The East-Bank German Jacobins
From the Mainz Republic to the First Democratic Constitution
Translated by Mark R. Hatlie
Today we are meeting on the left bank of the Rhein, an area that has, for centuries, been influenced by freedom-seeking and anti-clerical tendencies. The upper Rhein is the oldest center of the German emancipatory movement - something the Germans today have forgotten.
As early as the high Middle Ages, the citizens of Worms, a city not far from here, succeeded in chasing off their bishop. Worms became the first free German city - more than 900 years ago. Their example was followed by Cologne, where the citizens stormed the bishop's residence. The bishop just barely got away with his life and later lamented that the city had fallen into the hands of the Devil. Whether he really believed this nonsense or not, we may never know. But with faith all things are possible!
The medieval population of the upper Rhein was by no means as fearful and cowardly as many of the half-liberals of later times: They threw their feudal and clerical rulers out, without compromise. Speyer joined them and their bishop had to flee across the river to the left bank.
Here in the upper Rhein area, the river has long represented the frontier of freedom.
The decisive turning point in the struggle for freedom was the Age of the French Revolution. The first German democrats were locally active from the very beginning, especially here on the left bank. They are often called the "German Jacobines" in reference to the French radicals under Jacobin. Unfortunately, they only managed to achieve dramatic changes in the area between Mainz, Landau and Saarbrücken.
My first thesis:
The area on the left bank of the Rhein was the first place where a German democracy could be established. Far away from the centers of power in Berlin, Vienna, Munich and Frankfurt. The left-bank Jacobines managed to develop a special democratic tradition that lasted for more than 50 years. These five decades are far more meaningful than the terrible German trinity of Metternich, Bismarck and Hitler. With a little bit more luck, the left-bank democrats would have been able to steer German history in a more freedom-loving, peaceful direction. If only they had been given the chance.
What went wrong? In France, the peasants, bourgoisie and even many nobles rose up and got rid of the Old Regime.
Two years after the fall of the Bastille on the 14th of July 1789, two German-speaking superpowers, Prussia and Austria, invaded France. There goal was to drown the new French democracy in blood and burn Paris to the ground. The deep historical rift between Germans and French can be traced back to this period ["It is not the product of an innate hatred dating back into the depths of time immemorial. It is a modern development"]. The left-bank German democrats were the only exception. And they have been treated with contempt and even hatred by later generations up to today.
They had their chance when the German invasion failed militarily. The German democrats on the right bank of the Rhein were far too few in number to defeat the German feudal military powers. They were forced to stay underground, where they formed secret circles and published illegal writings. Many of the very best were forced into exile.
Where did they go? To France, of course. The result was the first German democratic diaspora, concentrated primarily in the German-speaking Alsace. Even today, this is a "homeless" part of our history. The Alsatians don't claim the exiles; neither do the Germans. The "culture Popes" in France even less so.
The unique democratic path taken by the left-bank Germans was the product of the French Revolution. This special development meant a total break with the German historical tendency to maintain countless small states - as opposed to a single, united German state - as well as with the German spirit of submissiveness. It was, therefor, dependent on comprehensive change: REVOLUTION instead of EVOLUTION.
Even during the first democratic upheavals in Mainz in 1792, the friends of the Old Regime relied on negotiations and supposed reforms to be initiated by the German emperor in Vienna.
But the gradual, non-violent, evolutionary approach was nothing but smoke and mirrors. Popular sovereignty, popular elections, public trials under the rule of law, public control of the administration - these are not the kinds of things that a sovereign people are willing to share with autocratic rulers.
The German educated class, who would have been needed to provide ideas for the new movement, were generally not politically practical thinkers, but isolated individualists. They were highly skeptical if not contemptuous of the simple people who would make up the majority of a democracy. The big names of Weimar, primarily Goethe and Schiller, hardly looked beyond the narrow horizons of their money-givers. They had little understanding - and more scorn and mockery - for the program of democratizating Germany.
When the Jacobines of Mainz were fighting for the first republic on German soil 210 years ago, the thinkers of Weimar, the classics of the "German spirit and intellect" as they have since been called, were standing on the sidelines. Goethe was the worst: He looked on with malicious joy as the defeated democrats withdrew from Mainz with the French army. Hateful antidemocrats lay in wait at the city gates and tore the Jacobines from the ranks of the French army and violently mistreated them. Herr Goethe watched this disgusting display of the "German spirit" with approval.
