Alsace, a beautiful region on France’s north-eastern edge, is blessed by a sunny climate, vineyards that produce some of the world’s finest whites, and picture-perfect villages of half-timbered houses that have overflowing flower baskets on every window sill. But Alsace’s wealth, and its strategic location on the left bank of the Rhine and at the foothills of the Vosges Mountains, have also caused it to be the focus of land-grabbing campaigns by both French and German rulers. In fact, although originally part of the (German) Holy Roman Empire, Alsace has been forced to switch sides between France and Germany so many times since the days of Louis XIV that even many locals have lost count.
In 1870, the Franco-Prussian war ended up in the creation of the German Reich, and caused Alsace, and its sister region of Lorraine, to be attached to Germany. By the time Wilhelm II was crowned German Emperor in 1888, the Alsatians’ hearts and minds had still not exactly warmed to their new rulers. In a curious mix of Romance/Germanic cultures, most Alsatians had been quite happy to be French, even though the local language, Elsässisch (which is still spoken by older people today) is a German dialect.
Cue Wilhelm’s passion for royal PR. Very much aware of how new the German imperial title was, and how tentative its recognition, he grabbed every opportunity of legitimizing it with links to his forebears. A Roman emperor in the family tree would have been perfect, but failing that, any link to the Staufen rulers of the High Middle Ages would also do. And that is how Wilhelm recognized a perfect opportunity for educating the population of Alsace when the city of Sélestat, some 70 km south of Strasbourg, presented him with the ruins of the Hohkönigburg (its German name, literally High Kings’ Castle) – which was once upon a time owned by Barbarossa, the most famous Staufer Emperor of all.
This huge castle, perched atop the ridge of the Vosges and looking down on the Alsace plain and over the Rhine to the German Black Forest, was in ruins since the tender ministrations of Louis XIV’s troops, but it had an imperial pedigree that made it very much fit for Wilhelm’s nation-building purposes.
He set about restoring it in much the same way as he (and his grandfather, Wilhelm I) rebuilt the Kaiser-Pfalz at Goslar: with a heavy-handed nationalist touch. The additional twist in the case of this particular symbol of Germanness was its location at the very western fringe of the Empire – as a counterweight of sorts to the Marienburg in current Poland (a castle I hope to pay a visit for this blog later on). He gave the job to Berlin architect Bodo Ebhardt, who specialised in restoring castles. Ebhardt is the German equivalent of Eugène Viollet-le-Duc – another 19th century restorer of historical treasures, and similarly accused later on of violating the historical substance of the buildings he touched.
Today, of course, Alsace is very much French again. Since World War II, school children have been taught exclusively in French, which means that Elsässisch is on the point of extinction. One elder wine merchant told me some fifteen years ago that he was only able to communicate with his grandchildren in his own language once they started learning German in high school.
The museum that Haut-Koenigsbourg has been ever since Wilhelm finished its restoration in 1908 got the same treatment. Until a few years ago, La République Française completely ignored its Wilhelmine history and treated it as an example of a mediaeval castle – with tournaments, pageantry and a book and gift shop full of knights’ armour for children and books on chivalry.
I was delighted to find that on my visit this year, the focus of the exhibition, and also the story told by the tour guides, had shifted to the castle’s more recent political history. There were displays on the restoration by Ebhardt, there were some infographics on the German Reich, and there even was a life-size cutout of the Kaiser himself!
Finally, I was also able to get a good photograph of the famous fender that Wilhelm had installed on his last visit to Haut-Koenigsbourg, in April 1918. The inscription reads “Ich habe es nicht gewollt WII”, or “I did not want this”. It is still not clear exactly what the Kaiser meant. Some pundits say the statement refers to the castle’s tasteless restoration, but the most common interpretation of the inscription today is that it is an apology of sorts for the atrocities of World War I.