Alsace and the Step-Fatherland


I WAS only two years old when I left the town in Lorraine where I was born in 1852 and was taken to live in Alsace, remaining there until 1877. My earliest days, then, were spent in the province while it was under French rule, and I was still there to witness the Franco-Prussian War and the annexation of Alsace to Germany. Since 1877, when I took up my abode in France, few years have gone by without my returning to the country of my childhood; not a single day has passed without bringing me tidings of it through letters or newspapers. Some members of my own family, as well as a great number of friends and comrades of my youth, are still living there.

What I shall say of Alsace — what I shall tell of Germany’s relations with the conquered province, and of the German policy toward its people — is the result of observations made by an educated man, Alsatian by birth, who knows France and Germany equally well. I am no politician; I am no manufacturer or merchant, economist or financier; and I cannot claim to speak with finality on these various points. The reader may find here, however, the sincere and conscientious statement of an honest man, who seeks justice above all else. Far from having condemned Germany without trial, I am one of those who, before this present war, esteemed and appreciated her, and would gladly have continued to do so.

First of all, it must be admitted that the annexation of Alsace-Lorraine, brought about primarily for military reasons, proved to be a grave political mistake, developing into one of the most persistent sources of irritation in the whole world-situation. But for this false start, the entire evolution of international relations and alliances would have been changed after 1870.

As we have long been accustomed to see Germany act from reasons of selfinterest, to the exclusion of all other motives, we may disregard the question of international law and all considerations of sentiment or justice; but even in looking at the question solely from the point of view of Germany’s own advantage, we see that the annexation of Alsace-Lorraine ran counter to this advantage in its truest sense. Having been committed to this cardinal error, however, by military exigencies and for reasons connected with the mineral resources of the territory annexed, it should have been the first care of the German government to neutralize, as far as possible, the baneful aftermath. This involved a question of prime importance, far-reaching in its consequences, which would have been solved if Germany had set about the conciliation of Alsace.

But how conciliate a people passionately attached to their ancient mothercountry? Could Alsace forget France? To suppose so for a single instant would imply a complete ignorance of the Alsatians and their firm, great-hearted and steadfast character. In order to conciliate Alsace, it was essential above all things to understand her and her suffering — that sorrow resulting from the great violent fact of the separation, together with the painful severance of so many lesser ties. The country was passing through a serious crisis, comparable to a sickness. Kindliness, care, and tact were indispensable. Even in granting Alsace a peaceful existence, in allowing her to retain her customs and her two languages while subjecting her to a wisely administered, though in the main a severe, rule, it would have been impossible to conceal the fact that she had a master — a humane master, however, in no way arbitrary, and possessing sufficient psychological insight not to insist that she renounce her former affections and bestow her favors at once on the new conqueror.

It seems clear that the Germans realized that it was one thing to annex a territory, and another, and far more difficult matter, to conciliate the spirit of its inhabitants. They set about trying to gain the affection of the Alsatians — but they made the stupid and thoroughgoing mistake of supposing that it was necessary, in order to win them over, to germanize them. To get on the good side of a people like the Alsatians, the first essential was to allow them their liberty, to let them alone and give them such time as might be necessary to recover from the shock and regain their strength. Any attempt to hasten matters could only rouse such sentiments as are felt by a young girl whose suitor tries to force her to love him. Their first tentative efforts having produced just the opposite of the desired effect, the Germans, haughty and annoyed, declared, ‘Wir wollen keine Liebe, nur Gehorsam!’ [We wish no love — only obedience] — as if the first step toward bringing about voluntary obedience were not to make one’s self liked! Germany, after committing the great initial mistake of annexing Alsace against her own best interest, made a second one which only aggravated the first.

She now attempted to assimilate Alsace by sheer force, through germanization. To this end all sorts of means, ranging from the most comprehensive to the most petty, were employed. Of the former were the isolation of Alsace, so far as this was possible, the creation of a factitious atmosphere into which only news pertaining to Germany was allowed to penetrate, and the suppression of French in the schools. In the latter category figured the changing of the names of streets, the erasure of French words from signboards, the persistent campaign against French books, newspapers, flags, and traditions. All these measures, regrettable in themselves, were made much worse by the bitter spirit in which they were undertaken. And so there rose up between the Alsatians and the Germans that sort of antagonism which exists between prisoners and their jailers.

How could good results be expected under such conditions? The methods of the Germans not only prevented the spread of conciliation among the Alsatians who had been hostile from the start, but also made enemies among those who had at first been rather favorably disposed to them. The vexatious and nagging measures which were taken by the educational authorities to extirpate the French language were greeted with indignant protests. One of these, made by the old scholar, Edouard Reuss, is worth recording.

