Chemin des Dames (“the ladies’ path”), the name given to a ridge between the valleys of the Aisne and Ailette rivers because it was the route taken by Louis XV’s two daughters, known as “Ladies of France”, was the site of major battles in World War I.