The Huguenots

The Origins of the Word “Hugenotte“

The origins of the word Huguenot are not absolutely clear. In all likelihood, it was first used by the French Catholic majority as a term of abuse and ridicule for French Protestants and originally referred to the Swiss “Eidgenosse“ (“Eidgenosse”: the Alemannic word “ydtgenos“ was transformed in the French pronunciation to “Huguenot“. Troops in Berne, referring to themselves as “ydtgenos“, fought on the side of the reformers during the 16th century: hence the name “Huguenots“ for the followers of the reformed church. The French Protestants who emigrated called themselves “Réfugiés“ (refugees). Nowadays, Huguenot is no longer an insult, but evokes interest and respect.

The Hugeunot Wars and St. Bartholomew’s Night

Since the Reformation in the 16th century, there were very few people in France – titled Frenchmen among them – who supported the Protestantism that was practiced in Switzerland in the reformed form advocated by Johannes Calvin. The share of Protestants among the French population lay between about five and seven per cent.

From the very beginning, the French authorities were inconsistent in their treatment of their evangelical subjects. After the failure of the Colloquy of Poissy (near Paris) in 1561, where the Catholic and Protestant theologians were unable to reach a consensus, a total of seven Huguenot wars were fought in France. Following the Colloquy, Protestantism in France was no longer regarded as a religious movement, but viewed as a challenge to the king’s authority. The systematic persecution and – in many places – murder of the Huguenots began.

One fanatical climax in the attempt to brutally eliminate Protestantism in France was the murder of thousands of Huguenots on Bartholomew’s Night in 1572 (“the Massacre of St. Bartholomew”). The leaders of the Huguenot nobility were murdered along with thousands of their co-religionists at the command of the Queen Mother Catharine of Medici on the evening of the 24 August (St. Bartholomew’s Day). The Huguenots were in the French capital at the invitation of the royal dynasty, attending the wedding of Henry of Navarre (himself a Huguenot) and the Catholic princess Margarete von Valois. Heinrich von Navarro was able to save his life only by renouncing his faith. (Later, after he had changed religions a number of times, he became King Henry IV of France.)

The Edict of Nantes

The Edict of Nantes (1598) was the provisional happy end to a conflict that had assumed civil-war-like proportions. With this edict, which showed tolerance towards Protestants, King Henry IV, who had lead the Huguenots for a time, gave the reformed confession a legally binding basis and security for the very first time (Henry IV. *1553, †1610; king since 1589, crowned in 1593 on his conversion to Catholicism: “Paris is well worth a mass“). Even then, the Edict of Nantes did not grant the Huguenots universal freedom of religious conscience and belief. But it did at least protect members of the “reformed religion” from occupational discrimination and allowed them to publicly practise their cult in the form of religious services, baptisms, marriage services and funerals.

Under Henry IV’s successors, these liberties were restricted again. In some cases, the Huguenots were forced violently to convert to Catholicism. This development went hand in hand with the development of absolutism in France.

The Edict of Fontainebleau

Under the Edict of Fontainebleau, the Huguenots were banned for good from practising their “supposedly reformed religion” – as the king saw it – by King Louis XIV in 1658 (*1638, †1715; king since 1643). The Huguenots churches were also systematically destroyed at the instigation of the “Sun King”. In France, their parishes came to be a “church in the desert”. Any Huguenots who chose to ignore the royal edict were compelled to hold their religious services and gatherings at secret, inaccessible places outside the towns and cities, placing themselves in great danger.

The “Sun King” forced his country’s reformed Christians to return to the bosom of the Catholic Church. In order to re-educate, convert and forcibly re-Catholicise them, the King ordered his (Catholic) soldiers to be billeted with Protestant families (the so-called “Dragonades”): a term derived from the “dragoons”, cavalry, who were quartered among the Protestants in twice the customary number. The king encouraged the soldiers to maltreat the Huguenots. Louis IIV expressly forbade the Huguenots from emigrating to other, Protestant, countries in Europe. (The sole exception were the Huguenot vicars, who were considered resistant to all forms of conversion and were also insignificant as far as the “Sun King’s” economic goals were concerned.)

