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The Franco-German Rivalry:
A Recent Conflict

Albrecht Durer, Charlemagne (detail), with German and French shields [1]

Albrecht Dürer, Charlemagne (detail), circa 1512, with German and French escutcheons

1,385 words

Translated by Guillaume Durocher

Translator’s Note:

The following is translated from Dominique Venner’s Histoire de la Collaboration (Paris: Gérard Watelet/Pygmalion, 2000), 151-54. The title is editorial.

In The Birth of Two Peoples, the great medievalist Carlrichard Brühl demonstrated the extent to which the consciousness of a common origin [between Frenchmen and Germans] was still felt at the time of Saint Louis.[1][2]

Until the sixteenth century, there had never been border disputes between Frenchmen and Germans. Neither Lorraine nor the course of the Rhine were the object of quarrels. And despite an interpretation posterior to 1870, the Battle of Bouvines[3] itself was not a Franco-German one.

The conflict between the Valois[4] and the Habsburgs, whose origin went back to the marriage between Maximilian I and Marie of Burgundy,[5] was not felt to be a conflict between nations. Even in the eighteenth century, the French had an aversion for the Habsburgs, but were full of admiration for the king of Prussia, a German prince.

The antagonism between these two peoples would only really emerge after 1870, against the backdrop of French defeat [in the Franco-Prussian War]. Until then, the Germans had had more reasons than the French to distrust of their neighbors.

Without going back to the veiled murder of the child Conradin, last representative of the Hohenstaufens, by Charles of Anjou, in 1268, French initiatives have often left bad impressions in the Germanic memory. The alliance of Francis I with the Turks against Austria outraged all of Christendom. In the following century, it was difficult to forget Richelieu and Mazarin’s interventions in the Thirty Years War, and then the Treaties of Westphalia, whose goal was to thrust Germany into division and impotence, all the while furthering French annexations. When the time came, Louis XIV would spare no efforts in maintaining our neighbors’ grievances. There was first the move, in peacetime, to seize Strasbourg. But that was little compared to what followed in the Palatinate, methodically ravaged during the winter of 1688-89 by de Louvois’ troops, who set fire to Heidelberg, Mannheim, Spire, and Worms . . .

Seen from the Tyrol or Prussia, the wars of the Revolution and of the First Empire, despite their equivocal message of liberty, were interpreted for what they were: endeavors of plunder and conquest. The appeal to the people was heard, certainly, but it was reversed by the peoples themselves who made of it the instrument of their national resistance against the French occupation and the Parisian pretense of speaking for the universe.

Spread by its bayonets and plundering generals, the Napoleonic revolution produced in reaction German nationalism. After Prussia’s humiliation at Jena, ill-feeling against France raised in 1813 the harvest which were the wars of liberation until their conclusion on the plain of Waterloo.

Saved by the Restoration, spared by the Congress of Vienna, France licked her wounds. The memory of past glory and recent exploits was strong enough to prevent any inferiority complex. By the voice of great intellectuals, Victor Hugo, Edgar Quinet, Jules Michelet, Hippolyte Taine, Ernest Renan, the Frenchmen of letters and of the University Germanized without restraint. Germany was the Enlightenment’s model student, the fatherland of Kant, idealism, morality, and progress. “I went to study in Germany and I felt as though I was entering a temple,” wrote Renan in a letter of August 24, 1845. “Everything that I found there was pure, elevated, moral, beautiful, and touching . . .” This idyll was brutally broken by the European catastrophe of 1870.

We do not appreciate today the trauma which was this sudden and absolute defeat. “The war between France and Germany is the greatest misfortune which could happen to civilization,” wrote Renan at the time. “The intellectual, moral, and political harmony of humanity is broken.”

The French suddenly discovered that they were no longer the “grande nation” of yesteryear. From this they conceived an inexpiable rancor and hatred for this Germany which had revealed their decline. Thus was born modern nationalism, son of Jacobin passions, Boulagism,[6] and the “Revanche.” In a reciprocal movement, awakened in Germany the demons of pan-Germanism.

