In 1849, there was almost a battle between the Swiss and the Hessians in Büsingen. Caricature by Marco Heer
In 1849, there was almost a battle between the Swiss and the Hessians in Büsingen. Caricature by Marco Heer

The Büsingen Affair

Schaffhausen was the scene of some serious sabre-rattling between Hessian soldiers and Swiss troops in July 1849. It took cool-headedness and negotiating skill to avoid a bloody conflict.

Jürg Burlet

Jürg Burlet

Jürg Burlet is a historian and specialist in military history.

Following the Baden Revolution, the Badenese exclave of Büsingen was the site of a military clash. On 21 July 1849, the town, which is located by the High Rhine east of Schaffhausen, was occupied by Prussian troops, leading to the first mobilisation in the early days of the Swiss federal state. The incident came to be known as the Büsingen Conflict or Büsingen Affair. It was sparked by a border violation by German federal troops during the occupation of this tiny patch of German territory, putting the young Swiss nation in a precarious position. Büsingen, with a surface area of 7.62 square kilometres, is located on the right-hand side of the Rhine. It was originally part of the Principality of Würtemberg and from 1810 the Grand Duchy of Baden (now the German state of Baden Würtemberg). On the right-hand side of the Rhine, Büsingen is completely surrounded by the Swiss canton of Schaffhausen without any direct access to the rest of Germany, while on the left side it borders the cantons of Thurgau (Diessenhofen) and Zurich (Feuerthalen).
Outline map showing the location of Büsingen.
Outline map showing the location of Büsingen. Wikimedia
But what exactly happened to stir up emotions on both sides and bring about the first Swiss mobilisation after the introduction of the Federal Constitution of 1848? After the Baden Revolution had been suppressed by German federal troops under the leadership of Prussia, on 21 July 1849, the 170-strong Hessian company Stockhausen boarded the Badenese flush-deck steamer named Helvetia, which had operated on Lake Constance between 1832 and 1843. The soldiers were to conduct a punitive expedition in Büsingen to quash suspected revolutionary activities. The small army travelled down the Rhine in the early hours of the morning without seeking permission from or notifying the Swiss authorities. When they passed through Stein am Rhein, the ‘invasion’ went unnoticed as the men were hiding under a deck, which was later interpreted as conscious deception. The troops landed in Büsingen at 7am, occupied the village, disarmed citizens and arrested three men: Walter, the municipal treasurer; von Ow, the doctor; and Güntert, the vet. Walter and von Ow soon had to be released as there was no incriminating evidence against them. Güntert, on the other hand, was taken aboard as a prisoner and guarded. At 1pm, the steam ship was meant to set sail again. But it didn’t.
The Hessian soldiers travelled to Büsingen aboard this steam ship.
The Hessian soldiers travelled to Büsingen aboard this steam ship. Wikimedia
News of the occupation of Büsingen spread fast, including beyond the border to Schaffhausen. It came as an awkward surprise, then, when, shortly before 1pm, an official from the Swiss border troops turned up and announced to the Hessians that Switzerland would prevent an armed retreat from Büsingen, using force if necessary. The Hessians were apparently completely unaware of their violation against Switzerland. This was a blow for the clueless Hessian troops, but things were about to get worse. Over the course of the afternoon, the enclave was surrounded by a battalion from Zurich, while another occupied the Schaarenwald on the opposite side of the river. Measures had also been taken on the bridges at Diessenhofen and Stein am Rhein to stop the ship passing through. That evening, the troops in Büsingen were permitted to send two envoys to report to Constance. It emerged that the journey to Büsingen had been ordered by civilian authorities. The troops were unaware that they had crossed a border, or to be more precise, ferried over it by water. Once again the following day, the Swiss refused to grant permission for the blockaded company to retreat by steam ship.
Zurich marksmen in action, watercolour, 1852.
Zurich marksmen in action, watercolour, 1852. Library Am Guisanplatz
In response, the Commando of the German federal army bolstered troops around the canton of Schaffhausen to over 10,000 soldiers and let it be known that the troops in Büsingen would be freed by force if necessary, should an agreement about their retreat not be reached by 28 July.

The Swiss army on standby

The Swiss troops were massively outnumbered at this point and after it became known that 2,300 Prussian soldiers were stationed in the Randegg region and 5,000 in Constance, the Federal Council put the whole Swiss army on standby on 24 July, and mobilised three divisions with 24,000 men for reinforcement. General Dufour, the widely respected general from the Sonderbund War, was provisionally named supreme commander. The negotiations were unsuccessful at first. The Swiss brigade commander, Colonel Franz Müller from Zug, demanded that the Hessians drop their weapons to retreat across Swiss territory. They refused to yield to the demand though, citing incompatibility with military honour. The negotiations stalled as both sides doubled down on their demands. Only after a formal apology from the German federal army was issued by the Hessian Staff Major Ferdinand du Hall could discussions be resumed.
The Federal Council mobilised the Swiss Army on 24 July 1849.
The Federal Council mobilised the Swiss Army on 24 July 1849. Dodis
General Henri Dufour was commander-in-chief of the operation.
General Henri Dufour was commander-in-chief of the operation. Swiss National Museum
The diplomatic talks were eventually successful. On 28 July, the General Command of the German federal troops handed over a five-point comprehensive declaration to the Swiss commissioner. It stated, among other things, that the waterway on Swiss territory had been taken without the knowledge of the General Command, and that they had not intended to violate Swiss neutrality by occupying Büsingen. The negotiations on the withdrawal of the Hessians from Büsingen could then go ahead. At 1pm on 30 July, the troops finally withdrew on foot by road towards Gailingen to the sound of drumbeat and with bayoneted rifles. Güntert, the vet from Büsingen, was taken in a carriage as a prisoner and released after 50 days of imprisonment. Two-and-a-half Swiss infantry companies and a cavalry company were supposed to escort the Hessians across Swiss territory to Gailingen. However, the Hessian troops, who were unfamiliar with the route, marched on the road towards Randegg and were stopped by Swiss reserve troops at the border. Once the Swiss accompanying troops had been summoned and arrived, the Hessians marched onwards, via Dörflingen, taking a detour to eventually reach Gailingen. Meanwhile, the steam ship Helvetia was taken back to Constance under Swiss convoy, bearing the Swiss flag and accompanied by two Swiss officers. The negotiations allowed the Büsingen Affair to be resolved without bloodshed or loss of face on either side. Troop numbers on both sides of the border were significantly cut back as a result.

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