Louis XIV viewed the Reformed Christians as a threat, as a potential “state within a state”, who could therefore constitute a counter-pole to the absolute monarchy. In this way, he discredited the Huguenot’s political loyalty and religious commitment. In fact, something like a Protestant republic had existed in France since 1572. It had its own troops, its own legislation and governmental powers, and found itself in constant conflict with the central power. After Henry IV’s death, the military power of the Protestants was gradually eliminated. In 1627-28, the Huguenot stronghold of La Rochelle on the French Atlantic coast was besieged and defeated. The Huguenots’ religious rights were increasingly restricted. The Edict of Nantes became increasingly ineffective. And the Huguenots once again became the target of state persecution and harassment right up to their final prohibition in 1685.

The Flight of the Huguenots
Despite the banning of their religion, despite their being prohibited from leaving the country (with refugees also facing the threat of heavy penalties such as forced labour in the galleys if they were caught) and despite the incarceration of women in castle towers, of the approximately 800,000 Huguenots then living in France, some 300,000 fled to other European countries, where they found protection and religious freedom. They went to Switzerland, Holland, England, Bulgaria, Bohemia and Moravia, as well as to Mark Brandenburg.

The Great Elector and the Edict of Potsdam

The Brandenburg elector, Frederick William (*1620, †1688; Elector from 1640 on; also known as the Great Elector) responded swiftly to the oppression of his fellow Protestants in France. Shortly after Protestantism was prohibited by Louis XIV, Frederick William issued the Edict of Potsdam in the Potsdam City Palace on 8 November 1785. There, he offered the Huguenots “a safe and free retreat” to his Brandenburg Land. He also wooed and enticed them with all sorts of privileges, such exemption from taxes and duties, and allocated them abandoned houses and building materials.

The first reformed parish has existed in Berlin since 1672 (it was founded on 10 June 1672) before Protestantism was officially prohibited by Louis XIV. This parish consisted of French Protestants who had lived and worked together at the court of the Great Elector. Faced with hostility on the part of the rural population, some of the French families, who had settled in Alt-Landsberg to the East of Berlin, withdrew in resignation, and under the protection of the Hohenzollerns, to the residency of Berlin. Church services were held in the historical royal stables on the south side of the palatial residence of Baron von Pöllnitz. From 1685 on, this small Huguenot court community in Berlin expanded many times over following the immigration of thousands of their fellow brothers and sisters in belief and nationality. The Edict of Potsdam was having an effect. In commemoration of the Edict and out of gratitude to Divine mercy and the mercy of the Elector, the Huguenot community still celebrates its annual “Refuge Festival” on 29 October.

The relevant passage in the Potsdam Edict is quoted in detail on the commemorative plaque on the church façade: “We, Frederick William, announce that the harsh persecution carried out thus far in the Kingdom of France against our fellow Christians, who are devoted to the reformed, evangelical religion, has induced many families to leave this same kingdom for other countries, and that we are therefore moved by just compassion to offer them a safe and free retreat in grace to all our countries and provinces.”

The remarkable thing about this passage from the Potsdam Edict is that Frederick William refers to the Huguenots as his “fellow French Christians”. This is not so much an allusion to the term “confederate”, as an expression of the close denominational bond and religious “association” between the Electoral house and the Huguenots from France. For as far as religion was concerned, the reformed French immigrants had a far greater affinity to the equally reformed dynasty of the Hohenzollerns at the time than to the old-established Lutheran subjects of Berlin and Brandenburg.

