Saarland – A European History
The Saarland is a modern, cosmopolitan German federal state in the heart of Europe. An immediate neighbour of France and Luxembourg, it has developed into a region in which international cooperation in politics and commerce has become as much a matter of course as cross-border practices in cultural and everyday life. A European consciousness and lifestyle inspired by the French joie de vivre connect the citizens of this youngest of the old West German states.
Saarland’s special character is the product of a long and varied, yet often conflict-ridden history. This exhibition follows the course of such a European history up to the birth of the Saarland as a German federal state almost one hundred years ago. The aim is to show that Saarland’s self-awareness and the special relationship it enjoys with its European neighbours did not begin to develop after it became a German federal state but had, in fact, already taken root when the Saarland was under the administration of the League of Nations in the 1920s. Nevertheless, it was only after the painful ordeals of two world wars and the experiences of the conflicts resulting in two referendums that the particular learning process was set in motion, which would firmly establish the spirit of friendship and reconciliation and make the Saarland the most Frenchified and most European of all the German federal states.
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From Saar to SaarLorLux:
A region in a European perspective
States, Länder, districts and communes usually have a long history. They change over the years, become larger or smaller, win or lose sovereignty and the right to self-determination. But they generally have a fixed territorial heart that has often not changed for centuries. Bavaria and Hesse, Carinthia and Styria, the Swiss cantons, Normandy and Brittany – nearly all those names apply not just to a particular area, but also to an administrative unit that has developed politically, and they are synonymous with the collective identity of their inhabitants. Saarland is an exception to that rule. Certainly the Saar region is an ancient cultural landscape that was once settled by Celts, Romans and Teutons and
belonged to the French interregnum of Lotharingia (Lorraine) in the High Middle Ages. But it never developed a cohesive political structure: in the Middle Ages and early modern times, the region belonged partly to Lorraine, the electorate of Trier, Palatinate-Zweibrücken, and it had many different temporal and spiritual masters in a very small area.
A ‘département de la Sarre’ first grew up in the revolutionary wars and under Napoleon, the great reorganiser of German history, but it was shortlived. At the Congress of Vienna in 1815, the ‘Saarlands’ were mostly divided between Prussia and Bavaria, while smaller parts of the region were given to Saxe-Coburg and Oldenburg.
So between 1815 and 1918 the Saarlanders were Prussian and Bavarian; before the German empire was founded in 1871, they were at the same time inhabitants of the region bordering on France and therefore perhaps all the more bound to king and emperor. Even just before the First World War, no one would have thought it possible that the Saar region might ever become anything other than a Prussian or Bavarian province – let alone the Saarlanders ever developing into an autonomous political entity. All the same, since the industrial revolution the region had made rapid economic progress and developed into one of the biggest coal and steel regions in Europe, whose population multiplied in a very few decades, especially because of immigration from the adjoining areas. So a ‘Bavarian’ from Bliestal might well work in a Prussian mine, or a ‘Prussian’ might end up in a Bavarian glassworks.
Economically, the Saar region became steadily more integrated and at the end of the 19th century it formed an iron and steel triangle with Lorraine and Luxembourg. However, despite the economic interconnection, its people still had different nationalities and different political and cultural traditions. So in 1918 Saarland still did not exist. It is a product of the international peace talks after the end of the First World War and was created by the Treaty of Versailles as an independent regional authority between France and the German Reich. What was then called the ‘Saar region’ was barely 1,900 square kilometres in area and it covered the central industrial zone between Saar and Blies and the residential districts lived in by the industrial workers who commuted by train.
Under the League of Nations
By November 1918 the Saar region was occupied by French troops. The negotiator in Versailles, French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau, had asserted his country’s annexation claims but was unable to win round the American President, Woodrow Wilson, who wanted the Saarlanders to be given the right to self-determination. So a transitional solution was agreed, in which the newly emergent ‘Saar region’ would be under the control of an international League of Nations Governing Commission for 15 years. After that, a plebiscite would be held to decide its ultimate political status. Three options were proposed: maintenance of the status quo, annexation to France or reintegration into the German Reich.