How did the Mainz Republic of 1792 come into being?
The German invading army was stopped in Champagne [a region of eastern France, not a beverage], and began to retreat. They were followed by a small army from the French Alsace. It advanced on Speyer, the last German bridgehead on the west bank of the Rhine. The arrogant princes had left only a few thousand troops to garrison the city.
The power of the French lay not as much in its army as in the democratic enthusiasm of its national guard. The volunteers of the Rhine army had flocked in from the German-speaking towns of Alsace. They came with the intention of liberating their German neighbors form the yoke of their princes. They didn't consider themselves conquerors; they didn't fight for the victory, honor and glory of France and certainly not for the profits of the arms industry, the stock market or the bureaucrats. The Alsatian liberators of Mainz, the victors over feudalism, who had paved the way to the first German democracy, were the cosmopolitan-thinking neighbors - not military blockheads. They saw themselves as part of a common family of the upper Rhine. They considered it their brotherly duty to bring freedom to those enslaved across the border.
The last German soldiers fled Speyer in September of 1792. The entire territory from their down to Mainz lay open to the soldiers of the Revolution. Mainz surrendered.
Even earlier, the democratic rebels of the Southern Pfalz had taken up the banner of revolt between Neustadt and Landau.
This was a region without large cities, without intellectuals, without experienced leadership. It was an area which shouldn't have even appeared in the history of great events. Center stage was the village of Bergzabern, where the city council managed to win over the revolutionary Jacobines of the French fortress city of Landau to the cause. The villages of the Southern Pfalz liberated themselves from their feudal lords; they simply declared their former exploiters dethroned. Contrary to all the sermons of German nationalist school-masters who would recount the events to generations of pupils, that self-liberation was not an act of violence. It was a justified and necessary act for freedom.
The people of Bergzabern looked to an ancient democratic model, the people's assembly. All the men met in the city hall and debated whether or not they should separate from their lords. Even those who were against the separation were allowed to speak. Only the lackeys of the Grand Duke were muzzled, as they were only speaking for pay.
Wisely, the citizens of Bergzabern formed a militia and elected their officers. Jean Adam Meyer, the local baker and innkeeper, proved to be a talented leader. He was elected mare and later to the presidency of the first parliament in this country. He was eventually made the commander of the first general national guard.
They formed a Jacobine club in which all problems of public interest were to be discussed openly. Together with 20 neighboring villages, they formed a small republic. To secure their independence, they asked Paris for permission to join the French Republic. The National Convention took them in. The Southern Pfalz became, for more than 50 years, a bastion of German democracy, even after the left bank of the Rhine had been brought back into the German Reich.
The Revolution of Bergzabern was without bloodshed. That had one negative result up to the present day: When there is no loud bang, when no blood flows, when heads don't roll, the historians don't take notice. No effort is spared, however, to engrave the story of any revolt involving cruelty into memory.
Let's return to Mainz. The French were hardly in the city in 1792 when a Jacobine club was formed, called the "Society of Friends of Freedom and Equality". It managed to convince many to join the cause. Masses of people Mainz attended the public meetings, held in the old castle of the prince. There they listened to what democracy was. At least back then, Germans - and not the victorious army of occupation - tried to win their fellows over to democratic thinking.
Adam Custine, the French general of Mainz, a man of noble descent, didn't quite understand the Germans. Politically naive, as military people often are, he thought it would be enough to print an enthusiastic call to all Germans across the Rhine, and all the Germans would join the cause of freedom and cast off their old rulers.
But the Germans on the right bank of the Rhine chose to wait and see if the French revolutionary army wouldn't just come over and do the liberating. As far away as Ulm, there was a perceptible hope that French army would come. The Germans hoped, but lacked political action.
So the left-bank region around Mainz remained isolated. The democratic leaders of the city did what they could and decided to reform the area under their control. In February of 1793 the first elections in German history were held, the elections to the German city councils and to parliament - the "Rhine German National Convention" (Rheinisch-deutsches Nationalkonvent). The embryonic republic received the name "Rhine German Free State" (Rheinisch-deutscher Freistaat).
The convention met in the castle of the German Order of Knights. It was not a good omen that the first German parliaments met in castles and churches. To find political refuge from the vengeful German feudal military, the Mainz parliament wanted to join the French Republic as well. But the first German republic went down in a barrage of Prussian artillery.
The democratically reformed society managed to hold up, even after the left-bank region had been returned to Germany, after 1814.
