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Memories of Sedan Day Festivities in the 1870s (Retrospective Account, 1930)

German unification in 1871 produced a wide variety of commemorations, many of which reflected the empire's martial origins. Victory over French armies in the decisive Battle of Sedan (September 1-2, 1870) was not celebrated in all parts of the empire, and even where it was, festivities held divergent symbolic meanings for Germans of different classes, faiths, genders, and age cohorts. The variety of Sedan Day celebrations is well-known to historians, but these recollections by one young participant provide unusual depth. They were written by Florentine Gebhardt (1865-1941), the daughter of a jeweler in Crossen and, from 1897 to 1924, an elementary school teacher in Berlin. As Gebhardt's account suggests, festivities could involve days of preparation: to demonstrate national allegiance required careful practice. But the sense of anticipation and excitement conveyed here cannot be ascribed to her childhood naïveté alone: despite the need for frugality and the heavy demands made on teachers, many of the town's adults appear to have willingly participated in (and profited from) the celebrations.

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As a garrison town, Crossen was doubly patriotic and pro-monarchical.* An appropriate celebration of Sedan Day was important even to the frugal town authorities, and they apparently dug a bit deeper into the town's pockets than they did on other occasions. Each citizen contributed to the extent that he could. Of course, all the houses were decorated with black-white-red flags, the flags still being available from the entry of the troops in 1871. The streets designated for the afternoon parade were decorated with leaf garlands, which either spanned the streets or were attached to individual houses. Naturally, we children were up much earlier than usual, even though the school celebration was first scheduled to begin at 9 or 10 a.m. In the town's secondary schools, the celebration took place in the assembly hall, first for the upper classes of the boys' school and then for those of the girls' school. Probably only the elementary schools had class celebrations; I cannot say anything about that. In and of itself, merely being permitted to set foot in the assembly hall, otherwise hallowed and locked, was something grand. With timid admiration my eyes strayed over the large glass cabinets along the walls, which contained stuffed animals (teaching aids for the boys' school) and a bust of the Kaiser in the background. And filled with a feeling of festive anticipation, I took my seat on the bench between my schoolmates – but not without casting furtive glances at them to see whether they, like me, were wearing their Sunday best. In the morning, I had to wear my woolen Sunday dress; the white one was saved for the excursion. Since I was not reciting anything, there was no need to don my Sunday white. Then the whole affair began. One of the teachers gave the official speech, to which we did not listen very attentively; a number of pre-selected pupils sang songs that had been rehearsed beforehand; and a few of the even more select chosen ones recited their poems. All this was accompanied by sharp criticism on the part of the envious non-chosen ones. Well, any of us could have done it like that! – After the cheer for the Kaiser and the [Prussian] national anthem, we were dismissed with the reminder to reassemble in the schoolyard at 1:30 p.m. – Now it was necessary to lend a hand in the final preparations. With some effort we had scrounged the groschen needed for the black-and-white-and-red sash, which seemed absolutely necessary for the procession, and for a paper balloon [i.e., lantern], because the class decided that we ought to have them. They were to be hung and carried on sticks wrapped with black-and-white-and-red paper. Green leaf wreaths as headdresses were more popular than straw hats. The boys had oak twigs in their hats, paper sashes as well, and lanterns on sticks. The

* Crossen, lying on the River Oder, was a county seat in the governmental district of Frankfurt am Oder in the Prussian province of Brandenburg; in 1875 it had 6,489 inhabitants. [Footnote adapted from Jens Flemming, Klaus Saul, Peter-Christian Witt, eds., Quellen zur Alltagsgeschichte der Deutschen 1871-1914 (Source Materials on Everyday Life in Germany 1871-1914). Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellchaft, 1997, p. 61.]

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