A Brief History of Hesse
by Peter Kessler, 16 July 2007
While the Hessian people have a history stretching back to the
Teutoberg Forest and the destruction of three Roman Legions in the first
century AD, the modern Federal German State of Hessen is a much
safer place which is divided into three
federal administrative districts.
These are the southern district of
Hessen-Darmstadt; the middle district of Hessen-Giessen (for most of
its history a part of Hessen-Darmstadt); and the northern district of
Hessen-Kassel (old Casl and Cassel).
Located in Hessen-Darmstadt are the cities of Frankfurt-am-Main
and Darmstadt. The area to the south of Frankfurt is heavily
forested, especially in the area of the Odenwald (the Forest of Odes,
south of Darmstadt), which leads to the famous Black Forest, and on
to the Alps. Darmstadt is also very close to the ruins of
Hesse's earliest recorded ancestors were probably the Chatten, a
Germanic folk in existence over 2,000 years ago, but Hesse itself
emerged from the collapse of Germany in the twelfth and early
The first recorded
entry of a location within Hesse's territory dates from AD 782. The
town mentioned was Eberstadt, then called Eberstadt im Rheingau,
where a certain Walther, along with his wife, Williswinde, gave
their entire property to the Lorsch Convent.
Eberstadt has since
been absorbed by Darmstadt.
Confederation of German States
RULERS OF GERMANY:
Landgraves of Hesse
Hessen-Darmstadt in 1626
Since that time, Hesse (or Hessen ) can boast some level of territorial and
The first time the Hessian region expanded far enough to
amount to anything was under the regency of Landgraf (Elector)
Philipp I the Generous (1504-1567). He was one of the political
leaders of the Reformation.
This was the only time Hesse played a
role of great importance in the Holy Roman empire which covered most of Central
Europe, and Frankfurt-am-Main was for a long time a free imperial city
and the place where German emperors were crowned. Writer Otto von Pivka says of this period:
"The process of
dividing inherited lands between all surviving male
beneficiaries…steadily reduced Germany [from a single powerful
kingdom] to a trivial conglomeration of petty
principalities over a period of centuries."
This system was a relic
of the days when the Frankish descendants of Charlemagne ruled most
of western, central and southern Europe. After the death of Philipp
in 1567, it was also responsible for the splitting of the duchy
into the regions of Hessen-Kassel (the north of Hesse),
Hessen-Marburg (central), Hessen-Rheinfels (near the Rhine to the
west), and Hessen-Darmstadt (the south), one each for Philipp's four
Kassel and Darmstadt were the largest of these, with Kassel
being the dominant force. The ruling lines of Hessen-Marburg and Hessen-Rhinefels
died out, causing disputes between Kassel and Darmstadt over how to
divide the territories. Further territorial split-ups led the region
into political obscurity by the eighteenth century, although Kassel
and Darmstadt maintained overlordship over their various splinter states
(such as Hessen-Homburg, Hessen-Rumpenheim and Hessen-Philippsthal).
Reformation and division
Hesse followed most North German states in switching to the more
moderate protestant faith during the Reformation period.
In Hessen-Kassel the Calvinist Protestant
faith was always protected against the conservative Lutherans of
Hessen-Darmstadt, and this was occasionally the source of some
dispute. The university for all protestant Hessians had always been
Marburg, to the south of Kassel.
In 1527 the Lutherans in Marburg
moved to Giessen (a few miles further south, within the borders of
Hessen-Darmstadt), and founded a new Lutheran university.
being very close to each other, the Lutherans in Hessen-Darmstadt
were frustrated to be regarded as second-line protestants. To make
matters worse, in 1605, a reformed Calvinism was made the official
doctrine in Hessen-Kassel.
During the Thirty Years War, Kassel and
Darmstadt were on opposite sides. The two fought some of the
cruellest battles against each other during the final four years of
the war. Unfortunately for the Lutheran south, Hessen-Kassel, as an
ally of Sweden, gained the political upper hand and its choice of
faith was given official status by all signatories of the Münster/Osnabrück
treaty in 1648.
"The subsequent story of territorial acquisitions and losses
between 1567-1801 is too complex to describe here. Suffice it that
both states fought against France in the Revolutionary Wars [of
1792-1801]; Darmstadt, on her own account as part of the Holy Roman
Empire, and Kassel as a result of the latest in a series of subsidy
deals by which she provided troops for the English crown."
closest the Revolutionary Wars came to Hessian territory was in 1792's siege of
Verdun at Frankfurt-am-Main, just a few miles south of Giessen.
1795 Hessen-Kassel made peace with France at Basle.
Hessen-Darmstadt, under [its ruler,] the Landgraf Ludwig X [Louis],
made peace in 1801 at Luneville."