M. Reuss was a high authority in biblical science, enjoying an equally wide renown in Germany and in France. By virtue of his position as a prominent citizen of Strasburg and an eminent man of letters, he was chosen a member of the Commission of Education, which investigated all questions regarding the instruction of the younger generation. After serving on this Commission for several years, he finally became disheartened at the pettiness displayed by the higher authorities in suppressing the French language. One day he rose in a full meeting of his colleagues and exclaimed, ‘Meine Herren, Sie eckeln mich an!’ [Gentlemen, you disgust me!]

Gradually the Germans began to incline toward tyranny. Conscious of their intellectual and administrative strength, and convinced of their economic superiority, they could not endure the idea that a small people, speaking their language, should not realize what advantages were being offered, and welcome the opportunity of being admitted into the glorious German Empire. In the full flush of their power, they became exasperated at the insignificant yet irreducible resistance which they met on all sides. They, who believed in the possibility of accomplishing everything by force, found themselves blocked, and, unwilling as they were to admit their mistakes, they began to suspect occult influences, French spies, and a host of non-existent things, when as a matter of fact they were merely paying the penalty of their first error and of that mistaken system which was daily bringing matters from bad to worse. They laid the blame on everything and everybody save themselves and their evil, wayward attitude.


The Germans might have learned their lesson simply by a little study of Alsatian history and the Alsatian temperament. Alsace, with its capital, the free city of Strasburg, was, as a matter of fact, a sort of republic, accustomed for centuries to ideas of liberty and democracy. To such a point did it possess the sense of self-government and the reverence for independence, that Louis XIV, when Alsace became a part of France, gave to his governors the significant order: ‘Ne touchez pas aux choses d’Alsace!’ [Let Alsace alone!] Later, during the French Revolution, whose spirit Germany absorbed in the best sense of the word, Alsace was one of the most patriotic provinces. The military spirit was also very strong there. Napoleon’s generals — Kléber, Rapp, Kellerman, and many others— as well as officers and soldiers without number, represented Alsace in the army. This spirit survived in the hearts of the Alsatians, who were conscious of their worth and did not take kindly to the idea of being restrained or reduced to servitude.

The basis of the Alsatian language, to be sure, is German; but the psychologies of the German and of the Alsatian are very different. The Alsatian is democratic, possessing withal a certain sense of reverence which makes him amenable to discipline. He has nothing of the obsequious in his makeup; he is stiffnecked, and rebels instinctively against the yoke. He may be obstinate as well, but on the other hand he is not arrogant when in authority, or haughty toward subordinates. By nature he is a republican in the best sense of the word.

Such are the history and the moral temper of the people on whom Germany tried to perform her experiments of denationalization, as though in anima vili. Is there anything surprising in the fact that she failed? More and more the Alsatian took refuge in his inner conscience and his patois. There was no commingling of the German society with the native society of Alsace. This German society forms an important element in the cities today and, thanks to the huge military garrisons, it makes a great show everywhere. It may deceive the visiting foreigner into believing that germanization has made progress. All this is mere illusion; and when the Kaiser visits Alsace, he knows well that it is the Germans from Germany, not those from Alsace, who cheer his progress.

There was much criticism in France, especially after 1870, of the methods followed by the French in AlsaceLorraine up to that date, and of the laxity in spreading the French language throughout that great territory. French was taught in the primary schools, it is true, but German was taught there as well. In the churches, preaching in French was the exception. Catholics and Protestants alike worshiped in German. Clergymen who were able to preach in French were rare — and even had they been more numerous, their congregations (in the country districts especially) would not have understood them. The religious instruction of children was carried on almost exclusively in German.

France made herself beloved, then, through the very freedom which she granted. The affection of the Alsatians for the French mother-country was in direct proportion to the facilities she allowed them for living and speaking as they willed. Germany, however, through her system of suppression and extirpation of the French language, through her obstinate persecution of everything that was not German, simply succeeded in making the Alsatians voice their hatred of her in German. It was in good German or in Alsatian dialect that they told her a great number of disagreeable, antagonistic things. Would it not have been better for her to have listened to sympathetic, agreeable things spoken in French ?

