Tuesday, May 28, 2024
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Time to break the Brexit siege


AT the now infamous Brexit dinner in Brussels last week, Germany’s Ursula von der Leyen treated her guests to a splendid meal of scallops, steamed turbot and sorbet. 

Among those enjoying it, along with Boris Johnson, was the EU Commission chief’s French colleague, Michel Barnier. 

One hundred and fifty years ago, however, much sparser fare was on the menu for the French, courtesy of the Germans.  

By December 19, 1870, Paris had been besieged by the Prussian army for three months, following a short, disastrous war started by France in which its forces had been routed and its emperor, Napoleon III, taken prisoner.  

With the capital cut off from the rest of France, no supplies of any kind – especially food – could get through.  

As ever, the well-off suffered least. At one point, they dined ostentatiously on elephant, antelope, kangaroo and ostrich meat from slaughtered animals at the city’s zoo. Lower down the social scale, those who could afford it ate rats, cats, mice, dogs, horses and pigeons.  

But most Parisians and the thousands of refugees who had packed into the city were poverty-stricken, and municipal kitchens struggled to keep them alive with soup and ‘bread’ made out of flour, straw, sawdust and vetch.  

As the siege dragged on, palatable food of all kinds became scarcer. 

The Prussians, well-fed from the surrounding countryside, had set up their headquarters in the Palace of Versailles. Rather than risk a costly assault on the city’s fortified perimeter, they sat tight and waited to starve Paris into surrender.  

Following the capture of the emperor, France had been declared a republic. A shambolic new government was formed which – torn by bitter internal political divisions, ranging from communists to royalists – foolishly decided to carry on the war.  

Several armed sorties were attempted to break the siege, but all ended in bloody failure. Hoped-for relief from provincial French military forces never materialised. 

As Paris lay racked by hunger, disease and bitter weather, a glittering ceremony was held at Versailles on January 18, 1871, when Prussian Chancellor Otto von Bismarck proclaimed Prussia’s king, Wilhelm I, Kaiser of the new German Empire.  

Twenty-five states were now united under Prussia, dramatically altering the European balance of power against France. Finally, on January 28, after the Prussians started shelling the city, Paris capitulated. 

France’s humiliation was total. As part of the peace settlement, it was forced to cede its border provinces of Alsace-Lorraine to the Germans and to pay an indemnity of five billion francs before the enemy withdrew.  

The siege was followed by the Commune, a brief revolutionary Leftist takeover of Paris which was bloodily crushed by the Rightist government. 

Defeat by Prussia was a painful, never-healing wound gouged deep into the soul of France and her sacred mission henceforth was revanche – revenge.  

The chance to even the score came in August, 1914, when Britain and France declared war on Germany after its troops broke Belgium’s neutrality as they swept towards Paris. They were stopped at the Marne and four years of trench war stalemate ensued. 

In November 1918, the Germans sought an armistice, which was signed in a railway carriage in the Forest of Compiègne, north-east of Paris. The following year, France’s revanche was fully wreaked when the Treaty of Versailles was imposed on Germany.  

Such were its punitive terms that German resentment and shame simmered for the next 20 years, a potent, poisonous brew stirred by Adolf Hitler. 

In September 1939, France – along with Britain – again declared war on Germany following Hitler’s invasion of Poland. The following May, German armies once more scythed into France and this time conquered it in less than six weeks.  

The Fall of France was catastrophic and Hitler had his own revanche on June 22 by forcing it to sign its surrender in the Compiègne railway carriage. A large part of northern France – including Paris – was occupied and a new government led by Marshal Phillipe Petain, based in Vichy, entered into a shameful collaboration with Germany.  

In May 1945, the war in Europe ended in unconditional surrender by the Germans, with France’s pride somewhat restored by the contribution to victory of General Charles de Gaulle’s Free French forces.  

This time, though, realpolitik dictated that a policy of revenge against Germany would be self-defeating. Instead, with Stalin’s Soviet Union now dominating eastern Europe and the Cold War starting, the Allies helped rebuild the country through the Marshall Plan. 

Relations between Germany and France remained marked by resentment and bitterness. France was deeply scarred after suffering three German invasions in the preceding 70 years and desperate that it should never happen again. 

In 1949, Germany was divided into a communist eastern state and a democratic west. In 1950, French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman proposed economic collaboration between France and West Germany, a pooling of natural resources, as a way of making war ‘not merely unthinkable, but materially impossible’.  

West Germany was ready to co-operate. In 1951 the European Coal and Steel Community, including Italy and the Benelux countries, was formed. Schuman called it ‘a first step in the federation of Europe’ – and so it proved as it morphed over the decades into the European Union. 

Attempts by Britain in 1963 and 1967 to join what was then known as the Common Market were blocked by de Gaulle, who feared Britain would dominate Europe economically and become too close to America. 

The French president also nursed a lingering contempt for perfidious Albion. It was said he never forgave Britain for evacuating its armies at Dunkirk or for liberating France in 1944. 

We finally joined the Common Market in 1973. By then, Germany was well on its way to once more dominating France and the rest of the continent – powered not by panzers, but by its burgeoning industrial and economic might.   

So it remains today as we try to disentangle ourselves from the EU, an organisation whose original aim was to end wars between France and Germany, but which ended up a sclerotic, bureaucratic, corrupt, costly monolith embracing much of Western Europe. 

It’s hard to predict what will happen with the trade deal talks, which are now scheduled to continue until December 31. But it’s obvious that agreeing to an extension increases the possibility of fudge and compromise.  

Having outlined some of the history that led us to this point, it’s not fanciful to make a parallel between the French trapped in Paris in 1870 and Britain encircled by the EU today.   

Well, this is one siege we must break, with or without a deal. Otherwise, to return to the food metaphor, Boris Johnson might be left eating rats, while in Brussels they dine out on elephant steaks.  

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Henry Getley
Henry Getley
Henry Getley is a freelance journalist.

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