top of page

When France Came to Germany

Updated: Mar 10

As I mentioned in my posting 20 YEARS OF FRENCH GERMANY, in 1794, French armies occupied Germany up to the Rhine, and then incorporated that territory into France; Napoleon would go on to annex even more.

What did a generation of being French (1794 and 1801 to 1814) do to that stretch of Germany?

Europeans were accustomed to war shifting borders over their heads, but the French Revolution upheaved and changed life like nothing else. French had long been the most prestigious language, but now governance at the higher levels was in French. French law, social leveling, the industrial revolution poured in.

The pace of French words entering German picked up. To sound tony, the old Oheim und Basen und Vetter (uncles and aunts and cousins) become Onkel, Tanten, Cousins (from oncles, tants, cousins).

Some words that were dropped from High German continue on in the dialects:

Farbe, German for ‘color’ could become Klör,

the German furnace, the Ofen, becomes a fernüs, a particular fashion became a Fassong,

a feather bed changed from Federbett to Plümmo (plumeau), ein Unglück ('misfortune') became a Malör (maleur).

In the age of nationalism after Napoleon, many of these were later dropped, but family letters and documents from that era may have a great deal of French in them. Or be entirely in French.

Germans aped Frenchisms, including the French nasal vowels- but imperfectly. The highly educated showed off with their French vowels, other speakers substituted -ng: French orange ‘should’ be said this way but most Germans say ‘o-RANG-zhuh’. In parts of the Rhineland, this extended to native German words- mein Wein ‘my wine’ is pronounced ‘ming ving’. Cousin often comes out as ‘koo-ZENG’. I have come across letters where someone actually wrote cousenk; your old family letters might include this mysterious spelling.

Some of the more prominent effects included:

SECULARIZATION: the French government stripped bishops and archbishops of their lands and estates, and was generally unfriendly to the Catholic Church, which grated on the German Catholics of the Rhine. If your ancestor was a serf of a bishop, they became a subject of the local noble.

FAMILY NAMES: previous lords had pushed people to adopt family names, so they could track their subjects better, but Napoleon outright mandated it. Much of the rural population had not had family names until then. This can complicate tracing ancestry before Napoleon, needless to say. I've touched on that with -son names and von- names.

LE CODE CIVIL: The Holy Roman Empire had accumulated a vast number of uncoordinated local laws, with your local lord as your judge; all that was swept away in one great purge in favor the Napoleonic Code, which provided a rational, streamlined, clear legal system, administered by professional judges. Commoners profited from being freed from feudal restrictions and taxes, and from being allowed to occupy positions formerly reserved for nobles.

When Napoleon made everybody into citizens, it meant that the Jewish population suddenly went from being subjects merely tolerated to being the legal equal of their neighbors. The rest of Germany soon followed suit, and with the greater tolerance, the Jews began to deeply assimilate.

In 1800, the Jews had been Jews who happened to be German; by 1900 they were Germans who happened to be Jewish. That is a further layer of tragedy of the Holocaust, that the Jews of Germany had become patriotic Germans.

ECONOMICS: France jump-started the industrial revolution, especially the textile industry, and with no border tariffs to French markets, and aristocrats no longer holding everything back, the economy surged. So, unfortunately, did taxes to pay for Napoleon’s wars, plus conscription as young men were sent off to fight. Bonaparte's heavy war taxes, conscription, his embargo against Great Britain led to population decreases, most notably in the Hanseatic cities, cut off from world and British markets.

While plenty of Germans regarded the French as invaders, no small number welcomed them initially, as liberating them from semi-medieval stagnation, even as a chance to modernize and strengthen Germany, which in the long run it did.

Even for the common run of folks, the French occupation had unwelcome sides. French troops were quartered in people’s homes, and their sons were drafted into Napoleon's wars.

After Napoleon’s debacle of invading Russia in 1812, France’s hegemony tottered and by 1815 had fallen. Of annexed German territory, France retained only Alsace-Lorraine.

In the power vacuum, Austria lost its many small territories near France, and focused its attention on eastern Europe. Prussia annexed most of the Rhineland. Bavaria, another major German state, was awarded part of the Pfalz. You might, as I do, have ancestors from the Palatinate, who went from being Palatines to French to Bavarians, even though they were a hundred miles and more from Bavaria proper.

Prussia, as the leading German state to fight Napoleon, annexed most of the Rhineland, making the population there Musspreussen (MOOSS-Proysen, “must-Prussians, people who were forced to be Prussian”).

Beethoven and Goethe, the German Shakespeare, were glad to see liberator Napoleon come, and glad to see occupier Napoleon go. Napoleonic laws, French words, a more democratic, less aristocratic system lived on.

And that is how some of your ancestors may just have been French Germans.

All images are derived from Wikipedia unless stated otherwise; click on the image to see the original.


Do you have any Swedish, German, Danish, Dutch or Norwegian documents you can't read? Stumped on your family tree?

We can help. Find out more here.


Would you like to share this piece? You have permission to share this full blog or to copy it. Just be sure to include this footer or Stefan's bio and this link to sign up and keep in touch with us.

Click below for a printer-friendly version of this blog.

Blog - When France Came to Germany - Unlock Your History
Download PDF • 643KB

1 Comment

Otto Matic
Otto Matic
Mar 22, 2022

I just discovered your website and I am enjoying it very much. You provide such interesting and complex history in a very succinct manner. My father was from Germany, but I know little about it. German/European history is so convoluted that it is hard to grasp for an American, even when learning about a short time-span such as a century or less. I am a bit of a history junkie so I appreciate your content.

bottom of page