Religious Policy in Mark Brandenburg

From 1 November 1539 on, Mark Brandenburg was a Lutheran state, although this was due more to pressure exerted by the landed gentry and the population than from inner conviction. In 1613, Brandenburg’s elector, Johann Sigismund, together with a large part of his court – with the exception of his wife – changed to the reformed faith. In a second reformation – as it were – of Mark Brandenburg, the elector wanted to introduce his subjects to the reformed religion. His plans were foiled, however, because Brandenburg’s estates and the population preferred to remain true to the Lutheran faith, despite all the pressure put upon them. (Under Reich law, the principle of “cuius regio, eius religio“, from the time of the religious Peace of Augsburg of 1555, still applied. Under this law, the sovereign prince determined the religion of his subjects: “in whoever’s state you live that shall determine the religion you share“) In 1614, when the prince elector was absent, the so-called “Berlin Tumult” occurred, in which the Lutheran Berliners tried to storm the castle with its now reformed castle chapel, from which all the pictures had been removed.

Against this background, it understandable that the Great Elector Frederick William was interested in the Huguenots for two reasons. They were welcome not only on economic grounds, but also for religious reasons, or rather: reasons of religious policy. The court hoped that the settlement of Huguenots there would bring it advantages in the religious sphere. Huguenot immigration not only strengthened the reformed elements in Mark Brandenburg, but also intensified religious tensions within the state.

Electoral Economic Policy

Ever since the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) the Margraviate of Brandenburg had been languishing. The state was depopulated and economically weakened. Following a number of plaque epidemics, over a third of the houses in Berlin were empty, and 140,000 inhabitants had died in the Electorate of Brandenberg. To reconstruct the country, new ideas, economic impulses and people, too, were needed.

In previous years, the Great Elector had approached the Dutch. Finally, in 1671, the first Jewish families (in a century) settled again in Berlin. (Their settlement area was the so-called Spandauer Vorstadt, the area around Oranienburger Strasse and the Hackescher Markt.) It is with these first fifty Jewish families – who came from Vienna, where they had also fled persecution, to Berlin – that the history of the Berlin Jews begins. (With the exception of the Middle Ages until their brutal expulsion in 1571). Unlike the Huguenots, however, the Jews settling in Berlin did not enjoy Electoral privileges. They had to pay to be assimilated. When they settled in 1671, they were expressly forbidden to build a house of God. Later on, they had to pay King Frederick I for the right to build their first synagogue.

The Settlement of the Huguenots

Following the Potsdam Edict, which, for the Huguenots, was tantamount to a Green Card to Brandenburg, some 20,000 religious refugees emigrated to Mark Brandenburg. They accounted for about half of all the Huguenots who settled in German territories. The Potsdam Edict does not mention Berlin as a place of settlement. However, here alone – in Dorotheenstadt, which is to the north of the street Unter den Linden, as well as in Friedrichstadt, which is to the south of that street, approximately 5,000 Huguenots settled in several waves of immigration. In the northeast of Berlin, in Französich-Buchholz for instance, the Huguenots settled in the village that had been devastated during the Thirty Years’ War. In some areas, as in Berlin, the Réfugiés accounted for just under one quarter of the population. Berlin’s population was reduced to 15,000 inhabitants as a result of the Thirty Years’ War. In comparison: in 1685, London had over one million inhabitants; Paris had 75,000.

As a result of the immigration of the Huguenots, approximately fifty French settlements “colonies“ arose in Brandenburg-Prussia. They had their own church administrations, their own vicars, their own mayors, and their own jurisdiction. The Huguenots enjoyed the status of a privileged minority. The Berlin colony founded its own institutions and establishments, such as a consistory, a court of law, a seminary, a cemetery, a grammar school, a hospital, a hospice and a pawnbroker.

The French colonies enjoyed this special status until 1809. During the course of the 19th century, the French language was gradually discarded. It was only in 1896, that church books were available in German. Eventually, French names were pronounced as German ones.

The Huguenots brought with them to Berlin not only their religious conviction, their piety and their industriousness, but also their French attitude to life and their culture. French “savoir vivre“ found its way into Berlin and manifested itself in many areas of society.

