This is a tale of two cities quite unconnected with the Charles Dickens classic of that name, in which the two cities were Paris and London. Instead the two cities here are Metz and Trier, which Pat and I visited for the first time in April 2010. As the crow flies, these two cities are less than fifty miles apart. Even though they are in different countries, their histories have so much in common. Both cities stand on the same famous river, the Moselle, which continues to give Reisling and several other fine wines to a thirsty world. Yet, between those two cities, lies the frontier between France and Germany. Across that frontier in 1871 and 1914 and 1940, poured invading German armies. The events of 1940 were anticipated by the French, who had greatly feared another invasion.
Consequently, starting in 1929 and at great cost, they built along the frontier in this area a huge chain of fortifications named The Maginot Line after the French Minister of War at that time, Andre Maginot. This foresight went unrewarded because, when the Germans invaded in 1940, they simply circumvented the Maginot Line by entering France via Belgium. At about the same time, similar events were taking place in the Far East, where the huge fortifications of Singapore on its seaward-facing southern side did not prevent a Japanese invasion over land via Malaya in the north. Various parts of the Maginot Line have been preserved and can still be seen in the area between Metz and Trier. This contrasts with my experience of the Iron Curtain. After visiting Hungary and the former Czechoslovakia last year, I wrote on this website of my surprise that I saw no traces of the Iron Curtain. An important piece of 20th century history seemed to have vanished, even though many people had died in their attempts to escape across the Iron Curtain and thereby reach “the West”. At least the Maginot Line seems to have avoided a similar disappearance.
Click on video of Metz, France showing St. Etienne Cathedral and market.
The great cathedral in the French city of Metz is called St Etienne. It was consecrated in 1552, after being under construction for several centuries. We toured the cathedral, with its magnificent stained glass windows and one of the highest naves in the world. Afterwards, we lunched in the sunshine at a pavement café in the Place d’Armes. This is a rectangular area, which is the center of Metz and is surrounded by elegant buildings. One side is occupied by the Hotel de Ville – “city hall” as Americans would say or “rathaus” as Germans would call it. The opposite side is occupied by the cathedral itself. On the outside of the cathedral has been fixed a tablet to commemorate the events that took place in the Place d’Armes on November 26th 1918. It was a march past before Marshal Foch, who commanded the French Army in World War One. This took place only a couple of weeks after he signed the armistice that had ended the war. An important term of that armistice was that the Alsace-Lorraine region, in which Metz is a major city, was returned to France after over 40 years of German occupation.
Click on video to see performance of La Marseillaise, the French National Anthem
It is easy to imagine what a joyful day it must have been for those French people in the Place d’Armes in Metz on November 26th 1918, as Marshal Foch took the salute. His troops marched by before cheering crowds, with tricolor flags flying to the sound of “La Marseillaise”- the French national anthem. They may not then have foreseen that, by 1940, Metz would once again be German. Yet perhaps they did, for why else would they have built the Maginot Line?
The nearby German city of Trier has the same tale to tell in reverse. It was invaded in 1794 by the French under Napoleon and it was not liberated until his defeat twenty years later. Trier claims to be the oldest city in Germany, having been founded shortly before the birth of Christ. Just as we did in Metz, Pat and I lunched at a pavement café in the sunshine close to the city’s most famous monument. On this occasion however, that monument was not a gracious medieval cathedral. It was instead something very much older. It was the Porta Nigra, which in Latin means “black gate”. It was a great city gate built by the Romans in the second century AD. One can only marvel at how so large an edifice had been constructed in those days and at how it had lasted for literally thousands of years.
Trier was the birthplace in 1818 of Karl Marx. After lunch, Pat and I saw the house in which he was born. This reminded me of my boyhood in North London, where Marx is buried in Highgate Cemetery. I always resented how communists from the Russian Embassy in London were permitted to make their respectful pilgrimages to his grave. Would I have been allowed in Russia to have visited the graves of the last Czar and his family? I think not. Marx wrote “Das Kapital”, which became the bible of communism, in the reading room at the British Museum in London. Marx is not my favorite export from Trier. Their Reisling is much more to my taste.