When the Treaty of Versailles came into force, the people of the Saar region were, from a political point of view, no longer German. They were ‘Saarlanders’, but they felt expatriated because, like the seaside town of Danzig for example, they were a League of Nations mandated territory and thus a testing ground for a new form of international administrative policy. In addition to the French occupying troops, the security force that remained in the country and was supplemented by British contingents, several hundred foreign functionaries arrived and took over not only four of the five government positions but also nearly all the top administrative and judicial posts. Not least, the population also had to adapt to fundamentally new economic conditions. As reparation for the industrial damage suffered during the war, ownership of the Saar mines was handed over to France, which thus became the employer of over 70,000 miners. France
gained a dominant position in other sectors of the economy too, such as banking, the iron and electric- ity supply industries, a development that was institutionally consolidated with the creation of a Saarland-French currency and customs union in 1923. The international influence was apparent in many aspects of everyday life, in French banknotes and bilingual decrees, French managers in the mines and iron and steelworks and the internationally staffed supreme court, French factory schools, bookshops, clothes shops and food.
The local people came to terms with the new rulers, but did not believe in the legitimacy of the League of Nations government; sometimes they felt threatened by the foreign soldiers and increasingly distanced themselves from the French employers. They saw themselves as the victims of an illegal dictated peace, clung all the more closely to the German language and German cultural traditions and, at school and club gatherings, church and political meetings, expressed their wish to be reunified with the German Reich as soon as possible in countless collective pledges of allegiance.
The hostility between the international League of Nations government on one side and the ‘German’ people of the Saar on the other side triggered many conflicts, minor and major, strikes, political expulsions, entry and exit bans and numerous political threats. These reached a climax in the hundred-day miners’ strike in 1923 and the Rhineland millennium celebrations in 1925 and continued to poison the political climate even in later years. All the same, particularly under the policy of mutual understanding operated by Stresemann and Briand, there were also many fruitful contacts and even friendships between members of the Saarland middle class and the international administration at a private and informal level, which demonstrated a certain liberality and a new consciousness. The idea that the Saar region could be a bridge between Germany and France in a united Europe was first mooted in the late 1920s amongst a small group of Social Democrat intellectuals, but achieving that would prove much more difficult than people at the time could ever have imagined.
The earthquake on 30 January 1933, when Hitler seized power in Berlin and set about dismantling the Weimar constitutional state, also shook the political landscape in the Saar region. Thousands of emigrants, mainly Jews, Communists and Social Democrats, fled to the Saar. On the other side, many Saarlanders were caught up more and more in the ‘national rebirth’ and were magnetically attracted by the power and glory of the apparently inward-looking ‘New Germany’. In the run-up to the plebiscite to be held in the autumn of 1933, a dramatic struggle developed between the ‘German Front’, which wanted reintegration, and the status quo supporter of the anti-fascist ‘United Front’, who included committed Catholics together with Social Democrat and Communists. There was a great deal at stake, for the Third Reich as well as the Saarlanders, and finally the League of Nations made an effort to safeguard its political authority. To ensure an orderly vote under international supervision, 4,000 British, Dutch, Italian and Swedish soldiers were sent to the Saar, the first ‘blue helmet’ operation in the history
of the international community. The plebiscite, documented by a host of international observers, ended with an overwhelming vote (90.7%) for Germany and it was the first foreign policy victory for the Third Reich. While Hitler was welcomed by an exultant crowd in Saarbrücken on 1 March 1935, thousands of his opponents went into exile across the French and Luxembourg borders. No other region of Germany saw such an exodus as the Saar region after the National Socialists seized power.
