On a bitterly cold January dawn in 1945, the residents of a tranquil, picturesque area on the eastern border of France woke to the sound of artillery.
Unbeknownst to them, the Germans had chosen their region of fairy-tale villages and rolling green vineyards—Alsace—as the epicenter of their last major offensive of World War II. In December 1944 Hitler had ordered a last-ditch operation, code-named Nordwind, against the thinly stretched lines of the U.S. Seventh Army and the French First Army in the Vosges Mountains, in the west of the region. The Alsatian people, their homes, and their land were now in the middle of the Nazis’ final, desperate attempt to stave off the Allies.
Alsace and its people were accustomed to conflict; possession of the prosperous wine region had been contested for centuries. Once part of the Holy Roman Empire, the region became part of France in the 17th century, after the Thirty Years’ War. But France and Germany continued to dispute Alsace’s natural border. Germany claimed that France’s territory should end at the Vosges, entitling them to control, while France insisted that German territory should stop at the Rhine. So the small but densely populated Alsace region found itself at the heart of a political and military tug-of-war, during which it would change hands four times in 75 years: Germany acquired Alsace after the Franco-Prussian War, but was forced to return it to France after World War I. In 1940, the Nazis invaded, and became the Alsatians’ harshest overlords yet.
Today Alsace belongs to France, and tourism in the area trades on its vineyards and photogenic villages, not its complicated past. Reminders of the German occupation and the savage fighting of January 1945 are few, and they are rarely obvious, but they are here—and can take surprising forms.
The best way to see Alsace is via the Route du Vin, the popular 75-mile drive that winds north–south through the region’s villages and vineyards. Besides being movie-set beautiful, towns like Hunawihr, Riquewihr, and Eguisheim vividly express the French and German influences that make Alsace so unique. The winding rows of medieval houses, for example, are half-timbered in the Germanic tradition, but accented with French details, like the colorful window shutters.
Merchant signs and street markers often feature both French and German, because the residents never knew which would be required on short notice.
More significant than street signs and architecture, however, is the singular identity of the Alsatian people. The names on the mailboxes are hybridized—don’t be surprised if you meet a Jacques Schultz or Marie Vogel while enjoying some wine in a café—but Alsace has a culture all its own.
Part of that culture is the regional dialect, Alsatian. In Riquewihr an older local, dressed in the overalls and tall, green rubber boots typically worn by area winemakers, demonstrated it for me. To my untrained ear, what he said sounded quite similar to German; he took offense to this and assured me, “It is not anything like German. During the war, the Germans mandated the use of their own language, but we kept on speaking our language.” He smiled, clearly proud that the men and women of Alsace did not let the Nazis strip away this vital piece of their identity. Alsatians are known to be fiercely patriotic and stubbornly defensive of their distinctive traditions—no doubt a result of being traded like chattel between rival neighbors for centuries.
A more tragic aspect of the occupation was the conscription of Alsatian men into the German army. Jean-Claude Werner (notice the hybrid name), a tour guide based in Colmar, is a lifelong resident of the region who experienced the occupation firsthand. Though he was too young for military service at the time, his brother was not.
On a warm September day, between giving minivan tours of the Route du Vin, Jean-Claude told me a story that illustrated the harshness of the occupation. His brother refused to serve with the Nazis and, facing arrest, went into hiding. Then an SS officer paid the family a visit. He informed them that they would be sent to a concentration camp because of their son’s disobedience.
Only a family friend’s last-minute intervention saved the Werners from certain death and Jean-Claude’s brother from military service. He was lucky: nearly all of the region’s draftees became cannon fodder on the Eastern Front; over 20,000 of them are still missing.
By mid-January 1945, the fighting in Alsace had reached a climax. The Germans were fighting desperately to expand their foothold in the area, a bridgehead pushing west that had become known as the Colmar Pocket. Elements of the U.S. Seventh Army and the French First Army pushed back; savage mountain combat in subzero temperatures ensued.
Hiking through the Vosges, where the terrain is steep and densely wooded, I thought about how difficult reconnaissance, maintaining supply lines, and maneuvering artillery must have been for those men, particularly in the icy conditions: the winter of 1944–1945 is legendary for its arctic harshness.
Because most of the fighting took place in the mountains and vineyards, Alsace’s quaint, cheerful villages were left largely intact. A notable exception is the decidedly unquaint town of Bennwihr. There are no tourists here, no cute cafés or medieval churches. The town, a collection of gray, blocky buildings, was obliterated in the fierce fighting—it was taken and lost by the Allies more than a dozen times—then hastily rebuilt to house the surviving residents.
Near Bennwihr is a hill where a group of SS troops made their last stand toward the end of the campaign. The grassy mound is now known as Bloody Hill. There is a small monument off the side of the road. It’s easy to miss.
Also easy to miss, though definitely worth a visit, is the Colmar Pocket Museum in Turckheim, about five miles south of Bennwihr. Tucked away from Turckheim’s picturesque town center, the tiny museum is packed with uniforms, artillery, and photos from the campaign.
The Allies thwarted Operation Nordwind in late January 1945—saving Alsace’s capital, Strasbourg—and collapsed the Colmar Pocket two weeks later. In doing so, they methodically demolished the remaining German forces in the area. Though the Ardennes offensive generally receives more attention than what happened in Alsace, it was here that Hitler spent his last reserves, and in doing so, lost even the ability to defend his country. Once Alsace had been liberated, the Allies could concentrate on charging into Germany for the European war’s final act: driving a stake through the heart of the Third Reich.
Walking the peaceful cobbled streets of Hunawihr, a tiny village north of Colmar, it was hard to believe the magnitude of what happened in this tranquil, sunny place—the centuries-long struggle for control of the area, the unrest of the Nazi occupation, and the mountain combat that followed. I thought about the fortitude of the people here, how they refused to surrender their provincial identity. Passing a park, I heard a strange language coming from some children at play. At first I was baffled; then I recognized the dialect. They were speaking Alsatian.
When You Go
Fall is a great time to visit Alsace: there are plenty of sunny days and good wine festivals, but fewer tourists. Strasbourg is the region’s main transportation hub, with several trains a day making the 30-minute trip to Colmar. The Gare de l’Est in Paris also runs several trains to both cities each day. Rent a car to tour the villages along the Route du Vin. Don’t worry; the roads and signage are good.
Where to Stay and Eat
Strasbourg’s Hôtel Cardinal de Rohan is located near the magnificent Strasbourg Cathedral, and offers a classy, Old-World setting in which to relax after a long day of sightseeing (17 rue du Maroquin; hotel-rohan.com). Great food options for every budget abound in the old city center.
The historic Hotel le Rapp, in the center of Colmar, has a basement sauna and pool, as well as a café that offers tasty traditional fare (1 rue Weinemer; rapp-hotel.com).
What Else to See
There’s plenty: No trip to Strasbourg is complete without visiting its gorgeous cathedral or the Alsatian Museum (musees-strasbourg.org). About 30 miles southwest of Strasbourg is the main camp of the Natzweiler-Struthof concentration camp network (struthof.fr/en). A museum and memorial, renovated in 2005, pay tribute to the 17,000 prisoners—many of them Resistance fighters—who died in the camps between May 1941 and March 1945.
Colmar, Alsace’s most likable city, represents all that is best about the region: world-class museums, cobbled streets, and historic half-timbers. The Unterlinden Museum is a particular treasure, with exhibits and paintings that span Alsace’s history (musee-unterlinden.com). It houses the famed Isenheim Altarpiece, a medieval marvel.
This article originally appeared in the May/June 2010 issue of World War II. Click here to read more Time Travel articles.