In 1832, European middle-class citizens – farmers, students, publicists and jurists – demanded more liberties at the Hambach Festival. Controversially, the populist AfD party claims to continue that tradition.
German banners were brandished, for the first time, in black, red and gold. Publicists and writers delivered fiery speeches. Their demands, brought forward in front of some 20,000 participants – in today's terms, demonstrators – included a Europe of free peoples, freedom of opinion and press freedom across all of Europe and cross-border friendship between Europe's nations. This historic event took place at Hambach Castle, in ruins at the time and situated some 80 kilometers (50 miles) south of Frankfurt in what is today the German state of Rhineland-Palatinate. It lasted from 27 May until 1 June 1832 – almost exactly 186 years ago.
To this day, the Hambach Festival is considered to have been the strongest manifestation of liberal-minded Europeans' rebellion against princely rule. Participants included Poles, Belgians, French, and Germans from all regions, whose courageous protests ultimately turned out to be non-effective in an era of monarchical restoration.
In 1814 and 1815, at the Congress of Vienna, the princes had partitioned Europe among themselves as they saw fit. It was only after two horrible world wars over 100 years later that a free association of democracies could be established in central Europe: the European Union.
"Citizens are left behind in today's Europe"
Today, German professor of economics Max Otte is attempting to draw on the tradition of the Hambach Festival and has asked people to join him for the "New Hambach Festival." He sees Europe threatened by censorship of the press and despotic rule, just like the middle-class protesters did almost 200 years ago. Otte is a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), but says he recently voted for the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD).
Among others, Otte has invited controversial figures including AfD chairman Jörg Meuthen and Thilo Sarrazin, formerly a Social Democratic (SPD) senator in Berlin. A few years back, Sarrazin made headlines when he published a book entitled "Deutschland schafft sich ab" (Loosely translated as "Germany Is Doing Away with Itself," though no English edition has been released), in which he set out an extremely critical stance on immigration to Germany.
The festival organizers are expecting some 1,200 participants this Saturday. Otte recently said in an interview he believes there are similarities between today's situation and that of 1832: "We have a political system in which officials, who get paid with taxpayers' money, often make key decisions between them and routinely leave us citizens behind, just like in the former Eastern Bloc. Banks, corporations, lobbies and the European Union are wielding too much power."
Hardly comparable: Europe then and now
Otto's is an audacious comparison, since the Europe of 1832 was dominated by the spirit of restoration. The French Revolution of 1789, as a middle class rebellion against the political situation, the unlimited rule of princes and kings, was history. French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte had been defeated, and in the wake of the Congress of Vienna Europe had been reorganized at the discretion of the ruling nobilities. In spite of this, however, the middle classes had been roused and were now enjoying new perspectives such as university educations also for those who hailed from lower social classes. The bourgeoisie would no longer tolerate the political conditions.
According to Rhineland-Palatinate's culture minister Konrad Wolf (SPD), the new festival's organizers are trying to absorb the historic Hambach Festival and rewrite history.
Hambach Castle's manager, Ulrike Dittrich, was almost apologetic in her explanation of the legal situation: "As a public endowment, we have an obligation to equal treatment, which we adhere to." Thus, that's what comes with democracy. Dittrich, however, still pointed out the significance of the historic Hambach Festival, which represented the beginning of the many democratic attempts in Germany during the following decades that ultimately – following numerous defeats – led to democracy: "There's a strong link to the Frankfurt National Assembly [which tried to establish a united German state in 1848 and 1849, ed.], to the Weimar Republic and, eventually, to the inception of the Federal Republic of Germany."
In the run-up to the event, counter-demonstrators have said that what the AfD and the sympathizers represent is quite different: a Europe of nationalism and new borders, as well as a rejection of the refugee influx into Europe. Such demands, the protesters maintain, have little in common with the spirit of the original Hambach Festival.