- from the book In the Land of Deepening Shadow
- 'the Iron Hand in Alsace-Lorraine'
- by D. Thomas Curtin, 1917
- American Journalist
How German is Alsace-Lorraine?
from a French romantic novelette - love and betrayal in war-time Alsace
The state of affairs in Alsace-Lorraine is one of Germany's most carefully hidden secrets.
In the first months of the war I heard so much talk in Germanytalk based upon articles in the Pressof how the Alsatians, like the rest of the Kaiser's subjects, "rushed to the defence of the Fatherland," that I was filled with curiosity to go and see for myself if they had suddenly changed. I could hardly believe that they had, for I had studied conditions in the "lost provinces " before the war.
Still, the Wilhelmstrasse propaganda was convincing millions that the Alsatians received the French very coldly when they invaded the province to Mulhouse, and that they greeted the German troops most heartily when they drove back the invader. Indeed, Alsatian fathers were depicted as rushing into the streets to cheer the German colours, while their wives and daughters "were so beside themselves with joy that they hung upon the necks of the brave German Michaels, hailing them as saviours."
A pretty picture of the appreciation of the blessings of German rule, but was it true?
Some months later in Paris, when I stood in the Place de la Concorde before the Monument of Strassburg, covered with new mourning wreaths and a British flag now added, I felt an irresistible yearning to visit the closely guarded region of secrecy and mystery.
On my subsequent trip to Germany I planned and planned day after day how I could get into Alsace and go about studying actual conditions there. When I told one American consul that I wished to go to Strassburg to see things for myself, he threw up his hands with a gesture of despair and reminded me that not an American or other consulate was allowed in Alsace-Lorraine, even in peace time. When I replied that I was determined to go he looked grave, and said earnestly: "Remember that you are going into a damn bad country, and you go at your own risk."
It is extremely difficult for Germans, to say nothing of foreigners, to enter the fortress- city of Strassburg. Business must be exceedingly urgent, and a military pass is required. A special pass is necessary to remain over night.
How did I get into Strassburg in war-time?
That is my own story, quite a simple one, but I do not propose to tell it now except by analogy, in order not to get anybody into trouble.
During my last voyage across the ocean, which was on the Dutch liner Rotterdam, I went into the fo'castle one day to talk to a stowaway, a simple young East Prussian lad, who had gone to sea and had found himself in the United States at the outbreak of war.
"How on earth did you manage to pass through the iron-clad regulations at the docks of Hoboken (New York) without a permit, and why did you do it?" I asked.
"I was home-sick," he answered, "and I wanted to go back to Germany to see my mother. I got on board quite easily. I noticed a gentleman carrying his own baggage, and I said to him, 'Can I carry your suitcases on board, sir?' "
Once on board his knowledge of ships told him how to hide.
Having myself stood for more than two hours on the quay in a long and growling queue of passengers, I could not but be amused by the simple device by which this country youth had outwitted the stringent war embarkation regulations of war-time New York. He was in due course taken off by the British authorities at Falmouth, and is now probably enjoying the sumptuous diet provided at the Alexandra Palace or the Isle of Man.
Well, that is not exactly how I got into Strassburg, but I got in.
Night had fallen when I crossed the Rhine from Baden. I was conscious of an indescribable thrill when my feet touched the soil so sacred to all Frenchmen, and I somehow felt as if I were walking in fairyland as I pushed on in the dark. I had good fortune, arising from the fact that a great troop movement was taking place, with consequent confusion and crowding.
On all sides from the surrounding girdle of forts the searchlights swept the sky, and columns of weary soldiers tramped past me on that four-mile road that led into Strassburg. I kept as close to them as possible with some other pedestrians, labourers returning from the great electric power plant.
Presently I was alone on the road when suddenly a soldier lurched from the shadows and accosted me. I let him do the talking. But there was no need to be alarmed ; he was only a drunken straggler who had got separated from his company and wanted to know whether any more troops were coming on.
