Notes on German Culture

If you have ever wondered why some of Germany’s war heroes in WWI and WWII have French names…

… the reason for this dates back to 1685 and the Great Elector and his successors. The Great Elector followed a policy of religious freedom and after French King Louis XIV’s revocation of the Edict of Nantes, Frederick William encouraged skilled French and Walloon Huguenots to emigrate to Brandenburg-Prussia. His Edict of Potsdam welcomed the persecuted French and thus also bolstered the country’s technical and industrial base.

The Great Elector of Prussia welcomes French Hugenots

Two descendants of these French Huguenots were Hermann Karl Bruno von François, a General in the Prussian army of 1914 and WWII pilot Hans-Joachim Marseille.

Hans-Joachim Marseille

German WWII pilot Hans-Joachim Marseille, famously known as “The Star of Africa”, was the leading Luftwaffe ace against Western fliers, as well as the most amazing, unique, and lethal ace of World War II.

Marseille increased his skills gradually, learning to get very close to his targets and by developing his deflection shooting, whereby he minimized the amount of ammunition used to shoot down each victim, averaging just fifteen bullets each! His victories accelerated rapidly until he hit his unbelievable stride… on one day over the North African deserts he shot down seventeen British enemy aircraft in three sorties. He was so fearless and lethal that he once single handedly attacked 16 British fighter planes, shooting down 5 planes within 6 minutes. Marseilles died undefeated due to a mechanical malfunction of a brand new Messerschmitt Bf 109…the rudder of this airplane, marked with his 158 victories, is in the Luftwaffe museum in Berlin.

Hermann Karl Bruno von François

Hermann Karl Bruno von François (January 31, 1856 – May 15, 1933) was a German General of the Infantry during World War I, and is best known for his key role in several German victories over Russia on the Eastern Front in 1914. Born to a noble family of Huguenot extraction, François was exposed to a military life from an early age. His father Bruno von François was a Prussian general and commander of the 27th (Preußische) Infanterie-Brigade. He was killed in action leading his men against France during the Battle of Spicheren on 6 August 1870, only a few days before the Battle of Sedan…the battle that essentially resulted in Prussia defeating France.

From the history of the Reformation in France, we learn that despite numerous government repressions… including burning of Protestants… the Reformation kept spreading. It is a wonder that the Reformed Church in France has survived to this day, albeit as only 1.5% of the population.

In contrast to the German territories in which the Reformation was supported by some Protestant rulers, the Reformation movement in France happened against the resistance of the crown. The flood of refugees swelled significantly in times of special persecutions, such as after the St. Bartholomew’s Day or during the increasing repression in the 17th Century and especially after the repeal of the Edict of Nantes.

A large percentage of French Huguenots fled to Germany. Estimates vary between 44.000 and 58.000. The decision on the inclusion of Huguenot religious refugees was not in the hands of the Catholic German Emperor, but solely at the discretion of the states…the sovereign princes and free cities. Thus, by invitation of The Great Elector Frederick William of Brandenburg in October 1685, most of the Huguenots fleeing to Germany settled in Brandenburg-Prussia.

The second largest part of Huguenot refugees in overall Germany settled in Hesse (in Hessen-Kassel and in the Rhine-Main area), but unlike Prussia, Hesse restricted immigration only to skilled craftsmen. Of course there were lots of other places in Germany to which French Huguenots immigrated: the Kurpfalz mit Zweibrücken, Franken, Württemberg, Hansestädte, Niedersachsen, Baden-Durlach, Kursachsen and various other places.

In many places the French Huguenots created their own villages, but as time passed the French intermarried and readily mixed with Germans and therefore became completely assimilated. The assimilation of the Huguenots descendants in Germany began early on and intensified in the late 18th Century and the first decades of the 19th Century. In many places, the French Reformed churches were often combined with the locally existing German Reformed churches.

Some famous authors, poets, scientists and architects in Germany were of Huguenot descent. For example: Theodor Fontane, Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué, Francois Charles Achard or Jean de Bodt. And of course the military heroes, represented by General Hermann Karl Bruno von François and the WWII ace pilot Hans-Joachim Marseille. Politicians are also represented, for example the last Prime Minister of East Germany, Lothar de Maizière, and the Minister President of Hesse, Volker Bouffier, are descendants of French Huguenots.

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