The Foolish French Muzzle on Germany

March 10, 1994|By WILLIAM PFAFF

PARIS — Paris. -- As Schiller, the 18th Century German poet, once wrote, ''Even the Gods struggle vainly against stupidity.''

It is a judgment appropriate to the French government's decision once again to exclude Germany from the ceremonies commemorating the Allied landings in Normandy, the beginning of the end of the second world war. Next June brings the half-century commemoration.

The situation of the democracies today, confronted with turmoil in the East, war in the Balkans, trade rivalries, political resentments, is too fragile to afford gratuitous affront to Germany, a nation that is going through a traumatic reassessment of its place in international society.

French President Francois Mitterrand said in January that some gesture would be made ''elsewhere'' to demonstrate that Germany ''is the friend of France and has entered the camp of the democracies'' -- as if either point were in doubt. There has been no subsequent indication of what that gesture elsewhere might be.

Since democratic Germany's leaders have not been invited to Normandy in June, Chancellor Helmut Kohl has reportedly forbidden German diplomats to be there.

The mayors of several Normandy towns had planned to invite not only the German ambassador to France but the officials of German localities ''twinned'' with Normandy towns.

One of them, the mayor of Caen, also a French senator, said that ''the commemoration of the Omaha Beach landing recalls the 6th of June battle, but this has to be distinguished from peace ceremonies meant to transcend the war.'' He noted that the German flag flies permanently, with those of the wartime Allies, over Caen's own peace memorial.

Certain German veterans of the Normandy battles will be present in June, but as the private guests of French and British residents of Normandy.

Mr. Kohl -- according to the French press itself -- had seen this year as an opportunity for ceremonial German reconciliation with the Allies, comparable to that accomplished between him and Mr. Mitterrand a decade ago at Verdun, the great first world war battle site.

However, the French planners have invited only the British, Belgian, Dutch, Luxembourg, Norwegian, Polish and American chiefs of state.

One understands the logic, but not the wisdom, of this exclusion. Its effect is to identify the Normandy victory as over the German nation, not over Nazism, and that is the last thing one should do.

It feeds a perception in present-day Germany that the integration of the Western democratic powers is breaking down, with Germany isolated in troubled circumstances.

Germany has lost three fundaments of its postwar security: Europe's division, with West Germany safely integrated in NATO; Germany's division, with West Germany the United States' main European ally; and confidence in Western Europe's continuing integration.

Communism's collapse left NATO in search of a mission. The available missions are ''out of area,'' which is to say they are ones the Germans are reluctant to become involved in, or from which they are politically precluded.

German unification has had the paradoxical result of dividing Germans against one another while lifting the American guarantee of West German stability and causing the United States to begin to withdraw from Germany and Western Europe. This may be welcome in one respect, but it is also deeply disquieting for Germans.

Economic difficulties produced by Mr. Kohl's handling of German reunification have combined with a larger European recession to cause many Germans to question their continuing ability to compete with their industrial rivals. Mr. Kohl's mistakes, and his long reign in the absence of convincing challengers, have combined to produce considerable political apathy.

Difficulties in Europe over the Maastricht agreement on further integration, and the debacle of European inaction in Yugoslavia, have made the future of the European Union seem complex and uncertain. Federalist Germany had wanted to see Europe united on the basis of its regions, the role of nations diminished, with ''European'' foreign and economic policies.

The events of the last four years have made it seem that just the opposite will be the case. Germans since the war have wanted to believe that they would not again confront the challenges of independent national responsibilities and national action. They have been Europe's truest internationalists.

They most of all have not wanted to confront, once again, the historical ''German question'' of a choice between Western and Eastern orientations. The foreign editor of the Berlin daily Die Welt, Jochen Thies, wrote recently that ''until 1989, it appeared as if this question had been settled once and for all by the parliamentary elections of 1949, an outcome confirmed by the elections in 1953. Today, the issue is no longer moot.''

In a Europe that has seen the eruption of ethnic warfare and the disintegration of political standards only insecurely reinstated in Eastern Europe, it is a perverse act deliberately to exclude Germany from ceremonies marking the emergence of Europe from the barbarism of the Nazi era.

Germany gave birth to Nazism and was its chief instrument. But the evil had its collaborators and complicities everywhere. To ignore this fact is moral cowardice as well as a grave political error.

The civilized states are in need of unity. They are being offered exclusion and discrimination.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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