Alsace- a Lesson in History

Article excerpt

Anybody wanting an insight into the last century or so of European history should take time out in the Alsace region of north west France.

Based around the city of Strasbourg, the region has manageable Lake District-style mountains, almost Alpine villages, cycle routes and walks.

Above all, it has a history.

The starting point for an historic tour should be Schirmeck's magnificent new Memorial de l'Alsace Moselle.

A few months old, the memorial's massive display takes visitors through the history of Alsace, and in the process Europe, from 1870. It is a history difficult for the English to take in; Christian, a tour guide, told me that his grandmother, born in 1897, changed nationality four times in her lifetime.

Early in World War II, for example, Strasbourg was completely evacuated. English-language tapes brilliantly tell the story of the evacuation and other turmoil.

A short car journey away, in the beautiful Vosges mountains, lies a grim reminder of the horrors of that same war.

The European Centre for Deported Resistance Fighters, which commemorates the horrors of the 1940s concentration camp at Natzweiller-Struthof, opened in 2005.

It features a new museum and displays dedicated to all people who resisted Nazi rule ... it also has a huge separate monument in memory of Resistance fighters who gave their lives.

In addition, the centre contains remnants of the actual camp. A tour around the punishment and execution blocks serves as a chilling reminder of how so many suffered in the 1930s and 1940s.

I found the numerous references to the execution here of four female members of the British Specials Operations Executive particularly poignant.

In the north-east of the region, we came across remnants of the famous Maginot Line.

This part, constructed between the World Wars to defend northern France, has been lovingly restored, often by volunteers.

Experts guided me through the maze of underground tunnels between two key forts at Four a Chaux a Lembach and Schoenenbourg.

In both forts, men and munitions were separated as much as possible and the men's areas included barracks, kitchens, showers and hospital facilities.

The big guns, protected by tons of concrete and metal, were raised and lowered by a complex arrangement of springs and catches.

Unfortunately, the defences failed. Rather than try to breach the line, the Germans essentially walked round it.

Strasbourg itself proved an interesting mix of ancient and modern . . . …

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