ALSACE-LORRAINEthe french revolution
the franco-german conflict
The Franco-Prussian War of 1870–1871 placed the borderland provinces of Alsace and Lorraine at the center of the European historical stage, where they remained until the collapse of Nazism in 1945. The Treaty of Frankfurt (10 May 1871) officially gave the victorious and newly unified German Empire control of Alsace and part of Lorraine, provinces that had progressively come under French rule between the mid-sixteenth and the mid-eighteenth century. The hyphenated term Alsace-Lorraine (Elsass-Lothringen), popular on both sides of the Rhine, dates from this period of German rule (1871–1918) and refers to the imperial territory (Reichsland) established by the Germans. Before that date, Alsace and Lorraine were not thought of in tandem; in the late nineteenth century, however, their fate became irrevocably linked in the French and German national imaginations.
The French Revolution firmly anchored Alsace and Lorraine to the French nation and imbued both regions with a lasting sense of patriotism. The Revolution's republican civic culture—more popular in Alsace than in Lorraine—also tied the region to France. By transforming subjects into citizens and creating a vibrant political life, the Revolution gave the French state legitimacy and helped German speakers in the region identify themselves as French citizens. An often-cited sign that greeted visitors crossing the Rhine to Strasbourg in 1790 read, "Here begins the country of Liberty." The outbreak of the revolutionary wars in 1792 resulted in the occupation of parts of Lorraine and Alsace by Austrian and Prussian troops and solidified patriotic sentiment—just when support for the Revolution was waning. The Revolution simplified the complex geographical and administrative structures of both provinces. The abolition of feudalism, the centralization of power in the hands of prefects, and the adoption of common laws mitigated legal and administrative particularisms. In 1790 the revolutionaries divided the region into six departments and established customs barriers along the Rhine River; in 1798 they welcomed the free city of Mulhouse, long allied to Switzerland, into the French nation.
Early-nineteenth-century Alsace and Lorraine constituted two provinces that differed religiously and linguistically. Alsace was an overwhelmingly German-speaking region; one-fourth of the population was Protestant (predominantly Lutheran), and the region was home to a significant Jewish population, both urban and rural. Lorraine, on the other hand, was largely Catholic and divided between a francophone region in the west and a smaller germanophone strip in the east. In Alsace, Protestants proved more supportive of the Revolution than Catholics, and in both provinces Catholics resisted dechristianization. The Revolution's campaign against local customs and the use of the German language during the Terror met with failure. Napoleon I continued on the path the revolutionaries had set out: his centralization of power and his military campaigns reinforced the integration of Alsace and Lorraine into France. Unlike the revolutionaries, Napoleon I was little concerned with the linguistic issue, and he was often quoted as saying, "Little matter that they speak German, as long as they wield the saber in French." While agriculture remained the central economic activity throughout the nineteenth century, industrial growth was impressive, especially under German rule after 1870. Mulhouse developed into the center of France's textile industry in the early years of the century, and metallurgical industries settled in the region around Strasbourg. Important coal and iron-ore deposits fueled Lorraine's heavy industry.
The war of 1870 transformed Alsace-Lorraine into the key site of a Franco-German conflict that endured until after World War II—a period during which the province changed hands on four separate occasions. Alsace-Lorraine became a symbol of national and ethnic conflict in late-nineteenth-century Europe, and claims to its ownership gave rise to crucial debates about nationalism. As early as the summer of 1870, the French historians Numa-Denis Fustel de Coulanges and Ernest Renan and their German counterparts Theodor Mommsen and David Friedrich Strauss engaged in a charged exchange over national belonging in Alsace-Lorraine. Was Alsace-Lorraine French or was it German, and why? To Mommsen's and Strauss's claim that language and ethnicity made the region German and justified the annexation, Fustel de Coulanges and Renan replied that neither race nor language constituted the basis of nationality. On the contrary, a community of ideas, interests, and historical experiences bound Alsace-Lorraine to the French nation. Its inhabitants were French by choice. The debates of 1870 later inspired Renan to write What Is a Nation? (1882), in which he famously argues that the nation is a "daily plebiscite"; to this day, his text remains one of the most influential analyses of the subject. The "Alsace-Lorraine question" was thus a burning subject for writers and publicists of all stripes well beyond 1914 and further cemented two contrasting understandings of citizenship and nationhood: for the Germans, citizenship was based on ethnicity and culture; for the French, it was rooted in a voluntary adhesion to the values of the national community.
