At the crossroads in the centre of Europe, Alsace has, for better or worse, been at the heart of events since the beginning of time between Germany and France. While still bearing some of the wounds left by history, it is also the site of some of the European civilisation's finest achievements.
In 80 years, Alsace changed nationally five times. After becoming German in 1871 it turned French again in 1918 with the end of the first world war. It became German again in 1940, with the victory of the Nazi over France. Finaly in 1945, with the end of WWII, Alsace became definitely French.
Roman and Frankish Alsace
Always closely tied to the Rhine River which forms its eastern boundary, Alsace has found itself a border region for most of its history. It was first conquered by Julius Caesar in the 1st century BC (48 before JC) and remained a part of the Roman province of Prima Germania for the next six centuries.
The region was conquered by the Alemanni, a Germanic tribe, in the 5th century AD and then by Clovis and the Franks in 496. Under his Merovingian successors the inhabitants were Christianized.
In the ninth century, this region became part of the heartland of the re-constituted Roman (more accurately "Carolingian") Empire of Charlemagne (Karl der Grosse). When Charlemagne's grandsons divided his Empire at the Treaty of Verdun of 843, the region was in the middle of Lorraine (Lotharingia), part of a narrow middle strip granted to Lothar with German- and French-speaking kingdoms to either side. Buffeted on both sides, the new kingdom did not last long and the region that was to become Alsace eventually was absorbed into the Holy Roman Empire as part of the duchy of Swabia in the Treaty of Meersen in 870. At about this time the entire region began to fragment into a number of secular and ecclesiastical lordships, a situation which prevailed until the 17th century.
Alsace in the Middle Ages
One of the most powerful secular families of Swabia was that of the Staufen or Hohenstaufen. In 1152, this family placed its leading member on the German throne as Friedrich I Barbarossa. Frederick was instrumental in recovery of the monarchy from its dissipation following the Investiture Contest. Part of the reason was his policy of building up imperial lands in support of the monarchy and in 1212, Alsace was organized for the first time as we know it today to be one of them. Frederick set up Alsace as a province (procuratio to use the term which had been adapted from the Romans) to be ruled by ministeriales, a non-noble class of civil servants. The idea was that such men would be more tractable and less likely to alienate the fief from the crown out of their own greed. The province had a single provincial court (Landgericht) and a central administration with its seat at Hagenau.
During his reign, Emperor Friedrich II designated the bishop of Strassburg to administrate the Alsace, but the authority of the bishop was challenged by Count Rudolf of Habsburg, who received his rights from Friedrich's son Konrad IV. Strassburg (Strass=street and burg=fortification), which had been an episcopal see since the 4th century, began to grow to become the most populous and commercially-important town in the region. In 1262, after a long struggle with the ruling bishops, its citizens gained the status of free imperial city. A stop on the Paris-Vienna-Orient trade route, as well as a port on the Rhine route linking southern Germany and Switzerland to the Netherlands, England and Scandinavia, it became the political and economic center of the region. Cities such as Colmar and Hagenau also began to grow in economic importance and gained a kind of autonomy within the "Decapole" or "Dekapolis", a federation of 10 free towns.
Around this time, German central power declined following years of imperial adventures in Italian lands, which ceded hegemony in Europe to France, which had long since centralized power. Now France began an aggressive policy of expanding westward, first to the Rhône and Meuse Rivers, and when those borders were reached, aiming for the Rhine. In 1299, they even proposed a marriage alliance between Philip of France's sister and Albrecht of Austria's son, with Alsace to be the dowry; however, the deal never came off. In 1307, the town of Belfort was first chartered by the counts of Montbéliard.
During the next century, France was to be militarily shattered by the Hundred Years War with England which prevented for a time any further tendencies in this direction. After the conclusion of the war, France was again free to pursue its desire to reach the Rhine and in 1444 an French army appeared in Lorraine and Alsace. There it took up winter quarters, demanded the submission of Metz and Strassburg and launched an attack on Basel.
In 1469, following the Treaty of St. Omer, Upper Alsace was sold for money by Duke Sigismund of Habsburg to Charles of Burgundy who also ruled over of Netherlands and Burgundy. Although Charles was the nominal landlord, taxes were paid to the German Emperor. The Emperor was able to wreak this tax and a dynastic marriage to his advantage to gain back full control of Upper Alsace (apart from the free towns, but including Belfort) in 1477 when it became part of the particular demesne of the Habsburg family, who were also hereditary rulers of the Empire. A little later, 1515, the town of Mulhouse joined the Swiss confederation in 1515 where it was to remain until 1798.
From the Reformation to the Revolution
By the time of the Reformation in the 16th century, Strasbourg was a prosperous community, and its inhabitants accepted Protestantism at an early date (1523). The reformer Martin Bucer was a prominent Protestant reformer in the region. His efforts were countered by the Roman Catholic Habsburgs who tried to eradicate heresy in Upper Alsace. As a result, Alsace was transformed into a mosaic of Catholic and Protestant territories.
This situation prevailed until 1639 when most of Alsace was conquered by France to prevent it falling into the hands of the Spanish Habsburgs who wanted a clear road to their valuable and rebellious possessions in the Netherlands. This occurred in the greater context of the Thirty Years War.
So, in 1646, beset by enemies and to gain a free hand in Hungary, the Habsburgs sold their Sundgau territory (mostly in Upper Alsace) to France, which had occupied it, for the sum of 1.2 million thalers. Thus, when the hostilities finally ceased in 1648 with the Treaty of Westphalia, most of Alsace went to France with some towns remaining independent. The treaty stipulations regarding Alsace were extremely byzantine and confusing; it is thought that this was purposely so that neither the French king or the German Emperor could gain tight control, but that one would play off the other, thereby assuring Alsace some measure of autonomy. Supporters of this theory point out that the treaty stipulations were authored by Imperial plenipotentiary Isaac Volmar, the former chancellor of Alsace.
