Story by Christian Lutz for the Associated Press, December 10, 2010:
For the first time since World War II, German combat troops are being stationed in France, part of a conscious effort to show the two EU powers have forever buried former hatreds.
A German battalion in a French-German military brigade officially took up arms Friday at a symbolism-rich ceremony in eastern France attended by the two countries’ defense ministers.
The 6,000-strong French-German Brigade was created in 1989. But until this year German combat troops had never been stationed in France, though French ones had been posted at bases in Germany — a legacy of the allies’ postwar occupation.
French and German children gathered in the cold to watch Friday’s ceremony near the Franco-German border, and the defense ministers of both countries shook the kids’ hands after reviewing the troops together.
The move brings to fruition plans announced last year by French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
The Strasbourg ceremony was on both leaders’ minds at a bilateral summit Friday across the German border in Freiburg, where Merkel credited Sarkozy for coming up with idea to host German troops.
“That we can today say German soldiers are welcome on French soil, after the German crimes committed by the Nazi regime, is a very powerful symbol that illustrates our cooperation well,” she said at a news conference.
Sarkozy said the brigade “was viewed as a French installation in Germany,” and he wanted more balance between “two sovereign nations, two nations at peace, two countries that are founders of Europe.”
“For all French people, the arrival of German soldiers on our territory … is a new sign of the depth of our friendship — and the desire to enshrine the friendship of the French and German peoples in a definitive way,” he said.
Troops in Germany’s 291st Infantry Battalion started moving into a French military base in Illkirch, near Strasbourg, in April, but Friday marked their authorization to take up arms, said French Defense Ministry spokesman Laurent Tesseire. About half of the planned 600-troop deployment is in place.
The region of Alsace around Strasbourg became part of newly created Germany in 1871, after France lost the Franco-Prussian War. France won it back in World War I, a conflict in which both sides lost at least 1 million men.
German Lt. Col. Frank Lindstedt, the corps commander of the 291st battalion, said his grandfather was killed by French fire, the French Defense Ministry said in a statement, without providing further details.
The Franco-German brigade is available for many types of missions, and last month about 1,400 of its troops conducted training for planned missions in Afghanistan and Kosovo next year.
Because of its international role, the French ministry said, the brigade’s “working language” is English for exercises and missions.