Bryan Caplan  

Expressive Voting, Emigration, and Alsace-Lorraine

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In 1871, the German Empire annexed the French territory of Alsace-Lorraine, known to the Germans as Elsass-Lothringen.  The inhabitants were overwhelmingly German-speaking, but most clearly resented absorption into the new German Empire.  What is striking, however, is how differently this resentment expressed itself in voting versus actual behavior.

For their first five elections, over 90% of the new citizens of the Second Reich voted for "autonomists" - anti-Prussian regional parties.  Their ultimate goal, pretty clearly, was to rejoin France.  Beginning in 1890, autonomists rapidly lost support to the Social Democrats (and, to a lesser extent, the Conservatives).  But even in 1912, autonomists remained the plurality party of Alsace-Lorraine.

Given this near-unanimous political resentment against German annexation, you might think that the people of Alsace-Lorraine would be leaving in droves - or at least struggling mightily to do so.  The reality was quite different.  While they were free to escape German rule by selling out and moving a few miles over the border, few chose to do so:
The Treaty of Frankfurt gave the residents of the region until October 1, 1872 to choose between emigrating to France or remaining in the region and having their nationality legally changed to German. By 1876, about 100,000 or 5% of the residents of Alsace-Lorraine had emigrated to France.
On a common-sense level, the contrast is obvious.  Emigration is much more costly than merely voting for autonomy.  But successfully electing a hard-line secessionist government would also have steep costs.  The Kaiser - and the rest of Germany - could respond with deep anger and harsh punishment to whip these ingrates into shape.  If you want to be French badly enough to pursue a high-risk political course, why not just solve your problem the quick and safe way - move over the border and become French?

To rationalize the divergence between voting and emigration, you need something like Brennan and Lomasky's expressive voting theory.  The essence of the theory: When people decide how to vote, their main goal is to express their support for what sounds good.  When people decide where to live, however, they focus on practicalities, not symbolism.

How can the two differ?  The probability of decisiveness.  When you vote, the chance that you tip the outcome is near 0%, so you might as well just scream about your identity.  When you move, in contrast, the chance that you tip the outcome is near 100%, so you'd better consider cost and convenience.

From this perspective, the clash between voting and migration in Alsace-Lorraine makes perfect sense.  Most of the people of Alsace-Lorraine didn't want to become Germans.  If asked, many would have denounced their annexation as the Worst Thing that Ever Happened.  Their votes were a thinly-veiled demand to rejoin France.  At the end of the day, though, their resentment was largely puffery.  Given the opportunity to sell out, move over the border, and continue their lives as Frenchmen, only 5% bothered to tell the Kaiser "Auf wiedersehen" with their feet.



COMMENTS (14 to date)
Fazal Majid writes:

I'm sorry, but this article is spectacularly callous. Most people feel a visceral attachment to their homeland. Involuntary exile, even self-exile, is incredibly painful for those concerned, and leaves lasting scars. Just look at the Jewish people's longing for the land of Israel 2000 years after the diaspora, or that of the Palestinians they displaced. Even in a mobile society like the USA, 50% of Americans live within 50 miles of their birthplace.

I think your argument is correct. However, the alternative you see of voting for autonomy was not there. Alsace-Lorraine was the only "Reichsland" which meant it was directly subordinate to the Emperor and not a real state of the German federation with a government. Only in 1911 did it get a parliament of its own and also representatives in the "Bundesrat" (representation of the states).

The elections are for the German parliament. So the most you could hope for was that a block of Alsatian deputies could under certain circumstances obtain some concessions. And then you could also signal to the French that you were still waiting to be redeemed.

The good point of not being a state was that you also did not have to pay state taxes, which usually were higher than taxes on the Reich level. That made it also attractive for "Altdeutsche" (Germans from the old parts of Germany) to move to the region, which may also explain part of the shift to "reichsfreundlich" (friedly to the Reich) parties later on. After WW I about 200.000 Germans were expulsed by the French. Half of them could return after President Wilson put pressure on the French.