The 1871 peace settlement altered the geographical boundaries of both provinces: France retained control of only the small southwestern tip of Alsace, renamed the Territoire de Belfort, while Germany acquired one-third of Lorraine—the German-speaking regions and a French-language area that included the city of Metz. The Franco-German border now stood on the crest of the Vosges Mountains, and not along the Rhine River. Within Alsace-Lorraine, a significant proportion of the population remained hostile to the German annexation. In France, Alsace and Lorraine became known as the "lost provinces," and the nation, it was claimed, could not be whole without them. On French school maps the region was shrouded in black as a sign of mourning. The female allegories of Alsace and Lorraine, known as the "twin sisters" (les sœurs jumelles), figured prominently in state propaganda, the press, and advertising and the myth of Alsace-Lorraine was perpetuated by writers, artists, and songwriters. Thus, in the French imagination, between 1871 and 1914 this German-speaking region—87 percent of the population considered German or a German dialect to be its native language in 1900—was transformed into a sentimental homeland of French nationalism. However, the pervasive talk of revenge (la revanche) in the wake of the 1870 defeat did not translate into policy, save for the brief nationalist Boulangist episode (1886–1887). France was not prepared for a military conflict with Germany. The Alsace-Lorraine question remained the fundamental barrier to Franco-German reconciliation.
German rule transformed the political, social, and economic structure of Alsace-Lorraine. The province's demographic makeup underwent profound changes. The Treaty of Frankfurt allowed inhabitants of both provinces to opt for French citizenship and move to France, and over 125,000 Alsatians and Lorrainers (out of a population of 1.5 million) had done so by the October 1872 deadline. More emigrated after that date. The young, the educated bourgeoisie (often francophone cadres and notables), and workers and artisans figured prominently among those who departed. Alsatian Jews also departed in significant numbers. German immigration compensated for these demographic losses but also provoked enduring tensions with native inhabitants. Politically, Alsace-Lorraine never achieved equality with German states. Ruled directly as an imperial territory by Berlin, the region was, as of 1879, governed by an administrator (Statthalter) who was responsible to the emperor; high level German bureaucrats managed the region at the local level. Alsatians and Lorrainers, however, moved from initial protest against German rule in the 1870s and 1880s to demands for autonomy in the 1890s and beyond. By the turn of the century the young generations had been schooled entirely in German and the links with France proved to be increasingly distant. German social legislation (more advanced than its French counterpart), substantial economic development, and urban renewal projects (notably in Strasbourg) all helped to anchor Alsace-Lorraine to the Reich. The Constitution of 1911 gave Alsace-Lorraine increased political rights and autonomy without awarding the province equal status with German states.
Both the French and the Germans attempted (with mixed success) to forge national allegiances through linguistic and educational policies. Under the Second Empire (1852–1870), French authorities, increasingly convinced that one needed to speak French in order to be French, changed the language of instruction in primary schools to French and limited the teaching of German. Schoolteachers, however, did not always master French sufficiently to apply this policy effectively. The Germans, too, focused on primary schools as a key tool to transmit German language, culture, history, and identity to a lukewarm population. They applied a policy of Germanification to German-speaking areas (eventually banning French instruction from primary schools altogether) and sought to increase the teaching of German in French-language regions. After 1918 the French would pursue similar policies in a much more draconian fashion, just as they would undertake extensive purges of civil society and expel all the "old German" immigrants. The nineteenth century Franco-German clash over Alsace-Lorraine was thus a harbinger of far more violent ethnic and national conflicts that would divide Europe in the twentieth century.
