Eugène PHILIPPS Auteur alsacien adresse e-mail : --> retour page d'accueil <--
a small country favoured by nature and prosperous,
has many facets.
But its personality is deeply marked
by its geography, its history,
and its linguistic and cultural specificity.

I. on its geography...


° Alsace is the country situated between the Vosges and the Rhine.

* The Vosges and the Rhine have always been its western and eastern frontiers.
They are its "natural frontiers".

* But in the north and south, the frontiers of Alsace have not been so stable:

- up to 1871, the French speaking town of Belfort
to the department of Haut-Rhin (Upper-Rhine), i.e. to Alsace
- and up to 1815, the German speaking town of Landau
belonged to the department of Bas-Rhin (Lower-Rhine), i.e. to Alsace.
 * Scheibenhard & Scheibenhardt:

At the Congress of Vienna (1815), it was decided to move the northern frontier of France further south, from the river Queich to the river Lauter. The lower course of this river thus became the new State frontier between France and Germany.

As the Lauter flowed right through the village of Scheibenhardt, he inhabitants on the left side of the river... became German (their half of the village kept its name: Scheibenhardt) and of the inhabitants of the right side... French (their half of the village became Scheibenhard).

* But these after all minor changes of the frontiers did not really alter the face of Alsace.
Decisive for the future development of Alsace was its geographical situation.

* Alsace is situated at one of the most important political and cultural cross-roads of Europe.

* Of course, in consequence of the the wars between France and Germany,
Alsace sometimes belonged to Germany and sometimes to France.

* But its geographical situation did not change. In either case, Alsace remained
the cross-roads of two big cultural and linguistic worlds:
the French one and the German one.

* However important the geographical situation was for its past and future,
Alsace owes its originality - its personality - not to its geography, but to its history.

II. on its history...

 *a historical entity?

° "Alsace"/"Elsass"

- The 1st form was a Latin one: Alesacius, hence the French name "Alsace".
- Later on, various Germanic forms appeared, such as Alisagowe, Elisaza, Elsaza.
- The German name "Elsass" was mentioned for the first time in documents
going back to the VIIth century
- Thus, the original name of Alsace is much older than the appellations
"France" or "Deutschland".

Departments of Lower-Rhine and Upper-Rhine

° In the VIIth century , Alsace was a Herzogtum Elsass - (Duchy of Alsace - Eticho(n),
the father of Saint Odilia, was Duke of Alsace)

° Later on, Alsace became a Herzogtum Elsass und Schwaben (Duchy of Alsace and Swabia),
which, in the reign of the Hohenstaufen, in the XIIth and XIIIth centuries,
played an important part in Western and Southern Europe.
The end of the Hohenstaufen dynasty also marked the end of Alsace as a political entity.

° One of the consequences of the Treaty of Westphalia (1648),
which ended The Thirty Years' War,
was the integration of Alsace into the Kingdom of France
and the creation of the "Province of Alsace",
which gave Alsace at least the appearance of a political unity.

° After the 1870/71 war between France and Germany, Alsace was integrated into
the German Empire
of Wilhelm (William) II. and became the Reichsland "Elsass-Lothringen"
(the Imperial Provinces of Alsace-Lorraine).
In 1911, the Reichsland was granted partial autonomy. Too little and too late
to give Alsatians the feeling of living now in an autonomous "Land".

*Undoubtedly, Alsace has a history of all its own. However, Alsace does not owe its historical identity to this remote past, when during short periods, it built a political entity, but to a political and cultural evolution which, in many ways, made of the Alsatians and Alsace a"unique case". (Émile Baas, Situation de l'Alsace, 1945).

* Why a "unique case"?

° Nowadays Alsace is a French region and the Alsatians are French citizens.
But until the XVIIth century, Alsace was part and parcel of
the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation
(das Heilige Römische Reich Deutscher Nation),
which, owing to the German language and culture of the Alsatians, was not at all unnatural.

