- Sep 30, 2006
The Grand Duchy of Hesse-Darmstadt:
I. A Brief Introduction
The Grand Duchy of Hesse-Darmstadt (it would be more properly termed the Grand Duchy of Hesse but the former title will be used throughout this history to avoid confusion with the elector state of Hesse-Kassel) rose out of the ashes of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806.
It was in August of that year that the last Holy Roman Emperor, Francis II, was forced to abdicate following his defeat at the hands of the forces of the French Emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte. With his abdication came the dissolution of a political entity that had existed in Germany for centuries. The majority of the German states that had comprised the Holy Roman Empire were then organized by Napoleon into a new entity termed the Confederation of the Rhine. What was at the time the Landgraviate of Hesse-Darmstadt was included in this new pro-French organization.
Francis II- Last Holy Roman Emperor
Now when Napoleon created the Confederation he was looking first and foremost to form a military alliance and the member states of the Confederation were expected to freely contribute both men and supplies to the French war machine, and those states that cooperated fully with the French Emperor were richly rewarded. Hesse-Darmstadt, being one of the most willing cooperators, was rewarded by being elevated to a Grand Duchy, and Hesse-Darmstadt's Landgrave, Ludwig X, suddenly found himself Ludwig I, Grand Duke of Hesse-Darmstadt.
Ludwig I- First Grand Duke of Hesse-Darmstadt
This new situation went along to the mutual satisfaction of all until 1813. By that point Napoleon was reeling from his disastrous defeat in Russia and a new alliance was formed against him that was dubbed the Sixth Coalition. Though Napoleon won some initial victories against the coalition, he was decisively defeated at the Battle of Leipzig and forced to withdraw to France. Any members of the Confederation of the Rhine that had not already fled that particular sinking ship did so now, including the now 7 year old Grand Duchy of Hesse-Darmstadt.
The Congress of Vienna
Following Napoleon's final defeat and exile, the great leaders of Europe met at the Congress of Vienna to discuss and settle issues that had arisen as a result of the Napoleonic wars and the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire. By the end of this historic conference the map of Europe had been redrawn, and Hesse-Darmstadt found itself punished for it's membership in the Confederation of the Rhine. Over the vocal objections of Hesse-Darmstadt's representative to the conference, the Grand Duchy was stripped of the entire territory that had once been the Duchy of Westphalia which had been ceded to Hesse-Darmstadt following a reorganization of German territories in 1803.
Grand Duchy of Hesse-Darmstadt (in green) following the Congress of Vienna
Following the conclusion of the Congress of Vienna, Germany was organized into the German Confederation. This new Confederation was comprised of all of the former Confederation of the Rhine states as well as Prussia and Austria, with the latter assuming Presidency over the Federal Assembly in Frankfurt. Peace would reign over Germany for more than two decades after the Congress of Vienna and Ludwig contented himself with quietly ruling over his diminished domains until his death in 1830.
After the passing of Hesse-Darmstadt's first Grand Duke, his son assumed the throne under the name Ludwig II. The son, unlike the father, was not at all contented with the political situation in Germany at the time. Though the German Confederation was ostensibly a union of all the German peoples, it had from the beginning been dominated by it's two biggest members: the Kingdom of Prussia and the Austrian Empire. These two powers constantly jockeyed for position in the realm of German affairs and the new Grand Duke feared that when the two inevitably came to blows the smaller German states would get crushed between them.
Determined that Hesse-Darmstadt would not be a mere a mere pawn in the games of larger powers, Ludwig II resolved to turn the Duchy into a respectable power in it's own right and set in motion a series events that would see the peace in Germany broken- not by the giants of Austria and Prussia, but by a small Duchy in southwest Germany.