Alsace And Lorraine: Territory, Antecedents, World Wars

Alsace and Lorraine are two of the areas that make up the Great East Region, in France. This administrative division came into force in 2016, but it is expected that by 2021 a new territorial entity called the European Collectivity of Alsace will be formed. Both territories are in the east of the country, bordering Germany.

It has been this geographical location that has marked the history of both territories. Its possession has been a constant source of conflict between France and Germany, especially since the 19th century.

After having belonged to France since the seventeenth century, Alsace and Lorraine passed into German hands after the war that faced both countries in 1870 and that ended the following year with German victory. The victors then created the Imperial Territory of Alsace and Lorraine, a situation that remained until the First World War .

At the end of the conflict, Alsace and Lorena declared their independence. This lasted only a few days, since the French army occupied both territories without problems. The Treaty of Versailles confirmed French sovereignty, which remained unchanged until the German invasion during World War II. The Nazi defeat restored control of both areas to the French.

Historical background

Since the last stage of the Roman Empire, the various peoples and governments located on both sides of the Rhine have disputed the dominion of Alsace and Lorraine. Its geographical situation has marked that claims on its sovereignty have been constant throughout the centuries.

Alsace is located in the western part of the Rhine Valley. Geographically it is located in the so-called Alsace plain, delimited by the Vosges Mountains and the Jura Mountains.

Historically, this region belonged to the Holy German Empire for many years. At that time it was governed by the Bishop of Strasbourg, its most important city. Later, it came under the rule of the Habsburgs.

For its part, Lorena borders three different countries: Luxembourg, Belgium and Germany, in addition to Alsace. This location has been responsible for it having belonged alternately to France and Germany.

16th and 17th centuries in Alsace

The Thirty Years’ War had a major impact on Alsace. This conflict ended in 1648, when the contenders signed the Treaty of Westphalia. This agreement led to Alsace becoming part of France, although the articles were not very specific. The territory was able to maintain some autonomy within the country.

Thirty years later, France strengthened its control over the territory. In 1681, the French army occupied Strasbourg, a situation that was reflected in the Treaty of Ryswick that ended the War of the Great Alliance in 1697.

Despite French sovereignty, Alsace was a region with a strong German cultural component, beginning with the language. This characteristic led the government of Paris not to repress the growing presence of Protestantism, something that it did in the rest of the country. This situation remained relatively stable until after the French Revolution.

16th and 17th centuries in Lorraine

For its part, Lorraine had suffered a series of invasions by France from the middle of the 16th century. Later, in 1633, Louis XIII conquered the city of Nancy

In 1659, with the signing of the Treaty of the Pyrenees, the region returned to being an independent Duchy when it got rid of the French presence. These, with Louis XIV on the throne, did not resign themselves to losing the territory and, in 1670, invaded it again.

The monarch tried to gain the confidence of the town through important economic investments, but the Treaty of Ryswick (1697) ended French sovereignty and reestablished the independent Duchy of Lorraine. The new duke, Leopold I, managed to make the area experience years of great splendor.

Imperial Territory of Alsace and Lorraine

The next great historical event to affect these two territories was the Franco-Prussian War. This faced the Second French Empire of Napoleon III and Prussia and its Germanic allies.

The main causes of the war were the Prussian claim to unify all the territories of Germanic culture and the French expansionist intentions. Among his intentions was to annex Luxembourg.

The conflict began in July 1870 and ended in May of the following year with the defeat of the French.

The Treaty of Frankfurt

Although all the conditions that the Prussians imposed on the French at the end of the conflict were contained in the Peace of Versailles, the official ratification of the armistice was signed on May 10, 1871.

The Treaty of Frankfurt, name that received this ratification, included among its clauses that Alsace and Lorraine would pass into German hands.

As part of the agreement, the winners granted a period of more than one year so that all the inhabitants of both regions could emigrate to France. The result was that 5% of residents decided to remain French citizens. Those who preferred to stay received German nationality.

Imperial territory

With the territorial division that emerged from the Franco-Prussian war, the northern area of ​​Lorraine was incorporated into the newly created German Empire.

For their part, the areas with inhabitants of German culture from Alsace also passed to the Empire. This broke the territorial unity of the region, as the Belfort area remained in France.

