Posted by Torben
In August of 1850, a 21 year old political fugitive arrived in Berlin and moved into an apartment not far from Gendarmenmarkt in the center of town. He was carrying false papers identifying him as Heribert Jüssen. His goal was to stage a prison break. His friend and mentor Gottfried Kinkel was serving a life sentence for treason in Spandau Prison.
Jüssen himself had narrowly escaped arrest and court martial. As a student in Bonn he had been caught up in the revolutionary fervor of 1848 that, originating in France, had spread to his native Rhineland, which, much to the inhabitants' dismay, had become a part of Prussia after Napoleon's defeat in 1815. The goal was national unification and an end to the reactionary, monarchical regimes ruling over the myriad small and middling principalities that comprised Germany at the time (Prussia, with its capital Berlin, was the largest and most powerful of these states). What exactly a unified Germany should look like, how it should be governed, was hotly contested, however. Jüssen himself was an unabashed democrat who advocated for his ideas in the newspaper Bonner Zeitung, published by Kinkel. (Jüssen eschewed the more radical ideas expressed in the rival Neue Rheinische Zeitung, published by Karl Marx.) There were high expectations for Germany's future.
But the euphoria of revolution soon gave way to disappointment, as the old elites succeeded in circling the wagons and reestablishing control. Prussian troops descended on the Rhineland, quashing the rebellion. Along with Kinkel, a Protestant theologian turned art historian (marrying a Catholic divorcée had put the kibosh on his career teaching church history at the university of Bonn), Jüssen traveled south to the principality of Baden where the revolutionaries were making a last stand. They proved to be no match for the Prussian troops who, coming to the aid of the duke of Baden, took the fortress of Rastatt where Kinkel and Jüssen were stationed, arresting the former. Jüssen, as a subject of the Prussian king fighting against Prussian troops, had to fear execution as a traitor if captured. With much luck he was able to escape the fortress through the sewer system, then managed to sneak across the border into France, whence he continued on to Switzerland.
It was there that he received a letter from Kinkel's wife requesting his aid in liberating her husband. Kinkel had been spared the death sentence, scant comfort as he instead faced the prospect of lifelong imprisonment in a Prussian penitentiary where he spent his days spinning wool from morning to night. Jüssen promised to help and headed back to Germany.
Upon his arrival in Berlin, Jüssen contacted fellow democrats who might aid him in his endeavor. Specifically, he hoped to acquire information on the jailers at Spandau Prison (not, by the way, the same facility where Nazi war criminals like Rudolf Heß would be incarcerated). Spandau, today the western-most district of Berlin, was at the time an independent garrison town. His contacts put Jüssen in touch with the prison guard they deemed most amenable to helping the imprisoned revolutionary. Jüssen first established that the guard was sympathetic to Kinkel, then asked him if he would sneak a message and some food into the prisoner's cell. Only after the man demonstrated a willingness to run these errands did Jüssen circumspectly broach the subject of a jail break. The guard balked.
Jüssen approached another guard, then a third. Both turned him down, prompting Jüssen to leave Berlin for a time in case any of the jailers had informed on him to their superiors. He returned at the end of September, moving into an apartment in the district of Moabit. Another guard was approached in vain. Then Jüssen met Georg Brune. Here was a man who was not shy about articulating his anger at Kinkel's imprisonment. After Jüssen had established Brune's bona fides, he asked if he would consider breaking Kinkel out of jail. Brune asked for three days to think about it. Then he agreed.
The plan they came up with required Brune to be on duty on the floor where Kinkel was being held. This would be the case on the night of November 5th. In the meantime, Jüssen would travel north toward the Baltic Sea, contacting allies along the way who could provide horses and carriages to take them all the way to the port city of Rostock. Jüssen's friends, with the aid of a wax mold provided by Brune, would procure a copy of the key to the infirmary where the key to Kinkel's cell was kept. A copy of the key to the visitors' entrance to the prison courtyard would also be made and given to Jüssen. On the appointed night, Brune was to enter the infirmary, grab the key to the cell, free the prisoner, and bring him down to the courtyard where Jüssen would be waiting to spirit him to a nearby guesthouse run by a man sympathetic to the cause.
The night of November 5th arrived. Jüssen unlocked the gate to the prison courtyard and waited. The time agreed upon for Kinkel's escape came and went. Half an hour later Brune appeared. Alone. The key to Kinkel's cell had not been where it was supposed to be. The escape attempt had failed.
