By Isaac D. Pacheco
In the summer of 1918, Allied Forces fighting in World War I launched one of the largest military operations in modern history, the Hundred Days Offensive along the Western Front (France’s northern border with Belgium, Luxembourg, and Germany), aimed at expelling the encroaching Central Powers and reclaiming occupied French territory. More than 2.2 million troops on both sides perished during the campaign, which included one of the bloodiest single military operations in U.S. history, the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. The Allies suffered staggering losses during this grueling 47-day battle in Eastern France. More than 26,000 American service members gave their lives fighting alongside their French comrades while securing the strategic railroad hub at Sedan and recapturing the densely fortified Argonne Forest. Those decisive battles broke the morale of invading Imperial German forces and led to the Armistice of 11 November 1918 and Allied victory in WWI.
Twenty-six years later, French, and American troops again joined forces to repel a major enemy invasion during World War II. Nazi leaders, attempting a last-ditch effort to swing the momentum of a war that was rapidly slipping from their grasp, ordered a massive infantry and armor assault across the Rhine River into Alsace-Lorraine. With Operation Nordwind, the Nazis sought to capitalize on the Allied Forces’ preoccupation with the Battle of the Bulge on the Western Front and recapture Strasbourg, an important Rhine River port nestled along France’s eastern border with Germany. However, soldiers from the U.S. 7th Army and French 1st Army had been warned of a pending invasion from the east and were able to rebuff the enemy’s advances, thus maintaining possession of Strasbourg.
Although the Nazi offensive inflicted heavy casualties on Allied Forces, it was ultimately unsuccessful and decimated Germany’s remaining reserve forces, marking the beginning of the end for the Third Reich. In the fight to thwart Operation Nordwind, more than 17,000 American troops were killed and another 9,000 injured alongside 7,000 of their French brethren. Today, many of those brave, young, American soldiers—who died in service of freedom while fighting on foreign soil—lie in eternal repose in one of 11 American military cemeteries dotting the French countryside. The ultimate sacrifice they made so many decades ago underpins a steadfast partnership between the United States and France that endures to this day.
As the legacy of grand Allied war victories of the past fade into the fog of history, a new generation is discovering that shared values and cross-cultural engagement remain essential to sustaining and propelling the bilateral relationship into the 21st century and beyond.
“Especially in Eastern France, the U.S.-France relationship is absolutely one of mutual admiration and true friendship,” said Consul General Darragh Paradiso. “However, we can’t rely on the goodwill of the past forever. It’s a wonderful starting point here, but we absolutely must reach out to the younger generation. Whether that’s interacting with our diplomats, whether it’s exchange programs, whether it’s promoting education in the U.S.A., we need to give young people a chance to get to know the United States.”
Paradiso leads a seven-person team at the U.S. Consulate General in Strasbourg that is charged with cultivating relations between the U.S. and the Grand Est region, encompassing historic Alsace, Lorraine, and Champagne-Ardenne. The area’s prime geographic features, including fertile Alsatian farmlands bordering the Rhine River, strategic mountain passes, and important trade routes through the heart of western Europe, have made it a hotly contested prize for numerous empires. Possession of the territory has changed hands multiple times over the centuries, resulting in modern-day Alsace boasting unique characteristics that differentiate it from other parts of France. The variety of architectural styles, fusion of culinary traditions, and distinct religious customs observed in Grand Est reflect the diverse cultural influences of the region’s history and neighbors.
Because its consular district borders Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, and Switzerland, ConGen Strasbourg often provides support to Americans who have travelled across international borders for assistance. Given the consulate’s limited staffing, and the fact that it is one of only three posts providing consular services in France (the other two being Embassy Paris and ConGen Marseilles), every member of the consulate team wears multiple hats. Political Assistant Yann Agert describes his colleagues as Swiss Army Knives of diplomacy: each person having a different function but working together and using every tool at their disposal to accomplish their mission.
“We have a large number of U.S. citizens in the region, and we want to make sure that they’re protected. We want to make sure that we’re here to serve them,” said Agert. “We try to assist as many people as possible with our limited resources. If we can accommodate them, we will.”
Clockwise from top left: Street lamps along a picturesque alleyway glow with the light of the setting sun at golden hour in Strasbourg’s historic Petite France district; A street musician plays a cello in front of The Cathedral of Notre-Dame, also known as Strasbourg Cathedral; colorful homes, shops, and restaurants line a canal in Petite France; Strasbourg Cathedral’s superstructure and internal architecture date back to 1439 but sit atop the original foundation and crypt, which was built in 1015; A “newer” cathedral in the Gothic revival style, St. Paul’s Church of Strasbourg was built between 1892 and 1897 and has become a central landmark in the city. Photos by Isaac D. Pacheco
Along with providing citizens’ services, ConGen Strasbourg also works to enhance the robust economic ties between France and the United States, focusing on three key areas of engagement: American exports to the region, French investment in the U.S. through the SelectUSA program, and advocacy on behalf of the more than 500 American businesses operating in Grand Est. U.S. industry has featured prominently in the region since an initial wave of American investment in the 1960s, and today includes major corporations like Eli Lilly, Mars Wrigley, Thermo Fisher Scientific, and Dow Chemical, among others.
