views updated Jun 08 2018


ETHNONYMS: die Elsassiche (Alsatian), les Alsacien (French), die Elsässer (German), Alsatians (English); place names: Elsass (Alsatian), Alsace (French), Elsass (German), Alsace (English)


Identification and Location. There are several theories about the origin of the name of the province (Alsace) that is home to the Alsatians. The French name Alsace is derived from the earlier German name Elsass, believed to mean "seat of the I11," the I11 River being Alsace's major inland waterway. The I11 River arises in the High Vosges in the southwest of the province and flows northeast to the Plain of Alsace, passing through the provincial capital Strasbourg and emptying into the Rhine River north of that city. The historic province of Alsace is bounded on the north by the forests of Hagenau and Wissembourg, on the east by the Rhine River, on the south by the Alsatian Jura and the Alps, and on the west by the heavily wooded Vosges Mountains. This area lies between 7 and 8° E longitude and between latitudes 49 and 47° N latitude.

The Vosges Mountains fall rather precipitously to the foothills below. The foothills in turn give way in the east to the Plaine d'Alsace, which ranges from 10 to 20 miles (16 to 32 kilometers) in width (east-west) and is 80 miles (130 kilometers) in length (north from the River Lauter, south to the Alsatian Jura). Underground water tables provide water supplies of great depth and reliability, making the province virtually impervious to drought. In the many river valleys of the foothills and along the eastern face of the foothills, the grapes are grown for the production of the five varieties of Alsatian wine.

Historically, Alsace stood at the crossroads of the east to west route over the Rhine. With the opening of the St. Gothard Pass in Switzerland, the area became the axis for north-south trade and travel in continental Europe. Because of its east-west and north-south routes, the city of Strasbourg for centuries has been called the "the crossroad of Europe." In the last years of the twentieth century, its designation has changed due to the location of a number of premier European Community institutions including the Council of Europe and the European Parliament. It is now known as the "capital of Europe."

Demography. Alsace as a whole has a land area of 3,210 square miles (8,310 square kilometers), which represents 1.5 percent of the total land area of France. In 1999 the province's population was 1,734,145, and the population density was 540 inhabitants per square mile (209 per square kilometer). In 2000, some 75 percent of Alsatians lived in cities, 44.5 percent in its three largest cities: Strasbourg, Mulhouse, and Colmar. Twenty six percent of the provincial population lives in Strasbourg, the eleventh largest city in France, with 264,115 inhabitants in the city proper and a total of 427,245 in its Unité Urbaine (UU). Mulhouse has 110,359 inhabitants and 234,445 residents in its UU, and represents 13.5 percent of the provincial population. Five percent live in Colmar, which has 65,136 inhabitants and 86,832 in its UU.

Linguistic Affiliation. Aside from the small pocket of Flemish-speakers in northern France, Alsatian is the only Germanic language spoken in France. Dialects of West Germanic and thus Indo-European languages, the two Alsatian dialects are closely related to Swiss German and to the trans-Rhine dialects of Baden (Baden-Wurtemburg) and Bavaria. They have been spoken in the province in various forms since about 600 c.e. In 1963, 80 percent of the inhabitants of Alsace spoke one of the dialects. Most Alsatians also speak French and/or German. By 2000, the great decline in Alsatian speakers was notable.

History and Cultural Relations

A common assumption is that the province of Alsace is intimately related to that of Lorraine, hence the common reference to "Alsace-Lorraine." However, while the prehistory of the two areas has much in common, the early history of these provinces shows sharp divergences that have had an enduring impact. Lorraine (from the Latin, Lotharii Regnum; Greek Lotharingia), named after Lothair, its Carolingian ruler from 840-855, came under French influence and control much earlier than did Alsace. From 1279 until 1776, when France gained official possession of Lorraine, the eastern province had been dominated by French influence and the presence of French citizens. The major dialect of Lorraine is Langue d'Oïl, or Northern French, primarily spoken in the southern part of the province around Metz.

Religion is another difference between the regions. Since the time of Clovis, the Carolingian ruler, the people of Lorraine have been Roman Catholic. Alsatians followed Rome in the beginning, but most of them turned to Protestantism during the Reformation. Alsace and Strasbourg were, in fact, the centers of the Reformation in the Rhineland.

Economic differences also separate the two provinces. Alsace developed early on a commercial and industrial economy and an urban (and Protestant) bourgeoisie, whereas Lorraine's economy focused on mining and agriculture and much less on commerce and industrial production. When the two historic provinces were annexed by Germany in 1870, Alsace's economic dominance led to the submergence of Lorraine's interests under those of Alsace during the annexation.

On the eve of the Franco-Prussian War (1870), Alsace and Strasbourg were governed by a still largely indigenous Protestant upper class. The lower classes were predominantly Catholic, both French and Alsatian. The most important Alsatian industry, imprimerie indienne, the Protestant-owned textile industry, employed no Catholics (a condition which lasted as late as 1949). The exclusion of one group from an entire industry is indicative of the problematic relations between the two major religious groups in the area at that time.

As events began to lead to war between Germany and France, some Protestant elites openly favored the German annexation of Alsace for economic and religious reasons. The German annexation, in 1871, lasted until the end of World War I, when Alsace was returned to France.

World War II once again saw the annexation of Alsace by Germany in 1939. The Third Reich did not wait to gauge the "Germanness" of the Alsatians, but immediately deported them to Poland and Russia, and replaced them with "good" Germans, both military and civilian. German rule during World War II was much more severe than that exercised after the Franco-Prussian War, for the Germans had learned that, although the Alsatians were a Germanic people, they were not Germans. Several prison camps in occupied Russia held Alsatian prisoners exclusively.

With the return of Alsace to France at the conclusion of World War II, Alsace entered a "new" phase. The French government eliminated German language instruction in the primary schools. This stricture still stands today. It manifests a still persistent fear of the French that Alsatians are too involved with what the French regard as "German" culture. However, through all the changes wrought by history, much in Alsace has remained the same. An Alsatian Protestant elite still maintains control of economic and political life in the province.

An autonomist party developed at the end of the war and was still functioning in the 1970s. The membership of the party was secret. It was widely believed that its membership leaned toward Nazism. Hence, while some Alsatians voiced autonomist sentiments in the 1970s and 1980s, many preferred to do so outside of the autonomist party.

The history of the area shows the imprint of both Latin and Germanic cultures in a fundamental way in terms of ethnic identity. The determination of ethnicity in Alsace differs for Germans and French; Alsatian ethnics must be able to show a lineal tie to an Alsatian ancestor. No other elements of performance (such as residence or language proficiency) are necessary to claim the identity. French identity, on the other hand, is entirely performance based; one's origins are not important if one manifests central elements of the identity, which for the French is language ability.


Traditional Alsatian buildings and homes are half-timbered structures, some dating to the 1300s. These are made of rough masonry (made from a mixture of clay, animal furs, and straw) and wood, with all exterior and interior structural members being of the latter. The wealth of the province is shown in the major houses of the cities of Alsace. These are notable for their elegance and, in particular, for their Oriel windows (overhanging bay windows) and stair-step gables. These structures dating from the fifteenth century are in stone rather than half-timbered as in earlier times. Subsequent construction is largely in stone and follows the development of French architecture for the last four centuries. The exceptions are the buildings in German Second Reich styles that were built during the annexation by Germany (1870-1917), and which include parts of the University of Strasbourg.

Religious architecture in Alsace includes examples of Romanesque, Gothic (with the Cathedral being one of Europe's best examples), Flamboyant Gothic, and Classical architecture, with only some examples of the Baroque style.


Subsistence. The Alsatian economy is a fully developed industrial economy complemented by major viticultural, pomocultural, and agricultural activities. Preeminent are the chemical, electronic, and automobile industries. The province also produces electricity for export to Germany and Switzerland from its many hydroelectric plants along the Rhine, which produce seventeen billion kilowatts per year.

Commercial Activities. The area has a strong and diversified agricultural industry and a broad-based industrial sector. One of the prime ingredients of the economy of Alsace is its port, which is important not only to Strasbourg and to Alsace, but to all of France. Strasbourg City has some seventeen kilometers of territory that borders directly on the Rhine. The Autonomous Port of Strasbourg is the second largest port in France, though it is an inland port. The three principal countries to which it ships goods and material and from which it receives cargo are Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium. A major export, petroleum, some of which is produced locally and most of which is refined locally (the two refineries just north of Strasbourg were producing 8.1 million metric tons of refined oil annually in the 1970s), is sent to other countries such as Switzerland. Some oil is transshipped south to North Africa via the Sud European pipeline, which has terminals in Strasbourg and on the Mediterranean Sea. Canals also link the Port to the Rhone and Marne Rivers.

