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Pictured above: Ludwig I- First Grand Duke of Hesse-Darmstadt

I. A Brief Introduction

The Grand Duchy of Hesse-Darmstadt (it would be more properly termed the Grand Duchy of Hesse but the former title will be used throughout this history to avoid confusion with the elector state of Hesse-Kassel) rose out of the ashes of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806.

It was in August of that year that the last Holy Roman Emperor, Francis II, was forced to abdicate following his defeat at the hands of the forces of the French Emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte. With his abdication came the dissolution of a political entity that had existed in Germany for centuries. The majority of the German states that had comprised the Holy Roman Empire were then organized by Napoleon into a new entity termed the Confederation of the Rhine. What was at the time the Landgraviate of Hesse-Darmstadt was included in this new pro-French organization.

Francis II- Last Holy Roman Emperor

Now when Napoleon created the Confederation he was looking first and foremost to form a military alliance and the member states of the Confederation were expected to freely contribute both men and supplies to the French war machine, and those states that cooperated fully with the French Emperor were richly rewarded. Hesse-Darmstadt, being one of the most willing cooperators, was rewarded by being elevated to a Grand Duchy, and Hesse-Darmstadt’s Landgrave, Ludwig X, suddenly found himself Ludwig I, Grand Duke of Hesse-Darmstadt.

This new situation went along to the mutual satisfaction of all until 1813. By that point Napoleon was reeling from his disastrous defeat in Russia and a new alliance was formed against him that was dubbed the Sixth Coalition. Though Napoleon won some initial victories against the coalition, he was decisively defeated at the Battle of Leipzig and forced to withdraw to France. Any members of the Confederation of the Rhine that had not already fled that particular sinking ship did so now, including the now 7 year old Grand Duchy of Hesse-Darmstadt.

The Congress of Vienna

Following Napoleon’s final defeat and exile, the great leaders of Europe met at the Congress of Vienna to discuss and settle issues that had arisen as a result of the Napoleonic wars and the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire. By the end of this historic conference the map of Europe had been redrawn, and Hesse-Darmstadt found itself punished for it’s membership in the Confederation of the Rhine. Over the vocal objections of Hesse-Darmstadt’s representative to the conference, the Grand Duchy was stripped of the entire territory that had once been the Duchy of Westphalia which had been ceded to Hesse-Darmstadt following a reorganization of German territories in 1803.

Grand Duchy of Hesse-Darmstadt (in green) following the Congress of Vienna

Following the conclusion of the Congress of Vienna, Germany was organized into the German Confederation. This new Confederation was comprised of all of the former Confederation of the Rhine states as well as Prussia and Austria, with the latter assuming Presidency over the Federal Assembly in Frankfurt. Peace would reign over Germany for more than two decades after the Congress of Vienna and Ludwig contented himself with quietly ruling over his diminished domains until his death in 1830.

After the passing of Hesse-Darmstadt’s first Grand Duke, his son assumed the throne under the name Ludwig II. The son, unlike the father, was not at all contented with the political situation in Germany at the time. Though the German Confederation was ostensibly a union of all the German peoples, it had from the beginning been dominated by it’s two biggest members: the Kingdom of Prussia and the Austrian Empire. These two powers constantly jockeyed for position in the realm of German affairs and the new Grand Duke feared that when the two inevitably came to blows the smaller German states would get crushed between them.

Determined that Hesse-Darmstadt would not be a mere a mere pawn in the games of larger powers, Ludwig II resolved to turn the Duchy into a respectable power in it’s own right and set in motion a series events that would see the peace in Germany broken- not by the giants of Austria and Prussia, but by a small Duchy in southwest Germany.