The new imperial territory of Alsace and Lorraine did not acquire the status of a component state of the Empire, but was ruled directly from Berlin. It was the Emperor who appointed the governor and the ministers.

During those years of German rule, the policies developed oscillated between conciliation and harshness. An example of the latter were the laws that limited the use of French, something that ended up causing a negative reaction from the population.

For its part, the loss of these regions caused a growth of French nationalist sentiment. This led to the emergence of organizations such as the “Défense de L’Alsace-Lorraine”, which developed increasingly aggressive anti-German propaganda actions.

First World War

The tension between the European powers ended up leading to the outbreak of the First World War. One of the causes of the conflict was the dispute over the sovereignty of Alsace and Lorraine between France and the German Empire.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the French had drawn up a plan of attack (Plan XVII) to try to recover those territories if the moment was right. For their part, the Germans had designed the so-called Schlieffen Plan to conquer France in the event that a war began.

When the war broke out, at the end of July 1914, the two high command put their plans in motion. The French mobilized their troops from the south to head towards Alsace and Lorraine, while Germany conquered Belgium and northern France in a very short time.

The French army was, soon, stagnant in its advance, so it had to rule out a rapid occupation of Alsace and Lorraine.

Meanwhile, the Germans decided to avoid that the soldiers coming from those two regions had to fight against the French given the historical and family ties they maintained. Instead, they were sent to the eastern front or assigned to the imperial navy.

Independent Republic of Alsace-Lorraine

The defeat of the central powers, including Germany, caused the Emperor to abdicate. Lorraine and Alsace, which were governed directly from Berlin, suffered a power vacuum as they did not have their own government.

As was happening in other areas of the country, part of the Alsace-Lorraine sailors proceeded to create a Soldiers’ Council, based in Strasbourg. Without meeting resistance, this Council took control of the city, aided by some workers’ committees. The motto of the revolt was: “Neither Germany nor France nor neutrals.”

The so-called Strasbourg Regime declared the independence of Alsace and Lorraine on November 11, 1918. The form of the new state was the Republic.

The French government, however, was not going to allow the independence of its former regions. On November 16, his troops occupied Mulhouse and on the 21st they reached Strasbourg. After this, the short-lived Republic of Alsace-Lorraine came to an end and both territories came under French sovereignty.

The Paris government divided the territory into several different departments: the Upper Rhine, the Lower Rhine, and the Moselle.

Treaty of Versailles

With the Treaty of Versailles, which established the reparations that the defeated had to face due to the war, Alsace and Lorraine officially became part of France, with the same borders as before 1871.

Part of the population of those territories, that of German culture, showed their rejection of the French attempts to impose their language. This led to the emergence of some secret societies that sought, in some cases, to obtain some autonomy from the central government or, in others, even to return to Germany.

Second World War

German nationalism, in this case led by the Nazi party, once again put Alsace and Lorraine among its targets. This party promised to unify under German control all the areas that it considered Germanic, in addition to accusing the Treaty of Versailles of humiliating the country.

World War II began in 1939, but it was not until the following year that German troops entered France. In a short time, they managed to reach Paris and defeat the French.

Alsace and Mosel (area belonging to Lorraine) were annexed by a series of secret laws promulgated by the Hitler government. With this legislation, Germany decreed that this region came under German rule and that its inhabitants could be enlisted in the army.

For its part, the rest of Lorraine was incorporated into the province of Saarland. In addition to introducing compulsory military service, most of the youth in the region had to join the Hitler Youth.

German defeat

After the Normandy landings, American troops entered Alsace and Lorraine. After the war ended, both regions returned to French hands.

The French government began a process of denazification of Alsace. Some 13,000 collaborators were tried for helping the occupiers.


At present, Alsace and Lorraine belong, administratively, to the Great East Region. This was formed on January 1, 2016, through a law that reformed the French territorial structure.

This new territorial organization was not to the liking of the Alsatians. Several organizations affirm that there is a risk that the culture of the region will end up disappearing.

An agreement signed between the regional authorities and the French government will result in the formation of a new territorial body. This change will take effect on January 1, 2021, under the name of the European Union of Alsace.


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