British Perspectives on the Hiring of German Troops: Hyperbole, Stereotypes, and Paranoia

By Gabriela Maduro

Various documents from late eighteenth-century Britain reveal some interesting findings about British attitudes towards the hiring of German troops for use in the American War. Voiced opposition to the hiring of these troops was overwhelming, although the reasons for this opposition were varied and sometimes conflicting. While some articulated their positions with logic and tact, others relied on hyperbole, stereotypes and even paranoia.

Chief among the rational concerns voiced within the House of Commons was the financial burden that the German troops presented, for many thought the sums to be paid to German princes were unreasonable and exorbitant. Yet, even this argument often devolved into emotional fears of the end of the “honor, dignity and even decency” for the British state, as exemplified by Mr. Burke’s prediction in an address to the House on May 8, 1777 that:

           [all] Germany will daily teaze with importunities, or stun this House with its              after-claps. We shall never be easy, we shall never have done granting, nor they            asking, while we have a shilling left to grant… We could never expect to be free            from the claims—and demands of the German chancery, from the instant this            resolution should be agreed to.

Many Members of Parliament extended their criticisms beyond these supposedly greedy German princes to include their subjects as well, largely by stereotyping and dehumanizing them. German men were characterized as nothing more than barbarians, unable to devote themselves ideologically to the British cause and, therefore, no better than mercenaries. Worse than that, some assumed that they would prove ineffective in suppressing the rebellion, as highlighted by the Duke of Manchester’s claims on March 5, 1776 that:

           The mercenaries we employ, for they may be justly called so, since that man            must be deemed a mercenary soldier who fights for pay in the cause in which he            has no concern, are a motley band of various nations, who are yet in Germany,            are yet to be conveyed across the Atlantic; some will perish in the way, some            desert, but I suppose the remnant landed on the American shore—Will conquest            immediately follow? Impossible to expect it.

English caricature of a Hessian soldier, British Museum

It is interesting to note the ways in which these arguments over the hiring of German troops became entangled with debates over the validity of the American War itself. Moral arguments against the war, especially those that questioned the right of the British to attempt to stifle attempts at American independence, capitalized upon the negative perception of Germans. In portraying the princes as dishonest and greedy characters who were willing to sacrifice their own men for personal profit, those who made moral arguments against the American War perpetuated the perception of the German princes as cruel tyrants, the very antithesis of many Parliamentary members’ own ideals. The hiring of German troops was portrayed by some to be a direct threat to concepts of freedom and liberty, as illustrated by Lord Camden’s statement on March 5, 1776 that:

           The whole is fluffed up with pompous expressions of alliance, founded in                       reciprocal support and common interest, as if these petty states were really            concerned in the event of the present contest between this country and America…            Should the time ever arrive, in which Our existence as a nation depended on the            assistance of foreign hirelings, from that instant I should deem our consequence            as a sovereign state, and our liberties as a free people, no more.

It is ironic that such speculation about the character and abilities of the German troops contrasts so deeply with their actual documented performance, as it is clear that the contribution of German troops was integral to many British military victories in the American War. Yet, even in a contemporary chronicle published in 1779, wide-spread stereotypes are evident, as exemplified by the writer’s descriptions of the “unrelenting, cruel, and inhuman manner” in which the war was carried out by German troops, for there were numerous instances of rape, rapine, cruelty and murder. Although the writer admits that British troops were involved in these activities as well, he blames Hessians as the source of this misbehavior. He claims:

           [The Hessians], naturally fierce and cruel, ignorant of any rights but those of            despotism, and of any manners, but those established within the narrow precinct            of their own government, were incapable of forming a distinction between                       ravaging and destroying an enemy’s country, where no present benefit was                       intended but plunder, nor any future advantage expected but that of weakening a            foe, and the reducing of a malcontent people (who though in a state of rebellion,            were still to be reclaimed, not destroyed) to a due sense of obedience to their            lawful sovereign.. They continued in a course of plunder, until they at length            became so encumbered and loaded with spoil, and so anxious for its                                  preservation, that it grew to be a great impediment to their military operations.