Other products of the region include meats (one of the most common meats in France is Saucisse de Strasbourg), dairy products (which include Muenster cheesesthere are several villages named Muenster in Alsace), and its fine ceramic tradition. The city of Strasbourg is top-most of all French cities in banking and insurance; it is second only to Paris in the proportion of the population engaged in research (scholarly, medical, etc.), and first in the proportion engaged in private research, especially in industry.

The University of Strasbourg includes schools of Law, Medicine, Letters, and Science; and colleges or institutes for pharmacy, nursing, political science, agriculture and chemistry as well as European studies, and its various technical institutes that serve industry. The university has some 25,000 students and is second only to the University of Paris in stature and in the number of foreign students in attendance (primarily Swiss, German, American, and Scandinavian).

The French state's tendency toward centralized control over the economic affairs of its constituent regions has caused problems for Alsace as well as for other provinces. Some writers argue that the Alsatian economy's integration with the national economy is weak. It is also suggested that Alsace allows "too much" foreign industrial implantation and investment (German, Swiss, Japanese, and Dutch). Germany and Japan have major investments in the province, German investments being preeminent. The economy of Alsace is often discussed in the context of the "Upper Rhine" (French, Le Rhin Superior) economy, which includes neighboring areas in Germany.

Industrial Arts. Textiles are of great importance to the area's industry and include 5,300 different establishments, 48 of which employ more than 500 people and 14 of which employ more than 1,000 workers. The three largest industrial enterprises in Alsace are Automobiles Peugeot in Sausheim, General Motors Powertrain in Strasbourg and INA Roulements of Haguenau. Its agricultural industry also includes a vigorous and world-renowned wine sector which specializes in white wines.

Trade. Forty percent of Alsatian industrial production is exported. Most trade is with nearby countries, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Switzerland, but a significant portion is also with the United Kingdom and Italy. Automobiles, chemicals, rubber, potash, and electrical and electronic equipment are the most traded items from Alsace that find their way most often to international markets.

The agricultural and consumable (alimentaire) industries of Alsace are notable for candies, especially chocolate, and beer, such as Kronenbourg and Mutzig. The Alsatian wine industry is also of note, producing for export white wines (Pinot Gris, Tokay, Gewurztraminer, Sylvaner, a Crémant [sparkling wine], Muscat, and Reisling), which have a characteristic floral nose without the typically sweet taste of (German) Rhine wines.

Division of Labor. Alsace's economy is an industrial one with a large agricultural component. Generally, work is done by adults, except on farms and in family vineyards where younger family members may contribute. Adolescents may also join in at harvest time (la vendange).

Land Tenure. Farms and vineyards are often family owned. Single heirs, who may be of either gender, are chosen to carry on the tradition rather then split apart the holding.


Kin Groups and Descent. Alsatians practice the typically Western European form of bilateral kinship with a patrilateral emphasis.

Kinship Terminology. As in the rest of Western Europe, kinship terminology is Inuit with cousins distinguished by gendered terms. Ascending and descending generations are distinguished by generation and gender.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Marriage is normally among people of the same religious group. If not, it is referred to as a marriage mixte (mixed marriage). Cases exist where individuals were excluded from their family of origin for religious exogamy. Marriages may be civil or religious or both. Postmarital residence of couples has differed among the Protestants and Catholics. Protestants (specifically Lutherans and Reformed) are neolocal after marriage. Among Catholics, daughters tend to take up postmarital residence near their mothers. Sons tend to live near their mothers-in-law postmaritally. In the last half of the twentieth century, serial monogamy has become increasingly common, as divorce laws have been relaxed.

Domestic Unit. Both Protestant and Catholic groups tend to have nuclear family-based domestic units for part of the domestic cycle. As the family ages, senior members no longer able to live on their own may join a nuclear family, making it an extended family. The area has a relatively high number of co-resident extended families in comparison to the rest of France.

Inheritance. Inheritance is generally patrilineal for farms and firms. Among Protestants daughters are likely to inherit as well. Among the rural people, inheritance has been under a system of male primogeniture but augmented by selection of a single heir, male or female.

Socialization. Among the elites, childcare is often entrusted to a nanny or two. In general, children are regarded as a blessing. Childrearing has not been studied per se in the area, but the ethnography of urban areas suggests that key values are instilled at home and at school and include the importance and value of family and one's place in it. Physical punishment is meted out to correct the errant child, usually by swats on the rear, but not the face, unless the misbehavior is extremely severe. The emphasis on family cohesion is more pronounced among Catholics than among Protestants.

Schools follow the dictates of the French educational system. Only since 1994 in Alsace has education been permitted in the German (but not Alsatian) language at the primary level. Until 1990, instruction in German before the equivalent of high school was legally proscribed in France only in Alsace.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. The social system of Alsace has historically been based upon three dimensions of stratification: wealth, prestige, and political power (not unlike other Western European societies). However, the upper classes, and to a certain extent, the lower classes, are also divided by religion. Thus, one speaks in Alsace of "high society" (Haute Société) as High Protestant Society and distinguish it from High Catholic Society. Religion thus serves as an organizational principle (in marriage, somewhat in residence, occupation, and employment) and as a structural principle in Alsace.

Political Organization. The province of Alsace is divided into two départements, Bas Rhin and Haut Rhin (Lower and Upper Rhine, respectively) and represents two of the ninety-nine such administrative and political units that compose France and France d'outre mer (Overseas France). The préfet (prefect) is the chief administrator of a department. The prefect is defined as a high functionary named by decree to administer a department and to represent that department to the central government. The Alsatian departments are subdivided into fourteen arrondissements (administrative districts), under a sous-préfet's control. The arrondissements are further divided into cantons, of which there are sixty-nine in Alsace. Within cantons are found communes. In Alsace there are some 945 communes.

Alsace is administered by a central government comprised of legislative, executive, and judicial branches. The legislative branch consists of a bicameral Parlement (Parliament) that includes the Senat (Senate) with a total of 321 seats and the Assemblée Nationale (National Assembly) with 577 seats. The members of the Senate are indirectly elected by an electoral college and serve nine-year terms. One-third of the Senate is elected every three years. Members of the National Assembly are elected by popular vote and serve five-year terms. The executive branch is headed by the chief of state, or president, who is elected by popular vote for a seven-year term. The head of the government is the prime minister who is nominated by the National Assembly and appointed by the president. The president also appoints members of the Cabinet, or Conseil de Ministres, on the recommendation of the prime minister. The judicial branch is composed of the Cour de Cassation (Supreme Court of Appeals) whose judges are appointed by the president based upon nominations from the High Council of the Judiciary (Conseil Constitutionnel). Three members are appointed by the president, three by the president of the National Assembly, and three by the president of the Senate and Council of State.

Social Control. Prior to the Reformation, the inhabitants of the province were largely Catholic, with a small Jewish minority whose presence was most notable in the cities of Alsace. After the Reformation, the urban areas became largely Protestant. While the conflicts between the religious traditions could have become insurmountable, they have not, apparently due to the fact that the two countries that have vied for control of the province, France and Germany, represent different religious traditions. In times when Alsace is under the control of one or the other, the Alsatian religion out of favor is supported and defended by the religion in favor, i.e., Protestants defend Catholicism when under German Protestant domination and the reverse occurs when Alsace is under French Catholic domination.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Religious affiliation has changed much over the last five hundred years in Strasbourg and in Alsace. Before the Reformation, the provincial urban populace was largely Catholic with a strong minority of Jews who lived there in part because of the persecution they experienced elsewhere in France. This situation changed completely during the years of the Reformation. For some 150 years, Strasbourg and ten of the other major Alsatian cities (the Decapole) were almost exclusively Protestant, the largest group of Protestants being the Lutherans. With the acquisition of the province (and later Strasbourg itself) by the French crown, the balance began to shift. By the time of the French Revolution in 1789, the numbers of Protestants in Strasbourg had declined such that they represented little more than 50 percent of the total. In 2000, some 65 percent of Strasbourgeois were Roman Catholic. The next largest is the group of Églises de la Confession d'Augsbourg, the Lutherans, who represent about 25 percent of the municipal population. The Église, the Reformed Church (who do not refer to themselves as "Calvinists"), represent some 4 percent of the urban population, and Jews represent approximately 2 percent.