° Switzerland and the Grand Duchy of Luxemburg were also part and parcel of
the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation .
But today the two countries are independent States.

Not so Alsace!

° Other French regions, such as Brittany or the Basque Country, for example,
were also integrated into the Kingdom of France in the course of centuries,
but since then they have always remained French.

Not so Alsace!

Alsace was twice forced to leave the French State and be integrated into the German State:
1870: de jure and in1940: de facto

° The Palatinate, even the towns of Hamburg, Bremen, Coblentz had once been placed
under the sovereignty of France and thus belonged for some years to France.
Jerome, the brother of Napoleon had even been King of Westphalia,
But, of course, the Palatinate, Hamburg, Bremen, Coblentz and Westphalia
have long since become German again.

Not so Alsace!

Alsace finally remained French.

This short historical flash-back shows
that Alsace (with the German speaking part of Lorraine) is the only country,
which has been definitively separated from the German speaking world,

+ not only politically, as it is the case of Switzerland and Luxemburg,
+ but also from the point of view of language and culture.
+ Alemannian Switzerland and Luxemburg remained German speaking countries,
but Alsace gradually became a French speaking country.

And this is the decisive difference.

° Not only does the history of Alsace differ from that of France or Germany,
but consciously or not, the Alsatians have developed
a sense of history of their own
, even if in dramatic periods,
they shared their history with the French or the Germans.

° The Alsatians can fully identify themselves only with their own history.
And the real nature of their linguistic and cultural identity
can only be understood, if one considers the whole history of Alsace.

III. on its linguistic et cultural situation...

Basically the linguistic problem in Alsace has always been and still is a cultural problem, though language and the culture it conveys can never be completely separated from one another and Alsace owns not only one, but two languages and... a dialect.

* To understand why the problem of the linguistic and cultural identity concerns all the inhabitants of Alsace, whatever their cultural background may be, and why the languages of Alsace have such an importance for its future, one must inquire into the cultural sources of Alsace .

 *Alsace draws its cultural substance from three sources :

the French source, the German source and the specifically Alsatian source.

  It would be wrong to believe that the Alsatian must daily rack his brain about the question whether he should or should not draw its cultural substance from one, two or three cultural sources. The plain truth is that no choice is left to him if he wants to stand by his past as a whole, to be up to the challenges of the present and to secure a future that enables him to make the most of all the cultural potentialities of Alsace.

* This means in practice that he must see that in Alsace the French source will be fully exhausted, that the German one does not dry up and that the typically Alsatian one will be rehabilitated and adapted to modern times. An immense task, of course! But it is worth while, because which other French region can contribute in such a way to the European future of France?

1°the French source

* Long before the XVIIth century, when Alsace became French, a great part of the
Alsatian middle-class
had already been in direct contact with the culture
conveyed by the French language

 Gottfried von Straßburg (1157-1215) owes his celebrity to his poem "Tristan und Isolde ". His source? The "Tristan " of Thomas of Brittany which he found in Paris, where he completed his studies.

And it was the "Gargantua" of Rabelais which inspired Johann Fischart (XVIth century) to write his own Gargantua.

* Why?

- Obviously because, within the German speaking world,
Alsace was the country nearest to France,
- but also because the French culture had then an incomparable glamour
and was the leading culture in Europe.

* But till the XIXth century, the great majority of Alsatians
could not really have access to the French culture:

- their knowledge of French was poor
- they went on living with and in their German dialect, and
those who could write used modern German,
i.e.the form of German which, after Martin Luther,
became the dominant form in all German speaking countries.

The knowledge of the French language had long caused serious difficulties to the Alsatians.
One can make people change their nationality overnight, but not their language.

° Nowadays, in Alsace the French language plays the same part as everywhere in France.

° French is not only the "official language", but also the "national language" in France.