The next day Brune apprised Jüssen of what had happened. An absentminded guard had accidentally taken the key to Kinkel's cell home with him. But Brune was eager to try again. He had managed to be assigned to Kinkel's floor again that evening. The key to the cell would certainly not be removed from the infirmary two days running. The problem was that bringing Kinkel down to the courtyard required taking him past another guard. Brune did not trust the man on duty that night. So Brune suggested a different plan. He could bring Kinkel to the attic without running into any colleagues. From an attic window, Kinkel could rappel down to the street using a rope.
There was no time to requisition any horses along the route up to Rostock. A rope was procured and some friends of Jüssen's appointed as lookouts (Spandau still had a nightwatchman). Jüssen, carrying a change of clothing for Kinkel, waited in a doorway across the street from the prison. A flash of light from an attic window was to signal Kinkel's impending escape. The flash came, the rope was lowered, and Jüssen could observe Kinkel rappeling down the facade of the prison to the street – much too quickly as it turned out; the rope had burned and cut his hands. Still, they made it to the guesthouse without being seen. From there, the guesthouse owner sought to get the two fugitives across the border into Mecklenburg as quickly as possible. His horses were driven so hard that one had to be put down, but the next morning – it was already broad daylight, November 7th, 1850 – Jüssen and Kinkel arrived in Neustrelitz in Mecklenburg. From there, supporters helped them make their way to Rostock, where they were received by a well-to-do merchant who owned a grain ship that was scheduled to sail for England in just over a week's time. They were given quarters on the ship and, after a stormy voyage that took them well off course, arrived safely in Edinburgh, Scotland. (Brune, meanwhile, was arrested and would be sentenced to four years in prison. The money Jüssen had given him, in advance, for his help – Kinkel had many generous benefactors and Jüssen had control over the funds – was not discovered.) The escape had proved successful and Jüssen could give up his fake identity and again use his given name: Carl Schurz, future senator and secretary of the interior of the United States of America.
News of Kinkel's escape and of Schurz's role in it spread across Europe. Schurz became something of a celebrity. From London he moved to Paris, renewing his work as a journalist, but he was forced to return to England after Napoleon III cracked down on foreigners in France. Schurz found the atmosphere among the German émigrés in London to be dispiriting. The second German revolution they were plotting, it was becoming increasingly clear, amounted to nothing more than a pipe dream. And so, in 1852, Schurz decided to emigrate to the United States. He settled in Watertown, Wisconsin (a German community), bought a farm, and trained to work as a lawyer. His wife, Margarethe, established the first kindergarten in the United States. It was German-speaking. (Kinkel, to tie up a loose end, would become a professor of art history in Zurich.)
Schurz's interest in politics hadn't left him, and he ably managed to translate his celebrity into political influence within the German-American community. His belief that slavery was an abomination caused him to gravitate to the Republican party, which put him at odds with most German immigrants. The latter combined a fear of the nativist tendencies within the Republican party with a healthy skepticism of temperance laws. Although historians today would dispute it, it was widely believed at the time that Schurz's advocacy for the Republicans among the German electorate delivered Wisconsin to Abraham Lincoln in the 1860 election. Schurz was rewarded with the post of ambassador to the court of Madrid. After the start of the Civil War, however, Schurz desperately wanted to fight. He returned to the States, was made a brigadier, later a major general, and though his performance as an officer was controversial, he eagerly served the Union side.
After Lincoln's assassination Schurz tried to remain politically relevant. He lobbied Andrew Johnson and managed to be sent on a mission to study the postwar South. The clear-eyed report that was the result of his trip emphasized the unwillingness of the old Southern elites to accept the reality of their defeat and the consequences of the war. Unfortunately, Johnson, who continued to pursue a (failing) policy of conciliation with the South, didn't care very much.
Schurz pursued a career in journalism while remaining active in politics; he was elected to the Senate by the Missouri state legislature in 1871 and appointed secretary of the interior by Rutherford B. Hayes in 1877. He was an advocate for civil service reform and a vocal critic of American imperialism. Schurz was recognized as the spokesman of German-Americans, a powerful voting force in the US, throughout his political career. He died in 1906.