Renan, Ernest. "What Is a Nation?" Translated and edited by Martin Thom. In Nation and Narration, edited by Homi K. Bhabha, 8–22. London, 1990.
Caron, Vicki. Between France and Germany: The Jews of Alsace-Lorraine, 1871–1918. Stanford, Calif., 1988.
Harp, Stephen L. Learning to Be Loyal: Primary Schooling as Nation Building in Alsace and Lorraine, 1850–1940. DeKalb, Ill., 1998.
Harvey, David Allen. Constructing Class and Nationality in Alsace, 1830–1945. DeKalb, Ill., 2001.
Silverman, Dan P. Reluctant Union: Alsace-Lorraine and Imperial Germany, 1871–1918. University Park, Pa., 1972.
Wahl, Alfred, and Jean-Claude Richez. La vie quotidienne en Alsace entre France et Allemagne, 1850–1950. Paris, 1993.
In 843, in Verdun, the grandsons of Charlemagne (king of the Franks, 768–814; and emperor of the West, 800–814) divided the Carolingian Empire into three parts. The western and eastern portions later became France and Germany, respectively, while between them, spreading from the North Sea to Italy, was the kingdom of Lotharingia, which soon fell apart. Alsace and Lorraine, a portion of Lotharingia, remained in Germanic hands until the seventeenth century, when Louis XIV (r. 1643–1715) was able to reunite a major portion of Alsace with the kingdom of France. Southern Alsace, notably the region of Mulhouse, was annexed only during the Revolution. This reunification allowed France to reach its "natural border" along a section of the Rhine.
Lorraine, where the population spoke French except in the Germanophone northeast, was more disputed. From the sixteenth century, reunification was gradual and only completed during the second half of the eighteenth century. The two provinces had scarcely any ties or sympathy for each other, and were only treated as a unit after they were annexed together by the victorious Germans after the war of 1870–1871. In fact, the two provinces were not united in their entirety. Only the major part of Alsace, less the region of Belfort, and the department of Moselle in the north of Lorraine, were involved in the annexation.
While the region's legislative deputies solemnly protested this "odious abuse of power," Alsace-Lorraine came to embody in some measure the achievement of German unity that was symbolized by the proclamation of the king of Prussia, William I (r. 1861–1888), as emperor of Germany at Versailles, on 18 January 1871. To reinforce the symbolism, Alsace-Lorraine became a Reichsland (territory of the empire) and common property of all the German states. For the French, reconquest of Alsace-Lorraine was the principal theme of revanchism (from the French word for revenge). But gradually, apart from nationalist groups such as La Ligue des Patriotes (Patriots' League) in the 1880s and the monarchist Action Française (French Action) at the beginning of the twentieth century, French public opinion did not favor a war to regain the lost provinces. However, the Alsace-Lorraine controversy prevented reconciliation between France and Germany and was a cause of discord in Europe.
The 1871 Treaty of Frankfurt stipulated that French inhabitants of the annexed territories would have the right, until 31 October 1872 to repatriate to France. Out of a population of 1.6 million, about 150,000 decided to exercise this right, among them a significant number of the political, cultural, economic, and military elites, especially in Alsace. Those who decided to stay did not necessarily accept annexation, and public opinion tended toward protest and dissatisfaction. At first the Reichsland was directly under the authority of Berlin through the Statthalter (representative) in Strasbourg. Despite strict rules—the German language was obligatory, for example, while French was prohibited—the Reichsland benefited from a conciliatory policy on the part of German authorities. But confronted with persistent protests, the regime became far more rigid. After 1890 discord lessened as many Germans now settled in the two provinces. Unity with Germany had improved the region's prosperity and the young generation had never known anything except a German government. Rather than revert to France, many inhabitants of Alsace-Lorraine pressed for greater autonomy within the German Empire, and in 1911 obtained a new constitution. The population of Moselle clearly did not want to be the object of a confrontation between France and Germany; nevertheless, the climate was often tense in Alsace, as demonstrated in Saverne in 1913, when, after a young German lieutenant insulted Alsatian recruits, serious incidents took place between the civilian population and the German troops. The Alsatian Museum of Doctor Bücher in Strasbourg and the drawings of the artists Hansi (Jean-Jacques Waltz; 1873–1951) and Henri Zislin (1875–1958) are the best demonstrations of continued attachment to France and of a rejection of Germanization.