It seems odd, then, that despite the fact that the Germans were, apparently, so greedy, so barbaric, so wholly unable to devote themselves to the just cause of suppressing the American Rebellion, they were still ultimately deemed adequate enough to fight and die in a war on behalf of the British Empire. Lord Cavendish’s thoughts on February 29, 1776 on the hiring of German troops seem to encapsulate the thoughts of many members of the House of Commons on the matter, and thus seem an appropriate note on which to end this exploration:

           Britain was to be disgraced in the eyes of all Europe; she was to be                                  impoverished; nay, what was, if possible, worse, she was compelled to apply to            petty German states, in the most mortifying and humiliating manner, and                       submit to indignities never before prescribed to a crowned head, presiding over a            powerful and opulent kingdom.

Introducing Gabriela Maduro

It is my distinct pleasure to welcome a new contributor to Gabriela Maduro. Gabriela comes to the project through Florida State’s Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program, which pairs exceptional undergraduate students with faculty and graduate students who act as research mentors for the academic year.

Gabriela is a sophomore double-majoring in History and English. She is fluent in Slovak and an active student of German, which influenced her desire to work on this project. As the year progresses, Gabriela will post excerpts and summaries of her work here on the site, with a particular focus on the structure and role of the British Army in the American War of Independence.

Welcome, Gabriela!

More Graves in New York

I’ve really fallen behind on posts this busy semester, but will start making up for it now!

An historical marker and a sunset.
An historical marker and a sunset.

Another interesting, and purely accidental, find related to the American Revolution. A private home in the middle of rural upstate New York has an historical marker in its backyard. In the early nineteenth century, a number of Brothertown Indians, natives who had converted to Christianity and settled in New York after the Revolutionary War, were buried there. It appears as though the gravestones used to stand in place, but they have since been laid flat. Every year, representatives from the Brothertown Indians (a federally-unrecognized tribe) return here to pay their respects and ensure the upkeep of the site.

What the gravestones look like today. Some of the inscriptions are already difficult to decipher.
What the gravestones look like today. Some of the inscriptions are already difficult to decipher.

The Revolution in an Upstate Cemetery

The White Store church off of Route 8 in Chenango County, NY.
The White Store church off of Route 8 in Chenango County, NY.

A quick stop at a local national historic site today yielded some surprise Revolutionary War connections. The town of White Store, NY, was founded in Chenango County in 1800. The White Store church was built in 1820 by “Baptists, Methodists, and Universalists” (according to the New York State Education Department marker, 1935), and remains in original condition aside from the pulpit that was modified in 1863. Beside the church lies the Evergreen Cemetery, the final resting place of twelve soldiers of the Revolutionary War: Colonel Stephen Winsor, Major David Richmond, Major Samuel May, Captain Edward Greene, Captain Anan Winsor, Captain Abner Wood, John Secor, Jeremiah Burlingham, Andrew Webb, Ezekial Wheeler, Philemon Shippey, and Caleb Arnold. Arnold’s son, Peleg, was a soldier in the War of 1812 and is also buried at the cemetery.

The gravestone of Major David Richmond, veteran of the Revolutionary War, in the Evergreen Cemetery.
The gravestone of Major David Richmond, veteran of the Revolutionary War, in the Evergreen Cemetery.

The local American Legion appears to have marked veterans’ graves in the cemetery for some time, with many old markers commemorating service in the Revolutionary War, War of 1812, the Civil War, World War I, and, for many of the most recent graves, World War II. It is an impressive testament to the ways in which world events touch even the most remote places. RIP.

The Hamburg Flakturm

An update is certainly overdue! In the last few weeks, I’ve had many exciting opportunities to travel and see important historical sites in person. As I was sorting through pictures, I thought a recent trip to Hamburg would be a good subject for a post. Many thanks go again to my friend Sarah, who invited me for a visit and who graciously showed me around her home away from home!

A Hamburg ferry speeds away from its stop along the river.
A Hamburg ferry speeds away from its stop along the river.

Hamburg is located in northern Germany and is the country’s largest seaport. The Elbe River, which originates in the Czech Republic, connects the city to several trade routes and provides important access to the North Sea. Extensive sea trade is documented from the early Middle Ages and characterizes the city’s history through the modern day.

