30 January 2016

Alsace's French and German history

I have already noted that the most influential art historians during my under-graduate years at Melbourne University were Aby Warburg, Erwin Panofsky, EH Gombrich, Nikolaus Pevsner, Adolf Katzenellenbogen, Fritz Saxl and Rudolf Wittkower. All trained at German-speaking universities, these art historians went on to change Britain's scholarship.

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?

But I did find an article that tapped into conflicting and changing cultural identities in a border-city. The New York Times (Dec 1987) by James Markham  was called “Strasbourg Journal; Too German for France, Too French for Germany”.

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

As France's Constitution requires that French be the only official language of the Republic, German is taught today as a foreign language in Alsatian kindergartens/schools.

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.


Mandy Southgate said...

We spent our summer holiday in Alsace, Vosges, Colmar and Strasbourg last year. It's such a unique area!

Student of History said...

I kept this Daily Mail article (20th Jan 2011) a few years ago, when we were studying art dealers, patrons and connoisseurs.

Alsace became part of Germany following the Franco-Prussian war in 1871 before being handed back to France at the end of the First World War as part of the Treaty of Versailles. This caused great bitterness among the Germans, with their anger contributing to the start of the Second War, which saw the Nazis annexing the region into the Reich in 1940. Thousands of young Alsatians were then drafted into the Waffen SS – many against their will – and were involved in some of the worst atrocities against French people during the war. Allied troops liberated the region at the end of the war, and since then most inhabitants have done everything possible to stress their French identity. As a region, Alsace sums up the hatred which existed between the two countries for years.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, Herbert Read states directly that art dealer Ernest Gimpel (father of Nathan Wildenstein's business partner Rene Gimpel) was "an Alsatian who had come to the French capital because as a French citizen he could not tolerate the terms of the Treaty of 1871." As you suggest, Alsatian politics and the lure of Paris as a cultural and business center resulted in this mass relocation of talent and intellect.

Hels said...


perfect timing!

Spouse and I once spent a week based in Strasbourg, visiting the entire Alsace area, and loved the architecture, history and the vineyards! Our hosts were two elderly German-speaking ladies who had lived in Strasbourg all their lives. When they were young, their schools and Kaiser-Wilhelm-Universität were part of Germany's education system.

Hels said...


Totally correct. Alsace did become part of Germany following the Franco-Prussian war in 1871 before being handed back to France at the end of WW1 as part of the Treaty of Versailles. And I agree that this caused great bitterness among the Germans in the inter-war period.

But I wonder if most inhabitants have done everything possible to stress their French identity since WW2, because of the unhappy Treaty of Versailles. If there is bitterness still, I didn't detect it.

Hels said...


How did I forget Gimpel senior and junior? And their connections to the Wildensteins and Duveens. I will add them into the post straight away, thanks.

mem said...

I loved Stasbourg . I imagined that it looked a bit like Paris might have before Baron Haussmann started his renovations . It's a miracle so much if it survives especially given its bloddy history. I bought some wonderful navy blue polka dot pottery there and found out the Origen of some much loved pottery which had come down from my great grandmother . It was Alsation !
Now I haven't seen the term West German for many years Hels .

Hels said...


you are quite right about the West Germany-East Germany terms. The James Markham article I quoted was written in 1987, three years before German unification. There is an entire generation that has grown up since 1990 that wouldn't even remember what Markham meant.

Re the pottery, my favourite Alsation designs come from Poterie Lehmann in Soufflenheim which was founded in 1888. Thank you, great granny!!


Anonymous said...

The European town has always been the immediate expression of social and political circumstances, its current shape appears as the result of antagonistic and individual interests. Especially for the period between 1850 (when a discussion arose on the expression of national identities in architecture and urbanism) and 1945 (when traditional and/or local architectural concepts were marginalized by an international modernism). In the same period, 1850-1945, numerous European cities located in border regions had changed their national affiliation as a result of national conflicts, rooting in the same nationalism. Schleswig, Poznan-West Prussia, Alsace-Lorraine, South Tyrol, Trentino and Slovenia should be mentioned.

