Cartophilia: Maps and the Search for Identity in the French-German Borderland

Cartophilia: Maps and the Search for Identity in the French-German Borderland

by Catherine Tatiana Dunlop

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The period between the French Revolution and World War II was a time of tremendous growth in both mapmaking and map reading throughout Europe. There is no better place to witness this rise of popular cartography than in Alsace-Lorraine, a disputed borderland that the French and Germans both claimed as their national territory. Desired for its prime geographical position and abundant natural resources, Alsace-Lorraine endured devastating wars from 1870 to 1945 that altered its borders four times, transforming its physical landscape and the political allegiances of its citizens. For the border population whose lives were turned upside down by the French-German conflict, maps became essential tools for finding a new sense of place and a new sense of identity in their changing national and regional communities.
Turning to a previously undiscovered archive of popular maps, Cartophilia reveals Alsace-Lorraine’s lively world of citizen mapmakers that included linguists, ethnographers, schoolteachers, hikers, and priests. Together, this fresh group of mapmakers invented new genres of maps that framed French and German territory in original ways through experimental surveying techniques, orientations, scales, colors, and iconography. In focusing on the power of “bottom-up” maps to transform modern European identities, Cartophilia argues that the history of cartography must expand beyond the study of elite maps and shift its emphasis to the democratization of cartography in the modern world.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226173160
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 05/11/2015
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 280
File size: 24 MB
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About the Author

Catherine Tatiana Dunlop is assistant professor of modern European history at Montana State University, Bozeman.

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Maps and the Search for Identity in the French-German Borderland

By Catherine Tatiana Dunlop

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2015 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-17316-0


States Map Their Borders

Before the invention of modern maps, it was impossible to visualize what European territories looked like from above. It was only thanks to the scientific advances of the early modern period that cartographers learned to construct an aerial view of land from measurements taken on the ground. New understandings of the rotating heavenly bodies—the stars, the sun, and the moon—and the development of intricate angle-measuring machines laid the foundation for a modern visual perspective on European territory based on rationality and order rather than on imagination, spirituality, or artistry. With their gridded matrices, carefully measured distances, and meridians oriented toward state capitals, modern survey maps dramatically changed how Europeans looked at their borders and border territories. Beginning in the eighteenth century, places that had once felt remote and culturally estranged from European capitals became visible, and even knowable, because of maps. By collapsing the psychological distance between center and periphery, they transformed how European rulers exercised power over their people, enabling them to "see" and manage their distant border regions without the physical need to travel.

Scientific survey maps are the oldest form of maps that this book will examine, and they will also be the most restricted in terms of the people that sponsored their creation and participated in their production. States alone could marshal the financial resources and manpower necessary to survey vast expanses of European land with newly invented surveying methods and technologies. While many of the forms of mapmaking practiced in Alsace and Lorraine were open to amateur cartographers, the "official" map surveys of France and Germany (the Carte d'État-Major and the Generalstabskarte) were under the domain of professionalized corps of surveyors. These surveyors did not visualize the French-German borderland in the same way that local inhabitants did, as a familiar place with its own particular linguistic, historical, and cultural topography. Rather, the French and German governments trained their surveyors to see and codify the borderland according to the "universal" rules of modern science. The geographies that rival French and German states created for Alsace and Lorraine were thus imperial views of land commissioned from afar, characterized by a highly regulated, scientifically prescribed and standardized form of visual representation. The borderline separating modern France and Germany likewise became a testament to modern scientific prowess, demanding hundreds of hours of painstaking precision measurements in riverbeds and thick forests, places that defied easy mapping.

For the people living in Alsace and Lorraine, the scientific, totalizing view of land dealt a crushing blow to their local autonomy. The very idea of a map survey, which has the same root as the word "surveillance," can be defined as "the act of looking at something as a whole, or from a commanding position." Beginning in the eighteenth century, centralized, government-run cartographic institutions in Paris, and later Berlin, assembled, processed, organized, and printed vast amounts of territorial knowledge about the border regions in the interest of controlling everything from taxation to canalization to roads. But the greatest demand for scientifically surveyed boundary maps came from the French and German militaries. So great was the militaries' need to perfect their "battle vision" that official state map surveys fell under the direct supervision of the French military from 1793 to 1940 and under the militaries of the German states from approximately 1816 to 1921. By creating synoptic views of land that established a mental distance between map reader and territory, survey cartography made it possible for the French and German states to exert power over Alsace and Lorraine in increasingly brutal, efficient, and mechanized ways.

