The Creation of Alsace-Lorraine and the Making of Imperial Germany: New Perspectives on an Old Problem

Sunday, January 5, 2014: 8:50 AM
Columbia Hall 12 (Washington Hilton)
Anthony J. Steinhoff, University of Quebec
Historians have long puzzled over Prussia’s decision to seize most of Alsace and portions of Lorraine from France at the conclusion of the Franco-Prussian War. For some, it represented the triumph of Prussian military interests over diplomacy; for others, it pointed to a real shortcoming in Otto von Bismarck’s ability to manage successfully the complexities of Prussian and, after January 1871, German politics. As is well known, the annexation of what became the territory of Alsace-Lorraine created an intractable foreign policy problem for the German nation, since the French Republic continually sought to recover the “lost provinces.” But as Hans-Ulrich Wehler has noted, the limits of integrating the “Reichsland” into the new Reich also contributed to the destabilization of German domestic politics, especially during the Wilhelmine era. In this paper, I seek to return to the question of Alsace-Lorraine and the significance of the Reichsland’s creation for both Germany and Europe. Drawing on archival evidence from August 1870 that has heretofore escaped scholarly attention, I confirm that Bismarck indeed wished to annex Alsace and parts of Lorraine. However, his rationale had in fact little to do with military concerns or even a desire to punish France. Rather, the recovery of these territories was to provide the states of the future German Empire with a common project that would strengthen and consolidate the federal nation.