Although eventually heavily bombed in WWII and finally demolished in 1959, Schloß Monbijou could have been destroyed in 1848 were it not for the brave action of a young Prussian officer.
I believe this account is reasonably accurate; the reported speech is a mixture of the contemporary eyewitness account in the Deutsche Wehr-Zeitung (Jahrgang 1. 1-90) from 1849 and von Reibniz’s own account in Berlin 1848 by Karl von Prittwitz, commander of the troops in Berlin at the time, whilst I’ve also used a later and somewhat clearer military account from the 1890s: Die Straßenkämpfe in Berlin am 18. und 19. März 1848 by Hubert von Meyerinck to help clarify places and times. All from the original German, so far I’ve found no reference to the incident in English.
It’s 13:00 on the 18th March 1848. Amid the widespread disturbances occurring all over Berlin 36 year old Premierleutnant Eugen von Reibnitz, commanding 40 artillerymen and two junior officers of the Garde-Artillerie, is ordered from Oranienburger Tor, where the artillery barracks had already been set ablaze, to defend Schloß Monbijou, once a royal palace and now home to the Museum for National Antiquities. The building is guarded at the time by a small force of ten Grenadiers and a junior officer from the Kaiser Franz Regiment, together with two dragoons. The artillerymen had been trained on the previous three evenings at Monbijou by von Reibnitz in the use of their outdated weapons, for which they have no ammunition. The Grenadiers have decent weapons and ammunition however.
Arriving around 16:00 at Monbijou von Reibnitz sends out a patrol (under a Sergeant Sitz) to ascertain if they can expect any support from outside. The patrol returns almost immediately to report that they are cut off from any contact with other troops, including from the barracks at the nearby Kupfergraben, and that barricades are being built all around them.
Soon after a crowd of workers, led by students, assembles in the square. Von Reibnitz, hands in pockets, approaches one of the young workers (armed with a club and a dagger), who is approaching the Guardhouse and asks him what he wants. Seeing that von Reibnitz is unarmed the young man hides his club under his coat and puts the dagger away. Excitedly he tells him:
“The soldiers are murdering my comrades, I have to rescue them immediately or die with them and for that we need weapons. The Hamburger Tor and Neue Markt guards have already given theirs up, it wouldn’t do you any good to resist here, there’s no need to spill unnecessary blood. You can’t defend your post.”
Von Reibnitz tells him calmly that there’s no way he’ll surrender the weapons, rather that he’ll defend the post until the last man, and he should leave now. Impressed by his cool demeanour the young man and his immediate companions look ready to leave as instructed but the crowd shout:
“give up your weapons!”,
Von Reibnitz then delivers that popular German phrase “Leckt mick im Arsch” (Kiss my arse), — or as an eyewitness says: “Jetzt kehrte Herr von Reibnitz dem ganzen Haufen verächtlich den Rücken und rief mit seiner Stentorstimme jenen bekannten deutschen Kraftspruch aus, der eine Einladung involvirt, die bekanntlich nie angenommen wird (Then von Reibnitz contemptuously turns his back on the crowd and calls out in his imposing voice that well known phrase that involves an invitation to do something that you know will never be taken up on)” — taken aback and somewhat amused the crowd disperses to the Herkulesbrücke, where they proceed to build barricades.
Next the crowd reappears with two wagons. With one wagon they attempt to block off Präsidenten Straße, and with the other Oranienburger Straße across the other side of the square. Von Reibnitz leads two sections (two junior officers and about 20 men) to clear Oranienburger Straße, which they accomplish with little difficulty and bring the wagon into the palace garden. Trying to clear the wagon at Presidenten Straße they are faced with a crowd of about 20 men behind the barricade and another five on the roof of the corner house. Greeted with a hail of (poorly aimed) stones from the rooftops and windows they manage to secure that too and again lead the wagon to safety. After the barricade is cleared von Reibnitz goes with four of his men into one of the houses from which stones were thrown and meeting a student with a blunt rapier takes it from him, then sends him and four other unarmed men (the eyewitness says four in total) back to the Guardhouse.
Emboldened by success, the soldiers turn their attention to the two barricades blocking the Herkulesbrücke and the Neuen Promenade. Here the defence is much fiercer; the barricades are reinforced with railings from the promenade and the usual hail of stones comes their way, which von Reibnitz apparently parries with the guard of the previously aquired student’s rapier (This really would make a good film). The troops and loudly shouting mob stand opposite each other, von Reibnitz says:
“Clear the barricades or I’ll give the order to shoot.”
This being ignored he then orders:
Now one of the student leaders springs up in panic, waving a white handkerchief:
“Don’t shoot and we’ll do what you want.”
The leader agrees with a handshake and his word of honour to clear the way and in return von Reibnitz agrees to free the four (or five) prisoners and get his troops to help clear the barricades. The railings are thrown in the river to prevent them from being (mis)used again.