The ancient Romans, who are supposed to have had considerable experience in such matters, practiced a method which was very generally successful. Newly conquered territories were administered very strictly by them, from the point of view of external discipline. No seditious act was tolerated. Within the limits of this uncompromising rigidity, however, the people were allowed to enjoy a goodly degree of independence. Religion, language, and local customs were maintained unchanged. As a result, the people, who still remained happy in spite of the loss of their political independence, learned to accept their new condition. If Germany had abstained from nagging, — if she had not outraged the consciences of the Alsatians and wounded their self-respect, — they would have ended by saying, like the sensible and just people that they are, ‘We are not forgetting France, but we cannot say that Germany has made us unhappy.’ This would have been no small gain, both for Germany and her interests, and for her relations with France. Who knows but that, in the long run, after the tension had grown less, Alsace might have served as a bond of union between the neighbors? With the spirit displayed in her Alsatian policy, however, Germany simply dug the gulf deeper from year to year, and separated more and more the two nations living on each side of it. One must have seen the daily workings of her hateful spirit to form some idea of the irritation and distress caused by it.

Let me tell a little anecdote in which I figured — an episode which kept a whole town seething for some days. It took place at Barr, at the foot of Mont Sainte-Odile. In 1875 I was called back from the University of Göttingen, where I had been passing a semester in the lecture-rooms of Ritschl and Lotze. My theological studies were ended and I was appointed vicar to old Pastor Nessler.

Among my other duties, I had to give religious instruction —in German, of course — at the Realschide. The old pastor, who was sick and could not present me to the Director, Herr Cramer, a pure-blooded Prussian, said, ‘Go and deliver your first lesson all the same; if the Director says anything, beg him to excuse me.’

I set off for the school without giving the matter further thought, and began my lesson. Sure enough, the Director visited the class-room; but instead of accepting the excuses I made to him on the part of the old pastor, he put me out of the building.

The old man, on learning what had happened, got up from his bed, all trembling with emotion, and was taken to the Mayor, who held jurisdiction over the schools. The Mayor, as well as the entire population of the town, was deeply attached to the pastor; the affront offered to the latter touched him to the quick. Director Cramer received a summary order to appear before the pastor and his vicar. He came, and had only the most empty excuses to offer. Overweening and brutal when he felt himself in authority, his manner changed instantly when he heard the voice of a superior.

It was this ugly spirit which prevented Germany from getting credit even for the good things she had to offer. The Alsatian, practical, keen, and capable of distinguishing the worth of things, did not fail to size up the inherent values of the German administration. The system of city government, the railroads, postal service, highways, municipal hygiene, and public works in general, were worthy of study, approbation, and often admiration. Germany’s attitude, however, should have been more propitiatory if she wished to reap the benefits of all her work along these lines. She should have been less self-satisfied, less inclined to bestow pompous laurels on herself. From top to bottom of the social scale there was nothing but boastfulness. Certain German students, fearing that they were not sufficiently conspicuous, dressed in startling fashion and paraded the streets, preceded by huge dogs, and carrying walkingsticks with fantastic handles called Renommir-Stock. The whole situation is epitomized in that verb renommiren.

Such were the practices to which great Germany resorted in order to dazzle the little country of Alsace. The whole scheme fell flat, however. The Alsatian is sober-minded and reflective; he has an instinctive dislike for bluff, as well as for that which in German is aptly call Schwindel. When the Germans, then, grew drunk with the idea of their own worth, and went to all lengths of self-laudation, they harmed only their own cause. Instead of exciting admiration, they aroused the satirical instinct, the keen sense of the ridiculous, of the Alsatians, who avenged themselves on their overlords by laughing at them behind their backs and caricaturing them. The Germans, being excessively sensitive, completely lost their heads, like schoolmasters goaded to fury by the pranks of their pupils.

A whole literature, a full-blown comic art, were born of this conflict. Under its inspiration I wrote a fable several years ago, which I told for the first time in 1914, at Columbia University. Its title is ‘The Battle of the Ox and the Flea.’ This fable is on the way to become a prophecy. In the end, let me say, the flea conquers the ox.


One other cause which prevented the Alsatians from appreciating Germany lay in the fact that they were called on to pay the expenses of the conquerors’ megalomania. The Germans had found the country financially prosperous, and they lost no time in drawing heavily on this prosperity. A people forced periodically to contribute money for the greater glory of an empire that sees fit to give dazzling expression to its superiority by means of pompous buildings, may well form a liking for simplicity. Enormous and perfectly useless expenditures were made in Alsace out of sheer vainglory; and this mad extravagance was all the more regrettable in that it served to erect buildings in the worst of taste. The spectacle afforded by that newer part of Strasburg of which the Germans are so proud is a painful ordeal for the æsthetic sense. Everything is massive and graceless. These clumsy productions of an architecture that seeks to astound the spectator are indeed deadly sins against the serene laws of Beauty!

