Alsatians are the German-speaking people of the French region of Alsace, located between the Vosges Mountains and the German border in the departments of Bas-Rhin and Haut-Rhin. There are perhaps 1.5 million speakers of German dialects in this region. There is no single Alsatian dialectal variant, although High German is used as the written standard. Today, most Alsatians are bilingual, French as the official language having grown rapidly in the region since the 1940s.
The region was historically and culturally long part of the Rhineland—throughout the Roman era and that of the Holy Roman Empire. In the ninth and tenth centuries it was part of Lotharingia, and later of the duchy of Swabia. In the mid-1600s it was ceded to France at the end of the Thirty Years' War. In 1791 the whole region became part of France, only to be ceded once again to Germany eighty years later at the end of the Franco-German War. Although it changed political hands often between France and Germany, its cultural affiliation never wavered from a Germanic focus, there being little effort on the part of the French government to disrupt traditional and linguistic practice in the region (except in religious matters) until the late 1700s. This situation changed dramatically with the French Revolution, during which a decree was issued that all citizens unable to speak French were to be shot or deported to the interior. Still, supporters of the retention of an Alsatian identity, including a linguistic identity, remained—among them the Catholic church. It was not until the 1850s that French became the official language of primary instruction, and German never ceased being the Language of the people at home, for worship, and in day-to-day affairs. Severe upheavals began in the mid-to late 1800s, as Alsace became the focus of territorial dispute between France and Germany, and the region changed political hands four times more. However much Alsatians resisted cultural and linguistic assimilation into France, they equally resisted Germanization during their periods under Teutonic control. The "Alsatian predicament" was a difficult one by this period. While political and territorial disputes raged over their heads, the people maintained that their traditional loyalty belonged to the region, rather than the region's rulers. In this century, the tensions between the two elements of Alsatian culture heightened, and Alsatian society was torn—as a war memorial in Strasbourg, depicting a woman grieving for her two fallen brothers, profoundly expresses. The male figures of the statue are represented as having fought, and died, on opposing sides. After World War I, when control of the region reverted to the French, a period of repression of Germanic culture ensued, giving rise to strong regionalist movements that coalesced in the formation of political parties seeking Regional autonomy, even separation and self-rule. Through the late 1920s and early 1930s, these movements reached their height, but with the rise of Hitler's Nazi party, attention again turned to the region's vulnerability to invasion and conquest. Alsace was one of Germany's earliest French conquests during World War II, and it has been said that the imposition of Nazi rule did more to further French loyalty than any French administrative or political action could ever have done. Although some local leaders collaborated with the occupiers, the region's general population participated heavily in the Resistance. In 1945, in reaction to the brutality of the German occupation, the people of Alsace turned away from autonomist movements for a time. Even the teaching of German in the schools was legally suspended for nearly a decade, so that while the language remained current in spoken form, literacy in German fell to about 20 percent. In the 1970s, a new movement toward reviving the Germanic aspects of Alsatian tradition arose, as did a nascent autonomist movement—the latter inspired largely as reaction against the centralism of the French state.
Although its lands are fertile, and the region's iron and coal mines have long constituted a source of wealth, Alsace's long history of political insecurity and the devastation wrought by the two world wars have impoverished the region. Its heavy industry, which is based on iron and textiles, consists primarily of small enterprises that are not fully competitive with their more highly developed counterparts in Switzerland, Germany, and the Netherlands. The new autonomist movements seek to turn this situation around by gaining greater control over economic and social development policy.
Paralleling this desire to increase the regional voice in economic decision making has been a resurgence of interest in promoting the region's linguistic heritage and establishing a recognized body charged with the preservation and development of Alsatian culture. Although the issues of separatism that arose in the prewar years do not form a part of the new movement, the French government has been less than supportive to date, holding that the "unitary state" of France depends upon assimilation.
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NANCY E. GRATTON