November 1, 2020

November 1913 - The Year Before The Storm

The Zabern Incident, by Hansi
The Zabern affair threatens peace between France and Germany...

On Nov. 28, protesters gather outside of German army barracks in the small garrison town of Zabern, Alsace-Lorraine (which was annexed after the Napoleonic wars). They are demanding for the commander, sublieutenant Baron von Forstner, to show apologize to the local population as, over the past month, he's applauded one of his own soldiers for stabbing an Aslatian during a brawl (and even said he'd pay him 10 Marks for each person he killed), and forced the Alsatians in his garrison to call themselves Wackes (an insulting term for themselves), adding that they 'can shit on the French flag.'

It must be understood here that, despite feeling betrayed by how easily the French had signed the region over to the Prussians in 1871, many Alsatians still adhered to their previous culture and background (after the French Revolution, it is in Strasbourg that the Marseillaise was sung publicly for the first time), and found ways to resist German indoctrination (even going as far as creating an Alsatian dialect--a mixture of French, English and German--to avoid using German). This somewhat passive resistance did not please the conqueror of the time.

Therefore, on Nov. 28, instead of apologizing, the baron has three infantry units advance upon the crowd with live ammunition and bayonets at the ready. Panic breaks out, and the protestors try to flee, but the German soldiers go in anyway and arrest more than thirty people (including innocent passers-by). They're locked away in a coal cellar without light or toilets.

The commander's rather proud of his troops, and declares that he considers "it a great fortune if blood flows now," as he wants to show he's in charge and create respect for the army.
More art by Jean-Jacques Waltz, "Uncle Hansi",
an Alsatian who was a staunch pro-French activist at the time

A few days later, he's recognized by some workers at a shoe factory, where they call him 'the Wackes Lieutenant.' One of them laughs, and Baron von Forstner, exploding in anger, swings his saber down on the head of a disabled hostage.

When the German War Minister, Erich von Falkenhayn, finds out about this, instead of admitting to the German army's evident flouting of the law, he accuses the protesters and the press. The opposition, represented by party member Konstantin Fehrenbach, states that "the army is also subject to law, and if we place the army outside the law and abandon the civilian population to the arbitrary rule of the army, then, gentlemen: Finis Germaniae! ... It will be a disaster for the German Reich."

But even that warning didn't convince the jury to finally acquit the sublieutenant, much to the applaud of Kaiser Wilhelm II.

It is interesting to note that Baron von Forstner was only 19 at the time. He will die two years later at war.

Sources:
The Alsatian Identity Crisis, 1871-1913, by Therese Rottner
1913 - The Saverne Affair, by Bernard Linder (in French)

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