Book Review: ‘The Question of Alsace-Lorraine’

Alsatian Humbuggery

‘The Question of Alsace-Lorraine’ by Jules Duhem. Translated by Mrs. R. Stilwell. London: Hodder & Stoughton.

The question which is the subject of the book under review is dealt with by M. Duhem with a lofty idealism that regards the people of Alsace-Lorraine as a homogeneous whole. The aspiration to be incorporated in the French nation would appear, from his rendering, to be a common one. For him there is no class division with opposing interests, but only a difference in the ability of certain sections to perceive what is to him the obvious justice of the French claim to the provinces in dispute, and the general improvement that would result to them.

Throughout the work the names Alsace and Lorraine stand for the people of those provinces without distinction of class, a people that resented government by the German capitalists and preserved its loyalty to France, even when France, deeply concerned with colonial expansion, had almost forgotten the existence of “her children” of Alsace-Lorraine.

The desire to be incorporated in the French nation fluctuated. “As those who had passed through the war gradually passed away,” says the author, “the idea of retaliation lost ground by degrees, and the memory of the invasion began to fade.” Later the people of Alsace-Lorraine watched with “pained surprise” the French schemes for colonial expansion and the consequent neglect of any movement for “restitution.” Always it is the people of Alsace-Lorraine, not the capitalists alone.

But not always can the author hide the sordid truth underlying this seeming harmony between the two classes—the working class and the master class. “It was,” he says, “a terrible trial for the cultivated bourgeoisie of Strasburg and Metz, who had given to France so many statesmen, soldiers and citizens of renown, to submit to the coarseness and pride of German Kreis-direktors and Mayors. The best of them emigrated ; in a month Strasburg lost nearly the whole of the intellectual bourgeoisie that had gathered round this famous academic centre.” This wholesale emigration deprived the Alsatian people (the working class) of those “best fitted, by reputation, intellectual superiority, and high moral character, to be their guides”—these qualities being necessary “to keep the national spirit alive.”

Still later we find the agents of the “cultivated bourgeoisie” engaged in the task of enlightening the dull and apathetic workers and urging them by literature and song to take up the task their masters, that self-same “cultivated bourgeoisie,” of “intellectual superiority and high moral character,” had so meanly shirked when they emigrated.

“Immediately after the war the defeated nation, painfully conscious of its wounds, spoke of a war of revenge,” says M, Duhem, and Germany “preached a more intimate blending of the two strains,” which he rejects with scorn, saying : “They spoke as though it were a question of mingling two chemical substances, not understanding that among nations there are moral forces which have their origin in history, and that the law governing these forces is not concerned with the circumstances of modern life.”

But the “cultivated bourgeoisie” were not swayed by these moral forces when they emigrated, nor when the pan-Germanists, “in order to ruin or absorb other works of the same kind in the neighbourhood, bought over iron mines direct, often with the help of French capital.” Or again when France “bought machines for her dockyards at Diisseldorf, the electrical apparatus for her ironclads at Berlin, the red cloth for her soldiers’ trousers at Sudwigshafen, the materials for her air-ships from German manufacturers, and the jam for her soldiers from the Knorr Company.” The “moral forces that have their origin in history” are apparently suspended when they conflict with capitalist interests, and “the law that governs them” is subservient to the will of the ruling class. The truth is easily seen, in spite of M. Duhem’s lofty idealism, when we read between his lines. Alsace-Lorraine having been annexed by Germany, the capitalists of those two provinces were compelled to disgorge a share of the booty wrung from the working-class. To quote M. Duhem, “Alsace-Lorraine was not one of the States of the Empire, but common land governed in the interests of the confederated States.” A small group of capitalists were torn from a larger group with whom they had interests in common, and made subservient to a group still more powerful. The rich lands they owned and the workers they exploited were no longer completely under their control. Government was no longer in their hands; paradise was lost, and they quickly realised that they could only regain it by force.

“Since Alsace Lorraine was torn from France by force, and kept under the yoke by force, and can never be Germanised even though centuries should be devoted to the task, it can only be recovered by force,” says M. Duhem. But the force necessary to throw off the yoke, as we see in the sequel, has not yet been brought to bear, though the workers of many countries have been organised and flung into the conflict. Yet the capitalists of Alsace-Lorraine were not deterred by any such prospects. Their agents were soon at work, “meditating before the silent memorials of ancient Alsace,” and worshipping in public her traditions. ” While regular campaigns were carried on in the Press explaining to the Alsatian people why they ought to speak French.” Art, literature, music, and religion were all enlisted in the movement. The workers were deluged with the slops of patriotism. France was extolled ; Germany was anathematised. All the methods and tricks adopted by the bourgeoisie of every country to gull the workers and lead them to fight their masters’ battles were resorted to. The workers, not understanding their class position, were easily lead to believe that their interest synchronised with those of the Alsatian and French capitalists, and that it was only a duty they owed to themselves that they should oppose German domination.

So it is with the workers the world over, in Alsace-Lorraine, Ireland, Poland, and all the small States that are dominated or threatened by their powerful neighbours. The question of Alsace-Lorraine is a capitalist question, and the workers there or elsewhere cannot benefit by its settlement either way. They are soaked with the philosophy of capitalism from childhood, and when their masters summon them to defend their (the masters’) ownership in the means of life, and their right to exploit and govern, appealing to them in the name of a common patriotism, their lack of political knowledge renders them—like clay in the patter’s bands— plastic and easily moulded, into the designs of their social enemies, the master class. They become the mere pawns in the political game played only between capitalist groups. ‘The poverty they have endured, their years of excessive toil, and all their bitter struggles on the industrial field against the masters are forgotten, when national traditions—the historic camouflage that veils capitalist interests—are spread to snare them.

Alsace-Lorraine has two questions—one for the master class and M. Duhem, the other for the working class. The latter’s problem is one with that of the workers of all lands—how to throw off the yoke of capitalism ; how to establish a system in which they will no longer be exploited by the capitalists of any nationality. The international Socialist movement is their only hope, as it is ours, because it brings to the workers the knowledge that will enable them to understand the cause of their poverty, and the means by which they can wrest from the hands of the ruling class control of the machinery of government. Until the workers realise their slavery, and seek by this means to end it, who their masters are, or how often they are changed in the general shuffle of a world war, or a commercial crisis, matters nothing to them. For capitalism, differing from all previous forms of slavery, seeks to reduce exploitation to one dead level of intensity everywhere. Its very development, as a system, insures this and demands an ever-progressing degree of efficiency from the workers. It is not, therefore, a change of masters, or rulers, that the workers of Alsace-Lorraine stand in need of, but the establishment of a system of society where they will democratically control the means of life owned in common. They must ignore the purely capitalist question expounded by M. Duhem and acquire the knowledge that will enable them to link up with the international Socialist movement, and take their stand in the greater war for Socialism.

F. F.

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