Today, Germany's Saarland region is probably best known for its over-exploited coal deposits and the distinctive “Saarländisch” dialect that most Germans struggle to understand.
But this tiny state on the French-German border has had a turbulent 20th century. From not even existing before 1919, Saarland has switched back and forth between German and “internationalized” status, and was even offered independence – but 60 years ago on Friday, it voted to become part of Germany.
A win for German-French co-operation
On Friday evening, Angela Merkel will join former French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault for a special ceremony in Saarland's capital Saarbrücken.
The event – also attended by Saarland Minister-President Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer – marks 60 years since the 1955 referendum that saw Saarland finally become part of Germany.
“The Saarland question is extremely complicated,” Dr Rainer Hudemann, Professor Emeritus of modern history at both Saarland University and the University of Paris-Sorbonne, told The Local.
A major factor blocking European integration and co-operation between France and Germany in the 1950s, it was “a question that absolutely had to be resolved,” he explained.
Co-operation between Germany and France is still complicated, Hudemann said.
But Merkel's involvement on Friday “confirms once again that crises and problems in German-French co-operation – which often stem from the many differences between these countries – can always be mutually solved and further consolidate the partnership,” he explained.
Today, Saarland is a popular destination for hikers and cyclists. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
An eventful history
Until 1919, Saarland didn't exist as a state. Instead, several territories made up the region that would later become Germany's smallest federal state.
From 1792, French revolutionary armies conquered the region and made the Saarland states part of the French Republic.
When Napoleon was defeated in 1815, the region was divided again – with most either becoming part of the Prussian Rhine Province or joining the Kingdom of Bavaria.
When the German Empire was born in 1871, Saarland became a part of it.
But by 1919, the German Empire was in tatters.
In the aftermath of the First World War, Britain and France took control of Saarland as part of the Versailles Treaty. This was the first time Saarland had been treated as a unified state.
The two forces occupied the state until 1935, when a referendum on Saarland's status saw 90% of voters opt for a reunification with Germany.
But after the Second World War Saarland entered French hands once again – where it remained until the Saar Statute referendum of 1955.
Held on October 23rd, this referendum would decide whether Saarland became an independent territory, albeit in economic union with France.
When it came to polling day, 68 per cent of Saarlanders voted against this option – leaving no choice for French and German leaders but to reintegrate it into the Federal Republic.
Saarland voted 'no' to independence in 1955. Photo: Landesarchiv
Germany's most European-minded state?
For the Saarlanders who voted, it was simply a question of “whether they preferred to go towards France or Germany,” Hudemann explained.
“But it was an extremely complicated situation,” he said.
When the 'no' vote came in, the Saarlanders interpreted the result as a vote for Germany, Hudemann explained – and the French government accepted this interpretation.
Saarland's reunification with Germany has since been referred to as the “kleine Wiedervereinigung,” (“little reunification,” in contrast to the 1990 reunification of east and west Germany)
Today, Saarland's position on the border and its international history make it “perhaps the most European-minded population within Germany, maybe even the whole of Europe,” Hudemann told The Local.
By Hannah Butler