The outbreak of war in 1914 was in no way a consequence of the Alsace-Lorraine question, but once the battle was joined, reconquest of the two provinces became France's war aim par excellence. French troops' brief occupation of Mulhouse in August 1914 provoked an outburst of enthusiasm there. However, 250,000 soldiers of Alsace-Lorraine did fight in the German army, and for most of the next four years the "war map" was so favorable to Germany that it gave no thought to returning Alsace-Lorraine, which made a compromise for peace almost impossible. On the other hand, the United Kingdom only belatedly considered this restitution a priority. At the time of the armistice talks, France demanded the return of Alsace-Lorraine without waiting for a conclusion of the peace process. The French president Raymond Poincaré (1860–1934), prime minister Georges Clemenceau (1841–1929), and generals Ferdinand Foch (1851–1929) and Philippe Pétain (1856–1951) were welcomed in the liberated Alsace-Lorraine amid great enthusiasm, and the German "immigrants" were now expelled. Nonetheless, although secular French law was not imposed—especially in Alsace where religion, both Catholic and Protestant, had particular importance—the relationship with the interior authorities, who scarcely recognized the Alsatian "exception," soon grew strained. An "autonomist" movement grew up until the 1930s, when it became pro-Nazi and lost its influence.
Victorious in 1940, Nazi Germany immediately annexed the former Alsace-Lorraine and named Robert Heinrich Wagner gauleiter (leader of a regional branch of the Nazi party) of Alsace and Joseph Bürckel gauleiter of Lorraine. From August 1942, the region's young men were drafted into the German army, giving birth after the war to the denomination of the "malgré nous"—the 130,000 young men of Alsace-Lorraine who later claimed to have been compelled against their will to serve in the German army, which was true for the great majority of them. Some twenty thousand never returned, especially from the Russian front, where they were killed in combat or died in prisoner-of-war camps such as the notorious Soviet camp of Tambov. In some cases prisoners were held by the Soviet authorities until years later (most were liberated by 1947, but the last of them only in 1955). The fate of some thirteen thousand remains unknown. Nazi reprisals against the French Resistance in Alsace were severe; many were sent to die in the Alsatian concentration camp of Schirmeck.
The Second World War put an end to the Alsace-Lorraine question. Lorraine was reunified, and Alsace was at last able to reconcile a deep French patriotism, expressed by a strong attachment to Gaullism, with a European calling—Strasbourg became the seat first of the Council of Europe (1948), and later of the European Parliament (1979). Although now entirely French, Alsace retains its unique character within the whole of France through its traditions, its way of life, and by the maintenance, at least in the country, of the local "dialect."
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L'Huillier, Fernand. Histoire de l'Alsace. Paris, 1974.
Mayeur, Jean-Marie. Autonomie et politique en Alsace: La constitution de 1911. Paris, 1970.
Moullec, Gaël. "De la Wehrmacht aux camps soviétiques: La tragédie des malgré nous (avis de recherches)." L'histoire 255 (June 2001).
Roth, François. La Lorraine annexée (1870–1918). Nancy, France, 1976.
——. "L'Alsace-Lorraine au début du XXe siècle." In Encyclopédie de la Grande Guerre (1914–1918): Histoire et culture, under the direction of Jean-Jacques Becker et Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau. Paris, 2004.
Spindler, Charles. L'Alsace pendant la guerre. Strasbourg, 1925.
Vogler, Bernard. Histoire politique de l'Alsace: De la Révolution à nos jours; Un panorama des passions alsaciennes. Strasbourg, 1995.
Alsace-Lorraine, former region, Germany: see under Alsace, France.