Travelers who join our Alsace Experience week are immersed in a beautiful region and a distinct culture, surrounded by history and memories of its unique past. This post, by historian and European Experiences team member Kelly Wood, offers a deeper look at the complex, often tragic history of Alsace. She encourages us to watch for signs and symbols that help residents and visitors remember the unique past of Alsace.
Spend some time and France and you’ll start to recognize street and place names. Like America’s Main, Park, or Second Streets, French towns and cities return to the same popular names, though they tend to be more historical in nature: rue Pasteur, rue Victor Hugo, rue du Château, etc. But like a lot else in Alsace – town names, the food, the architecture – street names look different too. Sometimes the French street name will have a German translation underneath; Rue de Philippe-Aimé de Golbery, or Untermühlgasse. This is not for the convenience of neighboring Germans. Rather, it is a result of the unique history of the region of Alsace, and reminds visitors and residents alike that the streets themselves bore witness to all that took place there.
Since 1870, the region (made up of the départements of the Bas-Rhin and Haut-Rhin) has changed hands four times. First, after the French defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, then back to the French after the First World War, back to the Germans after the region’s illegal annexation in 1940, and finally back to the French at the end of the Second World War. In the span of just 75 years, some Alsatians had been forced to change their nationality four times. A young man called into service for Germany in 1918 could have fought for France in 1940. Or, he and his father could have fought for two different countries in their youths, all the while being called up in the same town. With this in mind, the singular culture of Alsace makes complete sense. Though it has not always been the case, in the 21st century, Alsace is not so much torn between the cultures of two countries, but rather is a blend of the two as well as something altogether unique: Alsatian, German, and French. Street signs in the region again reflect this specific aspect of Alsatian culture, a dialect that can still sometimes be heard today, in the aisles of the supermarket or in the meeting room of a veterans’ association.
Alsace becomes Elsaß, Once Again
Although the annexation of Alsace-Moselle had not been mentioned in the treaty signed between the Germans and French in late June 1940, the region was nonetheless absorbed into the Third Reich shortly thereafter. The region’s annexation was not just geographical, but included a full cultural, linguistic, legal, and bureaucratic incorporation into Germany, the culmination of centuries of contested history. In August of the same year, Robert Wagner, already the Nazi Party leader (or Gauleiter) of Baden, was appointed the Gauleiter of Alsace (the two départements of the Bas-Rhin and Haut-Rhin). Wagner, nicknamed the “Executioner of Alsace,” was so zealous and harsh in his campaign of Germanization that he aspired to half the time Hitler had given him to fully integrate Alsace into the Reich.
Germanization took many forms, though curiously not citizenship. There was a prohibition on speaking French, a war on patriotic French monuments (many were destroyed), and the requirement that first names and surnames be changed to their German equivalents. Undesirable racial elements were expelled from the departments. A concentration camp, Natzweiler-Struthof, and re-education camp, Schirmeck, were constructed, primarily to house subversive elements from within the region. Young men and women were forced to register for the Reichsarbeitsdienst and boys were forced to enroll in the Hitler-Jugend, just like German youth. (Our Alsace Experience groups have an interesting visit to the site of the former Natzweiler-Struthof camp, which was the only concentration camp established by the Germans in the territory of pre-war France.)
And of course, street names were changed, not only to their German equivalent, but to reflect important events and figures in German history, to caution Alsatians, as they searched for directions, that they could not escape their new heritage. For example, the large Place Kléber in Strasbourg was renamed Karl Roos Platz, after a local German politician who had been executed by the French in February 1940 for sharing military secrets with Germany.
