National Geographic : 1935 Feb
WHAT IS THE SAAR? BY FREDERICK SIMPICH AUTHOR OF "THE WENDS OF THE SPREEWALD," "THE STORY OF THE RUHR," "HAMBURG SPEAKS WITH STEAM SIRENS," ETC., IN THE NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE POWDER keg of Europe; witches' cal dron; political sore spot. For years such graphic labels have been tacked onto this small but highly industrialized re gion, known as the Saar, which lies north of Alsace-Lorraine, between France and Germany (see maps, pages 242 and 243). Though barely 738 square miles in area and with fewer than 825,000 people, the Saar, tied by historic and economic bonds to Alsace-Lorraine, has been since antiquity, like that tormented land, a stage of Euro pean disputes. From the days of Attila and the Caesars down to Foch and Von Hindenburg, its valleys and wooded hills have rocked and echoed to the tramp and shouts of marching armies. THE PLEBISCITE FOCUSES ATTENTION For the past few months it has loomed ominously large in the world's eye because of the plebiscite set for January 13, 1935. "But why a plebiscite?" you ask. Well, by the Treaty of Versailles France recovered Alsace-Lorraine from Germany. The adjoining Saar Basin, however, with its mines and factories, was made a separate territory, to be ruled for 15 years by a com mission under the League of Nations. That 15-year term, expiring now, marked the date of the plebiscite. Under the treaty, all qualified persons were entitled to vote on three possible solu tions: (1) to remain under the League of Nations; (2) union with France; (3) re turn to Germany. Once more, then, in its long, stormy his tory, has this tiny map spot become the shuttlecock of destiny. Geographically, the Saar is an irregular patch of hilly land crossed by small valleys. It lies alongside Luxembourg, forms a buffer State between France and Germany, and was cut from the two German States of Prussia and Bavaria. With a population about equal to that of Boston proper, it shelters more than 1,000 people per square mile-one of the most densely settled areas in all Europe. Only such miniature European States as Andorra, Liechtenstein, San Marino, and Monaco are smaller than this tiny, yet dy namic country. America knows no State so dwarfish. Delaware is about three times the Saar's size, yet has less than a third its population. Saarbriicken, metropolis of the Saar, has only 132,000 people; yet in one year Saar trains haul 60,000,000 passengers! Sit in any stuffy cafe at Saarbriicken, watch the guests eat red cabbage and boiled pork, or sip fat steins of beer as the band plays heavy Wagner music, and the place seems just another German industrial center. A SAAR PROBLEM IN ROMAN TIMES But look into its eventful annals, or make a careful trip about its historic roads and ruins, and you find a land with a past pecu liar to itself. There was, in fact, a Saar problem even in Roman times, when blond men from east of the Rhine already had invaded this Basin. In Casar's "Commentaries" you read of these early German settlers. One Roman report of the time says that 120,000 barbarians, enamored of Gaul, had settled here. Caesar feared these Germans might men ace Rome itself; so he helped the Gauls drive them back across the Rhine. His battles on the Aisne and elsewhere were precursors of centuries of fighting along the Rhine. Some Roman military roads hereabouts are shown on the Peutinger map of about 200 A. D. One ran north from Argento ratum (now Strasbourg) to the Saar Basin. About this same time the Romans built a castle at a point on the Saar River where it was bridged by their military road from Paris to Mainz. Saarbriicken was so named, meaning "Saar Bridge." That early Roman castle was the first house in the now modern city of Saarbriicken. Dense forests choked all the Basin then, forests frequented by heathen druids, by wild Celtic tribes, who hunted deer and boars with spears. Scattered ruins of men hirs, dolmens, and cromlechs, symbols of the druid cult, have been found in Saar forests.