“Considering the historical and cultural links between the Grand Est region and the United States, I think there is a huge potential to continue developing economic ties and the economic relationship between France and the U.S.,” said Economic Assistant Thomas Mollanger. “Economic affairs are totally embedded in political ones; economic questions are political questions. It’s quite a dynamic region for that.”
ConGen Strasbourg staff members are surprisingly well-positioned to tackle economic development and emerging transcontinental political issues, like climate change and cybersecurity, from the consulate’s picturesque Alsatian setting. Strasbourg’s modest size and disarming quaintness belie the outsize role it plays on the international stage. The city hosts more than 75 diplomatic missions and seven European institutions including the European Parliament, the European Court of Human Rights, and the Council of Europe, where the United States has participated as an observer since 1996.
Many members of the Consulate General Strasbourg team, including Consul General Darragh Paradiso, bike to work throughout the year. With more than 600 km of bike lanes and trails, Strasbourg is the bicycle capital of France. Approximately 11 percent of residents’ daily journeys are made on bikes, the highest per capita ridership numbers in the entire country. Video by Isaac D. Pacheco
“Today, when we’re reaching out to citizens, we’re not going to say, ‘Let’s work together because we worked together 25 years ago.’ We’re saying, ‘What matters to you today is entrepreneurship. What matters to you today is climate change. What matters to you today is a Europe free of malign interference from other states. Those things matter to us as well. And we can cooperate and work together on those issues,’” said Public Diplomacy Assistant Felipe Tello of America’s participation in the Council of Europe.
Formed in 1949, the Council of Europe is a multilateral standard-setting organization that advocates for democracy, human rights, and rule-of-law across a continent that saw those key values eroded by years of devastating conflict in the first half of the 20th Century. In the early 1990s, the Council played an important role supporting eastern European countries seeking to integrate into western Europe after the fall of the Iron Curtain. This post-Cold War engagement helped create a pathway for several former communist-bloc nations to join the European Union. Today, the Council is composed of 47 member states from across the continent, including Russia and Turkey, and five observer states: the U.S., Mexico, Canada, Japan, and the Holy See.
In keeping with ConGen Strasbourg’s multi-role staffing mantra, Consul General Paradiso also serves as the deputy permanent observer to the Council of Europe (the ambassador in Paris is the permanent observer). She describes the Council as an invaluable forum for multilateral engagement that not only strengthens ties with ally nations who share and uphold America’s democratic values, but also allows the U.S. to engage constructively with countries with whom it has disagreements, or sometimes contentious interactions.
“This year marks the 25th anniversary of us joining the Council of Europe as an observer. I think what’s important about being here is that it shows how much we care about the transatlantic relationship, that Europe is our natural ally,” said Paradiso. “What makes this organization special is that it is based on shared values. You’re all starting from a certain baseline, where you’ve all agreed that human rights, democracy, and rule-of-law are central. It’s about democracies getting together to set standards and norms.”
America’s observer status is more than an honorary role, allowing the U.S. to actively participate in various treaty discussions, send subject matter experts to plenary sessions, and serve on monitoring bodies and advisory commissions such as the Group of States against Corruption (GRECO), and the European Commission for Democracy through Law (also known as the Venice Commission).
“Observer doesn’t mean that we’re sitting there quietly, because we can certainly make comments and participate in many different things,” said Agert. “This is a platform where we can present U.S. priorities. We can voice our values, our agreements, and our disagreements.”
Clockwise from top left: A rainbow selection of macarons and other pastries in a bakery window entice passersby in the idyllic hamlet of Riquewihr, located in the heart of Alsatian wine country; Quaint architecture and colorful decor lend a fairytale air to homes and shops lining a canal in Colmar’s historic “Little Venice” district; Vibrant window boxes decorate the facade of a building in Riquewihr; A popular tourist destination due to its pastel-hued old town, Colmar is also the birthplace of Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, the artist who designed the Statue of Liberty; Flower boxes decorate a canal crossing in Strasbourg; Pedestrians enjoy a street music performance in Petite France; The variety of architectural styles in Strasbourg, and throughout Alsace, reflect the diverse cultural influences of the region’s history and neighbors; An elderly couple watches boaters on a pond in Parc de l’Orangerie, Strasbourg’s oldest park. Photos by Isaac D. Pacheco
The reemergence of far-right nationalism, religious intolerance, anti-immigrant sentiment, and authoritarianism in parts of Europe highlights the continued importance of democracy-focused institutions like the Council of Europe, and the necessity for ongoing dialogue and cooperation between America and its partners across the continent. In the Grand Est, ConGen Strasbourg is building upon a solid foundation of shared values and mutual sacrifice to develop novel solutions to modern challenges, and working to anticipate and mitigate emerging threats to freedom around the globe.
“The most important thing here is not only that we have a historically important foundation, but also that foundation is a stepping stone to so many things that we value today as societies in the U.S. and in Europe,” said Tello. “That work has to continue because democracy is fragile. We’ve seen it in the U.S. We’ve seen it here. And for all of us to continue to make it stronger, to allow it to function properly, we must work together. It’s not a one-shot thing. We’ve been doing that [in Strasbourg] for 155 years, and we want to make sure that partnership keeps on going.”
Isaac D. Pacheco is the editor-in-chief of State Magazine.