Strasbourg History

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The task of talking about Strasbourg History, of a city that is more than 2,000 years old is a difficult one, with countless stories and anecdotes to tell. Strasbourg’s rich architectural heritage can be found in the most unexpected places; it could be just around a bend in the road, in the corner of a square, inside a church, or even at a museum visit, and knowing its history helps to better understand its monuments and churches.

The “city of roads” (the origin of its current name in ancient German) lies at the border of the Roman and Germanic worlds, and this location adds to the wealth of its past, for better and for worse. After having suffered during the 19th and 20th centuries, Strasbourg has now regained peace and calm and has earned its name of “Capital of a reconciled Europe”.


Strasbourg in Ancient History

Attila le Hun, painting from Eugene Delacroix

The first traces of permanent human settlement on the site of Strasbourg date back to 1300 BC. The Celts developed a city there towards the end of the 3rd century BC and named it Argentorate. Julius Caesar’s Roman troops reached the shores of the Rhine in 58 BC and built a fortified military camp near the city which they renamed “Argentoratum”. Around 20 AD, a growing population of almost 10,000 saw the small city get promoted to the rank of military colony, and this was the retreat at each defeat of the Roman army in the regions on the other side of the river. In 260 AD, the Romans left Germania and Argentoratum became a border city once again.

In the 4th century, Roman power on the banks of the Rhine was reduced, following repeated assaults by barbarians and Argentorate’s fate was sealed. In 355 AD, the Alamans devastated the city and in 451 AD, Attila the Hun destroyed it completely. Legend has it that where his horse has trodden, grass no longer grows.

The accession of Clovis and his conversion to Christian faith allowed many cities to prosper in the shelter of his authority. Argentoratum, renamed Strateburgum by the Franks in 496, was one such city. In the 6th century, the Bishop of Strasbourg was one of the few to establish his authority in the Upper Rhine region. His successors took advantage of the absence of rivals to establish their authority and influence over Alsace and the Baden Plain.


Strasbourg in the Middle-Ages

In 842, Charles the Bald and Louis the German concluded the Oath of Strasbourg in the city, with the intention of keeping their brother Lothair away from the dividing of the Empire that their grandfather, Charlemagne, had left them. The Oath was the oldest text to be written in both Roman and Germanic languages. The Treaty of Verdun was concluded one year later and placed Strasbourg in the Kingdom of Lotharingia, the ancestor of the Lorraine region. Following a new change of borders in 870, Strasbourg once again became the possession of Louis the German and leaned towards the Germanic world.

Strasbourg benefited from a long period of expansion and prosperity thanks to the obtaining of justice and minting rights following Otto the Great’s founding of the Holy Roman Empire in 962. On the strength of this temporal power, the Bishop of Strasbourg continued to enjoy a strong influence, especially Werner of Habsburg who decided on the construction of a Romanesque cathedral in the 11th century. Towards 1100, the buildings were protected by a new fortified wall and in 1160, religious authorities decided to replace the Romanesque cathedral with one even more grandiose, in gothic style which was popular in Île de France. At the same time as the important demographic growth (the city became one of the most populated in the Holy Roman Empire), several monastic orders, notably Franciscan and Dominican, established themselves here. In the 13th century, the surrounding wall was extended and the number of its defensive towers increased to 80, which included the famous Ponts Couverts (Covered Bridges) towers.

In 1201, Emperor Phillip of Swabia raised Strasbourg to the coveted rank of Imperial Free City, under the impetus of wealthy seigniorial Alsatian families. A Municipal Council was formed in 1220 and was in charge of administration and justice; duties which were previously reserved for the clergy. The growing influence of the bourgeois threatened the bishop’s authority and resulted in armed conflicts between the Episcopal army of Walter of Geroldseck on one side, and the Strasbourgeois, supported by Emperor Rudolph I of Habsburg, on the other side. The outcome of the Battle of Hausbergen in 1262 was disastrous for the bishop who lost his influence. Following this episode, the 14th century was the stage of many political eddies. Within the city, two rivalling noble families, the Zorns and the Mullenheims, confronted each other, provoking a real civil war in 1332, the result of which was the rise in power of the working class and its takeover of the city.

