This paper aims to study the welfare services for Alsatian-Lorrainers between 1871 and 1918. The French-German borderland was thus a laboratory of social protection. As I will contend, social protection was already conditioned on national loyalty, long before major French social laws and parallelly to those implemented by Germany at the end of the nineteenth century.
Following the Treaty of Frankfurt on 10 May 1871, France was forced to cede the territories of Alsace-Lorraine to the German Empire. The inhabitants massively opposed this annexation, which was carried out without their consent. In the early 1870s, more than 130,000 of them emigrated mainly close to the new border. In France, they benefited from an extraordinary patriotic solidarity; relief committees were formed almost everywhere on the initiative of the local bourgeoisie – sometimes with the support of the public authorities – in order to assist Alsatians-Lorrainers. All those who chose to flee the German rule received monetary and in-kind donations, benefited from direct or indirect aid, and were promised jobs, and even land in Algeria. Very quickly, the local committees formed national associations to coordinate their action, such as the Société de protection des Alsaciens et des Lorrains demeurés Français.
Although it decreased from the mid-1870s onwards, the emigration of Alsatians-Lorrainers, who mostly sought to escape German military service, continued until the First World War. All along the border, French committees provided them with legal and material assistance to settle and encouraged them to join the Foreign Legion. They were helped by the Société de protection des Alsaciens et des Lorrains demeurés Français, which also granted pensions to the families of soldiers who had joined the French army left behind in Alsace-Lorraine. Other associations organised exfiltration of children from Alsace-Lorraine or facilitated the process of acquiring French nationality. The German government and authorities in Alsace-Lorraine seemed to ignore the welfare activities which were partly organised on their soil, but actively fought the recruitment of their nationals. German intelligence services nevertheless monitored the welfare network of Alsatians-Lorrainers on the French side of the border, where these activities were concentrated.
Benoit Vaillot holds a PhD from the European University Institute (Florence, Italy) and is associate researcher at the University of Strasbourg (Strasbourg, France) and Centre Marc Bloch (Berlin, Germany). His doctoral research proposed a transnational history from below of the border drawn between France and Germany at the end of the War of 1870 which disappeared with the first combats of the First World War. Seldom has a border received so much attention from its contemporaries and illustrated so well its function as a point of balance between two antagonistic powers in the era of nation states. Beyond the classical political questions generally apprehended at the level of governments, his work intends to analyse the construction of sovereignty and national identities as close to the border as possible starting with local and intermediate actors on both the French and the German side.