The history of Utopia
The traveling exhibit Utopia – Revisiting a German State in America is the story of five hundred emigrants from all over Germany, who come together with a goal to create a German state as part of the United States. The story is an incredible story of fortitude, overcoming obstacles, homesickness, and foreign prejudice, all discussions that relate to today’s story of immigration. The exhibition team tells the story so well because they themselves come from Germany. And the international aspect of the exhibit is bringing fresh voices to the discussion.
Forty years ago, a young scriptwriter living in Berlin, in East Germany, discovered the Giessen Emigration Society while working on an assignment. Fascinated, he never forgot them, or their story. About ten years ago, he asked his close friend, also a filmmaker, if he was familiar with this group of emigrants. Surprised and intrigued, especially with the role his hometown of Bremen had in the story, he too could not forget. He dug deeper and met others, and as Germans like to do, they formed a “study group” inviting scholars, archivists and writers to join them.
Eight years ago in the summer, they all traveled, just as the original members of the Society did, and gathered on the same
island that played such a role in the original story. They became the Traveling Summer Republic (TSR) and just like the original Giessen Emigration Society (GES), came from all over Germany and all walks of life. As the research into the history of the emigration group grew, so did the group itself, meeting each
summer on Harriersand Island in the Weser River in Germany. They began to question, “what became of the Society?”
Unsure as to whether any trace yet remained in America, they contacted several scholars, historians and writers across the United States. One historian and writer in Missouri, unsure whether the email was spam or not, laughingly responded “of course” and the project turned international.
Members of the TSR were invited to Missouri in 2009, and visited with scholars, writers, historians, with both groups amazed at the wealth of knowledge the other had. One of the members was a filmmaker and documented the entire trip for the rest of the TSR back in Germany.
In 2010, I visited Germany to see the release of that documentary, A Trip to a
Forgotten Utopia and was amazed at the interest in this 180-year-old story of what I considered my own history. Finding that there was as much interest in Germany of what became of these emigrants, who represented the thousands of immigrants who came to the U.S. in the 1800s, as there is here in the United States was astounding. Each country had a part of the story to share and information to add for the other. Like the story of every emigrant or immigrant there is a before and after.
Discussion began on how this story could be shared with a larger audience. In Germany, where most of the now international TSR lived, a search for funding began. The funding situation in 2010 in the United States for an international historical project was not very forthcoming. In Germany, though,
with a grant from the German Government’s Ministry of Culture in hand, the project took off. Others from across Germany came on board, and as the exhibition was developed, and the venues were planned, partners in the United States came on board as well. After a second trip to the U.S. in 2011, further support of the project and additional project members joined in as well.
Additional components were added when Bremen publisher Edition Falkenberg published the catalog (accompanying book) for the exhibition. Filmmaker Peter Roloff of Berlin’s maxim films created a documentary which will premier in St. Louis’ International Film Festival. Shipping companies, writers, historians, archivists, photographers, and historical societies have come forward and partnered with the TSR giving their generous support. Other supporting projects have been developed from theatrical sponsors, cities, and historical institutions both public and private.
On November 1, 2013 the exhibition Utopia – Revisiting a German State in America opened to a packed house in the City of Giessen, not far from the University where the Giessen Emigration Society’s founders Friedrich Muench and Paul Follenius studied together in 1817. The exhibit begins its story there. The City of Giessen’s chapter portrays the part of the story where student revolutionaries make bold moves and have even bolder dreams that lay a foundation for the two young men’s lives, and the Society they formed.
In April of 2013, the exhibition moved to Bremen, a European city of emigrants and immigrants, and to a repurposed burned out church of World War II, where it gave an even greater voice for the emigrants and the hardships they suffered to reach their dream of America. And when it reached the United States this summer many members of the TSR felt the same relief in seeing the exhibit arrive, as many of the members of the GES must have felt 180 years ago.
In November, the exhibit will arrive in Missouri, just as most of the GES members did. And while the attempt to create a German state in America may be considered an impossibility, those that live here do know just how “German” of a
state we really are. And what better way for a city like St. Louis to celebrate its’ 250 years of history, a city of immigrants, than by celebrating this history. It is this legacy of those that immigrated here and that continue to live here, that make us the great city we are today. St. Louis’ own Missouri History Museum in Forest Park will be the perfect place to experience what some have come to call Utopia.