Map of Strasbourg in the Middle Ages

When the Great Plague reached the city in the 14th century, pogroms increased. The Jews were accused of having poisoned the well, and in 1349, more than 2,000 Jews were burned alive on the current site of Rue Brulée.

The Imperial Free City of Strasbourg profited from its autonomy and from the right to raise taxes and to mint coins in order to prosper. Located on a major crossing point for the freight of merchandise (the Ill River connects it to Colmar and the Rhine links it to the other large cities of Basle, Mainz and Cologne), the city did not balk at the different taxes and controls of all kinds imposed by the powerful Guild of Boatmen.

The spire of Notre-Dame Cathedral was completed in 1439 and, being the highest monument of Christendom, symbolised the power of the city. With a strong population of 26,000 inhabitants (10,000 of which were refugees of the Hundred Years War who resided outside the fortification), Strasbourg was able to raise an army of 4,500 men. It was at this time that Gutenberg, who was originally from Mainz, came to stay in Strasbourg and invented movable type printing. Shortly after, the city became a major printing centre in Europe and began to attract many intellectuals and artists.


Strasbourg, Influential Centre of Humanism and Reformation in Europe

In the early 15th century, the humanist movement took advantage of the development of printing and Jakob Wimpheling, Geiler von Kayserberg and Sébastien Brant were advocates. Another highlight of this century of change was the marked introduction of the Reformation, to which Strasbourg adhered from 1525; some 6 years after the Theses of Martin Luther were attached to the doors of the cathedral. Strasbourg officially became Protestant in 1532 with the adhesion to the Augsburg Confession. Along with Basel, Montbéliard, Mulhouse and Zurich to the south of the Upper Rhine region, Strasbourg was one of the main bastions of Protestantism, while the rest of Alsace remained Catholic and loyal to the Habsburgs. The cathedral, as well as other churches in Strasbourg, was consecrated to the Protestant faith.

Naturally, Strasbourg’s behaviour was not to the taste of Charles V, of the Habsburg dynasty. The Holy Roman Emperor was indeed an ardent defender of the Catholic faith who repeatedly entered into war against the Protestant Princes.

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The nave of Strasbourg Cathedral © French Moments

In 1592, the use of the cathedral, a strategic issue, was shared between the two religions and two bishops of each obedience were appointed. Conflicts between the two faiths intensified and in 1604, the Catholic Charles of Lorraine became the one and only bishop of the city. With the eruption of the Thirty Years’ War, Strasbourg and Alsace found themselves in the line of fire, and while Alsace was savagely ravaged by the Swedish in 1633, Strasbourg did not suffer the same fate. In fact, powerfully retrenched behind its modern fortifications, it reached an agreement with Emperor Ferdinand II, vowing not to take part in the conflict and to remain neutral. The Emperor’s compensation was the authorisation for Strasbourg to found a university.


Strasbourg becomes a French city

Louis XIV approaching Strasbourg

With the negotiations of the Treaties of Westphalia in 1648, the Habsburgs lost their hereditary possessions in South Alsace (the Sundgau) to the profit of the Kingdom of France. But Strasbourg remained an Imperial Free City. On 28 September 1681, the city was besieged by Louis XIV’s army and two days later, accepted the surrender and became French for the first time in its history.

Louis XIV demolished part of the fortifications to symbolise the reunion of Strasbourg to France and the return of the cathedral exclusively to the Catholic religion.

Negotiations between Strasbourg and the Sun King led to the preservation of certain essential freedoms of the former Free City, notably on political, administrative and religious levels. Vauban was commissioned to construct a defence system at the forefront of that which was done at the time (a large part of these fortifications are still visible today). In 1716, the city adopted the French monetary system and housed a very large French garrison.

Strasbourg in 1644

Having become French 33 years after the Upper-Alsace of the Habsburgs (the Sundgau), Strasbourg was given the title of capital of the Alsace province, which had never previously been unified. With the other side of the Rhine remaining Austrian (Offenburg and the Brisgau), Strasbourg found itself once again lined by a border and became the main crossing point to get to Germany.

