Alsace (French: Alsace [alzas]; Alsatian: Elsàss [ˈɛlzɔs]; German: Elsass, pre-1996: Elsaß, IPA: [ˈɛlzas]; Latin: Alsatia) is the fourth-smallest of the 26 regions of France in land area (8,280 km²), and the smallest in metropolitan France. It is also the sixth-most densely populated region in France and third most densely populated region in metropolitan France, with ca. 220 inhabitants per km² (total population in 2006: 1,815,488; January 1, 2008 estimate: 1,836,000).
Alsace is located on France’s eastern border and on the west bank of the upper Rhine adjacent to Germany and Switzerland. The political, economic and cultural capital as well as largest city of Alsace is Strasbourg. Due to that city being the seat of dozens of international organizations and bodies, Alsace is politically one of the most important regions in the European Union. The name “Alsace” derives from the Germanic Ell-sass, meaning “Seated on the Ill” a river in Alsace.
The region was part of the Holy Roman Empire. It was gradually annexed by France in the 17th century under kings Louis XIII and Louis XIV and made one of the provinces of France.
Alsace is frequently mentioned in conjunction with Lorraine, because German possession of parts of these two régions (as the imperial province Alsace-Lorraine, 1871–1918) was contested in the 19th and 20th centuries, during which Alsace changed hands four times between France and Germany in 75 years.
Although the historical language of Alsace is Alsatian, a Germanic language, today most Alsatians speak French, the official language of the country they have been a part of for most of the past three centuries. About 39% of the adult population, and probably less than 10% of the children, are fluent in Alsatian. There is therefore a substantial bilingual population in contemporary Alsace.
Alsace was inhabited by nomadic hunters, by 1500 BC, Celts began to settle in Alsace clearing and cultivating land. By 58 BC, the Romans had invaded and established Alsace as a center of viticulture. To protect this highly valued industry, the Romans built fortifications and military camps that evolved into various communities which have been inhabited continuously to the present day. While part of the Roman Empire, Alsace was part of Germania Superior.
With the decline of the Roman Empire, Alsace became the territory of the Alemanni. The Alemanni were agricultural people, and their language formed the basis of the modern-day Alsatian dialect. Clovis and the Franks defeated the Alemanni during the 5th century, culminating with the Battle of Tolbiac, and Alsace became part of the Kingdom of Austrasia. Under Clovis’ Merovingian successors the inhabitants were Christianized. Alsace remained under Frankish control until the Frankish realm, following the Oaths of Strasbourg of 842, was formally dissolved in 843 at the Treaty of Verdun; the grandsons of Charlemagne divided the realm into three parts. Alsace formed part of the Middle Francia, which was ruled by the youngest grandson Lothar I. Lothar died early in 855 and his realm was divided into three parts. The part known as Lotharingia, or Lorraine, was given to Lothar’s son. The rest was shared between Lothar’s brothers Charles the Bald (ruler of the West Frankish realm) and Louis the German (ruler of the East Frankish realm). The Kingdom of Lotharingia was short-lived, however; the region that was to become Alsace fell to 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 feudal secular and ecclesiastical lordships, a situation which lasted into the 17th century and was a common process in Europe. Alsace experienced great prosperity during the 12th and 13th centuries under Hohenstaufen emperors. Frederick I set up Alsace as a province (a procuratio, not a provincia) 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. Frederick II designated the Bishop of Strasbourg to administer Alsace, but the authority of the bishop was challenged by Count Rudolph of Habsburg, who received his rights from Frederick II’s son Conrad IV. Strasbourg 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 ten free towns. The prosperity of Alsace was terminated in the 14th century by a series of harsh winters, bad harvests, and the Black Death. These hardships were blamed on Jews, leading to the pogroms of 1336 and 1339. An additional natural disaster was the Rhine rift earthquake of 1356, one of Europe’s worst which made ruins of Basel. Prosperity returned to Alsace under Habsburg administration during the Renaissance. German central power had begun to decline following years of imperial adventures in Italian lands, ceding hegemony in Europe to France, which had long since centralized power. France began an aggressive policy of expanding eastward, first to the Rhône and Meuse Rivers, and when those borders were reached, aiming for the Rhine. In 1299, the French proposed a marriage alliance between Philip IV of France’s sister and Albert I of Germany’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, 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 a French army appeared in Lorraine and Alsace. It took up winter quarters, demanded the submission of Metz and Strasbourg and launched an attack on Basel.
