The Franco-German Relationship: From Animosity to Affinity

By Megan E. Huber

May, 2020

Modern human history is rife with examples of deep-rooted conflicts that never seem to successfully mend the profoundly damaged relationships they engender or achieve sustainable peace.  Even in cases where peace agreements or other circumstances have brought about an end to outright violence, many collapse into renewed fighting in the years or decades after the agreement is signed.  In other cases, agreements have failed to address the underlying causes of conflict, leaving the society deeply divided and creating a veritable tinderbox that could ignite at any moment from the smallest spark. 

Yet despite the seemingly dismal record of peacebuilding efforts around the world to achieve reconciliation, one of the seemingly rare instances is the successful transformation of the relationship between Germany and France.  In less than 100 years, these two European powers have gone from being bitter enemies and fighting countless wars to enjoying a ‘special relationship’ of resilient cooperative bilateralism.  As Lily Gardner Feldman writes, “in the annals of international relations, there is probably no equivalent of the dense network of ties, institutions, and common policies that bind the policy elites and societies of France and Germany today.  Enmity has been transformed into amity.”[1]  France and Germany not only managed to permanently terminate a long history of conflict, fierce national rivalries, and claims of “hereditary enmity,” but managed to transform their relationship into one of trusted partners, friends, and allies.  According to Quentin Lopinot, “Germany and France may be the two countries that have traveled the farthest in the shortest period of time to transform their relationship from bitter enemies to close friends.”[2]  

This anomaly naturally begs the question:  how did these two countries achieve a level of reconciliation rarely seen in human history, particularly after a long and brutal history of violence and hatred?  Ultimately, in addition to a unique set of historical conditions that provided fertile ground for reexamining their relationship, French and German reconciliation was achieved through the creation of a dense web of institutional linkages in nearly every sphere of human activity, including political, economic, social, and cultural.  Critically, these linkages were created not only on a government-to-government basis, but also through civil society institutions in both countries and through a commitment to increasing people-to-people ties between the German and French societies.  The ‘special relationship’ we see between France and Germany today is based not only on a bilateral and multilateral commitment to consultation and cooperation, but also on the deep connections formed between the French and German peoples.  As with any deep-rooted conflict, the path to French and German reconciliation was by no means immediate or easy; however, by taking concerted steps, ranging from symbolic and commemorative events to pragmatic and actionable steps, Germany and France not only reconciled their own relationship, but also helped build durable peace for much of Europe after centuries of strife.  

The following essay seeks to examine how two countries that had exhibited such intense hatred towards the other, culminating in the brutality of World War I and the moral depravity of World War II, could successfully transform their relationship into one of the strongest examples of cooperation and alliance in modern history.  It will look at the conditions that led to its success, the actions taken by both government and civil society, and whether there are any lessons to be learned or idea that can be replicated in other contexts where deep-rooted hatred and long histories of violence define society.

Background:  A History of ‘Heredity Enmity’

As Feldman notes, “the past is always prologue.  It is never possible to escape history when considering reconciliation because the very term implies something to reconcile about.”[3]  And indeed France and Germany have a checkered history, deeply rooted in periods of intense antagonism, violence, and bloodshed.  What is commonly referred to as the era of ‘hereditary enmity’ can be traced back to the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815), when the French Empire and its allies put an end to the Holy Roman Empire, reshaped the political map of the German states, and sparked sweeping tides of nationalism across Europe.  This kicked off a period of intense rivalry and animosity between Germany and France that would continue nearly 150 years.  The rivalry intensified after the unification of the German states and the Franco-German War of 1870, when France was forced to cede the mostly Germanic-speaking Alsace-Lorraine region to Germany.[4]  Recovering this region and revenge against its usurper would ultimately become a keystone of French foreign policy for the next forty years.

