Today in German History, March 27th

A painting of the Hambach Festival. Image Credit: Wikipedia.

Perhaps one of the lesser-known events in German history, but still an important one, is the Hambach Festival. The Hambach Festival was a political demonstration that took place at Hambach Castle in what is now the German state of the Rhineland-Palatinate. It was in support of German Democracy and German Unification. The Palatinate had formerly been under French control and was thus a refuge for liberal activists and writers. Recently, however, the region had come under the control of Bavaria, a conservative and Catholic state which instituted harsh repressive policies to prevent the spread and advocacy of democratic and nationalist ideals. The immediate cause of the fair was the government’s banning of the newly established Association for Freedom of the Press and Speech. In retaliation to the banning, the members of the Association called for a fair; they called it a fair because demonstrations were banned. On the day of the march as many as 30,000 people, from various classes and including some French and Polish people, marched to the castle ruin and watched as their leaders and prominent activists spoke in favor of increased political freedoms, democracy, and national unity. Some even called for revolt, although that met with opposition from many at the fair. One thing that was almost universally agreed on, though, was the need for a unified Germany. To quote one, “From various platforms eloquent speeches were made by Doctor Siebenpfeiffer, Wirth, Scharpff, Henry Brueggemann, and others, representing the sad condition of Germany, its insignificance in the council of European nations, its depression in trade and commerce, all owing to the want of national union.”

Unfortunately, the rally failed to achieve any of its goals and the only immediate result was further government suppression and the flight of many organizers of the fair. The Bavarian government sent troops to prevent a repeat event the next year, and the Carlsbad decrees were tightened, completely banning freedom of speech. It is important that we do not dismiss the Hambach Festival as simply a foolish attempt by idealists to achieve what was impossible at the time, though. While the demonstration failed to prompt immediate results, it showed Germany that the movement for democracy was not dead, that the desire for freedom would survive against harsh repression of the conservative order. Further, it showed the strength of the nationalist movement and desire for one German nation instead of 38 states. Finally, the solidarity between intellectuals and the working class foreshadowed the Revolutions of 1848 and later democratic uprisings and movements, in which different classes worked together to further their common cause. Perhaps the most recognizable thing that the fair did do was establish for certain the black, red, and gold Tri Color as the symbol for the German Democratic movement. That flag which was carried by marchers to the ruin of Hambach Castle would eventually fly over the Reichstag when the dreams of the democratic reformers were finally realized in 1918. If a nation once as authoritarian and repressive as Germany can become democratic, so can any dictatorship or semi-authoritarian regime today. This is perhaps the most important takeaway from the liberal movement in 19th century Germany, and it should be a source of optimism for readers who look at the subjugated people of the world today and wonder how they can ever be free.

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