Simone Veil, who died last Friday, will mostly be remembered in France for her courageous and successful ministerial stewardship of legislation to legalise abortion in 1974. But she was also a committed European who fought tirelessly throughout her political career for reconciliation between France and Germany and the construction of the European Union. A commitment all the more remarkable for someone who, at the age of 16, was deported from France by the Nazis with her entire family, was interned in Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, lost her father, mother, brother and one sister in the Holocaust and survived together with two other sisters, to return to France, study, marry, start her own family, become a magistrate and eventually a politician. She was the first President of the newly elected European Parliament from 1979 to 1982. Her passing throws into relief a book I have just finished reading and triggers a personal memory.
The book is the memoirs of Paul Schmidt, better known as Hitler’s interpreter, entitled „Statist auf diplomatischer Bühne“, translated into English as “Hitler’s Interpreter – the memoirs of Paul Schmidt” (The History Press, 2016). It covers the whole of Schmidt’s career between 1923, when he joined the German Foreign Office and 1945 when he was arrested by the Americans, interrogated and appeared both as an interpreter and a witness during the Nuremberg trials. What one learns from the book is that the efforts to pool the French and German iron and steel industries under the 1950 Schuman plan, the foundation of what has since become the European Union, did not come like a bolt out of the blue but harked back to intense economic and political co-operation between France, Germany and other countries between the Versailles Treaty of 1919 and the military occupation of the Rhineland by Hitler’s troops in 1936. Schmidt narrates the numerous bilateral and multilateral meetings and conferences between leading French, German and other European and American politicians, including plenary and committee meetings of The League of Nations, as well as high-level conferences on economic co-operation, disarmament and other matters. He chronicles the consequences for the whole of Europe of Hitler’s rise to power and the last desperate diplomatic efforts to avert war between 1937 and 1939, all of which he witnessed at first hand. In the foreword to his book, Schmidt, who comes across throughout as a competent and honourable servant of his calling, is at pains to point out that during all these years he always stuck strictly to the neutrality required of a linguistic mediator. But he adds a little later: “ On one point I am not neutral: on the struggle between fanatics of whatever race and nationality and “les hommes de bonne volonté” (In French in the original) of whom I met so many during my eventful career. My aim in this book is to place myself, as a good German, fairly and squarely, on the side of “les hommes de bonne volonté” because I am convinced, on the strength of everything I have experienced, and particularly the history of the Third Reich, that the real enemies of mankind are the fanatics, wherever they come from” .
It is a salutary reminder that there have always been men …and women… of good will in Europe and elsewhere, convinced, in spite of everything, that European co-operation is essential to ward off the fanatics. Simon Veil, after suffering so much at their hands, was surely one of the most effective. It is also a reminder that at times like this, we need perhaps to take a few steps back from the frequently derided daily work in Brussels and elsewhere on Directives, Regulations and other legal instruments and remind ourselves of the ultimate aim of European construction.
The personal memory is also that of an interpreter and goes back to the beginning of the 1990s when I had the privilege of working regularly for the French Minister of Finance of the time, Pierre Beregovoy. At some point during the period when the Maastricht Treaty was being negotiated and a single European currency was in the offing, Beregovoy hosted a delegation of American senior officials. As was widely reported in the media at the time, the Americans in general were (and still are) highly sceptical of the whole idea, considering that the Euro would never be a viable currency because the mooted Euro area was not “an optimum currency area” and would in any case be dominated by Germany. Asked by this particular delegation why France was considering giving up its monetary sovereignty and bowing to the mighty Deutschmark, Beregovoy’s answer was as cryptic as it was final: “for the sake of peace….” The word “peace” was left hanging in the air for a few moments, as if to say, which he didn’t of course: “if you don’t understand that, then you don’t understand the first thing about Europe”.
Among the numerous tributes that have been paid to Simone Veil, one other French Holocaust survivor was asked in a radio interview how the next generation could continue to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive once its last witnesses have died. She answered that Simone Veil had worked all her life to do just that and that she hoped her work would be continued. The answer was undoubtedly sincere but also, in its own way, left many things hanging in the air.
Future generations of Europeans can surely best honour their predecessors by continuing to forge that “ever closer union among the peoples of Europe” so that no warfare, economic or otherwise, can ever break out between them again.