The German Imperial District of Strasbourg originates from 1871 when the Treaty of Frankfurt modified the western borders of France to the benefit of the emerging German Empire.
The city of Strasbourg was annexed by Prussia, along with Alsace, Metz and part of Lorraine. Germany wanted to make Strasbourg an influential city, a symbol of its power. On the banks of the Rhine, between Basle and Frankfurt, the city was naturally promoted to the rank of capital of the Reichsland of Alsace and Lorraine.
From there, the German empire decided on the development of a new city (“Neustadt”), beyond the perimeters of the old island town. This planned extension responded to two major issues: to attend to the growing need for housing in the new regional capital (many German civil servants were moving to Strasbourg), and to create a showcase of German skills in the fields of urban planning and architecture. This also allowed the German authorities to gain the confidence of the local population, which had been French for two centuries. As such, several monumental constructions were thus built there: the library and the University Palace, the train station, the post office, Parliament House…
Architect Conrath worked on urban planning which allowed for the city’s surface area to be tripped in order to absorb the influx of German immigrants. The district was irrigated by wide, straight, often tree-lined avenues, influenced by the Haussmann urban planning in Paris.
From 1871 to 1914, the number of inhabitants in the city doubled, industries rapidly developed and intellectual activity intensified.
This exemplary operation of the “new city” is not unlike the similar one implemented in Metz by the German emperor.
Today, the names of places, boulevards, avenues and palaces share the very republican-sounding French names: Avenue de la République, Avenue de la Marseillaise or de la Liberté, Boulevard de la Victoire… however, at the time of their creation, they had very German names, to the glory of the German homeland.
In the early 1880s, the architectural style of the buildings was eclectic. The trend was a combination of many architectural styles: Roman, Gothic, Renaissance, Classical and Baroque. With the rise in power of Art Nouveau in Europe, the style of the new buildings took on Jugendstil, its Germanic version, characterised by the abundant use of floral motifs.
The planning of Strasbourgeois architect, Geoffroy Conrath, was handed in 1879 and the works included prestigious buildings, representative of the power around the Imperial Palace (Kaiserplatz), as well as many public buildings which would become iconic buildings in the city.
La Place de la République (Kaiserplatz)
This vast public garden consisting of a large square in its centre is bordered by prestigious buildings which are counted among the most beautiful of Wilhelmian architecture. At the centre of the gardens, in the middle of magnolia trees, stands the poignant war memorial, which was sculpted by Drivier in 1936 and represents a mother (Alsace) holding her children killed in combat – one who died for France, the other for Germany.
Le Palais du Rhin (Kaiserpalast)
The Emperor’s Palace, now “Palace of the Rhine”.
Majestically bordering Place de la République, this is certainly the most emblematic building in the “Neustadt” with its imposing cupola. It was built between 1883 and 1888 in a Neo-Renaissance style by Hermann Eggert who wanted to make it a showcase of the definitive establishment of the German presence in Strasbourg. Upon seeing it, Emperor William I had only one reaction: “gigantic!”
The emperor did not have time to stay there, with his death taking place shortly before the building’s completion. Thus, it was his grandson, William II, who made it his official residence during his stays in Strasbourg. William II came here more than a dozen times until 1914.
Today, the Palace is home to the Central Commission for Navigation on the Rhine and the Regional Direction of Cultural Affairs (RDCA).
Le Théâtre National de Strasbourg (Landesausschuss)
The Building of the Delegation of Empire Territory, now “National Theatre of Strasbourg”.
It was built between 1888 and 1899 in a Neo-Classical style to accommodate the Delegation of Empire Territory, a gathering which has a consultative function for the budget and legislation (which were voted in Berlin).
It became the Parliament for the Reichsland of Alsace-Lorraine in 1911. After the First World War, it housed Strasbourg’s conservatory of music. Linked to the Ministry of Culture since 1972, it is the first national theatre to be established in Provincial France.
La Bibliothèque Universitaire (Kaiserliche Universitäts und Landesbibliothek zu Strassburg)
The University Library, also called BNUS.
The prestigious Italian Neo-Renaissance style building officially incorporated the imperial library on 29 November, 1895. Strasbourg’s library was entrusted with library works (that would later be destroyed by the bombings of the Second World War) from several German libraries: Königsberg (40,000 precious copies), Göttingen, Munich, Dresden, Heilbronn or even Schweinfurt. Emperor William I himself offered 4,000 volumes from his personal collection. In 1875 the donor count was at 2,750 and in 1879 the library contained 386,073 volumes, becoming the fourth largest library in Germany.
At the dawn of the Second World War, the great majority of collections were moved to various storage areas in Alsace and around Clermont-Ferrand (Auvergne).
The library’s collections are estimated at more than 3 million documents, a large number of which were written in German, which is an exceptional finding in France. Along with that of Lyon, it is among the largest libraries outside Paris.
Le Palais Universitaire (Kaiser-Wilhelms-Universität Strassburg)
The University Palace.
Of all the buildings erected in 1884 by Otto Warth (an architect from Karlsruhe), the University Palace is certainly the most harmonious. It grandly closes the beautiful view of the Avenue de la Liberté from the Palace of the Rhine. Its façade in yellow sandstone, inspired by Genovese palaces of the Italian Renaissance, is punctuated by columns and statues of great men (Kant, Leibniz) and features a wide staircase entrance.
The influence of the University of Strasbourg in Germany attracted many eminent professors within its walls.
The Palace today still caters to some academic fields (history and art history).
Le Temple Saint-Paul (Paulskirche)
The church stands on a headland of the Ill River divided in two, at the side of the University Bridge. The Neo-Gothic building was created between 1889 and 1897 by architect Luis Müller, who was inspired by the St. Elizabeth Church in Marburg (Germany).
Such a gothic cathedral dominates the entire imperial district with its two twin spires which taper to a height of 76 metres. Its nave can accommodate almost 3,000 worshippers.
It was designed for the Protestant German garrison who was stationed in Strasbourg between 1871 and the Great War. Since 1918, the church has been dedicated to the Reformed Protestant religion.
La Gare Centrale (Strassburger Bahnhof)
The Railway Station.
Much like the railway station in Metz, Strasbourg’s Railway Station was erected by German authorities and served the military interests of the Second Reich. The decision was made to build it on the virgin land of the former Vauban Fortifications. Inaugurated in 1883, the station by Berlin architect Johann Eduard Jacobsthal was an important step for the great international axis Paris-Vienna and Basle-Cologne.
Its proportions were gigantic for its time: a 128 metre long façade inspired (loosely) by the Renaissance, with two storeys (the ground floor is located on the wide semicircular area – and the upper floor at the level of the platforms), a welcome hall and arrival hall and 300 metre-long platforms.
Two stained glass windows to the glory of Germany and celebrating the union of Alsace to the Empire (Frederick Barbarossa in Haguenau and William I in Strasbourg) decorated the central hall until 1918.
The railway station recently underwent major renovations in view of the arrival of the TGV Est Européen in June 2007, with, in particular, the installation of a huge glass roof covering the whole of the façade. When the high speed line between Strasbourg and Lorraine opens by 2020, Paris will be no more than 1 hour and 50 minutes from the Alsatian capital.
A UNESCO listing of Strasbourg’s German Imperial District?
On 25 January 2010, Strasbourg’s Municipal Council launched a consultation for UNESCO to recognise the heritage of the “Neustadt”, to complement the Grande ile (Old Town), which was Heritage listed in 1988. This request for registration is at strong risk of being compared with the one filed years earlier by the Imperial German district of Metz.