The two World Wars of this century have seen a very large member of Alsatian Jews killed and displaced. After World War II, many Jews left (or were taken from) the area and did not return. Hence, many of the Jews of Alsace today are not Alsatian Jews, but post-war arrivals. However, there are a number of old established Jewish families in Alsace. One of these is the family of Pierre Mendes-France (né Mandelbaum), former Prime Minister of France. Mendes-France's change of name suggests that while pursuing a career in politics, one might maintain one's Alsatian ethnicity but perhaps not one's Jewish identity in Catholic France.

Islam was brought to Alsace by workers from North Africa. The number of adherents represents less than 5 percent of the urban community.

The people of Strasbourg and Alsace are a religious people. There has never been fervent anticlericalism in Alsace as has appeared elsewhere in France (except in the Vendée). The dominant Catholic tradition, as well as the Jewish, Lutheran, and the Reformed (Protestant) have a special legal status in the two départements of Alsace and in Lorraine. This status allows individuals to make donations to their respective churches or temples by having a designated sum of their income taxes allocated thereto.

In Lutheranism, there is a notion of divine omnipresence. This form of pantheism is said to be typically Germanic. Divinity is seen as infused throughout the natural and social environment and, as such, is not localized, or localizable, in any one place, person, object, or time. Hence, Luther's notion of consubstantiation was developed in opposition to the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, or the power to call forth divinity in the Mass. This calling forth attributed magical powers to Catholic clergy which differentiated them from ordinary men and women. In the Protestant tradition, clerics have no special powers; they do not form an elevated clergy

Religious Practitioners. Religious specialists include priests and pastors, for the Catholic and Protestant traditions, respectively, and rabbis of the Jewish faith. While positions in the Catholic tradition are appointed from without, leaders of Protestant and Jewish traditions are chosen by their respective congregations.

Ceremonies. A variety of religious practices typical of Judaism, Catholicism, Lutheranism, and Calvinism animate Alsace's social life. The Catholics have a place of pilgrimage in Alsace, to the convent of the patron saint of Alsace, Sainte Odile. A statue of the saint stands, arms outstretched, on the mount where the convent is located in the Vosges Mountains, overlooking and protecting the Plain of Alsace. Saint Odile's feast day is 13 December, which is assumed to be the date of her death. Her remains are said to reside in a sarcophagus in the convent. She is a focal point for religious pilgrimages and is sought after for her intercessions, especially by those with eye problems or diseases, because of the myth concerning her development of sight after being born blind.

Catholic villages also have yearly festivals (fetes patronales) on the day of their respective patron saints. In the north of Alsace, such festivals are called messti but kilwe or kilbe in the south. Today, these festivals allow one to see the tradtional costumes including the famous schlumpfkeppe, a bonnet made of black folded ribbon worn by women.

Historically, baptism was an important ceremony. In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, it was presumed that the high infant mortality rates were due to malevolent forces. Babies were considered especially susceptible to evil influences until they were baptized. Thus, baptism was seen as an important event that should not be delayed lest an infant's life be placed at risk.

Arts. Alsace contains a number of monuments of Christian religious art. The Musée de L'Œuvre Notre-Dame, the museum of the Cathedral of Strasbourg, contains "Christ's Head," the oldest known example of representational stained glass. It comes from Wissembourg in the north of Alsace and dates to circa 1070 c.e. High art painting developed in the fifteenth century in Alsace and focused on religious work, especially Passion works often inspired by Flemish artists. Artists include Indemann, Schongaurer, and Mathias Grünwald. Later painters include Henner, who painted the famous "l'Alsacienne" and the lithographer and engraver, Gustave Doré.

Another product of the province's medieval florescence is the Strassburg Manuscript, which shows that painting-guild members in the city were using oil in their work a full century before the date generally given for oil painting in the Rhine region. This manuscript is the oldest surviving manual on painting techniques in the German language. (The manuscript in the library of the University is actually a copy, the original having been destroyed by a fire caused by German bombardment of the city in 1871.) As well, one of the oldest and most famous romances in the German language, Tnstan und Isolde, stems from this period, penned by Gottfried von Strassburg.

Decorative arts were important to the Alsatian economy and encompassed excellent, and very salable textiles with oriental designs, as well as the world renowned ceramics such as those manufactured by the Hannong family (1700s) and others. Both traditions remain active today.

The area has been widely know for centuries for its work in precious metals, as well as for its iron-, wood-, and tinworking, examples of which adorn the many manor houses and municipal buildings. One of Strasbourg's busiest (pedestrian) streets is the rue des Orfèvres, the street of the gold workers. Among its most famous sculptures, Alsace counts modernist Hans Arp (known in France and elsewhere as Jean Arp) and August Bertholde, who created the Lion of Belfort and the Statue of Liberty in New York.

In literature, an interest in local Germanic speech directly issuing from the interest of Charlemagne led to the appearance of the Catechisme of Wissemburg and later Otfried von Wissemburg's The Christ. The latter, published in 868, is the oldest known poem in a Germanic language by an author whose identity is known to us. It was in Strasbourg that Gutenberg created the art of printing, which he used to print the first book, the Bible, in Mainz. His work left a circle of artisans who quickly turned Strasbourg into a center for publication of Reformation and Humanist literature. Also of note is the fifteenth century masterpiece, Das Narrenschiff (The Ship of Fools) by Alsatian Sebastian Brandt.

Medicine. Since the reattachment of Strasbourg and Alsace in the seventeenth century, the medical arts have followed the French model. In addition to the justly famous medical school at the University of Strasbourg, the area developed in the last thirty years of the twentieth into a center of biotechnology and pharmaceutical research.

Death and Afterlife. In earlier centuries and continuing until the mid-twentieth century, death was seen as a consequence of malevolent forces. Beliefs about afterlife include common Christian notions of heaven and hell, and the typical, especially Catholic belief about sin and its effect on an afterlife. However, among members of the Reformed church, activities in this life have no bearing on salvation; the doctrine of Predestination teaches that one's fate has been determined even before one's birth.

For the original article on Alsatians, see Volume 4, Europe.


Baas, Geneviève (1972). "Le Malaise Alsacien: 1919-1924. Numèro Special: Dossier Historique." Journal Développment et Communauté. Strasbourg. Decembre 1972.

Chrisman, Miriam U. (1967). Strassburg and the Reform: A Study in the Process of Change. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Gaines, Atwood D. (1985). "Faith, Fashion and Family: Religion, Aesthetics, Identity and Social Organization in Strasbourg." Anthropological Quarterly 58: 247-62.

Maugué, Pierre (1970). Le Particularisme Alsacien: 1918-1967. Paris: Presses D'Europe.

Silverman, Dan P. (1972). Reluctant Union. University Park, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Stinzi, Paul (1946). Histoire de l'Eglise Catholique en Alsace. Colmar: Editions Alsatia.

Strohl, Henri (1950). Le Protestantisme en Alsace. Strasbourg: Editions Oberlin.

Todd, Emmanuel (1991). The Making of Modem France. Oxford: Blackwell.

Vogler, Bernard (1994). Histoire Culturelle de VAlsace. Strasbourg: Editions Nuée Bleue.



views updated May 29 2018


LOCATION: Alsace, France
POPULATION: 1,817,000
LANGUAGE: French; Alsatian and Frankish dialects
RELIGION: Roman Catholicism; Lutheranism; Calvinism; Judaism


Located between Germany and France and in proximity of other European nations, the region known as Alsace has attracted travelers as well as invaders through history. Alsatians survived five centuries of rule by the Roman Empire and Teutonic invaders. Unification of Europe by Charlemagne brought peace to Alsace. However, Charlemagne's grandsons divided Europe again. In 870 the Franco-German border was established on the Moselle River, marking the beginning of the French-German dispute over the region. Alsace was added to France by the Treaty of Rijswijck in 1697. Alsatians saw their region annexed by Germany from 1870 to 1918. In 1918 Alsace was returned to France, but was again annexed by the Germans during the period of World War II from 1940 to 1944. When the war ended, Alsace was again returned to France in 1945.

As a result of the periods of German control and influence, Alsatian architecture, cuisine, dress, and dialect have been influenced by Germany. However, despite the constant presence of foreign powers, Alsatians developed a strong sense of identity. People there see themselves first and foremost as Alsatians, which is reflected in the use of their regional language.