Changing identities? Planning & building in border regions,
Dublin, H-ArtHist, May 23 2015

Hels said...


Interesting concept.. a border city or province that has historically gone back and forward between the two competing nations. Do the citizens adopt one identity when they belong to Country A and then change 180 degrees in the other direction when they belong to Country B? Or do they stay constant, regardless of which country takes over? Does the linguistic and cultural majority treat the minority with dignity and equality? Is the linguistic and cultural minority resentful - or do they get out of Dodge as soon as possible?

A border, moving or otherwise, is something no Australian could possibly understand.

Anonymous said...

Obviously a lot of these "Alsatians" who succeeded in Paris were Jews, Alsace being the only region of modern France in which Jews remained after their expulsion from France in the late Middle Ages...

Hels said...


I must disagree. France emancipated its Jewish population in _1791_, although the legislation strengthened and weakened over the next 20 years. Most of the Jewish citizens did indeed live in Alsace (and Lorraine) in the early decades of the 19th century.

But by the 1860s Paris was already the biggest and most important Jewish community in France, even before Alsace and Lorraine were transferred to German control. So we still have to explain why my brilliant art dealers, gallery owners, academics and writers made their mark in Paris at the turn of the next century.

Parnassus said...

Hello again, A late comment, but your post inspired me to finally read Thomas Shadwell's The Squire of Alsatia, which has been sitting on my shelf for some time. It turned out that this Alsatia is the district in London, a place where debtors and criminals could go to escape arrest and prosecution. This comic play was about an older son who borrowed on his entailed estate so that he could live in luxury. (To Shadwell's credit, the dishonest moneylenders operating in lawless Alsatia were not depicted as Jewish stereotypes.)

Hels said...


never too late :) In fact I owe you a gorgeous espresso! I had never heard of The Squire of Alsatia and would not have known Shadwell either, except that he was Poet Laureate in the late 17th century (my favourite era in a number of ways).

I wonder why London in the 1688 referred to Alsatia as a criminal hangout place. Whether or not Alsace was a nasty place, every literate Brit must have understood the joke back then. Otherwise Shadwell would have chosen a different title for his book. The Thirty Years War had a lot to answer for, didn't it?

Hels said...

Where did the famous Bernheim Jeune family come from? Joseph Bernheim was an art supplier. His son Alexandre Bernheim (1839-1915), a friend of Delacroix, Corot and Courbet, settled in Paris in 1863. He presented the Impressionists in 1874. The Bernheim gallery grew under Alexandre’s sons, Josse Bernheim-Jeune (1870-1941) and Gaston Bernheim-Jeune (1870-1953). They organised the first Van Gogh exhibition in 1901, Bonnard and Vuillard in 1906, Cézanne in 1907, Seurat and Van Dongen in 1908 and Matisse in 1910.

Anonymous said...

A very interesting post! I immediately thought of Trieste and the Yugoslav region where borders have been fluid over the centuries. It also makes me think of people with dual nationalities - another product of borders. Borders are often subsumed within a person, giving them insight and enhancing their interpersonal interactions. Unfortunately this is often not appreciated by those who only have one national or cultural or linguistic or religious identity.

This also made me think of the welcome to/acknowledgement of country ceremonies of Australia's Aboriginal communities. A good and necessary response to managing the many borders of Aboriginal Australia

Hels said...


Sometimes border changes are easy; sometimes they are extremely painful. My mother in law grew up in the Carpathian Mountains in the 1920s and 30s, an area that at various times has been divided up between the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, Ukraine and Romania. They spoke Czech at home and at school, but they travelled over the border into Poland and Ukraine often enough to make themselves easily understood in those two languages. Then one Friday afternoon in High School, the principal sacked all the Czech-speaking teachers and told the children to learn Hungarian by the next Monday morning. The town was now in Hungary! It was a nightmare.

When my sister in law emigrated to Australia in the 1950s, she became a translator for a medical society - Czech, Hungarian, German and Ukrainian. It was easy for her.