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France and Germany: The Arbiters of European Peace

Sept. 21, 2017 When the strategies of Paris and Berlin change, so too will the institutions that pacified the Continent.

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The European Union, for all its ambition and inclusivity, is a function of relations between its most important members: France and Germany. It was an experiment meant to test the limits of their animosity. If France and Germany were bound together in such a way that prosperity for one meant prosperity for the other, then perhaps they would not rip the Continent apart again as they had in World War I and World War II. It was a noble experiment, and for a long time it worked. So effective were the European Union and its precursor institutions that the era in which they were formed is often called the Long Peace – a term that ignores the dissolution of Yugoslavia but largely captures the essence of the period.

But can the EU continue to keep the peace? If the bloc reflects the ways in which France and Germany tried to pursue certain national interests, what happens when French and German strategies change? Already there are signs that EU institutions – and therefore the strategic pursuits that led to their formation – are either failing or becoming ineffective, and so there are signs that France and Germany will undertake new strategies.

The following report explains the strategies available to them – and how these strategies work with and against each other – amid the transformations underway on the Continent. It shows how decades of peace belie the fact that French and German interests, despite small areas of mutuality made manifest by the EU, are fundamentally different. And it is the differences between them, not the results of the recent elections in France or the upcoming elections in Germany, that will shape the fates of these nations, and therefore the fate of Europe.

The Story of Germany

Germany as we know it didn’t form until 1871. It had been composed of smaller states and territories for centuries. But the story of Germany’s place in Europe, and Europe’s behavior toward Germany, really begins during the Thirty Years’ War, which lasted from 1618 to 1648. It started as an internal conflict that pitted Protestant German states against the Catholic and increasingly fragmented Holy Roman Empire, which was controlled by the Habsburgs. But in chaos there is opportunity, and major European powers soon joined the fray. Throughout the previous century, for example, Protestant German states had slowly gained greater independence from the Holy Roman Empire, and now that they were somewhat more independent, they could be used against their former overlords by enemies of the empire. France liberally played German territories off the Holy Roman Empire throughout the war, taking advantage of their status as buffer states.

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The devastation of the fighting during the Thirty Years’ War cannot be overstated. Newly organized armies – modernized, using new military doctrines such as the new massed firing techniques developed by Gustavus Adolphus, and much larger than anything Europe had seen since the decline of the Roman Empire in the 5th century – fought each other fiercely, and when they fought, they usually did it on German soil. Most estimates put the death toll at around 8 million people, roughly 8 percent of the entire population of Europe. (World War I, by comparison, killed off 4 percent of the European population.) And since Germany was where the fighting happened, Germany was also where most of the casualties were incurred. Foreign armies replenished their stocks by ransacking nearby villages and towns, some of which lost as much as 75 percent of their population.

That this destruction occurred on German territory and not elsewhere is unsurprising, given European geography. Much of this territory sits on the North European Plain, a flat area prone to invasion from two directions. The plain, which is part of the larger Great European Plain, is widest in the east where it spans from Germany’s northern tip on the Baltic Sea to the modern southern border with the Czech Republic. While the Alps sit to Germany’s south, it has no natural borders to either the east or the west.

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The Ore Mountains in the south of Germany narrow the plain until the country juts south in the state of Bavaria, where it becomes more mountainous. Near the center of the country are the Harz Mountains, which lay south of Hamburg. To the west of the Harz Mountains is the Teutoburg Forest, where the Roman conquest was halted and turned back by Germanic tribes 2,000 years ago, marking the northernmost point of the Roman Empire. Farther west, in the Rhineland-Palatinate region, are the Eifel Mountains, which curve southwest into Belgium and Luxembourg and lead into the Ardennes. Although these mountains offer some protection, they are less difficult to pass than, say, the Alps and Carpathians.

