Why Utopia

It is amazing how one word can have so many meanings for so many people. For some the word Utopia only brings to mind Sir Thomas More’s (1478-1535) Latin book in 1516, describing a fictional island society. But as Wikipedia states “it has spawned other concepts.” Many historians have often linked Utopia and the Giessen Emigration Society over the past one hundred twenty years. While some may have More’s version in mind, they have each added their own interpretation with their own usage. So why was the word Utopia chosen for the exhibition, book and documentary Utopia – Revisiting a German State in America?

It is not the first time to be used

As early as 1897, historian Thomas Stockham Baker in Americana Germanica in his essay America as the Political Utopia of Young Germany wrote “At first these plans had been elaborated in Germany; soon, however, in the larger cities of the United States similar schemes were discussed, and in some cases attempted. The most important of the early societies formed for founding German states was the Giessener Auswanderungs-Gesellschaft” found in Volume one, pages 62-102. Thomas Baker was Professor of German Language and Literature at Johns Hopkins University.

“Although Muench and Follenius, as originators of the plan for a new German Republic in Missouri, had abandoned their idea, the dream of a Neu Deutschland did not die so easily with others. And so, although the Anzeiger and most of the other German newspapers which came along later were against a New Germany, they still felt that they had to give news space to the many schemes constantly being advanced for a Teutonic Utopia.” wrote historian Ernst A. Stadler in The German Settlement of St. Louis. [American Studies, vol. 6, no. 1: Spring 1965, p. 16-29]

One of my favorites is St. Louis Germans 1850-1920: The Nature of an Immigrant Community and its Relation to the Assimilation Process: Chapter 1: Utopia in Missouri. “Stepping off the steamboat at St. Louis in the early 1830’s, the first natives of Germany found a bare uninviting little town straggling along the banks of the Mississippi River… [writes about Giessen Emigration Society] … Finding only remnants of Follenius’ group, the survivors decided to buy farm land in the vicinity and abandoned their grandiose plans for a German Utopia.” written by Audrey L. Olson. [New York 1980]

Even in Germany “Die Vorstellungen über Amerika, die Follenius und Münch in der “Aufforderung” und der “Erklärung” darlegten, geben ihrem gesamten Plan das Gepräge einer Utopie, den er auch in tieferem Sinn hat. In Amerika erwarteten sie die Verwirklichung des liberalen Programms. Ihre an das Schlaraffenland erinnernden Vorstellungen von Arkansas verbinden sich mit dessen Grundidee” or in english for my American readers “The visions of America, which Follenius and Muench set forth in their Call and Declaration give their whole plan the stamp of a utopia – a characterization that is also true in a deeper sense. In America they expected the realization of the liberal program [the ideas of German liberalism]. Their imagination of Arkansas, reminiscent of the Garden of Eden merged with these political ideas.” was published by Herbert Reiter: Politisches Asylim 19. Jahrhundert. Die deutschen politischen Flüchtlinge des Vormärz und der Revolution von 1848/49 in Europa und den USA in Berlin 1992, page 77. And in another essay, Reiter even used it in his title: Revolution und Utopie. Die Amerikapläne der Brüder Karl und Paul Follen 1819 und 1833. In the Hessisches Jahrbuch für Landesgeschichte, volume 43 (1993), p. 139-166. Herbert Reiter, Ph.D., is with the European University Institute in Florence.

Professor Hans-Jürgen Grabbe, Director of the Center for US-American Studies at the University of Halle-Wittenberg wrote “He [Muench] had hoped to found his ‘model republic’ in Arkansas but failed miserably; most members of the Giessen Emigration Society, founded by Muench with Karl Follen’s brother Paul Follenius, dispersed soon after their arrival in the United States. In other cases, too, group migration projects fell short of the high-minded expectations that had been nourished by the intellectual leadership. The rank and file had joined emigration societies out of functional considerations, were for the most part genuinely weary of Germany, and chose to seek individual happiness rather than pursue utopian projects.” in Weary of Germany – weary of America. Perceptions of the United States in Nineteenth-Century Germany in David E. Barclay/Elisabeth Glaser-Schmidt’s (editors): Transatlantic Images and Perceptions. Germany and America since 1776. Cambridge 1997, p. 65-86, here p. 75.

While this title was never chosen by the Society’s founders themselves, it was what so many others had and have used, as an impression and expression of their plan. The answer to the question, and perhaps the simplest of all, lies in what is probably the least famous referral found in a small church in Nieder Gemünden, written by a contemporary of one of the Society’s founders and its’ former Pastor, Friedrich Muench. In 1857, there is simply an entry written into the church record book by the Pastor August Lotz “He has gone to his Utopia”.churchsteeple


Additional research for this was provided by Kilian Spiethoff. For more information see the book Utopia – Revisiting a German State in America.