The Saar state
For the Saarlanders, the long dreamed-of ‘return home’ to the Reich turned into a nightmare after 1939, when they suffered war, persecution and total collapse. By the end of 1944 the region was in ruins. In March 1945 it was occupied by the Americans and four months later handed over to the French. The French Government had learned from the mistakes of the past, and annexing the Saar was no longer a serious possibility. Instead, an autonomous
Saar state was created under French patronage, with strictly limited sovereignty but its first freely elected government. The preamble to the 1947 Saarland constitution ruled out the possibility of political reintegration with Germany and established a currency and economic union with France for the future. Not all Saarlanders agreed with that decision. But they realised that it was better to grasp the hand that France was extending to them than to adopt an obstructive attitude and mount a political challenge to the victorious power. For Saarlanders, 1946 and 1947 evoked many uncomfortable memories of the period after the First World War: the customs posts set up on the German border, the French banknotes used to pay for goods in Saarland from 1947, the military parades to the sound of the Marseillaise, the French managers who were once again in charge of the Saar mines. But alongside these familiar signs there were unmistakeable signs of a new era. This time France was coming to the Saar not as a victor but as a partner and nation of culture, which aimed to win over the local population with practical reconstruction and cultural activities showing the way forward. Economic reconstruction was achieved more quickly in the Saar than in the German occupied zones and after only a few years the region had a radio station, a university, a conservatory and an art school, which also gained a repu- tation outside the region.
The French governor in the Saar was High Commissioner Gilbert Grandval, who, together with Prime Minister Johannes Hoffmann, established the guiding principles of Saarland policy up to 1955. Hoffmann, Chairman of the Christian People’s Party which set the tone, was not the only returning emi- grant: in contrast to the trend in the new Federal Republic, opponents to Hitler returning home were influential in the revival of democracy in the Saar. The fact that they had a clean political record and had had links to France through their years of exile made it easier for them to accept France’s supremacy and yet work tirelessly for Saarland’s interests. At the same time, having been outlawed and homeless in the Nazi period, they were psychologically more prepared to put the nation state tradition behind them, sound out new ideas for Saar politics and risk experimenting with a ‘third way’ between France and Germany.
Most of the policies drawn up in the immediate post-war period were accordingly designed to create a Saarland synthesis based on German and French traditions. Social policy, for example, was similar to German social insurance, but at the same time family allowances were an adaptation of a French element that was welcomed by the public. In educational policy, denominational schools were retained, but the marking system and the central school-leaving exam were borrowed from France. Bilingualism was promoted everywhere, especially at the newly founded university, where German and French had equal status as languages of instruction right from the start.
When the old continent was first gripped with widespread enthusiasm for Europe in the early 1950s, that was also reflected in the policies of Saarland’s leaders. Saarbrücken put itself forward as the seat of the European Coal and Steel Community; as a forerunner to a future united Europe, Saarland would become the first Europeanised state. The new Saar state seemed to find a raison d’être in the European idea that would enable it to end the provisional arrangement and secure its future.
Initially Europe was also a popular idea with the public in Saarland. Both the Christian Democratic ‘NEI-Saar’ and the Social Democratic ‘Europa-Union’ attracted active support, organised European youth camps and held numerous information meetings. The green and white European flag flew everywhere, the first ‘Europa-Bar’ opened in Saarbrücken city centre and even in trade the European idea was used for advertising (‘Europa motor oil’). The university of the Saar was the first to call itself a ‘European university’ and it created pioneering institutions with the European Institute and the Institute for the Comparison and Approximation of European Law. The European idea inspired many young people to take advantage of the new opportunities for international encounters and contacts, not just students, but also sportsmen, who had the privilege of representing their new state at international championships, including the Olympic Games in Helsinki.
As in the League of Nations period, international influences were very strong in the Saar state. But in contrast to the 1920s, that internationalism was willingly accepted by the public, and it gave them a new self-awareness, so that they gradually learned to see themselves as ‘Saarlanders’. By then ‘Europe’, as an international decision-making body and a political concept, had become part of the Saarland story. Because apart from the fact that the Saar question remained a pervasive problem in the European post-war order, the political consciousness of the Saar state was European, so that the debate with Europe could become a milestone in the Saarlanders’ collective self-discovery process.
