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  • The Long Ride of Major von Schill: A Journey through German History and Memory
  • Todd Blake Berryman
The Long Ride of Major von Schill: A Journey through German History and Memory. By Sam A. Mustafa. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2009. ISBN 978-0-7425-5697-3. Maps. Illustrations. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Pp. xxv, 313. $49.95.

In the spring of 1809, a renegade Prussian major and his soldiers invaded the Napoleonic satellite Kingdom of Westphalia under the pretense of liberating its German subjects from foreign occupation. Though Ferdinand von Schill’s expedition lasted only a few months and ended in utter failure, disgruntled German patriots and nationalists quickly seized upon news of the affair and began to mythologize Schill as a hero who had sacrificed his life not only for Prussia, but also for the cause of German unity. Over the course of the next 200 years, the Schill legend was used and misused by generations of Germans in a variety of politicized ways.

In recognition of the bicentennial of Schill’s escapade, Sam A. Mustafa has produced an extremely impressive piece of historical scholarship that is as much a biography of Schill as an historiographical autopsy on the myths and legends that have since swirled about the Prussian major.

Mustafa devotes the first half of his book to a biographical treatment of Schill. This was no easy feat, as it required the author to disentangle actual events from the countless yarns that have been woven into the Schill legend in everything from hagiographic histories to nostalgic novels. As Mustafa rightly notes, “Schill’s biographers and novelists have largely been enthusiastic amateurs or jingoistic writers of little skill or subtlety” (p. 139). In contrast, Mustafa’s work is the product of painstaking research at more than half a dozen German archives. He also sifted through more than a dozen contemporary memoirs, many of which were penned by members of Schill’s cohort, as well as a vast array of secondary literature. This scholarship is presented in a highly readable (at times even lively) manner, as Mustafa seamlessly weaves together narrative with analysis. [End Page 1328]

Mustafa’s postmodern biography does not simply provide a mere account of Schill’s rather short life. The remainder of his book is dedicated to an exegesis of the larger than life persona that Schill took on after his defeat and death at Stralsund in May of 1809. Soon thereafter, German poets creatively used the memory of Schill to serve as a nationalist rallying call during the Wars of Liberation. This was only the beginning of Schill’s posthumous journey. During the ensuing century and a half, the memory of Schill and his band of soldiers was used in a variety of ways, and was even sanitized and appropriated by successive German regimes, all of which reformulated the Schill legend for their own purposes, as is evidenced in everything from dedication ceremonies for monuments to state authorized textbooks. As Mustafa points out, once dead, Schill became “a loyal Hohenzollern, a Nazi, a Communist, and a liberal, each in turn, as needed” (p. xii).

Some readers will undoubtedly find fault with Mustafa’s rather effortless dismissal of the quality of the Westphalian army in 1809, which he notes suffered from a high desertion rate. We should not lose sight of the fact that Prussia, too, struggled with desertions, most poignantly evidenced here by Schill himself. Others will also question Mustafa’s assessment of the number of recruits Schill took along on his march. The author concludes that “roughly twenty-five hundred men took part in Schill’s revolt” (p. 96). And although Mustafa’s arrival at this figure is both well-researched and well-reasoned, it will certainly raise eyebrows among historians who are accustomed to a significantly lower number.

However, neither of these issues undermines the overall quality of this otherwise commanding work, which will undoubtedly appeal to a variety of readers’ interests. And as Mustafa’s book is the first English-language monograph on Schill, a wider array of readers will now have access to Schill’s extraordinary journey not only through Westphalia in the spring of 1809, but also throughout German...