The intense antagonism between Germany and France reached its apex in the horrors of the World War I trenches, memories of which would haunt Germans and French alike for generations to come.  Fought with ruthlessness and brutality on both sides, WWI left the survivors of its bloody campaigns physically and psychologically scarred.  The survivors themselves thus continued to serve as constant reminders of the country’s mutual enmity for decades to follow.  Although the eventual Versailles Treaty may have put a stop to the fighting, it did little to alter the relationship between Germany and France in any meaningful way.  Whereas France was concerned about safeguarding its own security by keeping Germany debilitated, Germany was bent on revising and loosening its terms.  As historian Ulrich Krotz has stated, “in retrospect, the Versailles construction seems so flawed that it appears questionable how it could ever have brought durable peace to the continent, let alone decisively undercut or eradicate ‘hereditary enmity.’”[5]  During WWII, a war-weary France would become the site of a long and trying occupation by German troops, only further entrenching feelings of bitterness between the two European powers.  

Historical Conditions:  Fertile Ground for the Seeds of Peace

Despite the long history of animosity, 1945 seems to have represented a breaking point and an opportunity for both countries to acknowledge and come to terms with their pasts and chart a new, shared future.  As the world reckoned with the horrors and moral depravity of the German occupation and Holocaust, Europe found itself facing a formally victorious yet shaken France, a morally and economically devastated Germany, and a physically scorched continent.[6]  Yet Krotz identifies a number of unique historical conditions or factors that arose during the post-war years which would ultimately provide fertile ground for the two former enemies to explore a radical new start to their relationship. 

The first factor involved a sense of complete historical rupture that would be fundamental to the redefining of Franco-German relations.  As Krotz notes, this rupture was so deep that it signified an end to a historical period lasting nearly 500 years in which Europe saw itself as the center of the world.  The utter devastation wrought by WWII on European countries, including the weakening of France and the division and occupation of Germany, “levelled the playing field” in a sense, and offered an opportunity for a radical new start. [7]  Germany and France were no longer necessarily vying for political power or global domination on the world stage in a state of competition.  Rather they both faced the shared realities of trying to rebuild and recover after decades of brutal, draining war. 

Additionally, the end of WWII saw the rise of a new common enemy:  the Soviet Union.  According to Krotz, “the soon burgeoning Cold War historically sealed and removed Franco-German antagonism as the principal cleavage of conflict in European affairs”[8].  France and Germany were thereby able to shift their defining factor of their relationship as one of “us vs. them” to one in which they were working together to defeat a common enemy.  Rather than perceiving the other as a threat against them, France and Germany could see themselves in the same camp, working towards one common goal.  This shifting of identities and emergence of a common enemy provided a foundation upon which the two countries could begin to cooperate. 

Finally, both the political leadership and the postwar populations of Germany and France proved ready to pursue improved relationships with their former enemies.  In particular, both France and Germany had leaders “with not only the will, but also the political authority, charisma, and moral stature credibly to execute the break with the past and put forth a new vision and purpose for the present and the future.”[9]  As Feldman argues, for reconciliation to be successful, it must find broad support among publics and politicians.  Yet willingness to steer a new course often faces opposition by spoilers committed to maintaining destructive relationships.  Thus, reconciliation requires “skillful, informed political leadership [to] navigate difficult waters, especially in the inevitable times of crisis that punctuate days of reconciliation.”[10]  Fortunately for France and Germany, they were led by two such skilled statesmen in the forms of French President Charles de Gaulle and German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, two of the key architects of Franco-German transformation.  Both men recognized the vital importance of the political union of Europe with a Franco-German pillar as its foundation.  They also understood that for such a union to be successful, Germany and France would need to learn to come to terms with their pasts and devise a vision for a shared future.  As Adenauer stated in March 1950, “a union between France and Germany would give new life and vigor to a Europe that is seriously ill.  It would have an immense psychological and material influence and would liberate powers that are sure to save Europe.  I believe this is the only possible way of achieving the unity of Europe.”[11]  Despite their own personal affinity for one another and their dogged commitment to Franco-German reconciliation, both Adenauer and de Gaulle also possessed the foresight and political acumen to know that the partnership “needed to be anchored in something less subject to change and chance than personal chemistry and leadership,”[12] resulting in the creation of the Elysée Treaty.  This treaty not only gave enduring form to cooperative Franco-German relations, but also bound de Gaulle’s and Adenauer’s successors to perpetuate them. 

