Monday, March 31, 2014

Revolution, the Valdenaires, and My Great-Great Grandparents

Kunoturm Dwelling of Nikolaus Valdenaire
Estate Buildings Once Owed by the Valdenaires


Question 1: Would the owners of great manors fight for the right of peasant farmers to have a voice in creating a Prussian Constitution that would give them a voice in government?  Answer: At least two of the well-to-do manor owners did exactly that during the German Revolution of 1848.  They were Nikolaus and Victor Valdenaire, the owners of a "Hof" near Konz and a mansion in Saarburg.

Question 2: Was my great-great grandfather, Johann Meier, one of those peasant farmers taking part in the German Revolution?  Answer: While I can't prove that Johann fought to gain more rights for peasants under Prussian rule,  I have an indication that he did.  There must be some reason political wrongs make my blood boil.

THE STORY

Nikolaus Valdenaire was a French soldier in Napoleon's army who bought the estate which had originally belonged to the land and estate holdings of St. Mathias Catholic Church in Trier.  Valdenaire came from the Vosges in France.  At the age of 17 he served as a soldier of the French revolutionary army, and after Napoleon conquered the Catholic-Church-ruled territory in the Rhineland, he chose to live in the area of Trier, which at this time had been declared a part of France.  In 1801 Nikolaus married into the Schmitt family from Trier and fathered four children, three girls and one son, Viktor.  He became prosperous and attained an expropriated monastery and its lands. He also purchased, along with the Schmitt family, the Roscheider Hof at Konz.  However Nikolaus himself chose to live in the Kunoturm property which was attached to the remains of the city wall in Saarburg.

Trier and all the Rhineland were added to the Prussian empire after Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo.  Nicholas Valdenaire had been shaped as a teenager by the ideals of the French Revolution. Under the Prussian rule, he led the registry office for the cantons Merzig, Saarburg and Konz even though he was often in conflict with the authoritarian structures of the Prussian state. In 1833 he was elected to the fourth Rhenish Provincial Parliament.  It was merely advisory to the Crown and had no decision-making powers.  There was no room for liberty or equality in the rules set down by the Prussian Emperor and his ministers.

In his role as a member of this Provincial Parliament, Nikolaus Valdenaire made a bold move on the occasion of the visit of the Prussian Crown Prince to Saarburg in 1836.  He presented the Crown Prince with a signed petition for the Emperor.  It had treasonous requests as Valdenaire knew.  The petition asked that when wine makers and farmers could not sell their crops, their taxes be prorated accordingly.  There was a request that municipal officials be elected directly by the municipalities as before, and that the customs declaration offices should not spend several hours closed during the day, but remain open every hour of the peasants' working day. Farmers should be allowed to plow all their land to the edge of the ditch along the road and plant there rather than being kept two feet away so that the Prussian warders could take that land as their own.

In order to increase the number of signatories to the petition and to give it more weight, Valdenaire sent a messenger to the surrounding farmers with the petition, thus reaching about 160 farmers and winemakers who signed it.  Since peasant farmers were not allowed the right of petition, this was perhaps more daring than the petition itself.

This petition was personally delivered by Nikolaus Valdenaire on July 10, 1836 to the Crown Prince, who was staying with the Baron von Warsberg who lived in Saarburg. It was accepted by the Crown Prince but not answered.  Instead, one year later Nikolaus  was charged with seditious activities.  At his trial he was sentenced to six months in prison.   He appealed the sentence and was allowed a new trial.  A year later he was completely acquitted but had to bear the investigation costs of both court decisions.

Viktor, the son of Nikolaus, attended the Friedrich Wilhelm Gymnasium in Trier, and received his diploma there as did his friend, Karl Marx.   He studied law at the University in Bonn for awhile, but did not finish his degree.  Instead he went back to take over the running of the Roscheider Hof estate, which also became a refuge for other like-minded liberals.

While most owners of large estates objected to giving rights to peasants, the  Valdenaires attempted to change the way laws were created in the Prussian empire.  They wanted to see all the  citizens of Prussia, including the peasant farmers and craftsmen, governed by a constitution created with the input of elected representatives of all the citizenry.

Because of their liberal views, the Valdenaires displayed great daring in the German revolution of 1848.  By the year 1848 the discontent over the poor conditions of the German citizens and peasants, along with the desire for justice and human rights reform for all, was at the flash point in the Rhineland.  Demonstrations against the current Prussian system of governance broke out in Cologne, Trier, and even Saarburg as a result not only of the many dissatisfactions with Prussian laws and taxation, but also at the news in February that in neighboring France, people had begun a revolt against the current king and his reactionary prime minister in order to force Louise Phillipe from his throne.  This was the match that set the revolutionary fire blazing along Germany's western border, and it spread like wildfire right up to the doors of the palace in Berlin.

