History of Me, Part 6: From Weak States to Strong Empire

I’m back after a busy holiday season and ready to dig in!

In this edition of History of Me, the Reformation planted the seeds of inter-religious conflict that led to foreign invasion, and eventual nationalistic German unification. Sound interesting? Let’s dive in!

NOTE: I am looking into German/Germanic/European history as a function of my own familial cultural roots, and am attempting to do so in an anti-racist, anti-imperial way. For my full reading list and a further note about whiteness, see this post.

After the Reformation…

When we last left our intrepid heroes, Germany/Europe was just figuring out how the heck to survive the upheaval caused by the splitting of the “one true Catholic Church” into several Protestant sects (Lutheranism, Calvinism, etc), each of whom thought they had a corner on salvation and right-ness.

Everybody and their brother in Europe fought in this. Literally.

Unfortunately, many didn’t survive. Religious tensions that bubbled up when various German states (and eventually other countries) converted to Protestantism erupted in 1618 into the 30 Years War, essentially a war that began with German states but grew to include various foreign powers on both sides of the Catholic League / Protestant Union divide.

Now, I didn’t know much about the 30 Years War before I read my readings for this section (chapters 4-8 in Mighty Fortress and Our Daily Bread). If I learned about it at school, it was a blip of a fact to be memorized, so when I began reading I was like “Oh yeah, the 30 Years War.” Thirty years doesn’t sound all that long in the scope of the world. BUT. Think about what it would be like to live in a constant state of war and violence and fear… for 30 years. That’s how old I am right now. So if I was born in 1618, if I survived I would have lived in war for my whole life, because the 30 Years War didn’t end until 1648. Even when it did end, it was common for German villages to have lost 40% of their population during the 30 Years’ War. This is comparable with rates of death due to the Black Plague throughout Europe.

In addition to just being a generally violent and traumatic time for the average German villager, it was also tough time for the German states. Ozment describes this war as “the trauma of the Germans” and a time when “militarily superior nations settled their conflicts and increased their assets” (p.107). Basically, the 30 Years War was the first and most notable in a long series of conflicts in which individual German states (acting separately from the Holy Roman Empire) got swept up in conflicts with much larger and more dominant nations.

Because so many of these wars were driven in large part by larger, more powerful foreign aggressors (Sweden, France, Russia…), anti-foreign sentiment began to rise. (The first King of Prussia, Frederick William, is quoted as saying “I will put pistols in the cradles of my children, so that they can help keep foreigners out of Germany!” [Ozment p.132]) Two main centers of German political power began to coalesce — namely in Austria (led by the Catholic Habsburgs) and Prussia (led by the Protestant Hohenzollerns).

When Napoleon came knocking on Austria’s door in 1792, Prussia and other German states left them to face the French alone by signing neutrality treaties. Unsurprisingly, Austria was soon defeated, and Napoleon acquired much of western Germany in the peace treaty of 1797. In the next few years, Napoleon made some radical changes to French-occupied Austria and western Germany, including officially dissolving the Holy Roman Empire in 1806 and totally reorganizing the cities, districts, and religious dioceses of southwestern Germany. (Ozment notes that “more than three hundred sovereign entities [aka cities, states, etc] the French encountered in 1800 had been consolidated into thirty-five at the time of their departure” [p.158].) Napoleon then continued his march east and conquered formerly neutral Prussia as well. The French occupation was painful, but the Prussians got their revenge when their contingent of conscripted troops defected to join the Russians and helped defeat Napoleon in 1812-3.

When the 1814 Peace of Paris reset the national boundaries to restore Germany to Austria and Prussia, these two powers began to fight their way to the top, with Prussia victorious in the Austro-Prussian War in 1866. Despite an economic and agrarian crisis in 1846 (which kicked off large waves of German immigration to the USA), Prussia was able to consolidate power and ride a wave of pro-German nationalism to unify Germany in 1871 under the banner of the Prussian Empire.

The Prussian Empire, 1871

That’s a lot of history there… but it’s interesting to read this from my shoes, because I literally have family from Prussia / east Germany as well as near Austria in now-Switzerland… so when I read this, it’s like I’m reading about my ancestors fighting. For example, In 1864, a united Austro-Prussian army marched into the northwestern state of Schleswig-Holstein and fought Denmark over possession of this territory. So, like, my maternal grandpa’s family and my paternal grandpa’s family got together and invaded my maternal grandma’s home state. Super weird.

It’s easy to see how (a) this was an incredibly traumatic, chaotic, and violent time for the average European/German person, and (b) this began to evolve into the “might makes right” strong-man mentality of the later Prussian Empire.

Also, this (mid 1800’s) is now beginning to get into the period of time when my ancestors immigrated from Europe to the USA… I’ll talk more about that in another post, but I definitely see a lot of “push” factors in terms of a tumultuous climate that may have made it sound nice to start over in a new country.

