The annexation of Alsace-Lorraine

1871-05-02 - Otto Von Bismarck

If we transport ourselves back a year—or more exactly, ten months—then we can say to ourselves that Germany was united in its love of peace; there was hardly any German who did not desire peace with France, as long as it could be maintained with honor. Those morbid exceptions, who perhaps wanted war in the hope that their own native country would be defeated, are not worthy of the name; I do not count them among the Germans!


I repeat that Germans unanimously wanted peace. But when the war was forced on us, when we were compelled to take up arms in our defense, they were just as unanimous in demanding, if God granted us victory, that we should seek guarantees that would discourage repetition of a similar war and make our defense easier should one nevertheless recur. Everyone remembers that there has hardly been a single generation among our ancestors for three hundred years which was not compelled to draw the sword against France, and everyone knows that the reason why we missed all earlier opportunities to secure better protection to the west after previous victoroies was that we won the victory in association with allies whose interests diverged from our own. Everyone was therefore determined to devote themselves to securing the future of our children if we now won a victory independently, relying solely on our own sword and our good cause.

...I cannot more strikingly characterize the position in which we find ourselves, in which South Germany especially finds itself, than to relate a conversation with an intelligent South German sovereign when Germany was pressed to take the side of the western powers in the eastern war [i.e., the Crimean War of 1854], without it being his government’s conviction that it had an independent interest in waging war. I can also name him; it was the late King William of Württemberg. He said to me: “I share your view that we have no interest in meddling in this war, that no German interest is concerned there worth the trouble of spilling German blood. But if we should fall out with the western powers over that, if it should go that far, count on my vote in the Diet until the time when war breaks out. Then the affair assumes another dimension. As well as any other, I am determined to maintain the obligations which I assume. But take care not to judge men other than they are. Give us Strasbourg, and we will be united for all eventualities, but as long as Strasbourg is a sally port for a power which is continuously armed, I must fear that my country will be inundated by foreign troops before the German Confederation comes to my assistance. I would not reflect an instant about eating the hard bread of an exile in your camp, but my subjects would write to me. They would be crushed by contributions to obtain an alteration of my decision. I don’t know what I would do; I don’t know whether all the people would be firm enough. But the knot lies in Strasbourg, for as long as it is not German, it will always be a hindrance to South German y giving itself, without reservation, to German unity, to a German national policy....

I believe everything said in this case taken from life; I have nothing to add to it. The wedge which the corner of Alsace at Wissembourg shoves into Germany separates South Germany more effectively from North Germany than the political line of the Main, and it required a great deal of determination, of national enthusiasm and devotion among our South German allies to disregard this imminent danger, which would arise from a well conducted campaign by France, not to hesitate for a moment in regarding North Germany’s danger as its own, to strike quickly and advance in common with us.


We have seen for decades that, as soon as domestic conditions made a diversion abroad necessary, France was ready at any time to succumb to the temptation of this superior position, of this advanced bastion that Strasbourg forms toward Germany.

Very true.

...One would have thought that all Europe would feel the need of preventing the frequently recurring struggles of the two greatest cultural nations in the midst of European civilization, and that the insight was obvious that the simplest means of preventing them was the one of strengthening the defense of the unquestionably peace-loving party. Nevertheless, I cannot say that this idea was considered obvious everywhere.


...The implementation of this idea, the satisfaction of this overwhelming desire for our security stood opposed first and foremost to the reluctance of the inhabitants themselves to be separated from France. It is not my task here to investigate the reasons which made it possible for a thoroughly German population to become attached to this extent to a country with a foreign language and with a government that was not always benevolent and indulgent. Part of the reason doubtless lies in the fact that all those qualities that distinguish Germans from Frenchmen are especially well developed in Alsatians, so that the population of this land forms in ability and love of order, I may truly say without exaggeration, a kind of aristocracy in France. They were more capable in office, more reliable in service; Alsatians and Lorrainers were represented in the military, the police, and the civil service in a proportion far exceeding their share of the total population. These 1 ½ million Germans were able to take advantage of possessing the special talents of Germans in a people that possesses other talents; their qualities gave them a privileged position that made them forget many legal inequities. It is part of the German character that each tribe claims some sort of superiority over its nearest neighbor. As long as the Alsatian and the Lorrainer was French, Paris stood behind him with its brilliance and France with its grandeur; he could face his fellow German with the feeling, Paris is mine, and derived thereby a special sense of superiority. I won’t go into the further reason, which is that earlier the Alsatian could see nothing on this side of the Rhine but a divided nation, and every great state that develops its potential fully can more easily assimilate than a divided nation, even one related to you.

The fact is that this reluctance [to be separated from France] is present, and that it is our duty to overcome it with patience. In my opinion we have many resources for doing this. We Germans in general are accustomed to governing in a more benevolent manner, perhaps more clumsily on occasion, but in the long run in a more benevolent and humane manner than the French statesmen.


This is one virtue of the German character which will soon be noticed by the Alsatians and will appeal to them. We are also capable of granting the inhabitants a much higher degree of municipal and individual freedom than French institutions and traditions permit. When we regard the current movement in Paris [the Paris Commune, which was bloodily suppressed by provincial French troops in late May], we see that, as in every movement of a certain duration, there is at bottom a rational core in addition to all the unreasonable demands that motivate many individuals in the movement; otherwise no movement could achieve anywhere near the force that this Paris movement presently has. This rational core—I don’t know how many people support it, but at any rate the best and most intelligent among those who have risen up against their fellow countrymen do—, I can describe it in a single word: it is the German municipal ordinance. If the Commune had this, then all its better supporters would be satisfied—I don’t say all its supporters. We must make distinctions here. The larger part of this violent crew consists of people who have nothing to lose. In a city of two millions there are a large number of habitual criminals, people who would be under police supervision among us, people who reside in Paris during the interval between two prison terms, who congregate together and willingly exploit the situation wherever they find disorder and looting.... In addition to this refuse that can be found in every large city, part of the militia is formed by a number of supporters of an international European republic. I have heard detailed figures but can only recall that nearly 8,000 Englishmen are in Paris to further their schemes—I presume that these are mostly Irish Fenians who have been designated Englishmen—accompanied by an equally large number of Belgians, Poles, followers of Garibaldi, and Italians. These people are pretty indifferent to the Commune and to French liberties, they pursue quite different aims, and of course I was not thinking of them when I said that every movement has a rational core.


The German character of the Alsatians and Lorrainers, which yearns more for municipal and individual independence than does the French, makes them feel such wishes in powerful form, which are quite legitimate in France’s big cities, because French law leaves them very little scope, and French statesmen are traditionally convinced that this law represents the greatest possible degree of communal freedom that can be granted. I am convinced that we can grant the population of Alsace much greater freedom in the realm of self-government without harming the Reich, that we can gradually extend this freedom so as to approach the ideal that every individual and every small district will possess the greatest measure of freedom compatible with order in the state as a whole. I hold that the task of all reasonable statecraft is to achieve this, to come as close as possible to this goal; and we can come much closer to this goal with out current German institutions than France ever can with the French character and its centralized constitution. I believe therefore that German benevolence and German patience will eventually win over our fellow countryman there—perhaps in less time than people expect. But there will always remain elements whose personal history binds them to France and who are too old to tear themselves loose, or whose material interests bind them to France and who, if they destroyed these bonds, would either find no compensation from us or would find it too late. So we must not flatter ourselves that we will quickly reach the goal of creating a German sentiment in Alsace resembling that of Thuringia; but we also must not despair of living to see the goal achieved for which we strive if we are granted the normal span of a human life....