Do the Elsaesser feel French or German?

Questions and answers on Alsace-Lorraine

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Where does the term Alsace-Lorraine come from?

The compound term Alsace-Lorraine was from 1871 the official name for the area ceded by France to Germany after the Franco-German War from 1870/71 to 1918, practically the entire Alsace and part of Lorraine, the so-called "German Lorraine". included.

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Isn't the use of the term Alsace-Lorraine from Germany politically charged?

The use of the term is peculiar today. In Germany the term does not play a role in the political field. Participation in the fate of Alsace-Lorraine is nowhere to be seen in German politics. This "non-interference policy" is probably based on a mixture of ignorance, resignation and anxious ease. But you also have to see that even the - a few - Alsatian autonomists always try to avoid the impression that they are "remote controlled" from Germany. So what use was an influence from Germany?

In areas of life that are not suspicious of politics, the term Alsace-Lorraine is still readily used in Germany. There are, for example, several German travel guides that specifically deal with "Alsace-Lorraine".

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Do the people of Alsace and Lorraine feel like Germans?

What others feel can only be guessed at. But there is no question that even today in Alsace-Lorraine there is somehow an emotional connection to the German Culture area consists.
In a documentary broadcast by the television station "Arte" in 2001, for example, older Alsatians reported that they "get wet eyes" when they receive German folk music broadcasts on television.

A commitment to the German nation is nowhere to be heard today, not even from the circle of the Alsace-Lorraine autonomy movement. On the contrary - at least by those who "have the say" - loyalty to France is generally asserted. The Alsatian poet and illustrator Jean-Jacques Waltz, who today is omnipresent in Alsace as "Hansi" with his transfigured little pictures - like icons - even equated France with heavenly realms ("le paradis tricolore").

Perhaps this admiration is even something typically German - just think of the strikingly similar German saying "Life like God in France". Nobody will deny that at the moment France, with its healthy, self-confident national feeling, is far more attractive than today's penitent Germany. The national high spirits, such as the one that triggers the French national holiday (July 14th) in France, has nothing comparable in Germany. The times when the German still said "he looks up in Himmelsauen, where heroic fathers look down" are long gone.

However, two or three generations ago in Alsace-Lorraine, the commitment to France was not as general as it is today. The Alsatian benefactor and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Albert Schweitzer (+1965) confessed to the German nation all his life. Although Albert Schweitzer is remembered at the local level in Alsace, at the national level, by France, he is never referred to as one of his "great sons" to this day. In the competition "The Greatest German" organized by ZDF (Second German Television) in 2003, Mozart and explicitly Albert Schweitzer were among the candidates. While Austria (based on the motto "Mozart an Austrian, Hitler a German") protested vehemently against Mozart's candidacy, there was only an "eloquent silence" from France regarding Albert Schweitzer.

A completely different example was the musician and band leader Lawrence Welk (+1992), almost unknown in Europe but extremely popular in the USA. His parents came from Alsace and first emigrated to Russia, soon further to America, where they settled in "New Strasburg", a foundation of Alsatian emigrants. Only German was spoken there, including at school. And so Lawrence Welk learned - in the middle of the USA! - Difficult English only in adulthood, with a very strong German accent, his "trademark". When asked about his origins, he would reply that his family came from "Alsace-Lorraine, Germany".


The inhabitants of Alsace-Lorraine call themselves French today. And it seems a little as if some people are giving up the traditional language in favor of French in order to reaffirm their commitment to France.


In any case, one thing is clear: the call "Heim ins Reich" does not sound anywhere in Alsace-Lorraine. "Bringing home" Alsace-Lorraine would be like a boy scout trying to do a good deed and helping an old woman across the street - but she doesn't even want to cross.

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What are the more original place names, the German or the French?

Only in a small area of ​​Alsace-Lorraine, roughly southwest of a line Saarburg-Metz, are there French place names that are more than 200 years old. everywhere else in Alsace-Lorraine the German place names are the original.

