Baden’s revolutionaries on the run. Painted by Friedrich Kaiser circa 1850.
Baden’s revolutionaries on the run. Painted by Friedrich Kaiser circa 1850. Wikimedia

When Baden’s revolutionaries retreated to Switzerland

1849 saw the collapse of a revolution in the Grand Duchy of Baden. Skirmishes close to the border caused unease in Switzerland and ultimately triggered a wave of refugees.

Jürg Burlet

Jürg Burlet

Jürg Burlet is a historian and specialist in military history.

In the aftermath of the Sonderbund War, which had lasted throughout most of November 1847, determined efforts were made to heal the wounds of this fratricidal conflict. Work on the new Swiss Federal Constitution ‒ which would eventually be adopted on 12 September 1848 ‒ proceeded apace. At the same time, a peasants’ revolt raging on the other side of the country’s northern border since March 1848 had now spread to other states in the German Confederation. Almost all of Central and Southern Europe was gripped by unrest, with revolutions springing up in several places, including the Grandy Duchy of Baden, just across the border, where a number of uprisings sought to realise the aims of the March Revolution. The ‘Hecker uprising’ of April 1848, named after Friedrich Hecker (1811–1881), and the ‘Struve Putsch’ of September 1848, named after Gustav Struve (1805–1870), are worthy of particular mention. A civil war-like situation ensued in the Grand Duchy, culminating in the military uprising of 9 May to 23 July 1849.
Print depicting the revolutionary Friedrich Hecker, 1848.
Print depicting the revolutionary Friedrich Hecker, 1848. Wikimedia
However, fortune did not smile on Baden’s revolutionaries. Not only were their hopes of attracting sufficient support for their ideas dashed, but the units of the revolutionary army deployed at the various locations lacked proper military training and a common military strategy for combating the federal troops.

Would Switzerland enter the war?

The various battalions of the revolutionary army stationed throughout the Grand Duchy were being pushed further and further south with each consecutive defeat by the federal forces under the leadership of Prussia. Faced with this rather hopeless situation, a number of military leaders on the Baden side considered retreating into Switzerland. Troops subsequently crossed the border at various places from 8 to 12 July 1849. Several members of Baden’s revolutionary government had fled to Switzerland shortly before. It is interesting to note that some in these circles nourished the hope that any incursions by pursuing German federal troops would incite Switzerland to enter the war. Friedrich Engels, for example, who served as an adjutant in the volunteer corps under the command of August Willich, wrote in a pamphlet on the Imperial Constitution campaign: “Here, with our flanks abutting upon Swiss territory, we could attempt one last battle with our considerable artillery. We could even wait and see whether the Prussians would violate Swiss territory and thus bring the Swiss into the war.” However, this hope did not come to pass. Other commanders suggested crossing their troops into Switzerland complete with weapons in order to place them at the service of the Swiss government should Prussia intervene in the matter of the principality of Neuchâtel. However, this offer was strictly declined by Switzerland for reasons of neutrality.

Around 10,000 refugees

The first soldiers set foot on Swiss soil on 2 July, when a 140-strong Polish volunteer corps crossed the border at Basel-Kleinhüningen. Along with Ludwik Mierosławski, the supreme commander of the revolutionary army fighting to defend the creation of a Badenese republic in 1849, came freedom fighters from Poland who had previously taken part in the 1848 Greater Poland Uprising in the Grand Duchy of Posen. A further 280 men from a German-Polish legion followed on 6 July at the same border crossing. That same day, 250 amateur gymnasts from Hanau (members of the gymnastic movement, including the Hanau gymnastic association, played a major part in the struggle for freedom and democracy, especially in south and south-west Germany) and 120 men from the Palatinate volunteer corps led by Ludwig Blenker arrived in Riehen near Basel with three pieces of artillery. Another 200 men from Blenker’s troops crossed the border at Rheinfelden in Aargau on 7 July, followed the next day by a further 1,400 men from the same corps with 13 cannon.
Print of the border on the Rhine by Kleinhüningen, circa 1800.
Print of the border on the Rhine by Kleinhüningen, circa 1800. Swiss National Museum
August Mersey led 600 of his men across the Rhine at Stein-Säckingen on 9 July, bringing with them 6 cannon. Franz Sigel and 1,400 men from the Baden Army reached Eglisau in the canton of Zurich on 11 July with 500 horses and 28 cannon. That same day, 2,000 members of the Volkswehr (‘people’s militia’) and numerous volunteers arrived with 6 pieces of artillery further downstream at Rheinau. Another 1,500 men and 9 cannon also arrived on Swiss soil at Kreuzlingen in the canton of Thurgau on 11 July, followed the next day by a further 700 of August Willich’s volunteers at Eglisau. In addition, another 600 men made their own way into Switzerland between 5 and 12 July at various locations in the area around Waldshut. It is estimated that, in total, some 9,200 Badenese soldiers fled to Switzerland in July 1849, with around 600 horses and no fewer than 63 cannon in tow.

