THE frontier between France and Germany is one of the oldest, as well as one of the newest, problems of European politics. It is, from one point of view, as old as Caesar's Gallic wars and the Germanic invasions of the Roman Empire, as new as the treaty of Versailles, and even newer. Some elements in it are almost secular in their persistence, some are only of recent origin. Moreover, the problem is much more complicated than is usually supposed, for we have here a frontier zone rather than a single line, a compound not a simple fracture; while the line which would be drawn in one place by one set of considerations would be drawn elsewhere by other forces.

The oldest historic frontier in this region is the Rhine, for nearly five centuries the boundary between Gaul and Germany, in speech and culture as well as in government. The Germanic invasions of the fifth century pushed the German element well to the westward, establishing the western limit of Germanic speech much where it lies today, and creating a mixed Gallo-German population in what is now western Germany as well as in northern and eastern France. At the same time the political frontier disappeared with the formation of a Frankish kingdom, and later a Frankish empire, ruling over both Gaul and the lands to the east of the Rhine, only to reappear in the partitions of the ninth century. The treaty of Verdun in 843 set apart the France and Germany of the future, separating them by a middle region of Lotharingia which was to be the bone of contention between them for more than a thousand years. With the partitions of Lotharingia the Franco-German problem begins to take on a more modern form. The best-known of these, the treaty of Meerssen in 870, gave to the German kingdom the whole left bank of the Rhine, including Strasbourg, Trier, Metz, and the upper valleys of the Meuse and Moselle, whence this treaty has been a favorite with German writers, who overlook the fact that it left Maestricht and the mouths of the Rhine to France.

In the tenth century the region between the Meuse and the Rhine breaks up into the duchies of Upper and Lower Lorraine, and these again dissolve into those feudal and ecclesiastical principalities whose vicissitudes constitute the political history of the region until the French Revolution. At first a duchy of the German kingdom, Lorraine's dependence loosened with the disintegration of the empire and the growth of territorial sovereignty, while at the same time French influence began to assert itself. In 1648 the Three Bishoprics of Metz, Toul, and Verdun were formally ceded to France, and the foundations of French domination was laid in Alsace; France had reached the Rhine. In 1766 the duchy of Lorraine, whose independence had been recognized by the Emperor Charles V, passed definitively to France. All modern German historians represent such changes as so many robberies of German territory by France. Robberies they may often have been, as in the case of the seizure of Strasbourg in 1681, but at the expense of local liberty rather than of Germany. There was in this period no real German entity, at least in the political sense, as the establishment of Dutch and Swiss independence illustrates. The identification of the Holy Roman Empire with the modern German Empire has been one of the most subtle and pervasive, as well as one of the most misleading, forms of Pan-Germanism.

The French Revolution carried the limits of France to the middle and lower Rhine, where they remained till 1814. The intermediate territory underwent the dissolving and transforming influence of the Revolution, received in many places with enthusiasm, and the less benign effects of the Empire. When the flood subsided in 1815, these lands with the exception of the Palatinate were not restored to their former princes, lay or ecclesiastical, but, save for the valley of the Nahe, were handed over to Prussia, which for the first time became a neighbor of France and the chief power on the Rhine. One of the accompanying adjustments of boundaries remained a sore point to France, namely, the northern line of Alsace and Lorraine. Here the frontier of 1789, with its irregular outlines, disputed sovereignties, and enclaves on either side, had nothing to recommend it, and the negotiations of 1814 had drawn a simpler line by which France abandoned her outlying possessions to the north and received in exchange certain connecting territory including most notably the region of Saarbrücken. In 1815 the treaty cut back this line, giving to Prussia not only Saarbrücken but Saarlouis and Landau, both of which had been French since the seventeenth century. The loss of the frontier of 1814 continued to be felt in France till it was swallowed up in the greater loss of 1870, and the restoration of Alsace and Lorraine by the armistice of November, 1918, reopened the problem of their historic boundaries. Meanwhile from 1870 to 1918 Alsace and Lorraine had been a German Reichsland, and this part of the Franco-German frontier had followed the Vosges and not the Rhine.

This outline of the varying fortunes of this debated region would seem at first sight to indicate that the frontier had been fixed entirely by political forces pushing the line in one direction or another according to the predominant strength of either party--a Franco-German tug of war. As a matter of fact, the problem is complicated by other elements of land and people which have determined the form and character, as well as the watchwords, of the varying phases of the struggle.

