BOLD MOVES – The Giessen Emigration Society
Recently, Missouri was visited by German documentary film maker Peter Roloff of maxim Films of Berlin, Germany; and historian, writer and archivist Ludwig Brake of Giessen Germany. On October 21,2012 at the program BOLD MOVES, held at the beautiful Walther Auditorium at the Concordia Historical Institute, they and author and archivist Dorris Keeven-Franke shared their thoughts on Gottfried Duden, German emigration, the Giessen Emigration Society, and their exhibition, documentary and book Utopia: Traces of a German Republic with the audience, which we present here.
Ludwig Brake on The Gießen Emigration Society
In the following I will present you the more factual and boring bits whereas Peter will be more vivid and tell You about the interesting and more pictural bits.
In a bold move we hope, to give You a rudimentary impression of what was going on in Hesse-Darmstadt – that is the german state, where Gießen belonged to – and what the situation was in which the individuals who formed the Gießen Emigration Society were finally put to the test: “should I go or should will I stay”.
If we want to understand why individuals of the Gießen emigration society turned their back to Germany in 1834, we must look back about 30 years or even more.
In the second half of the 18th century european society was on the move. Deepgoing changes in all aspects of life heralded the beginning of a new age. And this became manifest first in the anglo-french double Revolution. Its impact on the more backward orientated societies in Middleeurope resulted in a forward push in development and in accelerated change. And this process of change also resulted in the transition from a feudal and corporative into a bureaucratic-constitutional society, in the transformation of a privileged society into the civil society and the conversion of an agrarian and early capitalist world into the new industrialised and capitalist world of the 19th century.
In the old society You knew, where your place was. Possible achievements were defined by birth and the echelons of society where you had been born into.
In the new society you would find your place by your own achievement educationally or economically. And there was hope for a new understanding of state and government, where the people were part of the decision-making-process, where they could be involved in the affairs of the state and the reform of the country.
In the years at the turn of the century from 18th nineteenth century many things were about to change in Europe and especially in Germany.
The troups of the French Revolution swarmed through Germany. Under their pressure the old Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation disintegrated. The stabilizing factors, the institutions of the old Reich fell apart and the divine legitimation of rule was no more. A foreign power, France, the emperor Napoleon was now in charge. Aliens had the say in most parts of Germany. In these years of uncertainty, often under foreign rule many people felt their world falling asunder.
Could there be a new order or would there be anarchy?
And by whom would a new order be established?
These were questions that many educated people would ask. And they would think of a new order, they would think of a new society. Change had to come.
And in that situation many of the german intellectuels, tradesmen and craftsmen, peasants and noblemen felt the same. They had to get rid of the foreign rule, the napoleonic domination had to be destroyed.
In that way they stood in one line with their princes – in an informal coalition – to fight Napoleon and the French. And even students volunteered as freedom-fighters for a united Germany. And they won – the threw the French out.
The victory over Napoleon gave them hope for a new start. First and over all there was hope for a united Germany, there was hope for a new order, there was hope for a more liberal society and even for some kind of democracy. Yet it turned out to be a false spring.
Realizing that there would be no change within the established societies and states citizens began to organize in associations, corporations, clubs and unions. Students formed Landsmannschaften (regional fraternities) and Burschenschaften (students fraternities or students associations), where they could discuss new thoughts, items of national interest and the ways of achieving a new society.
The authorities, always alert, when there were things going on that weren´t initiated officially, watched closely, had their snitches listening in, to find out what was going on and act accordingly to suppress new ideas and opposition.
Realizing that, the students reacted in building conspirative circles, new smaller and more radical groups like “Die Unbedingten” and “Die Schwarzen”. These formed an underground movement which could not be controled by the states.
These groups thrived especially at the universities of Gießen and Jena. And they became even more militant. What they knew was the enemy: The state and its representatives, conservative politicians. They advocated violent upheavals and emphatically supported the creation of a new German Republik (whatever that might be).
And when one of these militant students, Karl Ludwig Sand, murdered August Kotzebue, who despised all their attempts to create more liberal society. This triggered even more restrictions in the universities and on the students associations.
Now the states of the German Confederation formed a central investigation institution which had power to act nationally. This all resulted in a relentless and nationwide prosecution of all opposing individuals and the tracking and tracing of suspicious students. All their names were written down and stayed in the records for further use.
From now on most of the later members of the Gießen Emigration society stood under parole. They were known as militant students and the only way to earn a living was to adjust to the system and cooperate.
Although being closely watched by the police they managed to stay in touch over the years. But the dreams of a better Germany, their utopia of a democratic and human society were over, for the moment.
For the German states had no intention to change their rule into a more liberal government. They would not allow participation, let alone to abandon their newly gained independence for the creation of a united German national state. As the true winners of the napoleonic wars they had not only profited by enlarging their countries (dominion) – some doubled or even tripled their size.
Now having by far more subjects than before the war, they had also won absolute souvereignty in their states, absolute power, which was the most important thing for them. (independent dealings internationally)
They did not want to share the newly gained power, with no-one.
So all initiatives for change were squelched from the beginning.