Ludwig II- Grand Duke of Hesse-Darmstadt

II. A Description of the Grand Duchy in 1836

The Hesse-Darmstadt that Ludwig II intended to see take a prominent place in the realm of German affairs was not the sort of nation that one would expect to be capable of doing such. It was a small nation with a mostly rural population and little industrial base. Needless to say, Ludwig certainly had his work cut out for him. We will now take a quick look at Hesse-Darmstadt’s people, governament, and institutions as they were in the year 1836; which was the year in which Ludwig (now six years into his reign) finally felt that he was ready to begin pushing his agenda of a stronger Hesse-Darmstadt forward.

The Government

In 1836 Hesse-Darmstadt was an absolute monarchy with full power resting in the person of the Grand Duke (properly styled Your Royal Highness). This was, of course, Ludwig II at the time- second of Hesse-Darmstadt’s Grand Dukes. The Grand Duke controlled all aspects of government. He directed the state in both internal and foreign affairs, was head of the national (Lutheran) church, was head of the only government ministry (the Department of State), and created and implemented all laws from his palace in the capital city of Darmstadt. He was commander of the military and director of the large and well-funded constabulary force that patrolled the cities and towns. The various justices who presided over the nation’s courts were also hand-selected by the Grand Duke as well.

The Ducal Palace

That is not to say, though, that the Grand Duke was left to run the entire nation on his own. He gathered around him a select group known as the Council of Advisers that was comprised of members of the ducal family, the major nobles of the land, the head of the national university in Giessen, and two members of the clergy- one Protestant, one Catholic. Occasionally with their advice and assistance, but most often without or in spite of it, the Grand Duke formulated and administered the policies that would shape the lives of his people and country. It should be noted that this advisory council was selected by the Grand Duke personally. There were no voting rights of any kind in Hesse-Darmstadt and the people were not represented in the government.

The People

A typical family in rural Hesse-Darmstadt

The people of Hesse-Darmstadt could be divided into two simple catagories: those living in the rural areas of the county and those living in it’s cities and towns. In 1836 Hesse-Darmstadt had a population of 1,463,000. Of this number more than three quarters were farmers living in rural communities, with only 365,000 inhabiting the Grand Duchy’s cities and towns. While one would be excused if he thought this was an indication that Hesse-Darmstadt was a nation mostly made up of simple, illiterate farmers, this was far from reality. First the Landgraves and then the Grand Dukes of Hesse-Darmstadt had always put a heavy priority on education. Indeed, it was law that all communities were to support local schools. This combined with aid from the central government in Darmstadt meant that education was never without funds and as a result a full 80% of Hesse-Darmstadt’s people could read and write. As a result, the peoples of the Grand Duchy’s rural areas were on equal footing in terms of education with those in the cities and towns; something that was not the norm in many European nations at the time.

The shining jewel of Hesse-Darmstadt’s education system was the University of Giessen which was considered to be the national university and was one of the finer institutions in that part of Germany, if not in all of Germany. Founded in 1607 as a Lutheran university in direct response to the more Calvinist-leaning University of Marburg in neighboring Hesse-Kassel, the institution was so highly regarded that it’s director was always given a seat in the Grand Duke’s Council of Advisers.

The University of Giessen

Though the cities and towns of Hesse-Darmstadt held only a small fraction of the population, they controlled the majority of the wealth. Goods from the countryside flowed in and the merchants and craftsmen of the urban areas reaped the rewards, leading to the establishment of a burgeoning middle class. Alongside this middle class was a small, but hard-working bureaucracy that saw to it that the Grand Duke’s power was felt across the nation- an important function in a nation whose capital was not actually connected to the rest of the county (see map in previous chapter).

Politically the farmers and city dwellers were polar opposites with the rural population generally supporting a liberal agenda and the urban population a more conservative one. Both groups were very politically conscious, and both were very aware that they had no voice in the government. However, while a Liberal movement geared toward reform of the government into something guaranteeing voting rights and representation of the people was gaining ground in the rural communities, there was no such call for reform in the cities and towns. That is not to say that the urban population would have been opposed to representation, but rather that they realized that their voices would be drowned out by those of the people in the rural communities. It was better, they reasoned, to have no one’s voice be heard if that was the case. Besides, they were living comfortably and making plenty of money. Why rock the boat?