First of all, there is geography. Is there a natural frontier? It is plain, on the one hand, that France has no such clearly marked natural boundaries on the northeast as on its other borders, while it is also evident that the broken relief of western Germany creates possible physical lines of delimitation such as are conspicuously lacking on the side of Poland and Russia. At least the territory is open to debate. A certain school of French geographers and historians, ever since the days of Louis XIV, has maintained that the Rhine is the natural frontier of Gaul--"Rhenus finis Germaniae"--and the League of the Left Bank revived the cry during the World War. The German view that the Rhine is a German river, summarized in Arndt's lines on the Rhine as "Deutschlands Strom, nicht Deutschlands Grenze," has been emphasized by geographers, who maintain that mountains, not rivers, are the real frontiers. Their conclusion that the Vosges are a natural boundary has something to be said for it in the region of Alsace, but it breaks down as we go northward, and fails to meet the questions raised by the valleys of the Meuse and the Moselle.

Strategic considerations are an application of physiography. Not to go back to Caesar's pons asinorum, we may recall the importance of the upper Rhine bridges in the seventeenth century and of the bridgeheads of the Saar under Louis XIV and again in 1815, as well as Moltke's insistence on Metz in 1871. Alsace was declared by Bismarck to be the glacis of a fortress; its acquisition, said Wilhelm I, had "no other purpose than to set back the point of departure of the French armies which will come to attack us in the future." An important school of French strategists has maintained that German occupation of the Left Bank was a permanent menace to France, which could only be protected by an army on the Rhine, or at least by French control of the great Rhine bridges; while German writers[i] insist that possession of the whole valley is necessary to their national security.

Mineral resources are a phase of geography which has peculiar significance in this region. The debated territory of the Left Bank contains the coal fields of Aachen and the Saar, the great potash mines of Upper Alsace, and the minette district of Lorraine, the largest body of iron ore in Continental Europe, while on the Right Bank lies the valley of the Ruhr.[ii] With the growth of modern industrialism these have had a large share in territorial changes and ambitions. In 1815 the coal of the Saar was one reason for the adjustment of the frontier at the expense of France, the first step in the economic conquest of Alsace-Lorraine. The iron of the Lorraine border explains the meanderings of the frontier of 1871, carefully drawn by German geologists with the aim of including all that was then considered valuable in the field; but new processes gave new value to the deposits on the French side of the line in the region of Briey and Longwy. In 1914 German engineers hastened to occupy this territory, and its annexation was a declared objective of the great German iron interests throughout the war. With the restoration of Lorraine by the treaty, the whole iron district became French property with the exception of a narrow strip on the north which lies in Luxembourg. The coal of the Saar valley was an important occasion for the French demand of the frontier of 1814, and its proximity to the French frontier made easy its transfer to France as a means of reparation for German ravages elsewhere. The industrial reasons for the occupation of the Ruhr in 1923 are still fresh in men's minds.[iii]

It is necessary also to remember that the most important mineral resources of the Rhine valley, coal and iron, form a unit, one of the three great actual world-areas of iron and steel production. From a purely economic point of view there is here no frontier, and any political line which separates the coal of the Ruhr from the iron of Lorraine runs against overpowering economic forces. Hence, above all, the efforts of Germany to annex Lorraine and of France to control the Ruhr; hence the necessity of some form of economic working agreement across the present political frontier. From the point of view of world peace, there is, however, much to be said for the division of this great area, as at present, rather than its union under a single state which would have, in war and peace, a practical monopoly of iron and steel on the Continent. Even an economic agreement of these Franco-German interests is considered a serious danger by their British competitors, whose fears have recently been voiced by the Labor Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Of the more specifically human elements which have affected the frontier, we may begin by eliminating that of race, which has played a large part in Pan-German and "Nordic" writings. Neither the Teutonic nor the Alpine race dominates this region, nor can their occurrence be divided by any line. The original Gallo-Roman type and that of the Teutonic invaders are thoroughly intermixed on the Left Bank, the first surviving most largely in the hills and the second being most numerous in the lowlands, with no demonstrable political affinities as such on the part of either. The loose claims that this whole region is German Stammland are dissolved by the more discriminating analysis of the ethnologists.[iv]

