At the end of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871, France was forced to cede the region of Alsace to the German Empire. Then again, after the First World War, Alsace was incorporated into France through the Treaty of Versailles. The region switched hands often throughout history, so it is no wonder that its cultural heritage is unique — not distinctly French nor specifically German — but rather a mix of the two countries it sits between. Alsace was a target of the Nazi regime as soon as they looked westward. By 1940, the Third Reich had annexed Poland, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and much of France. Alsace, however, was different. As the rest of France was simply placed under Nazi control, Alsace was incorporated into the Reich and would not again be united with France until 1944. This is the story of Alsace and its people in World War II.
Annexation and Incorporation of Alsace
Before Nazi occupation and immediately after the French declaration of war against the Third Reich, Alsace, as a border region, was evacuated. The entire city of Strasbourg sat empty for many months, and the citizens of the rest of the region were displaced to areas within the southwestern Vichy territories, like Aquitaine. Alsatians left with no promise of when they would return or whether they would see their homes and possessions again. The evacuation continued until 1940 when France capitulated, and the Germans rounded up citizens of Alsace back into their homeland.
On June 13, 1940, Paris fell to the Nazi Regime. Less than ten days later, France surrendered to the German invasion, and the Nazi annexation of the country was complete. Hitler forced the French officials to sign an armistice that, in turn, enacted a series of secret laws that incorporated Alsace into the Reich. Under the leadership of Gauleiter Robert Heinrich Wagner, Alsace was paired with the German state of Baden, forming a unitary administrative region called Gau Baden-Alsace.
Hitler was particularly interested in incorporating the region into the Reich rather than simply occupying it because of its historical significance as a part of Germany. The culture, in theory, could be further Germanized and bolster the Reich. The goal of a complete and homogenous Germany was supported by regions like Alsace, which had both cultural and economic connections to Germany. It was a win-win situation for the Nazis, as they were able not only to culturally convert a long-disputed territory but also gain profit from it to go towards the war effort.
German Citizens of Alsace
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In January of 1942, Alsatians were declared German citizens, excluding the Alsatians they considered “undesirable,” who were either denied entry to the region after evacuation or deported to concentration camps. The declaration of citizenship gave way to the Nazi Germanization of Alsace. Also referred to as the de-Francization, Alsace’s entire administrative and public language and culture was seemingly flipped on its head. Street signs, public notices, newspapers, postage stamps, and town names were all replaced with German versions, with French and Alsatian languages banned from use in print or speech. Even first and last names were Germanized.
Nazi control was widespread in Alsace. Education, culture, and leisure were necessarily made German. Even memorials to the dead were twisted to honor German heritage. Every trace of French culture was gone from public life. The Nazis imposed this strictly in Alsace with the help of the Gestapo and the suppression of anyone or anything considered “francophilic.” Those who the Nazi regime deemed “un-Germanizable,” such as Jews, North Africans, Asians, and naturalized French citizens, were swiftly deported.
Beginning in August of 1942, Alsatians were forcibly conscripted into the Nazi army and sent to the Eastern front. These soldiers were called the malgré-nous, figuratively translated as “we who are forced against our will.” Around 130,000 of the malgré-nous from Alsace and Lorraine were sent to fight the Soviet armies in Eastern Europe; over one-third never returned. Alsatians were forced into Nazi life in every facet and were strictly monitored and repressed throughout the war.
Alsatian Persecution in World War II
The Jewish community had a long and storied history in Alsace at the time of the Nazi invasion. In 1939, about 20,000 Jews lived in the regions of Alsace and Lorraine. Like many other Alsatians, Jewish people were evacuated before the Nazi invasion and occupation, and those remaining had fled to southwestern France. This left around 3,000 Jewish people left to fend for themselves when the Nazis annexed and incorporated Alsace into the Reich.
Soon after the fall of Strasbourg on July 2, 1940, all of the remaining Jews in the region of Alsace were deported to Vichy France. Jewish Alsatians were given an allowance of 30 kilograms for all their possessions and 150 Reichsmarks upon their deportation. Their homes and possessions were then given to Nazi officials or auctioned off. This was an effort by the Nazis to carry out Judenrein, or the cleansing of Jews from the region.
