KEHL, Germany, and STRASBOURG, France -- I'm standing in Germany, but most of the people around me are rooting for France. Some of the bartenders and waitresses speak to me in French, others in German. Many of them sport French flags painted on one cheek and German flags on the other. At least two cars in the parking lot have a German flag waving from one window and a French flag from the other. Two girls walk by arm-in-arm, one wearing a French kit and the other a German one, both speaking French. A few feet to my right, the Rhine divides the German soil with the French land, specifically the Alsace region.
For a 300-year period stretching from the 17th century to the end of World War II, Alsace constantly oscillated between French and German control, altering the region's cultural history. Their loyalties are complex, fraught with historical baggage, modern doubts and a whole lot of apathy. It requires some background.
For the roughly 800 years between Charlemagne's death in 814 and the Franco-Dutch War in 1672, Alsatians spoke some form of German, but then Louis XIV incorporated Alsace into the French kingdom, making French the dominant language. For 200 years, everything was generally cool, until the Franco-Prussian War in 1871, when the Germans gained control and switched the official language back to German. Eight years later, 95 percent of the Lower-Alsace population and 78 percent of Upper-Alsace -- including Strasbourg, the largest city and cultural epicenter -- spoke German as its first language. At the time, less than five percent of Alsatians spoke French.
Like everywhere else, the First World War only made things worse. After generations of regime changes and split loyalties, neither the Germans nor the French trusted the Alsatians to serve their militaristic needs. Although many Alsatians were conscripted into the German forces, most joined the Navy where they were unlikely to be sympathetic toward the enemy. After the war, a brief attempt at independence failed, so Alsace was forced to wrestle with yet another cultural shift that became particularly ugly. In 1918, only two percent of the population spoke French fluently, yet under the Treaty of Versailles, Alsace-Lorraine was annexed by France. Again, the French didn't trust the region to be truly French and therefore instituted draconian laws to make it French.
Every Alsatian was issued an identity card to credentialize ethnicity on a letter-scale. "A" cards were "pure" Alsatians or from the French interior; "B" cards were for residents with one "pure" parent; "C" cards were Alsatians born in the region but of two immigrant parents; and "D" denoted two German parents. In November of 1918, a French commission was formed to issue these cards accordingly and expel "undesirables," referring to those who expressed pro-German sentiments or those accused of acting German. The accused faced "expulsion from the region, internment or the loss of a number of civil rights" with no right to counsel or to call witnesses on their behalf, according to a paper by French historian Laird Boswell (from whose work much of this information is from). Likewise, many community leaders from the pre-war period such as civil servants, priests and teachers were expelled immediately. Since the Germans generally promoted "pure" Germans to these roles, this policy largely erased a generation of productive workers. All told, some 150,000 Germans were kicked out of Alsace-Lorraine or left due to the circumstances, shifting the region's balance of power.
Not long after, Alsace would be a sticking point of Hitler's desired reversal of the Treaty of Versailles' many wrongs. When the Germans conquered Alsace-Lorraine in 1940, they immediately banned French, once again forcing the region to reckon with a new national language. The Nazis also conscripted some 130,000 young men and deployed them to the Eastern Front, many against their will. One out of every three Alsatians sent to fight for a country to which they did not belong would never return.
The mass German expulsion prior to the war, the atrocities committed by the Nazis and the number of Alsatians who considered themselves victims of those acts led the region to largely disassociate from its Germanic history. After the war, Alsace-Lorraine became an accepted part of France and even embraced its new identity. For the first time in hundreds of years, Alsatians felt as if the cultural shift was voluntary. They wanted to be French.
The day before Friday's World Cup quarterfinal match, I had this sordid saga in mind as I strolled across a modern suspension bridge, accidentally crossing the border from Strasbourg, France, to Kehl, Germany. It was a long walk -- about 90 minutes -- but a beautiful one through the Strasbourg city center with willow trees reflecting off calm rivers and bouquets hanging from its many bridges. The centuries-old traditional Alsatian homes bend over the narrow cobblestone roads, casting welcome shadows on a typical French summer day. For hundreds of years, such an emigration would be contentious if not outright treasonous. Seventy years ago, this bridge didn't exist; the Rhine was part of the Maginot Line. Today, there are no border guards, no passport control officers, nothing.
As the first half of the Germany-France match concludes, I walk a few hundred feet to the Kehl train station in Germany, where I hop on a commuter rail line. Twelve minutes later, I arrive at the Strasbourg station and hustle to a nearby cafe. I missed two minutes of the second half, but I am now in France.
The bartender asks me what I would like to drink and quickly learns my French is only adequate as a tool of self-humiliation. As with everyone else in Strasbourg who has had this realization, he then asks me if German would be any better. After coaxing a beer out of him with a multitude of hand signals that could have also been interpreted as "please throw water on my face," I look around and see that nobody is rooting for Germany, which makes sense because this is France. But nobody is really rooting for France, either. They're just kind of watching.
In Strasbourg, every road has two street signs: one in French and another in Alsatian, a regional dialect that, to a non-expert, seems more similar to German than French but is mostly a smorgasbord of several Germanic languages. Due to the large-scale acceptance of French as the local language after the war, Alsatian has been on the decline. To stop it from disappearing, Alsatian is now offered in schools, and some cities, like Strasbourg, display it on public signs. It is a small but distinct homage to a region that probably shouldn't forget its history as the rope in a tug of war. Sure, it was a long time ago, but the church at the center of town was built in 1439.
Neither group of fans is particularly enthused about the match. They care in that passive, somewhat arrogant, too-cool-for-school way that can only be described as Super French. Few wave French flags or wear French kits. When the final whistle blows and France is eliminated, 1-0, nobody cries, whines or bemoans a lost opportunity. I walk outside and see lots of other cafes with people doing the same. The rain doesn't seem to deter those who are on their way to enjoying a Friday night out, possibly indulging in some of Alsace's fine wines and surprisingly tasty beers. When a game of tug of war ends, the rope doesn't choose sides.