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Central Europe

A Brief History of Hesse

by Peter Kessler, 16 July 2007

While the Hessian people have a history which stretches 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, one which is divided into three federal administrative districts.

Those districts are the southern district of Hessen-Darmstadt; the middle district of Hessen-Giessen (for most of its history 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 Frankenstein Castle.

Hesse's beginnings

Hesse's earliest recorded ancestors were (probably) the Chatten, a Germanic folk who were recorded in the first century AD, but Hesse itself emerged from the collapse of the German political system in the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries.

The first recorded entry of a location which can be confirmed as being 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. Various other areas - gaus - are mentioned, sometimes obliquely, and some can be connected to Hess in later times.

Hessen-Darmstadt in 1626

The city of Hessen-Darmstadt in 1626 as recorded by Daniel Meissner (click or tap on image to read more on a separate page)

Since that time, Hesse (or Hessen [1]) can boast some level of territorial and historical continuity.

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.

[1] 'Hesse' is the English form of 'Hessen'.

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 in which 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 in which 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 sons.

Kassel and Darmstadt were the largest of these, with Kassel being the senior line. 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 northern 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 kilometres further south, within the borders of Hessen-Darmstadt), and founded a new Lutheran university.

Despite 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.'

The closest the Revolutionary Wars came to Hessian territory was in 1792's siege of Verdun at Frankfurt-am-Main, just a few kilometres south of Giessen.

'In 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.

Landgraf Frederick II

The contentious Landgraf Frederick II, 1760-1785, was a reverted Catholic who is sometimes removed from the Hessian list of rulers

'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.'

Napoleonic politics

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 which 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 them. They:

'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")'.

Napoleon Bonaparte

Germany benefited from Napoleon's reorganisations which slimmed down the number of German states and began their modernisation

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 north-west.

Prussia's Germany

Throughout Europe there was peace for a generation.

During this 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.

Princess Anna of Prussia
Princess Maria Anna Friederike (Anna), daughter of Prince Charles of Prussia and Princess Marie of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach, married Prince Frederick William I of Hessen-Kassel in 1853 but, as his second wife following the tragic death of his first during childbirth, she found the relationship to be loveless, if productive (oil on canvas by Franz Xaver Winterhalter) (click or tap on image to view full sized)

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 [Second] German Reich under Prussian predominance, which constituted itself instead, influenced the further divisions of Hesse.

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.

Modern Hesse

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.


Main Sources

Otto von Pivka - Hessen-Darmstadt & Hessen-Kassel

Charles Tilly - Coercion, Capital, and European States (1992)

Gerhard Köbler - Historisches Lexikon der deutschen Länder (Historical Dictionary of German States) (1995)

Charles Cawley - Medieval Lands: Thuringia

Allgemeine Deutsche Biographie, Historischen Kommission bei der Bayerischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, Vol 11 (1880, in German)

Online Sources


Historical Atlas of Germany




Map and text copyright © P L Kessler. An original feature for the History Files.