The Economy

Economically Hesse-Darmstadt was heavily dependent on the goods produced by it’s farmers. There were many orchards and ranches in the Grand Duchy and the fruit and cattle they produced made up nearly all of Hesse-Darmstadt’s exports. The only other goods produced on the farms were grown in small quantities and were meant for the personal consumption of the farmers, thus Hesse-Darmstadt did not export grain as many other German nations did.

The only industry that existed in Hesse-Darmstadt in 1836 was a textile mill that produced fabric for export. However, the Grand Duchy lacked the resources to run the mill on it’s own and was forced to import the necessary goods. Complicating this problem was the fact that, because the Grand Duchy’s income from exports was so meager, policy was to keep a very heavy tariff on imports in place. This, of course, meant that getting the supplies necessary to run the textile mill cost the owners more money and was a source of some contention between them and the ducal government.

All of this combined to mean that while the Grand Duchy’s ledger was in the black, it was only just so. Ludwig knew that he would need to increase the strength of his nation’s economy, and was committed to seeing the growth of industry in the Grand Duchy. The major roadblock to this was the before mentioned lack of resources in the small nation. This, I believe, provides a nice segue to the last topic that will be covered in this chapter.

The Military

In 1836 Hesse-Darmstadt had no standing professional army of the sort seen in the larger European powers. Instead it was served by a militia force some 10,000 strong that could be called into service by the Grand Duke at any time. Men voluntary enlisted in the militia and received a small sum from the government in return. Generally the militia was regarded as a way to get some extra money with the participants doing little other than playing dress-up every now and again. As Hesse-Darmstadt was such a small nation and had no real need for a strong military due to alliances with the other states of the German Confederation, the tactics and equipment of it’s military (such as it was) had not advanced since the Napoleonic Wars. Changing this was Ludwig II’s highest priority- it even took precedence over expanding the economy as the one, after all, was meant to lead to the other.

Ludwig’s main focus and passion was to found a modern, professional army for the Grand Duchy that could be augmented by an expanded militia. Accomplishing either would not be easy given the limited resources at his disposal, but he committed himself to the course and the ducal palace was soon filled with military advisers all there to see to it that the Grand Duke accomplished his goal by any means necessary. In the end, for better or worse, he would do just that.

III. 1836-1837: The Road to War

In the spring of 1836 Grand Duke Ludwig II, ready to push forward with his plans to expand Hesse-Darmstadt’s power and influence, called together his Council of Advisers and laid out his plans for the coming year. He explained that in order to advance on the stage of German affairs the Grand Duchy would have to increase it’s economic base and become an industrial power in the vein of Prussia. Of course, the Grand Duchy suffered from a lack of the resources necessary to achieve that goal and would always do so until it was able to acquire them by the only route open to it- force. To that end he charged them to assist him with two goals: the creation of a professional army for the Grand Duchy and the dramatic expansion of the militia from 10,000 men to 50,000. As if this wasn’t enough to spring on them given the limited financial and material resources of the Grand Duchy, Ludwig also added that he would expect this new force to be ready to be “put to use” by next year.

Ludwig’s plans immediately caused quite a bit of consternation amongst his advisers. This military buildup was not completely out of the question if given time, but in just one year? Where would the money come from? What good would it do to raise an army if you couldn’t then afford to equip it properly or pay it, much less send it out on campaign?

The Crown Prince

In general any kind of protest to any plan of the Grand Duke’s was rare as he, after all, could do whatever he wanted, but in this he did face some opposition. Surprisingly it came from his eldest son, the Crown Prince Ludwig. The Prince’s concerns were mainly economic and he stated a fear that the state could not afford a military buildup and would end up bankrupted. He, having already known full well for some time his father’s plans to use this new armed force in a war of aggression, also cautioned against what Hesse-Darmstadt’s larger neighbors would think about the Grand Duchy trying to flex some military might. Hesse-Darmstadt, he said, was not meant to be an industrial or imperial power and it would be better for the nation to continue on as is.

