Tocqueville and the Odd Couple

Tocqueville and the Odd Couple

Mini Teaser: Franco-German relations over the last century and a half have been characterized by a complex pattern of attraction and repulsion that is crucial to an understanding of the new Europe.

by Author(s): Max Beloff

Alexis de Tocqueville, known throughout Europe as the author of Democracy in America and for a brief period foreign minister of France, was childless--a matter of deep concern to someone so proud of his ancestry. In his later years he partly made up for this gap in his life by attention to his nephews and nieces. Pride of place went to his nephew Hubert, who was nineteen years old when Louis Napoleon's coup d'Žtat ended Tocqueville's public career. After some hesitation, Hubert opted for a diplomatic career and, with some assistance from his uncle, was posted first to the embassy in Vienna and then to Berlin.

At both capitals, but particularly Berlin, Tocqueville's contacts, whether personal or through correspondence, assured the young man an entrŽe into the most important social and intellectual circles. In writing to Hubert, Tocqueville welcomed the latter's determination to pursue the study of the German language and the history of the German-speaking peoples. While the Bismarckian Reich was still in the future, the German confederation was already the scene of important economic and demographic growth, and, despite the setback to its unity in the failed Revolutions of 1848, was obviously destined to play an increasingly important role in European politics. Tocqueville believed that the Germans should have been the natural partners of the French but that the Napoleonic conquests and occupation had permanently alienated them and made an alliance impossible. This legacy left France with the option of choosing an alignment with Britain, of which the price would be allowing that country to expand into all quarters of the habitable world, or else with Russia, which always carried with it the risk of general war.

Tocqueville was aware of the paradox in his own position as between Britain and Germany. As he himself admitted, he had always lived almost exclusively in an English world. Indeed some of his early contacts with German thinking had been by way of English intermediaries. In these last years of his life he was dominated by the studies needed to complete his projected history of the French Revolution, which he regarded as a European event and one for which an understanding of the German reactions to events in France was essential.

He also saw in parts of Germany where the spirit of Metternich still ruled an approximation to the social and legal structures of pre-Revolutionary Europe. For that reason he saw Prussia, where the ideas of the liberal Enlightenment had made the greatest impact, as holding the key to a liberal future for Germany as a whole. In the later 1850s there seemed to be signs of a progressive liberalization of Prussia, which was very welcome to him. His fear was that the forces of progress would be too impatient and try to reach too soon the creation of a stable constitutional monarchy, which the English model showed to be the fruit of generations. What Tocqueville hoped for was a friendly Germany modeled on Britain. But in 1862, three years after Tocqueville's death, Bismarck became head of the Prussian government and henceforth events followed a very different course.

The creation of the new German empire was one of the fruits of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71--the first of what some would see as the three Franco-German wars that formed much of the substance of European history between that date and 1945. Throughout that period and subsequently the passionate interest that Tocqueville had shown in German internal developments, and above all in German thought, has remained a permanent feature of French intellectual society. The point has been well made by Theodore Zeldin, the leading British authority on modern French history:

"France's involvement with Germany manifested itself in a love-hate relationship which continually tormented and frustrated Frenchmen. If France was married to any country it was to Germany. . . . The French interest in England was, by comparison, not much more than a flirtation or an affair. But Franco-German relations reveal best of all the complexity of France's position in Europe. This is a particularly striking case in which the study of these relations in purely diplomatic terms gives a positively misleading picture of what went on in the minds of people outside the political arena. Germany was the land of Kant, Goethe, Wagner, Marx and Nietzsche to more people than it was that of Bismarck and Hitler."

The main factor on the political side of the relationship until the First World War was the memory and consequences of the Franco-Prussian War. From Bismarck's point of view this war showed once again that France, with its record of instability and external aggression since the Revolution, must be deprived of some of the territory from which expansion could be launched. But the strategic reasons for the annexation of Alsace and part of Lorraine were fortified by the view of all the German political parties that these provinces were a part of German-speaking territory that would have to be included in any complete German State. Since France could not be expected to accept this situation as permanent, it would be the task of German diplomacy to keep it isolated and divert its energies to overseas expansion, which would bring it into constant rivalry with Britain and Italy.

