The multi-cultural history of Alsace
Alsace is a unique region within France. It is separated from Germany by the River Rhine, which you can cross by any number of borderless bridges and ferries. But it is separated from France by a mountain range, The Vosges.
It doesn’t just seem more connected to Germany than France, it is more connected to Germany!
Who’s turn is it this week?
It has changed hands many times. It became part of a unified France in 1697, was occupied after the fall of Napoleon in 1815, returned to France, then lost to the Prussians after the Franco-Prussian war in 1870/71.
Here’s a bizarre thing – Under Bismarck Alsace wasn’t a state within Germany, but an Imperial Territory, the personal possession of the Kaiser. So when Kaiser Wilhelm abdicated following the naval mutinies of 1918 Alsace found themselves separated from Germany, without an official Government. The returning Alsace sailors declared a Republic, so France invaded – and won, as you might imagine. Have a look at what the French did to the Paris Communards at the end of the Franco/Prussian war – they’re pretty good at invading themselves!
The Treaty of Versailles formally returned Alsace to France, Hitler invaded in 1940, and France gained it back in 1945. Since then, I imagine Alsatians have been trying to catch their breath.
This history has made Alsace unique, determinedly French, but very German looking, with strong links to Germany and some very German-sounding names. It has happened to me often in France that a stranger will ask me a question and I’ll think ‘Sorry mate, I don’t speak German. So how did I understand what you said?’ Theyll be from Alsace. Very French, but very different. Which ordinarily would be a good thing, right?
These days there isn’t even a border between France and Germany. Just the river Rhine, one side in France, the other in Germany. You can cross easily whenever you like, there are no customs, no guards, no passport check. Nothing. Just bridges and ferries that cross from one to the other. So, we’ll take the chance to cycle into Germany.
On Thursday we’ll pay a brief visit straight after our trip to the Cathedral, then on Friday we’ll have a proper look at a little piece of Germany. We’ll cycle along a delightful forest bike path, have lunch in a beautiful little village, Burkheim, visit a German vineyard, and the little town of Breisach, 85% of which was destroyed by allied artillery in WWII, but which now boasts a recontructed Cathedral with a memorable altar piece and an extraordinary silver cask containing the relics of their patron saints, the twin brothers Sts Gervasius and Protasius. This story is worth telling.
Some fantastic crazy catholic history – which I love!
Following the defeat of Milan to Frederick Barbarossa, the Holy Roman Emperor, the relics of Milan’s twin patron saints were removed and sent to Cologne. On their way the ship that carried them down the Rhine stopped at Breisach, and Frederick’s Chancellor was persuaded to leave the relics of one of the brothers in St Stephan’s Cathedral. The ship was unable to leave port – this was the 12th century, it probably wasn’t a very good ship, it certainly didn’t have an engine. But the actual reason, they realised, was that they’d taken the relics of the wrong twin. So they swapped the relics over and tried to leave again, but failed. This had nothing to do with current or wind, it was because the twins, already dead for more than 1,000 years, didn’t want to be separated. So Breisach lucked into both of them! Somebody must have believed this nonsense. because you couldn’t make it up!
Some centuries later, Breisach commissioned an extraordinary silver and gilt cask to contain the relics, and this is on permanent display in the cathedral – worth a visit. Needless to say Milan deny all of this, and that their patron saints are dead and well in Milan. These saints, incidentally, are the German equivalent of St Swithins – if it rains on St Gervasius’ day, it will rain for 40 days.
Anyway, Breisach is the end of our adventure into Germany. From Breisach we’ll cross back into France to Neuf Breisach, an amazing fortress built at the end of the 17th Century. But you get a real sense in Alsace that you’re sat between two cultures, and it’s all the better for it, I think.