A surer and clearer test than race, the matter of language is of much greater interest. In the country it is remarkably permanent, as is shown by the very slight fluctuations of the linguistic frontier where its history has been established in detail by the researches of Kurth in Belgium and of Witte in Alsace-Lorraine. In the towns it is more subject to change, as is illustrated by the French-speaking element in Strasbourg, Colmar, and Mulhouse, the German-speaking influx into Metz before the war, and the spread of French among the educated classes in Luxembourg and Flanders. Yet even in the country, as Dietrich Schäfer has pointed out, and as the accompanying map illustrates, the linguistic frontier has rarely coincided with the political. German-speaking Alsace was held by France, and later French-speaking Lorraine by Germany, though we now know that in the last year of the war it was planned to change all this by the forcible colonization of French-speaking Lorraine by Germans.[v] Nor does the present political frontier follow linguistic lines in Alsace-Lorraine or, with entire exactness, on the Belgian border.

It is of course true that community of language is an important influence in producing that "consciousness of kind" upon which nationality rests and in facilitating the life of the modern state, yet the examples of Switzerland and Belgium show that a single speech is not indispensable for a sound national life. The solidarity of France is not disturbed by the persistence of popular languages, quite different from French, in Brittany, Provence, the Basque region, and the bit of Flemish-speaking territory about Dunkirk; and Frenchmen argue that they have room also for the local German patois of Alsace-Lorraine, in contradistinction to the official high German. In the German view, on the other hand, the German language is an essential part of German culture and nationality, and it is tacitly assumed that German-speaking populations ought always to be part of the German Reich[vi]. Such a principle, however, obviously breaks down in the Swiss portion of the Rhine valley, not to go into its Pan-German applications in Flanders and the Netherlands, so that, with all its importance, language must be considered only as a part of the larger question of the affinities and desires of the population concerned.

When we turn from an objective fact like language to such matters as the historical traditions and cultural affinities of the population, we are dealing with more subjective considerations which have been the field of endless controversy. To an outsider the disputants seem to move for the most part in different realms of thought and feeling, dealing with incommensurable elements and with arguments which do not meet short of infinity. To German writers the Germanic character of this whole region seems self-evident, resting on its age-long membership in the mediaeval empire and its continuous participation in German literature and culture, so that any connection with France seems unnatural and contrary to all national life. The French stress the political and social transformation brought about by the Revolution, and the more democratic and liberal character of the Rhine valley as compared with the Junkerism of northern and eastern Germany. Thus Reuss, the principal French historian of Alsace, admits that when "it passed under French rule, it belonged to Germany in language, habits, institutions, and ideas;" but since the Revolution, says Fustel de Coulanges, "it has followed all our destinies, it has lived our life."[vii]

The absence of a single clean line of fracture between France and Germany has helped create various forms of political organization in the intermediate zone of conflict. Of an actual middle kingdom the first important instance was at the partition of Charlemagne's empire at Verdun, when Lothaire received that short-lived kingdom of Lotharingia which has left its name on the map in the forms Lothringen and Lorraine. More significant was the Burgundian state which grew up in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries by successive additions until it brought under a single ruler the larger part of modern Holland and Belgium, Luxembourg, and portions of eastern France. As a middle kingdom this went to pieces in 1477 in the efforts of Charles the Bold to subjugate the Swiss, and the greater part of its lands passed into the possession of the Hapsburgs, hardening ultimately into the modern states of Holland and Belgium, while Switzerland took more definite form to the southeast. These small, so-called neutral, states came into being precisely in this middle zone of fracture, as did a smaller state of less assured independence, the grand duchy of Luxembourg. If the middle kingdom disappeared, certain of its fragments persisted as middle states, over which France and Germany has each sought to establish its influence. After 1815, France asserted itself in aiding the Belgian revolution of 1831, and while Napoleon III pursued an unsuccessful policy of annexation in Belgium, Luxembourg, and the German territories of the Left Bank, Germany until 1918 was more successful. Luxembourg became a member of the German Zollverein in 1842, and her railroads passed under German control in 1871. The German invasion of Belgium and Luxembourg in 1914 was part of a plan, the Schlieffen plan, which is said originally to have comprised the invasion of Holland as well, and the occupation called into print a great variety of plans for the permanent control of Belgium, ranging all the way from a customs union with military safeguards to complete annexation. Since the war, on the other hand, the French have established closer relations by agreement with Belgium and Luxembourg.

