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Human rights and the ‘work of memory’ in international relations

For more than a century and a half, the incessant reminder of past confrontations created entrenched positions on either side of the Rhine. These perceptions gave rise to belligerent discourses calling for the crushing of the ancestral enemy. They were based on the same events, but the meaning assigned to these events was totally different. The discourses were thus frequently based on mutually contradictory versions of the past.

In 1950, however, Jean Monnet and Robert Schuman stressed the absolute necessity to change people’s minds on both sides of the Rhine. To do so, they launched the project of the European Coal and Steel Community. Their aim was explicitly to integrate Germany into the Western camp and to transform the relationship between France and Germany. Eight years later, Charles de Gaulle and Konrad Adenauer officially put an end to the calls for mutual destruction that had poisoned the existence of their countries for several decades, if not centuries. This change did not occur in the twinkling of an eye, of course. It required, among other things, profound modifications in the attitudes held by each country vis-à-vis the other. Since their rapprochement, for instance, the authorities of the two states have systematically tried to avoid being locked into memories that are strictly national. They recognize that national perceptions overlap and have to be considered as mutually dependent. The purpose is to develop a ‘common language’ capable of encompassing the two nations’ conflict-ridden past. At the very least, the aim is to establish a minimum basis for a common interpretation of future events – the ultimate goal being to increase the potential for a rapprochement rather than to encourage further distancing. Former French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin summed up this process: memory should be considered not as ‘a way to awaken ancient sufferings’, but as ‘a tool allowing people to make peace with the past, without forgetting previous wounds’.

Such an approach implies a more complex approach to otherness. Leaders of both sides no longer describe the two nations as possessing identities that are totally heterogeneous and independent. Instead, they depict them as peoples who are bound together by links derived from history and who have committed actions causing mutual wounds. The purpose is not to impose a vision about past and present realities. It is rather to iron out the conditions for the ‘cohabitation’ of diverging experiences.

The Franco-German case demonstrates that, despite their undeniable rigidities, national memories are potentially changeable, and indeed negotiable, for two main reasons. First, such memories can be redefined because they are to a large extent constructed. Moreover, unlike territory and resources, they are not inherently zero-sum. Though they are perceived and debated as such in intense conflicts, it is in fact not the case that one party’s narrative of the past can be recognized and expressed only if the other’s narrative is denied and suppressed.

Yet such an evolution does not develop directly and spontaneously, but emerges only gradually and painstakingly. The work of memory that has been undertaken by French and German authorities takes root in deep divergences. Identifying and softening these divergences is a more realistic goal than eliminating them. Even in the Franco-German case, which is often presented as a model, the work of memory appears as an open-ended process. According to Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, such a common work remains necessary because of the persistence of ‘memory misunderstandings’ between the two nations . One could add that, despite reconciliation, Franco-German relations have been subject to a series of crises and strains, which can easily re-open profound scars. In this regard, the healing process that the work of memory is supposed to produce is never totally irreversible.

The analysis of the Franco-German case shows that at least four conditions are required to undertake a work of memory.

The first is that the moment must be right; the parties must be ready to take on this task. This implies that they perceive themselves to be in a mutually hurtful stalemate and that they envisage the possibility of a way out. The Franco-German case is revealing in this regard. The losses and devastation caused by World War II made French and German leaders conscious of the intolerable cost and inanity of their struggles. Moreover, they perceived European unification as a way to bring their antagonism to an end.

The second condition is directly connected with the first. It concerns the intention and the will of all protagonists. A process of rapprochement can only be undertaken if all parties perceive the effort to be necessary and profitable. Former belligerents will only try to commit themselves if they believe that such an attitude directly serves their national interests. This is also true of the Franco-German case after the war: the construction of Europe was not a matter of altruism or national suicide; it corresponded to French and German interests.

The third condition turns out to be fundamental: the personal aspect. The representatives of each party must of course be skilled negotiators – i.e. they must be flexible, sensitive, imaginative, patient, and tenacious. But in addition to these qualities, they must have support among their respective populations. In this regard, a very important factor of credibility lies in the personal past of the respective leaders. Things will go more smoothly if the rapprochement is advocated by a person who has accomplished heroic actions against the enemy with whom reconciliation is being sought. This person then asks the population to undergo a transformation that he (or less likely she) has undergone himself – i.e. overcoming resentment towards the former enemy. For instance, the historical legitimacy of Charles de Gaulle probably helped the French people to change their views about wars against Germany. A similar point can be made with respect to Nelson Mandela in South Africa.

Ultimately, the outcome of the work of memory depends above all on popular support. For, even if this work seems necessary to each party, it cannot be imposed by decree. Accordingly, the work of memory requires both a political and a public momentum. Without political support ‘from above’, the efforts of some individuals and/or groups will not be sufficient to influence the whole population and to give clear signals to the other party. Conversely, without the support of the population, modifications brought to official memory are sterile and vain.

To create the domestic support they needed to change perceptions of their common history, de Gaulle and Adenauer undertook considerable efforts to persuade the public of the necessity of a Franco-German rapprochement. Between 1958 and 1962, they carried out frequent trips on both sides of the Rhine to help their populations overcome preconceived ideas and fears rooted in past events. As a result, the work of memory progressively affected all levels of society. The Elysee Treaty of 1963 made the Franco-German rapprochement durable thanks to a double linkage: the requirements for regular consultation and the promotion of interaction on a ‘people-to-people’ level.

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