French policy, particularly under governments of the Right, did in fact seek the possibility of turning the tables, notably by the conclusion of a Russian alliance. The Left did however from time to time produce spokesmen who sought to end hostility toward Germany and bring about some kind of dŽtente. The conduct of German policy under Wilhelm II put an end to these hopes.

The war of 1914-18, with its horrific losses and the German occupation of French soil, made any immediate thought of reconciliation hard to sustain outside limited pacifist circles. It put into power Georges Clemenceau, for whom the mere recovery of the lost provinces was insufficient compensation for France's sufferings and an inadequate guarantee against future German aggression. The position he took at the Paris Peace Conference, and which was maintained by his successors in the 1920s, was that Germany must be disarmed, obliged to remedy some of the losses inflicted on French industry by the payment of reparations, and the enforcement of the provisions of the Treaty of Versailles through the presence of French troops of occupation. Some Frenchmen went further and hoped that some areas bordering on France might be detached from the German State.

Nevertheless, it remained the case that in any direct conflict between France and Germany, the weight of advantage in demographic and industrial terms would lie with Germany. While the Russian alliance had proved its usefulness to France early in the war, the Bolshevik Revolution had for the time being removed it from the European balance, and the resuscitated Polish State was an insufficient substitute. In the end it was the Anglo-Saxon world that had enabled France to emerge victorious, and it was upon the consent of Britain and the United States that any French policy must in future depend. Since it was clear that neither country believed the permanent subordination of Germany to be feasible in the long run, alternatives had to be considered.

With the advent of German governments prepared to fulfill their treaty obligations--at least on the surface--the old wish for some kind of rapprochement began again to carry weight on the French Left, under the guidance of men like Briand and Herriot. With the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928 it looked as though this objective might be within reach. Security remained a French preoccupation and, since the League of Nations was not thought to be in a position to provide it, some kind of European structure began to look attractive. It is in these years that the origins of the European Union must be sought.

The world economic crisis that began in the following year put an end to such hopes for the time being. It helped to precipitate the rise of National Socialism, and the faltering efforts of the Disarmament Conference could not survive the advent of Hitler. A Germany free to expand its armed forces and prepared to channel its scientific and industrial might to military ends was more than a match for anything the French could do. Once again French policy could only balance between the search for allies prepared to assist in containing Germany and what became known as "appeasement." The fact that the strength of Russia, now the Soviet Union, was uncertain, and that its ideology was anathema to much of French opinion, helps to explain the inability of the French as well as the British to find a solution to the problem with which German ambitions now confronted them.

The Second World War (or the third Franco-German war) was an even more disastrous experience than its predecessor. In 1940 the possibility of fighting on from the French empire was embodied in the proposed Anglo-French Union, but by this time it was too late to stem the forces of defeatism. France was now divided between those like General de Gaulle and the internal leaders of the Resistance who still hoped for a turning of the tide, and the new "Vichy" government, symbolized by Marshal PŽtain, which saw an alternative future in accepting the role of a partner to the new German Reich. The history of the Vichy period is still the subject of controversy in France. Without probing too deeply into these painful memories, two points must be made of direct relevance to later developments. Traditionally, the search for friendship with Germany has been a feature of part of the French Left. From the "appeasement" years and during the Vichy period it had become part of the thinking of a portion of the French Right. The second point to notice is that those who supported cooperation with Nazi Germany were divided as to how far that cooperation needed to go. Should it be as limited as possible and justified as the only way in which a French State could be preserved? Or was it better to go the whole way and seek to give assistance to the German war effort, particularly after this became directed against the Soviet Union from the summer of 1941?

Once the United States entered the war in December 1941, the alternative to subordination to Germany was "liberation" by the Anglo-Saxons. In that case, France would become dependent for its renewal upon the Americans, and President Roosevelt's treatment of General de Gaulle and his movement suggested that this also would carry some disadvantages. Would France again have to choose, as in Tocqueville's time, between Germany and the English-speaking world as the alternative poles of its foreign policy? The agonies involved in such a choice were to confront the Fourth Republic, de Gaulle himself on his return to power, and the Fifth Republic down to the present time, although in very different contexts.

