The United States has forgotten the radical German American immigrant socialists who spilled blood for antislavery and other liberatory causes.

German revolutionary and later Union officer in the US Civil War Franz Sigel. (MPI / Stringer via Getty Images)

Conditions in the German states leading up to the 1848 revolutions produced a generation of radical socialists and communists who changed world history.

This generation fought against monarchical rule on the barricades of Central Europe, and then many of them crossed the Atlantic to the United States in time to shore up the Union during the Civil War. Radicalized German immigrants went on to prevent Missouri from joining the Confederacy, establish the first American commune during the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, and invent one of the most influential public school systems in the United States.

Between the two world wars and McCarthyism, much of the contribution of radical German American immigrants to the socialist movement remains whitewashed and lost to Red Scare censorship. Except for a few century-old statues and the famed sewer systems of Milwaukee, the monumental influence of leftist Germans is hidden in US history unless you know where to look.

Baden, 1848

Three hundred years before the ’48 revolutions began, a modern wave of social conflicts had been washing through the German states. Napoleonic troop movement stopped at Waterloo in 1815, but Napoleonic ideas spread everywhere.

In Germany in the late fifteenth century, the invention of the printing press mounted an assault on established power. The Protestant Reformation turned literacy into a big middle finger to the church: “It is thus very true that we shall find consolation only through the Scriptures,” Martin Luther said, not priests and holy bureaucracy.

Not long after the folk discovered they could read the Bible, they discovered they could read the newspaper. Three hundred years after Luther’s time, Germans began reading the works of young Hegelian bad boys Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, who published The Communist Manifesto in 1848, just in time for the revolutionary kickoff.

Feudal monarchs, the old aristocracy, and the church were in terminal decline after several hundred years of societal control. The only dispute in 1848 was, “Who gets to take over? The bourgeoisie? Or the revolutionaries?”

With barricades going up across the continent, the Manifesto demanded a number of adjustments to inheritance (cut it out), property distribution (abolish the private kind), and the establishment of a free public education system for all children: “And your education! Is not that also social, and determined by the social conditions under which you educate, by the intervention, direct or indirect, of society, by means of schools, etc.?” The Communists sought to massively expand literacy and “rescue education from the influence of the ruling class.”

Marx and Engels aimed at a broad audience, but it was craftsmen and farmers whose livelihoods were most directly threatened by industrial capitalism in the German states. Journeymen are mentioned on the first page because assembly lines threatened to de-skill most of the working population.

“Master craftsmen could still earn a decent wage,” Mark Kruger writes in The St. Louis Commune of 1877,

but their journeymen lived on the edge of starvation. Artisans and master craftsmen were attempting to hold on to their privileges, to control their production, income, and work environments while journeymen sought to become masters at the time that guilds were dying.

While factories meant child labor, boredom, machine-mangled limbs, and reduced wages for urban workers, the unequal division of common lands immiserated rural Germans. Prohibitions against hunting and gathering wood on aristocratic land could put a farmer away in a rotting jail cell. As tensions rose year after year, crowds of peasants began interrupting prosecutions of forest laws and freed prisoners.

Poor harvests in the 1840s turned up the pressure. In parts of Central Europe, over two-thirds of the population were forced to beg, and between 1816 and 1850, five million Europeans emigrated. Half crossed the Atlantic.

In parts of Central Europe, over two-thirds of the population were forced to beg, and between 1816 and 1850, five million Europeans emigrated. Half crossed the Atlantic.

Finding no future in the failing economic machine, many sharpened a bayonet and picked out their least favorite prince.

In 1843 Franz Sigel, a young revolutionary with a resemblance to Leonardo DiCaprio, graduated from Karlsruhe Military Academy and joined the army of the Grand Duchy of Baden. Sigel made lieutenant, and then five years later turned around and led the “Sigel-Zug” militia of four thousand volunteers against the Grand Duchy’s troops. Sigel was outnumbered, but made a name for himself.