Ultimately, without these unique historical conditions, it is unclear whether Franco-German reconciliation would have been as successful as it was.  These factors ultimately created a context ripe for a revolutionary break in the former relationship between Germany and France and a backdrop against which the parties could explore more constructive dynamics.  The unique historical and political context underscores the critical role external conditions can play in securing a durable peace in cases of deeply-rooted, intractable conflicts as well as a warning against trying to use a one-size-fits-all approach to resolving other conflicts.  Although there are certainly lessons to be learned from the Franco-German experience, as this case demonstrates, it is important to take individual dynamics of each situation into account and seek out similar periods, actions, or people that might make the situation ripe for resolution. 

Early Efforts:  Building Informal Societal and Cultural Ties

It is important to recognize that Franco-German reconciliation was not spontaneous or immediate.  Indeed, in the first five years after the end of WWII, France in particular was still primarily concerned with protecting its own security and enacting punitive measures against Germany.  Thus, although some initial calls for reconciliation had been made by leaders of the wartime French resistance movement, there were few official initiatives on the part of the French government until 1948 or 1949.  Rather, many of the early attempts at improving the Franco-German relationship were actually carried out by private citizens or through informal contacts between French and German politicians.  Reconciliation in the immediate postwar years thus took on the character of track-two diplomacy, “including efforts to humanize the relationship between representatives of the two countries and to influence public opinion to support first steps toward conflict resolution.”[13] 

In particular, French and German civil society organizations actively pursued the expansion of societal and cultural ties through youth and academic exchange programs, town and city “twinships,” and academic or research collaborations.  For example, Krotz notes the example of Jesuit priest Jean du Rivau, who was among the first to bring German children to France to learn about the lives of their neighbors.  By 1964, his organization had arranged over 10,000 family exchanges, providing an opportunity for Germans and French citizens to break down stereotypes and learn about the other.[14]  Another early organization known as “Action Reconciliation” focused on acknowledging grievances and dealing with guilt by encouraging young Germans of the post-high school age, regardless of religious affiliation, to volunteer in countries that had suffered under Nazism, including France.  This organization continues to exist today, although now it notes that its volunteers do not act “from a feeling of personal guilt, but rather from the conviction that they want to make a positive contribution toward a more peaceful, just, and tolerant world.”[15]  Finally, in an early attempt to address the representation of history, a group of historians from both countries met for the first time in 1950.  As Bar-Tal notes, “the reconstruction of the past is an important part of reconciliation, because collective memory of the past underlies much of the animosity, hatred, and mistrust between the parties.”[16]  In a series of meetings, joint historical commissions worked to revise textbooks and national histories, “critically scrutinizing the myths of a ‘hereditary enmity’ between France and Germany.”[17]  Ultimately, these commissions worked to create a common, consensual account of the national histories of France and Germany devoid of misrepresentations of events or peoples that may inflame conflict between them. 

Although not “official” or formally sanctioned, these early efforts by the French and German civil societies to reduce stereotypes, acknowledge and address grievance and guilt, and ‘decontaminate history’[18] helped lay the groundwork for more formal institutional linkages in the years to come.  On a primarily people-to-people level, they allowed for a gradual reframing of perspective by humanizing those formerly perceived only as “the enemy”.   

On the political level, the early post-war years saw the first major steps towards multilateral European integration and attempts to create political and economic linkages between France and Germany.  For example, in May 1950, French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman suggested an economic union for coal and steel production.  In describing his proposal for what would become the European Coal and Steel Community, Schuman stated, “the solidarity in production thus established will make it plain that any war between France and Germany becomes not merely unthinkable, but materially impossible”[19].  This period also saw the development of the ultimately failed project of a European Defense Community and the European Economic Community.  These early attempts at bilateral and multilateral integration signaled that relations between these two former enemies could be transformed through linkages in the economic, security, and political spheres.

