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At the time of the affair Alsace was part of the German empire, as it had been ever since France relinquished the territory following the Franco-Prussian War in 1871. Saverne was now a major Prussian garrison town known by its German name, Zabern, while Alsace was now officially the German Imperial Territory of Alsace-Lorraine, a province under the direct rule of the Kaiser, some five hundred miles away in Berlin.

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Alsace has always had close cultural ties to its German neighbours, but at the time many people resented this forced return to German imperial rule – especially with France’s ever strengthening appetite for republicanism and parliamentary democracy only a stone’s throw away. The German response to all this resentment was predictably heavy-handed: regional identity in Alsace was suppressed, with the use of both the French and native Alsatian languages all but prohibited. The response in Alsace, meanwhile, was largely defiant: with Germany wanting their ties to France inhibited, the Alsatians responded by circulating several new French- and Alsatian-language journals and periodicals.

By the 1910s, the people of Alsace had endured four decades of this uncomfortable German rule, and although Germany finally granted Alsace some autonomy in 1911 (allowing it to adopt its own constitution, flag and national anthem), these tokenistic gestures did little to quell the growing discontent. Before long, Alsace had become an uneasy powder keg of unrest, with only the slightest provocation needed to provide the spark. On 28 October 1913, that spark came in the form of a young Prussian soldier named Günter von Forstner.

Forstner was a hot-headed twenty-year-old lieutenant in the Prussian Army, who, despite his age, had already acquired a reputation as a bully and braggart among his fellow soldiers; on one occasion, he had reportedly struck down an Alsatian cobbler in the streets of Zabern for no reason other than that he had failed to acknowledge Forstner properly as he had walked by. On the morning in question, Forstner was overseeing a troop induction exercise at the Zabern garrison when a scuffle broke out among some of the new recruits. As he ran to break up the fight, Forstner angrily exclaimed that if it was a fight the recruits were looking for, they should go out into the town and pick a fight with a Wackes – a hugely derogatory German slur (derived from the same root as vagabond) for a citizen of Alsace.

Wackes was such a highly charged word that its use among members of the German Army had been banned in 1903. Not content with using it only once, Forstner continued his tirade. Should a fight break out in the town, he went on, then the recruits should not think twice about using their weapons, and he would personally pay 10 marks for every Wackes they killed.

His remarks, understandably, were incendiary, and when news reached the local press, a thousand-strong crowd of protestors -many shouting, ‘Vive la France!’ – gathered outside the garrison. The German reaction, however, could scarcely have been worse: the authorities at first tried to play down the episode (even going so far as to question precisely how insulting a term Wackes really was), while Forstner’s superiors held back from reprimanding him for his insensitivity, and instead turned their attention to the handful of Alsatian recruits they suspected had leaked his words to the press. The recruits were arrested, the offices of a local newspaper were illegally raided, and unrest in the town reached a fever pitch.

Amid mounting pressure, Forstner was finally disciplined and placed under six days’ house arrest, but news of this reprimand failed to be reported to the people of Zabern, who wrongly presumed his actions had still gone unpunished. So when his detention was over and he returned to active duty, Forstner was still met with jeers and harassment on the streets of Zabern (as well as being the subject of the indelible and decidedly unpleasant rumour that after a particularly wild night on the drink, he had returned to his bed at the garrison, passed out in a drunken stupor, and promptly soiled himself). The relationship between the people of Zabern and the German Army had never been worse, but Forstner, now the despised laughing stock of the town, was not done yet.

Two weeks after his initial comments, Forstner’s inability to hold his tongue soon threw him back into the fray. Now back on duty, he casually explained to another group of recruits that should they have any thoughts of deserting and joining the French Foreign Legion, they could go and ‘shit on the French flag’ for all he cared. Once more, his behaviour had proved incendiary. News of Forstner’s crude jibe quickly spread far outside the garrison, and soon even further beyond the borders of Alsace. Before long, the eyes of France – and eventually those of the entire Western world – were turned to Zabern, as world leaders nervously awaited Germany’s response to the scandal and the mounting unrest in the town. A recommendation was made to the Kaiser back in Berlin for Forstner to be transferred to avoid risking any further gaffes and to defuse the situation as painlessly as possible.

