A Stress Test for German Nationalism: Protective Custody in Alsace-Lorraine during the First World War

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When the First World War broke out, the French government declared the return of Alsace-Lorraine its only public war aim, arguing that the population was ‘French in spirit’. In an age rife with claims of national self-determination, trapped in a protracted war of attrition and facing a nationally ambivalent population, the German state soon came under enormous pressure to ensure the loyalty and patriotism of the inhabitants of its western borderland. This article examines why Imperial Germany failed to meet this ‘stress test’. It focuses on the crucial but hitherto neglected issue of protective custody (Schutzhaft), whereby police and military authorities were able to arrest and detain ‘suspect’ civilians without charge or trial. The article finds that protective custody, an emergency measure under martial law, played a central role in the failure of German policy in Alsace-Lorraine: it undermined the rule of law, shifted the focus onto national dissent and gave rise to an atmosphere of suspicion and fear. The article also demonstrates that the Reichstag successfully put limits on protective custody in the second half of the war. Yet leaving the authoritarian doctrine of enforcing national loyalty in place, the more lenient administrative approach had a disintegrative rather than a stabilizing effect, preparing the ground for widespread disaffection with German rule months before the war ended.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)542-559
Number of pages18
JournalGerman History
Issue number4
Early online date18 Aug 2021
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2021

Bibliographical note

© The Author(s) 2021. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the German History Society.
This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs licence (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/), which permits non-commercial reproduction and distribution of the work, in any medium, provided the original work is not altered or transformed in any way, and that the work is properly cited. For commercial re-use, please contact journals.permissions@oup.com


  • Alsace-Lorraine
  • Protective custody
  • First World War Germany


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