Landscape and Identity: Competing Claims for the Hearts of Alsatians, 1871-1918
Senior thesis completed at Trinity College for the degree of Bachelor of Arts in History.
This paper explores the relationship between Alsatians and their landscape from 1871 to 1918, a period in which the region was an imperial territory (Reichsland) of Germany. After over two centuries of belonging to France, Alsace had developed a distinctive regional culture in relation to both Germany and France. German efforts to nationalize the landscape, and thus the people to legitimize German authority and ultimately integrate the people into the Reich, an effort that relied in large part of convincing them of their German past.
I am interested in exploring the extent to which landscape, as a negotiation between the physical land and the way in which people perceive, imagine, and depict their surroundings, played a role in creating identity in the frontier zone of Alsace following the Franco-Prussian War. As a multi-layered concept that includes both natural formations as well as constructed features of the environment, the landscape in this borderland reinforces a sense of the region, with the advantage of a smaller scale that is more familiar than that of the nation, be it France or Germany. At various points in time, the landscape was mobilized in support of a prescribed Alsatian identity.
As both a physical circumstance and individual and social construct, landscape can be observed and experienced in a variety of ways. By examining depictions of the land in contemporary literature and art alongside projects for the creation of historic monuments, the formation of Alsatian identity can be observed. Additionally, by looking at the extension of the urban environment in Strasbourg and the development of the railway network, we can cultivate a better sense of how the German Reich sought to nationalize the Reichsland. Similarly, idea of a linguistic landscape that was plotted on a map and could be adjusted in the classrooms of Alsatian primary schools helps us to understand the way in which Alsatians may have embraced their regional identity in the face of aggressive nationalism, or extrapolated from the region to forge a national identity.