Wednesday, June 9, 2021

France, the US and Germany: Old Friends, New Friends

This is a timely post, as President Biden is in Europe, repairing our ties with our major allies. 

Several of the books I read recently are about history and war (the two sometimes seem to be almost synonymous). They include Lafayette in the Somewhat United States, by Sarah Vowell, The Kaiser’s Web, by Steve Berry, and The Alice Network, by Kate Quinn.
The first of these books involves France’s role in America’s war of independence. The second book is about Germany in World War Two and thereafter. The third one is about France and Germany during World Wars One and Two. 
I grew up in France, and I remain an inveterate Francophile. France has played a huge role in the history of the Western world during the past two and a half centuries. However, Anglo-Saxon culture - beginning with its language - still dominates the world, and Germany is viewed as the primary European country, certainly in economic terms. For France, there also remains the stain of its prompt defeat by Germany at the outset of World War Two. There are those who enjoy reminding us of this, poking fun at the supposedly cowardly French. An example is Bill Bryson, who wrote in his otherwise delightful travel book, “Let’s face it, the French Army couldn’t beat a girls hockey team.” And of course, we are often reminded how indebted France is to the US for liberating it from the Nazis in 1944-45. 

While the latter is certainly very true, Sarah Vowell’s book about Lafayette is a useful reminder that America’s generous and heroic help in both World Wars can be counted as a payback for France’s assistance during the revolutionary war. 

The Marquis de Lafayette served in the Continental Army under George Washington, and French forces assisted the American revolutionary effort on several other occasions. The decisive fight of that war was the Battle of the Chesapeake in 1781. This was a naval battle between Britain and France on September 5. The latter country, assisting the US, won, and thereby set the stage for the siege of Yorktown and the final British surrender under general Cornwallis on October 17. These battles involved 9,000 American land forces, 9,000 French land forces, and 28,000 French naval forces. Would America have achieved independence without French help? 

Sadly for the French monarchy, the help provided to America contributed to France going bankrupt, which in turn led to the French revolution and to the guillotine for thousands of Frenchmen, including Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antoinette. 

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And then there is the perennial myth that the French are cowards, etc. (See Bill Bryson quote, above). It is true that the French were very demoralized in 1939 and did not put up much of a resistance to Hitler’s invasion. No country is immune to demoralization. It happened to the US during and after Vietnam. However, remember that no country fought as hard as France did in order to achieve victory in World War One. While Britain and the US provided invaluable support, the bulk of the heavy lifting on the Western front was done by the French. 1.4 million french soldiers died and the total number of French military casualties was 6.2 million, or 73% of all its mobilized forces. Only Russia, in the East, had a higher toll. The French nearly single-handedly stopped the Germans at the Battle of the Marne in 1914. This early battle turned the war around, for after it, the two sides remained deadlocked for the following four years. 

Of course, America’s entry into World War One in 1917 tipped the balance, and its invasion during World War Two saved France and the rest of Europe. I am just reminding you that although these events occurred a century and a half after the American Revolution, the accounts between the US and France are pretty much even, and that the French can fight as bravely and as effectively as anyone. 

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And what about France’s relationship with Germany? 

The Steve Berry book mentioned above is a highly entertaining fantasy about Hitler’s henchmen such as Martin Bormann surviving the war in Latin America (as Adolf Eichmann did for real). The previously mentioned book by Kate Quinn is a fascinating fiction about French and English female spies in occupied France during both World Wars One and Two. We are reminded of events such as the slaughter at Oradour: On June 10, 1944, the SS massacred nearly the entire population of that small French town, in reprisal for suspected resistance activity. Nearly 650 people perished, most of them women and children, burnt to death inside a church. 

Between 1870 and 1940, Germany invaded France not once, not twice but three times. Germany’s unrelenting and rabid aggression against France is difficult to forget and to forgive. 

However, over the past seventy years, the two countries have become close friends. Together, they represent the core of a peaceful and prosperous European Union. In less than two generations, the Germans  have morphed into one of the most peaceful and tolerant people in the world. France, Germany and the US must remain closely allied, as they are three of the world’s essential democracies. 

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