One of the most annoying problems for me in my dissertation is that I must continue to talk about Lorraine in order to talk about Alsace. Everyone knows that they are somehow linked together, “Alsace-Lorraine were one of the tensions that caused the first world war”, but they were not a natural unit of any sort. Nonetheless, the continuing association of the two regions reveals interesting properties of regionalism: that regions overlap and that in order to understand regions, we must understand how they network with one another. (Note: I had actually started this post in the context of dissertation week, but I got sidetracked.)

Alsace and Lorraine were both part of l’Est, the eastern parts of France that were some of the last territories to be conquered and incorporated into the kingdom in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. They were separate provinces in Old Regime France, administered by a different corps of bureaucrats. There were several major reasons that they were not one territory in the Old Regime. First, the Vosges Mountain Range separates them from one another, as it separates Alsace from the rest of France. Second, Lorraine was its own duchy with a developed central government, whereas Alsace was a collection of loosely associated towns and cities. Three, the incorporation of both occurred as the result of different wars–the times of incorporation were different, the terms of incorporation were different.

If Alsace and Lorraine had ties to Germany, they did not bring them together. Alsatian tied to Germany were more extensive: Swabia across the Rhine, the Pfalz and Rhineland up the Rhine. Lorrain ties to Germany were weak and local. They were based on its proximity to what is now called the Saarland, and they were based on local commerce along the Moselle River.

There was a legacy of German language and culture, but it was much weaker in Lorraine that it was in Alsace. The bishopric of Nancy acted as a force for promoting French language. German speakers found that they lost economic and social opportunities: many migrated from France to the Americas, becoming the foundations of the “German population” of the United States. Increasingly the German population was either assimilated, moving to the major cities of Metz and Nancy (or even to Paris), or more isolated, becoming more rural and hugging the border with Germany.

By 1870, just before the Franco-Prussian War, there were no foundations for a territory of Alsace-Lorraine. Lorrains did not go to the University in Strasbourg, even though it was second only to Paris. The cities across the Vosges did not compete with one another. In fact, they felt little of each others’ influence. If there were any competition, it was between Nancy and Metz, as the former became more important for government and education than the latter.

The annexation brought the eastern part of Lorraine, including the city of Metz, to Germany where it was combined with Alsace to make the Reichsland Elsass-Lothringen (the territory of the Reich of Alsace-Lorraine). Just as they did not love the annexation, the Lorrains (or Mosellians) were not fond of the union with Alsace. More French, they were treated more harshly. Major coal families from the region moved out, such as the de Wendels (one or two members tried to return, but they found working under German laws to harsh). Moreover, Metz and Lorraine were considered a forward area against future wars with France, so priorities were placed on urban reforms that would accommodate large armies. Tens of thousands of soldiers were stationed in Metz, overwhelming the native French population. As Metz was militarized, Alsace received economic advantages and Alsatians were treated better (if not well). The Germans made one improvement: they saved the university, making it a decent regional institution.

Lorrain politicians worked with Alsatians in a number of areas, but when Alsatians looked for accommodation with the German government, the Lorrains formed their own bloc of Catholic politicians that would continue to protest the annexation.

The French fetishized “Alsace-Lorraine”. Technical, both provinces had ceased to exist by 1870. They had been split up into administrative départements, and three of the four départements that had made up Lorraine remained in France. But the lost territories were treated as if they were one piece. Political tracts critiqued the treatment of “Alsatian-Lorrains” and maps of France featured a blacked out area where “Alsace-Lorraine” had once been.

After the war, the name Alsace-Lorraine presented problems. The territories were not returned to the original French structure of départements. They were placed in a transition in which the French government took over the old German administration. In essence, Alsace-Lorraine remained as a unit even as French officials were trying to untangle them. This leads to a confusing nomenclature used to describe three former départements in different contexts: “of Alsace-Lorraine”, “of Alsace and Lorraine”, “of Alsace and of Lorraine”; and those that try to distinguish these territories from “French Lorraine”: Alsace-Moselle. Each name has a slightly different meaning, and I have to keep this in mind when doing my research.

Coming back to France, Lorraine experienced many of the same problems as Alsace: the French officials who took over the administration were arrogant and spoke only English; they were accustomed to rights and privileges that had no equivalent in French law; they were afraid of secularization of public life. Consequently, Lorrain politicians (like future Euro-saint Robert Schuman) advocated radical decentralization and deconcentration of power. But when Alsatians pushed for the maintenance of a regional regime of Alsace-Lorraine, the Lorrains rejected the notion with verve. On the one hand, they wanted nothing to do with Strasbourg or Alsace–they had monopolized political power and economic opportunities. On the other, they wanted nothing to do with regionalism, and they wanted to return to the territorial and administrative structure that attained in the rest of France.

In the eyes of the Lorrains, there was nothing that attached them to the Alsatians except the decades of tyranny. They wanted their association to die. However, it was no longer a simple question. The Germans had moved institutions in Metz to Strasbourg. The power of Strasbourg continued to suck in the Lorrains. Furthermore, the power and influence of Metz had increased over those same decade, and Metz was struggling against two hegemonic cities. However, a regionalism developed around Nancy that would become a more influential force in Lorraine. The French poured resources and emotions into the remaining départements, building the city up as a counter-example to German annexation. Furthermore, the area developed its own tradition of defensive militarism. Metz returned to a Lorraine with a powerful Nancy that was monopolizing power on its side of the Vosges.

In essence, the people of Metz and the surrounding areas were given a choice of surrendering to Alsatian regionalism or Lorrain regionalism. They responded by trying accommodation with Nancy, splitting regional institutions, merging their universities, etc. This has been an uneasy relationship, sometimes leading to intense disputes whenever France wants to build a highway or airport. And Metz has not escaped the influence of Alsace. Metz is at the confluence of two different regionalism, both of which developed because of historical peculiarities.