Let me say a few words concerning the impression made in Alsace by German customs. This impression, I regret to say, was a bad one. As the carrying on of the campaign of germanization fell further and further beneath the dignity of self-respecting men, the standard of the functionaries and representative officials of the Empire grew lower. The task which was theirs could not tempt people with any degree of personal honor. The result was that Alsace became the prey of a swarm of office-holders who were little respected in their own country. Heavy drinkers, makers of debts, loose in their private conduct, married to women who often paid little heed to household duties, these accredited pioneers of Germanism shocked and outraged the Alsatians’ sense of propriety. They could not reconcile themselves to seeing administrative officials or professors reeling home drunk late at night, making an uproar in the streets, and treating as imbeciles those who took exception to their conduct.

The pressure, moreover, brought to bear by the central German government on the Alsatian populace through the intermediary of these undesirable officials, did not tend to raise the general moral tone. Imagine the situation of these people, restricted in every way by the domination of foreigners. It was impossible for them to be outspoken. They were forced to assume an appearance of docility in order to escape being treated as pariahs. Their children at school were not only taught history which was completely falsified in so far as the past relations of France and Alsace were concerned, but they were instructed to question their parents and get them to talk on this subject. Fathers were spied on by their sons. A general spirit of mutual distrust was the natural outcome of this system of espionage. In Alsace, when more than half a dozen persons were gathered together, it was almost impossible to discuss anything. The results of such a régime may be left to the imagination. The rascal prospered at the expense of the honest citizen. The skilled dissimulator made his way, while the man who could not lie readily or who disdained double dealing, was regarded with suspicion and let severely alone. The end of it all was that the inferior elements climbed into power, and the flower of the country was dispossessed.

The last few years before this great war, when I was traveling in Germany, I spoke without restraint to colleagues and friends concerning this sad state of affairs. They could not believe what I told them; they knew nothing about it. When I gave them facts and entered into details, they were filled with shame. Yes, in Alsace great Germany was little; she was Kleinisch — petty.

I shall never forget the last of these visits, which I made in 1914. I was delivering at that time some pedagogical lectures on the subject of introducing a genial element into the moral instruction of the young. I had furnished illustrations of my method in a volume of lessons, which was translated into German, entitled Par le Sourire. At Leipzig, Frankfort, and Berlin I spoke before mixed audiences of pupils and teachers, and addressed thousands and thousands of children in great churches. It gave me the greatest pleasure to speak familiarly with the instructors of this rising generation, as well as to commune directly with the souls of the children themselves. In spite of alarming symptoms which were more or less in evidence everywhere, I persisted in believing that the friendly contact of French and Germans on the common territory of scholarship could but bode well for the future, and possibly put off the terrible day of the conflagration.

Four months later we were awakened by the sound of battle-thunder. The German nation, blindly following its leaders, had laid aside the pacific campaign of expansion which had succeeded so admirably, and risked everything in the horrible game of war. Now, between us and those people whom I met on the most charming of meetinggrounds, where the souls of little children grow, there flows an impassable river whose waves are of blood: a torrent of crime and savage devastation. At the mere thought of it the heart of the disciple of Jesus is transfixed as with a sword. But from our agony God brings forth Light and Liberty.


Those who ponder over these matters will discern one terrible fact — a fact which stands out as a great objectlesson to prove the vanity of brute force, the accursed nature of tyranny, the sure punishment of those who dare lay impious hands on that which constitutes the sanctuary of human dignity. Consider now what a repercussion was necessarily caused in France by the increasingly ignominious treatment inflicted on Alsace by Germany, culminating in the deplorable Zabern incident, the scandalous nature of which caused a wave of indignation to sweep across all Germany. Unfortunately, the manner in which this protest was hushed up shows clearly to what an intoxication of power militarism had attained.. Now its most hideous excesses could not be restrained or punished.

In spite of everything, however, God is witness that neither we Frenchmen nor our government would have resorted to war to deliver Alsace. We knew only too well what France and Alsace would suffer from such a war, in which, by the very nature of things, brothers and friends would be drawn into opposing camps and would murder one another. The tragic horror of such a prospect prevented us from wishing that this question should ever be settled by force of arms. Since Germany, however, has unchained this war and aligned against her all the living forces of free nations, one of the inevitable results of victory must be the ending of the Alsace-Lorraine scandal. The victim must be taken from those who have so long been torturing it.

How many young French and Alsatian heroes have died saluting the distant dawn of the Day of Justice! This day must be fulfilled. But no scales will ever be devised by man which can weigh the sufferings of Alsace; no measure can be found for the strength of soul with which she has borne the terrible trials that have been her portion since 1870. God alone, the incorruptible judge, the witness of hidden anguish, can make this appraisal.