The Role of Force in History, Engels 1887

Chapter Four

Alsace had been conquered in the main by France during the Thirty Years’ War. Richelieu had thereby abandoned Henry IV’s sound principle:

“Let the Spanish language belong to the Spaniard, the German to the German, but where French is spoken, that belongs to me.”

In so doing, Richelieu relied on the principle of the natural border on the Rhine, the historical border of old Gaul. This was folly; but the German Empire, which incorporated the French-speaking parts of Lorraine and Belgium and even of the Franche-Comté, had no right to reproach France with annexing German-speaking lands. And even if, in 1681, in peacetime, Louis XIV had seized Strassburg with the help of a pro-French party in the city, it is not for Prussia to be indignant over it, having raped the Free Imperial town of Nuremberg in exactly the same way in 1796, although, to be sure, without having been called by a Prussian party, and without success.

[Louis XIV is reproached with having set loose his “reunion chambers”, in times of peace on German areas which did not belong to him. This is something that could not be said of the Prussians even by those who had the most malicious envy of them. On the contrary. After they had signed a separate peace with France in 1795 in direct violation of the imperial constitution and had rallied their equally renegade small neighbours behind the demarcation line around themselves in the first North German Confederation, they utilised, for attempts to annex territory in Franconia, the tight spot the South German estates of the empire found themselves in as a result of continuing the war alone in alliance with Austria. They set up reunion chambers according to Louis’ pattern in Ansbach and Bayreuth (which were then Prussian), raised claims to a series of neighbouring areas, in comparison with which Louis’ legal pretexts were absolutely convincing; and when the Germans then retreated after a beating and the French moved into Franconia, the Prussian saviours occupied the Nuremberg area, including the suburbs up to the city wall, and tricked the Nuremberg philistines, who were trembling with fear, into signing a treaty (September 2, 1796) which subjected the city to Prussian rule on the condition that Jews would never be allowed within the city walls. Immediately after that, Archduke Charles took the offensive again, beat the French at Würzburg on September 3 and 4, 1796, and the attempt to knock the idea of Prussia’s German mission into the heads of the Nurembergers thus went up in smoke.]

Lorraine was sold off to France in 1735 by Austria under the Peace of Vienna, and in 1766 it definitively became a French possession. For centuries it had belonged to the German Empire only nominally, its dukes were French in every respect and had almost always been allied with France.

Before the French Revolution, there were a great many small domains in the Vosges which behaved in respect to Germany like estates of the empire subject immediately to the emperor, but recognised the sovereignty of France. They derived benefits from this hermaphroditic position, and if the German Empire tolerated it instead of calling these sovereigns to account, it could not complain when France, by virtue of its sovereignty, extended protection to the people of these territories against the expelled princes.

On the whole, before the Revolution, this German territory was practically not Frenchified at all. German remained the school and official language internally, at least in Alsace. The French Government patronised the German provinces, which now, after many years of war devastation, had seen no more enemies on their lands since the early 18th century. The German Empire, perpetually torn by internal wars, was really not in a state to attract the Alsatians back to the maternal bosom; at least they now had peace and quiet, knew how things stood, and the philistines who set the tone accepted the inscrutable ways of the Lord; after all, their fate was not unprecedented: the people of Holstein were also under foreign, Danish, rule.

Then came the French Revolution. What Alsace and Lorraine never dared hope to receive from Germany was given to them by France as a gift. The feudal fetters were smashed. The serf, the peasant liable to statute labour, became a free man, in many cases the free owner of his farmstead and field. In the towns, patrician rule and guild privileges disappeared. The nobility was driven out. In the lands of the small princes and lords, the peasants followed the example of their neighbours and expelled the sovereigns, government chambers and nobility, and declared themselves free French citizens. In no other part of France did the people join the revolution with greater enthusiasm than in the German-speaking part. And when the German Empire now declared war on the revolution, when the Germans, who not only continued to carry their own chains submissively, but also allowed themselves to be used once again to force the old servitude upon the French and to re-impose on the Alsatian peasants the feudal lords they had only just expelled, now it was all over with the Germanism of the people of Alsace and Lorraine, it was then that they learned to hate and despise the Germans; it was then that the Marseillaise was written in Strasbourg, set to music and first sung by the Alsatians, and that the German French, despite their language and their past, fused on hundreds of battlefields in the struggle for the revolution into a single nation with the native French.