When demonstrations and fighting spread to Austria and forced the Austrian Emperor to rid the country of the hated minister Metternich, Berlin's ministers saw danger ahead.  The Prussian emperor, Frederick Wilhelm, feared the uprisings against him that had now come to the northern cities and his own Berlin. He made the decision to grant his subjects the right to elect representatives to a National Assembly that would create a new constitution.  He assured the rebels that this would give them a chance to have the constitutional parliament which would bring more liberty and equality to all Prussian citizens, even the peasants.  An election for the representatives to the new National Assembly created great excitement.  Voting took place on May 1, 1848 and all tax-paying citizens, including peasants, were eligible to vote.

Both Valdenaires were selected as electors for this Prussian National Assembly in Berlin.  But from May 2 to 3, 1848, both became involved in the uprising in Trier where barricades were erected and fighting against the military took place. Nicholas Valdenaire, who was chosen by popular vote as an elector for the Prussian National Assembly could not perform his offices.  As of 8 May when the electors came together to elect the deputies to the Prussian National Assembly, he was already wanted by the police and had fled across the border.

Viktor Valdenaire had also fled across the Prussian border to escape prosecution.  Unlike his father, Viktor assumed it would be safe to return when the Prussian National Assembly had its first meeting.  His status as a deputy would give him what we might call "diplomatic immunity."  However, he was arrested on May 10 and charged with trying to overthrow the lawful government; a crime which might bring the death penalty for treason.  He was jailed in Trier for two months; but during the indictment process, his crime was reduced to rebellion. The arrest process was only a pretext of the powerful to keep the lead revolutionaries from participating in the National Assembly, and many other electors were treated in the same manner.

While Viktor Valdenaire was shut up in prison, the National Assembly went into session.  Members were enraged, especially after reading a newspaper article in the Neue Rheinische Zeitung by Karl Marx about the actual reason for Viktor Valdenaire's arrest.  The National Assembly deputies insisted that detainees must attend Assembly meetings as a member of the Assembly and went even one step further. They introduced and voted on the immunity law still in effect in Germany today. It ensured every deputy's protection from prosecution as long as he holds that office.

Victor Valdenaire was released from the Trier jail late on the evening of July 23, 1848, and he returned to Roscheider Hof. Three days later, the citizens of Trier organized a folk festival for him. In his speech he stressed that he considered it his duty to travel to Berlin, because even though some of his fellow sufferers were languishing in prison, he wanted to stand up for their freedom and fight for the principle of popular sovereignty.  He was present when the National Assembly met again on August 8 and 9, 1848 but he soon grew frustrated at the lack of progress being made.  As the meetings of the Assembly went on with ever greater amounts of time between each one, he turned over his position as deputy to the man who had been elected to serve as his alternate.

The Prussian Emperor and his ministers used many delaying tactics over and over, and they also schemed to divide the moderates and liberals of the National Assembly. The revolutionary groups could not hold together.  By late in 1849, the German Revolution, begun with much promise, had changed from a raging battle to a flickering spark which could not catch fire again.

The bad end of the Revolution and all hope of a change of circumstances took away Viktor Valdenaire's enthusiastic interest in politics. With the death of his father from the terrible cholera epidemic that overtook the Saarburg area in July of 1849, he sought to sell the increasingly dilapidated Roscheider Hof.  He finally succeeded in 1864 and spent the rest of his life in Trier where he ran the family factory.

As you see, the years 1848 and 1849 were filled with turbulence.  Many of the people who lived in Kreis Saarburg  were caught up in the chaotic times.  As the revolution played out in 1848 and 1849, my ancestor Johann Meier was in his early twenties, and very likely he was at the barricades in Trier or with the farmers who showed their daring by wrecking government toll stations and cutting trees in the imperial forest.  At the same time, he was seeking my great-great grandmother's hand in marriage.   It was an inopportune time for courtship by a young rebel and their marriage was forbidden by his beloved Magdalena's father (or so the family story goes).   The two young people did marry when Magdalena ran away from home to do it, and 12 years later Johann and Magdalena had the daring to emigrate to a new land where they could find the civil freedoms that eluded them when the German Revolution of 1848 failed.  I believe they were both, in their own way, as much revolutionaries as the Valdenaires.

Where were your German ancestors in 1848?

Sources:

Rudolf Müller, Geschichte der Stadt Saarburg im 19. and 20. Jahrhunder" in "Saarburg; Geschichte einer Stadt," 1991
The Revolution of 1848. 
"Popular Culture and the Public Sphere in the Rhineland 1800-1850."  James M. Brophy
"Valdenaire" in German version of Wikipedia
Serrig; "Landschaft,  Geschichte & Geschichten." Klaus Hammächer, 2002
Sheehan, James, "German History 1770-1866: The Oxford History of Modern Europe," 1994

Pictures:
Saar-Obermosel Touristik E. V.
http://www.saar-obermosel.de/fileadmin/templates/tv/logo.jpg

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