Theodor Fontane and other famous Huguenots

In 1774, the Französische Kirche and the Französische Komödientheater were erected on the Gendarmenmarkt. Their origins had nothing to do with the Huguenots’ rather strict ethical and moral codes nor with their aversion to public amusements. In fact, the buildings’ construction dates back to Frederick II. Following a devastating fire, this French theatre built for a Francophile king was replaced, between 1817 and 1821, by the Schauspielhaus, designed by Karl Friedrich Schinckel. Theodor Fontane (*1819, †1898), who came from a Berlin Huguenot family, was a frequent guest at the Schauspielhaus and sat in the famous seat number 23.

In 1885, on the 200th anniversary of the Potsdam Edict, Fontane composed a poem that was recited by the chairman of the festival committee in celebration of the Edict. In a slightly flattering tone, the poem says:

Two hundred years have passed
Since we found, in this country,
Shelter and a refuge from a plagued conscience.
An proud prince, as free as he is pious,
Received us here, and like the prince of this land,
His people received us too. No envy stirred,
And no jealousy; the gate was opened to us,
And we were welcomed as co-religionists.”

Famous descendants of the Huguenots also included the painter Daniel Chodowiecki (*1726, †1801) and the sculptor Emmanuel Bardou (*1744, †1818); the scholar Franz Carl Achard (*1754, †1821), who developed the industrial manufacture of refined sugar from sugar beet; the linguist Wilhelm von Humboldt (*1767, †1835) and his brother Alexander (*1769, †1859); the romantic poet Friedrich de La Motte Fouqué (*1777, †1843); and the jurist Karl von Savigny (*1779, †1861), who, as minister, reformed Prussian law and founded the German Historical School.

French Berlin – The Economy and Science

The economic and cultural contributions which the Huguenots made to Mark Brandenburg not only earned them recognition, but also frequently aroused suspicion and envy among the old-established population. With the electoral court, they shared both the French language and the religious denomination. For almost two hundred years, Huguenots served as permanently employed educators of the royal, or rather princely, family and the Prussian nobility. The royal financial administration was also organised by the Huguenots. And when the Akademie was founded, a third of its members were French.

Last but not least, the Mark Brandenburg has the Huguenots to thank not only for establishing the police and the first teacher training centre in Berlin, but also for introducing many culinary delights such as Berliner Weisse beer, asparagus, cabbage lettuce, cauliflower, green peas and beans, and broccoli.

We also have to thank a Huguenot for first coffee house, which opened in Berlin in 1721. French cloth workers tried to breed silkworms, only to be defeated byBrandenburg‘s harsh summers. Planting mulberry trees was also doomed to failure. But one thing did succeed, however: the cultivation of fruits and vegetables. All in all, the Huguenots established forty-six new occupations in Berlin. The textiles industry was the largest branch. And it is particularly in the field of fashion that many French terms have survived, such as the jacket, the blouse, the pelerine, the costume and the negligee, the cuff and the wig, the boutique, the tricot and the bodice. All totally chick (“tout chic”) of course. And so it isn’t only in Berlin that Mademoiselle and Monsieur stroll quite comfortably down the pavement for a rendezvous on the avenue these days.

Berlin’s hotels had French names; the city hospital was (and still is) Charité; the city’s cafés (sic!) bore names such as the Royal, the Impérial and the National; the castles on the bank of the Spree were called Bellevue or Monbijou; newly created squares were named Quarrée (Pariser Platz), Octogon (Leipziger Platz) and Rondell (Mehringplatz).

A century after they had settled, Friedrich II went into raptures about the Huguenots: “20,000 of the poorer but most industrious Huguenots fled to Brandenburg and gave us the manufactures that we needed … Goldsmiths, jewelers, watchmakers and sculptors settled in Berlin. The French who settled on the lowlands, cultivated tobacco and grew excellent fruits and vegetables in the sandy soil, which their industry transformed into excellent land for growing fruit.“

Friedrich II’s extravagant praise can be found on the commemorative plaque on the outside wall of the church.