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Though most of modern Germany’s population lives in the west, which is where much of its industrial base is located, Berlin, its most populous city, is located midway on the eastern portion of the plain, making it strategically valuable as a way to block an oncoming attack from the east. Still, its lack of natural barriers in the surrounding region also makes it vulnerable to encirclement. Hamburg, in the center northern portion of the country and Germany’s second most populous city, lies at the southern end of Schleswig-Holstein, the southern half of the Jutland peninsula on which Denmark also sits and an important element of protecting Germany’s access to the Baltic and North seas.

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Germany has a set of navigable rivers – several of which are connected by extensive canal systems – that enable trade to the Atlantic and inland along the Danube, although those that flow to the Atlantic can be blocked in the North Sea by the United Kingdom and in the Baltic by potential enemies.

Germany’s Imperatives

It was with the historical memory of the devastation caused by the Thirty Years’ War that compelled Otto von Bismarck, who guided Prussian and, later, German strategy in the second half of the 19th century, to seek German unification, forming a single national entity that could defend itself at the center of the flat European Plain. Since then, Germany’s core security imperative has been to remain united and prevent a two-front war from emerging. Germany cannot protect itself when it is not united. Its fate was determined by outside powers in the Thirty Years’ War, just as it was during the Cold War, when it was bifurcated into East Germany and West Germany. This is precisely what governed Bismarck’s stable border strategy. From 1871 to 1890, when he was fired by Kaiser Wilhelm II, Bismarck largely abstained from grabbing territories and colonies so that other countries would not perceive Germany as an expansionist power in need of curbing. It was the exception to Bismarck’s stable-border strategy – the creation and subsequent acquisition of Alsace-Lorraine from France in 1871 – that helped fuel the onset of World War I.

And herein lies the paradox of German foreign policy. Germany must avoid two-front wars, but if it believes one to be unavoidable, as it did twice in the early 20th century, its conditional imperative is to dominate Europe as quickly as possible. It is strong enough to defend one of its flanks but not both. So the only way it can win is to knock out one of its enemies first, a strategy that requires pre-emptive attack. (In both world wars, it attacked France.) Yet it is this pre-emptive strategy that leads the rest of Europe to see Germany as a major threat to the balance of power – therefore, once this first strike is launched the only way to secure its homeland is by building strategic depth to the west and east. Germany avoided a two-front war in the 1870-71 Franco-Prussian War (which led to the unification of Germany) because the European balance of power at the time precluded a Franco-Russian alliance – Russia was more focused on the Balkans and, therefore, the Ottoman Empire. Further, Bismarck manipulated the situation such that France declared war on Prussia, rather than the other way around, making Germany appear defensive, not aggressive.

Notably, Germany has never been able to dominate the Continent militarily. Doing so butts up against the interests of too many other strong powers, which, when threatened, band together to defeat Germany. During World War II, for example, the United States and the United Kingdom employed strategies meant to prevent any country from growing strong enough to threaten their respective navies. (The U.K. was forced to subordinate its strategy to the U.S. at the end of the war.) Russia, meanwhile, feared that if Germany defeated France it could focus that much more of Europe’s considerable resources against Russia.

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A second imperative for Germany is securing access to the Atlantic Ocean. Without access to the Atlantic its economy – which is heavily dependent on the export of high value-added industrial products – is threatened, so easily can it be blockaded by foreign naval powers. An effective blockade of Germany’s access to the Atlantic would let an adversary – if allied with the appropriate land powers – starve it out. In World War II, Germany controlled the Baltic Sea, and while the British navy attempted to block its access to the North Sea, it was still able to send its U-boats out undetected to assault the Allied supply lines and provide support to Japan. This imperative was also one of Germany’s major motivations for the 1864 Second Schleswig War and the 1866 Austro-Prussian War. In the first, Prussia and Austria took possession of the Schleswig-Holstein region from Denmark, and two years later Prussia blocked Austria’s access to the region, defeated it in a war, and annexed the territory, giving it greater access to the seas and unifying the northern German states into a confederation.