During the Second World War, Hamburg was also home to several manufacturers of submarines, a distinction that made it an even more attractive target for Allied bombing. After the first aerial attack on Berlin in 1940, Hitler enacted the “Führerbefehl zur Aufstellung von Flaktürmen in Berlin,” an order to construct massive anti-aircraft installations around the capital. This order was expanded by 1942 to include Hamburg and Vienna. Called “Flak towers,” these installations were massive bunkers with meters-thick concrete that made them virtually impenetrable by aerial bombs. In addition to firing on attacking aircraft, they were to serve as air-raid bunkers for local civilians. Their architecture also lent itself for defending against possible ground attacks. Famously, one of the Flak towers in Berlin was among the last defended posts to surrender to the Red Army.

Flak tower IV as seen in 1945. Picture is from the Australian War Memorial Collection, SUK14320, Public Domain.
Flak tower IV as seen in 1945. Picture is from the Australian War Memorial Collection, SUK14320, Public Domain.

In Hamburg, three such bunkers were planned (in addition to smaller communications and “aiming” bunkers which were to provide targeting information to the larger installations). The three were to form a triangle around the city to optimize anti-aircraft coverage. Only two of the three were built and were named numbers IV and VI, as these towers were numbered according to the order of their construction across the three cities.

Flak tower IV in 2016.
Flak tower IV in 2016.

Most of the wartime Flak towers have survived either completely intact or were only lightly damaged, as post-war efforts to destroy them with explosives were mostly futile. Today, many of them house businesses – in the case of Hamburg’s tower IV, even a rooftop club!

These imposing structures are certainly worth a visit for anyone interested in the Second World War or the evolution of defensive structures. Tower IV is located on the Heiligengeistfeld, a large, open park that was recently used for Germany’s second-largest public viewings of the Euro-Cup (the largest is in Berlin).

The Heiligengeistfeld being prepared for the public viewing of Germany vs Slovakia (3:0 Germany).
The Heiligengeistfeld being prepared for the public viewing of Germany vs Slovakia (3:0 Germany).

The City of Marburg

A recent visit from an old friend and former college roommate – the same who organized the trip to Normandy about which I still need to write – inspired another walking tour through the historic city of Marburg. I’ll briefly cover some of the highlights here and encourage anyone traveling to Germany to schedule a stop in this wonderful town and see these treasures for yourselves!

Easily one of the most famous sites in Marburg is the church of St. Elisabeth, built by the Teutonic Knights. Construction began in 1235 and was completed in honor of St. Elisabeth of Thuringia, whose grave inspired the location of the building. Elisabeth is an important political and regional figure for Hessen and is honored for her dedicated assistance to the sick and needy. She died as a result of illness at the age of 24.

The remnants of the Teutonic Knights' hospital in Marburg located next to the Church.
The remnants of the Teutonic Knights’ hospital in Marburg located next to the Church.

Her remains became holy relics and were a popular occasion for pilgrimage to Marburg in the 14th-16th centuries. Landgrave Philipp the Magnanimous, an important figure for the Protestant Reformation and the head of the House of Hessen who converted his state to the new religion, had them removed from the ornate sarcophagus in order to put an end to this practice. The ultimate fate of her remains is still unknown.

The church also contains many period coat of arms belonging to prominent Teutonic Knights. For reasons that are not entirely clear, the church is also the final resting place of Paul von Hindenburg and his wife. They had originally been buried in the massive nationalist monument commemorating the Battle of Tannenberg, but were removed during the retreat of the German army in 1944. After discovering the caskets in a salt mine, US occupation authorities decided to move the remains to Marburg.

