Strasbourg’s Beauty and Significance
Alsace (“Elsass” in German) is a wine-growing region in the southeast of France. Although today she is
a French region, her spirit and culture partake of Germany and extend into Germany. In this sense, she straddles the Rhine river and includes the foothills of the local mountains. Her regional “capital” is Strasbourg—a transcendently beautiful small city, with a center permanently marked by geography: the encircling two branches of the River Il.
But this post is not a travelogue, except perhaps incidentally. It’s another post in my series on human morality
. For Alsace and its “capital” Strasbourg are living incarnations of what a wise and effective moral understanding can bring.
Readers of this blog know my distrust for abstractions. I am no stranger to them. My three careers—physicist/geophysicist, lawyer and law professor—all required them in great profusion.
But abstractions can be slippery and devious, especially in the hands of politicians. Leaders can twist them into the most awful skulduggery. Adolf Hitler did that with two admirable traits of German culture: industry and thrift. He twisted them into a theory of racial superiority and domination that led to the Holocaust and history’s most horrible war.
Stalin did much the same with Communism. It’s a silly and counterfactual economic theory
, but it was well-intentioned. It tried to bring a cooperative, communal spirit to economic activity, to reduce the exploitation and suffering of ordinary people that often arise out of unregulated
capitalism. Stalin twisted that well-meaning but naïve aspiration into a kleptocracy and collective tyranny
that displaced and oppressed minorities, starved and slaughtered millions, left Mother Russia nearly defenseless against Nazi hordes, and built the gulags.
We Yanks are not immune. Fox and our Tea Party have perverted one of the same virtues that Hitler twisted: thrift. This time, the perversion is an excuse for destroying government and the protection that government gives ordinary people from unregulated capitalism and economic misfortune. Some of our right-wing rank-and-file now go so far as to condemn protecting our very air and water from pollution and our workers and workplaces from unnecessary and uneconomic dangers. (The owner
of that un-inspected fertilizer plant that recently blew up in Texas probably was nearly as unhappy as the families of the first responders who died trying to save it.)
So, yes, although well versed in abstract thought, I distrust abstractions. Solipsistic abstract thinking too often leads us astray.
I much prefer concrete things that you can see, hear, feel, taste and touch. That’s why I promote a morality
based on consequences—cause and effect—not abstract, a priori
reasoning like the ancient Greeks’.
Alsace is a concrete place. She must be seen, heard and touched to know her, let alone to appreciate her. You can even taste
her, in her multicultural food and wine. Being there and experiencing Alsace—especially knowing her tortured history—is something no one ever mistakes or forgets. For Alsace is no abstraction.
Like any notable region of Europe, Alsace has far more history than any non-specialist like me can ever know or explain. But for purposes of this post, a brief outline is sufficient.
Alsace is one of those many regions whose geography is destiny. Her warm climate and lowlands are ideal for growing grapes for wine and speciality foods like asparagus. She straddles the Rhine, one of Europe’s great nautical highways. So she proved a perfect place for residents to get rich by growing things, trading, and transporting their own and others’ products.
They did so, shipping food, wine, and imported goods all over Europe, to as far away as Scandinavia. Strasbourg’s old customs house, now a restaurant-shopping complex, is still one of its most distinctive buildings.
Already by the Middle Ages, Alsace had gotten rich from wine-making, trade and transport. Strasbourg’s quaintest and most attractive buildings date from that era. Their facade vaguely resembles Britain’s Tudor architecture, with angular brown beams protruding through plaster. But the plaster has various colors, instead of just monotonous white.
Alsace has no great mines or factories. Apart from wine-making and agriculture, she is not a center of industry, let alone war production. She has no natural defenses but her rivers, notably the Rhine and Il. But Alsace was and is a commercial prize.
So Alsace became a bit like Helen of Troy. Her beauty and charm offered great attraction but little defense. She therefore ended up being fought over by conquering armies.
I will not recite, nor do I know, all the many times that Strasbourg and/or Alsace changed hands during their formative years, as Europe evolved from a collection of medieval city-states into modern nations and now the EU. But I can note that they changed hands four times in just the last century and half: first (to Germany) as a result of the Franco-Prussian war, second (back to France) as a result of World War I, third (back to Germany) as Nazis occupied France entirely, and finally (back to France) a few years later at the great war’s end.
Fortunately, Alsace is not really a woman like Helen of Troy. Helen changed hands only twice. If Alsace were a woman, she would hardly know where her children and loyalties lie.
Alsace’s transcendent importance lies not in her tortured history. There are many unfortunate places on Earth that can match it. Her importance lies in the stark contrast between that history and what she has become today. Quietly and without fuss, the entire region, and especially her capital,” Strasbourg, have become a major multilingual, multicultural center, a global tourist attraction, and a second seat of government for the European Union.
