Few remain like Paul Collowald (Wissembourg, 98 years old), testimony, on a continent in ruins after World War II, of the birth of what would end up being the European Union (EU). Collowald, a French from Alsace and especially a European, covered the first babbling of the common project as a journalist and later held relevant positions in the community institutions. He now lives in Waterloo. Due to the pandemic, we spoke on the phone.
Ask. A date and a meeting marked his life.
Answer. Yes, August 12, 1949. That day I was introduced to Robert Schuman, the French Foreign Minister. I was a young journalist covering the first session of the Council of Europe Assembly in Strasbourg. Schuman was attending a reception with a group of young people. I greeted him and, after the meeting, we walked and talked to the Prefecture, where he was staying.
P. What did he say?
R. “I’m quite worried,” he told me. “We must not start over with the Treaty of Versailles and the humiliation that it entailed. European solutions will have to be found ”. There I heard the word from his mouth: Europe.
P. Shortly after, the Schuman statement, founding text of the Franco-German reconciliation and of the current EU. Why did that moment impact you so much?
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R. For living on the border. There were successive annexations of Alsace by Germany. My ancestors knew the war of 1870, the war of 1914-1918, and we would still live the war of 1940-1944. It’s awful. When I realized that there was finally a precise and intelligent answer to get out of the vicious circle of wars, wars, wars, I understood that this gave me perspectives. It is important to have perspectives!
P. How had you experienced the war?
R. If I had lived in Bordeaux, Lyon or Marseille, my youth would have been very different. But Alsace and Lorraine were territories annexed by Germany.
P. And he approached the resistance.
R. He was part of a network that distributed leaflets calling for resistance and that helped the Wehrmacht, the German army, pass through to Switzerland to escape.
P. But they ended up recruiting him.
R. The parents of the boys who escaped were sent to re-education camps. My father was a civil servant. My mother was ill. He had three little sisters. One night I said to my parents: “I have reflected, I have the possibility of escaping, but I do not want to expose you to the re-education camps.” I was mobilized. They sent me to Poland. He had never held a rifle.
P. How were things in Poland?
R. I was in the corps of engineers: we built bridges, I never fired. The Soviets advanced and advanced. The Wehrmacht recoiled and recoiled. During the retreat the sergeant he was with was wounded. We went into a farm. While everyone was sleeping I made one of the great decisions of my life. I threw away my military uniform, put on a blue jumpsuit that I found and left in the direction of the Elbe. On the other shore were the Americans.
P. What did you learn from those years?
R. After what I saw, I thought that anything that could contribute to peaceful solutions would be formidable. The Schuman statement May 9, 1950 explains my whole life.
P. You were present at creation.
R. I saw Europe being born, indeed. There was no such historical reference. Wars had been going on since 1870 and the end of these wars had not led to peace. Now we have more than 70 years of peace.
P. Now the borders return, nationalism.
R. I am forced to pronounce a word that is at the base of everything: solidarity. Today is not war, but we face the social, economic and political complications that covid-19 implies. Although I allege extenuating circumstances: it is a matter of deciding between 27, while at the beginning there were only six of us.
P. Do you see a danger that Europe will become insignificant against the United States and China?
R. I would not say insignificant no, but yes weak. Europe is fragile due to a lack of solidarity.
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George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.