Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Letter from Europe

  • — Issue 2017/2 posted by hidden europe on

We walk down the lane between two villages. Each takes its name from the River Gailbach. The higher community is Obergailbach. It's a wee slip of a place. Just a couple of kilometres down the valley lies Niedergailbach which is rather larger. This is a part of Europe where international borders have faded.

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Dear fellow travellers

The River Gail (or Gailbach in German) is no more than a modest brook. It flows down through beech woods and meadows to reach the River Blies which in turn flows into the Sarre.

We walk down the lane between two villages. Each takes its name from the Gailbach. The higher community is Obergailbach. It's a wee slip of a place. Just a couple of kilometres down the valley lies Niedergailbach which is rather larger.

There's a German word you hear a lot in these parts. That word is Verflechtungen. It's one of those classic German abstract nouns which hover on the edge of political discourse - especially in and around the Saarland region. It refers to how things are interwoven. In the Gailbach villages they know a thing or two about how politics, language and culture are interconnected. Niedergailbach is in the Germany state of Saarland. Its diminutive neighbour just up the hill, Obergailbach, is in France.

This is a part of Europe where international borders have faded. Sixty years ago this month the Saarland became part of the Federal Republic of Germany, concluding a brief post-war spell in which the Saar region had been administered as a semi-detached part of France. The inhabitants of the Gailbach villages evidently took these things in their stride, just as they have done every time that borders have changed. From 1920 to 1935, the Saar region was looked after by the League of Nations in a well intentioned but wholly undemocratic arrangement. In 1935, Saarland residents opted to become part of Germany, but then after 1945 France had the upper hand in the affairs of the region.

Had the people of the Saar played their cards right, the region could so easily have emerged as a European ministate, quite like Luxembourg - with which the Saarland shares a common border. During the early 1950s the notion of an independent Saarland gained some currency, but in the end the Saarlanders voted in 1955 for reunification with Germany. Although January 1957 is remembered as the month in which the Saar region became a federal state, things didn't change overnight. The Saar franc remained in circulation until 1959, and the region continued to mint its own postage stamps - denominated in francs - until mid-1959.

It's an interesting case of a region voluntarily relinquishing all the emblems of nationhood. The territory gave up its place in the Council of Europe. In 1952, Saarland sent three dozen competitors to the Summer Olympics in Helsinki. By the time the 1956 games came round, the decision to join Germany had already been made and Saar athletes participated as part of the German team.

The Saarland national football team once played host to the defending world champions, Uruguay. They also bid for a place at the 1954 World Cup, but were eliminated in the qualifying competition, ironically in a play-off against West Germany. But Saarlanders are canny folk and always kept good relations with both France and Germany. The football club in Saarbrücken has played in both the French and German leagues (not at the same time). And most inhabitants of the region switch with ease from French to German and back again.

"You can draw lines on the map all you wish," says a man with whom we walk down to Niedergailbach. "But frontiers don't really matter nowadays in this part of Europe," he notes as we slip over the invisible frontier between France and Germany.

This is a Europe of interconnections - Verflechtungen - where identities and livelihoods are intertwined. When German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer visited Saarbrücken in January 1957, he remarked that the Saarland invited us to rethink Europe. "Now the way is clear for us to start to build a united Europe," he said. Even the French villagers in Obergailbach looked down the hill to their German neighbours and nodded in approval.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)

This article was published in Letter from Europe.

About The Authors

hidden europe

and Susanne Kries manage hidden europe, a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine. Nicky and Susanne are dedicated slow travellers. They delight in discovering the exotic in the everyday.