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At the nation’s gates. A history of the French-German border from below (1871-1914)

This doctoral research proposes a transnational history from below of the border drawn between France and the German Empire at the end of the War of 1870, which disappeared with the first combats of the First World War. Seldom has a border received so much attention from its contemporaries and illustrated so well its function as a point of balance between two antagonistic powers in the era of nation states.

Beyond the classical political questions generally apprehended at the level of governments, this thesis intends to analyse the construction of sovereignty and national identities as close to the border as possible, starting with local and intermediate actors on both the French and the German side – taking into account the singular evolutions experienced by Alsace-Lorraine under German rule. The aim is to understand the concrete and daily exercise of sovereignty through the experience of control and surveillance of people, animals and goods; poaching, smuggling and espionage; the nationality strategies deployed by the inhabitants; or the new challenges posed by the first world pandemics and the development of the automobile and aeronautics at the turn of the century. This border also served as a framework for national appropriation, an abstract historical phenomenon that is approached here in a tangible way by studying the inhabitants’ sporting, tourist, and memorial activities, which are eminently meaningful on a political level. More unexpectedly, the border was inscribed in the landscape and, given the different environmental policies implemented in France and Germany, the limit of sovereignty was also an ecological border with lasting consequences.

The French-German border was a laboratory for experimenting with social and political arrangements that were later extended to other borders in France and Germany, and then applied to all European borders after the First World War. In many respects, this singular border bore the seeds of the profound transformations that sovereignty and national identity were to undergo throughout the 20th century.

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