In 1704, the Catholic faith experienced a surge in interest when a Prince from the Rohan family became bishop of the city. The Rohan Palace, opposite the cathedral, is the witness of this fast and prosperous century for Strasbourg. But the city remained nonetheless predominantly loyal to Protestantism.

The University of Strasbourg also experienced a certain development and welcomed many students coming from Germany, the Netherlands, and Great Britain. The most famous among them was Goethe, who was a great admirer of the cathedral.

At the French Revolution, the Storming of the Bastille on 14 July 1789 sent a shock wave through Strasbourg when its inhabitants devastated the City Hall seven days later. As elsewhere in France, clergy property was confiscated. But the tension rapidly declined until 1792, the year of the declaration of war opposing France to Prussia and Austria. On 26 April, the mayor of Strasbourg, Frédéric de Dietrich, asked Rouget de Lisle to compose a hymn to the glory of the Army of the Rhine. Volunteers from Marseille returned to their city with the hymn and made it known across France. The song naturally took the name of “la Marseillaise”.

Rouget de Lisle singing the Marseillaise in Strasbourg

If a notice on the boundary bridge of the Rhine proclaimed “Here begins the country of freedom”, the period of the Revolution – notably that of the Reign of Terror – was not as inspiring. Mayor De Dietrich was guillotined in 1793 and Catholic and Protestant religions banned. The cathedral’s spire escaped destruction during the Revolution and was saved thanks to the disguised idea of a Strasbourgeois of covering its point with a huge Phrygian cap to the glory of the emerging Republic.

In 1797, the French army crossed the Rhine and occupied the neighbouring German cities of Kehl and Offenburg. This was followed by the construction of a new bridge over the Rhine and a complete reorganisation of the administrative territory by Napoleon.

Strasbourg cc. 1850

During the Napoleonic Empire, Strasbourg seemed to regain some stability when France’s campaign began in 1814. The city was besieged for three months and a typhus fever epidemic developed there. In 1818, at the same time that an agricultural crisis was rife, tensions between Catholics and Protestants mounted dangerously.

Strasbourg’s position on the Rhine during the Industrial Revolution allowed the city to develop, thanks to the development of port zones. The Marne-Rhine Canal, which links Strasbourg to Paris via Nancy, was constructed and the railway line from Paris to Strasbourg opened in 1847. While Mulhouse, in Southern Alsace, experienced a real industrial boom (it was nicknamed “the Manchester of the South”), economic activity in Strasbourg turned towards commerce and finance. And there were of course some Strasbourgeois industries that specialised in the production of beer.


Strasbourg reunified with Germany

Strasbourg Capitulation in 1870 to the Prussian Army

But the great upheaval that Strasbourg experienced in 1681 at the time of its return to France was relived in 1871, some 190 years later, with the Franco-Prussian War. Following the siege by the Prussian army, the city surrendered on 28 September under the strikes of artillery bombardments and was linked to Germany by the Treaty of Frankfurt.

Strasbourg was established as the “Capital of Reichsland of Alsace-Lorraine”. The use of the word “Lorraine” is a misnomer because the annexed Lorraine territories only represent a third of the Lorraine region, that is, the current département of Moselle with Metz as its head city.

Strasbourg cc. 1890

The new German authorities wanted to make Strasbourg a showcase of their power and tried several times to win the heart of its inhabitants who were traumatised by the war. Thanks to the willing action of the Prussians and an ambitious urban development plan (the “Neustadt”), Strasbourg again found the path to prosperity. Particular attention was given to hygiene: running water appeared in 1878, and road cleaning services appeared in 1909.

While many Alsatians chose exile in France (to Belfort, Nancy or Paris) over the German nationality in 1871, the city continued to expand and obtain a population of almost 100,000 inhabitants thanks to the immigration of German families and the rural exodus.


