Below, I’ve listed just a few of the events that I feel most effected the lives of the common people in Mecklenburg from the start of the Thirty Years’ War until the close of the 1800s. I haven’t attempted to provide a comprehensive history or to describe the events in full, but have only given a short description of Mecklenburg’s part in these events. Some other useful websites and sources with more information are included in the Useful Links and Resources for Mecklenburg section.
Thirty Years’ War
Mecklenburg often found itself in the middle of Europe’s conflicts, and the Thirty Years’ War was no exception. What put Mecklenburg in the middle of the war was not a dominant position in European affairs, but instead the bad luck of their strategically important geographic location.
Tensions had lingered in the air for sometime before 1618. However, the event that actually started the Thirty Years’ War occurred in Bohemia. Here, Protestants, upset with the intolerant policies of Catholic Ferdinand II, who soon after became the Holy Roman Emperor, hurled some of his officials out of a castle window in Prague. Before long, a bitter religious civil war consumed Bohemia.
The war spread to include many nearby European powers over the next few years. The original basis was religion, with Protestants on one side and Catholics on the other. However, a quest to maintain a balance of power also drove the war, as no one wanted to allow any one power to become too dominant. Many of the northern Protestant German states joined together against the Imperial forces of the Holy Roman Empire. At first, instead of joining its Lutheran neighbors, Mecklenburg declared a half-hearted neutrality.
By 1625, King Christian IV of Denmark saw that the Lutheran German states were no match for the Imperial Army, and so brought his troops to their aid. France (although Catholic) and England both promised Christian support, but provided little. By this time, Mecklenburg had joined a confederacy requesting that the Emperor restore some land he had confiscated. The Emperor refused. Mecklenburg had chosen sides. King Christian stationed troops in his new ally’s land. The war had now reached the people of Mecklenburg.
At first, the Danish, with the support of Mecklenburg and other northern German provinces, won some victories. In the end though, the presence of the Danish in Mecklenburg proved to be detrimental. Although supposedly allies, the Danish ravaged the land until King Christian ordered his troops on the threat of death not to “molest anyone employed in agriculture” and not to insult or injure the peasants.
The Danish presence also provoked the wrath of the Imperial Army. In 1625, this army, under the leadership of General Tilly, marched through Mecklenburg, wreaking havoc in their wake as they burned land, destroyed farms, plundered homes, and killed the peasants. In response to their complaints, Tilly replied that he did not imagine “they thought his soldiers were birds who could fly in the air or that they could live without food.”
During the next several years, the Imperial Army continued their destruction in Mecklenburg. The Gross Laasch parish history records that in 1627 Tilly’s army marched through their area burning the land and destroying everything for miles around. Before the end of the war, invading soldiers marched through six times. The peasants living there could do nothing more than hide in the woods and wait for them to pass.
For Mecklenburg, this was only the beginning. In 1628, the Imperialists reclaimed Mecklenburg. For their support of the Danish, the Emperor banished the dukes and instead appointed Wallenstein, the infamously cruel leader of the Imperial Army, to be the Duke of Mecklenburg. Wallenstein demanded tremendous taxes and contributions from the people, and didn’t hesitate to confiscate animals and food as war reparations. Hunger became a part of daily life. With each invading force, disease struck the weakened countryside in epidemic proportion. People harnessed themselves to their plows in an effort to produce food.
In 1630, recognizing impending disaster in the Protestant cause, King Gustav Adolph of Sweden landed in Mecklenburg. He was a relative of the dukes of Mecklenburg and came specifically to their aid. When he arrived, Gustav received no support from the German princes, who were, by this time, terrified of the Imperial forces.
The Mecklenburg dukes first tried begging their lands back from the Emperor. When this wasn’t successful, they joined the Swedes. In 1631, Gustav told the people of Mecklenburg to shake off their slavery and welcome back their rulers. This they did. The dukes led the people and, with the help of the Swedes, they forced the Imperialists out.