Did not the great revolution work the same miracle with the Flemings of Dunkirk, the Celts of Brittany, the Italians of Corsica? And if we complain that this happened also with Germans, does it not show that we have forgotten our entire history, which made this possible? Have we forgotten that the whole left bank of the Rhine, which took only a passive part in the revolution, was pro-French when the Germans again moved in in 1814, and continued to be pro-French up to 1848, when the revolution rehabilitated the Germans in the eyes of the people on the Rhine? Have we forgotten that Heine’s enthusiasm for the French and even his Bonapartism were but the echo of general public feeling on the left bank of the Rhine?

When the allies invaded in 1814 it was precisely in Alsace and German Lorraine that they encountered the most resolute hostility, the most vehement resistance on the part of the people themselves; because here the danger was felt of having to become German again. And yet, at that time, practically only German was spoken there. But when the danger of being torn from France had passed, when an end had been put to the annexationist appetites of the romantic Germanophile chauvinists, the awareness appeared that a closer fusion with France was needed also in respect of the language, and then the Frenchification of schools was introduced, similar to that voluntarily established by the Luxemburgers in their land. Yet the transformation proceeded very slowly; only the present generation of the bourgeoisie is really Frenchified, while the peasants and workers speak German. The position is approximately the same as in Luxemburg: literary German has been ousted by French (except partially in the pulpit), but the German folk dialect has lost ground only at the language border and is used as the popular language to a much greater extent than in most parts of Germany.

Such was the land that Bismarck and the Prussian Junkers, backed by the revival of chauvinistic romanticism which seems inseparable from all German problems, undertook to make German again. The wish to make Strasbourg, the homeland of the Marseillaise, German, was just as absurd as to make Nice, the homeland of Garibaldi, French. But in Nice, Louis Napoleon at least observed decency and put the question of annexation to the vote — and the manoeuvre succeeded. Quite apart from the fact that for very good reasons the Prussians detest such revolutionary measures — never and nowhere has there been an instance when the mass of the people wanted to be annexed to Prussia — it was known only too well that precisely here the entire population was more closely attached to France than were the native French themselves. And thus this arbitrary act was performed by brute force. It was an act of revenge against the French Revolution; one of the parts which had been fused with France precisely as a result of the revolution was torn away.

It is true that militarily there was a purpose behind this annexation. Metz and Strasbourg gave Germany an enormously strong line of defence. So long as Belgium and Switzerland remain neutral a massive French offensive can be begun only on the narrow strip of land between Metz and the Vosges; and besides, Koblenz, Metz, Strasbourg and Mainz form the strongest and biggest quadrangle of fortresses in the world. However, half of this quadrangle of fortresses, as is the case also with the Austrian fortresses in Lombardy, lies in enemy territory and forms citadels there to keep the population down. Moreover, to complete the quadrangle, it was necessary to seize areas beyond the German-language border and to annex a quarter of a million of native Frenchmen as well.

The great strategic advantage is thus the only reason that can justify the annexation. However, can this gain in any way be compared with the harm it wrought?

The Prussian Junker refused to reckon with the great moral disadvantage at which the young German Empire had placed itself by openly and frankly declaring brutal force its guiding principle. Quite the reverse, refractory subjects forcibly kept in check are a necessity for him; they are proof of increased Prussian might; and essentially he has never any others. But he was obliged to reckon with the political consequences of the annexation. And these were clearly apparent. Even before the annexation came into force, Marx loudly drew the world’s attention to it in a circular of the International: The annexation of Alsace and Lorraine makes Russia the arbiter of Europe. And this has been repeated often enough by the Social-Democrats from the rostrum of the Reichstag until the truth of this statement was finally acknowledged by Bismarck himself in his Reichstag speech of February 6, 1888, by his whimpering before the almighty Tsar, the lord of war and peace.