German Village Life

As with Voices of Morebath, I read Our Daily Bread: German Village Life 1500-1850 by Teva Scheer to get an idea of what everyday village life was like in the midst of all the political chaos.

The first thing I noted at the start of the book was that, again, the 30 Years War had a massive impact on village life. Scheer notes that “both the villagers and their noble lords lived out their lives in small, rural, and isolated worlds” (p.4), but also that “most people’s ancestors… had lived in [their same villages] since the end of the 30 Years’ War in 1648 or earlier” (p.9). So when we think of the self-contained “little town” like in Beauty and the Beast, we’re not entirely wrong… but large national events like wars did have a massive impact on otherwise isolated hamlets. Religion — especially directly after the Reformation — was another major influence from the top down, with Protestant/Catholic conflict being a major driver for war as well.

Other than those things, however, Scheer notes the unchanging nature of many rural villages:

Villages remained profoundly conservative — suspicious of strangers and hostile to any innovation, such as new crops or agricultural innovations. The inhabitants lived too close to the prospect of starvation and ruin to be open to experimentation. Each village tried to be as self-contained as possible. (p.15, emphasis added)

Each village was its own little world with its own local and regional customs, but some generalizations can be made to give us the idea of what life was like. Scheer writes about an imaginary typical family in an imaginary town to illustrate this. Here’s what stood out to me:

  • “Membership” in the town (burgher status) was highly regulated by current residents and leaders — basically, you had to pay a fee and be given permission to join the town. (Seems pretty similar to Morebath, actually.)
  • Villagers still followed the “good old law” (p.35) of Germanic custom in many areas as opposed to the still somewhat foreign Roman law. (That’s how you can tell villages are old school… the Romans were gone like 800 years ago and their laws are still the “new” ones!)
  • Ongoing conflict and deeply entrenched division between Protestant and Catholic villages/people — “As late as WWII, Catholic and Protestant villages periodically came to blows” (p.48)
  • Community leaders strictly regulated many aspects of villagers’ lives, including jobs (villages limited the number of millers or blacksmiths that were permitted to operate there), church attendance (you could be fined or otherwise censured for absence), and marriage (had to get permission, and when that wasn’t given the rate of illegitimate birth rose).
  • “An individual’s position in a community was dependent on the degree to which he or she was considered an honorable person” (p.86). I got this book for my parents for Christmas, and in talking with my dad about it earlier today we talked about some of the cultural values we recognized in the book from our relatives and family culture. We decided that the emphasis on honor definitely crossed the pond… but that it was sometimes a “mixed bag”. 🙂  (This also was a common theme in both the Norse stories and the Sigrid Undset books that I read. Interesting to see the threads stay present but morph slightly over time.)
  • Village life was hardest on women. Between medieval witch trials (which were worst in Germany and led to the deaths of over 100k women across Europe) and back-breaking non-stop labor (manual or child-birth-ical), village life was not easy.
  • Death was a common part of life. Not even to mention all the wars mentioned above… but just in terms of child mortality. Scheer notes that “in general, data suggest that between one-third and one-half of children died before their 5th birthdays” (p.119). I can’t imagine how painful it must have been to know that half your children would probably die. (Also, this explains why so many families in my family tree around this time had so many children!)

Overall, there were some good things — like people knowing each other and working out how to live together as a collective — but also, that collectivism sometimes seemed to turn into conformity and legalism that could be stifling. So, as with all cultures, some good and some bad. 

Although this book is about medieval German village life, it’s written by a German-American for those interested in their immigrant ancestors — so ultimately the book highlights some of the push factors leading to the large waves of German migration to the US in the mid-1800s. We’ll talk more about that in a later post — but even just from what we know already, the combination of lots of wars (chaos) plus and end to those wars (increased population) plus the economic/agricultural crisis of the 1860’s (decreased jobs/food/money to pass on to next generation) make a pretty strong recipe for migration. (Not to mention reports of basically “free” stolen land due to the Homestead Act of 1862… but that’s a whole nother blog series…)

Conclusion

In this post — which, admittedly, covers a lot of time — we see Germany finally coming together as a unified modern nation… an Empire, in fact. But despite political/imperial/nationalistic success, many average people were suffering and struggling. This is the point at which most of my direct ancestors’ stories and the story of the Prussian Empire / German Nation diverge; my direct ancestors immigrated to the US between 1855-1924, so from now on their story will begin to align with the USA’s story instead. We can see Germany getting stronger and more militaristic (foreshadowing the later authoritarian rise of the Nazis), and we can also see a lot of the people falling out the bottom of society, and coming to America in hopes of climbing to the top… so now I really feel like I have a clearer picture of what my ancestors were leaving behind (and some of the why) when they chose to come here.

NEXT TIME: We’ll get to the immigration post soon, but first, I’ll take a one-book trip to Slovakia to learn about the 1/4 of my family tree that I’ve been neglecting so far!

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