Elysée Treaty:  Institutionalizing Peace

While these early steps were key towards starting to build relationships and bilateral connections between the French and German societies, many consider the Franco-German Treaty of 1963 (i.e. the Elysée Treaty) to mark the beginning phase of the institutionalization of Franco-German reconciliation.  According to Quentin Lopinet, in signing this treaty, French President Charles de Gaulle and German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer vowed to lay to rest the “centuries-old rivalry” between their two countries and create an enduring political framework that would become the foundation for post-WWII reconciliation and friendship and a major driver of European integration.[20]  Perhaps the most significant driving force of this treaty was that it not only focused on government institutions, but also dealt with the importance of building people-to-people ties.  Subsequent German Chancellor Helmut Kohl would testify to the importance of these societal ties when he stated, “fortunately, the French-German friendship is no longer dependent on governments.  It is a friendship between nations.”[21]  The Elysée Treaty was ultimately so defining for Franco-German reconciliation because it institutionalized linkages across the full spectrum of human activity in both government and society, including by building political, economic, and cultural ties.  As Feldman attests, the Elysée Treaty “provided a framework for the extensive network of contacts in every walk of society.”[22]

On the political side, a core element of the treaty was an agreement for regular consultation and dialogue between key leaders in politics, defense, economics, education, and other bilateral fields.  For example, the treaty called for a minimum of two meetings every year between the heads of state and government and four times each year for the foreign ministers.  In the area of security, defense ministers were to meet four times each year and the chiefs of staff of the armed forces were to come together at least once every two months.[23]  The regular consultation and dialogue, started informally under de Gaulle and Adenauer, ensured transparency and reduced likelihood of misunderstandings that could lead to conflict.  It also created a foundation upon which German and France could develop joint policies on European or other global issues. 

Unlike many bilateral agreements, the Elysée Treaty did not stop at government-to-government connections; rather, it also focused heavily on institutionalizing people-to-people connections between German and French societies.  In particular, both de Gaulle and Adenauer believed that the future of reconciliation was largely contingent on building ties between the youth.  This belief in the importance of youth engagement is evidenced in a speech given by de Gaulle in Germany in 1962, just four months before signing the Elysée Treaty: 

While it remains the task of our two states to promote economic, political, and cultural cooperation, it should be up to you and the French youth to encourage you and us to come ever closer together, to get to know each other better and to form closer ties.  The future of our two countries, the cornerstone on which Europe’s unity can and must be built, and the highest trump card for the freedom of the world remain mutual respect, trust, and friendship between the people of France and Germany.[24]

In order to institutionalize youth participation, the Elysée Treaty called for the creation of a German-French Youth Office as an autonomous bilateral organization.  Although private institutions had assumed similar functions prior to 1963, the youth office was the first governmentally-sponsored youth exchange organization and focused on funding and facilitating exchange programs between French and German youth.  The exchanges themselves were often carried out by non-governmental partners, such as youth associations, sports clubs, trade unions, schools and universities, or town twinning organizations.  Since its establishment, the Franco-German Youth Office has facilitated the participation of more than eight million French and German youth in more than three hundred thousand exchange programs.[25]

In addition to youth exchange programs, the Elysée Treaty also provided a framework for extensive contacts in other areas of society, including culture, education, and economics.  For example, in the area of education, nearly 5,000 schools have since developed partnerships and thousands more have engaged in academic collaboration.  Feldman notes that collaboration in science has been particularly impressive, with over eight hundred agreements in the sciences between French and German universities.[26]  Furthermore, cultural clubs, friendship societies, and language institutes are numerous, building greater understanding and affinity for the other.  In the area of economics, bilateral activity occurs through institutions such as trade unions, the Franco-German Chamber of Commerce, the Franco-German Industry Forum, the German Tourism Office, and more. 

Krotz views the dense web of what he calls “parapublic” connections initially spurred by the Elysée Treaty as undergirding the Franco-German relationship.  As he notes:

The ‘special relationship’ between France and Germany consists of much more than the relationship between two states and the private transnational contacts originating in two countries’ civil societies or economies.  It is also founded on connections between the French and Germans which their governments have helped fund and organize, but which have gained autonomy from their founders and funders and, over time, have evolved into something more.[27] 

For Krotz, these “parapublic underpinnings” have helped to engender a sense of belonging together and an institutionalization of the Franco-German bond as something worth defending.  It therefore seems to have achieved de Gaulle’s vision for ties that run deeper than just political, economic, or security connections, but rather they are ones sustained by the friendship of the German and French people. 

