French History @ IHR: Alison Carrol, The Return of Alsace to France in 1918

Date & Place: Monday 15 February, in the Wolfson Room NB02, IHR Basement, North block, Senate House

Speakers: Alison Carrol (Brunel)

Paper Title: The Return of Alsace to France in 1918

Chair: Andrew Smith (UCL)

Click HERE to listen to an mp3 recording of the paper (right click to save).

Hansi's 'Passage du Rhin'
Hansi’s ‘Passage du Rhin’

Borders are curious things. Alison Carrol began by discussing how borders were, as Peter Sahlins described “privileged site for the articulation of national distinctions”. Yet, she stressed, these physical and symbolic limits of the nation were contradictory spaces of both clarity and ambiguity. Carrol’s paper focussed on the border between France and Germany, and how border crossings provided insight into the reintegration of Alsace into the French Republic in 1918.

After the First World War, the redrawing of the Franco-German border was a complicated task, yet it was also a consultative and cooperative process. Carrol described the Delimitation Committees which considered local institutions and land use in their plotting of the limits between the two former combatants. At the local level, historic property ownership across the border communities hinted at centuries of entanglements, and could complicate the drawing up of boundaries. This was shown through the example of Waldenwisse in the Moselle, where the remapping of railway tunnels evoked local protest, and led the Delimitation Committee to modify its border plan. This demonstrated the extent to which the 19th century penchant for “neatness” in borders had waned, and the interwar period began with a nuanced appreciation of necessary “messiness”

By looking at how border guards reacted to border crossings, Carrol showed how attitudes changed after 1918. Initially, considerations of crossing focussed largely on the needs of local borderland communities. Allowances were made for shopping, for family emergencies, and so on. Yet suspicions developed around the “national ambiguity” of Alsatians. Guards worried that identity papers didn’t truly convey feeling of national identity, and that some of the people who presented French documents had complimentary German papers stashed away elsewhere. The sense of an abiding German sympathy clashed with the ideas of Alsace’s inherent Frenchness. This echoed a broader disappointment after 1918, that the ‘lost provinces’ mythologised in popular French society were not behaving quite as they were expected to. Thus, in the early 1920s, border guards largely surveyed borderlanders in terms of their loyalty to France.

Hansi's depiction of Expelled Germans after 1918
Hansi’s depiction of Expelled Germans after 1918

This was not constant, however, and changed with the prevailing political winds. After the occupation of the Ruhr in January 1923, a series of politically motivated boycotts divided borderland communities. The passive resistance encouraged by Weimar authorities included the boycott of French economic interests, though this could not outlast economic collapse. By 1924, those crossing into Alsace were often shopping for basic necessities. Authorities suspected, however, that German agents were crossing alongside these migrants. Rumours about the security of the French Franc, they felt, had been started by Germans trying to maliciously destabilise the economy.

These sorts of suspicions only grew, as the turbulence of the 1920s yielded to the gathering storm of the 1930s. Hitler’s accession in 1933 raised the temperature on the Alsatian border, and border controllers noted a massive surge in illicit border crossings. These were, they suspected, spies, refugees, and smugglers. Yet, they also worried about provocative attempts to create diplomatic incidents, as reports of Germans looking for passage in return for military secrets passed along the border. Protests about refugees in Strasbourg in 1933 were policed nervously by French authorities, worried about appearing anti-German and provoking a diplomatic spat. These new crossings in the 1930s threatened to drag France into war, and so border guards were no longer so concerned about loyalty to France, as they were about broader political implications. The problems of the local community were replaced by the problems of international diplomacy.

By looking at the border, the region, and the nation, Carrol showed how shifting lenses can illustrate different aspects of politics and identity. In illustrating changing attitudes around Alsace, Carrol stressed how interactions with the border reflected broader shifts in Franco-German relations, and also in the region’s own identity. The ‘messiness’ of the border was considered in relation to France’s key concerns about Alsace: firstly in terms of its national reintegration, and then as a territory vulnerable to Nazi Germany. This meant the “national ambiguity” of Alsace as a cultural bridge over the Rhine became more problematic as definition became more important. Gone was the cooperative spirit of the Delimitation Committees, to be replaced by jealously guarded border posts and suspicions of clandestine activity. This, in turn, showed the ambiguity of the border: it was at once a site where France was most clearly defined, and also a spot in which it was most vulnerable, and national identities most suspect.


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