Porous BordersJeremy Black says that European states attempted to consolidate their sovereignty behind well-defined borders between themselves and other states (kicking out foreign princes who might have a claim on some piece of territory). Unfortunately, creating these well-defined borders meant that they gave up on expanding within Europe (imperialism was therefore projected outside of Europe, especially into Africa).
Territorial integration was an obsession for France. Lacking representative institutions like Britain, the borders of the territory–represented by the mystical hexagonne (seeing as France looks vaguely like an irregular hexagon)–took on greater importance. During the reign of Louis XIV the hexagon had one “open side” in the East: he hoped to expand his rule all the way to the Rhine River. To this end, French rule in Alsace was left vague (defined as a territory of the king rather than part of the country), and policies that were implemented in the interior were not on the other side of the Vosges Mountains in Alsace. As Louis XIV instructed, “Don’t meddle in the affairs of Alsace!”
However, the dream of expanding at the expense of the German principalities and archbishoprics of the Holy Roman Empire faded, and French monarchs were faced with the dilemma of incorporating “l’Est” (Alsace as well as Franche-Comte and Lorraine) into France and making the border with Germany permanent.
The border was always more porous than French governments would want. Alsace was always open to the movement of people, goods and ideas along the Rhine (and sometimes across it). By the eighteenth century, the French cities on the Rhine were already tied into overland trade between Northern Europe and the Mediterranean. Strasbourg profited from the commerce between United Provinces, Switzerland and Italy. Colmar was a center for the movement of Alsatian wines into Europe.
The Strasbourgeoisie relished their role in the geography of philosophy: they promoted “a city of ideas in France” that was open to philosophical thought produced in “the north”. The university brought in Germans from throughout the empire to study at the university. They were men who wanted to experience French ideas and language in a forgiving environment. I have already written somewhat about the circle of German writers who formed around Goethe and Lenz, founding the Sturm und Drang. The circulation of people continued as long as Alsace was part of France: Joseph Ludwig Colmar became the Bishop of Speyer and became an important figure in the restoration of Catholicism in Germany. Ketzinger, the future mayor of Strasbourg and prefect of Bas-Rhin, was a refugee in Koblenz and, ironically, played both sides of the Revolution as he worked for both Napoleon and Metternich.
During the Revolution, geography magnified these characteristics of Alsace but also placed it in a precarious position. Strasbourg was the entry point for Revolutionary ideas into the German world. Strasbourg had early connections to the Jacobin Republic of Mainz, the two being “sister cities in revolution”. Several German refugees used Strasbourg as a place from which to print pamphlets for distribution in their home towns. But Alsace was also under constant threat of war. Strasbourg was used as a staging ground for French forces to attack into the Rhine. The eastern frontier was threatened continuously with invasion from Austria and Prussia from the north.
After the defeat of Napoleon’s empire, France grappled more directly with the ambiguous borders of Alsace. The Bourbon and Orleans monarchies attempted to cleave Alsace to France economically by cutting off its ties with Germany. At various times, the movement of goods between Alsace and Germany was restricted and prohibited. Embargoes were deleterious for the Alsatian economy, which depended on commerce. In particular, Alsatians relied on food stuffs produced across the river in Swabia for both nourishment and to supply various industries in luxury foods. The results were riots and the profiting of smuggling.
French officials had difficulties preventing the entry of revolutionaries and their ideas into Alsace. The departments were inundated by rumors–nouvelles absured–that came from foreign newspapers that came from Germany and Switzerland. False information was spread about the return of Napoleon or such-and-such plan to annex Alsace. The prefects failed to prevent the entry of German papers or to introduce news from the interior.
German political refugees poured in. Refugees used Strasbourg, as before, as a staging ground for further agitation. One of them, Joseph Goerres, alarmed the French because of his writings (perhaps because of a pamphlet wherein he dreamed of a united Rhenish Republic that would include Alsace). Mayor Ketzinger had to vouch for him. Other Germans found there way to Strasbourg in the 1920s, in particular Friedrich List (nationalist economist) and Charles Follen (who would have a career in American politics)([On edit]: Follen became an educator in Massachusetts, setting up a German-style Gymmasium in Northampton).
Alsatians played this game as well, exporting revolution to German states. Several newspapers printed news for German readers that would be censored by German papers . University students were arrested for seditious activities in German cities. French officials tried to stop the revolutionary activities of Alsatians in Germany, but to know avail.
At least one official tried to put these activities in context. The prefect of the police recognized that politics in Strasbourg and other cities was directly affected by things that happened in Germany, but they were manifested differently because the political contexts of the two countries were different:
The movement in Germany toward representative ideas is related to the political discussion in Strasbourg, with the essential difference that, in this city, one wants only to preserve constitutional government, whereas in Germany one clamors to establish it.
Alsace could not help but be affected by the political events in Germany, and it had a stake in their outcome. But there were few official who recognized that Alsace was in two worlds–one on the periphery of France, the other German–and even fewer who tried to affect policy to account for this reality. The vision of territorial integrity of France would not allow for such porous borders.
French policies over the border affected the worldview of Alsatians. Unwilling to be Frenchmen on the frontier, they cultivated a sense of being at the center of Europe, a conceit that held some truth. Alsatians started to see themselves as the bridge between Western Civilization and the rest of Europe. Alsatians would not be the only ones who would develop this attitude: the bourgeoisie of other Rhenish cities would do the same. But they had similar experiences of living profitably from the border but being handicapped politically by the policies of their faraway capitals.