The renaming carried out by France in recent times try to tie in with the German pronunciation (Pfirt becomes Ferrette) or the dialect (Bischweiler becomes Bischwiller); sometimes the German meaning is reproduced (Spittel, ie "Spital", becomes "Hôpital"), sometimes a name that looks "too Germanic" is simply alienated (Schlettstadt becomes Sélestat).

The poet Friedrich Richter (called "Jean Paul") affectionately called his mother tongue, German, the "organ among languages". And indeed, place names like Willgottheim or Offenheim sound like "homely". These "... heim" locations, which mark the so-called "Altsiedelland" in Germany, are nowhere to be found in such abundance and density as in Alsace. It seems as if the imagination of the French namesake had to surrender to the abundance of "... homes", because most of them survived the renaming phases unscathed. In any case, it is noteworthy that even on German television place names such as Fessenheim (known from the power station) are still pronounced entirely in German.


In contrast to Alsace with its many "homes", a map of Lorraine already looks much more French today. In Lorraine mainly the places "-ingen" and "-dorf" were common, and these were mostly renamed "-ange" and "-troff". Who can still suspect that Benestroff or Puttelange are old German names (namely Bensdorf, Püttlingen)?

Many Germans already use only the French place names, partly out of ignorance, but often also in the zealous effort to present themselves as "good people". However, the fact that a German says "Strasbourg" is neither required nor expected in France, but rather laughed at.

Today, however, even the inhabitants of Alsace-Lorraine hardly use the deviating German place names - everyone says Thionville, nobody uses the name Diedenhofen, the younger ones won't even know it anymore. Who should blame them for that, when even in Germany today at most Strasbourg and Mulhouse are referred to by their German names!

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Where is the language border?

A hundred, even fifty years ago, one could clearly say: to the west of the Vosges ridge, French is spoken, to the east of it, German. In Lorraine, the border ran almost exactly on the Saarburg-Hayingen line (see map at the beginning). In the Middle Ages, however, the language border ran a little - but only a few kilometers - further to the west.


The Lorraine city of Metz was a special phenomenon. Metz belonged to the German Empire in the Middle Ages. The seizure of possession by France in the 16th century was followed by the expulsion of thousands of Protestants (i.e. German speakers) in the next century, but not because of their language - which was then irrelevant - but because of their Protestant religion. As a result, Metz became practically a purely French-speaking city. That only changed two hundred years later:


During the time of the German occupation in the "Kaiserreich", a clear German language (half) island developed in the midst of a French-speaking region. In the city of Metz, for example, the proportion of French was only 20% in 1900. Surprisingly, the German influence fell on such fertile soil that a bit of the "German way of life" can still be felt today: nowhere else in France are there snack stands with sausages (saucisse grillé), and it is not without reason that the city in France has been nicknamed "Metz l ' Allemande "(Metz, the" German ").


The German language has already been largely erased, but can still be found: anyone who today, as a German of good will, starts a conversation in French with the old residents of Metz in private, will often find that they translate from one sentence to the other to pure, Switch to native German.

In Alsace-Lorraine, the public language today is French, and in this sense the former language border is now congruent with the French state border. The Vosges language border is now just an illusion. If a - pardon! - "real" Frenchman crosses the Vosges Mountains from the west, he will continue to hear only French, whose "Alsatian" accent he may already think of as the "Alsatian dialect". In any case, he will not notice a language barrier, because German is only spoken in the family area and mainly only by the older and middle generation. And so today the language border runs through Alsace-Lorraine rather across the generations, across the "age pyramid", across the families.

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Isn't there just a narrow border area here, and there are just a few people here and there who also speak the language of the neighboring country?

A comparison with Switzerland might help here.

The demarcation between the French and German-speaking areas is not only very sharp in Switzerland and can be set down to the kilometer.

In Switzerland, the German-speaking Swiss make up by far the majority with around 2/3 of the population and area. French-speaking Switzerland, on the other hand, is only a small peripheral area, considerably smaller in terms of area and population than Alsace-Lorraine. And yet, in French-speaking Switzerland, French has always been considered a fully-fledged official and school language. The German speakers in Alsace-Lorraine can only dream of receiving similar rights from France.

