Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Monday, January 16, 2023

The 1913 Zabern Affair

Lt. von Forster, Who Would Trigger
an Imperial Crisis

Although by 1914, the retaking of Alsace-Lorraine was not a sufficient casus belli for France, there was one indication that the locals themselves were hoping for liberation just before the war actually broke out. Remembered as the 1913 "Zabern Affair," it started with civil disturbances in the Alsatian garrison town of Zabern where two battalions of the Prussian 99th (2nd Upper Rhenish) Infantry Regiment were garrisoned.  It was caused when, more than four decades after Alsace's occupation by the Germans, an idiot German second lieutenant, Günter von Forster, openly insulted the local population at least twice in late October. On 6 November, the two local newspapers, the Elsässer and the Zaberner Anzeiger, informed the public about the derogatory language used by Lt. von Forster.  

Lt. von Forster's superiors  exacerbated matters by ordering the light punishment of six days confinement to quarters for the lieutenant. Making matters even worse, after completing his house arrest, von Forster was paraded in public with a military escort. He managed to get in a scrape with some hostile locals and struck one of them with his saber. This snowballed the growing popular unrest,  leading to  a mass protest on 28 October, which was quelled with brutal means. Machine guns were placed in the town square to discourage further disturbances

Prussian Soldiers Patrolling the Streets of Zabern

A broader German-centered political crisis was fueled by the support given by senior army figures and the German Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg to the behavior of the military in suppressing the protests. These infringements led to a debate in the German Reichstag about the militaristic structures of German society, as well as the position of the leadership of the Empire.

On 4 December, the German parliament accepted a vote of no confidence in the Chancellor by a huge majority. This unprecedented move remained without effect as, in the German Empire, the Chancellor was appointed by the Emperor and needed his support only. The parliament was ultimately half-hearted in its attempts to increase its power against the executive. Alsatians and Lorrainers felt themselves more helplessly at the mercy of the arbitrariness of the German military than ever. The coming of war, however, precluded further conflicts between Alsace-Lorraine and the Kaiser and his ministers. Lt. von Forster would be killed on the Eastern Front in August 1915.

Source: Oxford Reference

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