The Germanophobia of 1914

The war of 1914-18 brought these passions to their pinnacle. The French claimed to be waging “the struggle of civilization against barbarism,” as wrote Bergson on August 8, 1914. “Having become strong as a nation,” added Bainville, “the Germans have flocked toward barbarism . . . They have returned to the primitive state and to their function as invading hordes (from Cent ans d’illusions sur l’Allemagne, 1917). On the other side, by the voice of Thomas Mann (Reflections of an Unpolitical Man), the Germans saw themselves as defenders of art against intellectualism, of authentic culture against the cosmopolitanism and artificiality they ascribed to France.

The “struggle for civilization and law,” waged by the Republic against Germany, promoted xenophobic propaganda of an unequaled violence. All was good to inculcate in public opinion an absolute hatred of the Germans in order to “kill the beast so as to kill the venom,” as wrote Gabriel Langlois in L’Allemagne barbare (Walter & Cie, 1915). Scholars were summoned to prove that the “Boches” had always been detestable and, ultimately, strangers to the human race. “To consider a German to be a man like any other,” Dr. Edgar Bérillon wrote coldly, an eminent professor at the School of Psychology and a great friend of de Charcot,[7] “one must never had had the opportunity to observe with attention a specimen of this breed.”[8]

This blind passion brought Charles Maurras, the famous theorist of monarchy, to advise “dethroning the Hohenzollerns” and to bring their people “before the court of the universe.” He recommended even “executing William and his sons by firing squad on Unter den Linden [or] the Wilhelmstrasse.”

After 1918, hostility towards a hungry and defeated, though potentially powerful, Germany motivated France’s foreign policy, focused on preserving the least defensible clauses of the Treaty of Versailles.

We have already shown that “treaty” is not the right word given that all the articles were imposed upon Germany without any possible negotiation. Resigning to protest against Clemenceau’s intransigence, the economist J. M. Keynes, the British government’s financial delegate, summed up everything in one sentence: “This peace, which contains the seed of the downfall of all European civilization, is one of the most outrageous acts of a cruel victor in civilized history”[9] (Economic Consequences of the Peace, 1919).

By demanding from Weimar politicians a signature without discussion, Clemenceau was designating them as traitors before the public opinion of their country. One cannot say that the French Republic was generous towards her German little sister! In 1923, under the pretext of a delay in the “reparations,” Poincaré had the Ruhr occupied, which provoked a unanimous resistance and bloody reprisals in return. The chain of consequences plunged the country into a dreadful chaos. As during the final year of the war, people died of hunger while traffickers enriched themselves.

It is at this time that Hitler began his ascent.

Shortly after this particularly dark period, efforts were engaged on both sides of the Rhine to reach a reconciliation. The initiative was often taken by those who had most suffered from the previous war: veterans. The diplomatic rapprochement undertaken by Briand and Stresemann after 1924 and the signing of the Treaty of Locarno in 1925 fostered pacification and exchange. A few years later, in this same spirit, Otto Abetz, a francophone well-acquainted with French culture, took the initiative of establishing contacts between young Frenchmen and young Germans. It was the starting point of a perfectly unpredictable career.[10]


1. King Louis IX of France, who lived in the thirteenth century. – GD

2. Calrichard Brühl, Naissance de deux peoples: Français et Allemands, IXème-XIème siècles, French translation (Paris: Fayard, 1995). [. . .]

3. A 1214 French victory over Anglo-German forces, critical to the early formation of France. – GD

4. The French ruling dynasty. – GD

5. This dynastic union between the Austrian and Burgundian states would prove a deadly threat to France. – GD

6. A nationalist and anti-republican late nineteenth century political movement around the figure of General Georges Boulanger, considered by some historians to have been proto-fascistic. – GD

7. The doctor who gave his name in the French-speaking world to what in the United States of America is called Lou Gehrig’s disease. – GD

8. Quoted by Alain de Benoist, “Germanophobies,” Enquête sur l’histoire, issue 20, 1997.

9. Venner appears to be paraphrasing. – GD

10. Abetz would serve as the Third Reich’s ambassador to France during the years of the Occupation. – GD