But the Kaiser, not wanting to see his military back down in the eyes of the people, refused: Forstner remained at his post, the protestors remained outside the garrison gates, and for a time the scandal rumbled on. Until, finally, enough was enough. With Zabern now under international scrutiny, on 30 November 1913, Forstner’s commanding officer, Colonel von Reuter, took it on himself to suppress the unrest in the town once and for all.

Reuter ordered sixty German soldiers, Forstner among them, to take up their rifles, fix bayonets, and march with him out into the town square. This show of strength, he wagered, would soon put the people of the town back in their place. So, with drums beating, and two machine guns hauled out alongside them, Reuter and his men entered the square and confronted the crowd.

The response from the townspeople was one of stunned disbelief. Those merely going about their everyday business stopped in their tracks, while those who had been protesting outside the garrison jeered, whistled and even laughed at Reuter’s ludicrously overblown show of force. He was furious. With, as he later recalled, the ‘prestige and honour of the whole army’ now at stake, he ordered the arrest of anyone ‘who stood still even for a second’ in the town square. The soldiers advanced, and total chaos ensued.

Anyone and everyone who happened to be in the square now found themselves a suspect accused of dishonouring the German Army. A banker returning home from work was arrested for smiling. A young man was arrested for singing. A company of judges exiting a nearby courthouse found themselves caught up in the commotion and thrown in jail for nothing more than standing still too long, as they looked on in disbelief at the pandemonium before them. In all, twenty-seven arrests were made, most for the very slightest of transgressions; when challenged on this heavy-handed and largely unnecessary show of strength, Reuter merely replied, ‘I am in command here now.’

The response to the events in Zabern that day was one of profound shock. Editorials the world over called into question not only Forstner’s, and now Reuter’s, actions, but those of the entire German military, who, according to the New York Tribune, had ominously started to ‘regard themselves not so much the servants of the state, but as the overlords of all mere civilians’. Back in Berlin, questions were raised in the Reichstag over the ability of the military to act as a police force; over who had the authority to challenge and police the military themselves; and over the rights of local people and local courts to stand against the military and enforce their own jurisdiction. A long-forgotten law from the days of the Napoleonic Wars, which permitted the military, under siege conditions, to quell riots when the local authorities failed to act, was hauled out of the history my blogs and put under the constitutional microscope. Had the military in Zabern violated their constitutional limits? Had Reuter acted appropriately under strained circumstances? Question after question was raised and debated, but with little resolution. Eventually, facing a growing constitutional crisis and a vote of no confidence, the German Chancellor withdrew the entire garrison from Zabern. But to appease those in his parliament who had supported the military’s response, only the lightest of punishments were meted out to those involved. Although questions still remained unanswered and anger still raged, the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 abruptly ended the debate. The snowballing Zabern Affair had at long last come to a close.

By then, however, news of the crisis had spread far and wide, and zabernism, the overzealous use of military power or authority (or ‘military jackbootery’ as one 1921 dictionary defined it) had found its way into the language. The word has remained in occasional use -and, alas, has remained occasionally useful – ever since.

The English playwright Thomas Shadwell satirised this state of affairs in his 1688 comedy The Squire of Alsatia, the preface to which included a glossary of local cant. So should you ever feel the need to disgrace your country and imitate a whore or a sharper, feel free to call your clothes your rigging, your watch your tattler; a gullible or easily duped person a putt, and a habitual cheat a tattmonger. If you’re rhinocerical, then you’re flush with cash, while if you’re blowsy or clear, in Shadwell’s terms, then you’re either ‘drunk’ or ‘very drunk’.

Signed on 10 May 1871, one of the constituent clauses of the Treaty of Frankfurt, which officially ended the Franco-Prussian War, gave the citizens of Alsace a deadline of 1 October the following year to decide whether to leave Alsace and emigrate to France, or to remain where they were and become German citizens. Some 160,000 people – almost 10 per cent of the population – opted to retain French citizenship.

Not a bad turnout for a town of just 8,000 people.

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