Overlooking Marburg is the Marburg Castle, an old fortification that was gradually expanded and transformed over the centuries. For the longest time, it was also the seat of the Landgraves of Hessen, and even held the Hessian state archives until 1938. Today, it is a space for events as well as a large museum dedicated to the history of the city and the surrounding area. There are many rare portraits, artifacts, and an impressive collection of cast iron stoves from the sixteenth century. For those who are interested in Hessen’s history during the age of the American Revolution (as I am), the museum contains portraits of several Hessian officers who served in America, a large portrait of their commanding Landgrave (Friedrich II), a powder horn decorated by a Hessian soldier with scenes from America in 1777, an officer’s sword from the period, and a wooden “recruiting soldier,” a tool used to attract new recruits in the eighteenth century (further examples of such wooden soldiers can be seen in the French army museum in the Invalides).

The Landgraves’ reception hall, decked out for an evening event.

The “Oberstadt” of Marburg, built on the slopes between the Lahn river and the large castle on top of the hill, is home to many of the oldest buildings in town. The old town hall sits at the head of a large market square, and the many Fachwerk-style buildings in the Oberstadt house university students as they have done for hundreds of years. During their time at the University of Marburg, the Brothers Grimm lived here as well.

A view of the Oberstadt on the way to the castle on the hill. The Brothers Grimm lived for a while in the building in the foreground.
A view of the Oberstadt on the way to the castle on the hill. The Brothers Grimm lived for a while in the building in the foreground.

A very somber sight at the bottom of the hill is the former site of the Marburg Synagogue. It was built in the late nineteenth century to accommodate Marburg’s growing Jewish community. On the night of 9 November 1938, it was set ablaze, and only the Torah could be saved from the fire. The damaged building was completely demolished in the following years, as the members of the community fled Germany or were deported East. Today, the site is marked with a monument, and the nearby bus stop features informational placards that detail the history of this erstwhile building.

The memorial to the Marburg synagogue destroyed in 1938.
The memorial to the Marburg synagogue destroyed in 1938.

Even if you are not planning on doing any research at the Hessian State Archives or studies at the University, a trip to Marburg is a rewarding one. The town boasts two convenient train stations, a comprehensive bus system, and many antique book shops, good restaurants, and beautiful views of the area (and what more does one need?).

The Fulda Gap

It’s a very good thing that there is so much going on on this trip that I’ve fallen behind on updates – but now it’s time to play some catch-up!

Yesterday, two German friends and I made our way to “Point Alpha” (Observation Post Alpha) on the former inner-German border of Hessen. It was near this place that DDR border captain Rudi Arnstadt was shot and killed by a West German border guard in 1962, a dramatic moment early in the Cold War. His killer, Hans Plüschke, was deemed by German courts to have acted in self-defense. The incident has never been fully explained. Plüschke stepped out of anonymity in 1997, only to be murdered in mysterious circumstances a year later.

Construction of the Observation Post began in 1965. The observation tower which can be seen today was built in 1985 and replaced an earlier wooden one. From the tower, it is readily apparent why this place was chosen to survey the famous “Fulda Gap,” the place where NATO leadership anticipated a Soviet invasion if the Cold War ever turned hot in Europe.

The observation tower of OP Alpha as seen from the former East German side of the border.
The observation tower of OP Alpha as seen from the former East German side of the border. In the foreground are the former East German defenses.

Observation Post Alpha consists of three barracks and several support buildings. It was totally self-sufficient, with its own plumbing network, generator, and even a gas station for vehicles. To help the roughly 50 soldiers posted here pass the time, the post also included an outdoor brick grill, a horseshoes stake, a basketball hoop, a small sauna, and ping-pong tables. A bright red line in the middle of the camp marked the “Sperrlinie,” the line across which no tanks or heavy vehicles were allowed to cross – any crossing would have been perceived as provocation. The fence on the eastern border of the observation post was also the border of West Germany. East German border guards regularly patrolled right outside this fence, keeping a close watch on their counterparts (and their grill, presumably). Tellingly, the East German defenses were directed East as well. For more than a decade, anti-personnel proximity mines were mounted to the fence to dissuade would-be refugees from attempting to cross.

The nearby Point Alpha Museum tells the story of the Cold War in Hessen with numerous placards, strategic maps, videos, and artifacts like a military Trabant vehicle and original border defense mines. The museum also incorporates the stories of eye witnesses in a novel way – a video booth in the exhibition hall is available for visitors to tell their stories. The room contains multiple video screens to view the most interesting ones. The eye witnesses include former mayors of the area, attempted refugees from the DDR, US soldiers, and former border guards. A special exhibit on the second floor is dedicated to the infamous East German women’s prison at Hoheneck, contextualized with many moving accounts of former inmates.