The Thirty Years War (1618-1648) had been one of the worst periods in the history of Alsace. It caused large numbers of the population (mainly in the countryside) to die or to flee away, because the land was successively invaded and devastated by many armies (Imperials, Swedes, French, etc.).
After 1648 and until the mid-18th century, numerous immigrants arrived from Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Lorraine, Savoy and other areas. Between 1671-1711 Anabaptist refugees came from Switzerland, notably from Bern. Strassburg became a main center of the early Anabaptist movement.
France consolidated her hold with the 1679 Treaty of Nimwegen which brought the towns under her control. In 1681, she occupied Strassburg in an unprovoked action. These territorial changes were reinforced at the 1691 Peace of Rijkswik (Ryswick) which ended the War of the Palatinate (also known as the War of the Grand Alliance or War of the League of Augsburg), although the Holy Roman Empire did not accept and sign the document until 1697. Thus was Alsace drawn into the orbit of France.
The year 1789 brought the French revolution and with it the first division of Alsace into the départements of Haut- and Bas-Rhin. Many of the residents of the Sundgau made "pilgrimages" to places like Mariastein, near Basel, in Switzerland, for baptisms and weddings.
During the last decade of the 18th century, many Alsatians were in opposition to the Jacobins and sympathetic to the invading forces of Austria and Prussia who sought to crush the nascent revolutionary republic. When the French Revolutionary Army of the Rhine was victorious, tens of thousands fled east before it. When they were later permitted to return (in some cases not until 1799), it was often to find that their lands and homes had been confiscated. These straitened conditions led to emigration by hundreds of families to newly-vacant lands in the Russian Empire in 1803/4 and again in 1808. A poignant retelling of this tale based on what he had himself witnessed can be found in Goethe's Hermann und Dorothea.
Emigration Out of Alsace During the 1800's
In response to the restoration of Napoleon, in 1814 and 1815, Alsace was occupied by foreign forces, including over 280,000 soldiers and 90,000 horses in Bas-Rhin alone. This had grave effects on trade and the economy of the region since former overland trade routes were switched to newly-opened Mediterranean and Atlantic seaports.
At the same time, the population was growing rapidly, from 800,000 in 1814 to 914,000 in 1830 and 1,067,000 in 1846. The combination of factors meant hunger, housing shortages and a lack of work for young people. Thus, it is not surprising that people fled, not only to Russia, but also to take advantage of a new opportunity offered by the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Empire had recently conquered lands in the East from the Turkish Empire and offered generous terms for colonists in order to consolidate their hold on the lands. Many Alsatians also began to sail for America, where after 1807 slave importation had been banned and new workers were needed for the cotton fields.
Many American and Russian recruiters worked for shipowners and made grandiose, fictitious promises to the restless Alsatians. Once they agreed and surreptitiously left Alsace, they often found themselves forced into indentured servitude. This was so abused in fact that in 1818 the Louisiana general assembly enacted legislation protecting the rights of such immigrants, which sometimes led to new tactics such as shipowners demanding exorbitant passage fees. Even so, tens of thousands of settlers emigrated to Russia and the United States between 1817 and 1839. The Panic of 1825 can be cited as another spur to emigration.
In the 1840's, enterprising Alsatian Henri Castro contracted with the Republic of Texas, to bring in Alsatian settlers in exchange for large land grants. Thus, starting in 1842, many left for Castroville and other Texan communities, Castro proving to be only second to Stephen Austin in numbers of settlers attracted.
Alsace-Lorraine : 5 changes of citizenship in 80 years
In 1871, as a concession after the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71), France gave up Alsace, except for the Belfort territory, along with the Moselle portion of Lorraine, to the new unified Germany and the history of Alsace becomes that of the Reichsland Elsass-Lothringen or Alsace-Lorraine. The Vallee de la Bruche which had been part of the Department of the Vosges was annexed to Alsace-Lorraine in 1872. Its population in 1890 was 77% Catholic, 21% Protestant, 2% Jewish with 678 Mennonites in Lower Alsace and 1,012 in Upper Alsace. In 1898 Mennonite congregations were in Birkenhof bei Altkirch (130 souls), Colmar-Wolfganzen (151), Markirch-Weilertal (32), Pfastatt (250), Pulversheim (35), Hang (139), An dem Salm (60). This period of Germanization continued until World War I (1914-1918), at the conclusion of which, Alsace returned to French control.
But the recovery of the border provinces involved far more than the reacquisition of lost territories, and the reimposition of French rule proved far more difficulty than popular opinion and politicians, influenced by a massive and ever present nationalistic literature opn the region, had expected.
Between 1918 and 1920, the French undertook massive purges of Alsatian and Lorrainer society and reimposed the French language in schools on a generation educated entirely in German. The infamous "commissions de triage" set up by the French state to cleanse border province society are now erase from collective memory...
A similar transfer occurred during the World War II conflict (1939-45) at the end of which the region was again ceded to France. Still today, however, two German language newspapers are published here. There is even still spoken here and there a German dialect Alsacien (Elsässisch), but it is vanishing after German dialect has been forbidden at scholl for decades.
1968 : half of the daily newspaper sold (DNA and L'Alsace) are still published in German
1991 : opening of the First bilingual Kindergarten (13 hours French/13 hours of German) in Alsace!
2005 : 10% of the Alsatian Children are in a bilingual kindergarten