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In Achenheim and Hangenbieten, prehistoric traces have been found dating back to 600,000 B.C. The Celtic tribes Ruaraci, Mediomatrici, Nemeti and Triboci came to Alsace between 2000 and 1500 B.C.

In 58 B.C. today's Alsace was conquered by the Romans under Caesar. The Roman era was a time of prosperity for Alsace, especially between 83 and 260 AD. The army camp Argentoratum (now: Strasbourg) grew into the most important place in the region.

In the 4th century, the Roman Empire was attacked by eastern tribes, and by the end of this century, a large part of Alsace was occupied by Alemanni.

Frankish Empire

In 460, the important Roman city of Trier was conquered by the Ripuarian Franks and the hegemony of the Romans in this area basically ended. This was followed by a power struggle between the Franks and the Alemanni, which was won by the Franks.

The Franconian king Clovis (482-511) then converted to Christianity and was the founder of the Merovingian dynasty. This empire eventually broke up into four separate kingdoms; the former county of Alsace belonged to the eastern kingdom of Austrasia.

In the 8th century, the Carolingians came to power and, especially under Charlemagne (768-814), the central authority was strengthened and the empire expanded enormously. Under Charlemagne, the economic and cultural life of Alsace received an enormous boost, and trade and industry flourished again.

Late Middle Ages

By the Treaty of Verdun in 843, the Carolingian Empire was divided into three parts, each headed by a grandson of Charles. Alsace was allocated to Lothair's middle kingdom and ultimately belonged to the East Franconian realm.

In the 10th century, the Carolingians were driven out by Saxon dukes, who also managed to keep the aggressive Hungarians at bay. Under King Otto I the Great (936-973), the empire also expanded into Italy and he was also elected the first emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. This hegemony continued under Otto II and Otto III. Large areas of the empire were given on loan to the bishops at the expense of the nobility.

In the second half of the 11th century, the secular power of the papacy increased again and this eventually led to a conflict between Pope Gregory VII and Emperor Henry IV over the appointment of bishops by the emperor. In Alsace, the bishops sided with the emperor, while the nobility sided with the pope. One important exception was Frederick of Buren, the ancestor of the later Hohenstaufen emperors from Swabia.

Hohenstaufen and late Middle Ages

Under the Hohenstaufen-electors, Alsace experienced a period of great economic (e.g. wine export), political and cultural prosperity. This was expressed, among other things, in the construction of many beautiful castles and in the formation of cities, whereby strategically situated places were walled off and city rights were granted. The new castles were inhabited by appointed feudal lords and servants, who soon started fighting each other.

This was not tolerated and urban armies put an end to the many disputes by taking the castles and often destroying them. In the 14th and 15th centuries, Alsace was spared from plague epidemics and wars.

The towns continued to increase their prosperity and in 1354 an alliance of ten imperial towns, the 'Decapolis', was formed. They supported each other against attacks from outside, but certainly also from within.

16th century

The 16th century, especially the period between 1530 and 1580, is considered the golden age of Alsace. At the same time, the region was strongly influenced by the emerging Huanism and the Reformation.

Important humanists from Alsace were Jacques Wimpheling and Sebastian Brant; Martin Buber became the most important figure of the Strasbourg Reformation.

The Reformation attracted many supporters in the north of Alsace, the south remained predominantly Catholic. Most towns also adhered to the Protestant faith.

Protestantism was characterised by different directions. Mulhouse and the regions in the north were Calvinistic; the nobility generally confessed to the Confessio Augustana; the Strasbourg Reformers tried to find a middle ground between Lutheranism and Zwinglianism. Strasbourg catered for all directions and developed into an intellectual centre of the Reformation.

In the second half of the 16th century, this all became much less and the city was dominated by Lutheran orthodoxies, and the Catholic Counter-Reformation also gained strength through the activities of the Jesuits. Catholic northern towns like Molsheim and Haguenau took the lead in this.

