Learning From Defeat—From the French Occupation of Germany to the European Union

Julia Wambach

The year 1945 was a turning point in European history. Germany and France shared a history of violent wars and mutual occupations in the 19th and 20th centuries, from the Napoleonic Wars to the Franco-Prussian War to World War I and the occupation of the Ruhr in its aftermath. 1945 promised more of the same. The tables were turned once again—France became an occupier of defeated Nazi Germany. But this was the last occupation involving the two countries: In the postwar years, Germany and France left their hatred behind and emerged as the heart of the European Union. In Learning from Defeat, I argue that the learning processes from enmity to friendship, derived from the violent history of wars, occupations, and defeat, are central to this process of peacemaking. The manuscript of Learning From Defeat is currently in its final stages and will be submitted to the Oxford Studies in Modern European History series at Oxford University Press.

Learning From Defeat makes three important contributions to our understanding of postwar European history. First, I draw attention to the French occupation zone in Germany, which has often been neglected by historians, who have mainly underlined the importance of the Cold War for the reconstitution of Europe after World War II. While the Cold War was certainly central to the new European order, this focus often diverts the view from the constellations, emotions, and experiences at play outside of the AmericanSoviet antagonism, such as the emergence of the European project out of the long history of enmity between France and Germany in the French occupation zone. Second, my book goes beyond the traditional caesura of 1945 and underlines continuities between the German occupation of France during the war and the French occupation of Germany after the war. For instance, as my 2019 article in the journal Contemporary European History reveals, former officials from the collaborationist Vichy regime held some of the highest positions in the French occupation administration in Germany after 1945. Third, the book contributes to the historiography of postwar Europe by shifting the focus on learning processes from the interwar occupation. It puts the history of the emergence of peaceful European integration in a longue durée perspective and helps us to understand the importance of learning from the past for political decision making in the present.

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