Wagner’s most aggressive policy of Germanization took place two years after his appointment, when, on August 25, 1942, following several measures heading in this direction, he issued an ordinance requiring military service for Alsatian men, beginning with classes between 1920 and 1924. For Wagner, conscription provided the opportunity to indoctrinate and incorporate young men who had been educated in the French system into the German nation. And though Wagner justified the conscription of Alsatians by claiming wide popular support in the region and a desire for Alsace to become a part of the victorious Reich, it actually followed a failed campaign to recruit Alsatians into the Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS. In fact, the proportion of Alsatians who volunteered for the German army was much less than that of volunteers from the rest of France. As the war progressed, more classes were incorporated, including those of soldiers who had fought in the French army (both in 1940 and in the Great War) and boys under the age of eighteen. Because the two départments had never officially been annexed to the Reich, this conscription of more than 130,000 Frenchmen was legally considered “forced incorporation” and violated articles 44 and 45 of the Hague Convention of 1907. Article 45 reads: “It is forbidden to compel the inhabitants of occupied territory to swear allegiance to the hostile power.”(1)
The Malgré-nous, during and after the War
Forced against their will into the German armed forces, these young men were and continue to be known as “malgré-nous,” and sometimes as “incorporés de force.” When criticized for their actions after the war, they responded that they had had no choice. Soldiers who refused to present themselves for their orders or who deserted were jailed in Germany or sent to the Natzweiler-Struthof concentration camp in the rugged Vosges mountains west of Strasbourg. Often, their family members were also relocated to Germany, or sent to populate the “East” or to be “re-educated” at Schirmeck, because they were “believed guilty of not having raised their children in the service of the German homeland.” (2)
Faced with an impossible decision, most followed orders, while some “evaded” service and others deserted and surrendered to the Allies. After the war, these men, together with the incorporés de force who carried out their service, established a relatively powerful association (ADEIF) with representation in local, regional, and national government. In addition to advocating for the rights of their members and for the recognition of their plight, they also fought to repatriate Alsatians who were still being held in prisoner of war camps in Siberia. Almost 18,000 malgré-nous were interned in these camps, most in Tambov, a harsh Soviet prisoner of war camp, where many perished from overwork, starvation, and thirst. A number were not released until as late as 1955. Of the 130,000 Alsatians forcibly conscripted into the German army – an army most maintained was not their own – 30,000 died, primarily on the Eastern Front; 10,000 were declared missing in action; and 40,000 more were wounded.
Not surprisingly, street signs in Alsace bear witness to this loss. It was this memorialization that first drew me to this topic, which formed part of my master’s thesis. Specifically, it was the plaque on the wall of the Catholic church in Kientzheim (below) – which compels passersby to “remember [the malgré-nous’] sacrifice under an abhorrent uniform, for a cause which was not their own” – which first piqued my curiosity. As I researched further, I found that the region had taken on the plight of the malgré-nous as their own. Like these young men, the region had been used as a pawn in the war. And everyone knew or loved or worked with someone who had been conscripted.
Not only are small plaques on buildings and roadside memorials common in Alsace, but streets and squares, too, firmly anchor this history to the present, the term “malgré nous” designating a rue or a place. Kaysersberg, the town adjacent to where we stay for our Alsace Experience trip, has its own. An unremarkable parking lot just outside the town’s walls serves as a sobering reminder of what the region sacrificed and weaves the experiences of these 130,000 men into the larger collective memory and consciousness of Alsace:
Between August 1942 and the end of 1944, 130,000 young men from Alsace and Moselle were forcibly conscripted into the German army.
They were baptized “les Malgré-Nous,” because it was against their will that they were forced to wear a detested uniform that represented a regime that they hated. […]
Alsace is the French region that paid the heaviest tribute for the criminal madness of Nazism.
While their suffering is widely recognized and lamented across Alsace, in the course of my initial research, I found that these men – and the region that upheld them – faced resistance and criticism from français de l’intérieur (people from the rest of France) in their attempts to memorialize their wartime tragedy. Their experiences and their commemoration were almost directly at odds with that of the small village of Oradour-sur-Glane, in central France.
On June 10, 1944, soldiers of the German 2nd Waffen-SS Panzer Division “Das Reich” marched into the Oradour-sur-Glane, a village on their route from southern France, where they had been “resting” from fighting on the Eastern Front, to Normandy, where the Allies had just landed. Here, allegedly seeking retribution for a Resistance attack, they systematically and brutally murdered 642 men, women, and children before destroying the town. A very small number of residents managed to escape the bullets and fire or were warned from entering the village by an Alsatian soldier standing guard on the outskirts.
Today, Oradour looks nearly the same as it did more than 75 years ago. It is a memorial to the dead and a reminder of French suffering under the Germans. Adjacent to the ruined village is a centre de mémoire where signs at the building’s entrance solemnly declare “ville martyre” – martyred village.
