Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Borders in the Paris Peace, Primer, Part III

Concerning Alsace-Lorraine

An acquaintance of mine asked a good question about the population of Alsace-Lorraine and its ethnic make-up. You may remember that at the end of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, that war that unified Germany, the Germans simply took Alsace-Lorraine (or rather, Alsace and part of Lorraine) and made of it a "Reich Territory," which meant that Alsace-Lorraine was not attached to any of the German states.

Indeed, the region was ruled by a kind of military regime. One of the justifications for taking it was that most of the people in Alsace and some in Lorraine spoke either standard (High) German (a few) or a German dialect called Alsatian (most), or some other German dialect. As a borderland between the German world and France, many people spoke French.

The Berlin-appointed regime was famously insensitive and even contemptuous of Alsatian German-speaking Alsatians, downright hostile to French-speaking Alsatians, and highly supportive of those Germans who had immigrated to the region to find supervisory jobs in the coal and other industries.

Yet if we pose, as my friend did, the sensible question, "What was the ethnic profile?" we might not be too satisfied with available answers.

This is not as simple a question as one might think. First of all, people (especially those in borderlands) are what they are in part because of what scholars call "primeval" characteristics (language and so forth) and in part from self-definition. Hence—people call themselves "Germans" or "French" or "Alsatians" or "Bulgarians" or whatever. Recent issues of race and culture identity in the United States and elsewhere make this pretty clear. So do the fashions of U.S. society which lead one generation to downplay its ethnic identity and another generation to emphasize it. These are not new patterns. Rudyard Kipling wrote a whole novel about a kid in India who just wants to figure out who he is (Kim). All this is intensified in times of war and privation and in cases where people live, in essence, on the edge of two states or in some other marginal situation within the states. Current conditions, especially economic ones, have a lot to do with it.

So the simple question: were they Germans or were they French? Hard to say.
In figuring this out, we tend to fall back on language. But how do we know what language people spoke in 1900 or 1910? All sets of statistics admit error, and indeed the way you gather information (especially language information) can result in wild variations. In provinces of Prussia, the largest of the German federal states, census takers asked folks what language they prayed in--assuming perhaps that you don't really hide your core identity when praying, or at least that is when you try to hide it least (this sounds good, but who knows).

Then again, different sets of statistics yield different "truths." Language ratios in primary schools might (and often do) vary, for example, from census data. We might find one degree of Germanness or Frenchness in school records and another degree reflected in census or other data.

And I have not mentioned that fact that many Alsatians did not consider themselves either German or French. Many thought of themselves as Alsatians. There was a distinct border culture. The capital of the region, Strassburg, seen on the left, was a very distinctive intermixture of cultures. One of the culinary specialties was "Choucroute garni," Sauerkraut with the trimmings--a German dish named in French. There was a pretty strong autonomist, even secessionist movement in the region both before and after World War I, and even a short-lived Republic of Alsace-Lorraine afterward (but there it was, for eleven days!). This particularism, or regionalism, complicates things. As we shall see when looking at one of Germany's eastern stretches of border, borderlanders frequently declared a pox on both houses.

Another not insignificant point of complication would be the question, "Exactly what do we mean by 'Alsace-Lorraine'? Alsace was heavily Alsatian (Alemannic German), but Lorraine was not. And in any case, only part of Lorraine went to Germany to form the Reichsland in 1871. So in answering what seems to be a simple question, we have to specify what territory we mean.

Further: what about intermarriages? If Germans from the rest of the Reich immigrated into Alsace (and a quarter of a million did in the first 25 years of German rule), then how do we classify their progeny?

Of course, you can go look at statistics. A convenient sources is on Google Books, an old publication by a professor of French lit who later made a name for himself at Reed College: Barry Cerf. The book is Lorraine Since 1870 (published in 1919). The author presents quite a bit of useful information, but be careful: his agenda was to show that all the region should be handed back to France (a really loyal teacher of French!) Yet many of his stats are useful—especially useful in making the point that the issue is complicated.

In general, one might say that a large majority spoke Alsatian/Alemannic-German, another percentage spoke some other variant of German. Most of these folks read High German. Many French-speakers had emigrated to France in 1872. Some remained. So one way or the other, the "Germanness" of the region was intensified, but not necessarily intensified all that much in terms of loyalty to the German Reich, which was after all a centralizing regime just like any other modern state. And therefore a regime that structurally acted to break down particularities, local allegiances and traditions, and even local dialects. There is much evidence that what really united the majority of Alsatians in A-L was their dislike of being told what to do by Berlin. And by the way, after 1918, a great many Alsatians didn't like being told what to do from Paris either.

Well, so much for a simple answer. We have to come back to border issues some more. And of course, we have to figure out what to do with Alsace-Lorraine. But then, we have our Conference committees working all that out.


  1. Would just like to say that I am so far enjoying your work and even look forward to it. Though I shall not comment much as I am sure others who are reading will not comment much either, please by all means continue with your progress.
    Thnak you for your time and effort.

  2. Many thanks for your kind words and encouragement!

  3. Alsace-Lorraine? What's this Alsace-Lorraine you write of? Now, Elsaß-Lothringen, I've heard of that...


  4. I know you are partly kidding, but of course you make a good point. In German, Alsace is Elsaß (or Elsass), and Lorraine is Lothringen. It was, after all a German-speaking region, at least a German-dialect-speaking region. And there is more to say on the issue.


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