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Mediaeval Germany and the Causes of German Emigration

Far beyond the Atlantic, occupying the greater part of central Europe, lies a country dear to all Americans of German descent.  It is known as a land of romantic scenery, where the most beautiful of rivers, the Rhine, sweeps through vineclad mountains; where gray old churches and majestic cathedrals point heavenward; where in crumbling castles, sombre forests and silent valleys cling thousands of legends and fairy tales.  It is praised as the home of science; as the birthplace of eminent philosophers and poets, whose names are known throughout the world.  It is hailed as the land of great artists, sculptors and composers; as the cradle of most important inventions, that gave new impulse to mankind.  Americans of German origin cherish it as the land of their ancestors, as the "Old Fatherland," and when speaking of it, they feel longing tugging at their heartstrings.

Reminiscences of the past are then revived.  Noble heroes, none greater known to history, arise before their minds: Hermann the Cheruskan, the Emperors Karl and Otto the Great, Frederick Barbarossa Rudolf and Maximilian, who, during the middle ages, made Germany the most prosperous and powerful empire in Europe.

Under the sceptre of such brilliant rulers beautiful castles and palaces, imposing churches and cathedrals arose everywhere.  Villages and cities sprang into existence and became the homes of able craftsmen, who united into powerful guilds.  Enterprising merchants opened commerce with all countries of Europe and the Orient.  Many of these merchant-princes became famous for their wealth.  As for instance the Fuggers of Augsburg, who amassed a fortune amounting to more than 60 Million Gulden; then the Welsers, who were able to advance to Emperor Charles V. a loan of twelve tons of gold.

These merchants, however, were not lost in selfishness.  Proud of their native cities, they contributed freely to their beauty and importance.  And so the German cities of the Middle Ages gained steadily in splendor and influence.  To further their interests, many of these cities combined to form powerful federations.  The cities of Southern Germany for instance founded the "Schwäbische Städtebund;" the cities of Northern Germany the "Hansa," which, embracing 85 cities, became the most famous of all.

Emperors, princes and magistrates vied with one another in beautifying their cities.  To impress foreigners with the cities' importance and wealth, the entrance gates as well as the town halls, proud symbols of self-government, were adorned with magnificent portals, colonades and sculpture work.  The great show pieces of these buildings were, however, the state or banquet halls, on which often enormous sums were lavished.  Here were to be found exquisite carvings in wood, costly tapestries and paintings.  From the ceilings hung elaborate chandeliers and models of merchant vessels or men-of-war.  The ornaments of the fire places bore the coat of arms of the city or of such families, which had played in the history of the community important roles.  Richly carved closets and chests contained the treasures of the city: beautiful dishes, bowls and cups of ebony, ivory, crystal, silver and gold.  And over all this splendor rays of sunshine, breaking through beautiful windows of stained glass, cast a bewitching light.

In the public squares, fronting these city halls, arose magnificent fountains, topped with the figures of the city patrons or famous knights or kings.

While thus the rulers and magistrates beautified all public buildings and squares, the burghers did their best to complete the picture.  The innate sense for art accomplished wonders in many cities of Germany.  Loving their homes, the citizens adorned the front of their houses with carvings and allegorical paintings.  Even such inconspicuous objects as weather-vanes and door-knockers became in the hands of skilled craftsmen specimens of genuine art.  However, these efforts to beautify the exterior of the houses, were not accomplished to the neglect of the interior.  Wealthy families took pride in artistic furniture, beautiful carpets, precious objects of crystal and silver, and in paintings and etchings of famous masters.

This period of prosperity and culture was also a time of great ecclesiastic architecture.  Especially the architects of the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries created cathedrals, which in bold construction and sublime beauty surpass everything hitherto and since accomplished.  The cathedrals of Worms, Speyer, Mayence, Frankfort on the Main, Ulm, Strassburg, Cologne and other cities rank among the greatest masterpieces of Romanic and Gothic art.