Strasbourg becomes French… and then German again

The First World War obviously brought an end to this prosperity. Strasbourg, however, was not touched by the fighting and found itself outside the conflict zones of Verdun and the Somme. The end of the war and the Treaty of Versailles confirmed the return of the Alsatian capital to France. Paradoxically, the joining of Strasbourg (and also of Alsace) to France posed several problems, especially in terms of adjustment. The Strasbourgeois campaigned to obtain some recognition of their local status concerning Alsatian administration and dialect. Cultural life was in part suppressed by linguistic pressure from French authorities confronted by regional culture.

The city regained a certain prosperity during the interwar period, again thanks to its geopolitical location as a border city and as the location of the river port on the Rhine with an international status.

On 3 September 1939, the date of the declaration of war by France and the United Kingdom (the Allies) on Nazi Germany, the French government ordered the evacuation of the city. More than 120,000 people left their homes and took refuge in the Dordogne, the Landes, or even the Gers départements. Almost two thirds of them returned to Alsace after the signing of the armistice between Germany and defeated France in August 1940. However, everything had changed: the Germans had annexed Alsace and had linked it to the land of Baden to form the “Gau Oberrhein”, with Strasbourg as its capital. Hitler had mandated (without follow up) his architect Albert Speer to transform it into a great metropolis deployed on both sides of the Rhine.

In order to “Germanise” Alsace, the occupiers needed to resort to drastic measures. The Alsatians were considered German citizens (Volkdeutsche), the use of French was banned and was a punishable offence, and German became the obligatory language once again, with street names being translated and displayed in German. As for the young Strasbourgeois, they suffered the same fate as the rest of the young men of Alsace and Metz: compulsory conscription to the German army. And since they could not really be trusted, Nazi command sent them to the Russian frontline, from where few of them returned safe and sound. This tragic wartime episode gave them the name “les Malgré-Nous” (“in spite of our will”).

The Allied bombings of the Strasbourg region began in 1943 and damaged several of the city’s monuments, including the cathedral, Rohan Palace, and the Old Customs.

Strasbourg was liberated on 23 November 1944 by General Leclerc and the tanks of the 2nd Armoured Division, and the French flag flew once again at the top of the cathedral. The liberation took place well before that of Colmar and the rest of the Haut-Rhin département where the Germans did not surrender until 9 February 1945.


Strasbourg, Capital of European reconciliation

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Strasbourg in one of Europe’s three capitals along with Brussels and Luxembourg © French Moments

The end of the Second World War signalled that it was time for the reconstruction and reconciliation of the peoples of Europe.

Four years after the end of the Second World War, ten European States (Belgium, Denmark, France, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Norway, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and Sweden) signed the Statute of the Council of Europe, an intergovernmental organisation founded on human rights, at St James’s Palace in London.

Lord Ernest Bevin, the United Kingdom’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, was the first to suggest making Strasbourg a symbol of European reconciliation. His proposition was based on choosing an average European city, and some perceived it to be a British manoeuvre designed to overshadow the central policies of the new initiative.

Nonetheless, the European institutions have successfully navigated through the decades and are not only a part of Strasbourg’s landscape, but also play an important part in Europe.


Strasbourg at the Dawn of the 21st century

Strasbourg and Rhine © French Moments

The town of Kehl, the Rhine and Strasbourg © French Moments

In 1988, the historic Grande Île of Strasbourg and the cathedral were listed as World Heritage Sites by UNESCO, thus contributing to the recognition of its rich historic past.

Following the introduction of the popular futuristic tram system in 1994, the arrival of the long-awaited East European TGV made the Alsatian capital one of the most easily accessible cities of North-Eastern France and the Upper Rhine.

At the start of the 21st century, Strasbourg became a city that is both modern and open, yet without renouncing its historic heritage. Cooperation efforts between this borderless city and its counterparts on the other side of the Rhine (the Eurodistrict with Kehl, Offernburg, Lahr and Achern) will make Strasbourg a leading metropolis in the Rhineland, with close to one million inhabitants.


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About Author

Pierre is a French/Australian who is passionate about France and its culture. He grew up in France and Germany and has also lived in Australia and England. In 2014 he moved back to Europe from Sydney with his wife and daughter to be closer to their families and to France. He has a background teaching French and holds a Master of Translating and Interpreting English-French with the degree of Master of International Relations and a degree of Economics and Management.

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