Comparing how the French and the Germans managed their cartographic surveys of Alsace and Lorraine can reveal a great deal about the particular relationships between territorial knowledge and power, and centers and peripheries, in the two countries. But such a comparison does not only illuminate national differences; it also uncovers the remarkable degree of cooperation between European states that bordered each other. The paradox was that as the modern French-German border became more clearly defined, both on paper and on land, transnational flows of cartographic knowledge increased. This is because the formal separation of French and German territory demanded a great deal of coordination between the two states. Some of these transnational exchanges took the peaceable form of mailing scientific articles, purchasing instruments, and collaborating on binational border commissions. But a great deal of the cartographic knowledge transfers took place under the pressures of war and occupation. The story of the production and circulation of border maps in Alsace-Lorraine thus provides new evidence of the historical interdependence or "entangled-ness" of European states, even during the time of their greatest conflict.

Local Beginnings

The scientific approach to mapping European land originated in the sixteenth century, when European sovereigns first pursued cartography as a tool to protect and administer their realms during a period of increased competition for resources and territory. The earliest map of Alsace that responded to the heightened defensive needs of European states was commissioned by the Habsburg monarchy, which at the time still ruled the border region from Vienna. First printed in 1576, the Elsasskarte was a transitional map that reflected both a lingering interest in humanist aesthetics and a forward-looking military concern for topographical detail. Its author was Daniel Specklin, a Strasbourg-based artist and fortification specialist. Specklin's experience of mapping Alsace would differ fundamentally from the experiences of the French and German state-sponsored surveyors that followed him. The Habsburg commission would mark the last time that an Alsatian was put in charge of surveying the border region, and it would mark the last time that an individual would undertake the task of mapping Alsace on his own. Specklin's Elsasskarte thus serves as an enduring point of contrast to later French and German survey maps of Alsace that were imagined and executed in imperial fashion from the center out to the periphery.

It took Specklin three years, from 1573 to 1576, to complete his map, which would be printed in separate sections for Upper and Lower Alsace. He surveyed the map with little assistance from others, crisscrossing the region on foot, noting astronomical observations, measuring distances by counting his paces, and sketching the map in the field. Drawing on his experience in military defense, Specklin conceived the map according to a "cavalier perspective," a term used by fortification builders to describe the experience of looking down onto land from an elevated defensive position. As a result, the Rhine River, the Alsatian Plain, and the Vosges Mountains appear stacked on top of one another. In spite of the inaccuracies resulting from its cavalier perspective, Specklin's map was groundbreaking in the scope and exactitude of the settlements that he represented. The scale of the map, 1:190,000, was dramatically larger than those of previous maps of the region, on the scale of 1:500,000 or 1:700,000. It was thus able to provide a detailed view of land favored by administrators and generals in Vienna. A remarkable achievement for its time, Specklin's map served as an important military reference for the Habsburgs during the Thirty Years War from 1618 to 1648, when Alsace became a battlefield for warring European states. At the same time, the map's high-quality drawing work demonstrated the fortification builder's more traditional artisanal training: as a young man, Specklin, the son of a Protestant tradesman in Strasbourg, had been apprenticed as a silk embroiderer.

Combining local and imperial perspectives on Alsatian territory, Specklin's Elsasskarte reflected the decentralized power structure of the Holy Roman Empire. On the one hand, the image confirmed that Alsace was the imperial possession of a faraway emperor in Vienna. The symbol of a Habsburg eagle in a circle denoted the status of some Alsatian settlements as "imperial cities." Distances between localities were recorded with the standard imperial measurement system, the Miliaria Germanica. Moreover, the text inscribed at the base of the map sheets celebrated the Germanic roots of Alsace. Employing a classic humanist style, the text began: "Alsace is one of the four provinces in the German land. It was first settled by the Babylonians, and converted to the Christian faith by Saints Matthew and Peter. It is the most beautiful area of Germania, due to its fertileness and habitations." Alongside these affirmations of imperial control, however, Specklin labeled his map with toponyms that suggested a locally rooted cultural perspective. Specklin recorded town, abbey, and castle names in the dialect spoken by the Alsatian population rather than in High German: Ropenum instead of Roppenheim, Blessen instead of Bläsheim, and Mittelwihr instead of Mittelweier. Even though Specklin's map of Alsace was commissioned by a sovereign seeking to consolidate territorial knowledge of his empire, the map maintained a certain fidelity to regional culture. In the coming years, European states would eliminate this hybrid model of a local/imperial map in favor of a triangulation network created by centralized cartographic institutions and a system of uniform topographical symbols.

Specklin's map also offers an informative contrast to later maps of Alsace that used the Rhine River as a semiotic indicator for the rupture between French and German territories. His inclusion of a number of right-Rhine communities into the body of his map (see the bottom third of fig. 1.1) reflected the economic, social, and cultural realities of life in the Rhine region during the sixteenth century. During this period, before certain French philosophers and government officials claimed the Rhine as France's "natural border," the waterway existed as a significant point of friendly contact between Alsatians and Badeners. Enlightenment ideas, Protestant beliefs, and commercial goods flowed easily between the right and left banks of the Rhine. The Germanic dialects spoken on either side of the river were nearly identical, allowing for easy verbal communication. It is perhaps not surprising that the Germans who annexed Alsace from France in 1871 sought to revive the mental world encompassed by Specklin's sixteenth-century map, recreating the kinds of trade and cultural exchanges in the Rhine area that they believed to be the historical and "natural" orientation of Alsace, toward the east.