Interestingly enough, the Alsatians then voted for autonomists, and that was surpressed by the French in turn.

Carl writes:

Presumably they felt at home in their homeland.

Shane L writes:

I tend to agree with Fazal here: leaving home means abandoning family, friends, community, and also livelihood. Surely many inhabitants of 19th century Alsace-Lorraine were farmers? If so, their incomes were probably reliant on their lands too.

Finally there could be a sense of bitter nationalist defiance. Inhabitants might have deliberately wanted to remain on land they considered their own, to spite the invaders, and hoping (correctly, as it turned out) that it would be returned to France in due course. If Mexico conquered California and allowed inhabitants a few years to leave to Oregon, would Californians blandly abandon their homes and move on? I'm sure many would not: they would stay, integrated in their old communities as ever, to spite the new regime.

[I don't know for what reason my comment was blocked again. Second attempt with some changes.]

I think your argument is correct. However, the alternative you see of voting for autonomy was not there. Alsace-Lorraine was the only "Reichsland" which meant it was directly subordinate to the Emperor and not a real state of the German federation with a government. Only in 1911 did it get a parliament of its own and also representatives in the "Bundesrat" (representation of the states).

The elections were for the German parliament. So the most you could hope for was that a block of Alsatian deputies could under certain circumstances obtain some concessions. And then you could also signal to the French that you were still waiting to be redeemed.

The good point of not being a state was that you also did not have to pay state taxes, which usually were higher than taxes on the Reich level that everybody had to pay anyway. That made it also attractive for Germans from the old parts of Germany to move to the region, which may also explain part of the shift to "reichsfreundlich" (friendly to the Reich) parties later on.

After WW I about 200.000 Germans were expulsed. Half of them could return after President Wilson put pressure on the French. The Alsatians then voted for autonomists, and that was surpressed by the French in turn.

geoih writes:

Why is there always the assumption that the burden is on the individual to give up their property, their residence, to find a state of their liking? Why is there never an assumption that the state should have to search for individuals willing to live within it?

Alex Godofsky writes:

This post completely misses the point. It wasn't just that they wanted to live under the French government; it's that they wanted their homeland to be part of France. The desire wasn't for a specific, material benefit for themselves but for a generally preferred state of the world.

Hunter writes:

My French speaking great-grandfather came to the US from Alsace-Lorraine. I noticed that you only included the number of those who went to France. How many went to other nations? Also he was a German citizen. So he left after the change in citizenship. How many left after the change in citizenship from French to German?

guthrie writes:

Given the information in this post, and Fazal's comment above, how deep is the danger of 'overwhelming numbers' should the US relax its immigration regulation?

Jacob A. Geller writes:

Good comments from Fazal and Hunter in this thread. I hope Bryan responds to them in a future post (or below).

Olivier Braun writes:

Just a part of Lorraine went to the german Reich, the Mozelle département. Alsace-Mozelle was annexed.

Besides, as Carl and Alex, and other had said, the Alsaciens were attached to their land also and wanted it to be part of France. Bryan is right but underestimated the costs of emmigration. Moreover, by voting for Autonomists parties, even though a success could have irrited the Kaiser, they would be willing to bear that higher cost if they could still live in their Homeland.

Bob Lince writes:

There's a sense in which this post confuses patriotism and nationalism.

Many of the inhabitants appear to have been patriotic to the Alsace-Lorraine region while preferring French to German nationalism.

Urban Roll writes:

Many German speaking families left the Alsace in the 1840s, when it was still under French control. There was also a large emigration from Pfalz, Germany. This is only a generation before 1871; in other words, by 1871 those most inclined to move had already moved.

The emigrants were almost all Catholics. In the case of my family, Russia, Ukraine, Austria-Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria, were popular destinations in addition to the U.S.

Douglass Holmes writes:

My wife's family was from Alsace on both sides. Her father's father was sent to the US but the parents remained behind. The story has passed down that they did not want to see their son being drafted to fight in the army. It is one thing to be absorbed into another nation. It is another to expect your sons to fight for that country against the country that you would have preferred to remain a part of.

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