Sunday, 2 July 2017

Simone Veil

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” .[1]

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.

[1] Unless otherwise stated, all translations from French and German in this blog are my own.


  1. I appreciated reading your personal memories as an insider working with Pierre Beregovoy as such an important period.

    Paul Schmidt's memoir seems worth reading. However, you describe him as "comes across throughout as a competent and honourable servant of his calling." I've never seen a memoir that doesn't do the same. We'll need a third party to evaluate how Schmidt has conducted himself during the Nazi period.

    One sentence that I take exception to:
    "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."
    This description may be the French way of looking at, but certainly not the common German perspective, which viewed it not as "cooperation" but intrusive power that foreign countries had in Germany's industrial and economic policies.

    Finally, regarding the question of how the next generation could continue to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive, it should be addressed at the next generation, not the survivors who are dying off.

    1. Thank-you, Micha for being a faithful reader of this blog and for your latest comments. Let me try and answer them:

      1) I don't claim to know enough about Schmidt as a person to judge how he conducted himself during the Nazi period. He mentions at one point in his book that he bowed to pressure from his administrationn to join the Nazi party only in October 1943, which he afterwards considererd a good move given the wide-ranging repression that followed the attempt on Hitler's life in July 1944. Clearly, writing two or three years after the war, he seeks to cast himsef in the best possible light, which, as you suggest, is only natural. My judgement, that you quote, is only, for what it's worth, that of a fellow interpreter. I deliberately used the word "calling" rather than "profession" because at the time, conference interpretation was not recognised as a profession and there was no professional organisation of interpreters as there is now (AIIC - the International Association of Conference Interpreters, which was founded in the 1950s).

      2)On the sentence you take exception to, I don't think that Schmidt, nor I, can be accused of pushing the French viewpoint. And clearly, a lot of the "co-operation" was initiated by Germany, led by Streseman until his death, in an attempt to lessen the pressure of reparations and the French occupation of parts of Germany. Tha fact remains though, and this is the point I was trying to make, that the resumption of co-operation after 1950, under the Schuman plan seemed all the more natural as it was founded on a rich legacy of "co-operation" between European countries in general and France and Germany in particular,in the years between the wars, as chronicled by Schmidt in his memoirs.

      3) On the memory of the Holocaust, what I wanted to say is that I firmly believe that even those of us whose families were not its victims and who were born after the war, have a duty to pursue the quest for greater European integration so as to ensure that such horrific events can never happen again. Those whose families were affected and their descendents will of course define their own ways of remembrance, once the last survivors have left the scene.

  2. Though France and its leaders were not the only culprits,they were among the main players generating that awful Treaty of Versailles and the subsequent pressure on Germany that brought about that wave of misery and frustration paving the way for extremism.

    1. Yes, Michel, you are right of course. I tried to cover this in my previous answer.