- since the Revolution of 1789, the French linguistic policy
is based on the principle "one nation, one language"
- nothing has changed since then in spite of measures taken in favour
of the so-called "regional languages and cultures".

° Like all French citizens, the Alsatians must be able

- to communicate with all their fellow-countrymen, whether in Alsace or elsewhere
- to participate without being handicapped by language in
the political, social, economic and cultural life of the French nation.

No wonder then, if French is nowadays, as everywhere in France,
the dominant and most used language in Alsace.

° For the younger generations of Alsatians, the question is no longer
whether they know French well enough
to have an easy access to the French source of the culture in Alsace,
but whether they know German well enough
to have an easy access to the German source of the culture in Alsace.

2° the German source

° Until the XVIIth century,

- Alsace was not only an outstanding witness to German cultural life
- but also played a great part in shaping it,
especially in the XVIth century,
when humanism began to spread
in the countries along the Rhine.

° If the XVIth century has been called the Great Alsatian Century,
it is because many renowned Alsatians counted among
the most distinguished actors of the German cultural life of that time.

° Let us mention only

- Geiler von Kaysersberg (1445-1511)
- Jakob Wimpfeling (1450-1528), the "Praeceptor Germaniae"
- Thomas Murner 1475-1537, his opponent and his "Germania Nova"
- Sebastian Brant (1458-1521): "Das Narrenschiff"
- The humanists Beatus Rhenanus (1485-1547) and friend of Erasmus von Rotterdam
- the great poet and satirical writer of Strasbourg Johann Fischart (1546-1590)

° Alsace [Johann and Jakob Sturm] and Alsatians [Martin Bucer/Butzer of Sélestat (1491-1551) -
Wolfgang Capito(n) /Köpfel of Haguenau] have also played an important part
in the Reformation movement which had been both a religious an cultural revolution.

° It was in Alsace, at Strasbourg,

- where the first Bible was printed in the language of Luther, i.e in (modern) German
- where Mass was said in German (in 1524), i.e. only two years
after the translation of the Bible by Martin Luther
- and where the first newspaper printed in German was published.

* For centuries the Rhine had been an eminent cultural link between Basel and Rotterdam
and it is not without reason that one sometimes speaks of 'Rhenish culture"

* True, the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 and the Capitulation of the City of Strasbourg in 1681 meant for Alsace a deep cut in its cultural life, but till the midst of the XXth century there had always been Alsatians to take an active part in the German cultural life.
* Just a few names:
Gottlieb (Théophile) Conrad Pfeffel (1736-1809), Jean-Frédéric Oberlin (1740-1826),
Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965) and René Schickele (1883-1940)
who lived in the XVIIIth, XIXth and XXth centuries.

° They of course knew French, but it was in German that they wrote
their main literary, philosophical or religious works.
° They were or had become French citizens ,
but they had never denied the German source of their culture.

* René Schickele always referred to the "two traditions" of Alsace, as he said:

the German one and the French one.

To his mind, Alsace could only be true to itself if it developed a culture
that created an "alsacianity of the Spirit" ( "ein geistiges Elsässertum")

* Of course, one cannot say that nowadays the German source has completely dried up in Alsace.
There are still writers and poets who maintain this "tradition".
Let us mention: André Weckmann, the most known of all,
and Adrien Finck, a writer, a poet and a Germanist of renown.

* But one must agree that the situation has become very fragile.
The fact is that the literary production in German is poor.

* If the majority of Alsatians want German to have a larger place
in the linguistic and cultural education of Alsatian youth,
it is not because it is "the language of the neighbour" i.e. the official language of Germany,
but because German is the original language of the Alsatians
and thus a basic element of the linguistic identity of Alsace.

German at the time of Martin Luther

3° the specific Alsatian source

* Oddly enough, it is the specific Alsatian source of culture in Alsace
which happens to be questioned.
Some people doubt whether a cultural source worth to be mentioned
can spring up in such a small country as Alsace.
They think that the "specific" Alsatian source
is nothing but a branch of the great German source of culture in Alsace.

