Two anniversaries: The motivation and the method

45 years ago, French President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing wanted to abolish the commemoration of 8 May 1945, the day of unconditional surrender of Germany in World War II. In a letter to the German chancellor Helmut Schmidt, he wrote: "The time has come to open the way to the future, and to turn our memory together to what brings us closer and unifies us." For him, the member states of the European Community should agree on commemorating together the "foundation of Europe" by celebrating 9 May 1950, the day of the Schuman Declaration as the first step to the unification of Europe. It turned out very quickly that Giscard had made a strategically unfortunate move by trying to abolish the commemoration of 8 May. French public opinion reacted very unfavourably and accused the President of wanting to end the critical examination of France's role in World War II. Also, his German partners seemed to be embarrassed by Giscard's initiative, which was meant as a reconciliatory gesture to the former enemy. In the Federal Republic of Germany, a reassessment of 8 May had begun, which was now no longer primarily thought of as a day of defeat, but as a day of liberation from an inhuman, dictatorial regime. Thus, commemorating the day of unconditional surrender of the Nazi regime was no longer a divisive ritual, but rather more unifying European countries. 

Four decades later, the member states of the European Union still need both anniversaries, 8 May and 9 May. The first anniversary reminds us of the deep-seated reason and unceasing motivation of European integration: From its very outset, it was meant to prevent European states from turning against each other, obliterating their common heritage and reverting to violent nationalism as their single political inspiration. All that has been created since, from the single market over the successive enlargements up to the Euro, has served this overarching purpose. In our current times, when the EU is again threatened by centrifugal tendencies, we should not forget why we opted for this unprecedented project of European solidarity. 8 May should also remind Germany that its post-war success, political reintegration and economic wellbeing after 1945, but also its peaceful unification in 1990 was largely made possible by the unstinting generosity of its former enemies.

9 May should recall to all EU member states where we are coming from: European integration didn't start with a big bang or an enthusiastic upsurge of the European peoples. It started as a very limited, practical, highly technical venture, driven by the arduous political passion of a man whose significance for European history is still largely underestimated: Jean Monnet. He was no charismatic leader, nor a lofty political theorist, but a practitioner of international cooperation with the clear conviction that national sovereignty was an obsolete concept. Nor was he a captivating orator, but a highly efficient networker who knew that European states were all too small to matter alone in a world dominated by non-European powers. Thus, on 9 May we commemorate the birth of a method: Advancing European cooperation in limited steps, which are justifiable and responding to the specific challenges of the times. 70 years of European integration have demonstrated the pertinence of Monnet's method. On the one hand, there has rarely, if ever, been a great leap forward. On the other hand, the process has rarely suffered from standstill and inertia. If the finalité of European integration is a federation, it can only be attained by applying Monnet's step-by-step method and patiently eroding the sovereignty of the member states. 8 and 9 May - two seminal anniversaries in our common European culture of memory: The first recalls us our motivation to unify, the second the method we need to apply. 


Matthias Waechter, Director General CIFE

Matthias Waechter has recently published a History of France in the 20th century, Geschichte Frankreichs im 20. Jahrhundert, Munich 2019 and is the author of  Helmut Schmidt und Valéry Giscard d'Estaing. Auf der Suche nach Stabilität in der Krise der 70er Jahre, Bremen 2011.

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