Strasbourg is a joyous city to explore, with deep roots, a rich but troubled past, but also spring in its step, for it has solved the painful equation of Alsatian identity.
As I travelled through the lovely Alsace, I was struck by how large World War II still looms in the locals’ psyche. The people I spoke to were keen to tell me how Alsatians (of their parents or grand-parents’ generations) were considered “True Germans” by the Nazis. As such, they were made to fight for the Third Reich; they called themselves the “Malgré-Nous”, literally “Despite Ourselves”. This tragic history is little-known outside of Alsace.
The general feeling is that the rest of France still haven’t Alsace’s unique suffering, and that wound is yet to heal. Nowadays, the cultural similarities between Alsace and Germany are obvious (read more here), starting with the fact they regularly speak in a dialect of German. But Alsatians are very (very) touchy about their French identity. I don’t know how long this bitterness will last; but visiting Strasbourg gave me hope.
For if the whole of Alsace looks East, its capital looks out in all directions. On the edge of France, Strasbourg is at the heart of western Europe. Between Paris and Munich, it links continental and Atlantic Europe. It connects the Mediterranean, through the Rhône and Saone valleys, to northern and central Europe through the Rhine valley. Strasbourg has been the meeting place of Europe long before the Europe had a Parliament.
Strasbourg’s history is as tortuous (and tortured) as the rest of Alsace, but it seems to have turned its multicultural history into an asset. Its architecture is a happy blend. Its beautiful gothic cathedral is built of pink sandstone from the Vosges, giving it an unusual warmth. The Renaissance houses, and especially the charming colombages houses in La Petite France, attest of Strasbourg’s status as a free (and rich) city as part of the Holy Roman Empire. At that time, its university and printing presses made the city a centre for European free thought.
But Strasbourg especially benefitted from Alsace’s French years (1681 – 1870). The rule was that the land-owning families who had possessions in Alsace had to stay in Alsace or be dispossessed, even if they also had lands in the Holy Roman Empire. They stayed, and assembled into a court, in Strasbourg. From that period, the city has got buildings of impeccably French classical style, such as the Rohan palace.
In the Neustadt, the quarter established during the German years of the city (1870 – 1918), art nouveau mixes with neo-classical, neo-gothic and neo-roman styles. And the European Parliament building adds a contemporary touch, in keeping with the young, international, dynamic feel of the university city.
In view of its uniquely rich history as a meeting place of European cultures, it makes a lot of sense Strasbourg is where the European Parliament sits. But the institution seems to have given a new impulse to the already vibrant, multicultural city. Strasbourg now has both youth and power on its side. That gives it a dynamism and optimism that I found to be quite rare in France.
As a university city and a European capital, Strasbourg seems to have solved the identity equation that still pains the rest of Alsace.