The first European referendum
Although from 1945 to 1947 international policy on the Saar was mostly the result of agreements and compromises between the Allies, surprisingly quickly the West German part-state created in 1949 became so important politically that it could scarcely be ignored any more in the solution to the Saar question. The new Federal Republic laid claim to be a political and ideal core state for the whole of Germany, and it could not therefore agree to any final solution to the Saar question that was not conditional upon a later peace treaty. France, on the other hand, wanted to place the Saar state’s provisional status on a constitutionally binding footing and at least to secure its own political and economic influence on the Saar for the future.
Although the Saar question was not a priority for either German or French policy, both sides considered it so important that the solution caused a year-long tug-of-war. It was only with American and British mediation that concrete proposals were worked out, first taking shape in Van der Goes van Naters’ Council of Europe plan and finally producing tangible results in the 1954 Paris Accords. Agreement was reached on a ‘European statute’ for Saarland, which placed the region under the newly established Western European Union and also safeguarded French economic interests by retaining the Saarland-France currency union. After the Saar agreement had been ratified by the French National Assembly and the German Federal Parliament, it only needed the consent of the people of Saarland, who were asked to decide in a referendum on 23 October 1955. From an international diplomacy point of view, the vote appeared to be a mere formality. But what was later demonstrated by many subsequent votes was already clear from that first ‘European’ referendum: issues of nationality are highly emotional core questions of political identity, which always carry the incalculable risk of violent clashes in domestic politics.
Whilst Johannes Hoffmann’s Saarland Government supported the European statute from the start and saw the vision of a Saarland core state in a future united Europe as soon to be realised, for a variety of reasons public feeling in Saarland was largely doubtful and sceptical. Firstly, a great deal of political confidence in the power of the European idea had been lost when the European Defence Community foundered in 1953. Secondly, there was still a latent mistrust of France, the victorious power, which many Saarlanders suspected of pursuing its claims to dominance in the Saar under cover of Europeanisation. Finally, there was growing resistance to the Hoffman government, after years of authoritarian rule and suppression of any pro-German opposition. However, the Saar’s cultural and religious links with Germany had remained alive. And the political idea of the nation was not discredited or in decline, especially since the fledgling Federal Republic, with its ‘economic miracle’, was rapidly becoming more and more attractive.
The referendum on 23 October 1955 was intended to decide whether the European statute should be accepted or rejected. But the real issue in the three-month campaign was whether the Saarlanders were willing to accept their special status in the long term and give up their German identity. It developed into a bitter struggle that became the biggest media event in Saarland’s history. Thousands of posters with over a hundred different themes were displayed on advertising columns and hoardings. Leaflets were stuck on shop windows and road signs; many meetings were hopelessly overcrowded. In the heated initial phase particularly, there were violent clashes, water cannons were used and the police made arrests. The ‘yeses’ and the ‘noes’ clashed irreconcilably, denigrated their political opponents with polemics and smear campaigns. Like a family dispute that has got out of hand, the campaign developed into ‘all-out’ social conflict that opened up old wounds and allowed hitherto unspoken fears and accusations to be voiced. They were not just fighting about the future; above all they were settling scores with the political opponent’s past. The ‘no’ activists accused their domestic opponents of being separatists and traitors, a judgement with which, in particular, they tried to destroy Prime Minister Hoffmann politically (‘Fat man out!’). The ‘yes’ supporters branded their opponents incorrigible nationalists, alleged that they had been involved in the Nazi state and accused them of complicity in the death and suffering of millions of war victims.
A past with which people had still not come to terms was projected on to the campaign and the real issue to be decided in the referendum was increasingly pushed into the background. On closer examination, the two sides with their political convictions were not so far apart at all. Supporters and opponents of the statute in fact left it in no doubt that they were essentially in favour of a united Europe, although the ‘noes’ wanted to become not autonomous Saarlanders but a German member of Europe as a whole. In deciding on that option, the majority of Saarlanders not only defined the course of Saarland’s history; they also set standards for future European integration. In the system advocated for the future in the Council of Europe before 1955, Europe was seen as an alternative to the old nations. After 1955, alternatives to a ‘Europe of nations’ were given very little serious consideration. From that point of view, it cannot just be said that little Saarland has a European history. Quite the opposite: a chapter in the story of Europe as a whole was written ‘in Saarlandish’ in the 1955 referendum.