Healing the Wounds of the Past:  Symbolic Actions 

Of course, Franco-German reconciliation was not achieved solely through increased bilateralism or people-to-people ties.  The wounds of the past ran deep and required additional care to deal with the psychological barriers to reconciliation.  Especially in the early post-war years, both de Gaulle and Adenauer aimed to fortify and celebrate the importance of Franco-German reconciliation through a string of noteworthy and symbolic acts and gestures as they tried to prime their populations for a renewed relationship.  For example, de Gaulle welcomed Chancellor Adenauer to his private home during a visit in 1958, making Adenauer the first and only foreign statesman to stay in his private domicile.  Additionally, during an official state visit to France in 1962, French and German troops participated in a joint military parade the first time in history, thereby symbolically representing an end to their military enmity.  These and other early acts reflected a desire to change France and Germany’s conflictive relations of the past into peaceful relations moving forward.

Subsequent leaders and representatives of the French and German governments have also engaged in a host of symbolic acts or practices intended to address the past while simultaneously providing a vision of a shared future.  Such acts included the joining of hands by French President François Mitterrand and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl at the grave fields of Verdun, the site of a bloody WWI battle that resulted in an estimated 800,000 casualties.  This stirring 1984 gesture represented a sign that the longstanding enmity that led to those deaths had come to an end.  Other symbolic acts include joint French and German parades on the Champs-Elysee; the joint laying of the foundation stone for the new French Embassy in Berlin in July 1998; and the custom of first visits to the neighboring country after changes in political positions.  In total, Feldman identified at least eleven occasions of symbolic gestures in the last sixty years.[28]  Ultimately these public displays and other commemorations and memorials helped the German and French populations remember and honor the past while symbolizing the transformed relationship. 


John Paul Lederach, one of the foremost scholars on conflict resolution and reconciliation, defined ‘constructive social change’ as “the pursuit of moving relationships from those defined by fear, mutual recrimination, and violence towards those characterized by love, mutual respect, and proactive engagement”[29].  In exploring the nearly unprecedented and seemingly irreversible transformation of the Franco-German relationship, there is virtually no doubt these former adversaries achieved Lederach’s vision of a reconciled, constructive partnership.  Despite a volatile history, these two countries were able to transform their relationship by taking both symbolic and pragmatic steps intended to build trust and create linkages and networks across all sectors of society, from politics to the economy to culture.  Critically, they focused not just on issues of security, but also on forging mutual understanding through people-to-people connections.  Thus, the network of Franco-German institutions is not only limited to the official space, but is also supported by decades of close personal ties between the citizens of both countries.        

As with all human interaction, the reconciliation in the Franco-German case did not erase conflict; rather, it provided the necessary institutional structures, linkages, and procedures to deal with bilateral differences or bouts of friction.  As Feldman states, “reconciliation in the Franco-German case did not connote constant or complete harmony… Relations can be difficult, ideas and policies could diverge, but new relations of amity were distinguished from the past of enmity by a fundamental ethos of cooperation and a structural framework for its realization.”[30]  This has ensured that the ‘special relationship’ between France and Germany has remained resilient and adaptable to domestic or international changes or crises.  Lederach has stated that “the potential for change lies in our ability to recognize, understand, and redress what has happened, and create new structures and ways of interacting in the future.”[31]  The transformation of the Franco-German relationship from one of bitter animosity to one of friendship and affinity represents one of the few historical examples to achieve this level of post-conflict reconciliation. 


“About Us.” Action Reconciliation Service for Peace. Accessed April 22, 2020.

Ackermann, Alice. “Reconciliation as a Peace-Building Process in Postwar Europe:  The Franco-German Case.” Peace & Change 19, no. 3 (July 1994):  229-250. 

