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Updated: Mar 6, 2023

French Germany? France is French and Germany is German, as a general rule, so how could you have French Germany?

Well, borders can be fluid things. Around 800 A.D., Charlemagne’s empire knew no Franco-German border, and the succeeding Holy Roman Empire included substantial French, Italian and Slavic territory. People tended to have local identities, or identified with their lord and his domain; nationalism did not become a powerful force until Napoleon’s time.

These borders may have flowed back and forth over your ancestors too- here’s what happened.

In the mid-1600’s, when the Thirty Years War tore Central Europe apart, the French throne was able to start nibbling away at the borderlands, annexing little lordships here and there- rulers did not much care whether the locals spoke French or German, as long as they paid tax. By the French Revolution, 1789, Alsace-Lorraine had already largely been incorporated into the Kingdom of France.

By 1794, monarchic governments had invaded revolutionary France and been beaten back; France then occupied German territory up to the Rhine River. The territories about Aix-la-Chapelle/Aachen, Trier, Cologne, Bonn and more were annexed into the French Republic. Those annexed lands would remain part of France until 1814 - French Germany. Or German France, if you will.

As Napoleon towered over the German states in 1803, he saw to it that the mid-sized German states absorbed the many tiny ones, winning him mid-sized allies, ones large enough to be useful but too small to threaten him. A few hundred independent territories: church lords, free imperial cities, knighthoods that had remained free within the Holy Roman Empire for centuries disappeared.

As Napoleon moved from victory to victory, he progressively annexed more of his neighbors’ territory

=part of Catalonia, Spain and chunks of northern Italy

=Tirol (territory of his rival Austria)

=all of the Netherlands

=northwest German, all the way to Lübeck, as well as coastal Austria (well, what is now part of Croatia)... which seems odd and random, but in Napoleon’s grinding war against Great Britain, he wanted all of Europe to blockade his rival into ruin, so he had to control the German and Austrian coasts. Even invading Russia was to enforce his blockade. So he annexed a swath of German coast and Austrian-held coast.

When I say Austrian, only the northernmost part was majority-German, the rest was mostly Slovene, Croatian, Serb, Italian. Monarchs felt only the monarch mattered; the Revolution said that the Idea of the Republic was what mattered.

So now we have Austrian French and French Austrians, among others. You could have an ancestor who was Croatian and therefore (politically) Austrian, and then French. mon dieu!

And Bonaparte annexed a little chunk smack in the middle of Germany- what on earth... he created the Principality of Erfurt as an integral part of France, giving him a logistics center in central Europe under his direct control.

Most nobles did not much care for being dispossessed; the middle class on the other hand, benefited from French administration. The humble workers and farmers experienced some modest benefit as feudal strictures were peeled away; unfortunately, French taxes peeled away much of that benefit, that and being marched about to fight Napoleon’s wars.

These are the great movements of borders that struck Germany going into the Napoleonic Wars. Next time, we'll look at how being annexed to France affected people's lives, and how the borders shifted again after the wars, leading towards the period when German immigration to America was soon to ramp up.

All images are derived from Wikipedia unless stated otherwise; click on the image to see the original. The title image derives from the famous Jacques-Louis_David painting and a map of Charlemagne's empire.


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