Navigation – Plan du site
Les Bonnes Feuilles du PIRVILLES

Mobility in Strasbourg form 1870 to 1940

Le courrier du CNRS, n° 82, 1996, pp.17-19
Franz Joseph Hahn et Jean-Luc Pinol

Texte intégral

1A big city, with its constant flow of arrivals and departures, undergoes a perpetual process of recomposition. If we wish to study this population renewal, the only figures we have are those representing the final result of migrations, which give a watered-down picture of the actual phenomenon. Other studies of urban society, using transversal and longitudinal approaches, provide results of a different nature, but only longitudinal follow-ups are likely to shed some light on urban mobility.

The population register

2The Strasbourg population file contains 1,200,000 entries between the years 1870 and 1940. This figure alone indicates high mobility, considering that the total population varied between 70,000 and 190,000 inhabitants. The file contains the residences occupied by heads of households in Strasbourg. If the household head left the city and returned, his address outside Strasbourg was often given as well. Population registers are irreplaceable documents for the study of intra-urban mobility and for insight into the relations between a city and its demographic basin. The file was started by the German administration after 1871. French law required inn-keepers and anyone renting lodgings to declare the arrival and departure of all clients and tenants to the municipal police. The law of June 16, 1883 upheld this obligation and extended it to include the entire population; violations were punished. After November 1918, French law was combined with local regulations and administrative practice continued to enforce the 1883 law. In Strasbourg, between the first and second world wars, residents bought the regulation forms for declaring their arrival in or departure from a flat in tobacco shops.

Building a data base

3Although when a list of household heads is available it is possible to look up their names in the files, a survey nonetheless seemed the only method that would give a global picture of mobilities. Still, it was necessary to find a relatively time-efficient method that would yield a representative sample. It was decided that the study would be based on household heads whose last name began with the letter N.

4A data base comprised of four main files and three dictionary files was set up. The main file was for household heads and there were three other files, two of which were not always necessary because of the large number of people living alone - the “spouse” file, the “offspring” file, and the “residences” file which always had at least one entry. In the spouse and offspring files, the order of birth or marriage is indicated when such is the case, as well as date and place of birth. Demographic events such as death or separation are also indicated. These four files were used alongside three dictionary files : a file for addresses in the city ; a professions file requiring French equivalents for German profession names ; and a place file, which raised certain problems, one of which was the precise identification of the contours of a demographic basin spreading from the borders of Russia and Turkey to Italy and Spain. This last dictionary file reflects a high degree of uncertainty due to innumerable problems of reading and spelling.

The dynamics of the population

5Although the place of birth or origin of the majority of individuals was Alsace, Strasbourg was clearly a crossroads for all of Europe. Between the wars, and even at the beginning of World War I, the city was a veritable seismograph of migrations from Eastern Europe. In May 1914, a young Jewish medical student arrived from Russia ; on August 1, 1914 he left Strasbourg for Switzerland... Among the male population, three fourths of male heads of households were unmarried and as for women, more than four out of five. This explains the predominance of single individuals and the high mobility level.

6Until 1910, the balance between yearly arrivals and departures is clearly positive. Between 1871 until just before the war, the population rose from 90,000 inhabitants to 160,000. During this period, the high migratory balance combined with strong natural growth, the result of a strong birth rate. During the war period, it is evident that Strasbourg registered a considerable increase in migratory flows. We can take the example of the year 1919 when a large number of Germans left the city and numerous civil servants from the centre of France arrived, many of them university scholars. The balance of that year was negative, at least for men if not for women, who were less affected by the decisions of local committees intent on expelling Germans. The conformity of these results with other information available on Strasbourg demography shows the reliability of the source and the validity of research methods.