The Middle Ages were also a period in which great German poets, artists, inventors and reformers flourished.  Then it was, that one of the masterpieces of the world's literature, the "Nibelungenlied," was written.  Then it was, that Walter von der Vogelweide, Wolfram von Eschenbach, Heinrich von Offterdingen, Frauenlob and many others wrote the most inspiring poems in praise of womanhood.  It was also the time of Albrecht Duerer, Hans Holbein, Lucas Cranach, Stephan Lochner, Peter Vischer and other artists, who belong to the greatest of the great.  Berthold Schwarz invented gunpowder, causing thereby a thorough revolution in warfare. Johannes Gutenberg, by inventing movable type, made the art of printing the most effective means for distributing knowledge and enlightenment throughout the world.  The astronomers Kopernikus and Kepler opened new vistas by establishing the fact, contrary to the teachings of the Bible, that the sun does not move around the earth, but is a center, around which the earth and many other planets revolve.

Another imposing figure of these great times was Martin Luther, who gave to his people not only the German Bible, but with it, a literary language.  Whereas, up to his time, every German writer had written in the dialect with which he was familiar, the language used by Luther in his translation of the Bible became the common one in all Germany, proving the most powerful factor toward forming national unity and in establishing a national literature.

In view of all these facts we may well ask, why people abandoned such a glorious land and emigrated to far distant countries of which they knew nothing and where their future was uncertain?

In history we find the answer.

The reformation, initiated by Luther, resulted, unfortunately, in conflict among religious creeds and was followed by the most overwhelming calamity that ever befell any country.  Beginning in 1618 and lasting till 1648, the so-called Thirty Years' War swept over Germany like a hurricane, ruining it beyond recognition.  Hundreds of cities and villages were burned by Spanish, Italian, Hungarian, Dutch and Swedish soldiers, who made Germany their battleground.  Of the 17 million inhabitants of Germany 13 millions were killed or swept away through starvation and the pest.  In Bohemia the population was diminished from 3,000,000 to 780,000.  In Saxony, during the two years 1631 and 1632, 943,000 persons were slaughtered or died through sickness and want.  In Würtemberg over 500,000 lost their lives.  The Palatinate, having had a population of 500,000, suffered a loss of 457,000.  In some parts of Thuringia 90% of all the people perished.  Agriculture, commerce, industries and the arts were annihilated.  Of many villages nothing remained but their names.  According to the chronicles of these times, one could wander for many miles without seeing a living creature except wolves and ravens.  It was during those dreadful years that Alsace and Lorraine, two of the richest countries of Germany, were stolen by France.

The terrors of all these calamities were not forgotten, when, at the end of the 17th and at the beginning of the 18th centuries, the "most Christian king" Louis XIV. of France ordered his generals to raid the countries along the Rhine and to make them one vast desert.

In obeying this cruel command the French armies destroyed everything that had survived the ravages of the Thirty Years' War.  Dozens of cities were laid in ashes.  Villages without number went up in flames.  The ruins of hundreds of beautiful castles on the Rhine, Moselle and Neckar, among them Heidelberg, are lasting reminders of the years when the demons of rape and devastation held sway.

Besides such calamities, many German countries suffered from oppression by their own princes, who tried to ape the splendor of the court of Louis XIV., and indulged in brilliant festivals, the cost of which had to be borne by the people.  And in accordance with the old motto "cuius regio, egus religio" ("Who governs the people, gives them also their religion") these princes quite often forced their subjects to change their faith according to their own belief.  The Palatines, for instance, were compelled to change their faith several times.  From Catholics they had to become Protestants, then Reformed, later on Lutherans and finally Catholics once more.

In 1756 the long suffering inhabitants of Germany were overrun again by the furies of war, when France, Russia, Poland, Sweden, Saxony and Austria sought to divide the kingdom of Frederick the Great.

The desperate struggle, then ensuing, is known as the Seven Years' War.  Only 42 years later it was followed by the onslaught of that monstrous adventurer Napoleon I., by whom Germany was humiliated as never before.  The whole country was subjected to systematic plundering.  The imperial crown of Germany was trodden into the dust.  The German states were torn apart and given by Napoleon as presents to his favorites, who made the German cities resound with gay life, at the burghers' expense.

Under the burden of all these sufferings many inhabitants of Germany despaired of a future in their native country and resolved to emigrate to America, hoping that there they would enjov not only better material existence, but also freedom of worship.  The report, that William Penn had thrown open his grant of land, Pennsylvania, as a place of refuge to all who suffered persecution on account of their religious faith, served as a special inducement for many Germans, to emigrate to that part of the New World.

Source: Rudolf Cronau's German Achievements in Amerika

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