Table of Contributors   Table of Contents   Return to Encyclopedia Home Page


In recent decades, historians have begun to view the 1848 revolution as a turning point in the history of France because this period chrystalized patterns of political geography that have persisted into the twentieth century. American historians, however, have tended to focus on regions that turned to the left during the second republic because organization and protest are more easily quantifiable. Most often, historians have explained a vote for the démoc-socs as evidence of political awareness and national integration. By implication, regions such as Alsace that voted for Louis Napoleon or Cavaignac have been dismissed as "backward," unaware of national political t rends, and lacking in any meaningful identification with France as a whole.

The particular experience of the two Alsatian departments during the revolution of 1848 suggests how local culture and regional definitions of French identity have informed responses to national politics. Two features of Alsatian regional culture are important in understanding the complex reaction of the inhabitants to the revolution of 1848. First, the local culture of Alsace differed markedly from that of the rest of France in its religious and linguistic diversity. As a result, Alsatians confronted not only the usual social and economic faultlines, but a series of cultural divisions as well. Secondly, despite the relatively late transformation of Alsace from a pays réputé étrangé to an integral part of France in 1789 and their Germanic heritage, Alsatians identified as Frenchmen. At the same time they interpreted national events such as the revolution of 1848 in light of their local experience and collective memory of the revolutionary and Napoleonic period. Nationalism and the complexity of overlapping divisions within Alsace explain the reaction of the Alsatians to political events in Paris during the period 1848 to 1851.

During the first half of the nineteenth century, the population of Alsace was overwhelmingly Catholic and Germanophone. Nonetheless, the two Alsatian departments had a significant proportion of Protestants (10.3%). The Jewish presence in Alsace was small (.03% of the population), but the province included more than one-half of the Jews in France. The cities such as Strasbourg, Colmar, and Mulhouse had large concentrations of Protestants and experienced an influx of Jews after emancipation, but the rural areas of Alsace also had numerous enclaves of these minority groups. Most of the population spoke German, although the arrondissement of Belfort in the Haut-Rhin and some of the villages in the Vosges were French-speaking.

In addition to the divisions imposed by religious and linguistic heterogeneity, Alsace had a very diverse economy, and therefore, complex social divisions. Geographically, Alsace consisted of three agricultural zones; the rich plain along the Rhine where the peasants grew cereal crops, the hilly transition zone that depended on viticulture, and the impoverished subsistence agriculture of the Vosges mountains. Alsace was also one of the most industrialized regions of France in the early nineteenth century. In the first decade of the century, the textile mills of Mulhouse began to mechanize the spinning and the calico printing process. Manchester-style mills began to characterize Mulhouse and its immediate region earlier than any other textile center in France. In the 1820s, the smaller town of Sainte-Marie-aux-Mines began to produce specialty hand-woven cottons for the Parisian market, thereby creating thousands of jobs for handloom weavers in the countryside, especially in the Vosges mountains. As a result, Alsace had a burgeoning class of both urban workers and protoindustrial peasants. As Alsace industrialized, the artisanal trades burgeoned both in the countryside and in the cities to serve the expanded demand for services. The economic, religious, and linguistic faultlines overlapped. Whereas the textile magnates were primarily Protestant, the workers were more likely to be Catholic. The artisanry and petite bourgeoisie tended to be mixed, depending on the cultural configuration of the locality. The majority of peasants were also Catholic,but Alsace had numerous Protestant villages. Jews usually followed commercial pursuits, especially because prior to emancipation in 1791, laws had prohibited them from landholding. The complexity of religious and linguistic diversity aggravated the economic and social tensions that were typical of many regions of France.

The revolution of 1848 evoked minimal reaction from the people of Alsace. For most Alsatians, the religious alignment of the government was of greater importance than were the const itutional issues. In this respect, the change of government in 1830, when the July Monarchy challenged the alliance between the Bourbons and the Catholic church, had far more impact. Until 1848, the haute bourgeoisie tended to be Orleanist. The members of this group, especially among the textile entrepreneurs, were most often Protestant. Furthermore, due to their textile interests, they welcomed the government's protectionist policies. Nonetheless, many of these entrepreneurs, like other Protestants in France, often became moderate republicans after 1848, and ultimately supporters of Cavaignac.