* Of course, the "typically Alsatian" source of culture in Alsace
shows a certain number of German traits,
which it inherited from the German past of Alsace,
But the history of Alsace left deeper marks.

* One should not forget that the Alsatians had to change their nationality
five times in three centuries
(1648/81, 1870, 1918, 1940, 1945).
This could not remain without any influence on the personality of Alsace and the Alsatians.
No wonder that in Alsace culture thus developed typically Alsatian features.

* But the Alsatians had not only to change their nationality,
after each war between France and Germany,
they also had to face dramatic situations
in which they were entirely dependent on themselves ,
as it was the case between 1940 and 1945.

* But what is more, whenever they were forced to change their nationality ,
they were attacked in their language(s) - their soul -
and their culture - their being.

* These changes made Alsatians aware
of the fragile nature of all they had acquired before.
At every change, their very existence was at stake.

* All this could not but leave deep marks in their collective psyche.
Their culture
bears the stamp of it:
literature and art in Alsace acquired an existential character.

+ Dialect and culture

* Typically Alsatian is (are), of course, the Alsatian dialect(s)
What is often called - very improperly - the "Alsatian" language
is in fact German as it is spoken in Alsace.
And in Alsace it is not spoken everywhere in the same way.
As we shall see, from a linguistic point of view, there is no "Alsatian" dialect.

* Of course, culture finds its expression through language.
And who says language thinks of literature.

* But culture cannot be reduced to literature or to art in general.
Culture is life and impregnates all spheres of life.
But even in the field of literature and art
one can notice a sensibility, an approach and a way of seeing and saying things
that seems to me specifically Alsatian.

* True: the way we exist in this world does not depend on this or that language,
but our personality - the individual and the collective one -
is also reflected in our language, in the way we use it.
"Language", Martin Heidegger said, is "the Home of one's Self".

* This becomes obvious
when the Alsatian expresses himself in his Alemannic (or Frankish) dialect
and one compares what he says and how he says it
with what other people, who are no Alsatians,
say and how they say it in their own Alemannic (or a Frankish) dialect.

* At public meetings (in Bregenz/Austria , Basel, Lucerne/Switzerland and Strasbourg)
where poets read some of their Alemannic poems ("Dichterlesungen") ,
it became clear to everybody that our Alsatian poets have only one thing in common
with the German, Swiss or Austrian ones: the use of the same Alemannic dialect.

* The audience felt that the Alsatian poets, committed as they are
to preserving the linguistic and cultural personality of Alsace,
with and through their dialect bore witness to the dramatic situation of a small people
who knows that its very existence is at stake.

* I'll give only one example: the last lines of the poem: e schrej (a cry) by André Weckmann

e schrej

[a cry
e schrej
esch s letscht
wås dr ewriblît
vor åss de s schnüfe ufstecksch
wann d die långs åm rhin ånnestrecksch
un d vogese di
met roschtigem läub züedecke
e schrej
Nothing but
a cry
is left to you
before you cease breathing
and you stretch yourself out along the Rhine
and the Vosges are covering you up
with blighted leaves
a cry]

 * If this "cry" of André Weckmann
made people of five different nationalities quiver with emotion,
as it was the case years ago in a small town near Basel and in Bregenz, ìt was not only

- because all these men and women understood and spoke
the same Alemannic dialect, even if they pronounced it differently,
- because they felt that through his "Alsatian" Alemannic,
André Weckmann
made his audience sensitive to the human drama
of people who, while sticking to their native dialect,
defend an essential part of themselves, a part of their soul one attempts to rob them of
- and also because they knew that such an attempt, though very sophisticated,
is nothing else than a most vicious form of exclusion of people
as long as they do not surrender to the language of the majority.

* This drama is more than one of the social problems all our modern industrial countries have to face,
it is a challenge for man in his relations with other men.

