Hors Course stage 6: A German past

Into the Vosges.

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We are already at stage 6 and have arrived in the Vosges mountains. It was in Saint-Dié-des-Vosges that the New Continent “discovered” by Christopher Columbus took the name America in 1507. The Vosges Gymnasium, a group of scholars led by Vautrin Lud, was entrusted by Duke René II of Lorraine with the account of the expeditions of the Florentine navigator Amerigo Vespucci and the Portuguese maps.

The members of the Gymnasium decided to create a new world map incorporating these discoveries. It was German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller who, commissioned by the Vosges Gymnasium, decided to name the new continent America in honour of Vespucci. Waldseemüller later regretted his choice when he discovered that others, including Columbus, had set foot on these unknown lands. But his map was so successful that the name stuck.

Long ignored, the role of Saint-Dié-des-Vosges in the naming of America was finally established in 1875 and events of friendship between the town and the United States have been organised ever since. The discovery of the Vosges Gymnasium led to the creation of the International Geography Festival of Saint-Dié-les-Vosges.

If you look at the stage profile you see that this part of France has many German-sounding place names. This part of France wasn’t always French. For extended periods of time, it was part of the Holy Roman Empire – now most of Germany and Germany itself. The most recent period of German occupation was between 1870 and 1918 and between 1940 and 1945.

In 1870, France suffered a major defeat in a war with Germany. As a result, Alsace and northeastern Lorraine were annexed to Germany at the Treaty of Frankfurt in 1871. This so-called ‘Reichsland Elsaß-Lothringen’ was governed from Berlin. 

However, the population and the Catholic clergy did not like the German occupation and a very active protest movement arose. The press suffered from strict censorship at the time. The successful recovery of the economy and the social legislation of the German Chancellor Bismarck improved the German image considerably over the years. In the years before the First World War, tensions between France and Germany rose again, and the mood in Alsace became anti-German again.

In August 1914, the German attack on France began. The French occupied all the passes in the Vosges, while the Germans took the Alsace. The front lay straight through the Vosges. A very bloody battle was fought for four years, which lasted until the armistice of November 11, 1918.

At the Peace of Versailles it was decided that Alsace with Lorraine became French territory again. In 1940, Alsace was again occupied by the Germans, and Alsatians were forced to serve in the German army. Moreover, the Germans had the plan to Germanize Alsace definitively. In January 1945, the Germans were driven back to the Rhine and on February 2, 1945, the French and Americans entered Colmar. At that time Alsace again belonged to France.

Nowadays the once active moment to become an independent movement is quiet. The local language, Allemanisch, is hardly spoken anymore and prominent buildings of the European Union are in Strassbourg. But the place names, or many of them, still testify of a once German past.