Visiting the Birthplace of Marshall Ney, Saarlouis, Germany: in search of the identity of the Saarland?

Flag of Germany
Flag of Germany | Source
House in which Marshall Ney was born, Saarlouis
House in which Marshall Ney was born, Saarlouis | Source
Michel Ney (1769-1815), Marshall of France
Michel Ney (1769-1815), Marshall of France | Source
Saarlouis district, Saarland, Germany
Saarlouis district, Saarland, Germany | Source

Remembering a hero — at least, some of the time — to French people, later shot

This house, with stone facing, in Saarlouis, at 19 Bierstrasse , in Germany's Saarland, is the birthplace of Marshall Ney, a leading military figure in the service of France's Emperor Napoleon I. Michel Ney (1769-1815) was himself the son of a master craftsman who had served in the French army during the Seven Years' War. He worked as a civil servant and subsequently enlisted in the French army before the French Revolution, and went on to fulfil a distinguished military career. Created a Marshall in French Emperor Napoleon I's Grand Army (French: Grande Armée ), he was also given the titles of Duke of Elchingen and Prince of Moscow following his exploits at these locations in the Napoleonic Wars.

A plaque, in German, on the house's frontage, speaks of Napoleon's reference to Marshall Ney as 'the bravest of the brave'. (Another, less adulatory, nickname for the Marshal has also survived: 'Rougeaud' — red-face.)

Something of the changing fortunes of senior military figures can be seen in the fate of Marshall Ney, following Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo, in 1815. Before the year was out, Mashall Ney was executed by firing squad by the French authorities of the day (1).

The Saarland's history bears out the special, local characteristics of this small state of the Federal Republic of Germany. For a start, as régimes came and went, authorities could not always make up their minds as to what to call the city of Saarlouis. Between the two World Wars, its name was changed to 'Saarlautern', but after World War Two, it reverted to 'Saarlouis'. (This in a measure mirrored what happened after the French Revolution: its official name was changed to 'Sarre-Libre' — Free Saar —, but it reverted to Saarlouis in 1810.)

The German state in which the city is situated, also underwent repeated changes of status in the 20th century. Part of the German Empire until 1918, the Saar (as it was called) became a League of Nations protectorate (with French troops keeping a watchful eye, also). In 1935, when over 90% of local people voted to join Germany again, the territory became part of the Reich. When the end of World War Two came, therefore, French troops arrived again, and the territory was detached from Germany. But another plebiscite followed, and in 1957 the Saarland (the name which seems to have stuck) became a state of the Federal Republic of Germany.

A memorial to Marshall Ney is displayed at the former fortress at Saarlouis, built by Vauban in the 17th century.

...and Mr. Lafontaine

Saarlouis is also the city of birth of another remarkable, not to say, unusual, prominent figure. Having spent his early years in an episcopal boarding institution in Pruem, Oskar Lafontaine (1943-) trained as a physicist and went into politics, serving as mayor of Saarlouis's neighbouring city of Saarbruecken from 1976 to 1985, and subsequently as Minister-President of Saarland from 1985 to 1998. In 1990 he was the Social Democratic candidate for the Federal Chancellorship, and served as the Federal Economics Minister from 1998 to 1999. In 2005 he shocked many observers (though maybe not the more seasoned Lafontaine-watchers) by joining the successor party to the East German ex-Communists (2); indeed, he became a Co-Chairman of this ex-Communist grouping. As mayor of Saarbruecken, he had previously hosted a highly publicized visit of East German Communist leader Erich Honecker, who was also born in that city. While ostensibly leftist in inclination, Mr. Lafontaine has also been noted — and criticized for — the use of what is widely seen as somewhat extreme, nationalist terminology. He has also made known his sympathies for the discourse of President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela. Mr. Lafontaine's somewhat mercurial reputation has been given extra colour in that he has combined his affinities with ex-Communists with a stated pride in being a descendant of a soldier in Napoleon's army — his family name is of French origin.

Note

(1) Marshall Ney's support for Napoleon was deemed to be treasonable. This must be seen against the background of the fact, that in the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic period, large numbers of people were executed on the grounds of treason, which sometimes simply meant that they were identified with the previous régime, or with previous leaders no longer in favour. At one stage, during the Terror, French Revolutionary leaders were even executing each other.

(2) This party was known as the PDS, subsequently, The Left (German: Die Linke).

Also worth seeing

In Saarlouis itself, the spired 'Ludwigskirche' is a prominent landmark.

Nennig, Saarland (distance: 47 kilometres) has a well preserved mosaic at the ruins of a Roman villa.

...

How to get there: Lufthansa flies to Frankfurt-am-Main (distance from Saarlouis : 205 kilometres), from where car hire is available. The railroad company DB maintains a service between Frankfurt-am-Main and Saarlouis. Please check with the airline or your travel agent for up to date information. Please refer to appropriate consular sources for any special border crossing arrangements which may apply to citizens of certain nationalities.

MJFenn is an independent travel writer based in Ontario, Canada.

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