In 1469, following the Treaty of St. Omer, Upper Alsace was sold by Archduke Sigismund of Austria to Charles of Burgundy. Although Charles was the nominal landlord, taxes were paid to Frederick III, Holy Roman Emperor. The latter was able to use 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 demesne of the Habsburg family, who were also rulers of the empire. The town of Mulhouse joined the Swiss Confederation in 1515, where it was to remain until 1798. By the time of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, Strasbourg was a prosperous community, and its inhabitants accepted Protestantism in 1523. 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. On the other hand, Mömpelgard (Montbéliard) to the southwest of Alsace, belonging to the Counts of Württemberg since 1397, remained a Protestant enclave in France until 1793
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 Spanish Netherlands. This occurred in the greater context of the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648). Beset by enemies and to gain a free hand in Hungary, the Habsburgs sold their Sundgau territory (mostly in Upper Alsace) to France in 1646, 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 Byzantine and confusing; it is thought that this was purposely so that neither the French king nor 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 transfer of most of Alsace to France at the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 marked its start, along with Lorraine, as a contested territory between France and Germany. Because warfare had caused large numbers of the population (mainly in the countryside) to die or to flee, numerous immigrants arrived from Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Lorraine, Savoy and other areas after 1648 and until the mid-18th century. Between 1671-1711 Anabaptist refugees came from Switzerland, notably from Bern. Strasbourg became a main centre of the early Anabaptist movement.
France consolidated her hold with the 1679 Treaties of Nijmegen, which brought the towns under her control. France occupied Strasbourg in 1681 in an unprovoked action, and from 1688 onwards devastated large parts of southern Germany according to the Brûlez le Palatinat! policy. These territorial changes were reinforced at the 1697 Treaty of Ryswick which ended the War of the Grand Alliance. However, Alsace had a somewhat exceptional position in the Kingdom of France. The German language was still used in local government, school, and education and the German (Lutheran) University of Strasbourg was continued and attended by students from Germany. The Edict of Fontainebleau, which legalized the suppression of French Protestantism, was not applied in Alsace. In contrast to the rest of France, there was a relative religious tolerance, although the French authorities tried to promote Catholicism and the Lutheran Strasbourg Cathedral had to be handed over to the Catholics in 1681. There was a customs boundary along the Vosges mountains against the rest of France while there was no such boundary against Germany. For these reasons Alsace remained marked by German culture and economically oriented towards Germany until the French Revolution.
