Saturday, September 18, 2004

An unloved autonomy part II

Read Part I

The 1911 constitution was a disappointment. It provided autonomy for the province (except in military matters and foreign affairs, to which it deferred to the Hohenzollerns). Even though autonomy might have been an improvement for a people who were subjects of the empire, it did not satisfy their desire to influence the affairs of the empire. Alsace-Lorraine had limited representation in the Reichstag. It had not control over its votes in the federal council (in fact, their three votes would not be counted if they were needed to produce a majority—they could only be used to approve of non-controversial measures). The Reichsland failed to achieve parity with the other German states. Their drive for federalism was frustrated.

Worse than that, the 1911 constitution failed to make progress toward the republic. During talks over the reforms, some Alsatian representatives raised the question of whether the relationship with the imperial crown should be retained: should Berlin continue to appoint the head of government? It was argued that keeping close to the Hohenzollerns (while remaining independent of Prussia) might provide financial advantages. The public disapproved. However, reforms stalled.

A group of Alsatian politicians negotiated with Berlin in secret, compromising in a number of areas. The Statthalter was retained. Furthermore, a bicameral legislature was created, to which half of the legislators of the lower house (the senate in this case) were appointed by Berlin. The revelation of the compromise cause a scandal that humiliated the politicians (of course, they were appointed to the lower house), but it gave the Reich the votes it needed to push through the new constitution.

For the next seven years Alsatian politicians pushed for new reforms. Even though Alsatians had more freedom from the empire, autonomy was despised. During World War One, the prerogatives of Reichsland were limited by war powers acts—Germans stopped trusting Alsatians.

The constitution reform was seen as an area in which Alsatians could get some leeway. Ricklin, the president of the upper house, and other legislators promised that they would pledge complete loyalty to the Reich and reject any French claims to Alsace and Lorraine if federal reforms were put in place and peace negotiations began. Berlin did not listen until it was too late: in Summer 1918, the same politicians turned their backs on reforms proposed by Statthalter Schwander, saying that the fate of Alsace and Lorraine would be decided by the allies.

Coming out of the war Alsace had an established political culture. Republic and federation were the continuing drive. And despite the constitution issue, Alsatians had made progress by knitting together what rights they did win from the Reich: an assembly that had legislative powers independent from appointed prefects; budget authority; provincial ministries; the ability to adjust taxes for the needs of either enterprise or welfare. If the influence of French republicanism had made its way into Alsatian politics, some of the worst aspects had not: secularization and centralization. Indeed, there was a strong tendency to de-concentrate (not just decentralize) authority down to the lowest levels of government.

Alsatian political culture was put under strain as the territories were de-annexed to France. Foche had promised that Alsace-Lorraine would not be re-conquered. Alsatians had made progress of their own realizing the republic, and Foche realized that they had something to contribute to France. He called for fusion, a concept that intrigued Alsatians.

However, French republican culture could not tolerate federalism. France was one and indivisible. They insisted that reforms to the French system could not occur until Alsace-Lorraine had fully accepted the French constitution and law. Relations were at an impasse. Instead of reforms or reintegration, France took over the administration set up by Germany. The Berlin-appointed Statthalter was replaced by a Paris-appointed Commissaire-general. The legislature was reduced to an advisor body. The German system prevailed.


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