I want to reflect a little bit on my ‘excursion’ I had this past Saturday. The excursion was a little field trip into the Vosges mountains to see a few castles, have a guided tour of a war memorial, and chow down on some Alsatian food. It was honestly a great time and I got tons of awesome pictures out of the experience (and as we all know, that’s the real reason to go places).
However, there was an important moment I had at the Mémorial de L’Alsace-Moselle which is difficult to describe. This museum is dedicated to remembering the Alsatian lives lost in the Second World War, among other things. For those unacquainted with Alsace, here’s the rundown.
Put bluntly, the Alsace-Lorraine region is the often fought over love-child of France and Germany. It has changed hands many, many times during its history, oscillating between Frankish and Germanic control since the fall of the Western Roman Empire. But, for the moment, let’s focus on just more recent times. In 1871, Prussia (later Germany) annexed the Alsace-Lorraine region after their victory over France in the Franco-Prussian War. More than forty years later, the region was returned to France as a stipulation of the Treaty of Versailles. Then, during World War II, Nazi Germany took back the region and incorporated it into the Third Reich. However, with Germany’s defeat at the end of the war, Alsace-Lorraine was returned to France.
During that tumultuous time-period, someone could have been born French in 1860, become German at the age of 11, become French once more at the age of 59, then become German again at the age of 80, and finally, French again at 85. But wait, it gets even weirder. Depending on when someone was born during this time period, they may have been taught only German in school or only French. In fact, when the citizens of Strasbourg and other border-towns in Alsace were evacuated to Southwestern France at the start of WWII, the majority of them spoke only German. In general, only the youth spoke a lick of French.
But wait, there’s more linguistic and cultural complexity. During the occupation of France by Nazi Germany, Alsatians were recalled back to their homes—that is, if they (1) spoke German, (2) were white, and (3) were not Jewish (This is particularly important, because Strasbourg has a historically vibrant Jewish quarter. I know, because I live in that quarter at present.). Those that returned faced trying circumstances, generally when it came to loyalty. Some of the citizens fought for Germany during the Great War, while their children had been brought up French. Some 130,000 Alsatian men were later forced into military service for Nazi Germany — often with threat of harm to their families. As you can imagine, this was a rather awkward situation for Alsatian veterans after the war, regardless of the circumstances of their conscription.
Mind you, that’s just the tip of the iceberg on Alsatian history, bloodstained as it is. I learned much of this during my tour with the director of the museum. It was a museum unlike any other I had seen. It consisted of a long, labyrinthian set of linear exhibits, each modeled after a component of history. For example, there was an exhibit on the evacuation, which was modeled like the inside of a train station. Another room was modeled like a bunker in the Maginot Line. One of biggest set pieces was a battle field, which the audience was suspended over on a metal bridge. Yet there was one in particular that gave me true chills.
It was a dim hall, with dozens of flags hanging down from the ceiling, in a transitioning row. At the start of the hall was a series of French Republic flags, gradually changing to Nazi ones towards the end. The walls were covered with street names and their German versions. On top of those were propaganda posters, pictures, and other hallmarks of the era. The hall eventually led out to a dark room, where on the far side was a recreation of one of the government buildings in Strasbourg. The only light came from the windows, covered by Nazi flags. A recording of one of Hitler’s speeches played in the background, his hammering oration echoing across the room.
While being immersed in this display, the director continued to inform us of all the tragic events that transpired. A particularly nasty story was the fate of one of the city’s famous synagogues. It was turned into a brothel by the Nazi establishment. Or that of the many books written by Jews and other ‘undesirables’ that were taken from the national library here and burned. The more I heard, the more off put, yet intrigued, I became.
All of this culminated in the strange feeling of historical connection. An ‘oceanic feeling’, almost, to borrow from Rolland and Freud. I felt like, for the briefest of moments, I had the tiniest bit of an inkling of the past of this region. It faded almost as soon as I felt it, but it was one of the eeriest moments I’ve had in a long time.
Like I said before, the museum gave me the chills. The rest of the day was a myriad of fun little adventures in the Alsatian country-side. Despite all of the frolicking about, I still thought about that museum and what I learned. For example, hen I scaled Château du Haut Koenigsbourg, a war-hardened bastion on the top of a mountain, I marveled at the history embedded in the rock and the surrounding region. People had died here. Thousands of them, in battles beyond count. For hundreds, no, thousands of years. And here I am now, an American tourist on a tour.
What a peculiar feeling indeed.