by Amaia Lezertua-Martínez
The history of Alsace-Lorraine is that of a people stuck between two great military powers – time and again, its borders were re-drawn as it changed hands after conquests between France and Germany. Although the provinces have been passed back and forth for centuries, there has not been nearly enough inquiry regarding the allegiance of the population of this contested territory. Little concern was shown for the lives of ordinary Alsatians and Lorrains, who had to change nationalities four times between 1870 and 1946. The two regions and a people who were used to comfortably straddling two languages and two cultures simultaneously, were suddenly forced to pick a side, and henceforth, had to prove their loyalty to their new homeland.
In this context, World War I proved decisive. In the peaceful years between 1870 and the beginning of the war, most inhabitants of Alsace-Lorraine grew accustomed to belonging to the German Empire, and the tensions between the new rulers and the local population were kept relatively in check. However, as Franco-German rivalry reached a boiling point, the border regions became a national symbol, as their inhabitants were pressured to choose for which flag they would be willing to give their lives.
It would be too simplistic to say that France and Germany went to war over Alsace-Lorraine, but the provinces were indubitably used by both sides to cement national unity and rouse hostility toward their neighbor on the other side of the Rhine. It would take the greater part of a century for the two rivals to cease regarding their common border region as a bone of contention, and consequently, a political instrument to foster patriotic sentiments among citizens. After two world wars and a deep economic depression, France and Germany came to realize that this multicultural and multilingual borderland could actually be a fertile ground for reconciliation and cooperation toward European unity.
Looking back at 1870, the transition from French to German rule was not without complications. The Empire’s Entwelschung, or “de-foreignization”, policy and tight control over the annexed territories was aimed at ensuring their loyalty, which generated tension between the Prussian authorities and the local population. However, the opposition gradually waned throughout the ensuing 40 years of peace, mostly due to the material prosperity that the provinces gained as part of the Empire.
In the rest of France, the revanchist movement was initially quite strong, evidenced by the public’s enthusiasm for songs grieving the “mutilated land”, performed in popular locales all over Paris. A certain bitterness permeated political discourse as well, but French authorities could do little except mourn the loss of a territory, which they themselves had sacrificed to avoid further devastation. The prospect of another war with Germany was all too painful; France would not risk another bloody conflict in a grab for Alsace-Lorraine.
If the two provinces were not, per se, a powerful enough motive for war, they were nevertheless a political landmine that could be triggered by missteps. The German “aggression” in 1914 was the detonator that triggered France’s retaliation and legitimized its claims over Alsace-Lorraine. As in 1870, the “lost provinces” were used by the French Government to rally support by exploiting national resentment toward Germany. Similarly, Germany’s increased militarism was domestically justified by alleged threats of French revenge over the losses of 1870. In addition, pan-Germanistic arguments about the unification of German peoples (which included Alsatians and Lorrains) were consistently invoked leading up to and throughout the war.
Meanwhile, Alsace-Lorraine was torn. As their homeland was the locus of the earthquake shaking Europe, the prospect of war left Alsatians and Lorrains with a deep sense of foreboding – understandably so.
While Paris and Berlin saw the war as a battle against a foreign enemy, to the inhabitants of the border regions, it felt more like a fratricidal conflict. Indeed, when the Franco-Prussian war was concluded in 1871 with the Treaty of Frankfurt and residents of Alsace-Lorraine were given the choice between emigrating to keep their French nationality, or remaining in the region and becoming German, the majority decided to stay. As for the rest, what drove them to abandon their homes was not revulsion at the prospect of German citizenship (or even a burning desire to stay French), but a wish to avoid being conscripted into an army in which they would be forced to fight kinsmen and friends in the likely event of another Franco-German conflict. For similar reasons, Alsatian and Lorrain soldiers were often sent away from the Western front in 1914-1918.
Amidst nationalist propaganda, World War I galvanized Franco-German enmity as a conflict between the nations. In this context, Alsace-Lorraine was claimed as a “lost brother” by the German Empire on grounds of the provinces’ Germanic culture and language. For its rival across the Rhine, Alsace-Lorraine were historically French regions grabbed by force in a time of conflict, yearning to become French again. Matters were not so clear-cut for the people of Alsace-Lorraine, who spoke a German dialect but shared many French traditions, were used to mixed marriages and bilingualism and whose history was interlinked with both banks of the Rhine. Subject to intermittent Germanization and Francization policies (depending on how the administrative boundaries were redefined) Alsace-Lorraine was “the wound in the side” of both France and Germany.
It is thus surprising – although, perhaps, fitting – that these regions became central to the European project after 1945, which sealed Franco-German reconciliation and allowed the continent to overcome hostilities. The need to secure German coal for the French steel industry propelled the establishment of the European Coal and Steel Community to collectively administer these resources. It is perhaps no small coincidence that the two main protagonists behind the ECSC, the inception of the European Union, came from the fringes of their respective countries. Konrad Adenauer, then Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany, was from the Rhineland and Robert Schuman, the French Foreign Minister who signed the ECSC Treaty with Adenauer in 1952, was Lorrain. Coming from these regions characterized by multiple identities and flexible boundaries, they observed first hand the mutual dependence of France and Germany and realized that long-term collaboration between the two rivals was the key to economic recovery and lasting peace in Europe.
As Churchill put it in 1946, “the first step in the re-creation of the European family must be a partnership between France and Germany.” And where better to start than in the regions where French and German cultures had coexisted and blended for centuries and national allegiance had proven weaker than the desire for peace and prosperity? Alsace-Lorraine, once a disputed borderland symbolizing the irreconcilability of two enemy nations became the basis for a Europe with more open borders, battling against the patriotic antagonisms that had led the continent to war.