The Alsatian identity crisis, 1871-1913

Strasbourg, Alsace

Strasbourg, Alsace

If Alsace came up in a word association game, people’s answers would be fairly predictable: Lorraine, the Treaty of Versailles, German, French. If you asked them to elaborate, their faces would likely go blank.

What many don’t appreciate is the richness and complexity of Alsace’s past. This small region in northwest France changed nationality four times between 1871 and 1945. In this sense, its history is very much a search for belonging and identity. Over the centuries, Alsatians have been caught in the middle of an ongoing contest between France and Germany. Alsace’s position in this ‘tug-of-war’ was well-documented at the time and the subject of many a debate. Its location in the very heart of Europe meant that its fate was of significant interest across the continent and, indeed, the whole world.

As time has passed, however, fewer and fewer people know of the troubles and obstacles Alsatians have faced. Being half Alsatian myself, I believe that we can learn an enormous amount from the past of this small French region. Especially interesting is the period between 1871 and 1918, which saw the development of a profound regional identity in Alsace in response to the German presence there. Academic writing on this period is fairly limited, but through the primary sources and secondary literature that does exist, we can attempt to understand the identity crisis that Alsatians faced.

In 1648, the Treaty of Westphalia dictated that the region and people of Alsace should become part of the French Empire. Alsace was known for its highly fertile lands and hard-working labour force and so the French welcomed this addition to their country and set about implementing French institutions and culture in the region. The Alsatian people were heavily involved in the French Revolutions of 1789 and 1830-1831 and were proud of the fact that La Marseillaise, France’s national anthem, was performed publicly for the first time in Strasbourg.

However, all this harmony and tranquillity came to an end with French defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. After the signing of the Treaty of Frankfurt in 1871 which made Alsace part of the German Empire, the Alsatians felt betrayed by their motherland. The apparent ease of the hand-over made the situation worse. How could the French have given up on them without a fight? Some even doubted whether they had been Frenchmen to begin with. For its part, Germany acknowledged the industrial and agricultural power of this small region and had long considered the Alsatians to be its ‘long-lost brothers’. Germany itself had only very recently unified and was still attempting to find its feet. Now, Alsace was to be part of its former enemy’s nation and was forced to adhere to its rules.

The Germans did their best to appease the hostile atmosphere by instituting a host of new policies. These included public health services, compulsory education based on the German curriculum for boys and girls, and more public holidays. Despite these efforts and the partial gratitude of the Alsatians, the region continued to put up resistance which led to severe consequences from the Germans. For example, the Alsatian dialect, a mixture between French, German and English, was used widely during this time as a means of avoiding speaking German and passing secret messages to friends and acquaintances. As a punishment, those who refused to read, write or speak German were incarcerated for days at a time. Even the act of writing your name in the French way would lead to a prison sentence of a week or more.

Another point of contestation was how to define the relationship between Alsace and Germany. The Germans, once they had solidified their regime, made it clear that the Alsatians would never become true Germans as they were only part of the Reichland (Germany’s Empire) as opposed to Germany herself. In this way, Alsatians were made to feel like outsiders in what was supposed to be their own country.

While not all Alsatians opposed German intervention, with many embracing the social change it brought, most were determined not to become German. Caricatures by the celebrated artist Hansi and articles by the writer Zislin helped to shape this new non-German identity through a subtle artistic resistance. It is hard to know whether people considered themselves French at this point, or simply not German, yet it is certainly possible to see the beginnings of a distinct Alsatian identity developing by 1913.

The Zabern Affair changed the political environment forever and ensured that any pro-German sympathies were immediately expelled. In 1913, a twenty-year-old German lieutenant by the name of von Forstner was conducting a military exercise in the streets of Zabern. According to Alsatian sources, von Forstner struck a lame blacksmith and described the locals as “wackes”, a highly controversial and derogatory term translating as something like “little, immature boys”. This condescension and abuse by a military figure convinced many Alsatians that they would never be accepted as German. For some, it served as the culmination of decades of mistreatment and persecution, while for others it came as a shock. Prussian sources accuse the Alsatians of exaggerating von Forstner’s actions, but do not deny that the event took place. This incident was by no means isolated, though it received more attention than most – there are hundreds of reports of a similar nature.

L'incident de Saverne, by Hansi

L’incident de Saverne, by Hansi

What made the Zabern Affair different was the way it was dealt with. Von Forstner was sentenced to a meagre 40 days in prison, but was later released and his crimes forgiven by the Prussian authorities – some even claim that his actions were praised by those in power. Alsatian caricatures and cartoons often depict von Forstner smilingly marching in a market square with a gift attached to his baton, implying that he was commended and revered by his superiors. The Alsatians were outraged by this injustice, attracting international media attention and uproar. The Zabern Affair left a sour taste in the mouths of Alsatians as they came to terms with this very public rejection by Germany. Following on from perceived abandonment by France some forty years earlier, it left Alsatians feeling isolated and rejected. It is within this context that a distinctive Alsatian identity really crystallised, as the region’s people sought to define themselves from within.

In Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson presents his thesis that people bond and form new identities as a result of shared experiences, something certainly true for the Alsatians. Together they faced discrimination, persecution and mistreatment and together they resisted by embracing their own regional identity and creating an unbridled sense of unity that still exists today. Alsatians were and are fiercely independent – a trait that they grew into during these pivotal years. Even today, Alsatians are proud of their regional unity – as the well-known proverb goes: “Allemand ne veux. Français ne peux. Alsacien je suis” (“German I don’t want to be, French I cannot be, Alsatian, I am”).

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