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.

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