“The insurrection,” Marx wrote in 1848, “[is] growing into the greatest revolution that has ever taken place, into a revolution of the proletariat against the bourgeoisie.” Church bells rang as the barricades went up:

The cannon replied until nine o’clock. Windows and bricks were shattered by the thunder of artillery. The firing was terrible. Blood flowed in streams while at the same time a tremendous thunderstorm was raging. The cobblestones were red with blood as far as one could see. . . . The number of dead is immense and the number of injured much greater still.

Sometimes called the “Springtime of the Peoples,” the Revolutions of 1848 broke out in France, Italy, the Habsburg Empire, and Switzerland. According to the historian Eric Hobsbawm, three trends converged:

Largely moderate upper-middle-class liberals who sought liberal republican reforms
A more radical democratic group consisting of lower-middle-class elements
Socialists, represented by the working poor who organized into the German League of the Outlaws, later known as the Communist League

The events of 1848 had profound effects on both Marx and Engels, who argued for an internationalist approach to the revolution. Engels personally took part in the final push of the Baden Revolution — a last stand of sorts — fighting against counterrevolutionary Prussian troops alongside Sigel, who led four thousand volunteers in a siege against the city of Freiburg. Engels and Sigel met formally in the aftermath.

While some revolutionary social reforms became permanent, counteroffensives organized. Between 1849 and 1851, many of the new revolutionary governments were defeated. Leaders fled into exile, including Marx who transferred the Communist League headquarters to Paris. Sigel moved to England before boarding a ship, along with many other German ’48ers, to America.

The Missouri Rheinland

In 1861, Ulysses S. Grant speculated:

If St Louis had been captured by the rebels it would have made a vast difference. . . . It would have been a terrible task to recapture St Louis, one of the most difficult that could have been given to any military man. Instead of a campaign before Vicksburg it would have been a campaign before St Louis.

Missouri remained Union — and St Louis was not blown up or burned to the ground — because of Captain Nathaniel Lyon and a militia of German immigrants led by officers who were veterans of the ’48 revolutions, including one Franz Sigel.

With the election of President Abraham Lincoln, editors of St Louis’s Westliche Post cautioned its German immigrant readers to remain “as vigilant as the Wide Awakes.” German Republican clubs maintained armed readiness and organized “Home Guard” militia units, watching pro-Southern St Louisans like the Ninth Ward Washington Minutemen do the same.

And St Louis was packed with ’48ers ready to bear arms. Between 1834 and 1837, thirty thousand largely educated Germans immigrated to the United States, and seven thousand settled in St Louis. They did so as slavery became the operative political and ethical issue of the day.

Why St Louis? The answer is good utopian propaganda.

In Report of a Journey to the Western States of North America, Gottfried Duden had portrayed the lower Missouri valley as “Western Eden, a better Rheinland especially suited to Germans.” A. B. Faust described Duden’s “dreamweaver” writing style:

His skillful pen mingled fact and fiction, interwove experience and imagination, pictured the freedom of the forest and of democratic institutions in contrast with the social restrictions and political embarrassments of Europe. Many thousands of Germans pondered over this book and enthused over its sympathetic glow. Innumerable resolutions were made to cross the ocean and build for the present and succeeding generations happy homes on the far-famed Missouri.

Once stateside, immigrants were largely excluded from the Southern plantation class, and abnormally few Germans owned slaves in St Louis, primarily out of a conscious, ethical objection. Missouri was a new chance to build a Rheinland on free soil, free labor, free men. “The only way we adoptive citizens can get through this political crisis,” Westliche editors wrote,

is to fulfill all legal duties faithfully, to hold with the Union and the Constitution, and to work together with our American fellow citizens to preserve peace, order and law. . . . The gaze of the entire Union is directed at the German citizens of Missouri, so let us show ourselves worthy of the expectations that rest on us.