I had already passed through two cordons of functionaries outside, and felt little fear in Strassburg itself, so long as I was duly cautious. I had thought out my project carefully. I realised that I must sleep in the open; for, unprovided with a pass it was impossible for me to go to an hotel. Thankful that I was familiar with my surroundings I wended my way to the beautiful park, the Orangerie, where I made myself comfortable in a clump of bushes and watched the unceasing flash of searchlights criss-cross in the sky until I fell asleep.
Next day I continued my investigations, but in Alsace as elsewhere my personal adventures are of no importance to the world unless, as in some instances, they throw light on conditions or are necessary to support statements made, whereas the facts set down belong to the history of the war. Therefore I shall here .summarise what I found in the old French province.
The Germans have treated Alsace-Lorraine ruthlessly since the outbreak of war. In no part of the Empire is the iron hand so evident. In Strassburg itself all signs of the French have disappeared. Readers who know the place well will remark that they were vanishing before the war. Externally they have now gone altogether, but the hearts and spirit of the people are as before.
What I saw reminded me of the words of a Social Democrat friend in Berlin, who told me that the Prussian Government determined at the beginning of the war that they would have no more Alsace-Lorraine problem in the future.
They have, therefore, sent the soldiers from these two provinces to the most dangerous places at the various fronts. One Alsace regiment was hurled again and again at the old British Army on the Yser in November, 1914, until at the end of a week only three officers and six men were left alive. Some of the most perilous work at Verdun was forced upon the Alsatians.
The Prussian authorities deliberately retain with the colours Alsatians and Lorrainers unfit for military service, and wounded men are not allowed to return to their homes.
In the little circle to which I was introduced in Strassburg I talked with one sorrowing woman, who said that her son, obviously in an advanced state of tuberculosis, had been called up in spite of protests. He died within three weeks. Another young man, suffering from haemorrhage of the lungs, was called up. He was forced to stand for punishment all one winter's day in the snow. In less than two months a merciful death in a military hospital released him from the Prussian clutch.
The town of Strassburg is a vast hospital. I do not think I have ever seen so many Red Cross flags before. They waved from the Imperial Palace, the public library, the large and excellent military hospitals, the schoolhouses, hotels, and private residences. The Orangerie is thronged with convalescent wounded, and when hunger directed my steps to the extensive Park Restaurant I found it, too, converted into a hospital. Even the large concert room was crowded with cots.
The glorious old sandstone Cathedral, with its gorgeous façade and lace-like spire, had a Red Cross flag waving over the nave while a wireless apparatus was installed on the spire. Sentries paced backwards and forwards on the uncompleted tower, which dominates the region to the Vosges.
The whole object of Prussia is to eliminate every vestige of French influence in the two provinces. The use of the French language, whether in speech or writing, is strictly forbidden. To print, sell, offer for sale, or purchase anything in French is to commit a crime. Detectives are everywhere on the alert to discover violations of the law. All French trade names have been changed to their German equivalents. For example, the sign Guillaume Rondée, Tailleur, has come down, and if the tradesman wants to continue in his business Wilhelm Rondée, Schneider, must go up. He may have a quantity of valuable business forms or letter-heads in Frencheven if they contain only one French word they must be destroyed. And those intimate friends who are accustomed to address him by his first name must bear in mind that it is Wilhelm.
Eloise was a milliner at the outbreak of the war. To-day, if she desires to continue her business, she is obliged to remove the final "e" and thus Germanise her name.
After having been fed in Berlin on stories of Alsatian loyalty to the Kaiser, I was naturally puzzled by these things. If Guillaume had rushed into the street to cheer the German colours when the French were driven back, and Eloise had hung upon the neck of the German Michael, was it not rather ungrateful of the Prussians subsequently to persecute them even to the stamping out of their names? Not only that, but to be so efficient in hate that even inscriptions on tombstones may no longer be written in French?
Alsace-Lorraine is to be literally Elsass-Lothringen to the last detail.
The truth of the matter is that the Alsatians greeted the French as deliverers and were depressed when they fell back. This, as might be expected, exasperated Prussia, for it was a slap in the face for her system of government by oppression. Thus, at the very time that the Nachrichtendienst (News Service) connected with the Wilhelmstrasse was instructing Germans and neutrals that the Alsatians' enthusiastic reception of German troops was evidence of their approval of German rule, the military authorities were posting quite a different kind of notice in Alsace, a notice which reveals the true story.