But don´t believe there were a stand still in developement. Oh the states had enough to do. Change started to affect every part of society. And it were the states that initiated the change.
Some had to start something like a process of nationbuilding. They had won new territories and they had won new population but with them came regional distinctions, differences in religious orientation, in the cultural background of the people, or there were disparities in the economical development or in of focus of the single regional economies. There were also various systems of currency, of measurement and even distinctions in legal custom and practice.
If the states wanted to succede in keeping their newly built territories together, they had to change, they had to make deep-going adjustments in their administration to achieve unification and standardization in their countries. Above all they wanted to secure territorial integrity and create a new identity.
But what they did was not to start a process to come to an agreement within the state for the direction of the changes.
They started the reforms unleashing bureaucracy. Bureaucracy ruled – in Germany we call this a bureaucratic absolutism, where technocrats and civil servants worked as a well oiled machine in the interest of the monarchy. Well meaning as they were, these well educated bureaucrats knew what was best in the interest of the country and the people.
But whatever they tried they only opened new boxes full of problems, because they did it without the consent of the people.
With the reforms under way, the governments realized growing objection and even an increasing hostility among their subjects against the reforms. The subjects hadn´t been asked. There was no instrument in the state to balance the power of this bureaucracy. In the old Reich there had been the estates of the country, the provincial representatives – the princes, the gilds, the churches, universities and the cities – who could work in the old parliaments as checks and balances for the government. But all this had been abolished.
This was a good thing for the bureaucracy because it now could work unhindered.
It was not so good, if they faced opposition. The governments then could think of no other means to deal with the opposition other than censorship, suppression of dissent and banning or interdicting organisations.
But came a point where the governments needed help. They hadn´t been able to establish a new territorial identity. And the reforms did cost a lot more money as they had planned.
And the income of the state via taxation failed, when in the years after the end of the continental system, german economy – especially in the smaller or middle size-states such as Hesse-Darmstadt – suffered heavily under the cheaper and better merchandise and industrial goods now flowing in especially from Great Britain.
This resulted in the breakdown of whole regional economies.
In the same period there were several food shortages and famines.
Now there were real problems: opposing citizens, unfinished reforms, economic breakdown, no money in the state coffers and food riots in the country.
Under these circumstances many German states thought of shifting the exceedingly poor parts of their population abroad in promoting emigration. And so many Germans came in the years before 1834 to the United States. Hesse-Darmstadt especially planned to get rid of it prison inmates, deporting them to overseas countries.
But apart from the scandal that was created by this incident, emigration policy did not solve one problem.
Under these circumstances nearly all German states established new constitutions, which would allow the citizens to be part of the decision-making-process in their countries. From now on – in Hesse-Darmstadt this was from 1820 – there were free elections (– you could vote when you paid a certain amount of taxes and you were eligible if you paid an even higher amount of taxes).
Despite these limitations the new constitutions gave much hope for the people. Now they could vote and the parliaments could grant or deny taxes and therefore would be able to control the bureaucracy.
But these hopes were shattered again, when the governments realised that the elections produced the wrong, say liberal parliaments. After that they just dissolved the parliaments and sent the representatives home again. In other cases, when elected civil servants seemed suspicious, meaning tending on the liberal side – they were not granted leave to go to the parliament.
In that situation, we are talking the late 1820ties now we had a failing economy, unfinished reforms, food-riots in remote parts of the country, we had political unrest, a monarch who couldn´t cut the mustard, a omnipotent bureaucracy and lots of citizens and intellectuals who thought they knew better, but couldn´t speak out because of a rigid censorship of the press and the book-market and a system of police informers, snitches and snoopers all over the country.
So if you wanted to change the state and establish a liberal and democratic political system there were two ways. One was the way of violence “peace to the hovels – Death to the palaces” as the followers of Georg Büchner shouted.
This led to total confrontation with the government, it aimed to overthrough the state. Violence, riots and even acts of terrorism were the instruments.
The alternative was to leave the country to seek a new future in a foreign country. Friedrich Münch and Paul Follen and the group around them did just that.
It must have been a spooky experience, for them, when all over the years, whenever something came up that was suspicious in the eyes of the state, they – the former Members of the Gießener Schwarzen – were the ever same suspects.
Just imagine: they were entered into the system in the years 1816 to 1819. And whenever something smelled fishy, the secret police – which still operated nationwide – would only open their ledgers and there they were the old suspects. And it was easy to grab hold of them, because of the ongoing surveillance.
And just that happend to be the case with the protagonists of the Gießen Emigration Society: Friedrich Münch the country parish priest and Paul Follen the Gießen barrister.
When the French Revolution of 1830 spilled over into Germany they were investigated, and after the 1832 attempt to seize a Frankfurt Guardhouse and thereby start a revolution, again they were the suspects.
But at that time they had already decided to go. Tired and fed up they knew there was no remedy for the problems of the German states, the progressive forces in the society being too weak to effect any change.
So in the end this group did not go away because of economic reasons. Compared to other groups they were rather well off.
The Gießen Emigration Society put all their hopes in a political project: in the New World they would buy land and create a new and better German state and a democratic society – their utopia.