With the close of the Great War the question of the Franco-German frontier entered upon its present phase. By the Treaty of Versailles Belgium was restored to its people in unrestricted sovereignty, while Alsace-Lorraine with its boundaries of 1871 went back to France. These changes may be regarded as reasonably permanent, for no party wants the Germans back in Belgium, while whatever local discontent has existed in Alsace-Lorraine has made its watchword, not reannexation to Germany, but autonomy. A new situation was created in the Saar, where the French asked for the frontier of 1814. Instead of this the mines were ceded to the French state as an item on the reparation account, while the administration of the territory of seven hundred square miles and six hundred and fifty thousand people was handed over to a Governing Commission of the League of Nations, pending a plebiscite to be held in 1935.[viii] The commission controlling the navigation of the Rhine, previously confined to representatives of the adjoining German states and Holland, was now enlarged by the addition of France, Belgium, Switzerland, Great Britain, and Italy, under a French chairman. Germany's monopoly of the water power was also restricted.

The main difficulty in the Paris negotiations was that of the Left Bank between the Alsatian and Belgian frontiers, comprising the Bavarian Palatinate, Birkenfeld, a portion of Hesse, and so much of the great Prussian Rheinprovinz as lay west of the Rhine, in all a population of five and one-half millions. It was hard for many Frenchmen to forget that this rich region had once been French, though not for long, and many hoped it might become French again, perhaps after an intermediate period of autonomy under a French protectorate and within the French customs zone. Others who did not desire annexation urged strong military guarantees against another invasion from this quarter, so that Germany might lose her "springboard" for attack. The official French proposals (March 12, 1919) included the severance of the territory west of the Rhine from Germany, and its organization into "one or more independent states under the protection of the League of Nations," the demilitarization of a zone of fifty kilometers on the Right Bank, and the permanent inter-allied occupation of the Rhine and its chief bridge-heads.[ix] The final compromise of the treaty rejected any separation of the Left Bank from Germany but called for its demilitarization, along with that of the fifty-kilometer zone beyond, and an Allied military occupation for fifteen years with evacuation of successive regions after fiveyear periods--measures opposed by Marshal Foch as entirely inadequate. The Anglo-American agreement to aid France in case of unwarranted aggression by Germany, though not a part of the instrument of Versailles, was to the French an essential part of the compact, as the consideration for their abandonment of the military frontier of the Rhine; and its failure in the United States has been largely responsible for the French feeling of insecurity. The subject was again taken up by Mr. Lloyd George at Cannes in January, 1922, but soon became complicated with questions of reparations and alliances, and Mr. MacDonald later expressed his definite opposition to any military guarantee by England. Meanwhile the occupation of the Left Bank has also become entangled with reparations, both in relation to the advance from this base into the Ruhr and in connection with the evacuation of the northernmost zone in the five years contemplated by the treaty.

Under the Inter-Allied occupation the German civil authorities of the Left Bank have remained in action, subject to the supervision of an Inter-Allied Rhineland High Commission. Certain movements for autonomy have at times appeared, chiefly in the Palatinate, but they have shown little vitality. The political frontier remains where it was, as does now the economic frontier, and if the military frontier is on the Rhine, or just beyond, the treaty gives this no status of permanence.

Another phase of intermediate status in the middle region is the question of local autonomy. Since 1815 the Palatinate has been ruled from Munich, while the Rhine province and Westphalia have been governed from Berlin. There was some talk late in 1918 of separating the Rhine province and Westphalia from Prussia as coordinate states in the German Confederation, but nothing came of it. Prussia still retains her conquests of 1815, which continue to pay for her mistakes, while the new Reich is more highly centralized than the old. So Alsace-Lorraine never received the autonomy she sought in the German Confederation, but was governed until 1918 as a conquered Reichsland, preliminary to a partition among the neighboring monarchs when they could agree on their respective shares.[x] Restored to France, these three departments still retain many of their distinctive arrangements, like the Concordat, but there is no guarantee how long this special régime may last, since uniformity is part of the programme of the Radical party in France. On the whole, the result of the war has been to draw lines tighter within the respective frontiers.