The village is a site of national commemoration, but like much that took place during the Second World War in France, the memory is not straightforward; it is fraught, complicated, and challenged. My note about an injured Alsatian solider might suggest the relevance of this horrific tragedy to the history of the malgré-nous. Alsatians were present at Oradour on both sides of the massacre. Alsatians who had been relocated by the French during the “phony war” of 1939-40 or by the Germans after annexing the region were often moved to sparsely populated central France, and some ended up making their new – and final – homes in Oradour. But what has loomed large in the collective memory of Alsace – and what was the object of a fiery and extremely divisive debate – was the fact that nearly 80 of the 200 Waffen-SS troops present at Oradour were Alsatian. They were, in effect, Frenchmen massacring their fellow Frenchmen.
Victims or Perpetrators?: The Malgré-nous on Trial
Nine years after the massacre, the French legal system finally sought justice for the massacre at Oradour, in a trial known as the procès de Bordeaux or the procès d’Oradour. On trial were seven German soldiers, one Alsatian volunteer, and thirteen incorporés de force. The optics were clear: Alsatian conscripts were being held primarily responsible for massacre; the division’s commander, SS-Brigadeführer Heinz Lammerding, was never extradited from West Germany, much less ever put on trial. A well-known Alsatian politician explained that “Alsace considers this tragedy its own tragedy” and across the region, Alsatians echoed the belief that the trial represented a broader indictment against Alsatians, their culture, and their identity (3). The trial pitted these two parts of France – one that had been a center of Resistance activity and another that had been sacrificed to placate Germany – against each other. On the national stage and in the national consciousness, their memories, their losses, and their tragedies could not coexist. Both “sides” perceived – and acted on the belief – that recognizing one’s turmoil invalidated the other’s. In the end, though all Alsatians on trial were found guilty, all except for the volunteer were amnestied (but their convictions were not vacated) just one week later.
During the weeks leading up to the week-long trial and in the days that followed, street signs once again reflected the cultural developments at hand. Street signs for Place de Strasbourg in Paris had been changed to read “Place des Assassins.” Similarly street signs for Place de Bordeaux in Strasbourg had been vandalized to reflect the emotions of the trial. In fact, one letter to the mayor of Strasbourg even suggested changing the name of the square to “Place d’Oradour” to reflect the notion that the trial was impartial and therefore simply a “procès de Bordeaux” but rather politically-motivated to obtain some form of justice for the massacre at Oradour on the national stage. Again, the most ordinary aspects of everyday life in a village, town, or city became important symbolic markers of the past and of the present.
While my sympathy for the malgré-nous is likely very clear – I’ve now spent almost six years studying them – I haven’t told this story to make you feel the same. More than 80 years after the beginning of the war, historians continue to debate the agency and ideology of men who fought for Germany, and we all draw on our moralities and beliefs as we continue to question just how individuals could have done what they did. Instead, I have endeavored to expose a bit of what lies behind the breathtaking vistas of vineyard checkerboards, quaint cultural idiosyncrasies, and charming and colorful half-timbered houses that are all so characteristic of this region. I hope I’ve encouraged you to not just look at these buildings, but to investigate them: the street signs and commemorative plaques attached to their walls tell a history that is essential to what we, as visitors, enjoy today.
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(1) In fact, Wagner was executed in France in 1946 after having been found guilty of war crimes, among which was the forced conscription of men and “child soldiers.” See Nicole Thatcher, “The Malgré-nous: Conflicting Memories of a Second World War Drama,” Australian Journal of French Studies 47.3 (2010), 279; and “Convention (IV) respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land and its annex: Regulations concerning the Laws and Customs of War on Land. The Hague, 18 October 1907,” International Committee of the Red Cross, last accessed April 19, 2017.
(2) Geneviève Herberich-Marx and Freddy Raphaël, “Les incorporés de force alsaciens: Déni, convocation et provocation de la mémoire,” Vingtième siècle. Revue d’histoire, No. 6 (Apr. – June 1985), 91.
(3) Archives municipals de Strasbourg, Box 208 MW 174, Pierre Pflimlin, “Proposition de loi, portant amnistie en faveur des Français incorporés de force dans les formations militaires enemies.
See References utilized for this article here.
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We’ll be offering The Alsace Experience again in 2023. Learn more about Alsace in these blog posts: