Early people began to colonize the Mecklenburg area about ten thousand years ago in the latter part of the Ice Age. The lives of the people in these early times were geared towards hunting and they had a great dependence on animals. Their tools were made from flint, bone and horn. Teutonic peoples inhabited the Mecklenburg area in the first centuries of the Christian era, but early in the 6th century, it was seized by various Slavic tribes. The early name for the Mecklenburg area was Vandalia and later it was called Wendenland. The land was not cultivated during the Slavic times, but was covered everywhere with primeval forest. It was isolated and culturally cut off from the rest of Germany.
The Mecklenburg region was conquered by Henry the Lion, Duke of Saxony, in the latter half of the 12th century and the land was first opened up by Henry through a combination of missionary work and colonization. In 1348 it was elevated to a duchy. In 1549 Lutheranism was recognized as the State religion. Then, in 1621, Mecklenburg was split into two duchies: Mecklenburg-Schwerin and Mecklenburg -Güstrow (changed to Mecklenburg-Strelitz in 1701). Mecklenburg-Schwerin was about the size of the state of Connecticut. Mecklenburg-Strelitz was about as large as the state of Rhode Island in the United States, and was divided into two parts, one on either side of Mecklenburg-Schwerin.
Between 1733 and 1755 the estate owners of Mecklenburg increased their land holdings. They were backed by the Kaiser of the Holy Roman Empire in this effort. By the Convention of Rostock in 1755 in Mecklenburg Schwerin, all power was placed in the hands of the Duke, nobles, and upper classes. The lower classes had no voice. Land was held under a Feudal system. From 1759 to 1764 all of Mecklenburg was occupied by Prussia. Unlike the surrounding areas, however, Mecklenburg managed to remain autonomous for another century.
In Mecklenburg during the 1700s and 1800s a type of Feudalism existed known as "Inherited Serfdom". The land owners controlled the economy and ruled their estates with absolute authority. The peasants were dependant entirely on the nobles who could even buy and sell them with or without their property. The tax rate on the peasants had to be reviewed every two to three years, and was usually increased at that time. They could not acquire any more land than they already had. Their Landlords produced crops for export from their vast estates by using the labor of these bonded peasants, servants and laborers. The landlords were known as "Landjunker". This word comes from "Jung Herr" which means "young noble".
By the 1800's the Landlords had driven away more and more peasants with their highhanded ways. They then incorporated those peasants' plots into their estates, and crop production expanded further. This callous robbery of the peasant properties was known as "peasant seizure". Ten thousand peasants lost their holdings in this way. In Mecklenburg, where the Nobility owned almost all of the land and dwellings, the number of estimated peasant foreclosures went from 2,490 to nearly 12,000 by 1800 AD. The former peasants who had land left held only small holdings which ensured little more than a bare livelihood for themselves.
In 1807 Baron von Stein tried to carry through a reform of the Feudal system. He felt the peasants' and laborers' lot had to be improved. He did not want to abolish the large Landholders, but they were to be limited in their political and administrative powers and to improve the state of their workers. At that time, workers worked from sunrise to sunset for a pfennig an hour, a very small amount. he value of goods (potatoes, corn, wood, etc.) was deducted from that and most of their work was paid for by these goods. Women and children performed heavy work. Baron von Stein's reform said that peasants could now change their place of residence without permission, and children were allowed to learn a trade. But the Landlords ought these progressive measures, refused to implement them, and the edict of Baron von Stein was never executed.
From 1806 to 1813 the country suffered great hardship and destruction. This period came to be known to all Mecklenburgers as the "Franzosentid" ( period of French occupation). Robbery and pillage became commonplace. Both duchies, Mecklenburg Schwerin and Mecklenburg Strelitz, were forced to join the Confederation of the Rhine under Napoleon's protectorate. Of the more than 2,000 men who were conscripted from Mecklenburg to take part in Napoleon's campaign against Russia, less than one hundred came home again.
After Napoleon's defeat in Russia, the dukes of both Mecklenburgs were among the first to renounce the alliance with France. In the War of German Liberation which followed (1813-1815), Mecklenburg played a significant part in defeating Napoleon and liberating Germany from France. In 1815, the dukes of Mecklenburg were elevated to "Grand Dukes", and Mecklenburg became a Grand Duchy. With the coming of peace, however, there also came a period of economic depression which lasted until the early 1820s.
Legally, serfdom was abolished in Mecklenburg in 1820 and the peasants were freed from their obligations to land owners. But this worsened the conditions for most peasants because the land owners were freed, at the same time, of any obligations under feudal law to provide their tenants with any means of supporting themselves, thus leaving the peasants in even greater poverty. The servant of a noble landowner was not even permitted to marry unless his master gave him permission and a place to live.
Those villagers who were without land became cottagers or gardeners. Eventually they were simply known as day laborers (Tagelöhner) and lived in poverty. They were deprived almost entirely of their earnings and thereafter were forced to work for a starvation wage on the Junker estates. They traveled the countryside, moving from estate to estate as the land owner required their labor for plowing, planting or harvesting crops. The life they lived gave no possibility of resistance in an effort to better their condition.
Many peasants and labourers left Mecklenburg and emigrated to other countries s their conditions became unbearable. In the early 1840s, the liberal bourgeois party began to speak out against the noble landowners and the special privileges granted them. By 1848 there were secret meetings in many Mecklenburg towns of reform societies and a political revolution was a distinct possibility. However the revolution did not have enough support and eventually failed. The workers' situation in Mecklenburg remained bleak until, under the Soviet Military Administration, in October 1945 there was a land reform and the large estates and their landholders disappeared. The government took over their land.
The Mecklenburg Duchies joined the German Empire in 1871 and after World War I were declared states of the new German Republic. In 1934 they were united into a single German state of Mecklenburg. After World War II Mecklenburg became part of the Soviet Zone. The state was dissolved in 1952, when East Germany was reorganized into districts. The area remained behind the Iron Curtain and part of East Germany until 1990 when Germany was unified and the state of Mecklenburg-West Pomerania was created.
The dukes of Mecklenburg-Schwerin had their castle (Schloß) and main residence in the city of Schwerin. The seat of government and main home for the dukes of Mecklenburg-Strelitz was in Neustrelitz. Princess Sophie Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz became Queen Charlotte of England in 1761. Genealogical data concerning the house of Mecklenburg can be found on the Internet Gotha, and some of its members can also be found in the royals databases at Hull and PSU.
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