Between 1870 and 1945, the border would move four times. Each time, thousands of villages and towns found themselves part of a different country. Street signs and even the names of places would change languages. Sometimes new borders would literally divide communities from their neighbours.
This is where maps enter the picture, and where author Catherine Dunlop devotes her attention. Both France and Germany tried to use maps to claim ownership of the region, the French often focusing on natural borders (in this case the Rhine) while the Germans pushed for an ethnic border, a far more complicated proposition. Maps became another tool in the arsenal of nationalists looking to strengthen their territorial claims. In schools, children were taught how to draw the whole of the German empire (or French, depending), with Alsace-Lorraine firmly within, until they knew the shape by heart and felt a strong sense of connection and pride to the greater entity.
Maps should rightly follow in the footsteps of national developments, chronicling changes that have occurred due to nature, wars or treaties. However, Cartophilia makes it clear that maps can have a much more profound cultural impact, and in some occasions actually lead the change. Over time, maps went from strategic military use, to nationalist use, to civilian-made and bought; yet in Dunlop’s telling they rarely lost their greater strategic purpose throughout this period.
Cartophilia is not light reading, but nevertheless raises many intriguing questions and ideas on the role and importance of maps that few readers would have spent time thinking on (it’s also a chance to look at beautiful old maps).
CARTOPHILIA: Maps and the Search for Identity in the French-German Borderland by Catherine Tatiana Dunlop; University of Chicago Press; £31.50 (hardback)
This review was published in the September 2015 edition of Geographical Magazine