The Situation of Alsace-Lorraine—The Complete Failure of Prussianism

By Stoddard Dewey

[The Nation; October 7, 1915]

Paris, September 18.

Every official declaration of France—of the President of the Republic, of the Prime Minister, of the General commanding in chief—ever since this war began has given as one of the necessary conditions of peace the return of Alsace-Lorraine to France. Virtually, all the Allies—England, Russia, Italy—are engaged to it. Like the restoration of Belgium and Luxemburg and Poland, it has to be fought for until it is won. There is and can be no question of autonomy in a renewed German Confederation, nor of the creation of a buffer state equally independent of Germany and France. It is not to be conquest and not annexation or re-annexation on the part of France. Even French Socialists and workmen's associations have said all this in their turn.

To use the Labor phrase of France, this war must end by consecrating "the right of a people to dispose of itself." Now the conquest of Alsace-Lorraine by Germany in 1871—an annexation of territory which pretended to no other right than that of conquest—was the negation of this right. The Treaty of Frankfort ratifying the annexation was forced on France by Germany, and itself stated explicitly that treaties are "annulled by war"' (article 11). Well, Germany has made war, the Treaty of Frankfort has been annulled by herself—and, legally, Alsace-Lorraine is in status quo ante bellum, that is, what she was before 1870.

In practice, this means that the war, among other things, disputes whether Alsace-Lorraine shall return to France, from which she was forcibly detached forty-four years ago. And France and the Allies have bound themselves to fight until Alsace-Lorraine does so return.

Francis Joseph, when the conquest of Alsace-Lorraine by armed force against the expressed wish of its people was finally announced to him, is said to have presented ironic compliments to the old Kaiser "on his annexation of an open sore to his new Empire." It is one of the heart-breaks of history that countries like England and the United States, supposedly won to the cause of the Liberty of Peoples, should have allowed this violent transference of 2,000,000 highly civilized and prosperous human beings from one government, to which they were used, to another, to which forty-four years of rule has not accustomed them. Counting those who were honorably placed in France, 2,000,000 is a moderate figure for the population at that time. They were quite comparable with Americans at the time when our Revolution established the consent of the governed as indispensable to legitimate government.

It is a mistake of blindness to imagine Frenchmen's desire of la revanche in Alsace-Lorraine as a principal cause of this war. Rather, it was the encouragement given by free countries like ourselves to new Germany which has led on to this latest working out of her fundamental principle that Might makes Right.

There is a disposition on the part of wavering neutrals to claim a sort of prescription—vested rights—for the German immigrants into Alsace-Lorraine during these forty-four years that it has been an "Empire-land." Their number is estimated liberally at 350,000—fewer than the native Alsatians and Lorraine-men who have voluntarily chosen to live in France and remain shut out from their native country. And this does not include the Alsatian thousands who have emigrated further, often after trying for some years to live under German rule, to America and South Africa, or to Switzerland, near to home.

There has been, too, a vital difference between these immigrants and emigrants. The incoming Germans, for by far the most part, have formed an Imperial service plastered on the country, crowding out the natives from posts of confidence which rightfully belonged to them. An Alsatian could not be a school-teacher—he could not be trusted to Germanize the children's brains. He could not hope to enter the university corps—Prussians despised his German and thoroughly distrusted his willingness to accept their discipline. He had to serve in the German army, but never in garrisons of his own country—it was necessary he should be broken in elsewhere. He could not expect to become an officer. He could not occupy any judicial post of honor and, still less, any responsible post in the administration of his own country. Even his business activities and industrial enterprise were hampered by discriminating regulations and political preferences.

For two generations Imperial Germany has had a free hand with the populations of Alsace and Lorraine, and, by her own confession, she has won neither affection nor respect, and dares not to repose her trust in them. Surely, by all the principles of our American Independence, the return of their country to France should be a matter of common right.

Perhaps Americans are not alive to the part always taken in French public life by citizens from Alsace and Lorraine. Those of French language were, of course, quite indistinguishable. Even now, there are generals and there have been Ministers of War, there are university professors at the Sorbonne and the Collège de France, there are judges and presidents of chambers of commerce, who speak to their brother Frenchmen with authority in their own comfortable accent. It might even be said that, from the Revolution to our own day, Alsatians have had more than their share in French, public life. The two languages of most of them gave them an initial advantage, which the canny, easily-mixing ways of their race heightened. Under Germany, the natives of Alsace and Lorraine have been made to descend towards a condition of inferiors—diminished subjects of an Empire which they were made to feel was not their own. In France, not by any deep design, but quite naturally as water flows, they have been exalted citizens.

It must not be thought that this is merely the impression of an outsider or the idea of a partisan native who has burst the bonds of the conqueror. I was first a child wlth Alsatians who had but lately founded a colony in America. Later I made acquaintance with their people before their country had been broken off from France. At the time when they had to choose between exile, for their young men or Prussian militarization, I followed their lives at home. There is the pathetic comedy of children exaggerating the goose-step to which their alien schoolmasters condemn them—and the moan of native songs sung for a last time at home by those who are fleeing away. In among the mountain villages, where the emerald pines lead up to the country's thousand-year-old pilgrimage of St. Odile, in the manufacturing towns of the plain, in peasant farms, I have found—after two generations—nothing but impatience and dislike of German rule. Those who had never known French rule—which, under all regimes, is at least democratic—had always France in their minds as the country of ease and grace and liberty.

More than this, one of the "immigrants" who had had the weakness to marry a woman of the country and tried to identify himself with its interests, ventured half a dozen years ago to give me his own views in his newly acquired French. For him, German born and bred as he was, everything was going wrong. The most that Germany could hope for was the final constitution of Alsace and Lorraine into virtually independent states, whose interest it would be to act as a buffer impartially between Germany and France. He had no sympathy and no belief in the possibility of ever Germanizing Alsace and Lorraine.

It is difficult to say what might have been. Gen. Joffre, in the second entrance into Alsace of the armies of France during this war, took it on himself to reassure the population, "You are French once more—nothing shall be able to take you from us again!" Without prophecy, it is more than likely that—after the war—men of Alsace and Lorraine will again take their part in all the public life of the French republic. Perhaps it is for that the German army destroyed the family tomb of President Poincaré.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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