Alsace is one of the regions of France. Politically it is one of the most conservative regions of France, where the conservative right won the 2004 regional elections. Alsatian regional government is an equivalent of state government in the United States. Since 2004 the conservative party has controlled the Alsace regional council. Not surprisingly, the French president Nicolas Sarkozy, nominated by the conservatives in the 2007 presidential elections, amassed the greatest support in Alsace. Alsatian politicians are known for supporting national identity issues. This region is also very supportive of European integration.

One of the most pro-EU regions in France, Alsace is home to numerous European institutions and organizations. The Center for Information on the European Institutions (CIIE) is based in the capital of Alsace, Strasburg. The CIIE is the official information network of the European Union. Its major task is to inform the general public on the operations of the institutions and to provide news on European policies. Moreover, Strasburg is one of the three official locations of the European Parliament. This legislative body of the European Union is the only institution to be directly elected by European citizens. The European Parliament in Strasbourg is the official place where the members of the European Parliament come together on a monthly basis to adopt community texts.

Other European Union organizations situated in Alsace include the European Court of Human Rights, the European Pharmacopoeia Commission, the headquarters of EURO-CORPS, the European Science Foundation, the Assembly of European Regions, and others. Additionally, the Alsace Office in Brussels is the representational tool used by Alsatian territorial associations and local consular bodies to represent their concerns to the European Union. Being the hub of the EU administration, Alsace is situated at the heart of European politics. This strategic position has been extremely good for Alsatian economy and allows the region to keep its distance from the centralized French national government.


Alsace is the smallest French region. It is located at the eastern border of France between the Vosges mountains to the west and the Rhine river to the east. It also shares borders with Germany and Switzerland. Stretching along the Rhine, Alsace is 193 km (120 mi) long and 48.2 km (30 mi) wide. Currently, it is divided into two departments: the Lower Rhine and the Upper Rhine.

The climate in most of Alsace is similar to the towns of southern France. The temperature is fairly mild, averaging to 18°c (64°f) in the summer and 2°c (35.6°f) in winter. Colmar is the second driest town of France. An abundance of sunshine and mild winters allow the fertile lands along the Rhine river to produce lavish crops of grains, hops, tobacco and cabbage. Other crops grown in the region include wheat, corn, potatoes, asparagus, and root vegetables, such as beets. The area surrounding the eastern foothills of the Vosges has a warm and sunny microclimate with little rainfall. It is perfect for growing slow-ripening wine grapes.

The small but beautiful region of Alsace is known for its verdant forests, rounded hills, splendid vineyards, serene lakes, and picturesque panoramas. The Vosges mountain range at the west of Alsace is made of old mountains. Its summits are called balloons due to their unique rounded shape. The Grand Balloon peaks, including Ballon de Guebwiller, are the highest in Alsace, reaching 1,737 m (5,700 ft). Located at the very south of the region is the Jura mountain range.

Alsace has quite a few lakes. The most famous lake is White Lake located at the high altitude of 1,055 m (3,461 ft). At 955 m (3,133 ft) sits Lake Noir (Black Lake) known for its hydro-electric powerhouse. Lac des Truites, also called Forlen Lake, is the highest lake of the Vosges mountains. It can be found at an altitude of 1,061 m (3,481 ft). Alsace's two longest rivers are the Rhine and Ill. Between those rivers lies the area called the Ried, or reed country. This reed country is marked with marshland and wet grassland.

Its close proximity to the capitals of France, Germany, and Switzerland places Alsace at the heart of Europe. The capital of the region is Strasbourg. With more than 263,941 inhabitants, Strasbourg is an important economic and administrative center of Europe. Many people in this city are employed in the banking sector or other businesses. Strasbourg has excellent high speed highways and express trains connecting it with Paris, France; Frankfurt, Germany; and Basel and Zurich, Switzerland. Other large cities of Alsace include Sélestat, which is particularly famous for its city library, its festivals, and its market; Wissembourg, with more than 70 houses built in the18th century; and Hunawihr, known for its burgeoning vineyards and flocks of storks. Colmar is a spawning industrial town with multi-colored, half-timbered, crooked houses and charming alleyways at the center of the city. Historical buildings are extremely well-preserved here. A fortress town of Neuf-Brisach is acknowledged for its military architecture.

Although the majority of Alsatians live in cities, a portion of the population resides in the countryside. Alsatian quaint villages, sparkling with half-timbered houses, sit peacefully among the vineyards. It is customary for traditional country houses to be adorned with elaborate wood carvings. People also decorate their dwellings with flower window boxes, overflowing with geraniums and other colorful perennials.


Since 1945, standard French has established itself as the prominent language of the region. Originally, the name Alsace comes from Alemannic expression "Ell-sass," which means "Seated of the Ill." One of the biggest rivers of Alsace is Ill. After 1996 the German Elsass was prominently replaced with French-sounding Alsace.

Although Alsace is considered a French-speaking area, the traditional language of the region is Alsatian. The Alsatian language is the Alemannic dialect of Upper German and is fairly similar to Swiss German. Frankish dialects of Western Middle German are heard in the north of Alsace. However, neither Alsatian nor Frankish dialects are official languages of Alsace. About 25% of the local population is fluent in the Alsatian dialect. Also, the Alsatian and the Frankish dialects are now recognized as languages of France and are taught in French high schools. Furthermore, the local dialects are seen on shop signs and menus. The desire to safeguard national identity encourages Alsatians to preserve the traditional Alsatian language. The overwhelming presence of French media makes the survival of Alsatian among younger generations rather challenging, but since it is an important part of the local identity, people hope that it will survive.


Traditional music, folk dances, songs, games, anecdotes, and legends are among the most popular forms of folklore that can be seen in the region. Many aspects of Alsatian folklore are inspired by or rooted in German folklore and traditions. Thus, Alsatian folk music shares many common features with German folk music. High-spirited melodies played with trumpets, flutes, accordions, and drums prompt the listeners to get up and dance. Most villages and towns have their own folk ensembles with members of all ages.

Alsatians have many beliefs, stories, and superstitions related to storks. A stork (la cigogne in French) is the national bird of Alsace. Enjoying their special status, these stately birds like to make their nests atop the roofs of tall buildings. They prefer to build their nests high so that young storks can swoop off the roofs as they learn to fly. A stork is considered to be a symbol of good luck, happiness, and fidelity throughout Alsace. In French folklore babies are delivered by a rabbit in a cabbage patch; in Alsatian folklore (like in German folklore) babies are brought by a stork. Therefore, when an Alsatian child wants a younger brother or sister, he or she needs to place a piece of sugar on the windowsill to attract the stork, hoping that the bird would grant a precious package in exchange for a sweet treat.

From Strasbourg to Colmar, from the Vosges mountains to the Rhine, Alsace is saturated with history and legends. One of the well known Alsatian legends is about King Dagobert. Falling in love with a Kuttolsheim beauty, he built a pipeline to bring white wine from her village to Strasbourg. It was such a commercial success, as well as a demonstration of his love, that Strasburg built another pipeline for red wine.

In addition many castles, churches, or other places of local importance have fascinating and at times mystical legends about people who lived in them or events that happened there. For example, the village of Andlau has a legend about the foundations of its Abbey of Ste. Richarde in 880. According to the legend, the site for the abbey was chosen by a she-bear, who scratched her paw on the ground designating where the monastery must be built. The abbey's 12 centuries old crypt has a small wooden door above the very ground scratched by the bear. As legend has it, if a person puts his or her sore limb into the niche in the crypt's floor and touches the ground, that person will be cured of these sores. One can also see a stone bear near the door. According to one local belief, any woman who sits by that stone bear shall be assured of many children.

The District of Wintzenheim is another place steeped with legends. Centuries-old lore continues to pervade the Five Castles and Brand wine region. As the legend has it, the Brand hillside was fertilized by a dragon's blood. People also say that the Pflixbourg castle, located near the three castles of Eguisheim, is a home for the ghost of a White Lady imprisoned by a wicked fairy.

Fascinating local traditions and superstitions include a custom called Andresle practiced in Illzach. For this ritual, on Saint Andrew's Eve a girl must take an apple form a widow without saying thank you for it. She then must cut it in two and eat one half of it before midnight. The other half must be eaten after midnight. Then, in sleep, the girl will see her husband to be.


