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French influence in Alsace began during the Wars of Religion (1562–98) and increased during the Thirty Years’ War (1618–48) when Alsatian cities, caught between opposing Catholic and Protestant factions, turned to France. Most of the region was attached to France in 1648 under the Treaty of Westphalia. Today one-fifth of Alsatians are Protestants.

By the time of the French Revolution, the Alsatians felt far more connected to France than to Germany, but the passage of time did little to dampen Germany’s appetite for the region known in German as Elsass (Elsaß). The Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71, a supremely humiliating episode in French history, ended with the Treaty of Frankfurt (1871), by which an embittered France was forced to cede Alsace to the Second Reich. Following Germany’s defeat in WWI, the region was returned to France but it was reannexed by Nazi Germany in 1940.

After WWII, Alsace was once again returned to France. Intra-Alsatian tensions ran high, however, as those who had left came back and confronted neighbours whom they suspected of having collaborated with the Germans: 140, 000 Alsatians, as annexed citizens of the Third Reich, had been conscripted into Hitler’s armies. These conscripts were known as the ‘Malgré-Nous’ because the vast majority had gone off to war against their will; over half never returned from the Russian front and postwar Soviet prison camps. To make Alsace a symbol of hope for future Franco-German (and pan-European) coexistence and cooperation, Strasbourg was chosen as the seat of the Council of Europe (in 1949) and, later, of the European Parliament.

The impressive new Mémorial de l’Alsace Moselle (03 88 47 45 50; www.memorial-alsace-moselle.org in French; adult/student & over 65yr incl audio­guide €10/7; 10am-6pm or 7pm Tue-Sun, closed late Dec-late Jan), 53km southwest of Strasbourg in Schirmeck (just a few kilometres from the Natzweiler-Struthof Concentration Camp), takes an unblinking but reconciliatory look at the region’s traumatic modern history.

Strong Alsatian regionalism fuels support for the far-right Front National party, which received 22% of the votes in the first round of the 2004 regional elections.