In order to see how far Alsace has come from her tortured past, you have to visit her. The best way to do so is to tour the wine country and its quaint villages by bicycle.
If you do, you will at times find yourself on paved winery roads barely wide enough for one car. Ruined castles of medieval feudal lords will adorn the foothills to your right. Rows of grape vines will appear on your left, under the warm French sun, beaming down from a clear blue sky. (France, which gets over three-quarters of its electricity from nuclear plants, not coal, has the cleanest skies in Europe.)
While on the narrow wine roads, you will encounter maybe one car or truck every half hour. The driver will be a local resident or worker. He or she will try hard to stay out of your way on the narrow road, and you will likely see a wave and smile. Alsatians are a friendly lot, justly proud of their beautiful home and conscious of the importance of tourism in their economy.
You will find different delights in Alsace’s tiny villages. There you will see well-maintained chalets, manor houses, gates, churches, and commercial buildings, each attractive, quaint and subtly different from the rest. There were no tract homes or cookie-cutter “developers” when they were built.
As you ride, you will never be more than thirty minutes’ peddling from superb local food and wine. You will delight in the tiny village cafes, with their sidewalk tables, friendly, multilingual staff, and both German and French wines, red and white. If you like, you can follow a dish of coq au vin
with the special Alsatian version of German sauerkraut, famous throughout Europe. In springtime, you can add a dish of equally famous new asparagus, white or green. After tasting it, you will never eat canned asparagus again.
But this post is not a travelogue. I mention these things of beauty and joy only to give a concrete flavor of Alsace’s role as avatar. Now it’s now time to move on to Alsace’s center, Strasbourg.
Strasbourg’s Beauty and Significance
Whether you tour by bicycle, car or tour bus, your trip will start or end in Strasbourg. It’s a unique city, justly famous for far more than beauty, food and wine.
The first thing you will not about Strasbourg is its defining geographic feature, the River Il. It’s two branches surround and define the city center, an oblong island.
Modern development has come both inside and outside the center. But Strasburgers have taken extraordinary effort to preserve their historical heritage, especially inside. So entering Strasbourg is a bit like traveling back in time to the Middle Ages, but with modern plumbing, toilets and electricity and (if needed) medical care.
The heart of Strasbourg is its medieval gothic cathedral, refurbished just in the last decade. Its pink sandstone appears iridescent in the light of the afternoon or evening sun. To a non-specialist like me, it looks much like the Cathedral at Rouen, which Claude Monet made famous by painting at different times of the day in different seasons. Strasbourg’s cathedral is smaller, but equally glorious and far less crowded. To have lunch or dinner at one of the sidewalk cafes in its sight is to restore one’s faith in God and Man.
But Strasbourg is not just a pretty face. It has its serious side, too. It’s an administrative center of the European Union, second only to Brussels. The European Court of Human Rights is there, just a short bicycle ride up the River Il from the center. So is the official seat of the European Parliament, plus other administrative centers (although today the Parliament conducts most business in Brussels).
Rest your bicycle on the magnificent lawn in front of the Parliament building. Watch the colorful flags of the EU’s various members flapping in a spring breeze, against an azure sky. All of a sudden, you can believe our species has a future.
There is also a great university. Now called the Université de Strasbourg, it’s a merger of three formerly separate universities on the same physical campus. Former French President Nicholas Sarkozy ordered the merger in an attempt to create
ten universities in France that could achieve global prominence. Strasbourg’s university is one of them.
But the most striking thing about Strasbourg is something you can’t see. It’s something you must hear and feel. You may have to spend several days just to believe it, let alone appreciate it. Strasbourg is a truly international city, not just in visitors, but in culture, language(s), cuisine and character.
Most of Strasbourg’s educated people, who are many, speak French and German fluently. Nearly all speak passable English, although a bit less fluently. Even the cafe and tavern staff speak enough English to make a Yank without a relevant second language comfortable. And of course the menus are all trilingual.
Strasbourg’s deeper significance doesn’t appear fully until you enter or leave, coming from or going toward a flight at Germany’s Frankfurt am Main, with the closest major airport. Going toward
Frankfurt, you will board a train in Strasbourg and, in minutes, cross the Rhine.
The train will not stop. There will be no fences or barriers, no border guards, no customs inspection, no showing of passports. You will pass over the banks of a river in which countless soldiers fell, over two millennia, attacking or defending. And you won’t even notice. The great flow of water will whip by like a creek. It won’t even seem
like the mighty river that once formed the borders of warring empires.
It’s sobering and exhilarating to contemplate this long history of blood, toil, tears and sweat as you ride along in complete comfort, sipping a glass of fine Alsatian wine.