I received my primary and secondary education almost entirely on Long Island. In history class I learned that Reconstruction was all scalawags and carpetbaggers. I learned that Betsy Ross was a woman that girls could look up to because she sewed the first American flag. She sewed a flag. I learned that Crispus Attucks, shot dead in the Boston Massacre, was a role model for African Americans. By heroically managing to be the first man killed, he had demonstrated that the American Revolution was not just for white people, but for blacks and Indians as well. Attucks, fortuitously (although it didn't help him any), was half black and half Native American (two birds with one musket). The fact that the revolution would lead, after numerous twists and turns, to the promulgation of a constitution that (though a remarkable and lasting document to be sure) would enshrine the enslavement of Americans of African descent for generations, was not discussed in this context, nor was the subsequent decimation of Native American communities across the continent.
I don't want to sound too cynical. The stories of Ross and Attucks, perhaps, serve to perpetuate ideas we may no longer be comfortable with, but that the Revolutionary War, at least in our historical imagination, features such a heterogeneous cast of characters speaks to the success the United States has had in defining national identity without recourse to ethnicity. No matter your origins, it is made clear, you can be American. (In Germany we still struggle to understand and accept that you can be German even if your grandparents weren't.) Every subgroup in the US has its war hero. French-Americans have Lafayette, the Poles have Casimir Pulaski, and the Germans Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben who, having served in the armies of King Frederick the Great of Prussia and the margrave of Baden, left Germany for North America (perhaps to avoid an indictment for sodomy) and took a leading role in whipping the Continental Army into shape before its triumph at Yorktown.
There is a statue of Steuben in downtown Potsdam, just outside of Berlin. The original was cast from the same mold as the Steuben statue in the garden of the White House and was a gift of the Congress of the United States in 1911. In 1950 the East German authorities ordered it melted down along with statues of Prussian royals. In 1994 the lost statue was replaced by a copy. I sometimes take groups there, American college students mostly. None of them ever know who Steuben was.
I doubt any of them would have heard of Pulaski, either, but the fact that Steuben is not or no longer a household name (even though the Chicago Steuben Parade features prominently in Ferris Bueller's Day Off) is perhaps in part a symptom of the decline of German-American culture and identity in the 20th century, despite the fact that more Americans claim German ancestry than any other. Germans, representing the largest immigrant population of the US in the mid-19th century, created a formidable cultural infrastructure comprising newspapers, theaters, music clubs, etc. (Joseph Pulitzer got his start in the newspaper business writing for the German language Westliche Post in St. Louis of which Schurz was both co-publisher and editor.) German-American culture was decimated by the First World War. Germany was not just the enemy but also the aggressor, and was thus quite naturally cast in a negative light. The Creel Committee, the government agency established to bolster support for the war and whose efforts can fairly be classified as propaganda, did its part to make an identification with German culture appear imprudent. American manufacturers of sauerkraut decided to market their product as “liberty cabbage,” fearing a drop in sales. German-Americans stopped speaking the language of the old country and insisted that their children only speak English. What remained of a German identity in the United States took another hit in World War II – who in their right mind would want to identify with the Nazis? Today, it seems that German-American culture survives in the various Oktoberfests held across the midwest. Beer and sausages, that's more or less what it amounts to.
Carl Schurz, I think, is better remembered in Germany than in the United States. I attended the Carl-Schurz-Schule in Frankfurt in ninth grade. Carl Schurz postage stamps have been issued by the German postal service, streets have been named for him, several popular biographies published. In the US there's Carl Schurz Park in Manhattan, also a statue in Morningside Park. That's about it.
Schurz in many ways is an ambivalent figure. Increasingly, he became a critic of Congressional Reconstruction and supported amnesty for Southern whites. He also supported Horace Greeley's embarrassing presidential campaign in 1872. He believed that economic science proved that paper money was an evil. Notwithstanding a sincere regard for the Native Americans he was responsible for as secretary of the interior, he believed that, to avoid destruction, their only recourse was assimilation, a cruelty in its own right. His anti-imperialism was colored by racism; he opposed the annexation of Santo Domingo, today's Dominican Republic, suggesting that the local population was incapable of rising to the level of civilization achieved by the US. From a position of undoubted personal rectitude, he was eager to dish out advice to all and sundry, particularly American presidents. He was, in the words of his biographer, a “scold.”
Still, Schurz personifies a German-American world that is, perhaps a little unjustly, forgotten. He was a German revolutionary who fought bravely for democracy; an immigrant to the United States who became a proud American; a man who rose from political fugitive to statesman and who dedicated his political life to the abolition of slavery. It's not as simple as all that, of course, but if we decide that we want to people our historical imagination with personalities we can identify with, we could do worse. Certainly there's more here than beer and sausages.