7 Facts You Need to Know About the History of the Alsace

Alsace is a unique region in Europe where the culture is a unique blend of French and German traditions and its history is integral to the European Union of today.

Jul 11, 2023By Madison Whipple, BA History w/ Spanish minor

history of alsace


Alsace is a region in what is now Eastern France. However, it has changed hands countless times throughout its history. The Rhine River has been a constant reason for settlement in Alsace, and hominid populations were living in the valley of the region beginning in the Paleolithic era. The earliest evidence of hominids in the region is dated to 700,000 years ago, with neanderthal populations established 250,000 years ago. By the Common Era, Alsace was a region where several populations and cultures of humans had thrived for tens of thousands of years. Here are seven facts about the rich history of the Alsace that you need to know.


1. Alsace Was Conquered by Julius Caesar & the Roman Army

gallic wars caesar
Illustration of surrender at the feet of Julius Caesar during the Gallic Wars, via Explore the Archive


Alsace was settled mostly by Celtic-speaking peoples until around 100 BCE when Germanic tribes began to move into the Rhine Valley. By the latter half of the first century BCE, most of the region was occupied by the Triboci, a Germanic tribe from further east in the region of Gaul.


During the Gallic Wars, Julius Caesar and his armies conquered the region of Alsace, incorporating the various tribal lands into the Roman province of Germania Superior. The Eastern border of Alsace, formed by the Rhine, was a strategic area for several Roman military camps. One of the largest, now the location of Strasbourg, was Argentoratum. Three cities in the region served as administrative hubs: Brocomagus (Brumath), Divodorum (Metz), and Augusta Raurica (near Basel, Switzerland). Agriculture and development took off under Rome, with mostly cereal crops being exported. Although there is some evidence that the Romans taught people of Alsace viticulture, it’s more likely that most of the wine in Alsace was imported from Iberia during this time.


Urbanization was rapid until the fifth century CE when the decline of the Empire coincided with the conquering of Alsace by the Alemanni, an agricultural Germanic people. The Alemanni language greatly influenced Alsatian, the dialect spoken by those in the Alsace today. However, the Merovingian dynasty soon conquered the region for the Frankish kingdoms. King Clovis, newly converted to Christianity, converted the region and incorporated it into the Frankish Kingdom of Austrasia.

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2. Charlemagne Incorporated Alsace into the Holy Roman Empire

charlemagne coronation holy roman emperor
The coronation of Charlemagne, via the World History Encyclopedia


By the late eighth century, Charlemagne, the most famous Frankish King of the Carolingian dynasty, had incorporated Alsace into a unified France and Germany. By 800 CE, Charlemagne was named the Holy Roman Emperor, and his Empire became one of the most powerful in Europe. Most noble families in Europe today can trace their lineage to Charlemagne.


After he died in 814 CE, Charlemagne’s grandsons divided the Frankish realm into three parts with the Oaths of Strasbourg. While this technically meant that Alsace was French, the Oaths had to be written in three languages: Old French, Medieval Latin, and Old German, so that armies across the region would understand. In 843 CE, the Treaty of Verdun officially ceded the kingdom to Lothar I, the eldest grandson of Charlemagne. The kingdom was further split throughout the years but remained within the Holy Roman Empire until the 17th century. However, the debate over who could rule Alsace would continue for hundreds of years.


3. Alsace Thrived during the Middle Ages

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A modern view of the city of Strasbourg, via France Today


In 1262, Strasbourg gained the right to become a free imperial city within the Holy Roman Empire. This meant that Strasbourg was fairly independent relative to the other cities of the Empire, as they only answered to the Emperor himself. Strasbourg, along with Colmar and Hagenau, joined the Decapole, a federation within the empire comprising ten free cities and enjoyed considerable autonomy.


The heydays of Strasbourg and the Alsace region during the Middle Ages were the 12th and 13th centuries. Strasbourg was a stop on the Paris-Vienna-Orient trade route, and its port on the Rhine connected Germany and Switzerland to Scandinavia, England, and the Netherlands. This multifaceted access to trade made the Alsace region an economic giant, which only ended in the 14th century, when the plague, harsh winters, and bad harvests slowed its prosperity. In addition to these factors, in 1356, the Rhine Rift Earthquake wreaked even more havoc on the region, and Alsace only fully recovered during the Renaissance.


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A depiction of the massacre of Jews in Strasbourg, 1349, via the Jewish Women’s Archive


The difficulties of Alsace during this time were blamed on the Jewish people of the region. They were accused of poisoning wells with the plague and were thus massacred. One such event, the Strasbourg Pogrom, became well known for the public burning of 2,000 Jewish people in one day. Colmar, Strasbourg, and many other towns forbade Jews from settling there. Unfortunately, Anti-Semitic violence and segregation remained prevalent in Alsace for hundreds of years after.


4. The Habsburg Dynasty Ruled for Hundreds of Years

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Portrait of Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III, via The World of the Habsburgs


In 1477, Upper Alsace came under the rule of the Habsburgs after the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick III, managed to annex the land through taxation and dynastic marriage. Both Lower and Upper Alsace came under Habsburg control and, by default, kept the region within the Holy Roman Empire. While the Emperor ruled, the region was split into several feudal lordships. The Holy Roman Emperors essentially served as the main tax collectors, while most towns were under the direct rule of a lord.