Again one is confronted with the cultural dimension. Admiration for German culture among the French elites was matched by their suspicion of American mores as reflected in its popular culture, which has increasingly appealed to younger generations of Europeans. Just as Britain cannot enter wholeheartedly into any European Union project because it feels itself far closer to the United States, so the French find a "European" rather than an "Atlanticist" ideology more acceptable.

While the relative positions of the Powers after Germany's defeat in 1945 made it impossible for the French to achieve the old objective of breaking up the unity of the German State and going back to the "many Germanies" of the past, the Soviet occupation of East Germany achieved it for them and the old Reich was not in fact restored. The difference in weight between France and Germany was thus reduced and the way was open for an experiment in partnership, based at first on the European Coal and Steel Community with its joint management of the ultimate sinews of war.
Some historians with an ideological bent would see the period since 1950 as marked by the creation of new European institutions, culminating in the European Union of Maastricht. Those of a more pragmatic turn of mind would prefer to place the emphasis on the development of Franco-German relations, espoused by the Germans--Adenauer and his successors--as a way back into the community of nations, and by the French in the belief that their own political and administrative skills, their permanent seat on the UN Security Council, and their developing nuclear power would be sufficient to ensure that the policies of the new institutions would reflect French priorities.

The smooth progression of the Bonn-Paris axis was given a jolt when the Soviet empire collapsed and the reunification of Germany proved one of the unavoidable results of its demise. The transformation of the Bonn-Paris axis to the Berlin-Paris axis raises new problems, since at the same time the Soviet collapse made possible the revival of French interest in Central and Eastern Europe where the Germans would once again be powerful competitors. During the Bonn period the Germans had also differed from the French in their feeling of dependence upon the United States. It was the task of the West German rulers to combine Europeanism with Atlanticism to a greater extent than the French thought necessary. With the disappearance--at least for the time being--of a threat from the east, the Germans were able to envisage a European destiny more in keeping with the French vision. It has been the determination of the two countries to crown the European edifice with a single currency, and with the federal institutions that its operation demands, that has explained, and indeed dominated, the course of European development since Maastricht. Quite apart from issues of policy--military as well as economic--there does seem to have been over the period since 1950 a coming together of the ruling cadres in both countries. It has become natural that Paris should be the first port of call for any German statesman or official exploring a new initiative or a new problem.

Questions as to the durability of this axis have been raised by the political changes of the last couple of years, which have seen the eclipse of the "Catholic Democracy"--so powerful at the inauguration of the new "Europe"--by governments of a socialist complexion in all the major countries of the Union. There were signs in particular that the new German Chancellor Schršder, having his political roots in a Protestant north Germany with its partially maritime outlook, might try to give a greater role to Britain in Europe's affairs, and there was even talk of a Berlin-London-Paris triangle in place of the exclusive Franco-German partnership.

But once Schršder was actually in office, these expectations were shown to be illusory. The pattern of exclusivity has reasserted itself and the Franco-German alignment seems as pronounced as ever. Since the main differences so far evident are over the constitution and functioning of the European Central Bank, discussions from which Britain has excluded itself, it was obvious that their resolution would depend upon the ability of the Germans and the French to come to an agreement between themselves.

As we have seen, Tocqueville was unable correctly to guess the future course that Germany would take. In a world and even a Europe undergoing such rapid change, forecasting now would be equally perilous. What we do know is that Germany is now run by a new generation that is unimpeded by the burden of the Nazi legacy and that appears willing to look at issues from the point of view of the national interest. Where such considerations will take them in relation to the expansion of the European Union and of NATO, or in respect of "out-of-area" issues from which Germany has hitherto held aloof, it is not possible to say. On the French side, there are fewer signs of fundamental change despite the major recasting of its armed forces. One and a half centuries after Tocqueville, the wise uncle of a fledgling French diplomat might still give his nephew the same advice: Get to know Germany.

Essay Types: Essay