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14 June, 2016

The EU vision – Back to basics

Howard Grace considers a European perspective. This article was first published in Quaker UK weekly 'the Friend' on 20 May 2016.

Howard Grace 2004
As we approach the EU referendum, most of the discussion focuses on what would benefit the UK. But what would be best for Europe, or the wider world?

Why was the European Union created? There are many factors. Let me tell you about one of them, since I knew the person involved.

Irène Laure was a leader in the French resistance during the second world war. Many of her colleagues died, and she ended the war hating Germans. In 1947, as national secretary of the Socialist Women of France, she went to a conference on rebuilding Europe in Caux, the Swiss centre of Initiatives of Change. To her surprise, she found that Germans were present. She loathed the very sound of German, so she packed her bags to leave. But before leaving she met Frank Buchman, who initiated and led the work of Caux. ‘Do you think you can rebuild Europe without the Germans?’ he asked her. The question plagued her, and she reluctantly decided to stay. For days she struggled with her hatred. Then she agreed to meet one German, Clarita von Trott, widow of Adam von Trott, a member of the German Resistance executed after the failed attempt on Hitler's life in 1944. Irene told her all she had been through, but then said, ‘I am telling you this because I want to be free of my hatred.’ Clarita von Trott responded: ‘I realise that we didn't resist strong enough, nor soon enough. Because of us you have suffered a great deal. Forgive us please.’

Dr Heinrich Strater and Madam Irene Laure at CauxIrene Laure asked to speak at the plenary session. 500 people were there including 150 Germans. After telling of her Resistance background, she went on, ‘I have so hated Germany that I wanted to see her erased from the map of Europe. But I have seen here that my hatred is wrong. I wish to ask the forgiveness of all the Germans present.’ The Germans present remained speechless. Peter Petersen, who later became a German Member of Parliament, remembered this meeting vividly: 'I was shaken. For several nights in a row I was unable to sleep. All my past was revolted against this woman's courage. ... One day, we told her how deeply sorry we were and our shame for what our people had done to her and others. We promised her to dedicate our lives to work and prevent such tragedies wherever in the world.'

In February 1949, Irène Laure visited Germany. In three months she spoke almost 200 times to regional parliaments, in political and other meetings, and in radio interviews, each time asking forgiveness for her hatred. Many responded, and in the following years several thousand Germans came to Caux, including politicians and trade union leaders, and met with their French counterparts, creating a stepping stone for a wider reconciliation movement. In 1958 German chancellor Konrad Adenauer said that Irène Laure and her husband Victor had ‘done the most over the last 15 years to build unity between our two countries which have been enemies for centuries.’

In 1949 the French Foreign Minister, Robert Schuman, also met Buchman. He confided that he was discouraged and was considering retirement. Yet, in his heart, he felt his life task still lay ahead, that of reconciling France and Germany. Buchman encouraged him. He took on the task, and trust gradually grew between him and Adenauer.

This trust culminated in a bold plan, which Schuman proposed to Adenauer in May 1950, to integrate the coal and steel industries of France and Germany, and of any other European country wishing to join. He said his aim was to ‘make war not only unthinkable but materially impossible.’ Adenauer accepted the proposal, and the European Coal and Steel Community was formed.

This was one of the first major steps toward today's European Union.

Photo: Dr Heinrich Strater and Madam Irene Laure at Caux

Howard Grace is one of the founders of the West Berkshire Peace and Integration Forum. Howard works with IofC and has conducted workshops in hundreds of Sixth Forms around the UK. He is also executive producer of the film Beyond Forgiving.

NOTE: Individuals of many cultures, nationalities, religions, and beliefs are actively involved with Initiatives of Change. These commentaries represent the views of the writer and not necessarily those of Initiatives of Change as a whole.

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