For five centuries (from the 9th century until 1648) Alsace was a part of the Holy Roman Empire, which established Catholicism as the official religion of the region. However, after 1948 Alsace was divided into numerous virtually sovereign landlord-ships, forcing the people to adopt the religion of their prince. As a result, most of the Alsatian population is Roman Catholic, but there is also a considerable number of Protestants.

Additionally, unlike the rest of France, the Alsace and Moselle are the only regions that continue to follow the Napoleonic Concordat of 1801, under which public subsidies are granted to Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and Calvinist churches, and to Jewish synagogues. Following the concordat also implies that public education in each of those faiths is offered and supported. Since in France religion and state are separate, the religious policies in Alsace and Mocelle are the subject of constant disagreement between the two regions and the rest of France.

Alsace is known for its large Jewish community. The set of laws that provide religious equality and ensure that representatives of the deferent religions are treated as civil servants made Alsace a favorable destination of the Jewish people. However, this set of laws was adopted only in the early 19th century, while the Jewish community uninterruptedly existed in this area for over 800 years. The continued presence of Alsatian Jews reflects itself in the numerous ancient synagogues and cemeteries spread across the region, as well as in other aspects of the Jewish heritage.


Alsatians are merry people and love to celebrate. Whether it is a religious holiday, a local festivity, or a two-day parade, people here take their time to get together and celebrate. Many religious holidays, such as Christmas, are not distinct to Alsace. Yet, they acquire unique characteristics of the region and feel very Alsatian.

Similarly to most Europeans, Alsatians celebrate a number of Christian holidays, such as Christmas, Epiphany, and Easter. The Christmas season traditionally begins with the feast of Saint Nicolas, marked with special songs, legends, and gingerbread. At the wake of Christmas Eve, the streets throughout the region are lit with Christmas lights, the Christmas markets are set up, and the delicious aroma of cinnamon and biscuits fills the streets and homes. Alsatian Easter is particularly loved by children. It is the time of year when children hunt around the gardens in search of jolly-colored Easter eggs, carefully hidden by their parents. To celebrate the Epiphany, Alsatian children dress up as the three kings. A special dish made at Epiphany is the delicious galette des rois pastries.

Alsatians greatly enjoy festivals and carnivals. The midwinter Candlemas carnival marks the beginning of the festival season. The size and grandeur of the costumed procession depends on the village or town. For example, in Mulhouse the festive procession marches through the streets of the city for two days. The corsos fleuris, or flower floats festival, is another important event in Alsatian holiday culture. During this festival held in September, flower floats are assembled. Decorated with thousands of dahlias, the floats pass through the towns and villages. The most famous corsos fleuris parade is held in Sélestat. The first flower parade was organized in Sélestat by the Association of the Outdoor Gardeners of Alsace in 1927. The goal of the event was to attract young people to the gardening profession. This beautiful festival is enjoyed throughout the region, bringing joy and happiness to the hearts of the people.

Additionally, Alsace can boast its culinary and wine-related festivals. Each year multiple celebrations are put together to acknowledge Alsatian culinary, winemaking, and brewing traditions. From spring to autumn, villages and towns celebrate beer making, successful cherry crops, harvesting season, fried carp, or whatever else Mother Nature may grant.

Although there are some festivals celebrated by the whole region, many celebrations are local. Thus, the city of Ribeauvillé marks the end of summer with the Fête des Ménétriers (Musicians Festival). Bringing together artists and performers and offering theatrical and musical entertainment rooted in medieval times, this festival celebrates art and is a spectacle not to miss. In the same manner, each year a major folk festival (the Ami Fritz festival) is held in Marlenheim. Based on an Emile Erckmann and Alexandre Chatrian novel (1864), this festival brings to life traditional wedding rituals captured in the novel. During two days, visitors observe the nuptial parade, all sorts of folk entertainment, and a magnificent firework display.

There are a number of festivals celebrated by a given town or village to honor a local saint. They are called Kilbe in Upper Alsace and Messti in Lower Alsace. In medieval times, these lively events would end with a grandiose mass, followed by funfairs and a country market. Among such local holidays, the Feux de Saint-Jean, or the Saint John Fires Day, stands out. This summer celebration takes place in the valleys of Vosges mountains. People come together to make and light the fires dedicated to St. John. In the past, people lit the St. John fires to celebrate the sun before it begins its annual decline. Honoring St. John and celebrating the bliss of the sun was believed to guarantee a better harvest.


Traditional rites of passage in the villages and towns of Alsace include carnivals, calendar and votive festivals, and other types of folk rites. Varying from village to village, these festive events carry villagers into a new season or signify successful harvest. Also, each religious community in Alsace has its own rites of passages. For example, baptism plays an important role in the Christian community, while brit milah (the covenant of male circumcision) and naming ceremonies mark a passage through life in Judaism.

Other rites of passage in Alsace are related to the significant stages of human life, including birth, marriage, and death. Those could be religious or secular ceremonies, depending on a family. Religious or secular, each of these events is surrounded with rich ceremonial culture. Some observers note that Alsatians developed a particularly interesting and complex ritual that help them to cope with death.


In general, Alsatians are a very outgoing and community-oriented people. There is nothing that Alsatians enjoy more than their fêtes: the annual village fairs and festivals. Multiple festival and holiday occasions provide Alsatians with plenty of opportunities to set out tables and benches on the street and bring food, wine, and the accordion to relax. If one should name a sole major feature of Alsatian people, it has to be their conviviality.

Turbulent historic events, both happy and tragic, have shaped the character of the Alsatian people. Thus, on one hand Alsatians are very open and tolerant towards each other and towards the foreigners. On the other hand they are proud of their local identity, so that little things like usage of the Alsatian dialect, telling of a local joke, joining in the singing of an old tune or inviting people for a traditional Alsatian meal really warms people's hearts. In sum, despite their recent tumultuous history, or possibly because of it, one senses a delicate joie de vivre prevailing throughout the region.


As of 2008 Alsace has a population of 1,817,000 people and it is the third most densely populated region in metropolitan France. By 2030 it is estimated to increase by 12% to reach 2 million. Strasbourg, the capital of Alsace and a major port on Rhine, and other big cities, such as Mulhouse and Colmar, are busy industrial and administrative centers placing Alsace at the center of international trade.

An industrial and banking region at the heart of Europe, Alsace is not immune to the vicissitudes of the global economy. However, the dynamism of its businesses, convenient geographic location, appropriate regional legislature, and the ability of Alsatian businesses to establish themselves as the sine qua non of their corporate partners brings the region economic development, stability, and growth.

The thriving economy provides people with employment opportunities so that Alsatians have a relatively high standard of living. The regional government supports an open economy and creates good conditions for international employers. At the same time it provides its citizens with a strong social base, such as free public education and affordable medical care services.

There are approximately 130,000 foreigners residing in a region. Foreigners amount to 7.4% of the total population of Alsace and 4% of the total population of foreigners in France. Germans account for 16,000 residents. Furthermore, Alsace hosts 8.4 million tourists per year, 2.7 million of which are French tourists. The next in numbers stand visitors from Germany, Belgium, Switzerland, Italy, and Britain. Tourist accommodations range from luxurious hotels and holiday homes to inexpensive camping sites. Tourist industry annually brings Alsace over 2.5 billion euros.


The structure of the typical Alsatian family is similar to that in the other parts of France. Families usually have one or two children. Unfortunately, over the past decades a significant percent of couples ended in divorce. Especially it is a problem in bigger cities. However, people value their families and turn to close and extended family members for emotional and financial support. Despite the divorces, parents take their role as guardians and providers very seriously.

Both in the countryside and, to a lesser extent in bigger cities, people enjoy spending time with family and friends. Adult children visit their parents and grandparents on regular bases. Such visits usually involve a prolonged meal and a hearty conversation in the family circle.

Over the centuries Alsatians demonstrated different attitudes regarding intermarriages. At times communities, including Alsatian Jews, were somewhat secluded and intermarriages were difficult, if not condemned. At the same time located at the crossroads of France and Germany, Alsace has a long history of mixed German-French unions. At present, Alsatians do try to maintain their traditions, language, and identity, but it does not preclude them from entering mixed marriages.