While a great many among the council of advisers sided with the Crown Prince (I’ll leave it up to the reader to decide if they actually agreed with him or simply knew on which side their bread would be buttered in the future), a roughly equal number enthusiastically supported the Grand Duke’s plan. Interestingly enough, this faction was headed up by the Grand Duke’s second son, Prince Karl. Karl, who had recently married into the Prussian royal family, had spent some time in the Prussian military and had seen first hand what a strong, professional army could do. A military-minded sort, he waved away the economic difficulties facing his father’s plan and was nothing but enthusiastic about the prospect of turning Hesse-Darmstadt into a military powerhouse.

Prince Karl

The Grand Duke, naturally, was not impressed with the dissenting opinions and ordered his plan put into motion. That being done, all that was left to do was work out how it could be done. The Grand Duke did, however, bend slightly to economic necessity in that he agreed that the Grand Duchy could not support a full-time professional army larger than 10,000 men (he had originally hoped for 30,000). Immediately the call went out across Hesse-Darmstadt for volunteers for the Grand Duchy’s first professional standing army.

By the end of the summer the full 10,000 had been recruited. No expense had been spared in their outfitting and training. The force that paraded by the Ducal Palace bore modern Prussian arms and equipment and had been drilled under the supervision of Prussian advisers. Prior to the parade the Grand Duke, attended by his sons Ludwig, Karl, and 13 year-old Alexander, had personally presented each of the army’s 10 regiments with a standard that bore the Hessian royal lion over the national colors. Beneath the lion was the motto of the nation and now of it’s army: Gott, Ehre, Vaterland.

Headquarters of the new Royal Army and of the 1st Infantry Regiment

Hesse-Darmstadt now had a professional army to bolster it’s militia force completing step one of the Grand Duke’s plan. Next would be the increase of the militia which was to be renamed the National Guard. However, before any headway could be made in that area, the Grand Duke had to deal with a minor financial complication. The formation of the army had not been cheap. The Prussians had not given away the arms and equipment being carried by Hesse-Darmstadt’s soldiers, and the advisers that had trained them certainly had not worked for free. Of course, a headquarters for the army had to be built as well as barracks for the 10 infantry regiments raised. Nor was this the end of the cost as, after all, these professional soldiers had to be fed and paid by the government. The end result was that the state’s ledgers went into the red and money was pouring out of the treasury. The Council of Advisers warned the Grand Duke that a serious financial crisis would occur if something was not done.

The Grand Duke, not about to see his plans derailed before they had really begun, acted quickly and began looking for ways to right the financial situation. He could not raise taxes to overcome the difficulty as the people were already forced to give up 48% of their income as it was. Compelling them to give more would be ruinous to them, especially the poorer farmers. The only option as he saw it was to cut government spending, and he accordingly made adjustments which put the nation’s ledgers back into the black and caused howls of protest from the University of Giessen’s directer who suddenly found his funding dramatically cut.

The other major cut in spending made by the Grand Duke was to the constabulary force and it was this that would have the most lasting impact. A good many of Hesse-Darmstadt’s constables (the predecessors of the national police force) had joined the army for it’s better pay, so numbers were down when the cuts in funding came down. Little money was provided to bring the numbers back up and salaries were set at an all time low. As a result, what men could be gotten for the job were often not the most desirable candidates. Crime, which had never been a real problem in the Grand Duchy, began to rise in urban areas and would develop into a serious problem in coming years.

A lithograph printed in Darmstadt lampooning the new constables

With money going into the treasury once again instead of out, the Grand Duke was ready for the expansion of the National Guard. However, the economic situation once again began throwing up roadblocks. Treasury funds were low and the state was barely turning a profit. One member of the Council of Advisers stated (rather accurately) that it would take a decade or more for them to be able to afford the arming of an additional 40,000 guardsmen. The Grand Duke’s plans ground to a halt in the face of this difficulty as no amount of consternation on his part could put money into the treasury.