This immigrant class brought along communal-social technologies: schools, newspapers, Turnverein athletic clubs, massive beer halls as opposed to isolated small taverns, hunting clubs that could train up into militias — all hard-learned community values from the pressure cooker of Europe. “Capitalism was coming to them,” said Matt Christman, Jacobin contributor and cohost of the podcast Chapo Trap House. “As opposed to the continental project in the United States, it became pretty clear that the only way to survive was through peasant solidarity in the new urban environments.”

Missouri was a new chance to build a Rheinland on free soil, free labor, free men.

By the 1860s, of the 160,000 residents of St. Louis, sixty thousand were born in German states. Forty thousand were born in Ireland. These immigrants tended to oppose slavery, while the oldest wealthy families of the city became the biggest supporters of the Confederacy.

Acting under the authority of the proslavery Missouri state government, General Daniel Frost established Camp Jackson and called up seven hundred volunteers to drill at the western edge of St Louis. Frost defended his militia camp as “citizens exercising their Constitutional right to protect the United States in the full possession of all her property,” meaning slaves.

In May 1861, Captain Nathaniel Lyon observed that Frost’s command was “evidently hostile towards the Government of the United States.” He judged Frost guilty of being “openly in communication with the so-called Southern Confederacy.”

Captain Lyon called up the Home Guard militia to march on the camp. The Home Guard received their orders in German.

In exile, as outlined by Walter Johnson’s history of St Louis, The Broken Heart of America, Franz Sigel had become director of public schools in the city and contributor to the handbook titled Geschichte der Süddeutschen Mai-Revolution (“History of the South German May Revolution”). It was “intended to provide a manual of practical instruction for imagined future revolutionaries.”

The handbook “combined a reading of German military theorist Carl von Clausewitz with the political economy of the Communist Manifesto,” Johnson writes. “Clausewitz argued that ‘general insurrection’ was a ‘natural, inevitable consequence’ of modern warfare and that the revolt of people against their leaders was a decisive importance in the conflict between the states.”

Sigel and co-agitators like August Willich argued for “total levy” — the militarization of the common man. No standing military, only trained civilian militias. This way, soldiers couldn’t be dominated and directed by elites.

Armed with his handbook, Sigel was ready for the succession crisis. Lyon gave the order to march on Camp Jackson, and as the Third US Volunteers passed Turner Hall, reserve troops inside cheered and wept for joy. The editor of the Westliche Post, Theodor Olshausen, compared the scene to the Paris uprisings of 1848 and to the Baden Revolution: “It was one of those splendid moments when emotions glowing deep in the heart of the masses suddenly break into wild flames.”

Sigel’s soldiers were without uniforms, but they were armed and trained to follow orders — in German.

Reports from the arrest of Camp Jackson said that Sigel’s men marched somewhat awkwardly and got spooked, turning their weapons toward hecklers in the civilian crowd. Hostile citizens lined the streets, taunting the “damned Dutchmen.” Sigel’s soldiers were without uniforms, but they were armed and trained to follow orders — in German.

In Civil War St. Louis, Louis S. Gerteis writes:

A neighbor worried that her brother, a surgeon at Camp Jackson, was in danger. To put her at ease, her friend explained that the young men in the Confederate militia were from the first families of St. Louis. “Young men of the best families did not like to be killed better than ordinary people.”

Camp Jackson immediately surrendered to Lyon’s troops, but shots were fired in anger after hecklers got to the German soldiers who were “so upset that they fired their weapons, admittedly, over the heads of the onlookers.”

Other reports said the firing came from buildings, the trees, and just beyond the camp fences. No one is really sure what happened, but by the end, several civilians and soldiers lay dead and dying.

German volunteer troops went on to prevent Confederates from seizing the St Louis arsenal, the largest stockpile of weapons west of the Mississippi, and fought skirmishes against Confederate rioters.

The ’48ers believed the struggle for emancipation to be, according to Steven Rowan in Germans for a Free Missouri, “an episode of a European revolutionary tradition that drew on shared language and symbols going back at least to the era of the French Revolution and the wars of liberation against Napoleon I of 1812–1814.”

