Mitterrand and Kohl at Verdun

In the entire Europe there is no battlefield more blood-stained than Verdun, where in 1916 nearly 800,000 French and German soldiers were killed or wounded in an inconclusive fight over a few square miles of territory. On 22 September 1984, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl met the French president François Mitterrand at the Douaumont cemetery in Verdun. In front of the charnel house in which the remains of 150,000 French soldiers rest, two leaders stood in rain. Mitterrand extended a hand to Kohl, which the latter held in minutes-long gesture which became a symbolic gesture of reconciliation as much as Willy Brandt’s Warsaw Kneefall.

The German Press described the scene as, “A picture that will go down in history”. It was made more powerful by the fact that Kohl’s father during WWI and Mitterrand himself during WWII had fought in the surrounding hills. As Europe’s leading statesmen during the 80s, Mitterrand and Kohl forged close personal ties despite their political differences — there were even allegations that Mitterrand supported secret donations to help finance Kohl’s re-election campaign. Together, they laid the foundations for pan-European projects, such as Eurocorps, Arte, the Maastricht Treaty and the Euro.

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