In addition to deportation, the Strasbourg synagogue was burned down by a group of Hitler Youth in September 1940, eliminating any place of worship for remaining Jews in Strasbourg and sending a clear signal that the Nazi party would go to extreme lengths to “purify” its territories of Jewish influence. This was a standard part of Nazification within the Third Reich, and various measures were taken in the attempted indoctrination of hate in the region.
Predictably, newspapers and textbooks were rewritten to blame the Jewish “race” for the majority of the problems seen by the region of Alsace throughout history. This could have been made easier by the history of persecution against Jews in Alsace, notably the massacres of the Middle Ages. However, the Nazi regime also went about twisting the narrative and taking academic opinions on Jews out of context, leading to a standardized Nazi story of villainization of the Jewish community for the disunity and problems of Europe as a whole. It is estimated that after deportation to concentration camps, approximately 3,700 Alsatian Jews were murdered during the Holocaust.
While France had one of the highest rates of Jewish survival during the Second World War, persecution abounded in many other groups as well. After the French Revolution, homosexuality was largely decriminalized, though many LGBTQ people were still harassed under morality laws. With this decriminalization, however, came the relative acceptance of private sexuality being kept private until the Nazi regime took over the region of Alsace. LGBTQ Alsatians were widely persecuted by the Nazis and deported to concentration camps throughout the Reich.
Natzweiler-Struthof and the Reichsuniversität Straßburg
The concentration camp Natzweiler-Struthof was established in May 1941 near a quarry, where many of the approximately 52,000 prisoners were forced to work. The camp was set up especially for those who politically opposed the Nazis or worked with resistance movements, but people of all persuasions were transferred from other camps to the Natzweiler-Struthof system, which comprised the main camp as well as about 50 subcamps. While detaining “Night and Fog” resistance prisoners was a main priority, so too was human experimentation. The gas chamber on the site of the main camp was established for use in poison gas experiments. Most of the victims of these experiments were Roma travelers who had been transferred from Auschwitz. Prisoners at Natzweiler-Struthof were also used for experiments to find vaccines for typhus and yellow fever.
Natzweiler-Struthof worked closely with the nearby University of Strasbourg’s medical school in human experimentation as well. The bodies of 86 Jewish people, who had been executed in the gas chamber at Natzweiler-Struthof, were then sent to the Institute of Anatomy, where they were incorporated into a Jewish skeleton collection amassed by Nazi doctor August Hirt. The collection aimed to establish the inferiority of the Jewish “race” through anatomical study. The bodies were discovered during the liberation of Strasbourg in 1944, but human remains from the experimentation have been found as recently as 2015.
Resistance to Nazism in Alsace
The first resistance movement to be organized in Alsace was the Black Hand resistance, founded by 16-year-old Marcel Weinum in September 1940. The Black Hand took its name from the patron saint of Strasbourg, Saint Attala. Specifically, the name comes from a relic of the saint, her hand, blackened by time and encased in a reliquary. Several miracles are said to have happened in the presence of the hand, which is exactly what Weinum hoped for. He and his group, composed only of teenagers, fought the Nazi regime through intelligence, counter-propaganda, and sabotage.
The Black Hand sabotaged transmission stations, railroads, and Nazi vehicles. Any storefront that displayed an image of Hitler was bombed by the Black Hand, and eventually, the group moved on to attempted assassination. They threw grenades into the car of Gauleiter Wagner, who only escaped death by a few minutes: he was in a coffee shop and was close to returning to his car when the explosion occurred. Eventually, Weinum and his associate Ceslav Sieradzki were arrested at the border with Switzerland while on a mission to secure funds. Sieradzki was executed by gunfire, and Weinum, one day after his 18th birthday, was beheaded for their roles in the resistance. Weinum’s last letter to his parents read, “If I have to die, I die with a pure heart.”
The Liberation of Alsace
After the Allies captured Normandy, they set their sights on the rest of France. They were sometimes met directly with surrender but more often were forced to fight against German resistance. This culminated in the autumn of 1944, when the American and French armies finally broke through enemy lines and fought their way through the region of Alsace, the United States from the North, and France from the South. By the end of 1944, Nazis could only occupy a pocket of land near Colmar on the west bank of the Rhine. On New Year’s Eve 1944, the Nazi army began Operation Nordwind in a final desperate attempt to subdue the Allies. After three weeks of fighting, they were defeated, and the Allied forces liberated the entire region of Alsace.