"During the transport of French prisoners of war a portion of the populace has given expression to a feeling of sympathy for these prisoners and for France. This is to inform all whom it may concern that such expressions of sympathy are criminal and punishable, and that, should they again take place, the persons taking part in them will be proceeded against by court-martial, and the rest of the inhabitants will be summarily deprived of the privileges they now enjoy.
"All crowding around prisoners of war, conversations with them, cries of welcome and demonstrations of sympathy of all kinds, as well as the supply of gifts, is strictly prohibited. It is also forbidden to remain standing while prisoners are being conducted or to follow the transport." The result of the persecution of the French-speaking portion of the population has been a boomerang for Prussia. The Germans of the region, most of whom never cared much for Prussia, are now bitterly hostile to her, and thus it is that all citizens of Alsace, whether French or German, who go into other parts of Germany are under the same police regulations as alien enemies, je In order to permit military relentlessness to proceed smoothly without any opposition, the very members of the local Parliament, the Strassburg Diet, are absolutely muzzled. They have been compelled to promise not to criticise at any time, or in any way, the military control; otherwise their Parliament will be closed. As for the Local Councils, they are not allowed to discuss any political questions whatsoever. A representative of the police is present at every meeting to enforce this rule to the letter.
The people do not even get the sugared Reichstag reports, as does the rest of Germany. These are specially re-censored at Mulhouse. The official reports of the General Staff are often days late, and sometimes do not appear at all. In no part of the war zone is there so much ignorance about what is happening at the various fronts as in the two "lost provinces."
Those who do not sympathise with Germany in her career of conquest upon which she so joyfully and ruthlessly embarked in August, 1914, may well point to Alsace-Lorraine as an argument against the probability of other peoples delighting in the rule which she would force upon them.
She has become more intolerant, not less, in the old French provinces. It will be recalled that by the Treaty of Frankfurt, signed in March, 1871, they became a "Reichsland," that is, an Imperial Land, not a self-governing State like Bavaria, Saxony, or Württemberg. As Bismarck bluntly and truly said to the Alsatian deputies in the Reichstag : "It is not for your sakes nor in your interests that we conquered you, but in the interests of the Empire."
For more than forty years Prussia has employed every means but kindness to Germanise the conquered territory. But though she has hushed every syllable of French in the elementary schools and forced the children to learn the German language and history only; though freedom of speech, liberty of the Press, rights of public meeting, have been things unknown ; though even the little children playing at sand castles have been arrested and fined if in their enthusiasm they raised a tiny French flag, or in the excitement of their mock contest cried "Vive la France!"; though men and women have been fined and thrown into prison for the most trifling manifestations that they had not become enthusiastic for their rulers across the Rhine; and though most of the men filling Government positionsand they are legionare Prussians, the Alsatians preserve their individuality and remain uncowed.
Having failed in two score of years to absorb them by force, Prussia during the war has sought by scientific methods carried to any extreme to blot out for ever themselves and their spirit.
To do the German credit, I believe that he is sincere when he believes that his rule would be a benefit to others and that he is genuinely perplexed when he discovers that other people do not like his regulations. The attitude which I have found in Germany towards other nationalities was expressed by Treitschke when he said, "We Germans know better what is good for Alsace than the unhappy people themselves."
The German idea of how she should govern other people is an anachronism. This idea, which I have heard voiced all over Germany, was aptly set forth before the war by a speaker on "The Decadence of the British Empire," when he sought to prove such decadence by citing the fact that there was only one British soldier to every 4,000 of the people of India. "Why," he concluded, "Germany has more soldiers in Alsace-Lorraine alone than Great Britain has in all India."
That is a bad spirit for the world, and it is a bad spirit for Germany. She herself will receive one great blessing from the war if it is hammered out of her.
- left - a cover from a French penny novelette - Alsatian hearts long for France
- right - a German view - an Alsatian maid spurns a French suitor and remains German at heart
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