Wednesday, June 19, 2024

The Liberal Germans St. Louis Never Mentioned

I was inspired by Dr. Adam Hammer’s story and his colorful life. He owned a brewery and fought for the abolishment of slavery in St. Louis. This led me to research some of the contemporary German-American revolutionaries living in Gateway City. A lot has been written about the 1848 revolutions of Europe and the people who fled to America after they failed. What is often overlooked about the history of those German refugees – at least in conservative St. Louis -is how radical they were. They were not German Thomas Jefferson or George Washington, but they were more left-leaning than the two Americans could have imagined.

Henry Bernstein is an example. He also owned a small brewery, as I mentioned a few weeks ago. Back in Europe, he had also corresponded with Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, and other Europeans. A look at contemporary newspaper stories reveals his German-language newspaper, Anzeiger des Westens, was not a simple Teutonic USA Today of the antebellum era. The paper was vehemently opposed to slavery–frustratingly so for the monolingual English-speaking, the slaveholding elite of Missouri who could not read what was being said about their Peculiar Institution. The St. The St. Louis Globe-Democrat published a letter to its editor on August 2, 1854. It refers to “Bernstein’s Satanic crew…of such infidels, and agitators.”

The Anzeiger editor knew what it meant to give everything he had, and mocked the current mayor in another letter to him. Bernstein’s status as an agitator extended deep into the South. This is evident from newspaper articles that date back to 1852 in Arkansas and Louisiana. These articles were almost a decade before the Civil War. A woman of questionable reliability describes an alleged assault on Boernstein by her husband in St. Louis, after he insulted her honor as a slaveholder.

One woman sat Borenstein on her back, holding pieces of leather cowhides. She claimed that his skin was thicker than a rhinoceros’ hide, even though he may have lost the ability to blush.

Bernstein would, along with Friedrich Hecker (a colleague of Dr. Hammer), take up arms in support of the Union during the Civil War that broke out in 1861. Hecker was more than a Revolutionary War hero Baron von Steuben who came from Germany to fight for liberty. Hecker, like the 1848 refugees, was more left-leaning than the local celebrations of German heritage. Hecker is almost forgotten today, despite his papers being collected by the State Historical Society of Missouri, and the large obelisk in Benton Park dedicated to him. Regrettably, Hecker has been forgotten since he is well-known in Europe as one of the most important figures from the 1848 revolutions.

Hecker failed to overthrow the Grand Duchy of Baden government in the Black Forest. He also came to St. Louis around the same time that Dr. Hammer. Abraham Lincoln was brought to Hecker’s attention by his political activities in Illinois, where a town has been named after him. Hecker, who was fighting in the Union army at the time, was injured in the battle of Chancellorsville, which marked the great Confederate victory. According to a University of Missouri webpage, modern Germans regard him as a 19th-century Che Guevera.

These radical newspaper editors and agitators were the reason German-Americans served in the Union army in large numbers. Adolphus Busch, a son of capitalist German industrialists who signed up, was clear proof of this. Modern attempts at historical revisionism regarding “States’ Rights” are futile. The content of these German newspaper articles, now available online, makes it clear that Borenstein & Hecker were motivated by abolitionism in their fight for the Union. We can also see their leftist political views as a major influence on their efforts to end slavery by reading their German words.

This is the most important aspect of American history that has been overlooked by American historians. Two factors are likely to be major. The first is strong anti-German sentiment, which arose during World War I. A lot of the German contribution was erased from American history during this period. It started with simple acts like renaming St. Louis streets and then moved to more complex issues like the acceleration of Prohibition which decimated the economic power of many German industrialists.

The second factor is the threat of the Marxist revolution in the early 20th century. This coincided with the defeats of the Austro-Hungarian and German empires in 1918. The Russian Revolution’s story is closely linked to the defeat of the Central Powers in 1917. West Europe and America’s fear of Communism both contributed to the decline of the German freedom reputation. These were still great people and women who fought for noble causes during the infancy stages of American history.

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