The Damned Dutchmen

“The socialist and communist have to want Revolution even in its mildest form,” Sigel wrote in his diary, “just like the worker has to want the worst work. But both must, through superior effort and superior talent, gain dominion over the masters. The slave must make himself master.”

As Matt Christman points out, the German revolutionaries had a grand utopian project in mind, and everything to lose. “There was an idea that if the United States could be culturally realigned along German lines,” Christman told Jacobin,

and if the cultural values of ’48ers could be universalized, it would inevitably lead toward a revolution and bring about a just social order. But the American idea is all about getting as far away from others as possible. The Germans recognized that. If the American project was going to succeed, it needed a German social order to overcome and resist being subsumed by the market. Which it was.

Immediately after the outbreak of war, Sigel became a rallying hero of German Americans who signed up to “Fight Mit Sigel!” in Lincoln’s army. Two hundred thousand German-born soldiers would go on to enlist. Twenty-five percent of the Union Army was foreign born; only 5 percent of the Confederates were.

Sigel became a rallying hero of German Americans who signed up to “Fight Mit Sigel!” in Lincoln’s army.

In most ways, recruiting was Sigel’s most important contribution; he proved a middling strategist and spent a lot of time in retreat. At the Battle of Carthage, Sigel’s outnumbered forces were driven back by the Missouri State Guard. He was redeemed at Pea Ridge, where Sigel personally directed Union artillery that routed the Confederates. At the Battle of Wilson Creek near Springfield, Sigel and Captain Lyon lead troops in an unsuccessful advance that cost Lyon his life. Sigel led the withdrawal.

German troops locally insisted on fighting “mit Sigel.” But allegiance to the Union cause was not always clear. “A rational German is in a difficult position,” one enlisted man wrote, sampled in Germans in the Civil War: The Letters They Wrote Home. “Beset on the one hand by slavery, and its corruption of everything, all morality, the shameless impudence of preachers, and on the other hand the probable infringement of immigrant rights,” meaning the Know Nothings.

The St Louis Movement

During Reconstruction, public education was profoundly influenced by the “St Louis Movement,” a philosophical society that grew out of the city’s now-settled German population.

Led by William Torrey Harris and Henry Conrad Brokmeyer, the St Louis Philosophical Society launched the Journal of Speculative Philosophy in 1866, which attracted the attention of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Louis Alcott.

Brokmeyer was a young German who had studied at Brown before moving to the Missouri woods to live like Henry David Thoreau, studying Immanuel Kant and G. W. F. Hegel in a cabin. William Harris became superintendent of the St Louis schools from 1868 to 1880 where, according to The Public and the Schools by Selwyn Troen, “No educator in the United States stood higher than he in public and professional esteem.” Both advanced a theory of pragmatic action toward democratic social good — plus a “highly questionable use of the Hegelian dialectic which they believed to be historical forces that would propel St. Louis into an era of cultural supremacy in American society.”

Public schools began for whites in St Louis in 1838. Black education was not explicitly illegal, but “unknown perpetrators” burned institutions like Ebenezer Church, where an influx of young fugitive slaves were being educated. In the 1840s, John Berry Meachum opened his “Freedom School” on a steamboat anchored in the middle of the Mississippi, where he taught dozens of black pupils who were rafted back and forth daily. “Lookouts warned of approaching strange or unfriendly whites,” Neal Primm writes in The Lion of the Valley, “whereupon books would disappear, and needles would fly.”

With ’48ers now taking positions in the St Louis government, the postwar radical Constitution of 1865 demanded the support of black education. The following year, three black district schools were created with over four hundred pupils and tuition partially supported by the Freedmen’s Bureau. By 1905 Missouri had a compulsory school attendance law, and “black children were enrolled in St. Louis schools in larger numbers than whites of similar economic status.”

