Wars fought on Alsatian soil / Les Guerres en Alsace

Over the last 150 years, with the rise of nationalism in Europe in general and in Germany in particular, Alsace has become a land of contention. Both France and Germany lay claim to this beautiful and prosperous province with more-or-less legitimacy. From its early history it was first governed by Rome with the Rhine forming a clear eastern boundary of Roman Gaul. While Alsace lay in the province of Austrasia, (Aachen) under early Frankish rule the first "Alsatian" dukes, the Etichonides, were from the Frankish province of Neustria (Paris). Like anyone immigrating into Alsace I suppose, they quickly became "more Alsatian than the Alsatians themselves".

With the breakup of the Carolingian Europe Alsace found itself in that strange central strip governed by weak rulers and so began the contention for dominance between the powers that would become France and Germany. That the Strasbourg Sermon and the Field of Lies both occur in Alsace is poetically indicative of its future as a killing field. Alsatians themselves have had divided loyalties but mostly wish to keep to themselves, wishing to minimize interference from east or west. They are a bit like the Swiss in this respect. Too much work to get done!

With the extinction of the Carolingian lines by the early tenth century Alsace passed thoroughly into the east Frankish orbit and remained there until the end of the 30-Years War in 1648. France under King Louis XIV entered the conflict on the side of the northern protestants against the ruling Habsbourgs. With Habsbourg disadvantage at the end of this conflict, Louis XIV received the their possessions in Alsace and thus established French presence. A presence which was to endure. off and on, until the present day. It is about the "off and on" part that this little page and map are concerned.

With the rise of German nationalism in the 18th century, the "loss" of Alsace and Lorrain to France was depicted as a national shame that required amending. Recovery of these lost provinces (among others elsewhere) became a national obsession, one that remains today in some quarters. Nationalism set up three increasingly violent and ideologically tinged wars, two considered world wars, between 1870 and 1940.

The following map traces certain essential elements of these wars as they impinged upon Alsace. In red I show the Prussian invasion of France through Alsace with red stars marking the main battle sites. It was with Prussian victory that Alsace and Lorraine returned to German rule until 1919. In green on the map I note the position of the First World War trenchline forming the western front, Alsatian sector, with major battles indicated with green stars. Finally in brown I show the situation for the Second World War. First there are small brown squares giving the locations of Ligne Maginot forteresses at the outset of fighting. Secondly, I show the reduction of the Colmar Pocket and the liberation of northern Alsace. Colmar was the last French city under German occupation and was liberated in January-February 1945.

In all, nationalism has taken a heavy toll in Alsace and around the world. With the recent victory of the hard right in the United States in 2016, nationalism is again rearing its ugly head. How many wars will be fought, how many will die because of this remains unknown, but if history teaches anything, I am not optimistic.

Wars fought on Alsatian soil / Les Guerres en Alsace


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