Caught in the Crossfire: As the Maginot Line Celebrates Its 70th Anniversary, John Gimlette Travels to Alsace-Lorraine to Discover a Region That's Often Been at the Very Hub of European Warfare

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From the Saverne Gap, a vantage point high in the Vosges mountains, it's easy to see why this, the 'left shoulder' of France, has been so bitterly contested. To the east lie the plains of Lorraine, once a treasury of coal. To the west lies Alsace, so green and purple that it glows like a planet. 'Quel beau jardin!' slathered Louis XIV as he waddled through the gap in 1648. Another round in the tussle for Alsace-Lorraine was about to begin.

But it wasn't just a love of the local cabbages that brought on the warfare. No, the real clue is to be found on the horizon: Germany. This region represents the political fault line of Europe, the point at which its two great powers once ground together. Throughout history, both countries have claimed cultural ownership of this strange, hybrid land, and, even now, there's plenty of scope for confusion. Are Alsatians and Lorrains French-thinking Germans or German-speaking Frenchmen? They, of course, think they're neither, but a rule unto themselves.

'We're Elassich [Alsatian] first,' says Mme Wendling, a retired farmer's wife from Lupstein, 'then European, and then maybe French.'

THE PERPETUAL BATTLEFIELD

'We seem to have been at war forever,' Wendling says with a grin. Her farm stands next to a typical Alsatian ossuary, containing the powdery bones of 10,000 peasants, cut down in 1525. 'I'm told" she says, 'that the soil turned red from here to the Vosges."

Such massacres, it seems, have been a regular feature of the region's history. Through the Saverne Gap have come the Romans, the Alemani, the English in the 12th century, the Armagnacs in the 15th, and then the Thirty Years War (1618-48), scouring the plains of every whimper of life. It's said that the Swedish and Hungarians descended on the place 'like a swarm of locusts', destroying it so comprehensively that, in one region, only seven men survived.

Since then, the fighting has flared up about every 50 years or so. In fact, Alsace-Lorraine seems to have featured in almost every great European war--and has often been the cause. The Germans claim it has been the springboard for more than 23 French invasions of their land. Meanwhile, in the past 130 years, the region has changed hands four times, taking a pasting on each occasion. Wendling has endured two invasions in her lifetime (the Germans in 1940 and the Americans in 1944), and her mother the two before that (the Germans again in 1870, and the French in 1918). 'We hardly had time to rebuild out homes before they were flattened again,' says Wendling.

All of this makes for ugly history and a curious map. Naturally, wars and insurrections have left it strewn with star forts, castles and casemates. The story of its people, however, is written in its place names. With each fresh bout of disorder, the old names were obliterated, or new ones grafted onto the chaos. Some are lumpishly military--such as Phalsbourg--and others just plain quirky: Xouaxange, Fleisheim and Bust. But it's all there: French, German, Francique, Alsacien, Latin, Platt.

CARVED FROM WAR

On the ground, a troubled past springs to life. Across the horizon, little forts stick their noses up from the forest, and on the plains, the manor houses look like great Tudor galleons becalmed in the cabbage. Meanwhile, the villages stick to the hilltops and are themselves like collections of castles, with streets like sandstone trenches topped with timber ramparts. In Alsace, everything's drenched in wealth, which usually means being painted chocolate and pink. In Lorraine--which is poorer--the farms may be more modest, but they're seldom less robust. 'Everyone wants this land,' says Wendling, grimly. 'But no-one ever wants us.'

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Her fortress-farm is typical of Alsace-Lorraine. …

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