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Is German still spoken in Alsace-Lorraine?

Until a hundred years ago, German was the dominant language. And that was not due to the German occupation at the time, but to the country's cultural roots. For example: Goethe, who studied in Strasbourg at the end of the 18th century, did so at a completely German-speaking university - despite Strasbourg's long political affiliation with France.

The question of whether in Alsace-Lorraine German spoken is almost a taboo in France. Even the inhabitants of Alsace-Lorraine, who still speak German, avoid the term "German", because that sounds like "Germany" and supposedly smacks of separatism. Instead, it is always said that "alsacien" (Alsatian) is spoken, in Lorraine "francique" (Franconian, Moselle Franconian) or "flat". But nobody can seriously doubt that they are all German dialects. A Munich resident speaks Bavarian dialect, a Frankfurt Hessian dialect, a Leipzig Saxon dialect: if you ask them what their mother "language" is, they will all answer: "German". If you mean the regional "language" in Alsace-Lorraine, "German" is actually the correct designation - even if the truth, as everyone knows, is not always and everywhere popular.

It is fundamentally different for the German-speaking residents in East Belgium, for example. This little-known, numerically small group, with around 100,000 members, describes itself as German-speaking. This Belgian minority had to fight for a special cultural and linguistic status in Belgium against resistance. This was partially successful, namely in the area also known as "Eupen-Malmedy"; in the isolated, much further south located, small outskirts around Arel (the "Arlon", which became unpopular a few years ago due to the Dutroux trial and was once the westernmost town in the German-speaking area), the old language only lives in the older age groups. In "Eupen-Malmedy", on the other hand, there are now German-speaking schools, German-speaking newspapers, German-speaking town signs - all that would be unthinkable in Alsace-Lorraine.

Certainly, in today's Belgium, torn by the language dispute between Flemings and Walloons, "Eupen-Malmedy" also benefited somewhat from its role as the "laughing third party". But the main difference to Alsace-Lorraine is that Eupen-Malmedy was only separated from Germany in the 20th century, at a time when national consciousness had long since developed in Germany.

The situation in Alsace-Lorraine is completely different. Strasbourg was occupied by France as early as the 17th century, at a time when there was less national consciousness than ever in the ridiculously fragmented German empire. This vacuum in Alsace-Lorraine was quickly filled by the increasing French influence and the strong attraction of the French national culture, which was already developed at that time. When, with some delay in the middle of the 19th century, the Germans began to see themselves as a nation, a certain sense of belonging to France had long since emerged in Alsace-Lorraine - and that in no way meant at the time that people also professed the French language had to.

The equation French = French speaker was only established later by those in power and was accompanied by great administrative and cultural pressure to adapt. The aim was to establish the French language at all levels and areas of life in Alsace-Lorraine. The high points of this policy were the times after the two world wars, with a particularly radical approach after the First World War. The most important instrument was school policy, which relentlessly put French as the sole school language for the majority of the German-speaking population. In the 1920s and 1930s there was sometimes bitter (never violent) resistance in Alsace to this culture war; Above all, the "Heimatbund" should be mentioned here, which even did not go without martyrs. Is the French motto, in its original version: "Liberte, egalite, fraternite - ou la mort", ie: "freedom, equality, fraternity - or death". Of course, today the alternatives are no longer so blatant, but France's claim to cultural domination also becomes clear in the motto mentioned. In the long run, on the other hand, nothing could grow.

Rather, there has always been an increasing willingness in Alsace-Lorraine to take up the French language and culture. This tendency became dominant when Germany's reputation and culture sank to a low point after the Second World War. German was no longer the language of "poets and thinkers", but rather the language of "butchers and executioners", or, as the German President of the Bundestag (W. Thierse) described his own mother tongue these days: "the language of murder , anti-Semitism, misanthropy, lies and racist prejudice "(1).