Meanwhile the crowd keeps growing and von Reibnitz sensibly retires to the palace, without being fully able to clear the Herkulesbrücke barricade, taking two of the student leaders with him as agreed. The troops take position in front of the guardhouse, infantry in front, artillery behind, with strict orders not to shoot unless directly ordered. The prisoners are released, to jubilation from the crowd, followed immediately however by more stone throwing and a shot. Three of the troops shoot back into the air, but von Reibnitz jumps in front and orders them to stop. The square rapidly clears, von Reibnitz goes out alone and picks something off of the ground. Seeing him alone the crowd begins to come back, about 400 strong, the leaders shouting:
To the weapons! – this is how they keep their promises! This is how you’re betrayed! – There you see how they look down on you from above. Instead of granting your reasonable demands, they shoot at you and kill your brothers!”
With this they display two of their number with bloody wounds to hand and face.
Von Reibnitz, holding aloft the parts of the exploded weapon he had found on the ground, replies loudly:
“See, this is how they excite you with lies and games! If there’s talk of a break of trust here then it was committed by you. I promised to let the prisoners go and I’ve done so. In thanks however you threw stones and fired the first shot. My troops just shot in the air to keep you back after stones were thrown and they were shot at. The man with the wounded hand has brought down the punishment for his treachery on himself, because this discharged weapon was in his hands. Ask him the truth and if he has the courage he’ll admit it. The other man was not wounded by the bullets of my men either, because he has wood splinters in his cheek from the exploding weapon. You wanted my weapons but don’t know how to use them! Move away peacefully and leave me unhurt at my post otherwise you’ll finally compel me, against my will, to use force, and then there’ll be blood, you can be sure of that.”
They seem to be unable to argue with this and look about to retreat when an old, destitute looking man comes to the front and says that to be killed would be doing him a favour as he hasn’t eaten for 3 days. Von Reibnitz attempts to give him some money but the crowd don’t like it as it looks like bribery, so he suggests a collection for the old man, which raises a fair sum (one or two Talers). The crowd (300-400 men, armed with iron bars, knives, axes etc. according to von Reibnitz) again becomes agitated when a gunner (gunner Ritzenhoff, 4th Company) comes to the front with a pistol, but von Reibnitz says that it’s only one of his cadets concerned about his welfare, with which explanation they seem content. At this point a young student from Westphalia (distinct from the majority of southern Germans and locals present and who we’ll meet again later) steps forward and says:
“That’s all well and good but it doesn’t help us with our weapons. Give them up and we’ll go quietly.”
When von Reibnitz makes it plain that this will never happen the crowd goes off again and he moves his men out of sight into the palace gardens so as not to excite any more trouble.
A quarter of an hour later the crowd is back in increased numbers, once again clamouring for weapons. Coming out of the gardens von Reibnitz says:
“Ahh, you’re back again Gentlemen, what can I do to serve you?”
“We must have your weapons!”
“What would you do if I wanted your weapons?”
“We wouldn’t give them to you.”
“How is it then that you so unreasonably want my weapons. You’ve appropriated your weapons, my troops and I got ours from the King, who you honour as much as we do, and can only give them up with our lives. Many of you were undoubtedly soldiers and would therefore know what the duty of a soldier is – If I were to give up our weapons, wouldn’t I and my men deserve to be hanged by you from these trees here?
“But the Garde-Dragoner and Garde-Schützen battalions have already gone over to the people, you’d only avoid unnecessary loss of blood if you’d give up your weapons to us!”
“That’s a lie! Prussian soldiers don’t act dishonourably, and even if it were true, the betrayal of traitors is no reason for dereliction of duty by me.”
The crowd accepts this, a few even applaud, although the Westphalian student briefly tries the same appeal as before, with the same result.
By now about 18:30-19:00 the crowd drifts off after hearing that the Spritzenhaus in nearby Oranienburgerstraße had been taken and the machinery was being used to build barricades, but they return shortly, now between 800-1000 people strong, many with lighted torches taken from the Spritzenhaus. Von Reibnitz comes out again, nonchalantly, and refusing the call for weapons tells them that the only way to the palace is over his dead body, for which they’d have to face the revenge of his men, who are devoted to him. The crowd backs off again to deliberate and von Reibnitz retires with his men into the gardens, realising that an all out battle would be a bloodbath and that his duty to protect the palace would most likely fail.
A few minutes later he gets report of a crowd breaking through the fence at the back of the gardens, he storms off to meet them and greets the leading students:
“Have you ever studied hard in your life?”
“Then I don’t understand your idea of honour! – You see my small force and want to attack us from behind? – If you want to fight then attack from the front. I’ll be there to meet you, if you’re serious about making a play for my weapons.”
The crowd goes off, presumably suitably ashamed, but then von Reibnitz turns to his men:
“Lads. You have to leave here. Although we could die doing our duty,
we couldn’t be of any help. Although I’ve managed to hold back the mob so far, we’ve got the evening and night to come, no expectation of help, and even if we win we will put the palace with it’s valuable collections and the surrounding houses in danger of being set alight. You go through the back gate and try to reach the barracks at Kupfergraben where perhaps you can do some good, whilst here we could only cause a terrible bloodbath or go down without being of use. I’ll stay here alone and see if I can do any good.”