Their joy was short-lived though. In 1632, Gustav was killed in battle. His troops disintegrated into a rabble that ravaged Mecklenburg as all the other armies had. Under coercion from the Emperor, the dukes of Mecklenburg signed The Treaty of Prague in 1635, sealing their alliance with the other German states and Denmark against Sweden. Now in disarray and suffering financial difficulties, the Swedish army was trapped in Mecklenburg with enemies on all sides. Mecklenburg, having betrayed the still-occupying Swedish liberators, received the full wrath of the Swedish army.
When peasants couldn’t meet the payments the Swedish army demanded of them, which was often, the Swedish soldiers tortured them. Methods of torture included using thumbscrews, forcing people to consume liquid manure, known as the “Swedish drink,” and burning people alive in bakers’ ovens.
Suffering grew as famine swept the land. Peasants resorted to eating cats, dogs, rats, and even corpses that they dug up for food. A Swedish general recorded in his diary, “In Mecklenburg, there is nothing but sand and air, everything laid waste down to the ground. The villages and fields are strewn with dead animals, the houses full of dead people, the misery is indescribable.”
The war dragged on and new participants entered. French, Dutch, and Swedish troops supported by Scots, Finns, and German mercenaries devastated agriculture everywhere they went. Friends and enemies were difficult to distinguish. Nearly everyone changed sides at least once.
In Mecklenburg, fighting between the Imperial army and the Swedes raged on. The dukes tried to negotiate peace separately with each side, but to no avail. In 1638, the Imperial army retired to Mecklenburg for the winter. By the winter’s end, many had perished from hunger. Nothing that could sustain life remained in the province.
Over the next few years, the Swedes and French with support from a few German princes continued the war against the Imperial Army. Peace talks began in 1644. However, the Peace of Westphalia wasn’t completed until 1648. In the end, thirty years of fighting led to little substantial political or territorial change. The treaty returned Mecklenburg to the dukes and allowed the province to remain Protestant. However, small parts of Mecklenburg, including the area around the northern port of Wismar, were ceded to Sweden.
Yet other dramatic changes had occurred in the province. The war hit no place harder than Mecklenburg. Although estimates differ, it’s likely that nearly seventy-five percent of the population had been killed through a combination of brutality from the occupying armies, starvation, and disease. Some villages were wiped out without one survivor.
Because of the scorched-earth policy, armies had burned most of the farmland and homes, leaving nothing behind. Animals that weren’t slaughtered, starved to death. It was a dark time, a pit of suffering and misery so deep and intense that it’s nearly incomprehensible. In Gross Laasch, thirteen of the original twenty-two houses were obliterated. By 1648, only five of those twenty-two families remained in Gross Laasch. In the nearby district of Stavenhagen, 329 of its 5,000 inhabitants survived the war.
Life would also never be the same. Although the Peace of Westphalia marked the official end of fighting, it didn’t mark the end of suffering. A whole generation had grown up knowing nothing besides war. In an agrarian society, there were no farmers anymore. There were only soldiers. There were no farms, only wasteland. There was no order. People could remember little else besides the constant plunder that had plagued them. To survive, they had learned this same skill. When the duke suddenly announced that war was over and people should return to their normal lives, they had nothing to return to.
The war also widened the gulf between estate owners and peasants in Mecklenburg. The estate owners there, known as “Landed Junkers,” were soon some of the most powerful in all of Germany. With the duke’s position weakened and the province in disarray, the estate owners took the opportunity to increase their influence and wealth. In 1654, an agreement was signed that legalized serfdom in Mecklenburg. Throughout the rest of the century, repression increased. The estate owners used their authority to integrate peasant lands into their holdings. Peasants had no rights, no voice, no power. They couldn’t move or even marry without the permission of the landowners. Estate owners could buy or sell them with or without their land.
Bauernkriegen or Farmer Wars
When Charles Leopold became the duke of Mecklenburg-Schwerin in 1713, he didn’t waste time in stirring up conflict. He wanted to levy additional taxes on the powerful estate owners. When neither the Holy Roman Emperor nor the Mecklenburg government would approve the extra taxes, Charles Leopold decided to collect them anyway -- by force. Russian troops briefly entered to assist him. Many estate owners fled the state. Charles Leopold took advantage of the opportunity to seize their lands and place them under ducal administrators.