So it is no wonder that criticism of the suppression of the German language in Alsace-Lorraine has largely fallen silent since 1945. A good breeding ground for the campaign "il est chic de parler francais" (it is "chic" to speak French), which had a prayer wheel-like effect. As an Alsatian said in the aforementioned Arte program, this ultimately led to the fact that from the 1970s it became fashionable to only raise children in French. And so the dam broke there.

In German reference works ( one of the most important, the "Fischer Weltalmanach"), in 1993 the number of 1.2 million "German speakers" for Alsace and Lorraine was named. According to this, the vast majority of the inhabitants of Alsace-Lorraine would be German-speaking - even then that was probably only an extrapolation of outdated figures that hardly corresponded to reality.


There are no current scientific studies on the subject, but it will look like this for the different generations (children-parents-grandparents) today by and large:

- Grandparents speak German among themselves.
- German grandparents with parents.
- Children with their grandparents mostly French, hardly any German
- Parents among each other in German or French.
- Parents with their children French.
- Children speak French among each other.

All of this only applies to the family area, and only if there is no stranger present. It is sufficient if only one "French" is present - then, as a rule, everyone switches to French; an attitude typical of minority languages, a mixture of courtesy, hospitality and a kind of inferiority.

Today - apart from small, remote places - immigrant "Central French" make up a certain proportion of the population everywhere. This is why Alsatians and Lorraine people are rarely completely "among themselves" today, and German has practically disappeared from public usage.

The speed with which the language change is progressing is astounding. Even today, in 2012, there are still a few very old people who only speak German, but on the other hand there are also many children who only speak French. If you ask an old man in French for directions, you have to expect the answer "nothing French". If you ask children in German, they shake their heads. Alsatians who have emigrated, who are visiting their old homeland again after 20 or 30 years, are stunned to report that where they "got away" with German in the past, they now feel like they are "in the wrong film".

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Does the proximity to Germany ensure the continued existence of the German language in Alsace-Lorraine?

Unlike, for example, the Celtic-Breton language, for whose continued existence in France there are only very gloomy forecasts, the German language in Alsace-Lorraine seems to have the advantage of the large German-speaking hinterland. For an Alsatian commuting to Germany, German will certainly continue to exist as a second language at work. But only as a second language - nothing more, as perhaps a comparison with Flemish in France shows.

In the north of France, near Dunkirk, the Flemish-speaking area encroaches (or rather: encroaches) on the French national territory. The 200,000 or so "Flemings" in this area now speak French. Only a few old people still speak Flemish (= Dutch). The proximity to the existing (Belgian) Flemish language area did not stop the Flemish language from disappearing in France.

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Does German still have a future in Alsace-Lorraine?

For most of the children in Alsace-Lorraine today, German is no longer their mother tongue, but only "grandmother tongue". Since children are the future, it should be clear that the German-speaking tradition in Alsace-Lorraine will soon be torn down.

Nobody can look into the future. But no one can also doubt that the succession of generations is an inevitable process. And accordingly the time of the German-speaking generations in Alsace-Lorraine is running out. In just a few years, the French-speaking generations that have grown up will have mastered the linguistic landscape in such a way that the remaining bilinguals will only use French in their everyday lives. German will disappear from the scene even faster than the last German or bilingual generations.

In Alsace-Lorraine, only the family names such as "Muller", "Huber", "Kramer", which still characterize the telephone books in Alsace-Lorraine today, will be reminiscent of the old days. Alsatian, hardly Lorraine any more, will perhaps survive in a niche as the "folklore language".

Of course, one could also say that if one mother tongue can be replaced by the other, then it could just as well be the other way around. But one has to see that the disappearance of German as a mother tongue is the end result of a process that lasted several generations.

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Are there no efforts at all to preserve the German language in Alsace-Lorraine?

In America's Wild West, the buffaloes were thoughtlessly decimated for decades and only placed under protection shortly before extinction. The remaining remnants are today far removed from their earlier, landscape-defining importance.

