No ordinary handshake

It was only a photo: two men, their faces barely visible, their backs turned to the camera. Both wore dark clothes befitting a solemn occasion. Yet what emotions they aroused, these men, this photo, this place.

For they were not ordinary men and this was no ordinary place. They were the chief executives of two nations which, in my youth and until 20 years ago, represented the very symbols of hostility between nations, of revanchism, of hatred for the other, of undisguised contempt, all attitudes taught from the cradle.

The men were the President of France, Francois Mitterrand, and the chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany, Helmut Kohl. They were even from opposite though not distant sides of the political fence. Mitterrand was a Socialist, Kohl a Christian Democrat. Their hands were clasped in symbolic union, symbol of a vision come true, a dream turned into reality.

The place: Verdun, site of the longest battle in history, an endless field of crosses and graves, a peaceful field of white where, between 1914 and 1918, dark gray guns were blasting and red human blood was drenching the soil. Even now, 70 years after the battle, there were warnings for all to see: Do not cross the fenced-in areas. Unexploded mines still threatened lives to this very day. I had visited the battlefields of many past wars; none had brought home more acutely the actuality of war than had Verdun. Surely this was not Mitterrand's first visit to Verdun, and probably not Helmut Kohl's.

Now the President and the chancellor stood formally at attention as the national anthems of both nations were played by a military band. The German national anthem at Verdun! A political miracle had occurred, a human miracle!

The photo was real; the scene had been experienced; it had been witnessed. Suddenly I thought of my native town in the Saar Territory, situated between Germany and France, itself a symbol of the war that had produced Verdun. The Saar had been severed from Germany because the French thought themselves entitled to the coal production of the region's mines, their own having suffered severe damage in the early phases of the war. The Saar was returned to Germany as the result of a plebiscite in 1935. Again detached from Germany in 1945, the area was again returned in the mid-'50s. My native region seemed itself the symbol of the eternal hatred for the boche on the one side and the Franzmann on the other. Each new action seemed to contain within itself the germ of further conflict, hatred, and possible war.

I remembered, too, my youthful visits to neighboring Lorraine, then under French rule. An aunt of mine lived there. She was German-born, and had been transformed into a Frenchwoman by the force of international circumstance. I played with the French children and we managed to make ourselves understood after a fashion. Then, once in a while, we would quarrel over a toy and I would then spout forth a naughty rhyme against the French I had heard again and again at home. They would spit a venomous boche at me, and my aunt, after one such incident, summoned me into the darkest corner of her house.

She told me I must never again recite that line. The French were not cowards; not only had they fought bravely, but they had won the war. This, too, was news to me, then a seven- or eight-year- old. All I had heard from my German teachers in the Saar was how a few of our soldiers had forced overwhelmingly superior French forces to flee, again and again!

Now with the handclasp at Verdun this folly seemed relegated at last to a dead past. The two leaders seemed to be saying, in fact, that never again would their nations touch each other in acts of violence. Although both men were of a generation that had known the intense hatreds of the first half of the century, they could now peacefully lay these aside.

I was reminded, too, of a visit to Central Connecticut State University by the late great historian Hans Kohn, a student of the idea and practices of nationalism. Kohn, one of the most optimistic, upbeat historians I have ever heard, spoke of the phenomenal achievement of the postwar era: the rapid dismantling of the colonial empires. ''Who would have thought it possible,'' Kohn asked that evening ''that the laboriously assembled empires would be given up so quickly and easily? Wasn't this a tribute, after all, to human understanding and human reason?''

The empires were indeed given up, a tribute to spirit, practicality, common sense. What followed in the independent states that have arisen in their place has not always been unadulterated joy and glory.

The scene at Verdun that we were privileged to witness is a less adulterated tribute to the lessons of experience and the triumph of insight and common sense. Above all, what a marvelous example Mitterrand and Kohl were setting for the great superpower leaders of our day. The heartening scene at Verdun casts doubt, ever so slightly, on the pessimism of another Frenchman who spoke of ''la pauvre raison humaine'' - poor human reason!

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