A comparative history of the evacuations in the Franco-German border region during the Second World War

Research project under the direction of Prof. Rainer Hudemann, Prof. Olivier Forcade (Paris Sorbonne University) and Juniorprof. Fabian Lemmes (Ruhr University Bochum), with the participation of Johannes Großmann and Nicholas Williams

The German invasion of Poland in 1939 sparked off the beginning of the Second World War and simultaneously gave rise to a unique event in European history: the complete evacuation (“Räumung”) of those areas close to the border on both sides, the so-called “Red Zones”, during which the civilian population was transferred to the respective interiors of both countries.

Planning for such evacuation measures had been intensified since the early 1930s in both Germany and France. Against the backdrop of the experience made in World War I, inhabitants as well as economic resources along the systematically fortified defence lines along the border were to be brought to a safe refuge, while the evacuated zones would also permit deployment of troops without civilians in the way. Therefore, more than half a million civilians from the Saarland, the Palatinate, and Baden were taken to regions far away from the border, such as Thuringia, Franconia and Hesse. On the other side of the border, almost the same amount of people was forced to leave from their homes in Alsace and Lorraine, from where they were taken to makeshift accommodation in the south-west of France (mainly Vienne, Haute-Vienne and Charente). Almost 100.000 Alsatians and Lorrainers were later considered “undesirables” for ethnic and/or political reasons by the German occupation authorities, and would be driven out of the region (or not even allowed to return to their homes in the first place) until the end of the war. The evacuated zones in direct vicinity to the border, including the cities Saarbrücken and Strasbourg, remained almost totally void of civilians until hostilities between Germany and France ceased temporarily in June 1940.

For the men, women and children concerned, the evacuations were a key moment in their experience of the Second World War. From a European perspective, the evacuations marked the beginning of a whole series of forced migration, which, by the end of the 1940s, would radically change the face of the continent.

The research project sketched here is funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft and the Agence Nationale de la Recherche. It will officially be launched in July 2012. The project includes two main pillars: on the one hand, the direct political, economic, and social implications of the evacuations in terms of their planning on the part of both military and civilian authorities. The actual course of events during the evacuation, the evacuees’ stay in the reception areas, which was frequently marked by conflicts with their involuntary “hosts”, as well as the evacuees’ return home after the truce in June 1940 are part of the first pillar, too. This historical reconstruction is to be the basis for the project’s second pillar, which is set to examine the cultures of remembrance of the evacuations. Apart from analysing local and regional historians’ works and further literature permitting insight into how the evacuations have been remembered, biographical interviews are conducted with eye-witnesses from both countries. On the ground of these interviews, we are attempting to find out how the memory of the evacuations has evolved over time, whether the evacuations have strengthened (or weakened) regional and national identities, and why the evacuations, in spite of their importance for the generation concerned, have hardly been the subject of public debate and/or academic research.

Owing to a comparative and transnational approach in combination with local, regional and national frameworks, the research project is set to permit an entirely new perspective on the evacuations, and is simultaneously designed to stimulate institutional cooperation between relevant research institutions and archives in the greater region Saar-Lor-Lux.

On the occasion of an international workshop, which is going to take place from 10th to 11th June 2011, the evacuations will be set in the broader context of research on Word War II.

Franco-German relations during the 19th and 20th centuries
Urbanization in Europe
French occupation in Germany after 1945
The Saarland in the 20th century
Memory studies
Evacuations in the Franco-German border region during the Second World War


Academic cooperation

Research focus

France and Germany
Urbanization in Europe

French occupation in Germany
Saarland in the 20th century
Memory studies


PhD and post-doc



Martina Saar (secretariat)
Building B 3.1, office 3.27
Tel. 0049 (0)681-302 2313
Fax 0049 (0)681-302 4793

External links:

Saarland University

History Department



Paris Sorbonne Université