To the extent that rural Alsatians reacted to the revolution in Paris, they did so primarily in terms of thier economic interests and traditional religious rivalries. The revolution evoked anti-Jewish demonstrations in some regions in 1848. At the outbreak of the revolution, the Alsatian peasantry had not experienced a good harvest since 1844. The potato blight, poor weather, and inadequate harvests had led to widespread misery in the two Alsatian departments. The hardship of these years evoked traditional resentment against the Jewish population. The role of the Jews as money lenders and cattle dealers as much as church teaching, explains the antisemitism in Alsace during this period. In times of economic hardship, Alsatian peasants found a scapegoat in the Jews, often their main source of credit and main contact with the market. Even so, only about 20% of the communities with Jewish populations engaged in outbreaks of violence. Therefore, most of the Alsatian peasantry had little reaction to the revolution of 1848.

Although various historians describe the primarily-Catholic Alsatian peasantry as uneducated and illiterate, and indifferent to politics, much more research is needed. According to one source, Alsatian conscripts in 1848 had the third highest literacy rate in France. Furthermore, literacy cannot be completely identified with religious affiliation. In the Catholic village of Ammerschwihr, located in the viticultural region of Alsace where commercial contacts were especially important, it appears that that the literacy rate may have been substantially higher than the national average. Thus the support for Louis Napoleon cannot be explained entirely in terms of a "backward" and illiterate Catholic peasantry that merely followed the directives of the local priest.

The workers in Alsace also tended to interpret the revolution in local terms. Much of the Alsatian working class consisted of peasant -workers scattered in the countryside. By mid-century, the textile establishments of Sainte-Marie-aux-Mines, for example, employed approximately 14,500 workers scattered throughout three departments (the Haut-Rhin, Bas-Rhin, and Vosges). In 1848, many of these weavers worked in small workshops in their villages rather than at home. Many of the other small factories in Alsace operated in the same manner. The dispersal of much of the working class meant that its opportunities for solidarity were minimal. Many of these workers were far less informed about national politics than their compatriots who lived in urban centers such as Mulhouse, Strasbourg, or Sainte-Marie. Even within the manufacturing centers of Alsace, the working class varied a great deal in its reaction to national politics. In Mulhouse for example, the unskilled textile operatives tended to be immigrants from the countryside, Catholic, and illiterate. In contrast, skilled workers such as metallurgical workers and printers, who were also more active in politics and apt to support the left, tended to be French, Protestant, and more literate. The other artisanal trades tended to be more mixed in their religious and linguistic backgrounds. Riots against the hardships imposed by the agricultural crisis and then strike activity to protest the inability of the paternalistic policies of the industrial patronat to shield workers from the effects of the economic downturn took place primarily in industrial centers such as Mulhouse, Guebwiller, and Thann.

Analysis of voting patterns shows, however, that despite the efforts of the démoc-socs to mobilize public opinion in Alsace, workers as well as the peasants voted for Louis Napoleon in December of 1848. In the textile centers, protest against the industrial patronat, which supported Cavaignac, partly explains the vote. But the peasants, with different economic interests, also supported Louis Napoleon. Neither did the vote appear to split along religious or linguistic lines. Therefore the configur ation of socio-economic and cultural divisions alone cannot account for the voting patterns of the Alsatians.

A second reason for the popularity of Louis Napoleon was the overwhelming nationalism of the Alsatians forged from the collective memory of their experiences during the years 1789-1815. Prior to the French Revolution, Alsace had been a foreign province and the government had made only sporadic efforts to integrate the province linguistically and economically. In 1789 and 1790, the revolutiona ry government dismantled all of the economic barriers between Alsace and the French interior. During the 1790s, the Alsatians, while disaffected by dechristinaization, had generally supported the Montagnards against the Federalists. With the emphasis on equality and on the rights and responsibilities of the citizenry, Alsatians fought in the numerous wars of the revolutionary and Napoleonic era, and indeed, their territory was often the site of battles and occupation by various foreign armies. Therefore, the warfare of the period 1792 through 1815 was more than an abstraction for the the Alsatians; one of the first and most important sources of French identity was their role in defending la patrie, and their memories of the glory brought to France by the first Napoleon.

