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angle-left null Summer 1949 in Strasbourg
12 September 2019

Summer 1949 in Strasbourg


The beginning


The Council of Europe was founded in London on 5 May 1949 by 10 countries on the initiative of France, the United Kingdom and the three Benelux countries. For many Europeans, anxious to turn their backs on the horrors of the past and build a united, democratic and prosperous Europe, it was a symbol of hope. One of those people, Félix Kappler, describes here how he was among the first to join the Council of Europe staff and what happened that historic summer of 1949.

I first heard about the Council of Europe at the beginning of 1949 from one of my colleagues in the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who told me of the discussions taking place between France, the United Kingdom and the three Benelux countries, the founders, the previous year, of the Western European Union. A preparatory commission, chaired by the Europe Director of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs at the Quai d’Orsay, Jacques-Camille Paris, was given the task of negotiating a draft treaty which would create a completely new organisation, with very broad powers (except defence!) and which should be nothing short of a matrix for the “United States of Europe”. Best of all, I learnt at the same time that the head office of this Organisation was to be in my home region, so ravaged by conflicts – particularly during the two “Thirty Years’ Wars” (those of the 17th and the 20th centuries) – and which would become a symbol of peace and reconciliation not only between France and Germany, but also between all the countries and peoples of our old continent.

This discussion over a cup of coffee would change the course of my life. I was not in any way responsible for following political affairs at the ministry, my duties being administrative and financial (I had joined in autumn 1945 as an administration secretary), but I took as close an interest as possible in the development of the negotiations which, after being extended to five other countries (Denmark, Ireland, Italy, Norway and Sweden), would end with the signing of the Treaty of London on 5 May 1949, leading to the creation of the Council of Europe. Within the next few days, I requested an interview with Jacques-Camille Paris, who had been working very hard since the beginn­ing of the year to make some progress with the huge task of which he was project manager: setting up the logistics which might enable the first sessions of the Committee of Ministers and the Parliamentary Assembly planned for August to be hosted! I volunteered to assist him in that endeavour, for which he thanked me, without, however, committing himself to anything.

It was, therefore, with some surprise that I received, on 30 June 1949, 
a letter from Mr Paris informing me that my application for a job in the Finance Department had been accepted and inviting me to go to Strasbourg the very next day to take up my new duties! To be perfectly frank, the letter pointed out that the job being offered to me was only temporary, for a very simple reason: the Council of Europe did not yet officially exist (the statute, which was subject to a requirement of seven ratifications, would not come into force until 3 August). The person who would be appointed a few weeks later as the first Secretary General of the Council of Europe expressed, never­theless, “the hope that your job, which is uncertain at present, will later become permanent”.

I was faced with a dilemma: as the 24-hour period within which I was expected in Strasbourg ruled out applying for leave of absence or temporary secondment, accepting this offer meant that I would have to resign from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs where I had a safe career ahead of me. Without waiting a night to sleep on it, as common sense dictates, I did not hesitate and, in quick succession, I accepted the offer made to me and tendered my resignation with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs! The thrill of taking part in such a project, of becoming a linchpin, as humble as it was, of history in the making, was a major factor. However, I have to admit that another, more sentimental, reason also drew me to Strasbourg: a charming young lady called Marie, whom I had met a few months earlier at her uncle’s place in Paris, had just returned to Alsace to be closer to her parents who, like me, came from the small village of Beinheim, about 50 kilometres to the north of Strasbourg on the border between France and Germany.

After a journey lasting several hours, begun at some unearthly hour (there was no high-speed train at the time!), I arrived in Strasbourg on 1 July to report to Georges Cunin, the future Head of the Buildings and Facilities Department, which occupied temporary offices in the Strasbourg prefecture. I was very excited to be returning to the capital of my home region, Alsace, which I had left when I enlisted in the navy in September 1939, at the outbreak of the Second World War, and which still bore the scars of the bombardments and battles that took place there. Over the next few days, I met my new colleagues, a small team of around 50 people which was already multicultural, and united under the command of a charismatic leader.

Text written by Denis Huber, 
based on an interview with Félix Kappler (May 2016).

If you wish to continue your reading, you may buy the book "Europe: a human enterprise".

After embarking on a diplomatic career in 1990, in the French Ministry for Foreign Affairs, Denis joined the Council of Europe in 1993. He gained 10 years’ experience in the Secretariat of the Committee of Ministers, being directly involved in the preparation and follow-up of two Summits of Heads of State and Government of the Council of Europe – the Strasbourg Summit (in October 1997) and the Warsaw Summit (in May 2005). Between 2006 and 2012, he was posted to Belgrade, as Special Representative of the Secretary General in Serbia, and then to Lisbon, as Executive Director of the North-South Centre. Since returning to Strasbourg, he has worked successively at the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities, the Directorate General of Administration and the Co-operation Group to Combat Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking in Drugs (Pompidou Group). He is the author of the book A decade which made history: the Council of Europe 1989-1999.

Having joined the French Navy in 1939, Félix Kappler was recruited to the French Ministry for Foreign Affairs after the Second World War. When he started his career within the Preparatory Committee of the Organisation in July 1949 he became one of the first Council of Europe civil servants. He spent his whole career within the Council of Europe’s Finance Department. At the moment of his retirement in 1982 he was the Head of the Treasury Office.He died in December 2016.