The Great War likewise weakened faith in buffer states and guaranteed neutrality. The examples of Belgium and Luxembourg were too glaring for those who urged a continuous neutral zone in which Alsace-Lorraine should form the connecting link between Switzerland and Luxembourg. No such line could stand the shock of another 1914 or the newer methods of warfare. At the same time the war gave a new urgency to the whole problem of the Rhine valley by demonstrating impressively that the Franco-German frontier is a matter of European and even of world interest, and the Treaty of Versailles did something to assert international control in this area of high tension. The demilitarization of the Left Bank, the new régime for the navigation of the Rhine, the administration of the Saar Territory by the League of Nations, all look in this direction, while the failure of the Anglo-American guarantee has increased the need for some wider form of international guarantee and supervision such as was ultimately contemplated by the Treaty of Versailles. Recent events have suggested still further participation of the League of Nations in these matters, at least as regards disarmament. The role of shock-absorber along the Rhine is not an easy one, and it will try the highest statesmanship of the League, but it is a rôle which cannot be avoided if the League is to reduce the danger of war in this age-long area of conflict.

The Treaty of Versailles and the associated instruments contain two kinds of provisions, on the one hand those liquidating the war with the Central Powers, on the other the Covenant and the clauses concerning the international organization of labor, and each of the two represents a corresponding tendency in the subsequent politics of Europe. One group has been more interested in the execution, or non-execution, of the treaty, while the other tends to look away from this toward a new international order. Each has a basis in the realities of European politics. The danger has been that one would forget the other, or at least the justification for the other. It was the great merit of the Treaty of Versailles that it faced the facts sufficiently to recognize both these sets of issues, instead of conveniently ignoring the one or the other, after the fashion of its critics at either extreme. Those who regard the anti-German clauses of the treaty as a mere reflection of war psychology need to adjust their perspective by examining the nature and history of the Franco-German frontier, while those who, on either side of the Rhine, regard this as purely a national question need to enlarge their international outlook. The problem of the Franco-German frontier is not only an old problem and a real problem, it is a problem which concerns the peace of the world. It will not be solved by ignoring it; the best hope for its solution lies in the triumph of international interests and the growing strength and wisdom of international agencies. The League of Nations is the newest and seems the most hopeful element in the situation.

[i] E.g., H. Stegemann, "Der Kampf um den Rhein" (Stuttgart, 1924).

[ii] See the accompanying map.

[iii] On the Ruhr cf. C. K. Leith, in FOREIGN AFFAIRS, Vol. I, No. 4; and on the Left Bank, A. H. Brooks and M. F. Lacroix in Bulletin 703 of the U. S. Geological Survey (1920).

[iv] Cf. L. Neumann, in Scobel's "Geographisches Handbuch" (1909), i, p. 539.

[v] See Hindenburg's memoir of 27 December, 1917, in Charles Schmidt, "Les plans secrets de la politique allemande en Alsace-Lorraine," p. 183. (Paris, 1922; and in a very poor English version, 1924.)

[vi] A recent example is the reported declaration of Chancellor Marx, 27 October, 1924, that all German peoples should be united in a greater Germany--a policy which would mean war with Switzerland and Czechoslovakia as well as with France, and would entail the re-subjection at the same time of certain non-German peoples with whom Germans are intermixed. It is well to remember that the number of German-speaking people detached from Germany by the Treaty of Versailles is much less than the number of non-Germans then set free from German masters; and that an absolute linguistic frontier is an impossibility.

[vii] For a fuller discussion of these problems, see Haskins and Lord, "Some Problems of the Peace Conference" (Cambridge, 1920), chs. 3 and 4.

[viii] On the Saar see the writer's article in FOREIGN AFFAIRS, Vol. I, No. 2.

[ix] See Tardieu, "The Truth About the Treaty," chs. 5 and 6. These documents will also be found in the French "Livre jaune," which carries the subject through 1923: "Documents relatifs aux négociations concernant les garanties de sécurité contre une agression d'Allemagne" (1924).

[x] See the official documents of 1917 in Charles Schmidt, "Les plans secrets de la politique allemande en Alsace-Lorraine."

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  • CHARLES H. HASKINS, Professor of History in Harvard University; Chief of the Division of Western Europe of the American Delegation at the Paris Peace Conference
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