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France And Germany: A Love Story

France and Germany are trying to come up with a bailout plan for Europe. This isn't the first time they've fought over money.

Like any bickering couple, they've spent centuries fighting over finances. In fact, the history of their relationship is so dramatic — so theatrical — it's best to tell it in song.

(Read the lyrics, and see the credits, here.)

Our story begins in 1870.

France and Germany — aka Prussia — were an unlikely couple. France was a glittery homecoming queen; Prussia was a scrappy neighborhood kid.

When they got into an argument about the Spanish throne, France decided to teach Prussia a lesson.

"It was really a war by accident," says historian David Marsh.

The Franco-Prussian war lasted just one year. France got crushed.

"France is still trying to get over that humiliation to this day," Marsh says. "Because that did actually mark the birth of a new Germany."

Germany made France pay reparations — five billion gold francs. And even today, if you walk around Berlin — you see that French money everywhere.

Berlin's iconic Victory Column, as well as the Reischtag were built with French money. But most galling of all to the French, according to historian Carl-Ludwig Holtfrerich, was the gold they couldn't see: Money Germany set aside as a war chest.

A war chest!

The Germans took some of the reparations gold, and stored it in a castle. And it just sat there, waiting to be spent if there was another war.

Of course, there was another war. And another after that — World Wars I and II. But this time, Germany lost, and had to pay massive reparations.

After World War II, the pair started thinking. Instead of fighting, maybe we should consider dating. instead of passing all this money back and forth, let's just split the check. They started with their coal and steel industries.

"I think the French knew it wouldn't be possible to keep the Germans down for too long, and indeed, that wasn't the idea," David Marsh says. "The idea was to have a strong, vibrant Germany at the heart of a new Europe."

They still fought about money. France was really pushing for a common currency. Germany was very attached to their deutschemark.

The bickering might have continued forever, but the power dynamics changed. In 1989, the Berlin wall fell, and Germany re-unified. And for France, the old feelings came back.

"Suddenly, France sees this rather troublesome, rather unquiet, Eastern neighbor acquiring 20 million people and appearing to be politically and economically much more dominant," Marsh says.

France sat Germany down and basically said "Look: If you're gonna be the biggest economy in Europe, you have to give up your currency."

So, in 1992, the euro was born.

Now, nearly 20 years later, the euro is in trouble. Tensions are high. But you don't see Germany blaming France for pushing them into the euro.

"It's very much against the modern genetic engineering of the Germans to want to appear to be too overtly dominant in public — particularly vis-a-vis the French," Marsh says. "That makes the whole thing unusually complex, psychologically."

Not to mention all of the legal, political, and financial entaglements. France and Germany can't leave the euro.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, host: This is not the first time France and Germany have fought over money. In fact, as our Planet Money team says, like any bickering couple, they've spent centuries fighting over finances. Zoe Chace offers this play-by-play.

ZOE CHACE: The history of France and Germany's relationship is so dramatic, so theatrical, it's best to tell it in song.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) Germany, oh, Germany...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) Auf wiedersehen, dear France.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) We've had a stormy history, but times have changed so dance with me.

CHACE: NPR's very own "Threepenny Opera." Our story begins in 1870. France and Germany were an unlikely couple. Back then, Germany went by the handle Prussia. And if France was a glittery homecoming queen, Prussia was a scrappy neighborhood kid. So when they got into an argument about the Spanish throne, France figured I'll show this young upstart who's boss and threw the first punch.

DAVID MARSH: It was really a war by accident.

CHACE: Historian David Marsh says a pretty bad accident for France. The Franco-Prussian war lasted just barely one year. France got crushed.

MARSH: That was a colossal humiliation. And so you could say France is still trying to get over that humiliation to this day, because that did actually mark the birth of a new Germany.

CHACE: Here's where the money comes in. Germany made France pay reparations. And even today, if you walk around Berlin, you see that French money everywhere.

CARL-LUDWIG HOLTFRERICH: It was five billion gold francs that the French had to pay.

CHACE: That's historian Carl-Ludwig Holtfrerich. He points to Berlin's iconic Victory Column - French money. The capital building, the Reichstag - French money. But most galling of all to the French, Holtfrerich says, was the gold they couldn't see.

HOLTFRERICH: Part of it, which was a nuisance to the French, was kept as a war chest.

CHACE: A war chest. The Germans took some of the reparations gold and stored it in a castle. And it just sat there, just in case there was another war.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EUROPEAN UNION WIZ ME")

CHACE: Of course, there were two more, World Wars I and II. Both times, the Germans charged into France to take it over.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EUROPEAN UNION WIZ ME")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) Sometimes we disagree, as many countries so often do.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) First you invaded me, then darling, I invaded you.

CHACE: But this time, Germany loses the wars and has to pay massive amounts of reparations. After World War II, the pair starts thinking: Instead of fighting, maybe we should consider dating. Instead of passing all this money back and forth, let's just split the check. They started with their coal and steel industries. Historian David Marsh calls it a free trade agreement of sorts.

MARSH: I think the French knew that it wouldn't be possible to keep the Germans down for too long. And indeed, that wasn't the idea. The idea was to have a strong, vibrant Germany at the heart of a new Europe.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EUROPEAN UNION WIZ ME")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) But relations would be warmer if you'd snuggle up and form a European Union with me.

CHACE: Oh, the couple still fought about money. France was really pushing for a common currency. Germany was very attached to their Deutsche Mark. And the bickering might have continued forever. But the power dynamics changed. In 1989, the Berlin wall falls. Germany gets bigger. And for France, these old feelings come rushing back.

MARSH: Suddenly, France sees this rather troublesome, unquiet Eastern neighbor acquiring 20 million more people and appearing to be politically and economically much more dominate.

CHACE: France sat Germany down and said look, if you're going to be the biggest economy in Europe, you have to give up your currency.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EUROPEAN UNION WIZ ME")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) But the mark is a symbol of all that is Deutschland uber alles.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) Exactement. We cannot truly be a union if we are not tied together financially.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) It's called the euro. It's safe and strong - very safe and very strong.

CHACE: A lot has happened since the 1992 treaty that created the euro. Some countries got into trouble. There's talk of bailouts. But you don't see Germany turning on France, like, this is your fault. You rushed us into this. David Marsh explains why.

MARSH: It's very much against the modern genetic engineering of the Germans to want to appear to be too overtly dominant in public - particularly, vis-a-vis, the French. That makes the whole thing unusually complex, psychologically.

CHACE: And politically. And legally. France and Germany can't leave the euro, or each other.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EUROPEAN UNION WIZ ME")

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Face the fact that you are stuck in European Union with us.

CHACE: Zoe Chace, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EUROPEAN UNION WIZ ME")

MONTAGNE: Our song was composed by Jeff Lunden and Art Perlman, and you can hear the whole thing at npr.org/money. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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