Some 25 years after Alsace had been returned to France at the end of the Second World War, I took an opportunity to work there for a few months, in the belief that it would improve my French. A few bare facts about the contested history of the region had stayed with me from school history lessons, but they couldn't have prepared me for what I walked into. The mix of languages was the most immediately obvious: the stay did almost as much for my German as for my French. Education was in French, and the younger generation all spoke it fluently, but with their families many of them still spoke the local Germanic Alsatian dialect. On the streets and in the shops, I could usually get by in French; but some of the older generation spoke only German plus the local dialect, and some the dialect alone. The town's one Protestant church held two services on a Sunday, one in French and one in German. For its annual celebration of confirmation, a day given the same prominence as the Catholic First Communion, only one service was held, with hymns chosen that had sets of words in each language, so that you could sing whichever you were happier with. There were also two sermons: one in the Reformation language of Luther, stress-heavy and hard-hitting; the other in the rational French of Calvinism, full of rhetorical questions and their self-evident answers that gave an illusion of argument rather than the substance. The region also preserved some local laws, not least to do with hunting, which were at odds with France's national legal code, and all the more fiercely protected for that. More controversial was the war cemetery with its rows of white and black crosses: white for those who had died fighting for France, black for the boys who had been taken off in lorries from their classes one day for conscription into Hitler's armies and had never returned.
LRB 7 October 2010 | PDF Download