The view from OP Alpha towards the former East German town of Geysa.
The view from OP Alpha towards the former East German town of Geysa.

The towns around Observation Post Alpha, on both sides of the former border, refer to themselves as “Point Alpha communities.” They regularly cater to tourists traveling to this important strategic post, and likely appreciate more than most that it never had to report the beginning of a new war in Europe. Since the end of the Cold War, the post has hosted many reunions of US soldiers posted here, as well as symbolic meetings of former enemies, such as that between Chancellor Helmut Kohl and General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev.

France, 2016 (Part 1 of many)

It has been an extraordinarily busy week, and one I very much look forward to retelling. Though chronologically I should begin with trips through historic Marburg and the old capital Kassel, a recent trip to Normandy for the 72nd anniversary of the D-Day landings will take precedence while the details are fresh in my mind.

A few months ago, my good friend and former college roommate Jeff suggested visiting me in Europe while I’m here doing research. As we consulted calendars to figure out the best timing for the trip, he noted that the optimal week happened to include the 6th of June – and a plan was born.

On 5 June, we left Marburg at 6am for Frankfurt, where we caught a connecting train to Paris. Our ICE was replaced by a TGV, which was a perfectly comfortable ride at up to 316km/h across the French countryside. Once we arrived in Paris, we had a five-hour layover in which to see the city before heading to our connecting train to Bayeux from Gare Saint Lazare. The city was buzzing with tourists as always, even with an historic swelling of the Seine River, which caused several museums to evacuate their first-floor collections as a precaution.

The Seine overflowing its usual banks to flood the walks along the river.
The Seine overflowing its usual banks to flood the walks along the river.

The weather was unfortunately overcast, so we scrapped the plan of starting at the Arc de Triomphe and opted instead to spend more time at the Invalides (Musée d’Armée and Napoleon’s tomb). One could spend weeks in this massive museum dedicated to French military history. The different halls span from the Middle Ages to the War on Terror, with a heavy emphasis on the nineteenth century. Those who study memory will be interested to learn that placards in the Napoleonic rooms could have been written by the Moniteur’s own propagandists – unapologetic glorification of French Empire and Emperor. Curiously, the small room dedicated to the “Birth of the American Nation” makes no mention of the Marquis de Lafayette.

The courtyard of the Invalides. The halls of the Musée d'Armée are on either side, while straight ahead is the chapel of the Invalides. Under the dome is the ostentatious tomb.
The courtyard of the Invalides. The halls of the Musée d’Armée are on either side, while straight ahead is the chapel of the Invalides. Under the dome is the ostentatious tomb.

After spending most of the layover in the museum, we did a quick walking-past tour of other centers of French Revolution and Empire: the Place de la Concorde (formerly Place Royale and Place de la Révolution – the place of execution for 1119 royals, clergy, and other “counterrevolutionaries”), the Tuileries, and the Louvre.

The fountain at the Place de la Concorde. The Eiffel Tower can be seen through the fog.
The fountain at the Place de la Concorde. The Eiffel Tower can be seen through the fog.

When it was time to catch our connecting train to Bayeux, we hit our first and biggest snag of the trip: the SNCF. French railway workers were participating in an ongoing strike, which delayed trains, canceled others (which naturally overcrowded those still running), and closed most information booths at metro and rail stations. Though seat reservations are mandatory in France, to think one actually gets to occupy that seat is often a forlorn hope. In our two-hour ride to Bayeux, our train car had every seat filled and people sitting in the aisles – where we, too, were stuck, unable to even get in sight of our seat assignment. Not once were any tickets checked and only for the very last leg did we actually get to sit in seats (albeit, still not the ones we actually had reserved).

20 minutes late, we finally arrived in Bayeux, a beautiful, medieval Norman town. Our French host picked us up from the train station and brought us to their home on the outskirts of town, within easy walking distance to the historic town center.