7It is generally agreed that the balance represents only the small fraction that emerges from migratory flows, but in fact it is rarely possible to measure the relationship between the part and the whole. Before 1910, using the file as it stands today, it would seem that the ratio between the balance and the actual flow was 1 to 5 ; during and after the war, it rose to 1 or 2 to 100. When it is possible to compare the balance with the entry and exit flows indicated in the files, the former represents an extremely small percentage of the total number of individuals actually concerned. For the sake of comparison, between 1901 and 1910, 2.6 million immigrants arrived in Berlin and 2.1 million emigrants left. In ten years, Görlitz gained 160,000 inhabitants but lost 152,000. The number of individuals involved in migratory exchanges can be between ten to forty times higher than the balance. Likewise, Zurich, which gained 147,000 inhabitants between 1893 and 1948, welcomed over 2,132,000 arrivals and recorded the departure of 1,985,000 inhabitants.

Stable and transitory populations

8In this perspective, what is most important to bear in mind is that during the period studied, 40% of household heads remained in the city less than six months and the average stay was less than two months. This information alone sheds doubt on all static approaches to urban society, but it should also be nuanced by a few remarks. First of all, the 40% rate is not constant throughout the entire period. Before the war about one-third of household heads were concerned, a percentage that rose during the First World War and stabilized at around 48% between the wars. This means that during that period nearly half of all arrivals remained in Strasbourg less than six months, and on the average less than two months. Furthermore, the length of the stay was not fundamentally different for men and women. Certain neighbourhoods played a specific role in accommodating migrating populations. In Strasbourg, where urban space changed considerably between 1870 and 1940 - with the construction of the Neustadt for official buildings, villas and residences for dignitaries of the Empire - new arrivals tended first to congregate west of the cathedral in the most rundown part of the old city, then in the suburbs; the working-class neighbourhoods in the south of the city absorbed the biggest percentage of manual labourers.

9This study of a large European city makes it possible to reconsider a number of conclusions concerning the stability of European cities as compared to those on the other side of the Atlantic. It also refers back to a historiography which, unlike New Urban History, inspired by the work of Stephan Thernstrom, does not make the paradigm of mobility one of its main axes of thought. Whatever the case may be, the image of European cities as being less subject to a mixing of populations should be revised, even if it is true that the scale of migration is not the same on both sides of the ocean.

10Some types of mobility are doubtless specific to Strasbourg, but the perpetual renewal of the population that the population register allows us to measure is one of the major characteristics of big cities in the European space. And though it is possible that the more detailed analyses that follow may cast doubt on some of the results presented here, it is highly unlikely that this essential characteristic can be contested. Nonetheless, it could be fruitful to reflect on the alchemy that develops - or that fails to do so - between those who are rooted in their city and the many birds of passage that come and go.

Haut de page


Hahn F. J., Pinol J.-L., “La mobilité d'une grande ville : Strasbourg de 1870 à 1940 (présentation de l'enquête et premiers résultats)”, Annales de démographie historique, 1995.

Pinol J.-L., Les mobilités de la grande ville, Lyon fin XIXe siècle-début XXe, Paris, Presses de la Fondation nationale des sciences politiques, 1991.

Thernstrom S.,Poverty and Progress, Social Mobility in a Nineteenth Century City, Cambridge (Mass.) Harvard University Press, 1964.

Wolfensberger H.,Die Zuwanderung in die Stadt Zurich seit 1893, Zurich, 1952 cité par Walter F., La suisse urbaine, 1750-1950, Genève, Editions Zoé, p. 50, 1994.

Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence électronique

Franz Joseph Hahn et Jean-Luc Pinol, « Mobility in Strasbourg form 1870 to 1940 », Cybergeo : European Journal of Geography [En ligne], Dossiers, mis en ligne le 12 avril 1996, consulté le 13 juillet 2020. URL : ; DOI :

Haut de page


Franz Joseph Hahn

Ingénieur de rechercheCentre de recherches historiques sur la ville (URA 1010 CNRS), dans le cadre du Programme “Capital humain et mobilité” des Communautés européennes (1994-95).

Jean-Luc Pinol

ProfesseurUniversité Strasbourg II, directeur du Centre de recherches historiques sur la ville (URA 1010 CNRS), Université Strasbourg II, 32, rue de l'Ail, 67000 Strasbourg.

Haut de page

Droits d’auteur

Licence Creative Commons
La revue Cybergeo est mise à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 3.0 non transposé.

Haut de page