The situation would remain thus until the early part of 1837 when an advancement in the technological field offered an opportunity to shore up the treasury. In February of that year, working off of a Prussian design, engineers at the University of Giessen designed a new steam locomotive engine. This might not have been anything of import as Hesse-Darmstadt had not one inch of railway, but the Grand Duke saw an opportunity and began shopping the new design around Europe. The design was eventually purchased by the Kingdom of Sardinia-Piedmont and the Grand Duke found himself with more than enough funds to finally expand the National Guard.

Doing so was not easy, however. Hesse-Darmstadt had never had a National Guard force larger than 10,000 and indeed it often could not find even that many men willing to sign up. In order to guarantee that he got his 40,000 new recruits, Ludwig II issued a decree in late February that all of Hesse-Darmstadt’s communities were required to provide men for the National Guard; the number being determined by the size of the community. Outrage rippled through the rural communities at this forced enlistment, especially once it became obvious that the majority of the forced recruitment would be done amongst the poor rural areas.

While Hesse-Darmstadt allowed no political freedoms and controlled information through a state-run press, it did allow for the people to come together in public gatherings. People across Hesse-Darmstadt’s rural areas flocked now to such meetings in protest of the government’s action. This is another area where the lack of a strong constabulary was felt. In the past, constables had gathered at these meetings both to intimidate and to report on what was said. There was little to no such supervision now and people began to speak out against the Grand Duke’s decree fervently. A protest movement began to take shape in the rural community led by a lawyer and former soldier named Heinrich von Gagern. In the ensuing years he would become the focal point of the Liberal political movement in Hesse-Darmstadt.

Heinrich von Gagern

Apparently oblivious to the unrest in the countryside, Ludwig II followed his forced recruitment decree with another ordering the new members of the National Guard to assemble for training immediately. This new decree was met with even more fervent protest than the last. How could the Grand Duke call them away from their farms now before they had even the chance to plant their crops? How would their families survive while they were away? The mood rapidly turned dark with many declaring that they should refuse the Grand Duke’s call and resist him by force if necessary. Only through the efforts of cooler heads such as Heinrich von Gagern was talk of rebellion quenched. In the end, the new National Guardsmen reported for duty, but they left communities seething with resentment behind them.

By April Ludwig had his army and a 50,000 man National Guard that was nearing the completion of it’s training. All he needed now was an enemy to pit it against. He needed a nation that was close by, rich in resources, and (most importantly) not a member of the German Confederation as attacking a member state would put Hesse-Darmstadt at war with the entire Confederation. These criteria really left him with only one choice: the British client state of Hanover. The army was given it’s marching orders and war was declared on April 15, 1837.

The Kingdom of Hanover in April of 1837

IV. The Hanover War: Part I

The Kingdom of Hanover, which Ludwig II had chosen as the first target of his new army and expansionist goals, had been created in 1814 when the Congress of Vienna returned the King of Great Britain’s Hanoverian lands. Despite being called a kingdom, Hanover was not independent and actually existed in personal union with the British crown. This essentially means that Britain’s king was Hanover’s king and Hanover was part of the British Empire. Of course, this means that any declaration of war against the Kingdom of Hanover would mean British intervention. This was the greatest obstacle facing Hesse-Darmstadt and it was an essential part of their plan that Hanover’s army be destroyed before British troops could enter the conflict.

