Tuesday, March 14, 2006

The Revolution of 1848

Top: Today's Serrig at the edge of the Kammerforst
Bottom: The path beside the road from Oberzerf to Serrig

I asked my father, "Vater, what is the Revolution?"... '"Ach," he said, "nobody knows what it is, and everyone makes of it what he wants." Grandfather of Peter Fass, Serrig

The Revolution That Failed

Those of us who have 19th century Rhineland ancestors soon learn about the Revolution of 1848, when there was a short-lived struggle with the Emperor of Prussia for more individual liberty and the freedom to participate in the process of government.

After some initial success, the proponents of a more democratic form of government (or even a republic) in the Prussian Rheinland failed to bring it about. The Prussian emperor did not look kindly on the rebellious activities, and those identified as a threat were sought out for punishment. This caused many of those who had gained notoriety to flee.

Because America was seen as a place where democratic ideals flourished, some of the escaping so-called "48'ers" chose it as their new homeland. Most of these men were from the middle class and educated - the so-called "German gentlemen farmers." A good example is Carl Shurz who took up a new life in Watertown, Wisconsin; and in the 1860's became a leading figure in the Republican party and an advisor to President Abraham Lincoln.

Most of us are not the descendants of well-educated revolutionaries. Our forefathers were struggling farmers, craftsmen, and dayworkers. But just like the fleeing 48'ers, our immigrant ancestors wanted to escape - not from a courtroom or a prison but from economic hardship or outright poverty. This was a time when the winemakers of the Rhineland were suffering poverty because the bottom had fallen out of the wine market. New taxes and fees depleted even further the already stretched purses of the farmers, winemakers, craftsmen and laborers. They were ready to revolt.

While our Rhineland ancestors' activities during the revolution may not have put them in the history books, they, too, took part in the disorder and excitement that was sweeping the region; some as observers, others as occasional participants.

The Revolution Comes to the Saar Valley

In his history of Saarburg, Nikolaus Ritzler talks about 1848 bringing an overthrow movement to the city.

On March 25, 1848 toll stations in Trassem were destroyed. On the same day, a toll in Niederleuken was demolished. And in Freudenburg a toll was dismantled and the German flag of the revolution (not the Prussian flag) was flown. In this dangerous atmosphere, a regiment of soldiers was sent from Trier to Saarburg; but were withdrawn again because of the protests of the city government. This left the Saarburg mayor, Herr Crell, and the head of the Saarburg administrative district, Herr Von Nell, in a terribly difficult situation. The Prussian eagle was ripped from the city hall in Saarburg and ruined with excrement and dirt of the road. A pole called a "freedom tree" was planted, and the women and girls danced around it.

In his book about the small wine village of Serrig in the Saar valley, Serrig: Landschaft, Geschichte & Geschichten, Klaus Hammächer included a story by Peter Fass, whose grandfather was the schoolmaster in Serrig in 1848.

The Serrig Schoolteacher's Memories of the 1848 Revolution:

Herr Fass said that people talked of the revolution and believed it would come to them from Trier. One Sunday the men in their clean blue overalls stayed under the mighty Linden at the rear of the church. They talked about the revolution in Trier that was going against the Prussians. One of the men spoke up, looking around anxiously as he talked. He claimed to know that the Trier streets had barricades and that stores were being plundered with the cry of “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.” The mayor, the police, even the Prussians were gone. A great cry went up from the men under the tree and echoed through the Saar hills. The French of the Saar drank many glasses of Saar wine and Viez that Sunday.

The school children came to school unhappily on Monday. Herr Fass, their schoolteacher, stood quietly on the big stone steps of the school. “Are you youngsters daring to make revolution? No! Are we having school? Ja, get inside!” So the 90 students climbed the stone steps and went into the classroom. Reading, writing, and arithmetic went on as usual, but Herr Fass stood near the window and kept looking out. The students were restless. They felt something important was happening.

Men came carrying a pole which they put up in the free space between the school and the Parish house. At the top there were colorful bands of ribbon. They called it the freedom tree. The men danced around it; one started and the others followed. Their pointed caps were thrown in the air, their blue overalls flapped as even stiff legs cut wonderful figures. No more teaching today. The students ran out to the pole. People from the upper and lower village and from Kirten came running. The Herr Fass still stood at the window and was joined by his wife. "We'll have to wait until they get tired," he said. "Then we'll finally be able to hear ourselves think."

The shouting and the dancing finally died away. But the young fellows cried, "to the Kammerforscht (dialect for the Kammerforst). They went with axes and saws. They found no forest keeper but they did find the men from Irsch and Beurich already cutting. The emperor's oaks fell under the blows of the “freedom men” that had plenty of wood in their own Gehöferschaft and community woods. They brought their burdens home on wagons.