The Story of France

Unlike Germany, France is a Mediterranean power. It is much more preoccupied with the affairs of the south and so feels a greater need for a navy. In contrast to the United Kingdom, France is also a continental power that lies on the southern reaches of the North European Plain. It must therefore also divert resources to developing an army, since it must defend itself from any state that becomes powerful enough to its north to challenge it. Over time, this has created circumstances in which the United Kingdom has managed to repel French crossings of the English Channel and to launch its own invasions into French territory despite France’s superior army.

France has a protective barrier that Germany does not: the Pyrenees. Though this mountain chain is passable – it has been traversed by Hannibal, Napoleon and warriors in the Umayyad Caliphate – it is difficult to scale and so discourages land invasion from the south. The Alps protect France’s eastern flank, but, as with Germany, they leave France exposed to the northeast.

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The French core is in the region of Beauce, where the seat of French power, Paris, can be found. It lies on the confluence of the Seine and Marne rivers, a position that provides access to the Atlantic Ocean but is far enough inland to give it space against amphibious assaults. The Seine flows close enough to the Loire to provide transportation farther south.

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In fact, many of France’s navigable rivers – including the Seine and the Marne – converge in the Beauce. Over the years, they have fed commerce and have enabled the government in Paris to accumulate enough capital to industrialize quickly. (Paris industrialized the north more quickly than it did the south, and the north-south divide is evident even in contemporary politics.) The Beauce also contains France’s most arable land, the fruits of which were easily transported by its river network.

French Imperatives

Since the government cannot rightly control all of France without first controlling the Beauce, its first imperative is to secure this important region. It must be defended from northern attacks and Atlantic assaults alike. Once the Beauce is secure, France must also ensure open access to its rivers that provide it access to both the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, without which its trade is imperiled and its inner regions can become threatened by outside intervention.

In the event that the north can’t be defended – if, say, a coalition of countries aligns against it – France would need to dominate Western Europe to ensure its survival – not unlike Germany. It must push out far enough to prevent such a coalition from materializing or, if it has materialized already, to destroy it. France has only come close to achieving this imperative once, during the Napoleonic wars. The French Revolution created fear among European monarchs that the Republican cause would spread to their own countries and overthrow their governments. As Napoleon was increasingly harassed by foreign powers to undo the outcomes of the French Revolution, he realized that such a coalition could easily come about. If an anti-French European alliance attacked France, France could be overrun.

This was primarily why Napoleon brought war to the rest of the Continent. While Europe recognized Napoleon’s war as offensive, France saw it as defensive. Napoleon was taking the fight to his enemies. The Napoleonic wars were the only time France has come close to fulfilling this imperative, and was ultimately beaten back by a coalition of Russian, Prussian and British allies. Just as with Germany’s need to dominate the Continent when confronted with a two-front war, France needs to try to dominate if confronted with a coalition that can overpower it from the north. And, as with Germany, this imperative necessarily conflicts with the needs of others.

France’s other imperative is domination of the Mediterranean. Controlling the Mediterranean would not only allow France to project power throughout the waters to its south – securing its supply lines to North Africa and giving it the ability to threaten its continental neighbors from their southern flank if necessary – but also to protect its own eastern flank from an amphibious invasion. But it is an imperative France has never achieved. Though in the 16th century its alliance with the Ottoman Empire gave the Ottomans access to Mediterranean ports and military help against naval rivals such as Venice, France has never been an exclusive power on the Mediterranean. Perhaps the closest it came to being one was when Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798. Shortly thereafter, however, the United Kingdom destroyed the French fleet, stranding Napoleon and his army.

Strategies Diverge

The pursuit of all these imperatives brings France and Germany into conflict – an eventuality that explains their behavior toward each other.

