Palatine Political Crimes in the Vormärz Period
"Die Pressen, welche das Volk sich baut, werdet ihr nie zum Schweigen bringen" (The press the people build you will never silence) - Quote from Johann August Wirth in the "Deutsche Tribüne" (German Tribune) on January 1, 1832.
The history of the written word has always been a story of censorship and the destruction of writings. Writings were often censored to prevent unwelcome ideas from being distributed and preserve state or ecclesiastical power.
The period from the late 18th to the early 19th century was turbulent. It was marked by the effects of the Enlightenment and the great revolutions in England (1688–89), America (1775–83) and France (1789–90). This was particularly noticeable in the Palatinate. Due to its special social and political conditions, a free and liberal-minded community flourished here in the Vormärz period. Their mouthpiece was the liberal press. They campaigned for German unity and civil freedoms in newspaper articles and pamphlets, in associations, and at festivals.
On the other side were the restorative federal and state forces, linked by a strong fear of revolution. They fought against the new form of political protest with even stricter limitations: censorship, bans on assemblies, and the prohibition of political associations.
The French Civil Code (1804)
From the end of the 18th to the beginning of the 19th century, the left bank of the Rhine in today's Rhineland-Palatinate region was repeatedly occupied by French troops and was occasionally even part of the French state. This had a strong influence on the society and politics of the Palatinate in particular. This is because, when the region was occupied and belonged to France, French laws were applied as a matter of course.
In 1804 one of the most important civil law codes of modern times came into force: the French Civil Code (also called the Napoleonic Code). The French Civil Code led to civil war in the Palatinate and regulated, among other things, the abolition of guilds, the freedom of trade, the freedom and independence of the courts, and the separation of church and state.
Of particular importance, however, were legal equality and freedom for all citizens. With this, the guiding principles of the revolution—freedom, equality and brotherhood—were implemented in law. The name "Rheinische Institutionen" (Rhenish Institutions) developed in the Palatinate for such liberal regulations.
The Congress of Vienna, 1814–15
After Napoleon's defeat, the political map of Europe was rearranged at the Congress of Vienna. Instead of integrating the new liberal ideas of freedom and equality, however, the congress wanted to restore the old conditions. The shared goal of the participating rulers was to defend restorative politics against revolutionary ideas and liberal tendencies out of fear of revolutionary conflagration. They followed the principle of monarchy, not democracy.
The Congress of Vienna was led by Klemens Wenzel Lothar von Metternich (May 15, 1773 – June 11, 1859), considered one of the most ardent advocates of restorative politics. The results of his initiative included the Carlsbad Decrees (1819), which put all liberal and national tendencies under penalty and persecution for decades.
The Palatinate Becomes Bavarian
The Palatinate again became part of the German Confederation following Napoleon's defeat. In the Treaty of Munich of April 14, 1816, it was determined that the Palatinate should be affiliated with the Kingdom of Bavaria. The "Rheinische Institutionen" introduced through the French Civil Code wanted to leave the king in power, as there were fears there would be open revolts in the population otherwise.
The Palatinate therefore received the status of a "subsidiary state," both legally and geographically. The Circle of the Rhine was an exclave without a land bridge to the Kingdom of Bavaria.
Press Freedom in the Kingdom of Bavaria?
The Kingdom of Bavaria was one of the first German states to have a constitutional basis—as early as 1808. In 1818 the Bavarian King Maximilian I Joseph issued a new constitution which guaranteed more extensive civil freedoms.
The Edict on the Freedom of the Press and the Book Trade was part of the constitution of 1818 and contained provisions on the handling of press freedom. According to the constitution, this applied to all writings "except political newspapers and periodicals with political or statistical content" which were subject to pre-censorship and checks by a censor.
The Palatinate Press in the Vormärz
By preserving the "Rheinische Institutionen," the Palatinate became one of the strongholds of liberalism within the German Confederation. It created a special political climate where free and liberal ideas could continue to spread.
The topic of the press and press freedom was of great importance in these circles. The political press was another way for citizens to directly participate in legislation or government, which would have otherwise been impossible. This allowed the Palatinate press to become a symbol of freedom of expression and a channel for the liberal opposition.
A thriving press landscape emerged. This was made possible by a special legal basis, including the French Civil Code, the Napoleonic laws, the Carlsbad Decrees, and the Bavarian constitutions. All of these changes in law had created hopeless legal confusion in the Palatinate. The censorship rules—if officials looked through these at all—were also interpreted quite laxly. In fact, most officials were often very supportive of the Palatinate people and their new liberal ideas.