Education and Social Questions

The Huguenots’ social and welfare activities focused mainly on taking care of the poor. In addition to charitable institutions, it was mainly through their educational institutions that the Prussian Huguenots gradually gained respect and recognition in their new home. The small side room inside the church contained a soup kitchen for feeding Berlin orphans. Even now, the Französisches Gymnasium (French Grammar School) is still regarded as one of the best schools in Berlin.

The three groups of figures on the pediment above the exterior portal of the church symbolically express a commitment to charity and education: on the left: “feeding the poor”, on the right “education”, and in the middle, a graphic realisation of the merciful “reception” of the Huguenots in the Electorate of Brandenburg.

Johannes Calvin

Even though he was not its sole founder, Johannes Calvin was nevertheless the true “church father” of the reformed church. Johannes (Jean) Calvin (*1509, †1564), a contemporary of Martin Luther (*1483, †1546), came from France (he was born in Noyon, not far from Paris) and taught jurisprudence at the Sorbonne in Paris. Calvin was related to Pierre Robert Olivetan, who later translated the Bible, and professed his commitment to the Reformation early on. While he was a student, Calvin was close to the biblically influenced French humanists who followed Lefèvre d’Etaples, among whom writings of the Swiss and German Reformers circulated.

Gilt als der eigentliche „Kirchenvater“ der reformierten Kirche: Johannes Calvin.
Johannes Calvin was nevertheless the true “church father” of the reformed church.

In 1533, Calvin had to flee Paris to escape the Inquisition. The following year he went to the reformed town of Basel, were he composed the first version of his “Institutio chistianae religionis“. In 1536, while he was traveling through Geneva, the local reformer Guillaume Farel urged him to stay. Together with Farel, Calvin composed the first Genevan ordinances, the so-called “ordonnances ecclesiastiques”, with their strict doctrine and church discipline, which – at times – met with fierce resistance among the Genevan population. Calvin also introduced the singing of psalms into church services.

Political and religious upheavals compelled him to leave Geneva for three years in 1568. He went to Strasbourg, where he worked closely with Martin Bucer and established contact with supporters of the Lutheran Reformation. In 1541, the citizens of Geneva persuaded him to return to the city. Up to the end of his life, he remained a tireless preacher, theology teacher and author, who sought to find in which people could live their entire lives in accordance with the principles of the Reformation. His main work, the so-called “Institutio”, which he repeatedly extended, is regarded as the most important dogmatic work of the Reformation. As time passed, Calvin, still in Geneva, who was an advisor and leader, became a recognised reformer in large parts of Western Europe (France, Scotland, the Netherlands) and Eastern Europe (Poland, Hungary and Transylvania).

The Reformed Church and the Lutheran Church

Unlike the Lutheran doctrine, and occasionally in opposition to it, Calvin and his followers – sometimes strictly and with regard to outward things – visibly rejected and dismissed Roman Catholicism with its “worldly” conception of the Last Supper and its wealth of imagery and altars. What was originally a very simply designed Französische Friedrichstadtkirche, devoid of decoration and imagery, and its (in Catholic and Lutheran eyes) “missing” altar, is, in its simplicity, an eloquent testimony to the church’s religion. For the theological layman and woman, it is in this “visible” break with Catholicism that the source of the self-description of supporters of Calvin’s doctrine as the “church reformed in accordance with God’s word” lies.

Calvin reproached Luther and his theological fellow-travellers with seeking to reform the church root and branch, without carrying this project through to its final conclusion. On the contrary, Luther stopped half way and went no further. Hence, the emergence of two distinct Protestant religious denominations during the 16 century: the Lutheran, on the one hand, and the reformed Church going back to Johannes Calvin, on the other.

Members of the reformed church reject the term “Calvinist church” when describing their religion. This is due, on the one hand, to the fact that there existed other important theologians (such as Huldrich Zwingli in Zurich *1484, †1531), who shaped reformed theology, and on the other, to the fact that the reformed church, unlike the Lutheran, was named not after a human being, but solely after the consummation of the reformist principle as such: the “renewal of the church in the mind and the limbs”.