The Habsburgs ruled much of Europe until the 19th century. However, different branches of the family ruled different parts of the continent. For example, when the Protestant Reformation made its way to Alsace, the Roman Catholic branch of the Habsburg line attempted to quell this “heresy” within the region. Their efforts were countered by a popular reformer named Martin Bucer, and the clash resulted in a piecemeal region of Catholic and Protestant cities.


The relative split continued until 1639, when France conquered Alsace in a part of what would come to be known as the Thirty Years’ War. Yet another branch of the Habsburgs, the Spanish Habsburgs, allied with the Holy Roman Empire as its grip began to loosen in regions like Alsace. Feeling the pressure of their enemies and wanting to move beyond Alsace into more strategic territories, the Holy Roman Empire sold part of Upper Alsace to France in 1646.


5. Alsace Was Sold to France

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Louis XIV, the Sun King, via The Palace of Versailles


For the price of 1.2 million thalers (the silver currency of the time), France gained an official holding in Alsace. France absorbed most of the region with the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. However, the terms of the treaty were confusing, perhaps purposefully, as the region still retained relative autonomy. It was unclear whether the region fell under the total control of France or Germany, so it was more loosely held by both than in other regions. In 1679, however, Alsace was fully consolidated by the Sun King, France’s Louis XIV.


alsace traditional scene
Folk costumes of the Alsace Region, via Folk Costume & Embroidery


In contrast to the rest of France, Alsace still enjoyed relative freedom and religious tolerance. The German language was still used in most aspects of public life, including governmental administration and education. The University of Strasbourg, which remained a Lutheran institution, accepted students from Germany. The Edict of Fontainebleau, which suppressed French Protestantism, did not apply in Alsace. There was also no customs border with Germany, which meant that although Alsace was a part of France in theory, in practice, Germany always had its foot in the door.


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Soldier guarding a bridge at Kehl, Alsace during the French Revolution. The sign reads “French Republic – United and Undivisonable – Here starts the country of Liberty,” via Pierre’s Photo Impressions of the Western Front


This came to an effective end in 1789 with the onslaught of the French Revolution. Alsace was fully grouped into France, which caused many to flee East and allowed for destruction to ravage the region. Many Alsatians wanted the rebellion crushed by French forces, but they were ultimately displaced for around a decade.


With the installation of Napoleon at the turn of the 19th century, Alsace suffered further. Napoleon’s troops occupied much of the region in their quest for eastern expansion, and the economy was all but quelled by new seaports in the Mediterranean and Atlantic. Rapid population growth, from 800,000 in 1814 to over a million in 1846, forced more native Alsatians to new lands in search of food, security, and work.


6. The Alsace Region Changed Hands 4 Times in 80 Years

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A scene depicting a battle during the Franco-Prussian War, via The Past


France retained control of Alsace until the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71. The Prussian Army conquered the French territory and officially incorporated Alsace into the German Empire. In 1911, its government answered directly to the central powers in Berlin, making the imperial territory of Alsace-Lorraine somewhat autonomous.


Alsace remained in German hands until the end of World War I when it was ceded to the French in the Treaty of Versailles. However, under the advice of President Woodrow Wilson, Alsace was given a distinction as self-ruling. Wilson came to this conclusion based on Alsace-Lorraine’s constitution, which stated its allegiance to the Kaiser rather than Germany itself. With this distinction in mind, Alsace-Lorraine attempted to declare independence, which France swiftly acted upon and regained control in one week.


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The Nazi occupation of Strasbourg, via Kuriocity Strasbourg


German culture and language were suppressed during this time, with anti-German discrimination running rampant. Germans were expelled from the region and the French forbade the use of the German language in all administrative and public happenings.


With the dawn of World War II, Alsace was all but annexed by the German Reich in 1940. However, it was never formally annexed, as the Third Reich used it as a bargaining chip with Western powers. While this occupation quelled anti-German sentiments out of necessity, it also subjected the region to Nazi rule. The French language was now banned, and all non-Jewish, non-“francophile” Alsatians were considered German citizens, albeit begrudgingly to the people themselves.


In 1944, control of the region was regained by France, and the official language once again returned to French. Anti-German nationalism was stronger than ever until more recent years when advocates for German culture in the region enjoyed more freedom.


7. Alsace is Currently One of Three European Union Capitals

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The EU Parliament building in Strasbourg, via the EU Observer


The European Union (EU) established one of four institutional seats in Strasbourg, as it is considered somewhat of a halfway point between France and Germany, along with Brussels, Frankfurt, and Luxembourg. The EU’s decision to place its seat in Strasbourg is due to the conception of Alsace as an example of unity in pan-European identity. The European Parliament splits its sessions, which occur several times per month, between Strasbourg, Luxembourg City, and Brussels.


Today, Alsace is a fairly self-governing region, though it is still legally a part of France. The region’s traditional language, Alsatian, is less often used in favor of French in modern times. However, the German influence is evident in the architecture, food, beer, and wine production. The Alsace region of today is something of an anomaly in Europe, as its rich blend of heritage has contributed greatly to its modern identity.

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By Madison WhippleBA History w/ Spanish minorMadison is a contributing writer with specialties in American and women’s history. She is especially interested in women’s history in the context of the American Civil War. In her free time, she enjoys going to museums, reading, and jogging.