William IV- King of Great Britain and Ireland and of Hanover

The first part of Hesse-Darmstadt’s plan for the war with Hanover called for the occupation of the city of Göttingen and it was to here that Prince Karl (who had been placed in command of the campaign) began leading the army on the morning of April 15, 1837. He took with him only Hesse-Darmstadt’s standing force of 10,000 as the National Guard was not yet ready to march. Though this would mean that he was actually outnumbered by Hanover’s army of 12,000 at the start of the campaign, this was not actually any kind of a problem. Göttingen was to the south of Hanover proper and was not connected to Hanover, being separated from it by the Duchy of Braunschweig. Braunschweig, a member of the German Confederation, would not allow Hanover (a non-member) to cross it’s territory and this meant that Prince Karl’s attack on Göttingen would be unopposed save by a small local militia force. Karl’s plan was to lay siege to and capture the city, by which time the National Guard should join him for the invasion of Hanover proper.

Prince Karl

Karl reached the outskirts of Gottingen on May 27. As expected, only a small force of militia was on hand to oppose him and it was driven back into the city’s defenses after a few skirmishes with the larger Hessian force. Though he could have probably carried the city by storming it’s defenses, Karl was reluctant to expose his professional troops to unnecessary casualties and settled in for a siege. Despite having to know that no help would be forthcoming, the people of Göttingen stubbornly refused all demands for surrender for the next three months, not capitulating until August 15.

The cost of the siege of Göttingen to Karl in terms of manpower was light- only 873 killed, wounded, or missing- but in terms of his timetable the cost was high. The focal point of Hesse-Darmstadt’s strategy was speed. Hanover had to be brought to heel quickly before Britain could involve itself, and Karl would face criticism in the future for his failure to quickly capture the city. Further complicating matters was the slow pace at which the National Guard had been assembled and marched north to join Karl’s army. Despite having taken three months to capture the city, Karl still had to wait another week until the 50,000 man National Guard joined him at Göttingen.

Hessian troops camped near Göttingen in August of 1837

When the National Guard finally did march into camp on August 21, they were not quite what Karl was expecting. To say the least they were a marked and somewhat disappointing contrast to his precious professional troops. The guardsmen seemed to be in low spirits and they lacked a certain something in martial appearance which, to be fair, may have been due to the fact that they were armed and equipped largely with Austrian cast-offs from the Napoleonic Wars in contrast to the new Prussian-made equipment of the regulars.

Karl, desperately behind schedule by this point, ignored requests from the leader of the National Guard troops, General Ott, that his men be allowed to rest and ordered the whole army on the march immediately. The pace he set was grueling, with the men marching as soon as dawn broke and not stopping again until it was too dark to navigate the roads. They did not stop even to eat, with the men having to content themselves with hardtack eaten on the march. Sore and exhausted and without a proper hot meal for weeks, the army began to suffer a drop in morale and desertion became an issue; especially amongst the National Guard.

The army reached the Prussian town of Minden in late September and Karl finally ordered the army to make a proper camp in order to rest it for the invasion of Hanoverian territory. By this time the National Guard was in a bad state. The men, the majority of which were poor farmers conscripted by force, worried constantly for their families and farms back home, and spirits throughout the National Guard could not get lower. When this was added to the brutal pace of the march to Minden and the restrictions of martial life, the result was a volatile mix. Desertion became an everyday occurrence and regard for martial authority began to breakdown, with the latter having the effect of bands of National Guardsmen raiding the countryside for loot or livestock to augment their meager rations.

When a band of these marauders was caught and brought before Prince Karl on September 21, he made a decision that would have devastating consequences for the army. After a summary court martial, ten members of the National Guard were sentenced to death by hanging with the sentence to be carried out in the presence of their comrades. National Guard officers, General Ott among them, pleaded for leniency but Karl was resolute and the executions were carried out at dawn on the 22nd.

Immediately following the executions the 5th National Guard Division (to which the unfortunate men belonged) rioted. Officers who attempted to calm the men were beaten and chased off or killed. The men tore their standards to shreds and declared that they would follow no more orders. When word of the riot reached Prince Karl he personally rode to meet the rioters and demanded that they lay down their arms and cease these “disgraceful acts”. The Prince and his party were quickly fired upon and forced to flee the scene. The rioters then began to advance on the main camp and Karl was forced to rally the army to fight their own countrymen.

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