Saturday, September 18, 2004

An unloved autonomy part I

This is an outline of the development of Alsatian political culture leading up to the return to France in 1918-1919. While part of Germany (1871-1911), the territories of Alsace and Lorraine were administered by representatives of Berlin as if they were a subject people. Indeed, the appellation Alsace-Lorraine was a short-hand for the more descriptive name: Reichsland—the territories that were jointly administered by all the other German states for their mutual benefit, but not for the Alsatians and Lorrains.


During this period Alsatians focused on two concepts, ‘republic’ and ‘federation’, in order to argue for the creation of a province that would be an expression of popular sovereignty and that would have parity with other German states. In 1911 the Reich gave autonomy to Alsace, something which it did not want.

The republic was an alternative to arbitrary regimes. At the time of annexation, criticism of Napoleon III and Bonapartism was gaining strength—republicanism was becoming more prominent. Under the Second Reich, Alsace-Lorraine was subjected to an appointed official who acted as the Statthalter (representative of the kingdom in the territory). The German imperial house, the Hohenzollerns, wanted to make Alsace-Lorraine part of the family possessions—a territory given to a son who would not become the Kaiser.

Alsatians looked to the republic in order to reject the creation of a ruling house for the territory. Politicians like Emile Wetterle (a Catholic cleric, newspaper publisher, and deputy to the Reichstag (imperial legislature)) kept tabs on the changes in French republicanism and translated them into Alsatian political activism. Pushing for rights for the territories, Alsatian politicians demanded a unicameral legislature elected by popular vote and a ministerial government that was drawn from the legislature. Indeed, Wetterle and other politicians pointed out that republicanism was not incompatible with the politics of the Reich: Hamburg was a republic.

Federalism was also an issue under the French Second Empire. Of course, it is common everywhere for the party that is not in power to argue that the central government has too much authority, and this was certainly the case in France: anti-Bonapartists argued that Paris was too powerful. Federalism was also part of the German constitution. It was the basis for the aggregation of German principalities in the First Reich (Holy Roman Empire). Technically, federalism was also the basis for the Second Reich as well: the empire was made up of kingdoms and duchies that had their own governments and domestic policies. However, Prussia easily dominated: the constitution gave it more votes in the federal council (Bundesrat), and it had more population (more legislators in lower house), a larger economy, a larger army, etc. Simply, Prussia undermined federalism with its power and influence. Furthermore, Prussia controlled all of the federal votes for the Reichsland.

Alsatian politicians hoped both to gain control of their federal votes and to restore the balance between states at minimum by limiting votes on the federal council by weighting states by population. Furthermore, they raised questions about the integrity of Prussia itself as it was not supposed to encompass all the territory that the Hohenzollerns held.

By 1904 Berlin had been convinced that the Alsatian constitution must be reformed, and that the status of the Reichsland must be changed. Alsatian politicians took this as an opportunity to see reforms of the greater German constitution. However, Berlin had other desires: the voice of Alsatians had become to problematic, and calls for reform had infected other areas of the Reich (especially Catholic minorities). Wanting to limit the influence of Alsatian political culture in German politics, the Reich pushed for autonomy for the Reichsland.

Read part II

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