Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Soldatenhandel oder Subsidientruppen?

Contemporary drawing of a Hessian by a British newspaper

Dear Reader,

In American society today, we tend to have a negative view of mercenaries. Many Americans who support the American military distrust or dislike the idea of mercenary soldiers. The United Nations Mercenary Convention prohibits the use of mercenaries, and has been signed by thirty two countries. Why do we have such a negative opinion about this line of work?

As you might have guessed, the answer can be found in the eighteenth century. Throughout the eighteenth century, western German states such as Hesse-Kassel and Brunswick rented out their armed forces. In the American Revolution, roughly 1/3rd of the total forces employed by the British were regiments of these German soldiers. Horace Walpole referred to these soldiers as Great Britain's Triarii: her last line of defense. In America, these soldiers have become known as, "Hessians," despite the fact that they came from six different German states, not just Hesse-Kassel.

Understandably, the Americans took a much less favorable view of German, "mercenary" involvement in their fight for independence. According to the American newspapers, the Germans were hideous monsters who fought for pay, and wanted to despoil the riches of Americans.  According to Hessian Lt. Jakob Piel, captured Germans attracted much attention from local Americans. Piel made a note of this in his diary:

  •               "There was no gentlemen in the entire region who did not come riding to see the Hessians, about whom he had heard so many stories. But, in most faces, one could see that they regretted the effort. They had come to see strange animals, and to their disgust, we looked like human beings. It seemed comical, but it is true, that they had formed such an idea of Hessians, but in the beginning they would not believe our words, that we were really Hessians." 

Piel makes it clear that public opinion in America was firmly against the Hessians. Nineteenth century authors described this rental arrangement of soldiers in terms of a Soldatenhandel, or, "a trade in soldiers." According to nineteenth century German historians, the Hessian soldiers were sold into a form of slavery, and suffered greatly from this abuse.

Bennington by Don Troiani

 However, this is not true, strictly speaking. The western German states were connected to Britain via dynastic ties, as well as a recent alliance in the Seven Years' War. Most of the German soldiers who served in America despised the American rebels. They saw the relative prosperity of the average American, and claimed that poor Americans lived better than the nobles in Germany. These soldiers were subsidized allies. Modern German scholars like to use the word, Subsidientruppen. This is a false cognate for subsidy, the word actually means, "support troops." These soldiers fought as the allies of Great Britain, not as mercenaries, or slave soldiers.

Many of these soldiers had more sympathy for Native Americans than the British or Americans, showing a precursor to Karl May in the German imagination. Most of all, the Germans condemned African slavery. Some wrote with ideas about racial equality far ahead of their time. An example of this is Captain Andreas Wiederholdt, who claimed that, "if the blacks were taught...many would exceed whites in intelligence."

The Germans who served in the American War of Independence were far from the simple, greedy villains which have been portrayed in American popular culture. They were not mercenaries in a traditional sense, they were allies of the British, as a result of dynastic connections and a monetary subsidy. These soldiers impacted the American view of mercenaries, and even up to the time of the Civil War, calling someone a "Hessian" meant that they were only concerned about financial gain. These soldiers provide historians with an interesting view of Colonial America, which in many ways, is more progressive than that of revolutionary-era Americans.

Thanks for reading,

Alex Burns

Some modern day "Hessians" (actually from Brunswick) prepare for battle. How can you not love these guys?
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  1. Thanks - an interesting piece. You have given me something to investigate. I'm not sure how we, in England, see the Hessians. For myself, I have always assumed the Germans were with us partially because of pay but partially because of Royal connections.

  2. Pierre- Glad you liked it! I would love to hear the findings of your investigation. During the actual Revolutionary War, both the British and the Germans often blamed each-other when things went wrong. I would love to hear what the modern opinion of these soldiers is!