In response, ten thousand Hanoverian troops, backed by the Holy Roman Emperor, invaded Mecklenburg in February of 1719. Although they suffered considerable losses in the first skirmishes, it didn’t take long for the Hanoverians to occupy the province. Hanover considered annexing Mecklenburg. In 1728, the Emperor removed Charles Leopold as the duke and replaced him with Charles’s younger brother, Christian Louis.
But, Charles Leopold would not leave the scene so easily. Five years later, he called upon the peasants and townspeople to expel the Hanoverian troops. The result was chaos and tumult, as described in the local history. Peasants picked up makeshift weapons and took what action they could against their conquerors. The involvement of the common farmers earned the conflict the name of Bauernkriegen, or Farmer Wars. The grassroots movement wasn’t successful though. The occupying troops easily put down the uprising. Christian Louis and other leading officials fled the country.
Disorder increased as another foreign army entered. Prussian forces came into Mecklenburg to aid the duke. Battle raged between the two occupying forces. The crisis wasn’t settled until 1755 with the signing of an agreement in the city of Rostock. The treaty confirmed the power of the estate owners at the expense of the duke, and even more, at the expense of the common people.
During the Bauernkriegen, the estate owners increased their landholdings even further, seizing land from thousands of peasants. These peasants, with no claims to a piece of land of their own, lived in desperate conditions. They moved continually from one place to the next, working as day laborers for the landowners. Their families hovered near the brink of disaster with hunger and economic ruin always near.
Seven Years’ War
Seven Years’ War (also known as the French and Indian War in America), not surprisingly, had little to do with Mecklenburg. However, it did involve nearly all of the major European powers, each entering for differing reasons of self-interest. France and England had been fighting for decades before this and renewed their conflict, spilling over to their lands in America. Austria wanted to regain the province of Silesia that Prussia had taken during the previous war, and so gathered France, Russia, Sweden, and Saxony together as allies against Prussia.
Frederick the Great of Prussia decided to move against his neighbors before they could move against him. Prussia soon occupied neutral Saxony and then Mecklenburg also. The Prussian soldiers demanded payment from the peasants, often in the form of produce. Armies looted villages throughout the area. Around four thousand Mecklenburgers were forced to become part of the Prussian army. The constant lootings and extracted payments plunged many areas in Germany into famine.
Peace was achieved in 1763. Although significant rearrangements took place in other places, the peace agreement brought no substantial changes to Mecklenburg.
Napoleon in Mecklenburg
Soon after his assumption of power in France in 1799, Napoleon began his military campaigns. Over the next few years, he demonstrated his superiority on the battlefield as his armies defeated Austria and Russia. The war grew closer to Mecklenburg when Russian troops passed through Mecklenburg in 1805 leaving destruction in their wake.
Next, Napoleon began his interference with the German states, abolishing many of the smallest ones and pressuring sixteen into the Confederation of the Rhine (many others joined later). In October of 1806, Napoleon defeated the Prussian armies in battles at Jena and Auerstädt. In disarray, the Prussian army made a hasty retreat through Mecklenburg. The French troops followed after them. Many people in the villages were forced to provide housing and other accommodations to the troops.
After the campaigns that season, Napoleon recorded, “Mecklenburg has been equally devastated by French and Prussian troops. A large number of troops whose paths crossed in this province in all directions and in fast marches could only provision themselves at the expense of the province.” On November 28, Mecklenburg was declared to be a land under occupation. Because the dukes had allowed the free passage of Russian troops through their lands, they were considered enemies and forced to pay considerable fines.
The period from 1806 until 1813 became known as the “Franzosentid,” or the period of the French occupation. In 1808, with little other choice, both Mecklenburg-Schwerin and Mecklenburg-Strelitz joined the Confederation of the Rhine. Although at first some of the people of Mecklenburg attempted to make friends with the French and even considered it a sign of high standing to carry on conversations in French, their disillusionment with the French grew rapidly.
Many of the villages suffered from robbing and plundering at the hands of the French army. French troops took horses, food, and whatever other supplies they needed without any compensation to the people. Throughout the next few years, peasants were periodically forced to take in troops and provide for them. The French government levied heavy taxes on the people to support the continual warfare and drafted young men into the French army. Prices on common goods increased enormously. Although Napoleon did bring some progressive changes with him, in the end, the main effect was repression and suffering.