Actually, the situation was clear as daylight. To tear from France two of its fanatically patriotic provinces, meant to push it into the arms of anybody who held out hope for their return and to make it an eternal enemy. However, Bismarck, in this respect a worthy and conscientious representative of the German philistines, demanded that the French renounce Alsace and Lorraine not only constitutionally but also morally, and in addition wanted them to be downright glad that these two parts of revolutionary France “had been returned to the old Fatherland”, of which they simply would not hear. Unfortunately, however, the French did not do so, any more than the Germans morally renounced the left bank of the Rhine during the Napoleonic wars, even though this area had not the slightest longing to return to them at that time. As long as the people of Alsace and Lorraine wish to return to France, it must and will strive to regain them and look for means and, hence, also for allies, to achieve this. And the natural ally against Germany is Russia.

If the two biggest and strongest nations of the Western continent neutralise each other by their hostility, if there is just one bone of contention between them which incites them to fight each other, the advantage lies only with Russia, whose hands are so much the freer; Russia who is all the less hampered by Germany in its cravings for conquest, the more it can count on unconditional support from France. And was it not Bismarck who placed France in a position where it has to beg for Russia’s alliance, where it must willingly abandon Constantinople to Russia, if only the latter promises the return of France’s lost provinces? And if in spite of all that the peace has been kept for seventeen years, is there any other reason than that the Landwehr system introduced in France and Russia requires at least sixteen, and after the most recent German improvements even twenty-five years, to provide the full number of trained age groups? And now that the annexation has for seventeen years been the dominant factor in all European politics, is it not at this moment the main cause of the crisis threatening the continent with war? Remove this single fact and peace is assured!

The Alsatian bourgeois who speaks French with an Upper German accent, that hybrid fop who puts on greater French airs than a Frenchman through and through, who looks down on Goethe and goes into raptures over Racine, who still cannot rid himself of his bad conscience over his secret Germanness and exactly for that reason has to run down everything German, so that he does not even suit the role of a mediator between Germany and France, this Alsatian bourgeois is indeed a despicable fellow, be he a Mulhouse industrialist or a Paris journalist. But what has made him what he is if not the history of Germany over the past three hundred years? And were not until quite recently almost all Germans abroad, especially the merchants, genuine Alsatians, who denied their German origin, who masochistically imposed on themselves the alien nationality of their new homeland and thus voluntarily made themselves certainly no less ridiculous than the Alsatians, who at least are more or less compelled by circumstances to do so? In England, for example, the German merchants who immigrated between 1815 and 1840 had almost without exception become Anglicised, spoke almost exclusively English among themselves, and even today, for example, at the Manchester Stock Exchange, there are old German philistines running around who would give half their wealth if they could pass for true Englishmen. Only in 1848 did a change set in, and since 1870, when even lieutenants of the reserve have been coming to England and Berlin has been sending its contingents here, the former servility is being ousted by a Prussian arrogance which makes us no less ridiculous abroad.

Perhaps the union with Germany has been made more palatable to the Alsatians since 1871? On the contrary. They have been placed under a dictatorship, whereas next door, in France, there was a republic. A pedantical and obtrusive Prussian Landrat system has been introduced, in comparison with which the interference of the notorious French system of prefects, regulated by strict laws, is solid gold. An end has been rapidly put to the last remnants of freedom of the press, right of assembly and association, refractory town councils have been dissolved and German bureaucrats appointed mayors. On the other hand, however, there has been flattery of the “notables”, that is, the thoroughly Frenchified nobles and bourgeois, and their exploiter interests have been protected against the peasants and workers, who, although not well disposed towards Germany, at least spoke German, and formed the only element with which an attempt at reconciliation was possible. And what has been the result? That in February 1887, when the whole of Germany allowed itself to be intimidated and put a majority of the Bismarck cartel in the Reichstag, Alsace and Lorraine elected nothing but staunch Frenchmen and rejected everyone who was suspected of even the mildest pro-German sympathies.

Now, if the Alsatians are as they are, have we the right to be angry over that? Not at all. Their opposition to the annexation is an historical fact, which should not be deleted but explained. And this is the time for us to ask ourselves: how numerous and how colossal were the historical sins Germany committed before such a feeling could assert itself in Alsace? And how must our new German Empire look from the outside if, after seventeen years of re-Germanisation attempts, the Alsatians unanimously tell us: Spare us that? Have we the right to imagine that two successful campaigns and seventeen years of Bismarckian dictatorship suffice to do away with all the effects of three hundred years of ignominious history?