But it’s finer still to understand the significance of Strasbourg and Alsace. Under the EU’s collective government, Europeans and foreigners alike can travel over once disputed borders to partake of the region’s delights. They can come for the day—or even an afternoon—without even taking their passports. They can enjoy a city and region of transcendent beauty and taste, speaking in any one of the three most-used European languages.
In a way, it’s as if they never left home. But, in a way, Strasbourg is
their home. It’s like what Mother Earth may be some day, all over, if our species plays its moral cards right.
Right now, the EU, not the US, is the last best hope of Mankind. Every day, quietly, unnoticed, people with different native languages and wildly different cultures get along famously there. They see nothing remarkable in their doing so.
In contrast, we Yanks, who used to be
businesslike, scientific and competent, can’t even maintain a civil polity or a viable political system that can act. And all because a powerful private company, Fox, has instilled in weak minds the type of virulent scriptural fundamentalism in political ideology
that used to cause pointless wars for religion.
Maybe you have to see the EU from a distance to understand just how marvelous it is
. Europeans seem to take it for granted, less than 70 years after history’s most terrible conflict devastated large swatches of their common homeland.
Over the ages, Strasbourg changed hands often, in blood and war. Today it is a true avatar of peace and joy. It teaches a vital lesson in our world of strife. It matters not whose tribe “owns” a place. “Ownership” is just another deadly abstraction. What matters is how well it is managed, and how open it is to all.
If I had my way as an educator, I would require every budding pol worldwide to visit two places before beginning his or her career. I would require these visits during the formative years, preferably no later than the late teens or early twenties.
The two places would be Hiroshima’s Peace Museum, and Alsace, including Strasbourg.
The visits would be free of charge, fully paid for, by corporate donors or government subsidy—a mandatory part of all pols’ early education. The pols would each spend one week in Hiroshima, with at least three days at the Peace Museum, two guided and one for sober, solitary contemplation. Then they would spend at least ten days in Alsace, in springtime, with several days in Strasbourg. The visits would be in that order, from darkness to light.
I have already written
about the transcendent importance of Hiroshima’s Peace Museum, and I won’t repeat that discussion here. Suffice it to say that the Museum chronicles the tragedy of that city’s nuclear destruction in a way that leaves an indelible stain on one’s soul.
Eventually, Hiroshima recovered. Today it’s a thriving and bustling small city. It has charms of its own, including the Hondo-ri covered outdoor street market, a special, regional version of okonomiyaki
, aka “Japanese pizza,” and a relatively warm climate for Honshu. Its modern city logo is a stylized Phoenix. But its Peace Museum shows us, as nothing besides terrible experience can, the radioactive darkness that will engulf us if we cannot get along in the nuclear age.
Alsace and Strasbourg show the other side of the coin of human nature. In springtime, they are as near to Heaven as you can get on this Earth.
The difference is simple but profound. Peace or war. Thriving plenty or devastation. Trust or suspicion and hate. Cooperation or conflict. Understanding and appreciation of others’ languages and cultures, or tribalism. Tasting strangers’ food and wine or spilling strangers’ blood.
Heaven or Hell. We have the power to create either, right here on this Earth, in this life. We don’t have to wait for death. If we choose wrongly, a horrible and early death may come to us unbidden.
Maybe if the next generation of Iranian, Israeli and Palestinian leaders took my two-point trip before their world views hardened into stone, they would make the right moral and practical choices. Ditto the Sunni and Shiite Muslims.
The choices are ours, as a species. All we need to do is adopt a practical
morality of real life and consequences—cause and effect. To do that, we must forsake malleable abstractions, the primitive violence in ancient scripture, bumper-sticker political ideologies, and tribalism. We must see, feel, hear and touch the different worlds that different moral choices produce.
Is that so hard to do? Visit the Peace Museum and Alsace, and feel the difference for yourself.
In this post, I follow the French language in treating Alsace as feminine, for reasons that will become apparent.
In 2003, the Chinese came out with a thing called the “Shanghai Report
,” which ranked universities globally on a scale of six objective factors. It was (and still is) something like our US News and World Report
rankings, but global. The French were horrified that only two French universities, both branches of the University of Paris, ranked
in the top 100, at places 65 and 72. Their flagship university, the Sorbonne, did not even make the top 100.
So Sarkozy, who was a rare “can do” president of France, decided to do something. He created a program to merge and consolidate existing French universities into ten new “flagships,” which could represent France better in the coming age of global competition. I learned of this effort while lecturing, in two consecutive springtmes, at the intellectual property institute of the Université de Robert Schuman, which was one of three administratively separate universities then oddly operating on the same physical campus in Strasbourg.