The main enemies of the first German democracy were the monarchs and feudal nobles; their instrument of choice was military force. In the peace of 1797, the Rhine became the frontier between the new rights and the old yoke.
The tragedy of the German democratic movement was that other forces harvested what they planted: bureaucrats, the rich, and the military. The German democrats distanced themselves from the new French militarism, of course. When Napoleon replaced the republic with the empire in 1805, the German departments (administrative regions of France) were the strongest opposition. But they never abandoned their new rights - the Napoleonic code, the new book of laws. That book was so popular among Germans left of the Rhine that it was comparable to the Bible.
When Napoleon fell, the German princes seized the areas left of the Rhine that they had lost. The alarm was immediately sounded. The population feared the return of the old feudal landlords, the unfair judges, the despotic lordly church, the Jesuit order, and the reestablishment of the monasteries as territorial rulers. It was feared that the democratic achievements of the past 20 years would be lost. And if the new rights and laws were abrogated, the new distribution of property would be lost as well. During the Revolution, the property of the feudal nobility, the church and the anti-democratic exiles had been redistributed. A new middle class had appeared which was determined to hold on to the principles of the French Revolution or lose its property to the former powers who were lying in wait just across the river.
If only for fear of losing their property, the new bourgeoisie left of the Rhine had to stay in favor of the revolutionary laws.
Six years, from 1814 to 1820, they waged a war of words to maintain the achievements of the Revolution. They published pamphlets and books, debated in parliament and negotiated diplomatically to defend what came to be called "the French institutions" - and the first German program of basic rights appeared here on the left bank of the Rhine, two generations before the revolutionaries of 1848.
French basic rights referred to the freedom and security of the individual, equality before the law, freedom of profession, the separation of the justice system from the administration and the executive, public trials, trial by jury, the separation of church and state, the freedom and security of property - primarily the abrogation of mandatory tithing and the rest of the feudal obligations. The church had lost its direct access to the wallets of its sheep. That is the harshest form of criticism of religion.
A publicist described the mood of his contemporaries: The new basic rights had brought the destruction of the feudal landholdings, every farmer could own his own land and do with as he pleased. The former nobility had long since fled across the river, in most cases to Bavaria. The intensification of agriculture was making the villages and cities thrive while the former princely residences and castles fell into disrepair. By peaceful means, through social change, the slogan of the Revolution had been realized: "Peace to the houses! War to the palaces!"
After a long period of resistance, the German monarchs had to concede and accept the new, post-revolutionary state of affairs left of the Rhine. But the area was too problematic for the monarchs, so they divided it up: the northern area around Mainz became the province of Rheinhessen as part of the Grand Duchy of Hessen-Darmstadt. The southern area, from Speyer to Landau, became the province of Rheinbayern or Pfalz as part of Bavaria. When these two German states later (?) got their first constitutions, they had to add the stipulation: All clauses in the constitution which are not in accord with the French institutions do not apply left of the Rhine river.
For the monarchies, a heavy blow indeed.
In ensuing years, this democratic special status became both the focus of dispute and source of incentive for new thinking. The people of the Pfalz liked to send radical democrats to the Bavarian Landtag (parliament) in Munich, men who didn't make any compromises and who held high the flag of opposition. Whenever any controversy came up, they confidently declared how splendidly this particular problem had been solved in their home region, left of the Rhine.
To weaken the position of the left-bank democrats, Bavaria abused church and cultural policy. During the Revolution, the monasteries had been dissolved and the religious orders banned - truly a blessing for the country. But now the Bavarian king founded new monasteries. To crown his anti-liberal policies, the head of the school administration in the Pfalz in Speyer, the proven Jacobin Butenschön, was removed from his post.
Who took his place? A monarchist, of course, an enemy of enlightenment and criticism. In Bavaria, everything was moving backwards.
Generally, the first all-German democratic opposition had its strongest support left of the Rhine. The famous Hambach Festival of 1832, the first mass-demonstration in German history, could only have happened there. The cradle of German democracy - the hill above Hambach near Neustadt on the Wine Road - was crowned by a castle ruin from the German Peasant War of 1525, a great symbol of our history of freedom.
The growing discontent with the situation in Germany found its expression in the three-day demonstration at the Hambach castle. In keeping with their rather cheerful, somewhat Mediterranean mentality, the people of the Pfalz made a festival out of their confrontational democracy. 20,000 to 30,000 celebrated, ate, told stories, agitated, and drank lots of wine.