Napoleon’s power grew as his dominance spread throughout much of Europe. Soon, he considered himself the head of what was known as the Grand Empire. Only Great Britain remained effectively separate from the new system. Then suddenly, Napoleon turned against Russia, a supposed ally. In June of 1812, he gathered an army of six hundred thousand, including two thousand men drafted from Mecklenburg, and set off to invade Russia.
The invasion was an astronomical failure. After spending weeks in burned-out Moscow, Napoleon ordered a retreat. Crumbling supply lines, a harsh winter, and frequent harassment from the Russian army created one of the worst military disasters in history for Napoleon. Only thirty thousand men returned from the Russian campaign. It was also a disaster for the Mecklenburg troops. Less than one hundred of the two thousand men came home.
Defeat in Russia represented the turning point of the war. Mecklenburg was among the first German states to switch sides to form an alliance against the French. They took an active part in the War of German Liberation that raged from 1813 to 1815. By 1815, the French had been removed from German soil. Mecklenburg was left alone to nurse her wounds.
Metternich and the German Confederation
After the defeat of Napoleon in 1815, many European governments began looking inward, determined to squelch out the liberal ideas that had begun the French Revolution. Prince Klemens von Metternich, the Austrian foreign minister, provided an ample leader in this crusade. In September of 1815, Austria, Prussia, and Russia joined together to form the Holy Alliance. Their mission was to crush progressive ideas and revolutionary tendencies.
Metternich soon extended his influence to the German Confederation. The Confederation, made up of thirty-eight German states including both duchies of Mecklenburg, passed the Carlsbad Decrees at his encouragement. The decrees required the confederation members to root out “subversive” ideas from their newspapers and universities and to set up a network of spies to keep watch on any liberal organizations.
1820 Abolition of Serfdom
The dukes of Mecklenburg took action in 1820, formally putting an end to serfdom. Rulers and liberal thinkers felt certain that a time of tremendous progress had arrived. The excitement would prove too optimistic.
In Mecklenburg and other places where the paternalist relationships of serfdom had the most extensive grip, the expected jump in the quality of living conditions didn’t occur. In fact, gaining freedom only worsened the circumstances of many peasants.
A large number of peasants in the eastern German states simply couldn’t make it on their own. With few resources and no preparation for land ownership, many saw no choice but to sell their land. The main purchasers of the land were the nobles and landowners. The peasants then went back into the service of the landlord, working as wage laborers on the same land they had worked before. However, the abolition of serfdom had erased any obligation the estate owners had to them. This meant that many estate owners no longer provided employment for day laborers or gave the farmers assistance during hard times.
This process was accelerated by a collapse of the market in the 1820s. Several years of poor harvests and large-scale epidemics of cattle disease intensified the situation. Peasants at the margin couldn’t survive, leading even greater numbers of them to sell their land. In the end, the number of peasants living on or renting a plot of land of their own actually fell after the land reforms.
Revolutions of 1830 and 1848
Revolution threatened many countries in Western Europe during the mid-nineteenth century. The first wave of eruptions broke out in 1830. As was often the case, unrest started in France. King Charles X, hoping to restore the power of the monarchy, refused to honor the liberal Constitutional Charter of 1814. The people reacted immediately and fiercely. In three days, the government collapsed. Charles fled as his cousin, Louis Phillipe, was seated on the throne in his stead.
Tremors from the events in France spread outward. Nearly all of the German states felt them as riots and protests broke out within their borders. Peasants and other workers marched against their local leaders, sometimes attacking and burning manors. Perhaps in Osterburg Johann joined one of these groups as they filled the streets and made their dissatisfaction known.
Yet, the outbreaks largely remained isolated and disorganized. The conservative forces quickly and easily restored order. Although some German rulers were forced to make limited compromises, others escaped with little damage to their position. Metternich took advantage of the situation to reunite conservatives. They promised each other they would send military support to any government facing unrest. The revolutions of 1830 showed that the conservative ruling class still firmly held the power.
