War's Eclipse of Primary Education in Alsace-Lorraine, 1914-1918

By Harp, Stephen | The Historian, Spring 1995 | Go to article overview

War's Eclipse of Primary Education in Alsace-Lorraine, 1914-1918


Harp, Stephen, The Historian


That European Primary schools fostered nationalism before World War I is clear from the official curricula and textbooks that taught children about national identity, if not nationalistic chauvinism. Europe's schoolchildren sang national anthems and pledged loyalty to their republics, kings, or emperors. Although some historians have exaggerated the importance of nationalism in prewar curricula, nation-states did make European children identify with their particular nationalities. While no historians claim that such primary education caused World War I, they have correctly recognized how schools inculcated nationalistic ideologies that became even more powerful during the 1914-18 war.(1)

World War I involved the mobilization of entire societies, as the civilian population, including women and children, supported the war effort and shared in its deprivations. With resources diverted from civilian to military uses, educational institutions lost faculty, buildings, and materials. The high-pitched propaganda of wartime Europe was not lost on the schoolchildren; as the future generation of their great nations, pupils needed to study the wonders of the nation and the treachery of the enemy. The state's mobilization for total war reversed some of the gains that had been made in primary schooling during the nineteenth century.

Primary schools in wartime Alsace-Lorraine, the formerly French area that had been annexed to the German Empire in 1871, provides a revealing microcosm of European education during World War I. Alsace-Lorraine was a major point of contention between France and Germany in the late nineteenth century. The supposedly French nature of Alsace-Lorraine had often been drilled into French schoolchildren before the war, while German children learned, as the popular song put it, that the Rhine was a German river, not a German border. Because Alsace-Lorraine became a symbol of the Franco-German struggle and a tool for mobilizing the population of both countries, the war's effect on the province is especially significant.

During the war, the French army occupied southwestern Alsace, while Germany remained in control of the rest of the province. Alsace-Lorraine offers historians precise comparisons between the two nations. Furthermore, in a border region where the national and political stakes for both nations were particularly high, French and German administrators were very conscious of their national agendas and quite vocal about their purposes. The French and German officials of wartime Alsace-Lorraine, while atypical of France and Germany, sometimes said what their colleagues elsewhere took for granted.

Comparative analysis of French and German wartime education reveals how the war affected primary schooling. Whatever the differences between the two nations, the practical and ideological constraints imposed by the states at war dominated schooling to a much greater extent than did either nation's commitment to good schools. Total war thus defined the parameters within which the schools of Alsace-Lorraine operated.

After Germany had annexed Alsace and western Lorraine in 1871, the French Falloux law remained in effect, but German officials had nonetheless established a German school system. The schools were divided by the religious faiths in Alsace-Lorraine; in 1910, the province was approximately 78 percent Catholic, 20 percent Protestant, and 2 percent Jewish. Children not only said regular prayers to open and close the school day but had an hour of religious instruction each day. After 1871, the curriculum in Alsace-Lorraine closely resembled that of Prussia. Attendance became compulsory, with girls required to attend for seven years and boys for eight. By 1914, teachers were almost entirely from Alsace-Lorraine, but they had been trained in local normal schools (with German curricula) and often belonged to German teachers' associations. Despite skirmishes in the 1870s and lingering administrative suspicion, nuns and priests belonged to local teaching orders and remained active in local schools.

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