To protect its core, France must ensure that no state emerges that can challenge its border on the North European Plain. This means that France must keep its northern neighbor either distracted, divided or weak. Before the German states gained greater independence from the Holy Roman Empire, France kept them distracted through frequent alliances with the Ottoman Empire, which forced the Holy Roman Empire to focus a substantial amount of its military resources east. After the German states became more independent, France kept them divided by allying with whichever ones opposed the Holy Roman Empire. During the Cold War, France supported the division of Germany into two states – again to keep it divided.

After the Cold War, Germany reunited and, as in prior times in its history, surprised its neighbors with how quickly it regained its economic strength. This worried France, but Paris understood that the best way it could manage a newly resurgent Germany, knowing that it could not contain its economic growth, was to at least manage its growth so that it didn’t threaten France. By working from within the institutions that would become the EU, France could exert greater pressure on German policies, and it could contain German military expansion without obstructing German economic growth. Charles de Gaulle recognized as much after World War II, and although he at first opposed the creation of the EU’s precursor institutions because, he believed, they relied too much on the U.S., he became convinced that the institutions would be created with or without his consent. France supports NATO in large part because it allows Germany to choose to be militarily weak.

This dynamic became more pronounced after Germany reunified in 1990 – and caused unforeseen problems. The past few decades generally worked out: France has kept Germany militarily weak, and Germany, which relies on selling exports, has had guaranteed customers with strong enough currencies to buy its goods. But this required the strengthening of multilateral institutions such as the EU and therefore required Paris to surrender some of its sovereignty, which has spurred the rise of nationalist parties bent on leaving the EU. This is France’s dilemma. It must maintain the strength of the EU to keep Germany in check, but maintain sufficient autonomy – and therefore limit the EU’s reach – to prevent it from losing self-determination.

For its part, Germany must maintain a balance of power on the Continent, and ensure that all major powers – especially Russia and France – are closer to it than they are to one another. It pursued this strategy throughout the 19th century with different institutions that all had the same aim: the Holy Alliance – born from the Congress of Vienna – that tied Prussia, Russia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire together with the concept of shared legitimacy of monarchs, and after that the multiple iterations of the Three Emperors League.

The situation is much the same today. Germany knows that if the EU fails it will have a much more difficult time exporting what it produces. But it would also eliminate France’s ability to influence German policy from within the EU framework, which, paradoxically, would not be in Germany’s interest. Maintaining a united country is Germany’s first imperative, and therefore failure of the EU would represent an existential threat to Germany as France would be forced to pivot to a new strategy. Germany, therefore, runs a grave security risk if the EU fails. Germany must do everything it can to keep the EU intact.

If the EU weakens further, and if Germany fears its dissolution, it will be forced to form a closer relationship with Russia to prevent Russia from getting too close to France. It is this dynamic – and the need to hedge for both outcomes – that in part explains the cooperation between German and Russian companies on oil and gas infrastructure projects. Germany realizes it needs a backup plan for its security if the EU breaks down entirely, and part of the plan is to build dependencies on Russia so that, if need be, it can claim to be in Russia’s camp. It also explains why Poland, sandwiched between Germany and Russia, will be compelled to accumulate greater military power and establish relations with other Intermarium countries. When Poland has found itself trapped between German and Russian collaboration, it has faced utter destruction, and it will not be able to defend itself from these two regional powers on its own.

The things that drive German strategy should be kept in mind during the upcoming elections. Europe is at risk of fraying not because one leader or another decides to implement some new policy, but because the strategies that France and Germany must pursue to achieve their imperatives conflict with the imperatives of the other. This tension is pushing Europe to a point where the existing set of institutions may no longer present opportunities to successfully conduct strategies that support a unified Europe in its current state.

If the EU fails, France and Germany could, once again, find themselves facing the risk of conflict. The bloc is simply a means to an end, and not an end in itself. Although their grand strategies have overlapped for the last several decades – and proved successful in the sense that war has been avoided – there is no guarantee that this will continue to work.