Reading rooms — meeting places for the educated bourgeoisie and symbols of the so-called "reading revolution" of the 19th century—sprung up everywhere throughout the German regions during the Vormärz.
The success of the press was also due to the increasing literacy rates in the population. The reading and education revolution even reached the lower levels of society. Reading societies and lending libraries enabled greater accessibility. For the first time in German history, large parts of the population started to tackle themes such as society, state, and political involvement. This development and political emancipation could no longer be stopped or suppressed by continuing censorship.
The Revolution of 1830
1830 marked one of the high points in the political climate of the Vormärz. Liberal forces now openly demanded an end to restorative politics.
The government simply could not handle the demands of the liberals — this form of social and political protest was new to them. It reacted with a strictly anti-revolutionary policy of oppression and a restorative counter-movement. This included an unyielding censorship policy. The enforcement of strict regulations heightened the pressure on the opposition press in the Palatinate. Journalists were still able to handle this pressure, until the provisional high point of the Palatinate liberal press movement in 1832.
The liberal and democratic movement in the Palatinate attracted ever wider circles. This was mainly thanks to the journalists who distributed these ideas in their newspapers, articles, and writings.
Many of them were also among the organizers and speakers at the Hambach Festival.
One of the most famous Palatine journalists during the Vormärz period was Johann Georg August Wirth (November 20, 1798 – July 26, 1848). He was the editor of the influential "Deutsche Tribüne" newspaper.
Wirth originally came from Halle (Saale). He was a lawyer and initially published several papers in Munich. Following conflicts with the local censorship authorities, he moved with his "Deutsche Tribüne" newspaper to the liberal southwest in the fall of 1831. There was official pre-censorship of periodicals and political writings here as well, and Wirth again came into conflict with the authorities over his articles.
But unlike the authorities in Old Bavaria, the censors in the Palatinate simply did not take final action against the writings of the liberals. Wirth avoided his printing presses being sealed by changing which printing works he used. He prevented his writings from being confiscated by the postal service by setting up his own messenger system.
From March 1832, due to increased external and domestic political pressure, the Palatinate authorities strictly enforced the censorship provisions. A commotion occurred inside Wirth's printing works in Homburg when Wirth, together with some of his staff, formed a barricade in front of the police. Eventually, the "Deutsche Tribüne" was banned completely. Wirth and his comrades were not criminally prosecuted, however. Although they were deprived of their medium, they were not silenced for good.
In May 1832 Wirth was one of the main organizers at the Hambach Festival. Afterwards, he published the official festival description in which the majority of speeches at the Hambach Festival were printed: "Das Nationalfest der Deutschen zu Hambach" (The National Festival of the Germans in Hambach).
Following the festival, Wirth was charged with calling "for subversion, for a change of state government and the succession to the throne, and for the arming of citizens and residents against state authority." Initially acquitted by the jury, a new charge was drafted which led to a 2-year prison sentence. After his release, Wirth went abroad until 1847 and finally passed away in 1848 in Frankfurt am Main.
The "Deutsche Tribüne" was published from July 1, 1831 through March 21, 1832 and is one of the most important opposition newspapers of the Vormärz.
This cover of the "Deutsche Tribüne" from July 17, 1831 shows the extent of the influence of the censors. Only a few lines of the article escaped censorship. The title page is therefore almost satirical, and the large censorship gaps provide unmistakable evidence of a repressed press to the readers of the time as well. The deletions therefore have the opposite effect from what was intended.
Alongside Wirth, Philipp Jakob Siebenpfeiffer (November 12, 1798 – May 14, 1845) was also one of the most influential Palatine publicists in the Vormärz.
Siebenpfeiffer was originally from the Black Forest, but in 1818 he became a land commissioner in Homburg (Palatinate). In this role, he was also responsible for censorship as the highest-ranking official of the district.
Shortly after taking up his post, his private publicist activity came into conflict with his administrative duties. In his "Rheinbayern" magazine, Siebenpfeiffer campaigned for the political participation of the bourgeoisie. From the beginning of the 1830s, he published additional writings such as "Freie Wahl und freie Presse in Bayern" (Free Choice and Free Press in Bavaria) and "Der Bote aus dem Westen," or "Westbote" (The Messenger from the West) from 1832 in which he explicitly addressed the wider population and stood for national unity, a strong constitution, and civil freedom and independence.
Just like Wirth, Siebenpfeiffer quickly attracted the attention of the authorities through these publications, and a real game of cat and mouse ensued. He was forcibly retired as a land commissioner, his presses were sealed, and he changed his printing location several times.