Alsatians are fairly laid back and hospitable people, and they welcome visitors and foreigners. Yet, it is only with their close friends and family that they are free to completely be themselves. In addition to forming strong bonds with family members, Alsatians give their heart and soul to close friends. Friends are expected to be available when needed and it is common for friends to see each other almost every day


Contemporary dress code in Alsace is fairly similar to that in the rest of France. However, Alsatians are proud of their traditional costumes. These outfits went out of fashion a long time ago, but they are readily worn at festivals and celebrations. For example, folk costumes are the highlight of the 14 July parade. The history of Alsatians costume is presented to the viewer in museums throughout Alsace.

Until the 19th century dress was an important symbol of social status in Alsace. Thus, types of the local outfit were roughly divided into a set of clothes worn by poor peasants, outfits of wealthy city-dwellers, and attire of the nobility. The French Revolution changed that. After 1820 people began to acquire a new sense of identity that reflected itself in one's style of dress. If before the revolution outfit symbolized social status, after the revolution it turned into a reflection of political inclinations, religious beliefs, age, and feelings.

Over time, outfits of nobility and bourgeoisie disappeared giving place to modern fashion. However, the attire of Alsatian peasants continues to live on in a new capacity of national Alsatian costume. Interestingly, the various elements of the Alsatian peasant costume were inspired by the style of the French nobility and bourgeoisie and adapted to local needs with variations from one area to another.

Alsace is a big province, and it is hard to pin down a sole traditional costume. Different folk communities such as people from the Munster valley have their distinct dress. However, in general, traditional female costume consists of white shifts with ruffled cuffs and collars and long skirts, symbolizing modest and hard-working peasants. The skirt's length, color, and decoration carry a religious meaning. For the Protestants, the skirt is knee-length. It is adorned with a velvet ribbon and the typical colors are green, purple, brown, blue, and sometimes red. The Catholic woman's skirt is long and the hem of the skirt is decorated with black velvet. It does not have any ribbons on it. As for the color, girls tend to wear bright red-colored skirts and older women prefer other deep colors, but never green.

Another important element of women's traditional costume is an apron. In the Middle Ages it was made of linen and it was always plain white. Since the 1820s women have been making aprons of silk and satin. The apron is tied around the waist with two ribbons that are crossed on the back and tied into a big bow in front. Initially, aprons of young girls looking for a groom were tied with a big cord with numerous knots showing the amount of land included in the dowry. Stockings and silk shawls are also part of the female costume. Originally, stockings were knitted over the evening gatherings and demonstrated variety of patterns and elaborate stitches. Today, however, the stockings are mostly machine made.

Traditional male costumes include black trousers and white shorts with long pleated sleeves. Shorts are typically made of linen or cotton. A principal item of the male costume is a waistcoat. Originated during a bloody peasant war in the 16th century, Alsatian vest is often red, although older men prefer darker colors. A final cloth article is a black hat made of felt. It could be easily recognized for its narrow brims and a flat crown.

In the past, Alsatian women put considerable effort and skill into costume making. Certain articles worn during celebrations were made to last the whole life and were handed over from generation to generation. Now, of course, most of the traditional costumes are machine made. Yet, there are few people who continue hand-knit stockings and do embroidery.


The Alsatian dishes could be described as a unique blend of German and French cuisine with distinct Alsatian flavor. Alsatian charcuteries offer a great variety of delicious hams and sausages such as cervelat (smoked pork), or Montbéliard (lightly smoked pork). Arguably, the best-known Alsatian dish is choucroute-a dish made of cooked sauerkraut garnished with sausages, smoked meats, and potatoes. Other local variations of choucroute are sauerkraut with goose or duck or more modern recipes, such as choucroute de la mer, where fish and seafood replace the meats. Another famous Alsatian food is baekeoffe. Originally, this casserole made of three different marinated meats and potatoes was a traditional Monday lunch. Women would drop off all the necessary ingredients at the baker's in the morning where it would cook in the oven for at least three hours. Then, they would pick it up on their way home for lunch.

Alsace is also well known for its traditional flammekueche, or Alsatian onion tart, made of cream, onions, and lardoons topped with a thin layer of bread dough and cooked in a wood-fired oven. Another favorite, tarte flambée could be roughly described as Alsatian pizza. One might go to the restaurant, place the order, and have the waiter start bringing the small tarts one after another, with a side salad and, of course, wine. When one is full, he or she has to notify the waiter that it is enough. The waiter would mark it down and bring the bill. Another regional specialty, matelote du Rhin, is a scrumptious fish stew made of freshwater fish marinated in white wine. The list goes on.

Furthermore, Alsace stands out for its breads and pastries. Alsatian bakers offer their customers different kinds of bretzels (Alsatian version of pretzels), brioches (light slightly sweet bread made with a rich yeast dough), bredele (Christmas biscuits), gingerbread, and springerle (anise-flavored cookies) Ethnic deserts include kougelhoff, the famous yeast cake baked in a special mold, tarte au fromage blanc (Alsatian cheesecake), bierwecke (Alsatian fruit cake), and glace au miel de sapin aux fruits des bois (honey ice cream with berries). As the variety and quality of Alsatian food demonstrates, Alsace is believed to produce some of the greatest chefs in the world.
In addition to numerous dishes enjoyed throughout Alsace, different parts of the region carry on their unique food traditions. Thus, a concentration of small ponds in southern Alsace allowed this area to develop its own version of fish and chips (carpes frites). Dusted in soft wheat semolina carps or parts of a carp are pan-fried or deep fried. Perfect in their delicious crunchy crust carpes are served with French fries or a green salad.

It is true that many Alsatian dishes have their equivalent in France and Germany. Yet, Alsace bestows French or German recipes with their distinct characteristics. For example, French pot au feu gets a special twist in Alsace, where this dish of boiled beef is served with distinctly Alsatian array of greens, radishes, tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, beets, and horseradish sauce.

Without a doubt Alsatians are proud of their wine. There are about 65 miles of vineyards in Alsace, where perhaps the most diverse selection of grapes in France are grown. Preferred white wines are Riesling, Tokay-Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer, Muscat d'Alsace, Sylvaner, Pinot Blanc, Klevener, Edelzwicker, and Crémant d'Alsace. Main red wines produced in the region are Pinot NoirRouge d'Ottrott and Rouge du Stephansberg. Alsace is also one of the major beer-producing regions of France. Famous breweries in the proximity of Strasbourg produce superb Kronenbourg Beer, Fischer Beer, Heineken Beer, Météor Beer, Kanterbräu Beer, Schutzenberger Beer, and other beer varieties. Other traditional alcoholic drinks include a range of eau-de-vie (fruit brandy). Made of local fruits and berries, such as plums, pears, and raspberries, it is sold in tall, slim bottles decorated with labels that look like parchment.

Gourmets in food in wine, Alsatians developed a wonderful tradition of pairing regional wines with ethnic dishes. Thus, Winstubs, the down-to-earth restaurant-bars offer their customers a perfect combination of a late-harvest Gewürtztra-miner with foie gras (delicacies made of duck or goose liver) or a Sylvaner with escargots. Another favorite combination is a Pinot Blanc with onion tart or a Riesling with choucroute.


Education in Alsace is similar to that in the other provinces in France. It is compulsory for children aged six to sixteen. Public education is free. However, in comparison to France, in Alsace there is no separation of church and state. Following the set of laws established by the Napoleonic Concordat of 1801, regional government provides subsidies to the Catholic, Lutheran, Calvinist, and Jewish public schools. There are of course secular schools so that parents are to able send their children to secular public school if they choose to. Additionally, there are some fee-based private schools that include religious schools and international schools. The absence of separation of church and state causes on-going debates between France and Alsace. Some people criticize Alsatian regional government for providing special privileges only to the designated religions. Others argue that since Islam is the second largest religion in France it should thus enjoy comparable status with the four official religions.

At present there are 103 secondary schools and 31 Apprenticeship Training Centers in Alsace. Moreover, Alsace has several strong universities, including the University of Strasburg. The University of Strasburg is known for its courses in theology and is particularly famous for its courses on Protestant theology. In addition to offering classic curricula, institutions of higher education are offering new courses in information and communication technologies.

Furthermore, these institutions provide excellent programs in business and business administration. Increasing number of universities form partnerships with local and international businesses. Such partnerships ensure that over the course of his or her studies student acquires relevant skills. It also allows universities provide recent graduates with placement immediately after graduation. Moreover, regional government encourages exchange programs and supports international mobility of the local students. Over the few past years the region allocated a significant amount of financial aid for international exchange programs.


