Verdun (France) – French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel celebrated together on Sunday the message of hope embodied in Verdun, marking the 100-year anniversary of one of the longest battles in World War I battle.
In a speech at city hall, Merkel said: “Verdun is the more than the name of your town; Verdun is also one of the most terrible battles humanity has experienced.
“We are all called upon to keep awake the memory of Verdun in the future, because only those who know the past can draw lessons from it.”
Merkel said the dead of Verdun were “victims of bigotry and nationalism, of blindness and political failure.”
Merkel and Hollande want their countries’ improbable friendship to be a source of hope for today’s fractured Europe.
They attended a ceremony at the Douaumont ossuary, a 46-meter tower holding remains of 130,000 unidentified French and German soldiers.
To the sound of drums, about 4,000 French and German children ran into the nearby cemetery, in a choreography conceived by German filmmaker Volker Schloendorff. They re-enacted battlefield scenes amid 16,000 white crosses marking the graves, before falling on the ground in an evocation of death. Then they got back up as a symbol of hope.
Notably, the Verdun battle lasted more than 300 days from February to December 1916, and its commemoration has come to signify the reconciliation between Germany and France after decades of hostility and distrust following two world wars.
It was not until 1984 that the neighbors carried out a joint ceremony to mark the Verdun battle, another step towards ending decades of residual hostility.
A photo of then French President Francois Mitterrand and then German Chancellor Helmut Kohl holding hands in the “Douaumont” cemetery at Verdun became a symbol of a new era of reconciliation.
Rain fell for part of the ceremony on Sunday and Hollande held an umbrella for Merkel and himself as they made their way to the German cemetery “Consenvoy” to lay a wreath.
Hollande later discussed with Merkel Europe’s future, including the migrant crisis, security and the rise of populist movements.
“In the European Union we will continue to have different views on certain issues,” Merkel said.
“That is in the nature of things but it will prove beneficial if we demonstrate our ability to compromise to reach an agreement.”