Border Making Becomes a Science

The Kingdom of France seized parts of Alsace from the Holy Roman Empire in 1648 (it annexed Strasbourg in 1681), at around the same time that French administrators decided to make cartography a state priority. When Jean-Baptiste Colbert, the chief minister of Louis XIV, founded the Royal Academy of Sciences in 1666, one of his foremost goals was to establish a system of cartographic surveys that would produce accurate two-dimensional images of the kingdom. To lead this immense state-sponsored enterprise, Colbert chose the Italian astronomer Jean-Dominique Cassini (Cassini I). For the next century, Cassini I and his descendants (Cassini II–IV) lived at the Observatory of Paris and produced an innovative set of maps that "emphasized scientific principles over the pictoral tradition," replacing the culturally rooted image of the French kingdom as the "body of the king" with an abstract grid. The close collaboration between state and science—the royal patronage of mathematicians and astronomers led by the Cassinis, the state-funded construction of an astronomical observatory, and the state's ability to use coercion and compromise in the provinces—helped France to become the leader in European cartography during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

The Cassinis completed their first map of France, the map of the "Great Triangles," in 1744. The goal of the map was to create a sweeping aerial view of the French kingdom. To do so meant that older methods of orienting maps, such as Daniel Specklin's "cavalier perspective," would be abandoned in favor of an innovative way of measuring and representing territory. This new method, called triangulation, was a process of spatial reasoning designed to eliminate the distorted territorial views of an individual observer by covering a piece of land with a network of thousands of imaginary triangles. To draw the triangles, the French academy commissioned a team of young, low-paid surveyors, called ingénieurs-géographes, to travel across the kingdom and establish some two-thousand triangulation points that would form the "skeleton" of the map. In Alsace, Cassini III's team used a variety of triangulation points on the landscape, including church steeples, wind and water mills, castle towers, and farm pillars. The surveyors then measured the length of one side of each imaginary triangle by dragging chains between signal points. Last, they used trigonometry to calculate the lengths of the other two sides of each triangle. The result was an image of France produced by "scientific reason," a great accomplishment during the age of enlightenment.

Indeed, the imperatives of eighteenth-century French cartography reflected the visual equivalent of what Enlightenment philosophers desired from government: transparency, order, and rationality. One of the most striking features of the Cassini map was its support for the idea of an "enlightened" state that was highly centralized, confirming the often-cited link between the art of surveying and the art of governing. Within the map image, the Observatory of Paris appeared as a beacon from the capital, the place around which the rest of France oriented itself. Though it was clearly selected because of its proximity to the center of political power, the observatory's location took on the air of scientific legitimacy, establishing the baseline measurements for north, south, east, and west, and therefore the geometric coordinates for longitude and latitude. The distance charts pictured to the left and right of the map image further reinforced the idea of a France oriented spatially toward Paris: the Alsatian capital of Strasbourg, for example, is listed at a distance of 205,269 toises from the Parisian observatory. A close-up image of the map (see plate 1) shows the meridian of Paris slicing through Alsace, binding the region to the center of France along its axis and symbolizing the noose that a "well-ordered" centralizing government was wrapping around the neck of its recently conquered borderland.

But how tightly was the noose wound? Though the Cassini family presented its maps as "objective," scientifically reasoned representations of France, the images were in fact highly utopian visions of French territory. Their views of a seamless, integrated French state papered over the realities of the kingdom's enduring cultural and linguistic diversity. Up through the French Revolution, Alsatians continued to practice a unique set of local laws and hold church services in their German-sounding dialect. Even the scientific knowledge that underpinned the Cassini maps had been won at great price. Though some locals had helped the Cassini surveyors to perform their land measurements, there were also significant cases of resistance to the surveyors in both Alsace and across France; in spite of the king's orders, some inhabitants, including priests, refused the surveyors access to observation towers like church steeples. On the final Cassini map, however, the power struggles between center and periphery disappeared quietly into a commanding view of a unified French kingdom.


Excerpted from Cartophilia by Catherine Tatiana Dunlop. Copyright © 2015 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents


I . Mapping Borders

1 States Map Their Borders                         

2 What Makes a Good Border?                        

3 Language Maps                                           

II . Borderland Maps for Everyday Life

4 Finding the Center                                       

5 Maps for Movement                                  

6 Visualizing Strasbourg                               






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