As it was mentioned numerous times throughout this article, Alsatian culture is greatly influenced by France, Germany, and other surrounding countries. As many other aspects of Alsatian culture, architecture of the region is a blend of various influences. Hence, it is not unusual to see a fine gothic cathedral in Strasburg and an excellent example of a Romanesque church, such as the Saint Foy de Sélestat in Sélestat. The houses of the little France district in Strasbourg and the little Venice in Colmar add to Alsatian architecture a touch of Renaissance. At the same time, the traditional half-timbered houses are still preserved in most of the Alsatian villages. The village of Riquewihr, referred to as the pearl of Alsace, is particularly known for this type of structure. Impressively, over 90% of the houses in this village date to the 16th century. Other types of the region's rural buildings reflect the many faces of Alsace's varied geographical and cultural identity. Perhaps it is the elegance with which Alsatians are able to blend these influences and mix them with their local traditions that makes this place unique.

Having been a disputed territory in the past, the region experienced lots of grief, but it also marked Alsace with a rich cultural heritage. The birthplace of numerous leading Alsatian celebrities, it is a land of art and culture. Internationally renowned artists from the region include Tomi (Jean-Tomas) Ungerer and Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi. Tomi Ungerer, born in 1931 in Strasburg, is best known for his erotic and political illustrations as well as illustrations for children's books. In 1998 he was awarded the Hans Christian Andersen Award for illustration. In 2007 his hometown dedicated a museum to him: the Musée Tomi Ungerer. Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi (1834-1904) is a legendary sculptor and architect from Colmar. His most famous work is the Statue of Liberty presented in 1886 to the United States.

Alsace has 250 museums. Mulhouse is a home for the largest rail museum of Europe called the Cité du Train, and its Museum of Automobiles presents its visitors with the largest automobile collection. Musée du Jouet in Colmar exhibits more than 2,000 toys. There are also several museums dedicated to various aspects of Alsatian traditional lifestyle, history, and its admirable gastronomy.

Moreover, Alsace boasts Europe's highest concentration of feudal castles that also bear witness to its turbulent history and display richness and diversity of architectural styles. The legendary Haut Koenigsbourg castle is one of France's most frequently visited monuments. Additionally, Alsace has more than 400 ruined castles. Other prominent cultural sites in Alsace include the 142 meters tall cathedral of Notre-Dame in Strasbourg (the second highest cathedral in France) and le Mont Sainte-Odile monastery ruins (a very popular place dedicated to the patron saint of Alsace) in the Vosges Mountains.


Alsace is primarily an urban area rated among the top three of the most urbanized regions in France. 93% of all Alsace inhabitants live in cities and only 7% of the population remains in the countryside. Major cities include the regional capital of Strasbourg with more than 263,941 residents, industrial city of Mulhouse with over 110,000 inhabitants and Colmar being home for over 65,000 people. Main rural areas are Fessenheim with a population slightly over 2,000 and Rhinau with a population of 2,300.

According to statistics, Alsace has a relatively young population. Approximately 69,000 are students. In 2007 8.6% (73,725 people) of the working population were unemployed. Yet, the standard of living is comparatively high with an average salary of 17,457 Euro per year. The greatest source of jobs in Alsace is the service sector with key branches of Commerce, Health, Administration, and Education. Employing more than 303,210 people, the service sector is now the principal driving force of the Alsace's economy. The industrial sector provides jobs for 151,243 people, or a third of the working population. Major industrial branches specialize in mechanical equipment, textiles, electronics, and plastics. Companies specializing in biotechnology are blossoming. Among the leaders in biotechnology is the Peugeot PSA industrial site in Sausheim, producing over 400,000 vehicles per year. The construction sector employs more than 25,000 people. Nearly 63,100 Alsatians living in border areas commute for their work to Switzerland and Germany.

Only 7,187 people are employed in agriculture. At the same time Alsatian rural lands covers 40% of the territory. Furthermore, Agriculture is a sector essential to the regional economy. Consequently, people employed in the agriculture enjoy favorable conditions and subsidies.


In Alsace, sports bring together tens of thousands of people. Soccer and handball are among the most favorite sports. Professional and semi-professional sports in Alsace include basketball, handball, football, ice hockey, volleyball, and badminton teams. Also, people in Alsace enjoy a great variety of outdoor sports. For example the region is known for its ski resorts. Among the best resorts are the Lac Blanc (white lake), Gérardmer, Markstein, le Bresse and Schnepfenried, Champ du Feu and Grand Ballon located at an altitude of 1424 meters. In the summer many local families, as well as tourists, enjoy hiking. Popular water sports include canoeing, kayaking, and rafting.

Multiple sports clubs are supported by the local government. In fact the number of sports and health clubs is growing, thus contributing to the diversity of athletic activities. To encourage a high level of local sportsmanship, the government provides hundreds of the most talented athletes with generous grants. This support has bought Alsace quite a few champions.

Among such champions is Thierry Omeyer. A handball player, Thierry Omeyer was crowned in the European Championship of 2006 as the best goalkeeper of the tournament. He also won three Men's World Handball Championships (two in 2003 and one in 2007). Other famous Alsatian athletes are Sébastien Loeb, four-time World Rally Champion, and Mehdi Baala, a middle-distance athlete competing mainly at 1500 meters. Baala won two European Championships (2002, 2006), a World Championship (2003), and a European Cup (2008). Paul-Henri Mathieu from Strasbourg is a renowned tennis player and a member of French national tennis team. Arsène Wenger, the most successful manager in the history of French Arsenal Football Club in terms of trophies, is also a native of Alsace. Among Alsatian champion swimmers are Nicolas Rostoucher, Amaury Leveaux, and Aurore Mongel.


In addition to museums, castles, great food and wine, teahouses, pottery workshops, and numerous festivals and parades, Alsace is known for its rue de vin, or wine rout. This wine trail has existed in Alsace for centuries, producing one of the most sophisticated Rieslings, Sylvaners and Pinot Auxerrois. Towns and villages along the wine rout are surrounded with picturesque gardens full of flowers. Many villages compete with one another in flower contests for best flower display. Welcoming signs to those places often designate whether a given village is one of the eight most beautiful villages in Alsace. The signs also show villages' flower rating (with four stars indicating a top rating).


Traditional art pottery and artistic furniture have been produced in Alsace for centuries. This crafts-making was originally influenced by France and Germany, but over the time Alsatian craftsmen developed their unique styles and techniques. The tradition of pottery making in Alsace goes back as far as the Middle Ages. It blossomed until in the middle of the 19th century it was trammeled by the onset of industrialization. However, traditional pottery-making never disappeared completely, remaining a cherished aspect of the Alsatian culture.

At present, Soufflenheim and Betschdorf are two acclaimed centers for pottery making. Soufflenheim earthenware could be easily recognized for its colorful designs in the shades of yellow, blue, green, and brown. It is often adorned with illustrations depicting Alsatian folk dressed in traditional clothing, elegant birds and delicate flowers. Betschdorf pottery is of a more simple design. Manufactured from grey clay, it is decorated with cobalt blue. It is particularly known for its grey and blue tones. In fact, Betschdorf's pottery is designed more for storage while Soufflenheim's are especially suited for cooking. Although today traditional pottery is made primarily for the tourists, craftsmen did preserve their skills and techniques and styles. Very little in traditional pottery-making process has changed since 1717. Many potters' workshops are open for visitors, so that people can observe how the pottery is made. Both Betschdorf and Soufflenheim hold special pottery festivals in September to celebrate the wonderful craftsmanship of the area.

Alsace also has a rich tradition of painted furniture making. While this tradition does not originate from Alsace, it has become an integral part of the local crafts production since the Middle Ages. Alsatian craftsman-made furniture includes chairs, closets, four-poster beds, cabinets, and other articles. The furniture either painted in one color, usually a deep red or a color imitating wood or is decorated with various patterns. The decorative schemes range from elaborate floral designs common in the Kochersberg to geometric motifs prominent in Alsace Bossue to stylized roses, animals, and figures used in the south of Strasbourg. Original pieces of Alsatian painted furniture are highly sought after and considered to be invaluable items for collectors of artistic furniture.

Additionally, there is a longstanding tradition of illustrated folklore. Modern artists such as Pat Thiebaut produce various illustrations of Alsace continuing the tradition. Folkloristic images often depict bucolic scenes of rosy-cheeked children in their colorful folk costumes. Other patterns include portrayals of the Alsatian way of life. These folkloric illustrations depict men and women, boys and girls dressed in Alsatian costumes dancing in the village square, picking fruit, herding geese or strolling in the verdant countryside with an Alsatian village of half-timbered houses in the background.


