In 1871, the German Empire annexed the French territory of Alsace-Lorraine, known to the Germans as Elsass-Lothringen.  The inhabitants were overwhelmingly German-speaking, but most clearly resented absorption into the new German Empire.  What is striking, however, is how differently this resentment expressed itself in voting versus actual behavior.

For their first five elections, over 90% of the new citizens of the Second Reich voted for “autonomists” – anti-Prussian regional parties.  Their ultimate goal, pretty clearly, was to rejoin France.  Beginning in 1890, autonomists rapidly lost support to the Social Democrats (and, to a lesser extent, the Conservatives).  But even in 1912, autonomists remained the plurality party of Alsace-Lorraine.

Given this near-unanimous political resentment against German annexation, you might think that the people of Alsace-Lorraine would be leaving in droves – or at least struggling mightily to do so.  The reality was quite different.  While they were free to escape German rule by selling out and moving a few miles over the border, few chose to do so:

The Treaty of Frankfurt
gave the residents of the region until October 1, 1872 to choose
between emigrating to France or remaining in the region and having their
nationality legally changed to German. By 1876, about 100,000 or 5% of
the residents of Alsace-Lorraine had emigrated to France.

On a common-sense level, the contrast is obvious.  Emigration is much more costly than merely voting for autonomy.  But successfully electing a hard-line secessionist government would also have steep costs.  The Kaiser – and the rest of Germany – could respond with deep anger and harsh punishment to whip these ingrates into shape.  If you want to be French badly enough to pursue a high-risk political course, why not just solve your problem the quick and safe way – move over the border and become French?

To rationalize the divergence between voting and emigration, you need something like Brennan and Lomasky‘s expressive voting theory.  The essence of the theory: When people decide how to vote, their main goal is to express their support for what sounds good.  When people decide where to live, however, they focus on practicalities, not symbolism.

How can the two differ?  The probability of decisiveness.  When you vote, the chance that you tip the outcome is near 0%, so you might as well just scream about your identity.  When you move, in contrast, the chance that you tip the outcome is near 100%, so you’d better consider cost and convenience.

From this perspective, the clash between voting and migration in Alsace-Lorraine makes perfect sense.  Most of the people of Alsace-Lorraine didn’t want to become Germans.  If asked, many would have denounced their annexation as the Worst Thing that Ever Happened.  Their votes were a thinly-veiled demand to rejoin France.  At the end of the day, though, their resentment was largely puffery.  Given the opportunity to sell out, move over the border, and continue their lives as Frenchmen, only 5% bothered to tell the Kaiser “Auf wiedersehen” with their feet.