The 100th anniversary of the Battle of Verdun in World War I was marked with a ceremony symbolizing the reconciliation between France and Germany and also EU integration.
At the ceremony, the French President, Francois Hollande, joined Germany’s Chancellor, Angela Markel, to call for European unity. Mr. Hollande warned against “forces of division” in Europe. Mrs. Merkel said nationalism “would throw us backward.”
The two stood side by side in memory of 300,000 soldiers killed at Verdun. The battle lasted 10 months, beginning in May of 1916. It was one of the longest and bloodiest battles in World War I. France was the eventual victor.
The main ceremony occurred at the Douaumont Ossuary, which is home to the bones of 130,000 German and French soldiers. The two leaders jointly lit a flame. Approximately 4,000 French and German children took part in a re-enactment of a battle. It was choreographed by German filmmaker Volker Schloendorff.
Addressing the children, Mrs. Merkel said: “Hardly older than you was the French Lieutenant Alfred Joubert as he, 100 years ago, not far from here, lay in a trench. He confided to his diary: ‘Not even hell could be this awful.'”
She went on to say that the EU proved its “ability to compromise to unite” and to condemn “pure nationalist state thinking and behaviour [that] would throw us backwards.” President Hollande said: “The forces of division, of closure, and of withdrawal are at work again. They cultivate fear and instill hatred.” He said France and Germany had a special responsibility to “end conflicts at our doorstep” and to “welcome the people who flee tragedy and massacre”.
“Europe is capable of overcoming the greatest difficulties if it shows solidarity and responsibility”, he said, citing the Eurozone crisis as an example.
The day started with the leaders visiting the military cemetery at Consenvoye, north of Verdun. 11,000 German soldiers are buried there. They then went to Verdun city hall where Hollande discussed French-German relations. He said that Merkel’s presence showed that Verdun was not just a symbol of suffering but also one of hope.
In her speech there, Chancellor Merkel said: “Only those who know the past can draw lessons and build a good future.” Remembering the famous 1984 image of former leaders Francois Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl holding hands at Verdun, she said, “We have reconciled and reached agreement; we have become friends.”