Alsace is one of the most stable and prosperous regions if France. It has relatively low unemployment and a low crime rate. The population growth is an impressive 6.8% per year. The regional government provides a reasonable safety net of benefits to Alsatian citizens and offers favorable conditions and employment opportunities to foreigners. In sum, it seems on the surface that people in Alsace do not really have glaring social problems.

In reality, however, there are several serious social issues within the region. For one, Alsatians are engaged in a constant struggle to create their unique political and cultural niche in the realm of a centralized French state. Having preserved their unique identity through centuries of violence, it is very important to the Alsatian community to stay true to the essence of their culture. Two major aspects of Alsatian identity include the local language and the regional set of laws concerning hunting, social insurance, public holidays, the church, and the retirement system. There is considerable discrepancy between regional and national laws and Alsace is constantly asked to re-think their regional legislature. This naturally triggers negative feelings and anxiety on the part of Alsatians. Dissemination of French media and its impact on regional language is another issue that challenges the Alsatian social scene. The Alsatian language is being displaced in the public sphere by the dominance of the French language. To deal with these problems, the Alsatian regional government is attempting to welcome international business and to become closely engaged with the supranational institutions of the European Union. Whether this approach will help Alsatians to preserve their identity and their language and establish their place of power in the French political and cultural arena remains to be seen.


In modern Alsatian society, men and women have almost equal opportunities. Women are distancing themselves from the traditional gender roles by pursuing higher education and careers. It has become normal for a woman to combine motherhood with work. Consequently, approximately 80% of the Alsatian women in their thirties are employed and many of them are raising young children. To support women in their educational and professional pursuits, the French national government provides French mothers with generous benefits. In fact, France has one of the most generous childcare systems in Europe. This is one of the factors contributing to the impressive growth rate of the Alsatian population.

Furthermore, in comparison to men a higher percentage of women have degrees from institutions of higher education. Many women are employed in businesses and a significant number of women hold powerful positions in the local government. One of the initial forces that brought women into politics was the Women of Alsace movement in the 1960s. It was during this time that the first two women were elected mayors in Alsace.

In addition to striving for gender equality, Alsatian society is open-minded about gender minority issues. A number of recourses are available for members of the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender community (GLBT or LGBT).

The open-minded and progressive Alsatian society has not eradicated gender inequality completely. Women occupy important leadership positions, but there is still a gender-based wage differential. According to the National Statistics Institute report, the average annual net salary of men in 2006 amounted to €20,195 while average annual net salary of women was only €14,320. Alsatian women's gross average hourly wage is also significantly lower than that of men's. The wage issue along increasingly dominates local and national political agenda. In light of the debates, the French national government passed proactive legislation to combat gender-based discrimination.


Byrnes, Joseph F. The Relationship of Religious Practice to Linguistic Culture: Language, Religion, and Education in Alsace and the Roussillon, 1860-1890. Church History, Vol. 68. 1999.

Comité Régional du Tourisme d'Alsace. (June 5, 2008).

Ferrari, Gustave. Ten Folk-Songs of Alsace, Lorraine and Champagne Harmonized by Gustave Ferrari. English translations by Deems Taylor. New York: G. Schirmer, 1919.

Kahn, Bonnie M. My Father Spoke French: Nationalism and Legitimacy in Alsace, 1871-1914. New York: Garland Publishers. 1990.

Koch, Susan. Toward a Europe of Regions: Transnational Political Activities in Alsace. Publius, Vol. 4, No. 3 (Summer 1974). New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 25-41.M

Morgan, Heather. "Vins d'Alsace." (June 27, 2008).

Région Alsace. (June 1, 2008).

Ungerer, Tomi. Tomi: a Childhood under the Nazis. Publishers Group West, 1998.

—by A. Golovina Khadka


views updated May 23 2018



Alsatians are the German-speaking people of the French region of Alsace, located between the Vosges Mountains and the German border in the departments of Bas-Rhin and Haut-Rhin. There are perhaps 1.5 million speakers of German dialects in this region. There is no single Alsatian dialectal variant, although High German is used as the written standard. Today, most Alsatians are bilingual, French as the official language having grown rapidly in the region since the 1940s.

The region was historically and culturally long part of the Rhinelandthroughout the Roman era and that of the Holy Roman Empire. In the ninth and tenth centuries it was part of Lotharingia, and later of the duchy of Swabia. In the mid-1600s it was ceded to France at the end of the Thirty Years' War. In 1791 the whole region became part of France, only to be ceded once again to Germany eighty years later at the end of the Franco-German War. Although it changed political hands often between France and Germany, its cultural affiliation never wavered from a Germanic focus, there being little effort on the part of the French government to disrupt traditional and linguistic practice in the region (except in religious matters) until the late 1700s. This situation changed dramatically with the French Revolution, during which a decree was issued that all citizens unable to speak French were to be shot or deported to the interior. Still, supporters of the retention of an Alsatian identity, including a linguistic identity, remainedamong them the Catholic church. It was not until the 1850s that French became the official language of primary instruction, and German never ceased being the Language of the people at home, for worship, and in day-to-day affairs. Severe upheavals began in the mid-to late 1800s, as Alsace became the focus of territorial dispute between France and Germany, and the region changed political hands four times more. However much Alsatians resisted cultural and linguistic assimilation into France, they equally resisted Germanization during their periods under Teutonic control. The "Alsatian predicament" was a difficult one by this period. While political and territorial disputes raged over their heads, the people maintained that their traditional loyalty belonged to the region, rather than the region's rulers. In this century, the tensions between the two elements of Alsatian culture heightened, and Alsatian society was tornas a war memorial in Strasbourg, depicting a woman grieving for her two fallen brothers, profoundly expresses. The male figures of the statue are represented as having fought, and died, on opposing sides. After World War I, when control of the region reverted to the French, a period of repression of Germanic culture ensued, giving rise to strong regionalist movements that coalesced in the formation of political parties seeking Regional autonomy, even separation and self-rule. Through the late 1920s and early 1930s, these movements reached their height, but with the rise of Hitler's Nazi party, attention again turned to the region's vulnerability to invasion and conquest. Alsace was one of Germany's earliest French conquests during World War II, and it has been said that the imposition of Nazi rule did more to further French loyalty than any French administrative or political action could ever have done. Although some local leaders collaborated with the occupiers, the region's general population participated heavily in the Resistance. In 1945, in reaction to the brutality of the German occupation, the people of Alsace turned away from autonomist movements for a time. Even the teaching of German in the schools was legally suspended for nearly a decade, so that while the language remained current in spoken form, literacy in German fell to about 20 percent. In the 1970s, a new movement toward reviving the Germanic aspects of Alsatian tradition arose, as did a nascent autonomist movementthe latter inspired largely as reaction against the centralism of the French state.

Although its lands are fertile, and the region's iron and coal mines have long constituted a source of wealth, Alsace's long history of political insecurity and the devastation wrought by the two world wars have impoverished the region. Its heavy industry, which is based on iron and textiles, consists primarily of small enterprises that are not fully competitive with their more highly developed counterparts in Switzerland, Germany, and the Netherlands. The new autonomist movements seek to turn this situation around by gaining greater control over economic and social development policy.

Paralleling this desire to increase the regional voice in economic decision making has been a resurgence of interest in promoting the region's linguistic heritage and establishing a recognized body charged with the preservation and development of Alsatian culture. Although the issues of separatism that arose in the prewar years do not form a part of the new movement, the French government has been less than supportive to date, holding that the "unitary state" of France depends upon assimilation.


Boehler, Jean-Michel, Dominique Lerch, and Jean Vogt (1983). Histoire de l'Alsace rurale. Strasbourg: ISTRA.

Bonnet, Jocelyn (1988). La terre des femmes et ses magies. Paris: R. Laffont.

Stevens, Meic (1976). Linguistic Minorities in Western Europe. Llandysul, Dyfed, Wales: Gomer Press.

Wolf, Lothar, and Paul Fischer (1983). Le français régional d'Alsace: Etude critique des alsacianismes. Bibliothèque Française et Romane, Série A, Manuels d'Etudes Linguistiques, 45. Paris.

Zind, Pierre (1977). Brève histoire de l'Alsace. Paris: Éditions Albatros.