Thirty Years' War and annexation to France

Alsace suffered greatly during the cruel and bloody Thirty Years' War (1618-1648). From Habsburg Bohemia, the conflict grew into an international (religious) war involving France, the German Empire, Austria, Denmark, Sweden, Spain and the Netherlands. Besides massive destruction and depopulation of the area, Alsace also had to deal with the plague and famine.

By the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, Alsace formally remained part of the Holy Roman Empire. It was not until the Peace of Nijmegen in 1678 that Alsace was incorporated into France. In 1681, the independence of the free city of Strasbourg came to an end.

Under Louis XIV (1661-1715), the rights of Protestants were maintained, although attempts were made by the state to re-Catholicise the population. The administration of Alsace was controlled by officials of the French court. The French and German cultures remained closely linked.

French Revolution and Napoleon

Most areas in Alsace were very enthusiastic when the French Revolution broke out in 1789. Many Alsatians played an important role in the revolution. Areas such as Kochersberg and Outre-Forêt did not want anything to do with the revolution and did not obstruct a German invasion army in 1793.

However, the occupation did not last long, because in the same year the Germans were chased away by the French Rhine Army.

Napoleon was a very popular figure in Alsace, amongst other things because of his concordat with the Pope, which proclaimed France a 'Catholic nation'. The ban on trade with England gave industry a tremendous boost. The Industrial Revolution, with Mulhouse as its driving force, also ensured a tremendous development of Alsace. In 1798 Mulhouse renounced its independence as the last free city of Alsace.

Alsace again German territory

In 1870, France suffered a major defeat in a war with Germany. As a result, Alsace and North-East Lorraine were incorporated into Germany by the Treaty of Frankfurt in 1871. This so-called 'Reichsland Elsaß-Lothringen' was ruled from Berlin by the imperial Statthalter. However, the population and the Catholic clergy did not like the German occupation and there was a very active protest movement. The press at that time suffered from severe censorship. Due to a prosperous economic recovery and the social legislation of the German Chancellor Bismarck, the German image improved considerably over the years. In the years before the First World War, the tensions between France and Germany rose again, and the mood in Alsace became anti-German again.

Alsace restored to French territory after World War I

In August 1914, the German attack on France began. The French occupied all passes in the Vosges, while the Germans took Alsace. The front lay right through the Vosges. For four years, a very bloody battle was fought, which lasted until the Armistice of 11 November 1918.

At the Peace of Vesailles it was decided that Alsace and Lorraine would become French territory again.

However, it turned out that Alsace and France no longer had much in common. Alsace clearly wanted regional self-government, but found Parisian centralism in its way.

The relationship between church and state also caused tensions; the strict separation in the rest of France was a thorn in the side of the conservative Alsatians.

Second World War

In 1940, Alsace was again occupied by the Germans, and Alsatians were forced to serve in the German army. Moreover, the Germans planned to Germanise Alsace permanently. Of the 130,000 Alsatian soldiers, more than 43,000 would eventually die. However, a large number of people who supported the autonomy of Alsace collaborated with the Germans. Almost the entire Jewish population was exterminated.

In January 1945, the Germans were driven back to the Rhine and on 2 February 1945, the French and the Americans entered Colmar. At that moment, Alsace belonged to France again.

After the Second World War

After the war, peace returned and the people of Alsace were able to get down to the business of reconstruction. From 1958, De Gaulle was the political favourite of the people of Alsace, and it was not until the 1974 elections that other political parties came to the fore. The environment became an important issue in post-war politics, and cooperation with the German Greens was at the forefront.

In the Alsatian capital Strasbourg, the European Parliament meets monthly and the Council of Europe at least twice a year.

See also the history of France.


Dominicus, J. / Vogezen, Elzas

Elzas, Vogezen, Champagne

Graaf, G. de / Vogezen en Elzas

Schuppen, S. van / Vogezen, Elzas en Lotharingen

Tschirner, S. / Elzas, Vogezen


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Last updated March 2024
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