The two middle-aged men in dark business suits stood before a monument to the victims of a savage war -- and held hands. The place was Verdun, sight of the most murderous battle of World War I. The date, Sept. 27, 1984. The men, none other than French President Franois Mitterrand and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl.
No moment better symbolized the undeniable great success of postwar Europe, the reconciliation of the two great continental powers. And no scene better expressed why the 40th anniversary of the end of World War II and President Reagan's planned visit to a German military cemetery at Bitburg have prompted little emotion here.
As the controversy has grown in the United States, some public criticism has surfaced. But for the most part French newspapers have relegated the blunder about arrangements to the inside pages while playing up essays on the fruits of peace.
The government also is playing down the anniversary. French Foreign Ministry officials say that on V-E Day, May 8, Mr. Mitterrand will preside over a quiet ceremony at the Arc de Triomphe, a ceremony that is held there every year.
Here in the border town of Strasbourg, where President Reagan is to address the European Parliament, little soul-searching is likely to emerge.
``We want May 8 to be a point of departure celebrating unity, friendship, and progress,'' Pierre Pflimlin, the French president of the European Parliament, told the Monitor.
Of course, the French insistence on looking ahead represents in part a refusal to face a nightmarish history. ``Kohl and Mitterrand could reconcile themselves at Verdun,'' said Dominique Moisi, director of the French Institute of Foreign Relations, ``because it symbolizes World War I, not World War II.''
Neither France, nor indeed the rest of the Continent, has dealt with the individuals who were responsible for -- or profited from -- the Nazi regime. Two years after his capture, Klaus Barbie still sits in a Lyon prison awaiting trial. Even Britain's Princess Michael of Kent recently found herself in the headlines because her father was a member of the SS.
``We all know who the collaborators were,'' said Marcel Rudloff, Strasbourg's mayor. Throwing his hands up in the air, he added, ``That's a long time ago, the past.''
``There are so many bad memories from the war,'' explained Bernard Vogler, history professor at the University of Strasbourg, ``that no one wants to talk about it anymore.''
But a will to forget does not represent the entire story. Thoughtful Frenchmen insist that the fruits of reconciliation dictate a conciliatory attitude. French-German cooperation has brought unparalleled prosperity to the Continent, all the while making another German-caused war in Western Europe unimaginable. That represents a huge historical shift.
In this context, the much-abused European Community deserves special praise. Largely conceived and nursed by Frenchmen and Germans, the Community originally represented a compromise between Germany's industrial strength and France's agricultural power. By fusing the two countries' economic interests, it has succeeded in joining the two nations in such a tight embrace that separation -- not to mention war -- has become unthinkable.
To be sure, limits to this understanding remain. The Community has failed to create a free market, its original goal, and every squabble over milk prices illustrates the imperfect shape of European unity.
But perhaps these fights hide a more important realization. If Europe is to have a future, more and more Europeans suggest that it must be united.
``France and Germany are the couple that made Europe,'' said Ms. Moisi of the French Institute for International Relations. ``Now they must remake it.''
To meet this goal, French attitudes are changing. Only a few years ago, French officials would emphasize their fears that Germany ``could go crazy again.'' For that reason, they would argue that Germany should never be allowed to rearm.
Today, the French realize European defense depends on Germany. Mitterrand has spoken in favor of new NATO missiles -- in Germany. He and Kohl have agreed to build a new attack helicopter, and other joint military projects are being considered, including a fighter plane. In private, French officials go as far as to suggest giving Germany some control over the nuclear weapons on its soil.
Popular attitudes also are changing. Some 1,200 French towns are ``twinned'' with German towns, sharing cultural, educational, and sports exchange programs. French children camp in the Black Forest; Germans feast in Paris.
The results are amazing. Germany and Germans are not feared, but liked: One poll this February showed that only 10 percent of Frenchmen see Germans as ``unpleasant,'' while 59 percent of them think Germans are ``nice.'' No other country scored so well.
These attitudes mean that when Reagan goes to Bitburg, few in France will blink. But a few days later when he comes to Strasbourg to praise European reconciliation and unity, Frenchmen will pay attention.