After his participation in the Hambach Festival (1832), Siebenpfeiffer was arrested and charged with incitement to riot. Like Wirth, he was acquitted by the jury in Landau but subsequently sentenced to 2 years of imprisonment before another chamber for lèse-majesté. But unlike Wirth, Siebenpfeiffer did not accept this sentence and fled to Switzerland in November 1833, where he spent the rest of his life.
The book printer Georg Ritter was born in Zweibrücken in 1795. In 1819 Ritter married the widow of his deceased instructor and took over his printing works. Ritter made a name for himself in the following years as a printer. His printing works became one of the best across the German regions and were known for high-quality products. Ritter was in contact with the liberal movement and printed their oppositional writings—even those that had been officially banned. He remained politically active until his death in 1854, and was involved in printing and distributing oppositional writings. Georg Ritter's printing works were a permanent refuge for liberal publicists who could print their newspapers here if they were being persecuted or if their own presses had been sealed.
Friedrich Schüler was born on August 19, 1791 in Bergzabern. He worked at the court in Zweibrücken following his legal training and came into contact with other Palatine liberals there, representing Philipp Jakob Siebenpfeiffer as his lawyer during press proceedings.
In the assembly of the estates election in 1830, Friedrich Schüler was elected as a deputy and distinguished himself in the Bavarian state parliament as leader of the opposition. On his return to the Palatinate in January 1832, the Schüler Festival was held in his honor. Over the course of this festival, the "Deutscher Vaterlandsverein zur Unterstützung der Freien Presse" (German Fatherland Union in Support of the Free Press), known as the "Preßverein," was formed. Its central committee also belonged to Schüler.
After the Hambach Festival (1832), Schüler fled abroad, but returned during the revolution of 1848–49 and became a member of the Paulskirche Parliament. After the failure of the revolution and assembly, he fled the country again and died in 1873 in Metz.
During the Schüler Festival, the "Deutscher Vaterlandsverein zur Unterstützung der Freien Presse" ("Preßverein") was founded. The association aimed to financially support journalists threatened by confiscation and censorship. The guaranteed acceptance of their newspapers was financed by association contributions. Friedrich Schüler, Joseph Savoye, and Ferdinand Geib made up the central committee of the association.
In the "Deutsche Tribüne" of February 3, 1832, Wirth called for people to join the Preßverein in his article "Deutschlands Pflichten" (Germany's Obligations).
According to Wirth, the free press was the sole means of spiritually reunifying Germany.
Huge publicity came in just a few weeks. The Preßverein gained over 5,000 members in a very short time (from January to September 1832), half of whom came from the Palatinate. The large growth in numbers was due in part to rapid distribution by bookshops, reading societies and fraternities. In addition, membership lists were placed in taverns and published in the "Deutsche Tribüne."
Financed by a public corporation, Wirth acquired a rapid press for printing the "Deutsche Tribüne." At this point, political journalism in the Palatine had clearly reached its peak. Its leading organizations—the "Westbote" and the "Deutsche Tribüne"—were leading the fight for press freedom more strongly than ever.
This heyday of Palatinate liberal journalism had to go face to face against the Bavarian government. The many censorship gaps in newspapers were proof that the censors were cracking down hard. Soon, even the Preßverein could do little more for these papers. On March 1, 1832, the Bavarian government banned the "Deutsche Tribüne" and "Westbote," and many other newspapers were seized on a large scale. The Preßverein was also banned.
The comprehensive banning and seizing of periodicals made them ineffective for spreading liberal ideas. Now a new type of publication was growing in importance: the pamphlet. Pamphlets were sometimes distributed free of charge, and reached circulation numbers of up to 600,000 copies.
Content-wise, they covered, for example, the inflation of food prices, the customs and levies system, and the political demands of the Vormärz: freedom, equality, and press freedom. Because their authors did not have to worry about deletions by the censors (which only applied to periodicals), the tone of these pamphlets was typically more radical than it ever had been in the press.
From April 1832, however, the government began to act against these publications. In July 1832 the last legal loopholes were closed and even the pamphlets no longer offered any freedom of expression. The Palatine liberals had to again seek a new forum in the political public sphere. To this end, the public festival culture emerged.
On May 27, 1832, the most famous political festival of the Vormärz took place in Neustadt an der Weinstraße (known as Neustadt an der Hardt at the time). This was the Hambach Festival. Press freedom was one of the central demands of the speakers and participants.
