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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.


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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.


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