The St Louis Movement went on to train teachers in Milwaukee, Chicago, and Massachusetts. Educators supervised opening kindergartens in Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, and a dozen other cities. The Journal of Speculative Philosophy was read as widely in Europe as in America and went on to influence William James and John Dewey. At its high point in 1900, St Louis had two hundred thousand children enrolled in public kindergartens, making it a model for the country.

Public universal education was now a baseline facet of urban life in the United States — inherited directly from the German gymnasium movement starting in Saxony in 1528.

This pedagogical revolution came with rigid discipline, but the structure of public universal education was now a baseline facet of urban life in the United States — inherited directly from the German gymnasium movement starting in Saxony in 1528.

Teaching the German language in St Louis schools was a controversy from the 1850s onward, and in 1887 it was dropped “for political reasons, thinly disguised as economic.” This was after the Great Railroad Strike, which was so dependent on the German immigrants that handbills declaring the strike were printed both in English and German.

The strike was crushed, and its St Louis Commune was disbanded. As the turn of the century approached, the ’48er influence diminished.

Utopian Ruins

In The Future Great City of the World, printed in both English and German in 1870, Logan U. Reavis advanced a popular argument. Reavis said the best places for human development existed in an “isothermal zodiac,” and

having followed the fortieth parallel westward from the Tigris-Euphrates valley through Europe to North America, civilization would reach its full flowering in the Mississippi valley, where “two waves of civilization, the one rolling in from the Celestial Empire [China], and the other from the land of Alfred and Charlemagne [Europe] — will meet and commingle together in one great swelling tide of humanity, in the land of Hiawatha.”

Rivas’s book circulated in Germany, affecting some level of interest in immigration during the 1870s and ’80s. The ’48ers settled in the three corners of the Midwest German triangle: St Louis, Cincinnati, and Milwaukee, with Wisconsin’s “sewer socialists” becoming the most successful politically.

Milwaukee’s Socialist mayor Emil Seidel, the son of German immigrants, established the city’s first public works department, organized its first fire and police commissions, and created the park system. “We wanted a chance for every human being to be strong and live a life of happiness,” Seidel used to say. Safety inspectors came to factories, the minimum wage was raised, and between 1910 and 1912 people in Milwaukee tangibly saw their lives improve and their children’s futures get brighter.

Dual forces came together to erase this history. Starting with anti-German sentiment during World War I and then again in World War II, German immigrants became invisible despite their huge population numbers. Then McCarthyism and the Red Scare washed out the legacy of socialism as a community-minded ideology that built cities, school systems, and dignity.

But the truth is still salvageable — it’s etched in stone, and out in plain view. The Naked Truth memorial at St Louis’s Compton Hill Reservoir honors three German-American journalists, two of whom were ’48ers. The statue depicts a black stone heroic female nude holding torches and seated on a large wall of pink granite, and sparks a discussion on public nudity now and then.

There’s an urban legend that claims, at the outbreak of World War I, that all the German brewers in St Louis gathered up hundreds of statue busts of the Kaiser and threw them down into the limestone beer caves, where they sit in a grand pile of marble and bronze today. St Louis’s Berlin Avenue was renamed Pershing Avenue after General John J. Pershing, but downtown there stands a statue of the German poet Friedrich Schiller. And at one end of Union Boulevard, at the entrance to Forest Park, there’s a man on horseback who looks a bit like Leonardo DiCaprio.

Franz Sigel is carved in stone “to remind future generations of the heroism of German-American patriots in St. Louis and vicinity in the Civil War of 1861–1865.” A similar statue stands in Riverside Park, New York, where Sigel worked in government and publishing after the war.

Many walk by Sigel’s memorial every day without knowing the man on the pedestal is a “stone-cold communist,” as Walter Johnson put it. The United States has erased the radical German socialists who spilled blood for antislavery and other liberatory causes, but it’s time to remember them. Education, health, infrastructure — these hard-won public goods are now being eaten away by neoliberal capitalism, just as the monarchy and the church ate away at the lives of the working class in the German states. The only question now is, who will take over?

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