* For the Alsatians fully aware of the specific character of their personality,
this challenge is at the same time a fight for their historical and cultural existence.
It finds its most authentic linguistic expression in the "Alsatian" dialect.

* And that is the point, when the question of the future of the "Alsatian dialect" is raised.

+ The dialect

* The most familiar things are not always the best known. This is also true for the "Alsatian" dialect.

* In France, it is merely called "l'alsacien" = "Alsatian",
just as if it were a language like English or French or German , which, of course, it is not.

** "Alsatian " has not the attributes of a "language" in the full acceptation of the word

* From a linguistic point of view, the denomination "Alsatian" has no meaning at all.

* In the past, it was called "Elsasserditsch" - Alsatian German -
just as in Switzerland, the Alemannic dialect is called "Schwyzerdütsch", i.e. "Swiss German".

* In his book "Psychanalyse de l'Alsace", published in 1951, Frédéric Hoffet had already remarked " that it is as absurd to contest that one speaks German in Strasbourg as it would be absurd to contend that this language is not that of the inhabitants of Stuttgart, Zurich or Freiburg in Baden."

** "Alsatian " is a dialect, neither more nor less

* Indeed, since men began to write, the notion of language, in its full meaning, includes
- a unique written and codified form used in the whole area of a language
- AND one or several oral forms

* "Alsatian " is just one of the numerous oral forms used in the German speaking world.
Thanks to Martin Luther,
a unique and codified form of German called "Hochdeutsch" - or simply (modern) German -
came into existence and became the standard written form of German.

* True: in the course of centuries, an oral form of German developed in Germany,
called "Umgangssprache" or language of the current oral communication,
very close to the written form, which slightly complicates the language problem in Alsace,
but does not fundamentally change it.

Dialects in Alsace

* "Alsatian " is no "regional" language either

++ because Alemannic and Frankish are spoken outside of the "Region Alsace ".

- Alemannic is spoken in in five different countries. Besides Alsace in Switzerland,
in Germany (Baden, Allgäu/Bavaria), in the Principality of Liechtenstein
and in Austria (Vorarlberg).

++ because what is called the "Alsatian" dialect includes in fact two dialects:

- Alemannic... spoken in the greater part of Alsace (Win /Wii= modern German: Wein,
English: wine - Zidung= modern German: Zeitung, English: newspaper -
Zischdi= modern German: Dienstag, English: Tuesday)
- and Frankish... spoken only in the northern part of Alsace (Wäin, Zäidung, Dienschdàà....)

Nevertheless, of all the languages spoken in Alsace, the dialect is the most characteristic one .

* Its identity function is thus obvious. Indeed,

- thanks to (their knowledge of) French, the Alsatians differ
from the overwhelming majority of the Germans, the Austrians, the Swiss

- thanks to (their knowledge of) German, the Alsatians differ
from the overwhelming majority of their French fellow-countrymen

- But it is thanks to (their knowledge of) the dialect
that the Alsatians differ from both groups.

Undoubtedly, the dialect is the specific component of the identity - the personality - of Alsace.


* The cultural world of Alsace

* The knowledge of all the languages of Alsace - French, modern German, the dialect -
is the key to the three sources of culture in Alsace.

* The real nature of the problems with which Alsace is confronted today,
can only be understood if Alsace is placed in its real cultural world .

* The cultural world of Alsace?
It stretches from the Atlantic to the heart of Europe
passing through Paris, Strasbourg and Berlin, not forgetting Lyons or Marseilles,
Bern or Zurich, Geneva or Lausanne, Vienna or Graz,
with French or German ramifications in several other European countries.

* The European dimension of the cultural world of Alsace
is a reality which cannot - and should not - be ignored by anybody.

* Getting deeply rooted into their immense cultural world is vital for Alsace and the Alsatians if they want to be true to themselves while taking up the challenge of modern times. The unification of Europe should facilitate their task.