Bar-Tal, Daniel. “From Intractable Conflict Through Conflict Resolution To Reconciliation: Psychological Analysis,” Political Psychology 21, no. 2 (June 2000): 351-365.

Feldman, Lily Gardner.  “The Principle and Practice of ‘Reconciliation’ in German Foreign Policy:  Relations with France, Israel, Poland, and the Czech Republic.” International  Affairs 75, no 2 (April 1999):  333-356. 

Feldman, Lily Gardner. “Germany’s Relations with France:  From Enmity to Amity.” In Germany’s Foreign Policy of Reconciliation: From Enmity to Amity. Lanham, MD:Rowman and Littlefield Publishes, 2012.  ProQuest Ebook Central.

Lederach, John Paul. “Conflict Transformation.” Beyond Intractability. October 2003

Lederach, John Paul. The Moral Imagination. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Lopinot, Quentin.  “Rekindling an Essential Relationship” France, Germany, and the Aachen Treaty.” CSIS.  5 March 2019.

Krotz, Ulrich.  “Three Eras and Possible Futures:  A Long-Term View on the Franco-German Relationship a Century after the First World War.” International Affairs 90, no. 2 (2014): 337- 350.

Zachar, Peter Krisztian.  “From ‘Grandeur’ to “Securite’ and ‘a Special Relationship’: The Shift in the French-German Relationship in a Historical Perspective.” Prague Papers on the History of International Relations 2 (2018): 112-135.



[1] Lily Gardner Feldman, “Germany’s Relations with France:  From Enmity to Amity,” in Germany’s Foreign Policy of Reconciliation (Lanham, MD:  Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc, 2012): 79.

[2] Quentin Lopinot, “Rekindling an Essential Relationship” France, Germany, and the Aachen Treaty,” CSIS.  5 March 2019,

[3] Feldman, “Germany’s Relations with France,” 80.

[4] Ulrich Krotz, “Three Eras and Possible Futures:  A Long-Term View on the Franco-German Relationship a Century after the First World War,” International Affairs 90, no. 2 (2014): 338.

[5] Krotz, 340.

[6] Krotz, 340.

[7] Krotz, 341.

[8] Krotz, 341.

[9] Krotz, 342

[10] Lily Gardner Feldman, “The Principle and Practice of ‘Reconciliation’ in German Foreign Policy:  Relations with France, Israel, Poland, and the Czech Republic,” International Affairs 75, no 2 (April 1999):  333-356.

[11] Feldman, “Germany’s Relations with France,” 79.

[12] Feldman, “Germany’s Relations with France,” 94.

[13] Alice Ackermann, “Reconciliation as a Peace-Building Process in Postwar Europe:  The Franco-German Case,” Peace & Change 19, no. 3 (July 1994):  238.

[14] Krotz, 343.

[15] “About Us,” Action Reconciliation Service for Peace, Accessed April 22, 2020,

[16] Daniel Bar-Tal, “From Intractable Conflict Through Conflict Resolution To Reconciliation:  Psychological Analysis,”Political Psychology 21, no. 2 (June 2000): 359.

[17] Ackerman, 242

[18] Feldman, “Germany’s Relations with France,” 86.

[19] Feldman, “Germany’s Relations with France,” 80.

[20] Lopinet.

[21] Quoted in Feldman, “Germany’s Relations with France,” 94.

[22] Feldman, “Germany’s Relations with France,” 97.

[23] Feldman, “Germany’s Relations with France,” 102

[24] Quoted in Peter Krisztian Zachar,  “From ‘Grandeur’ to “Securite’ and ‘a Special Relationship’: The Shift in the French-German Relationship in a Historical Perspective,” Prague Papers on the History of International Relations 2 (2018): 128.

[25] Feldman, “Germany’s Relations with France,” 97.

[26] Feldman, “Germany’s Relations with France,” 99.

[27] Krotz, 347.

[28] Feldman, “Germany’s Relations with France,” 87.

[29] John Paul Lederach, The Moral Imagination (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005): 42.

[30] Feldman, “Germany’s Relations with France,” 118.

[31] John Paul Lederach, “Conflict Transformation,” Beyond Intractability, October 2003,