Throughout the years 1815 to 1870, the Alsatians asserted their loyalty as Frenchmen even as they clung to their German language and heritage. After 1789, national identity became defined culturally, and uniform language be came more important, although with little immediate local effect. Policies formulated under the Convention, Napoleon, and even during the Restoration and July Monarchy had been relatively ineffective in spreading the French language among the masses in Alsace. The Alsatians demonstrated their French identity through participation in political rituals that were part of the civic ceremonies of the first half of the nineteenth century. Even Catholics, who objected to the policies of the July Monarchy, could assert their loyalty to the monarch precisely by affirming their religious affinities with the rest of France and their support for legitimism. Protests by German-speaking building workers at Sainte-Marie-aux-mines in 1849 against Austrian workers demonstrated the intensity of Alsatian loyalties to France. In this instance, despite the cultural similarities between the local workers and the Austrians, the latter represented outsiders, and particularly the hated forces of Austria that had occupied the region from 1815-1818. For the Alsatians, although the clergy may have played a role in shaping political opinions, their particular brand of national identity as well as class grievances against the textile manufacturers in urban centers were critical in influencing the way in which local and national politics intersected in Alsace in 1848 to produce a majority of 62.8% of the vote for Louis Napoleon.

Although support for Bonapartism during the course of the second republic became less enthusiastic, Alsace was one of the more quiescent regions during the coup of 1851. In the 1849 legislative vote, the démoc-socs received from 40-50% of the vote in both Alsatian departments. This development suggests that the social democrats did make substantial inroads among the peasantry as well as among urban workers in Alsace. The appeal of the left demonstrates the ways in which the grievances of a variety of groups could be exploited. Although more research remains to be done, the left found support among urban workers in cities such as Mulhouse and also played on rural economic grievances, mobilizing antisemitism by criticizing usury. As Edward Berenson has argued, the appeal of the left may also have been related to the affinities between démoc-soc ideology and popular religiousity. Yet, despite the successes of the left in parliamentary contests nationalism and the weight of collective memory remained decisive. In 1851, the two Alsatian departments supported Louis-Napoleon, approving the referendum overwhelmingly in an election in which the turnout was relatively high.

Rebecca McCoy


Borghese, Arthur "Industrialist Paternalism and Lower Class Agitation: The Case of Mulhouse, 1848-1851." Histoire Sociale-Social History XIII:25 (1980): 55-84.

Pierre Dollinger (ed.) L'histoire d'Alsace Toulouse: Privat, 1991.

Hyman, Paula E. The Emancipation of the Jews of Alsace: Acculturation and Tradition in the Nineteenth Century< /CITE> New Haven: Yale Universyity Press, 1991.

Kahan-Rabecq, Marie-Madeleine L'Alsace économique et sociale sous le règne de Louis-Philippe Paris: Les éditions des presses modernes au Palais Royal, 1939. 2 vols.

"L'Importance de la Classe ouvrière en 1848." Deux siècles d'Alsace française Strasbourg-Paris: F.-X. Leroux, 1948, 417-427.

Lauffenburger, Henry, and Pflimlin, Pierre. Cours d'économie alsacienne Paris: Librairie de Recueil Sirey, 1932.

Leuilliot, Paul. L'Alsace au début du XIXe siècle: Essais d'Histoire politique, économique, et religieuse, (1815-1830). Paris: S.E.V.P.E.N., 1959.

McCoy, Rebecca K. "The Culture of Accommodation: Religion, Language, and Politics in an Alsatian Community, 1648-1870." Ph.D. diss., University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1992.

Muller, Paul La Révolution de 1848 en Alsace avec une biograp hie des Parlementaires Alsaciens de 1789 á 1871 Mulhouse: Imprimerie Veuve Bader, 1912.

Ponteil, Félix. "L'Alsace en 1848." Deux Siècles d'Alsace française,Strasbourg-Paris:F.-X. LeRoux, 1948, 499-510.

Table of Contributors   Table of Contents   Return to Encyclopedia Home Page

jgc revised this file ( on September 9, 2004.

Please E-mail comments or suggestions to

© 1997, 2004 James Chastain.