fbpx

Blog

Alsace: Is it German or French Genealogy? (Guest Post by Bryna O’Sullivan)

Is the Study of Family History in Alsace German Genealogy or French Genealogy?

Unfortunately, there is no simple answer to the question. Genealogists have often considered the study of family history in Alsace to be part of German genealogy, based on the idea that the region was ethnically German. However, Alsace has been politically French for much of recent history. To adequately study Alsatian families, genealogists need to consider the area’s complex political and linguistic history.

The History of Alsace

Over the last three and half centuries or so, Alsace has been part of both the French and German Empires. In that period, it was under French political control for approximately 323 years and German control for approximately 51 years.  Yet each country had a profound impact on the records, culture, and history of the region.

The Thirty Years War (1618-1648) laid the groundwork for French control of the region. Alsace was first annexed to France under the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. At the time, the government of France was to obtain only the areas that were under the possession of the Habsburg monarchy. However, by 1697, the Treaty of Ryswick had established the Rhine as the political border of France, making Alsace officially French.

Yet it would fall under German control twice.  In June 1871, Alsace was annexed to the German Empire as part of the peace treaty ending the Franco-Prussian War. The region rejoined France on 28 June 1919 with the Treaty of Versailles and the end of the First World War. Germany occupied the region again in 1940. Alsace was completely liberated only in March 1945.

The Languages

The initial annexation of Alsace to France placed it under a unique political structure. It had its own sovereign council and could trade freely with other countries – although it needed to pay tariffs on goods traded to other provinces. It functioned as a country within a country.

This “country within a country” status gave Alsace a measure of cultural freedom into the late 19th century. Alsace could – and did – maintain its ties to its Germanic roots. Alsatian, a German dialect, would remain the primary language of the population. The French language did gain power, but through the structures of wealth and the French government. It was employed by the upper classes, those in the military, and those who learned it through formal schooling.

The growth of nineteenth Nationalism would limit that freedom. In the late nineteenth century, France and Germany tied language into National identity. As part of the 1871 annexation, Germany not only reverted to German as the language of the State but also encouraged its use as the main language in schools. This linguistic control was not absolute: some of the former French ruling class would continue to use that language. After regaining control of Alsace in 1945, the French discouraged the use of Alsatian and treated German as a foreign language in schools. Only in the 1960s would bilingualism begin to take hold again.

What Does This Mean For Your Genealogy?

This complex history of Alsace has practical implications for genealogical research. The world in which our ancestors lived shaped what records were created and in which languages they were recorded. Today’s political and social systems impact where and how those records are stored.

Whether it was part of France or part of Germany, Alsace would have been subject to the laws and practices of that country. That means, for example, that its residents were subject to the Decree of 20 September 1792, which resulted in the creation of vital records.  Similarly, after annexation in 1871, its younger men would face compulsory service in the German Army. To locate an ancestor’s records, we need to consider the laws under which they lived.

We also need to consider an ancestor’s ethnic history. An ancestor’s records would have also been shaped by their personal experiences and those of their family. To what religious denomination did they belong? What languages did they speak at home? Many families remained Protestant and spoke German at home even as the ruling class became French Catholic.

So What About The Records?

This balancing act can become apparent in the area’s records. Most early nineteenth century civil registration – birth, death, and marriage records – were kept in French. It was the political language and thus, the language of the government. Yet some records are written in German, and others indicate that the record was translated into German before it was signed. The language of the government was being balanced with the comfort level of a clerk or the need of a family to understand the records of their relatives.

While historic patterns governed the creation of our ancestor’s records, storage is determined by today’s politics. National records have largely remained with the government that created them. More local records moved with the political control of the region: today, civil registration is held by the appropriate French Departmental archive.

In Conclusion…

Is Alsatian genealogy French genealogy or German genealogy? The best answer may be that it’s both. The region was impacted not only by a German ethnic identity but also by moving political boundaries that placed it in both French and German control. Looking at the region through the lens of both fields may make it easier to understand our ancestors and their records. Best of luck in your research!

About the Author:

Bryna O’Sullivan is a Middletown, CT based professional genealogist and French to English genealogical translator. She is proprietor of Charter Oak Genealogy.

Sources:

“A Bit of History,” Mémorial Alsace Moselle (https://www.memorial-alsace-moselle.com/en/the-memorial-2/a-little-history: accessed 21 October 2022).

“Die Sprochmühle,” www.alsace-lorraine.org (https://www.alsace-lorraine.org/images/pdf/Alsacelanguage.pdf: accessed 20 October 2022).

“Histoire de la langue,” Office Pour La Langue et Les Cultures d’Alsace et de Moselle (https://www.olcalsace.org/fr/observer-et-veiller/histoire-de-la-langue: accessed 21 October 2022).

Marie-Georges Brun, “Histoire de l’Alsace,” September 2010, CRDP-Strasbourg (http://www.crdp-strasbourg.fr/data/lcr/histoire-en-bref/textes/histoire_en_bref.pdf: accessed 21 October 2022).

Sue Clarkson, “History of Alsace and Lorraine,” Foundation for Eastern European Family History Studies (https://feefhs.org/resource/germany-alsace-lorraine: accessed 21 October 2022).

“Traites,” Wipkipedia (https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Traites: accessed 21 October 2022).

6 Responses

  1. Thanks Bryna! A good overview.

    In a previous guest post, I wrote about the challenges of researching genealogy in Alsace in my article about an Alsatian in New York who lost his family in the 1904 General Slocum steamboat disaster, with records about him in both French and German. In 1909 the midwife of his daughter wrote for birthplace of the parents “Elsas”!
    https://germanologyunlocked.com/the-general-slocum-disaster-how-one-man-lost-his-family-and-rebuilt-his-life/

  2. Thanks for the article! My ancestors lived in or near Alsace up to the early 1800’s, when they moved to the German colonies near the Black Sea. My mother still speaks some of this old dialect, but it is very different from the High German I learned in school. Relatives from the colonies wrote letters to us in the States, using Alsatian German mixed with Russian, and in the old Gothic script. It was quite the chore to translate. And when we traced our roots to near Strasbourg, the records from Alsace are generally Latin or French, with German names.

    1. I find the mix of languages you’ll see for most families fascinating. It really provides insight into how they functioned in their day to day lives.

  3. Thanks for this. I have a major ancestor line that I descend from who came from Alsace. I’m waiting on results of a DNA study to see if they originally came from Bern, Switzerland in the 1600-1700s. Have you heard any Alsace residence that came from there? The family surname was Stambach.

    Also, I want to print this, but for some reason the first two pages the format is messed up with very large vertical letters. Any tips on printing?

    1. I’ve not specifically seen migration from Switzerland, but it wouldn’t surprise me. I’ve seen it in Luxembourg, which was also part of France for a time. There was significant mobility in the region, especially during periods of political unrest.
      Printing as a PDF first may resolve the issue.
      Bryna

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

+ 76 = 77