The German language in Alsace-Lorraine faces a similar fate - in the best-case scenario. "Five to twelve", a number of smaller associations have formed which have set themselves the goal of promoting bilingualism and which have already achieved some success. There are also concrete plans to ensure the survival of Germans, at least in a local context. These projects with their great symbolic effect, if they are successful, will only be able to preserve German as the language of a small minority. Even then it is a question of whether German will be able to hold itself as a minority language, in the "diaspora", where it could not hold itself in the times when it was still the majority language.

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Isn't the Alsace-Lorraine question going to be resolved by itself as a result of the political integration of Europe?

As a result of the European Union, the borders between nations have lost some of their separating character, especially due to the (largely) elimination of border controls.

In the 1980s, when there was still the "death strip" on the German-German border, it was like a dream for Germans to be able to cross the border to their western neighbor "just like that".

However, the idea that our descendants already feel as Europeans and no longer as English, French, Spanish or German is a cloud cuckoo country.

When it comes to key questions of national history, such as the feeling of responsibility for the persecution of the Jews, or questions of national prestige, such as the power to dispose of nuclear missiles, there will never be a "Europeanization". The question of the linguistic and cultural autonomy of Alsace-Lorraine is on the same level, just as "prestigious". On the part of French politics, no one is thinking of offering anything here; At best, half-hearted promises, consolations and delaying tactics come from politicians shortly before elections, as one can secretly hope for a "biological" solution to the problem. Nor does one of "those up there" in Germany even dream of asking for something for Alsace-Lorraine. This attitude is all too understandable: A German politician can gain nothing on this question, but can lose everything. Anyone who knows politics in Germany knows that such a topic would be branded as "right-wing" by the all-powerful opinion-makers. And a politician who takes on such a topic is released to the hunt, which only ends when he is hunted down.

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Yes, are the Germans unpopular in France and Alsace-Lorraine?

Some readers of the preceding pages may have the vague impression that everything German and thus also German visitors are not particularly popular in Alsace-Lorraine - or France in general. That impression would be completely wrong. In none of the neighboring countries of the Federal Republic are Germans as welcome as in France (as well as Luxembourg and Belgium).
German exchange students in France can hardly believe it when they hear - in stark contrast to the expectations nurtured by German history lessons - that even French war participants usually only report positive things about their (prisoner of war) time in Germany. Well, Alsace-Lorraine is not exactly comparable because of its historical peculiarities, but there, too, well-meaning German visitors will only find hospitality and no resentment.

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What is all this for?

"Happy is someone who forgets what can no longer be changed", Wilhelm Busch once rhymed. Yes, being able to forget is great luck. However, consciously ignoring the roots of Alsace-Lorraine is not about being able to forget, but about wanting to forget, in other words: suppressing. And repression doesn't create happiness. Lamentation about the disappearance of the German language in Alsace-Lorraine is of no use to anyone.

What can an outsider do now? Not much! Interference from outside is certainly tricky, but one does not exactly have to stab those Alsatian-Lorraine people who are trying to keep the language in the back. A small step would be to use the old place names as a visitor from Germany; why shouldn't the old "Weißenburg" be called the same? In addition, it is not forbidden to walk around the country with your eyes open. There is a lot to discover and a lot to ask. Why, for example, are there no older inscriptions in Christian cemeteries, only newer French ones? It doesn't cost anything to ask! It is certainly also interesting to visit one of the German-speaking church services again - there are still some! You can also buy one of the distressed bilingual daily newspapers at the kiosk in Alsace - they are still available under the counter, as if it were something offensive.

What the Alsatians and Lorraine people can or want to do themselves, no one can take away from them. Because the sentence that everyone is the blacksmith of their own fortune applies, especially in democratic communities, to entire peoples or ethnic groups. This must also be respected by outsiders - the author of these pages is one of them. And so this website remains primarily a documentary task. The most important concern is to present the history and the linguistic and cultural roots of Alsace-Lorraine as they actually were.

Since there are only a few sources of information on the subject of these Internet pages, the author had to form the central theses on the basis of his own experience. The author is open to new views. If you have different views on the topic or can make constructive contributions, please let the author know.