Bavarian informants mingled with the crowd in search of regicidal potential, but found only mockery. That was democracy in its cheerful phase.
A group of democrats hungry for action was indeed planning an armed revolt with the intent of establishing a democracy throughout Germany. So even the first plan for a German democratic revolt was born left of the Rhine.
The following year, in 1833, students in Frankfurt tried to topple the meeting of princes of the German Federation (Deutscher Bund), unfortunately without success. That was the opportunity reactionary forces had been waiting for. The German princes set up a special office for repression in Wiesbaden, right across from Mainz, creating a rather strange predecessor for the German Criminal Office (Bundeskriminalamt) we have today. A full 10% of all repressed Germans were from the tiny Pfalz region.
When democracy lives and its supporters don't put their tails between their legs, they stick together even during periods of repression.
They demonstrated this in court. The Bavarian justice system put the most important leaders of the Hambach Festival in front of a criminal tribunal which had to meet in Landau, left of the Rhine. The jury obviously deemed them innocent. The police proceeded to trump up charges for lessor crimes to avoid a jury trial. When the democrats ended up behind bars, their supporters looked for ways to free them.
If you look at the family backgrounds of those who helped the convicts escape, you come across secret democratic traditions. Many of them were the progeny of the first Jacobines left of the Rhine. Their families had fought the political struggle for freedom together. That made for a rock-solid kind of solidarity that held even in the darkest times.
An amusing example of this legendary togetherness can be seen in the case of Seibenpfeiffer, the most important leader of the Hambach Festival. When he had just been freed from prison and was sneaking away to France, he spent one last night on German soil right at the border. He was led into the house of a prominent co-conspirator and given money, clothing and faked documents.
Who was helping him? The chairman of the same jury that had pronounced him innocent several months before!
The first all-German democratic revolution (1848-1849) was most pronounced in the area left of the Rhine - the armed revolt for the German Reich constitution that had been passed in Frankfurt.
When the parliamentarians met for the first time in 1848, the people of the Pfalz held true to real democracy. Many of the others wanted to avoid injuring the princes, oriented themselves toward the gray middle of the political spectrum, and wanted to stay on friendly terms with the police, the magistrates and nobility. It took the men in Frankfurt a whole year to get a constitution put on paper.
The opening procession into parliament showed the fateful constellation. In the middle, totally conventional men of no interest and members of the gymnastics clubs - unfortunately unarmed. Who was supposed to defend the parliamentarians? On the outside, soldiers who, one year later, would strangle the democracy.
It turned out the way the German Jacobines had predicted: If you don't topple the old rulers, freedom can't take root. Even the compromise constitution passed in Frankfurt was trampled by the soldiers of the Prussian king.
The bravest representatives fled to Stuttgart and formed a rump parliament. The only German region which sent all its representatives to Stuttgart was the left-bank Pfalz. In Kaiserslautern, the representatives of the Pfalz declared a republic on the 1st of May, 1849. They tried to fight for a German democratic constitution, but in vain.
The defeat was traumatic. This picture shows the bloodbath caused by Prussia: a freedom-fighter is granted a "reprieve" in the form of powder and shot. A Hecker-hat, a symbol of the revolution of 1848 lies next to him. ["The Hecker hat is named after Friedrich Hecker, one of the leaders of the uprising. He later emigrated to the US where he became an officer in the Union Army during the Civil War."]
The princes and anti-democratic forces had their hands full trying to erase the memory of German democracy, especially of the special situation that had existed left of the Rhine. They succeeded unfortunately up into the 1960s. Only then a new phase of historical writing begin. Strangely enough, the first were a handful of historians from the GDR who had a hard time fending off the Stalinist party bureaucrats. The first was Heinrich Scheel in East Berlin. During the Third Reich, he had been part of the Rote Kapelle resistance movement which had tried to warn Stalin about Hitler.
Even today the political inheritance of the Jacobines remains unclaimed. If we don't want it to be coopted by the Bavarian government someday, we should take it ourselves. It might include ideas such as grass-roots democracy, direct democracy, election of judges and other offices, the power to dismiss representatives, a distrust of superpowers of any kind. When the "little people" have no more power, there is no more rule of the people, by the people and for the people.
Hellmut Haasis has written a book about these events:
Haasis, Hellmut G.: Morgenröte der Republik. Die linksrheinischen Demokraten 1789-1849, Frankfurt, 1984.