However, it wasn’t long before the lower class showed they weren’t so easily defeated. Events in Paris once again provided the catalyst to turn rumblings into explosions. On February 22, 1848, liberals in Paris demanded electoral reform. King Louis Phillipe refused. The people revolted, arming themselves as they set up camp in the streets of the city. Within two days, the king abdicated in favor of his grandson. This wasn’t enough for the people. Instead, they declared the end of monarchy and began forming a provisional republic in its place. Disorder spread as class warfare broke out, and even the liberal coalition fought amongst themselves, unable to agree on how to move forward with their victory.
News of the situation in France spread to other countries, inspiring many of the common people to follow their example. People took to the streets in masses. Monarchies around Europe began to tremble and then collapse.
Soon, revolts consumed the two largest German states, Austria and Prussia. Students and workers rose up against the government in Vienna on March 13, as Metternich fled to London. A few days later, King Frederick William IV of Prussia refused to grant demands for a more liberal constitutional monarchy. Workers joined with the middle class to march against the government, leading to a bloody clash. After revolutionaries forced the king to salute the bodies of fallen workers, Frederick caved in. He promised to allow the liberal constitution and to work to form a unified German state. Meanwhile, a group of self-appointed liberals met in Frankfurt on May 18 with the goal of writing a federal constitution for this new German land.
Throughout German-speaking Europe, events unfolded similarly to those in the larger states. Peasants and urban workers marched on their governments and demanded more rights. The spirit of revolution left almost no corner, no remote village, untouched. The revolutions seemed destined to succeed. Even conservatives reluctantly, and often fearfully, agreed that change was in the air.
Yet as before, revolution proved hard to sustain. The coalition of educated middle class liberals and the more volatile and desperate lower class peasants proved hard to hold together. While the middle class spoke of ideals and theories, the peasants demanded food and freedom from the crushing oppression they faced. In Paris, when a famous astronomer urged a restless crowd to be patient, someone called out, “Ah, you have never been hungry!”
In the face of growing chaos and violence, people began turning back to the conservative governments to reestablish stability. The conservatives took advantage of the hesitance of the revolutionaries to regroup and then reassert their authority. The monarchies that had fallen one by one throughout the spring of 1848 began regaining their positions that summer.
Violence broke out again in Paris in June as the government moved to stop the spread of radical ideas. Fighting raged in the streets for three days known to history as “June Days.” Peasants joined with the government and army against the working class. In the end, the government stood victorious amidst ten thousand killed or injured people. The revolution was defeated.
Similarly, Austria used force to regain her dominance throughout her empire in places such as Hungary and northern Italy. The Austrian army marched on Vienna in October, retaking the city from students and radical workers. In other German states, rulers reasserted their power, crushing the revolutionary forces.
Meanwhile, the Frankfurt Assembly completed their liberal constitution for a unified Germany. They elected King Frederick William of Prussia as the emperor in October of 1849. Frederick had, by then, reclaimed his position in Prussia. Announcing that he ruled by divine right, Frederick refused to accept the “crown from the gutter.”
Unification of Germany
Otto von Bismarck, the famous and controversial chancellor of Prussia, led his country in three carefully chosen wars starting in 1864. Defeating all three opponents (Denmark, Austria, and France) solidified support from the smaller German states. The wars became known as the Wars of German Unification.
In 1871, the German states at last joined together to form a nation. A new constitution was written proclaiming the King of Prussia to be the Emperor of Germany (with the Prussian chancellor, Bismarck himself, receiving great power as well). At first, the states retained significant autonomy and much of their distinct character. For Mecklenburg, this meant that unification didn’t erase its backwardness. Conditions for peasants there continued to lag behind those in other German states.
Mecklenburg had the highest percentage of emigrants of any of the German states. While conditions in other areas improved, Mecklenburg peasants had little reason to hope for a better future. After living in grinding poverty with limited freedom and few opportunities, many saw immigration as a new chance at life. In addition, industrialization, which arrived late in Mecklenburg, forced many already marginal peasants out of their jobs. In 1857 alone, 1.2 percent of the population of Mecklenburg left.
The great majority went to the U.S. Nearly ninety percent came from agricultural lands, with landless people, particularly those closely supervised by a noble, being the most likely to leave. By 1900, almost one third of people born in Mecklenburg lived outside of the state.