The Suppression of Liberal Forces After the Hambach Festival
The (police) surveillance of liberal forces was a further manifestation of the German rulers' huge fear of revolution. After the French Revolution of 1830, the existing surveillance of suspected publicists and newspapers was gradually expanded. In 1832 new laws were established, banning political associations, extraordinary assemblies, and public festivals, as well as public speeches with political content.
The "Frankfurter Bundeszentralbehörde" (Frankfurt Federal Central Authority), founded as a judicial authority in 1833, aimed to uncover information about revolutionary activity as well as its origins and branches. The most important report was the "Schwarze Buch" (Black Book) published in 1838, an "alphabetical directory of those persons against whom investigative action has been taken regarding revolutionary activity according to the records of the Federal Central Authority." It was therefore a list of all those under surveillance—including personal details and allegations.
The "Schwarze Buch" was the first professional report on the monitoring of people during the Vormärz. 1,867 suspects were included. The list contained 187 men from the Palatinate, and naturally included people such as Wirth, Siebenpfeiffer, Kolb, Ritter, and many more.
But what happened to press freedom after the Vormärz?
Revolution of 1848–49
The repressive measures of the 1830s could no longer prevent social and political developments. The liberal forces still desired and demanded a free press.
Freedom of expression (freedom of speech and the press) was eventually included in the demands in the bill of rights as part of the revolution of 1848–49.
From May 1848, the first all-German, freely elected parliament met in Paulskirche in Frankfurt to discuss a liberal constitution and the formation of a German nation state. In December, the Paulskirche Parliament adopted this bill of rights. It enshrined almost all of the guarantees of freedom which form an unchangeable part of the constitution today: equality before the law; freedom of the press, speech, assembly, and belief; inviolability of the person and property; and the protection of state arbitrariness would all be ensured.
Article 4 read: "Every German has the right to freely express and disseminate his opinion in speech, writing,
and pictures. Freedom of the press may not be restricted under any circumstances or in any manner by preventive measures, namely censorship, concession, security orders, state restrictions, restrictions on printing or book trade, postal bans, or other obstacles to free movement."
However, the Paulskirche Parliament failed to achieve this, as did the 1849 Imperial Constitution campaign. The previously granted fundamental rights were largely withdrawn during the counter-revolution.
German Empire (1871–1918)
More years passed until a generally valid press law came into force. It was not until May 7, 1874 that the first Imperial Press Law was established in the now unified German Reich. The law was thoroughly liberal, but the imperial constitution did not contain any fixed fundamental laws.The laws could therefore be interpreted very differently and be easily circumvented. The Anti-Socialist Law of 1878 (prohibiting all socialist and social democratic organisations) again suspended the Imperial Press Law.
The National Socialists regarded the task of the press as acting in line with their ideological world view. The Decree for the Protection of People and State of February 28, 1933 suspended the fundamental rights of the constitution. Restrictions on the freedom of the press and expression could now be enacted without further reasoning.
Only about a quarter of the newspapers published before the seizure of power survived the purges in the first few months afterwards.
Federal Republic of Germany
On May 8, 1949, the Parliamentary Council passed the Basic Law of the Federal Republic of Germany, which is still valid today. Articles 1 through 19 contain the fundamental rights of citizens.
In addition to the best-known first article, "Die Würde des Menschen ist unantastbar" (Human dignity shall be inviolable), Article 5 contains the following provision: "Everyone has the right to freely express and disseminate his opinion in speech, writing, and pictures and to freely inform himself from generally accessible sources. Freedom of the press and freedom of reporting by means of broadcasts and films are guaranteed. There may be no censorship."
Through the so-called "eternity clause," the German constitution ensures that fundamental rights remain inviolable. Even a constitutional amendment cannot override them.
Today, the work of journalists relies on the freedom of the press and free expression. But despite this being enshrined in the Basic Law, there are increasing attempts to impede journalistic work in Germany. Above all, the concentration of newspapers, radio, television, and new media in just a few companies in Europe currently poses a threat to press freedom. And in many other countries, freedom of expression in the press is very difficult, or extremely risky.
Statements regarding "fake news," "post-factual truths," or even "social bots" pose new challenges to free and independent reporting. Preserving and promoting press freedom and the free press as a forum for the pluralistic formation of opinions is now even more important.
Special thanks go to all companies, institutions and people who have provided pictures or material.
We have made every effort to obtain the permission to print all illustrations. Should further claims exist, please contact us.
Sarah Traub, Institut für Geschichtliche Landeskunde an der Universität Mainz e.V. (IGL)