The SaarLorLux Euro-Region
The rejection of the European statute for the Saar in no way spelt the end of European policy in Saarland. In fact, after two-thirds of Saarlanders had voted ‘no’, the situation noticeably improved, both in Saarland society and in the Franco-German dialogue. The Hoffmann government resigned actually on the night of the vote, France accepted the vote of the people without ifs and buts and showed itself willing to withdraw earlier claims. The ‘small reunification’ of Saarland with the Federal Republic of Germany took place on 1 January 1957. Two and a half years later it was completed when the franc was replaced by the German mark. The Luxembourg Treaty between France and Germany, which set out the arrangements for reintegration, also marked the start of a new era and was the basis of European cooperation in the SaarLorLux region. In 1964 the final canalisation of the Moselle that had been agreed in the Treaty was celebrated by the Heads of State and large crowds from the border states as the first major cross-border infrastructure project.
The Franco-German garden exhibition that had already been opened at the border in Saarbrücken four years earlier was an unmistakeable symbol of reconciliation. On the battlefields of the wars that had raged here between 1870 and 1945, new life literally grew on a meeting place that was visited by thousands of people from both sides of the border. At the same time the first ‘French Week’ was organised in Saarland, later becoming a permanent event.
Together with a programme of cultural events, once a year duty-free goods from France were advertised, giving Saarlanders the opportunity to find out more about the more attractive sides of the French with their ‘savoir vivre’. A French cultural centre was also set up in 1960 and a year later the first Franco-German secondary school in the Federal Republic was opened, a pioneering educational establishment whose students can take a bi-national school-leaving examination.
So the European idea was not quietly buried in Saarland after the referendum, but actively pursued. As early as the 1950s, the foundation stone for the Albert Schweitzer Village was laid in Spiesen and the border area between Bliesbruck und Reinheim became an excavation site for archaeological digs, from which a joint European Culture Park developed. The European Academy in Otzenhausen, reopened in 1959, did pioneering work, and with its further education seminars, research projects and experts’ reports it still pursues its aim of bringing about the social and political unification of Europe. Lastly, in 1964 the Saarland radio station introduced a new programme format with Europawelle Saar, while the Saar trade fair described itself as ‘the forerunner of the European Economic Community’
In the 1960s it also became increasingly clear, when looking across the border, that the economic conditions of neighbouring regions were very similar and that everyone was facing the same problems in the mining and steel industries. From that economic perspective developed the idea and concept of SaarLorLux as an easily remembered abbreviation, by analogy with Benelux which was already familiar from usage. Regional cooperation initially focused on two major projects: the creation of an integrated petrochemical economy with cross-border production centres and the establishment of a Franco-German wholesale and free trade centre between Saarbrücken und Sarreguemines. Even if SaarLor industry eventually failed and the CECOFA became stuck at the planning stage, many of these ideas foreshadowed what would only become a reality decades later when the European markets merged.
The regional planning and structural programme, also based on the idea of a common European core region, was more successful. As far back as 1969 Saarland had the first motorway link to France, and the electrification of the Frankfurt-Saarbrücken line also created a railway link at a relatively early stage. The growing integration raised a number of legal and political questions, which required new statutory and administrative framework conditions. Action was initiated by the 1969 Franco-German Summit, which decided to set up a bilateral government commission for cross-border questions in Saarland, Lorraine and Rhineland-Palatinate, soon also to be joined by Luxembourg. Shortly afterwards a regional commission was set up for Saarland, Lorraine, Luxembourg and Rhineland Palatinate, which became the model for all subsequent SaarLorLux institutions.
