Regional Differences--Alsace-Lorraine: National Identification

Figure 1.-- 

The question of how Alsatians viewed themselves is very interesting. To some extent language was an important aspect of identity. Some German speakers tended to view themselves as Germans and the French speakers as French. This was especially true in the case of French and Germans who had moved to Alsace and Lorraine fairly recently. Before 1871 both Alsace and Loraine had been part of France for so long that even some German speakers had come to think of themselves as French. In addition there were many bilingual families as well as Gernman speakers who had mairred into French families and visa versa. Especially in the countryside many Alsatians spoke Alsatian and their national identity was even more complex. Whether many of them changed to speaking French or German did not matter, they still were Alsatians and Lorrainers. Thus the question of nationality from 1871-1944 is a quite difficult issue to assess.


Thus what is meant by a Frenchman and a German in these provinces is often not a simple matter. Of course, all Alsatians are now French citizens, but that does not mean that they are French in origin. The original population of Alsace and a large part of Lorraine has always been German-speaking. They use an Alemannic dialect simular to Swiss or Swabian. Mountains and rivers had German names, the towns and villages too (and they look German). Family names are still German, although interestingly many prefer to select French first names for their children. "Jean-Jacques Schmidt" is typical. One's family names were a personal matter under both French and Imperial German (1871-1919) rule. When the NAZIs seized Alsace they required Germanized names to be used and made it a crime to speak French. A simple "bonjour" could have serious consequences.

National Origins

The original population in Alsace and to a lesser extend in Lorraine were an Alemannic-speaking people of German background. Whether many of them changed to speaking French during the long period of French control does not matter, they still are Alsatians and Lorrainers. They know who they are. When French people in these regions are being mentioned, it is understood that they mean the French who came from other parts of France to settle here during French rule. This applies to the Germans as well. They came from across the Rhine to find jobs when these provinces belonged to Germany. These Frenchmen and Germans were never considered by the locals to be Alsatians.


In the Middle Ages the region was part of the Holy Roman Empire of German Nations. Louis XIV occupied the cities Metz and Strasbourg in 1674 and proclaimed these and all the land west of the Rhine river to be French territory. However, even when the Alsatians later sympathized with the French revolution and started to develop French nationalistic feelings (many of Napoleon's generals were from Alsace), they kept speaking their own German dialect.

Franco-Prussian War

After the Franco-Prussian war Alsace and Lorraine became part of Germany in 1871. The Germans made the mistake of sending not only public officials, soldiers and police to the new "Reichslaender", but also teachers. Prussian teachers while trying to instill a sence of German identity in their Alsatian students, often had just the oposite affect, making even German-speaking students feel that they were different and therefore French. These Prussian Germans did not understand the mentality of the Alsatians. Most of the Alsatian people began to feel more French than ever. This was even more so in Lorraine where there were fewer German speakers.

World War I

Well, in 1918, after World War I, the people of Alsace-Lorrain enthusiastically became French citizens again. Naturally, the French too employed many "real" French officials and teachers in Alsace-Lorraine and they were considered to be strangers by the natives. This caused some ill-will, especially among German speakers.

World War II

After the startling collapse of the French Army in 1940, Germany again annexed Alsace-Lorraine. The residents wereconce more officially German. This time the Germans administered a very cruel occupation. much more severe than in 1871. (Although nothing like the unimaginable babarity pursued in Poland and Russia.) NAZI authorities forced young men to join the German army or sent to labor camps when they refused. There were some forced relocations of French families and one terrible incident where the Germans killed almost all the people in one Alsatian village.

Current Situation

Nationality just a generation or two was a major concern of Europeans. This is no longer as true, thanks in large part to the European Union (EU). I assume that in Alsace and Lorraine, perhaps more than in other areas, after a few generations nobody cares much who is German or French anymore. I don't think this is the case every where in the EU, but nationalism does seem to have been defused to a large extent. If some people ought to feel European, it's the Alsatians. It is perhaps no accident that the European Union headquarters is located in Strassbourg. Most Alsatians now speak French, but you will be surprised to learn that at home they prefer to speak "Elsaessisch". In that respect they never will be French. They now like to watch German radio and TV programs from the other side of the Rhine.


HBC is unsure how fashion has been influenced by all these historical events. One reader believes that Alsatians have adopted some elegant French ways of dressing. There are Alsatian villages where the people cling to their regional costumes (the women more than the men). The issues of fashions trends HBC hopes to develop.


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Created: January 23, 2002
Last updated: 3:03 PM 3/3/2005