How did Switzerland react?

The canton of Basel-Stadt had taken immediate steps to secure the border as soon as fighting broke out in northern Baden. With the revolutionary army suffering defeat after defeat, a mass flight to Switzerland was foreseeable. On 21 June 1849, the Federal Council appointed a Federal Commissioner for the Northern Border, Johann Ulrich Hanauer, a parliamentarian from Aargau, who was then replaced on 11 July after only a few weeks in office by Johann Jakob Stehlin, an architect and politician from Basel. Dominik Gmür from Schänis in St Gallen, a man with a proven track record as the commander of a division of the Federal Diet troops during the Sonderbund War, was named military commander of the two border brigades. Colonel Christoph Albert Kurz from Bern was given responsibility for the western section of the border from Basel to Koblenz, and Colonel Franz Müller for the eastern section from Koblenz to Schaffhausen.
Colonel Dominik von Gmür as drawn by Julius Sulzer, 19th century.
Colonel Dominik von Gmür as drawn by Julius Sulzer, 19th century. Swiss National Museum
The two brigades were mobilised in stages, thus constituting far too small a force to efficiently secure the border, as in earlier (and again in later) border occupations. Only when the last revolutionary troops had crossed into Switzerland was the number of soldiers stationed at the northern border boosted to 28,000, on 24 July 1849. It was feared that Prussia could use an incident at the border as a pretext to march into Switzerland and enforce its claims to the principality of Neuchâtel, for example. A border incident of this kind did in fact occur when a steam ship from Baden carrying Hessian soldiers landed at Büsingen, a border violation that would go down in history as the Büsingen affair. However, neither side wanted to risk escalating the conflict and so no large-scale military confrontation took place.

What happened to the revolutionaries?

Although their native soil, the Grand Duchy of Baden, remained occupied by Prussia until 1851 some of the soldiers went back. However, the leading lights of the revolution and several others thought it better to avoid Baden and the other German states. Most decided to chance their luck in North America, where some of them actually went on to have successful careers. Friedrich Hecker, for example, served as an officer during the American Civil War on several occasions from 1861 to 1864, becoming colonel of the 24th Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment in 1861 and commander of the 82nd Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment in 1862. Hecker returned to Illinois after the war and was granted an honorary doctorate by the Humboldt Medical College in St. Louis in 1868. Incidentally, Emil Frey, the man from Basel who would later become a Federal Councillor, was one of those who fought in Hecker’s regiment in North America.
Friedrich Hecker made a name for himself in the American Civil War.
Friedrich Hecker made a name for himself in the American Civil War. Internet Archive
Emil Frey from Basel also served in Hecker’s regiment.
Emil Frey from Basel also served in Hecker’s regiment. Wikimedia
Following Lincoln’s election victory, Gustav Struve fought in the Civil War on the Union side, first as a soldier in the 8th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment, then later as a captain in the Union Army, before returning to Europe in 1863. Overall, 80,000 citizens of Baden (5% of the population) are said to have emigrated to America. Not only because of the revolution, but also out of economic necessity. Draconian punishments were meted out to those who had actively taken part in the revolution and who had escaped being court-martialled and shot. 31 people were sentenced to death, and 27 of them were actually executed, while 4 had their sentences commuted to terms of imprisonment. Many others received lengthy jail sentences in Prussian prisons and large fines. A general amnesty was granted on 7 August 1862, but prisoners were granted pardons as an act of grace by Leopold I, Grand Duke of Baden (1790–1852) on three occasions before that.

What remains?

Of the thousands of Badenese soldiers who escaped into Switzerland, some emigrated to Great Britain and further overseas via France. Some returned to Germany following the amnesty, while others stayed in Switzerland and applied for asylum. Especially those that had been accused of high treason due to their political activities and condemned in their absence to severe punishments by the various German parliaments. In general, those who were able to settle permanently here were those who had enjoyed an academic education: professors and literary men. Some of them would even go on to receive honorary doctorates or become honorary citizens (Bruno Hildebrand, Armand Goegg, Georg Herwegh and Heinrich Simon). The revolutionaries that fled to Switzerland brought not only their rifles and cannon with them, but also their banners and battalion flags. Some of these have survived and can be found in the collections of Swiss museums. For example, the Lahr revolutionary flag at the Swiss National Museum. Or the flag of the Kaiserslautern and Speyer battalion at the Basel Historical Museum.
Lahr revolutionary flag, 1849.
Lahr revolutionary flag, 1849. Swiss National Museum

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