Since then the Greater Region, extended to Wallonia, has been covered by a network of administrative and government institutions, which have multiplied since the 1980s in particular. Cooperation in the joint ‘Eurodistrict’ takes various forms, from working groups in chambers of commerce and the Interregional Parliamentary Council to the Greater Region Summit, which was set up in 1995 on the initiative of Luxembourg and Saarland and has since held regular meetings. The Heads of Government and Administration from Lorraine and Wallonia, Luxembourg, Rhineland-Palatinate and Saarland represent the interests of 11 million citizens from four Member States, living in the largest border area in the European Union and working across the border, to the central institutions in Brussels. The cross-border labour market in particular is a characteristic that distinguishes SaarLorLux from all the EU’s other Greater Regions. Nowhere else in the Union do so many people live and work in different countries: one out of every four cross-border commuters in Europe lives in SaarLorLux. And with increasing work contacts, cultural exchanges are also becoming more common, from town and club partnerships to joint industrial tourism projects to exchanges of nursery and primary school staff and joint school orchestras. A notable example is ‘Perspectives du théâtre’, the first and so far only French theatre festival in Germany, held annually in Saarbrücken since 1978. And with the Franco-German University in Saarbrücken, which opened shortly before the end of the millennium, Saarland also has an educational establishment that underlines its importance as a bridge between countries.
Barely 50 years have passed since SaarLorLux’s beginnings, a half-century that has clearly left its mark. A new region in the heart of Europe has grown up in the border area that was once fought over. Old borders have disappeared and much of what Europe’s founding fathers only dared to dream of has now become a reality. All the same, bold ideas and vision are still needed to further the integration of different states and cultures. So at the beginning of the new millennium the Santer Working Group met to draw up a picture of SaarLorLux in the 21st century. ‘Vision for the future 2020’ was presented at the 7th Greater Region Summit under Saarland’s presidency in Saarbrücken in 2003. In this future projection, the political fortunes of SaarLorLux are guided by common institutions, citizens communicate in several European languages as a matter of course and specific regional characteristics have found their place in cultural diversity. However the future actually looks in 20 years’ time, the European story of Saarland in the Greater Region will continue.
International mandated territory
The ‘Saar region’ came into being as a result of international politics. Under the 1919 Versailles Peace Treaty, the industrial zone on the Saar previously belonging to Prussia and Bavaria was separated from the German Reich and brought under League of Nations control as an independent administrative area. Like many of the senior officials recruited from other European countries, four of the five members of the government were from outside Saarland. Public order was maintained by a railway security force made up of French and British troops. Economically, Saarland became part of France’s customs territory and currency area in 1923. At the same time, the French State owned the Saar mines from 1919 onwards and was thus the main employer. The international influence was also evident in day-to-day life, although personal contacts between locals and ‘foreigners’ were still rare.
Status quo? – back to the Reich
In the early days especially, between 1920 and 1925, the League of Nations government was very unpopular with the public. For local people, the Treaty of Versailles was an international injustice and they protested against government policy, seen as too Francophile, in parliamentary petitions, strikes and numerous (German) national demonstrations. It was only during the Locarno Process that domestic politics stabilised and for the first time Saarland politicians thought of the Saar as a bridge between Germany and France. However, the National Socialist revolution then completely altered the situation. Politics on the Saar were increasingly controlled remotely from Berlin. As in the German Reich, the civil parties broke up and were absorbed into the ‘German Front’ led by the National Socialists. On the other side, Communists, Social Democrats and opposition Catholics formed a historically unique defensive alliance, the anti-fascist 'United Front'.
The world is watching
Under the Versailles Treaty, local people were to be allowed to decide after 15 years whether they wished to maintain the status quo, belong to France or be reintegrated into the German Reich. Up to 1932, most Saarlanders wanted to become part of Germany again. However, the consensus in Saarland society broke down when Hitler seized power in 1933, after which thousands of German refugees came to Saarland. Political life became radicalised and threats and intimidation were common. To ensure a fair and orderly plebiscite, in 1934 the League of Nations sent in an international electoral commission and a military protection force that can be seen as a historical precursor to present-day UN 'blue helmet' missions. The plebiscite was very closely monitored. Over 90% of those entitled to vote opted to become part of Germany again. Despite international guarantees for a transitional period, thousands of Saarlanders chose to emigrate as soon as the
result of the vote was announced.
— Landesarchiv des Saarlandes
— Staatskanzlei des Saarlandes, Öffentlichkeitsarbeit