Lenin allegedly said: "Revolution in Germany? Don’t hold your breath – if these Germans wanted to storm a train station, they’d buy platform tickets first!" Obviously, the Russian Bolshevik leader was unfamiliar with the residents of Fischbach. Only 15 days after the Parisians stormed the Bastille, the farmers in this village in the Palatinate rose up against their noble exploiters.
"On July 29, 1789, the people of Fischbach symbolically struck down trees in the forest which, according to the lord of the manor, were his private property," Thomas Handrich explained. "Then they drove the lord away and divided the farmland and meadows among themselves." Political scientist Handrich was our guide on a bicycle tour of the places where the rebellions in southwestern Germany took place. "It is no accident that the revolution began here in the southern Palatinate," he said. "The French border is only a few kilometers away; Paris is closer than Munich or Berlin. This is why the revolt in Fischbach spread quickly."
Only six weeks later, the citizens occupied the town hall in Bad Bergzabern, only 30 kilometers away. The noble community councils tried to win back their power in the next few months, but they were not successful. More and more villages joined the "Republic of Bad Bergzabern," which applied to become a member of the "Franconian Republic" on Nov. 12, 1792.
Paris accepted their application on March 28, 1793, and the old powers launched their next offensive that summer. The 32 newly French municipalities in the Palatinate maintained the new order, but the citizens learned a painful lesson in the process: not everything that comes from France is necessarily good.
"The French soldiers pillaged the Palatinate," Handrich said. "French administrators lined their own pockets with profits." And their fear of the guillotine, which the revolutionary Germans called the "chopping knife," put a damper on their revolutionary fire. Francophile feelings had dissipated by the time Napoleon Bonaparte came to power in 1799. The newly christened "Département du Mont-Tonnerre," named after the highest mountain in the region, remained French territory until Napoleon was defeated in 1815. The Palatinate then became part of the Kingdom of Bavaria, one of the 39 loosely allied states of the German Confederation that the victorious monarchists had established.
But the region retained its republican character. "In the Palatinate, the ‘Code Napoléon,’ precursor to the civil code, was still in effect," Handrich explained. "The rights of the press and assembly were also more liberal there than in the other parts of Bavaria. This played an important role in the revolution of 1848-49 and its forerunner, the Hambach Festival."
On the ruins of a castle overlooking the town of Hambach, over 20,000 citizens from all walks of life held a demonstration in the guise of a fair. They protested against the restoration of rule by the aristocracy, for freedom of the press and a united, democratic Germany. We parked our bikes and walked up to the castle – which is now a memorial site – just as the "festival visitors" once had. Through maps, charts, life-sized figures and other artifacts, the exhibition in the tower documents the events of 1832, their preconditions and impact – and the role they played in democracy’s difficult campaign to conquer Germany.
From the castle’s outer precincts, we enjoy the view across the Upper Rhine Valley. You can almost see the smokestacks of the factories in Mannheim and Ludwigshafen. These cities took in the democratic refugees in 1849, after the next wave of the rebellion was put down. Almost 40 years old at the time, Friedrich Engels avidly accompanied the revolution of 1848/49. He later wrote: "People who have seen the Palatinate understand that any political movement in this wine-blessed region is bound to have a highly cheerful character. The Palatinate transformed into one big tavern, and all social classes met in the same wine bars. Fans of socialism might have detected the first rays of all-encompassing brotherhood there."
But wine and a buoyant atmosphere were not enough to defend freedom, equality, and brotherhood. "On June 17, 1849, the defenders of liberty, civil rights and unity died here" is carved into the ivy-covered stone at the entrance to Rinnthal Valley. "No one knows who erected this memorial," said city archivist Rolf Übel. "It commemorates a battle that was more like a skirmish."
By the spring of 1849, the revolution had failed in most parts of the German Confederation. The democrats in the Palatinate decided to secede from Bavaria and, together with neighboring Baden, which was just as revolutionary, to establish a democratic state. Militias and vigilante groups prepared to attack Bavaria and its allies, the Prussians.
"The rebels actually believed they could mobilize tens of thousands of fighters," Übel said. "But many citizens stayed home." The revolution ended up with 10,000-12,000 soldiers, but weapons were scarce. When the enemy marched into the Palatinate in June 1849, it met little resistance.
We are standing at a narrow part of the valley. Here, the remaining rebels tried to keep the Prussian soldiers at bay with a barricade, but had neglected to secure the surrounding slopes. The monarchist troops decimated the flanks of the defenders of a free Palatinate. The soldiers killed in action at Rinnthal are buried in the Anweiler cemetery, among the graves of the wars of 1870/71, 1914-18, and 1939-45. Their memorial was erected 31 years after the battle – and nine years after the founding of the authoritarian German Empire. On one of the columns crowned by the statue of Germania, eight names and the words "They also died for the Fatherland" are carved. Bismarck’s Germany demonstrated little love for democrats.
Thousands of people fled the Palatinate after 1849. For example, Carl Friedrich Theodor Annecke, a former Prussian officer and artillery commander of the Palatinate Militia in 1849, went to the US and joined Abraham Lincoln’s republicans in the fight against slavery. The main square in the quaint half-timbererd village of Frankweiler is named after shopkeeper Johann Gottfried Cullmann, who founded the city of Cullmann, Alabama in 1872.
In Fischbach – the first revolutionary village in Germany – almost all of the buildings date from the 1950s. Here, at the "Westwall," Hitler’s army tunneled bunkers into the mountainside. The residents were evacuated to them shortly before the end of the war. There was no home to return to: Allied artillery had destroyed the place where the German revolution began in 1789.