Now let me think about France. In studying Paris’ most loved art dealers, gallery owners, academics and writers from 1870-1940, it occurred to me yet again that so many of them were born in Alsace or had Alsatian parents. Every one of my favourites had a German-sounding surname:
Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann (1809-91) was born in Paris, son of a family that came from Alsace. He became the most famous town-planner and renovator of Paris ever!
Captain Alfred Dreyfus (1859-1935) was born and raised in Alsace. He was a rapidly rising military officer, until he was court martialled for spying for the Germans and expelled from France. He was later exonerated.
Berthe Weill (1865–1951), art dealer and modernist gallery owner, was born in Paris to an Alsace family.
Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler (1884-1979) was born in Mannheim in Germany and went to Paris to become a fine art historian, art collector and perhaps the leading French dealer of the 20th century.
Ernest Gimpel (1858-1907) was born and educated in Alsace but worked in art with the Wildensteins and the Duveens in Paris and New York. His son René Gimpel (1881-1945) married Lord Joseph Duveen’s sister and became a prominent French art dealer and patron in Paris.
Marc Bloch (1886–1944) was born into an academic family from Alsace. The son of the professor of ancient history, Marc himself became a brilliant medieval historian in Paris.
Pierre Wertheimer (1888–1965) was a brilliant French businessman in Paris, son of a successful businessman from Alsace. His partner Théophile Bader (1864–1942), originally from Alsace, was another successful businessman and the co-founder of Galeries Lafayette in Paris.
Nathan Wildenstein left Alsace as a young man and set up an art gallery in Paris in 1905. His son Georges Wildenstein (1892–1963) began work at his father's gallery and became arguably the most important art collector, art historian and patron of post-Impressionist art in France.
Paul Rosenberg (1881–1959) worked in Paris with his brother-in-law Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler and then his partner Georges Wildenstein. But I cannot find where Paul's father, the antiques and art dealer Alexandre Rosenberg (d1913), was born and raised, before he moved to Paris.
By mid C19th the population of Alsace was 1,000,000, people living in France on the border with Germany. In the Franco-Prussian War (1870–71), France was defeated by Prussia, leading to the annexation of Alsace and northern Lorraine to the new German Empire in 1871. In 1918 at the end of WW1, Alsatians were considered by the French public as fellow Frenchmen liberated from German rule. Germany formally ceded the region back to France under the Treaty of Versailles. Without moving houses, Alsace’s grandparents had been French, their children became German and then the grandchildren became French again!
I was looking for an explanation of why learned families from Alsace might have sent their cleverest children to Paris, and why these children from German-speaking families might have succeeded so well in the French capital. I can only suggest that in mid-C19th Alsace there were economic and demographic factors that led to hunger, housing shortages and a lack of work for talented young people. Thus it was not surprising that motivated families left Alsace, particularly for Paris but also for abroad.
Half timbered houses in Alsace
Petite France, Strasbourg
Whose architectural taste did these buildings follow - French or German?
Strasbourg's monument to the dead is a marble statue of a grieving mother holding 2 fallen sons, one killed fighting for the Germans and the other for the French. To say the lovely capital of Alsace has an identity crisis is an understatement.
Strasbourg has been at the epicentre of French-German wars since Louis XIV annexed Alsace in the 17th century, but the question today is what role the city will play in the great French-German peace. It is one of the many contradictions of Alsace's bloodstained, topsy-turvy history that it is losing its German soul, just as France is trying to forge a strategic alliance with West Germany.
20 years ago the German-language edition of Dernieres Nouvelles d'Alsace, Alsace' biggest newspaper, had a circulation of 80,000. Today it is 50,000 and tumbling - compared with 190,000 for the French-language edition. Another German-language paper just folded.
Twenty years ago all of Francois-Georges Dreyfus' 20 doctoral candidates at the University of Strasbourg could speak German; today only 3 can. West Germans apply in huge numbers for exchange scholarships to study here, but there is an embarrassing shortage of French applicants to go to West Germany.
By rights Alsace should be an ideal springboard for France's cultural and economic penetration of West Germany. The Alsatian dialect is virtually the same German spoken just across the Rhine in Baden-Wurttemberg, and its people preserve German habits of orderliness and punctuality, and laws on shop hours. The medieval city of Strasbourg, with its intact half-timbered buildings and stately avenues, is a poignant architectural evocation of what cities across Germany might be like today if not for Hitler's war.
Yet the dialect, like the knowledge of German, is being lost. In 1922, after France reclaimed Alsace from a defeated Germany, 90+% of the population spoke Alsatian. Today a little more than half of Alsace's 1.6 million citizens say they understand and speak it.
The Nazis' occupation of Alsace in 1940 did more to hasten the region's emotional integration into France than three centuries of French rule. The Nazis tried to wipe out all traces of French culture, tearing down monuments and even banning the wearing of berets. In 1945 the victorious French had their revenge, outlawing the speaking of Alsatian in schools, curtailing the German-language press and posting signs saying “It is chic to speak French”. Condemned by the Nazis for being too close to France, the Alsatians found themselves punished anew for being too German.
Mulhouse town hall and city centre,
A third of thriving Alsace's jobs are a result of foreign investment, much of it West German but also American and Japanese. Alphonse Troestler, an historian and Mayor of the town of Rosheim, said “Instead of being a French spearhead for the penetration of Germany, Alsace has become the site of the German penetration of France. The West Germans are here not to reclaim lost territory but to make money”.
Belatedly Paris has grasped what is happening in Alsace. Mr Troestler, a proponent of a bilingual Alsace, said “Now there is talk of a Franco-German army; the Government wants suddenly to promote the study of German. But German is not a foreign language; it is our language”.
Strasbourg has a vocation even larger than a crucible of understanding between two ancient foes, Germany and France. The city is battling to retain its claim to be The Capital of Europe as both the European Parliament and the Council of Europe hold their sessions here. But the construction of new parliamentary quarters in Brussels has Strasbourg worried that the European Parliament might vote to move to the Belgian capital, which is already the heart of European Community activity. British and Scandinavian deputies want to make the move, but Paris and Bonn are firmly for Strasbourg.
Alain Howiller, the editor of Dernieres Nouvelles, commented that Alsace was “a region that wants to be loved by the rest of France but isn't. There are no French songs about Strasbourg, whereas sentimental Germans love to sing O Strassburg, Wunderschone Stadt!” The editor sang a few bars in fluent German, and observed ruefully that the French national anthem was written in Strasbourg in 1792 as The War Song for the Army of the Rhine. It ultimately became known as the Marseillaise, not the Strasbourgeoise, after Marseilles volunteers sang it on entering Paris during the French Revolution. “We are a little too French for the Germans and a little too German for the French”.
Map of France
Press to see Alsace's location on the border with Germany
Has anyone reviewed CJ Fischer’s book Alsace to the Alsatians: Visions and Divisions of Alsatian Regionalism, 1870-1939? The publishers say that region of Alsace often served as a trophy of war between 1870–1945. With each shift, French & German officials sought the allegiance of the local populace. In response to these pressures Alsatians invoked regionalism, to define & defend their own interests against the nationalist claims of France and Germany, and also to push for social change, defend religious rights and promote the status of the region. Alas Alsatian regionalism was neither unitary nor unifying, as Alsatians themselves were divided politically, socially and culturally.