Meanwhile Prussian Hussars had been called into Trier. They were led by a small, stocky general named Schreckensteiner. He jumped on a cannon and told the “freedom men” that if they didn’t make peace, he would fire the cannon and blow the town to bits. That did little to stop them. Suddenly there was a terrible noise; a cannon shot into the air. Almost immediately a white flag fluttered from the St. Gangolf church tower. "We will listen" came the cry.

Meanwhile, in Serrig, after the excitement died down, the freedom tree stood with only a ripped red band still hanging. The farmers, wagons heavy with logs, didn't know what to do with them; and they needed their wagons for hauling their hay

The forester who had run away from the Kammerforst had sent a message to Trier, and some Hussars came to Serrig. By the time they got there, they were very thirsty and hot and so were their horses. The people raced into cellars and stalls and brought out Viez, more and more, in bucketfuls. The soldiers drank and drank. They decided to use the schoolhouse as their headquarters, so they marched to the door and claimed it in the name of Prussia. Herr Fass and his wife had no choice but to turn it over.

The soldiers had little else to do but ride out now and then. They made themselves comfortable in the classroom. Mostly they played cards from early morning until late at night. They had made Serrig peaceful just by their presence. The worried villagers took care of the soldiers' food and drink. And they were hungry! After the soldiers left, there wasn’t much left to eat but pancakes. The school was cleaned and put back into use. The school children were sorry to see the soldiers leave.


  1. Kathy,
    the man you title "Schreckensteiner" was Ludwig Freiherr Roth von Schreckenstein, a prussian Generalleutnant and in 1848 the Commander in Chief of the prussian VIII. Army Corps, in fact the commander of all troops in the Rhineland. He came from his HQ in Koblenz to Trier, when the uprising took place. Roth von Schreckenstein was a member of old prussian nobility for whom all Rhinelanders were "anlackierte Franzosen" (painted French). The people in the region, prussian since 1815, feared the regiments from the old (pre-napoleonic) prussian provinces and called them "Pollacken" a swearword for the polish.
    Another thing: Ludwig Simon, the deputy for Trier in the 48 Frankfurt parliament and a leading 48er emigrated to Switzerland, not to USA.

  2. As usual, Ernst, you provided good additional information that I didn't have. Thank you!

  3. Hi Kathy, some really great stuff you have on here. I too am totally into finding out as much as i possiably can about my german heritage. I stumbled onto your site by accident. Ive been trying to find out about my family prior to 1851 when they arrived in new york from the port of antwerp in belgium. They went onto wisconsin then onto Black hawk, Iowa it seems the whole family did this route. Eventually it seems as if the entire area consisted of my german/Luxembourg relations. Originaly they resided in the many small towns in the eifel region. The most prevalent being Korperich. How similar of a life style do you think your relatives and my own lived? Im wondering also why sometimes i see a record of my family stating their origins as Luxembourg and other times it says germany or prussia. Im wondering why they left and how much they had to endure in rural 1850s Iowa. Any thoughts? Gianna

  4. Hi Gina,
    Your ancestors who came from the Eifel or from Luxembourg had very similar lifestyles to those of my ancestors who came from the area around Trier. Once they emigrated to Iowa, I would suspect their lives were also similar. We have a wonderful open air museum here in Southern Wisconsin called "Old World Wisconsin." Docents wear typical clothing and do their daily work in houses and farms that have been moved here from around the state. Perhaps there is something similar in Iowa. As to the people from Luxembourg being identified as German or Prussian - this is common. I've talked to a friend who has ancestry there and she says that happens all the time

  5. Hello again kathy It was nice of you to get back to me. After I left my post to you, I ended up spending 5 hours reading all of your blogs! You truly have done such a wonderful job researching and then being kind eough to share your knowledge. Im looking forward to when you finish your book, I will definately be a customer. Im not in Iowa,(still have some family there) but in Pa wchich as you know is deeply enriched in German culture, the amish who are close by had me thinking that their farms must be like the ones they left behind in germany. After reading your blogs i have a much different view. It was so intresting.There is a town here called Adamstown, With a ton of Antiques stores mostly i think German antiques As the lancaster area of pa is so very German in origin. Also, A wealthy Antique dealor decided to build a shopping area based on the lay out of a German Village. Its not 100% finished but there are some shops open. Cars can not go in out. You have to park in a lot near by then walk through the village it.Next time i go there i will try to take some photos, then post so you can have a look and tell me what you think since you have actually seen the real deal! I would love to see the open air museum you mentioned. Maybe the next time i head west. As for now im seriously thinking on a trip to Germany! I hope you keep on with your wonderful blogs. Gina