1789 brought the French Revolution and with it the first division of Alsace into the départements of Haut- and Bas-Rhin. Alsatians played an active role in the French Revolution. On July 21, 1789, after receiving news of the Storming of the Bastille in Paris, a crowd of people stormed the Strasbourg city hall, forcing the city administrators to flee and putting symbolically an end to the feudal system in Alsace. In 1792, Rouget de Lisle composed in Strasbourg the Revolutionary marching song La Marseillaise, which later became the anthem of France. La Marseillaise was played for the first time in April of that year in front of the mayor of Strasbourg Philippe-Frédéric de Dietrich. Some of the most famous generals of the French Revolution also came from Alsace, notably Kellermann, the victor of Valmy, and Kléber, who led the armies of the French Republic in Vendée. At the same time, some 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. Many of the residents of the Sundgau made “pilgrimages” to places like Mariastein Abbey, near Basel, in Switzerland, for baptisms and weddings. 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 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 event based on what Goethe had personally witnessed can be found in his long poem Hermann and Dorothea. In response to the restoration of Napoleon I of France, 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 seaport. The population grew 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 left Alsace, not only to Paris, where the Alsatian community grew in numbers, with famous members such as Baron Haussmann, but also to far away places like Russia and the Austrian Empire to take advantage of new opportunities offered there. Austria had conquered lands in Eastern Europe from the Ottoman Empire and offered generous terms for colonists in order to consolidate their hold on the lands. Many Alsatians also began to sail for the United States, where after 1867 slave importation had been banned and new workers were needed for the cotton fields. France was brought by the Ems Dispatch into the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71), and was defeated by the Kingdom of Prussia and other German states. The end of the war led to the unification of Germany. Otto von Bismarck annexed Alsace and northern Lorraine to the new German Empire in 1871; unlike other members states of the German federation, which had governments of their own, the new Imperial territory of Alsace-Lorraine was under the sole authority of the Kaiser, administered directly by the imperial government in Berlin. Between 100,000 to 130,000 Alsatians (of a total population of about a million and a half) chose to remain French citizens and leave Reichsland Elsaß-Lothringen, many of them resettling in French Algeria as Pied-Noirs. Only in 1911 was Alsace-Lorraine granted some measure of autonomy, which was manifested also in a flag and an anthem (Elsässisches Fahnenlied). In 1913, however, the Saverne Affair showed the limits of this new tolerance of the Alsatian identity.
During World War I, to avoid ground fights between brothers, many Alsatians served as sailors in the Kaiserliche Marine and took part in the Naval mutinies that led to the abdication of the Kaiser in November 1918, which left Alsace-Lorraine without a nominal head of state. The sailors returned home and tried to found a republic. While Jacques Peirotes, at this time deputy at the Landrat Elsass-Lothringen and just elected mayor of Strasbourg, proclaimed the forfeiture of the German Empire and the advent of the French Republic, a self-proclaimed government of Alsace-Lorraine declared independence as the “Republic of Alsace-Lorraine“. French troops entered Alsace less than two weeks later to quash the worker strikes and remove the newly established soviets and revolutionaries from power. At the arrival of the French soldiers many Alsatians and even, ironically, local Prussian/German administrators & bureaucrats cheered due to the re-establishment of order (which can be seen and is described in detail in the reference video below) Although U.S. President Woodrow Wilson had insisted that the région was self-ruling by legal status, as its constitution had stated it was bound to the sole authority of the Kaiser and not to the German state, France tolerated no plebiscite, as granted by the League of Nations to some eastern German territories at this time, because Alsatians were considered by the French public as fellow Frenchmen liberated from German rule. Germany ceded the region to France under the Treaty of Versailles. After World War I, the establishment of German identity in Alsace was reversed, as all Germans who had settled in Alsace since 1871 were expelled. Policies forbidding the use of German and requiring that of French were introduced. However, in order not to antagonize the Alsatians, the region was not subjected to some legal changes that had occurred in the rest of France between 1871 and 1919, such as the 1905 French Law of Separation of Church and State. The région was effectively annexed by Germany in 1940 during World War II, and incorporated into the Greater German Reich, which had been restructured into Reichsgaue. Alsace was merged with Baden, and Lorraine with the Saarland, to become part of a planned Westmark. The annexation, while putting a halt to the anti-German discriminationin the région, subjected it to the cruel Nazi dictatorship, which was loathed by most of the people. The German government never negotiated or declared a formal annexation, however, in order to preserve the possibility of an agreement with the West. France regained control of the war-torn area in late 1944 and resumed its policy of promoting the French language and repressing the German with uncompromising vigor. For instance, from 1945 to 1984, the use of German in newspapers was restricted to a maximum of 25% However, today the territory enjoys laws in certain areas that are significantly different from the rest of France – this is known as the local law.
In more recent years, Alsatian is again being promoted by local, national and European authorities as an element of the region’s identity. Alsatian is taught in schools (but not mandatory) as one of the regional languages of France. German is also taught as a foreign language in local kindergartens and schools. However, the Constitution of France still requires that French be the only official language of the Republic.