The troops are stunned, then beg to be allowed to stay and win or die, but eventually they obey orders and retreat through the back gate into Ziegelstraße and from there to the nearby Kupfergraben barracks (von Meyerinck says they leave on barges).
Meanwhile dusk had fallen and although the Moon was bright the crowd in the square shout for lights to be put on in the surrounding houses, threatening to break in the doors and burn the houses down if the occupants don’t comply. Gaslight covers are smashed so as to give out more light and to ignite torches.
Now von Reibnitz appears again at the palace entrance, hoping to buy his men time to escape. The crowd surges forward and once again demands weapons. Von Reibnitz replies:
“I regret very much that I can’t comply. Before you wanted me to withdraw the troops, and that I’ve done as promised, they’re completely gone.”
“That can’t be true, where have you sent them?”
“That you’ll have to allow me to keep to myself, but they’re gone.
I hope they’ve already gone over the water. Where, I can’t tell you in these circumstances.”
“We don’t believe it, you’re trying to deceive us!”
“I give you my word of honour that they’re no longer in Monbijou.”
The students seem content with this explanation, but some of the crowd aren’t, one man comes forward with a knife and waves it in von Reibnitz’s face, von Reibnitz grabs his wrist and says:
“If you think you’ll frighten or entertain me with your indian knife games, then you’re wrong on both counts. If you want to murder me then stab away! But it’s not the right crowd or place for jugglers tricks. So give up with the grimacing!”
Impressed by this cool display 5 or 6 students followed by torch bearers protect von Reibnitz and accompany him into the gardens to satisfy themselves that the soldiers have gone, to return half an hour later, all in good spirits. To such an extent in fact, that passing the 2 wagons in the gardens that the troops had taken there to protect them from the barricade builders von Reibnitz declares:
“There are still 2 wagons here my friends, they are private property and I have promised to protect them. If you wanted to take them I couldn’t stop you, but I’d prefer it if I could keep my word.”
To which the students shouted:
“The wagons stay here; the Lieutenant must keep his word!”
During the tour of the palace von Reibnitz had apparently impressed on the students that as men of science they couldn’t agree to the valuable works of art being destroyed, and that as von Reibnitz himself could do no more to protect them the whole of Germany would thank them for taking over their care.
The leading student then calls for silence and declares:
“Lieutenant! You’ve kept your word and fulfilled your duty in every respect. I ask you in the name of the people gathered here to give us your name, the name of an honourable man, so that it can be recorded in the annals of this day.”
And after von Reibnitz had done so the leader continues:
“Gentlemen, three cheers to the honourable man, who knew how to carry out his duty in such a fearless and thoughtful manner, three cheers for Baron von Reibnitz!”
Everyone cheered, and with a little encouragement from von Reibnitz, cheered the King too, despite being in open rebellion against his army. Then the crowd swamped von Reibnitz, everyone wanted to shake his hand, give him Schnapps or kiss him. Included in the crowd were a group of around twenty former soldiers under his command who stated that they would’ve protected him from danger.
Then our friend the Westphalien student steps forward yet again, obviously unhappy with the turn of events, and shouts:
“What use is all this? – I’ve still no weapon and must have one!”
With that he grabs for von Reibnitz’s sword, only to receive a bloody nose and an admonition:
“Sir! You know who I am, because you’ve just heard my name. If you want satisfaction from me, you’ll find me ready at any moment. The affront that you want to give me however, is far worse than has come from me. Gentlemen, after the recognition that you have given me for doing my duty I hope that you can protect me from similar humiliation. I’ll only give up my sword with my life. “
With this the Westphalian student to his surprise finds himself attacked by the crowd that he had once led and is carried off with them as they leave the square, beaten soundly along the way.
After this the crowd leaves, and several of the grateful local residents congratulate von Reibnitz, give him food and drink, and at his request occupy the palace overnight, fending off a small mob at one point at the expense of a few broken windows and the ransacking of the guardhouse.
Around 13:00 the next day, hearing that his troops are safely back in barracks, von Reibnitz leaves, covering his uniform with a hunting coat belonging to Prince Adalbert, and returns to the Kupfergraben barracks where he is greeted jubilantly by his men, who had thought him most likely dead.
Von Reibnitz received an award from residents of the nearby houses for his actions, and also a medal of the Order of the Red Eagle from Friedrich Wilhelm IV, specially inscribed, which was quite exceptional. Sadly it appears that he died in 1851, unmarried with no children, although Princess Michael of Kent (Baroness Marie Christine von Reibnitz) seems to be an indirect descendant.
Die Straßenkämpfe in Berlin am 18. und 19. März 1848 — Hubert von Meyerinck – Military account (pages 58-60).
Berlin 1848 — Karl Ludwig von Prittwitz – Von Reibnitz’s own account (pages 189-196)*.
Deutsche Wehr-Zeitung (Jahrgang 1. 1-90) – An eyewitness account (pages 178-180).
* My copy of Berlin 1848 has a dedication (1987) to a Wolfgang Stapp on the inside cover, the author Wolfgang Stapp I wonder?