In 1871, the newly formed German Empire, flush from having won the Franco-Prussian War, annexed the French departments of Bas-Rhin, Haut-Rhin, Moselle, a third of Meurthe, and some of Vosges. The Treaty of Frankfort included a provision for French citizens of the region to retain their nationality and be allowed to move to France, and to retain ownership of the homes they would be leaving. The German government told its new citizens that they must declare their choice to be either French, by the first of October, 1872, or German, by the same date of 1873. What they did not do was provide clear instructions or a form for doing so.
Confusion resulted for many months, with different newspapers giving different versions of what was to be done. People did not know how children's nationality would be affected, as no provision had been made for them to choose differently from their parents. Many thought that simply by staying, they did not need to make an official declaration and would stay French. The fear and bafflement of the citizens of Alsace-Lorraine was given enormous publicity in France and sympathy for them was high. (At the same time, a public "vow"was also gaining support; it was to build a monument to the dedication to somehow save the annexed region from Protestantism. It took quite a while, but Sacré Coeur was built and stands high on the hill of Montmartre above Paris, looking like a Frenchified Taj Mahal.)
Finally, six months before the deadline to declare French nationality, the German government sent round a notice of clarification. No declaration was necessary if one wanted to become German. If, however, one wanted to remain French, a declaration to that effect was to be made and they had to get out. Children were to have the same nationality as their parents chose. Those from the region who were overseas had to choose by October, 1873. Those who chose became known as the optants, the "choosers".
As is always the sad case with refugees, it was mayhem. Thousands of people overcrowded trains to France. Many hoped to get around the law by leaving and then returning, crowding the trains going back. People were camping in the streets of Nancy. In Marseille, a charity was established to help pay the passage for any optants who wanted to emigrate to Algeria, where the colonial government gave them some of the best land. More than five thousand people took up the offer. In all, the total number of people in the region, in France, and worldwide who chose to remain French came to more than half a million.
Yippee for the genealogist, the options remain, restated in the Bulletin des Lois for 1872, which can be found in most large French libraries as well as in CARAN (see the post for 10 June, 2009). Some fifteen thousand pages (with an alphabetic index, thank heavens) give about each optant:
- Full names of the optant and family members (children and sometimes grandparents)
- Date and place of birth
- Residence at the time of opting (as this was a worldwide activity, with some families it is possible to discover relatives opting from as far away as South America)
- Date and location of making the declaration
Be aware that, if your ancestor still lived in the annexed area after 1873, they did not make a declaration. By staying, they became or remained German.
If you cannot get to France to research your optant ancestors, you can go to the website www.optants.fr to search their data base of both French AND German optants. This is only optants from Alsace and Moselle. The website is the work of the local genealogical society, CDHF, who have produced a number of booklets giving the optant information. The booklets are arranged by the residence of the optant at the time of choosing. On the website, you can type a name into the search box and get a list of people with that surname and their location. The German names of the villages are also given. If you are certain of the name and village, and you find your ancestor, you can order the relevant booklet for 15€ (At a higher price, they are also available from La Librairie de la Voûte, see the post of the first of May, 2009.) To see the names of those who opted to be German, the website offers a free .pdf download on the publications page. The website also has pictures and some interesting ditties of the region with words and music so you can sing along.
N.B. Again, the picture above is taken from the book by George Wharton Edwards, entitled "Alsace-Lorraine".
©2009 Anne Morddel