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© Rosalind Davies 2001
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A Short History of Mecklenburg Schwerin, in northern Germany

 

Mecklenburg Coat of Arms Early people began to colonize the Mecklenburg area about ten thousand years ago in the latter part of the Ice Age. The livesof the people in these early times were geared towards hunting and they had a great dependence on animals. Their tools were made from flint, bone and horn. Teutonic peoples inhabited the Mecklenburg area in the first centuries of the Christian era, butearly in the 6th century, it was seized by various Slavic tribes. The early name for the Mecklenburg area was Vandalia andlater it was called Wendenland. The land was not cultivated during the Slavic times, but was covered everywhere withprimeval forest. It was isolated and culturally cut off from the rest of Germany.

 

 

The Mecklenburg region was conquered by Henry the Lion, Duke of Saxony, in the latter half of the 12th century and the landwas first opened up by Henry through a combination of missionary work and colonization. In 1348 it was elevated to a duchy.In 1549 Lutheranism was recognized as the State religion. Then, in 1621, Mecklenburg was split into two duchies:Mecklenburg-Schwerin and Mecklenburg -Güstrow (changed to Mecklenburg-Strelitz in 1701). Mecklenburg-Schwerin wasabout the size of the state of Connecticut. Mecklenburg-Strelitz was about as large as the state of Rhode Island in the UnitedStates, and was divided into two parts, one on either side of Mecklenburg-Schwerin. Between 1733 and 1755 the estate owners of Mecklenburg increased their land holdings. They were backed by the Kaiser ofthe Holy Roman Empire in this effort. By the Convention of Rostock in 1755 in Mecklenburg Schwerin, all power was placedin the hands of the Duke, nobles, and upper classes. The lower classes had no voice. Land was held under a Feudal system.From 1759 to 1764 all of Mecklenburg was occupied by Prussia. Unlike the surrounding areas, however, Mecklenburgmanaged to remain autonomous for another century.

 

The Mecklenburg Coat of Arms

 

 

Typical Mecklenburg labourer's cottages c. 1800 Typical Mecklenburg farmhouse
In Mecklenburg during the 1700s and 1800s a type of Feudalism existed known as "Inherited Serfdom". The land ownerscontrolled the economy and ruled their estates with absolute authority. The peasants were dependent entirely on the nobleswho could even buy and sell them with or without their property. The tax rate on the peasants had to be reviewed every twoto three years, and was usually increased at that time. They could not acquire any more land than they already had. TheirLandlords produced crops for export from their vast estates by using the labor of these bonded peasants, servants andlaborers. The landlords were known as "Landed Junkers". his word comes from "Jung Herr" which means "young noble".

 

By the 1800's the Landlords had driven away more and more peasants with their highhanded ways. They then incorporatedthose peasants' plots into their estates, and crop production expanded further. This callous robbery of the peasant propertieswas known as "peasant seizure". Ten thousand peasants lost their holdings in this way. In Mecklenburg, where the Nobilityowned almost all of the land and dwellings, the number of estimated peasant foreclosures went from 2,490 to nearly 12,000by 1800 AD. The former peasants who ad land left held only small holdings which ensured little more than a bare livelihood for themselves.

 

 

Mecklenburg farmers in 1597 Farm woman 1880  
Mecklenburg farmers in 1597 Mecklenburg farm woman c. 1880 Mecklenburg girl on her way to church

In 1807 Baron von Stein tried to carry through a reform of the Feudal system. He felt the peasants' and laborers' lot had to beimproved. He did not want to abolish the large Landholders, but they were to be limited in their political and administrativepowers and to improve the state of their workers. At that time, workers worked from sunrise to sunset for a pfennig an hour,a very small amount. The value of goods (potatoes, corn, wood, etc.) was deducted from that and most of their work was paidfor by these goods. Women and children performed heavy work. Baron von Stein's reform said that peasants could nowchange their place of residence without permission, and children were allowed to learn a trade. But the Landlords ought theseprogressive measures, refused to implement them, and the edict of Baron von Stein was never executed.

From 1806 to 1813 the country suffered great hardship and destruction. This period came to be known to all Mecklenburgersas the "Franzosentid" ( period of French occupation). Robbery and pillage became commonplace. Both duchies,Mecklenburg Schwerin and Mecklenburg Strelitz, were forced to join the Confederation of the Rhine under Napoleon'sprotectorate. Of the more than 2,000 men who were conscripted from Mecklenburg to take part in Napoleon's campaign against Russia, less than one hundred came home again. After Napoleon's defeat in Russia, the dukes of both Mecklenburgs were among the first to renounce the alliance with France.In the War of German Liberation which followed (1813-1815), Mecklenburg played a significant part in defeating Napoleonand liberating Germany from France. In 1815, the dukes of Mecklenburg were elevated to "Grand Dukes", and Mecklenburgbecame a Grand Duchy. With the coming of peace, however, there also came a period of economic depression which lasteduntil the early 1820s. Legally, serfdom was abolished in Mecklenburg in 1820 and the peasants were freed from their obligations to land owners.But this worsened the conditions for most peasants because the land owners were freed , at the same time, of any obligationsunder feudal law to provide their tenants with any means of supporting themselves, thus leaving the peasants in even greaterpoverty. The servant of a noble landowner was not even permitted to marry unless his master gave him permission and a placeto live. Those villagers who were without land became cottagers or gardeners. Eventually they were simply known as day laborers(Tageloehners) and lived in poverty. They were deprived almost entirely of their earnings and thereafter were forced to workfor a starvation wage on the Junker estates. They traveled the countryside, moving from estate to estate as the land ownerrequired their labor for plowing, planting or harvesting crops. The life they lived gave no possibility of resistance in an effort tobetter their condition.

Many peasants and labourers left Mecklenburg and emigrated to other countries s their conditions became unbearable. In the early 1840s, the liberal bourgeois party began to speak out against the noble landowners and the special privileges grantedthem. By 1848 there were secret meetings in many Mecklenburg towns of reform societies and a political revolution was adistinct possibility. However the revolution did not have enough support and eventually failed. The workers' situation inMecklenburg remained bleak until, under the Soviet Military Administration, in October 1945 there was a land reform and thelarge estates and their landholders disappeared. The government took over their land. The Mecklenburg Duchies joined the German Empire in 1871 and after World War I were declared states of the newGerman Republic. In 1934 they were united into a single German state of Mecklenburg. After World War II Mecklenburgbecame part of the Soviet Zone. The state was dissolved in 1952, when East Germany was reorganized into districts. Thearea remained behind the Iron Curtain and part of East Germany until 1990 when Germany was unified and the state ofMecklenburg-West Pomerania was created. The dukes of Mecklenburg-Schwerin had their castle (Schloß) and main residence in the city of Schwerin. The seat of government and main home for the dukes of Mecklenburg-Strelitz was in Neustrelitz. Princess Sophie Charlotte ofMecklenburg-Strelitz became Queen Charlotte of England in 1761. Genealogical data concerning the house of Mecklenburgcan be found on the Internet Gotha, and some of its members can also be found in the royals databases at Hull and PSU.

 

 

 

by Ros Davies


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