Saturday, 22 November 2008

22 November: an ambiguous anniversary

Today’s the 22nd of November and since we're just outside Strasbourg, it’s only fitting that I mark this important anniversary for the city.

I know it’s important because one of the main thoroughfares is the ‘rue du 22 novembre’.

It took me a while, though, to work out what it was commemorating.

Couldn’t be the end of the First World War – that was the 11th, the famous eleventh day of the eleventh month at eleven in the morning, and the governments who chose to wait for that auspicious moment didn’t care that doing so was going to cost a lot more lives.

Couldn’t be the liberation of the city in the Second World War either, because that was the 23rd. People can be dumb, but dumb enough to get an anniversary like that wrong? Feels unlikely.

Then I found some obscure references and got them confirmed by my friend Mark Reynolds of

In 1918, Alsace was part of Germany, following its conquest from France in 1871.

As in many German cities, there were uprisings in the cities of Alsace in the dying days of the war. They started in Colmar but reached Strasbourg on the 10th of November. Soldiers and workers set up the Republic of Councils of Alsace, perhaps loosely modelled on what was happening in Russia where the Republic of Soviets (the Russian word for Councils) had emerged a year earlier, but wholly independent of the Soviet Union and without its monopoly of power by a single party.

The Strasbourg Council at work

The Alsace councils were radical, backing the strike movement that broke out immediately and decreeing increases in workers’ wages. They were also keen on establishing Alsace as a nation in its own right, neither German nor French. They were by no means universally welcomed and the mayor of Strasbourg, in particular, called for military support to restore order.

However, he appealed not to Germany, but to France, which had regained its old possession of Alsace, along with the department of Moselle in Lorraine, following the end of the war.

On 17 November, French troops overthrew the councils in Colmar. And Colmar has its ‘rue du 17 novembre’.

On 22 November it was Strasbourg’s turn to see the French troops move in and to get itself a new street name.

French troops enter Strasbourg on 22 November 1918

So tonight, when a number of our friends will be visiting us in our flat in Kehl (just in Germany, just outside the erstwhile Alsatian republic) we’ll have to raise a glass to the events of that day. But whose health should we drink?

And does it matter as long as the wine is good?


Mark Reynolds said...

And a fine party it was! (by the way, I don't think France would have automatically regained Alsace Lorraine at the end of the war - according to Wilson's Ten Points, the territory should have remained German until a referendum could be organized. The French used the soviets as a pretext to "create facts on the ground" and skip over a vote that might not have gone their way).

David Beeson said...

Thanks, Mark - you're absolutely right. The plan was for a referendum and the French occupation put paid to it.

The use of the word 'Soviet' is iself ideological. We can just as well use the translation 'council' (which is what 'Soviet' means in Russian), but to use the Russian term makes an explicit link to the Soviet Union. It's unlikely there was any real link but suggesting there was one gave the French authorities good ideological cover, as you say, for what they wanted to do anyway.