This was at the same time as Great
Britain concluded a peace treaty with France – Hesse had built up
strong connections with the Netherlands, and through them, with
Britain. The influences from Britain were very strong in Hesse until
the Napoleonic Wars, even down to Hesse contributing troops to King
George III during the American Revolution, and Hessian military
uniforms being based on British models.
"In 1803 both states were enlarged by a sharing-out of previously
Imperial free towns and church states to compensate them for lands
lost to France. In addition, Landgraf Wilhelm IX [William] of
Hessen-Kassel secured the coveted title of 'Kurfürst' (Prince
Elector of the Holy Roman Empire).
"In 1806 Hessen-Darmstadt was to grow even larger under the
patronage of Napoleon Bonaparte."
Napoleon played an increasingly
powerful role in German politics between 1800-1814, and in 1806
dissolved the Holy Roman empire.
"Joining Napoleon's pro-French
Confederation of the Rhine in that year [more through necessity than
choice], Hessen-Darmstadt received all remaining Imperial
possessions within her borders, and Landgraf Ludwig became
Grossherzog Ludwig [Grand Duke Louis] when his state was elevated to
a Grand Duchy by Napoleon.
"Hessen-Kassel's fate was very different. Kurfürst Wilhelm I
enraged Napoleon by partially mobilising his army when France attacked Prussia in October
1806; and the following month the French emperor took his revenge by
dissolving Hessen-Kassel and incorporating it into his brother
Jerome's new Kingdom of Westfalia.
"In November 1813 [after the
allied armies had pushed the French out of Germany], Wilhelm
returned from exile. He resumed his old title of Kurfürst, and set
about trying to put the political, administrative, social and
sartorial clock back to 1806."
That was despite the great changes
that had occurred since then.
In 1814 the victorious allied forces convened the Congress of
Vienna, during which they decided how to carve up Europe between
"made further changes to the borders of Hessen-Darmstadt,
and accordingly Ludwig's title became 'Grossherzog von Hessen und bei Rhein,' (Grand Duke of Hesse and the Rhein)".
Three main regions now existed in Hesse: the Electorate of
Hessen-Kassel, the Grand Duchy of Hessen-Darmstadt, and the Duchy of
Nassau to the northwest.
Throughout Europe there was peace for a generation.
period, when Prussian dominance of Northern Germany was becoming
unbearable to many, there was a good deal of emigration from Hesse to America, and to a
lesser extent Britain.
In Hesse, the short-lived national
assembly, which constituted itself in 1848 in the Paulskirche (Saint
Paul's Church) in Frankfurt, had the aim of making a rough draft of
a constitution for a united Germany.
Germany's first democratic
Parliament was generally unsuccessful, but its failure had nothing
to do with the Hessian people. Germany's ruling princes had no
interest in a democracy, and the movement was quashed within a year.
The coming of the German Reich under Prussian predominance,
which constituted itself instead, influenced the further divisions
During the Austro-Prussian War of 1866, the greater
territories of Hesse had supported the defeated Austrian monarchy,
and had consequently lost large regions to the victorious Prussians.
The regions of Hessen-Kassel, Nassau and Frankfurt were collectively
reduced to the status of a Prussian province. The Grand Duchy of
Hessen-Darmstadt was allowed to retain its independence in spite of
some minor territorial losses.
The end of the Great War in 1914 saw the fall of all the ruling
houses of Germany. Nevertheless, the former rulers were able to
maintain much of their status and titles, albeit without the power.
The House of Hessen-Darmstadt died out in 1937. That of
Hessen-Kassel, which had been a Prussian province from 1866-1918
continues to the present day, the last surviving line of Hessian
nobility. A side branch, that of Hessen-Battenberg, was altered
during the Great War (1914-1918) to become Mountbatten – and
survived with the title of Earl Mountbatten in Britain after links
between Germany and Britain were ended by the Great War.
During the Weimar Republic (1919–1933), Hessen-Nassau remained
part of Prussia; on the other hand, Hessen-Darmstadt became a part
of the Republic of Hesse. In 1920 problems over different branches
of protestant faith were laid to rest (at least officially) when
Hesse unified its churches to form a single Lutheran Church.
Adolf Hitler suspended the German constitution when he came to
power in 1933. After the Second World War, in 1945, the occupying US
forces combined Hessen-Nassau and the Republic of Hesse to form the
federal state of Hesse.
In the process, some of the Hesse regions
had to be relinquished, but this - in spite of the 'foreign'
influence involved – more or less resembled the mergers of the
nineteenth century, making Hesse a consistent geographical, cultural
and historic unit.
Hessen-Darmstadt & Hessen-Kassel Otto von Pivka
Map and text copyright © P L Kessler. An original feature for the