A Brief History of the Hessians


As far as words to use when you’ve written ‘metalhead’ too many times, my favorite is probably ‘hesher.’ It provides a pretty solid mental image, not simply of someone who likes metal but of someone who is a metal diehard, who lives for the music and mixes it up with other fans (and, according to Urban Dictionary, is a total loser). But on top of that, I love that it has a historical context, like how the Baltimore Ravens’ name is an Edgar Allen Poe reference. ‘Hesher’ is derived from ‘Hessian’, a type of mercenary German soldier who became superstitiously feared in the American Revolution.

In the mid- to late-1600s, Germany wasn’t one country, but a bunch of smaller nation-states or, landgraviates, one of which was Hesse-Kassel. Subsidy armies–troops “bought” by larger nations to fight their wars with or for them–were common at the time, many of which came from the many landgraviates of modern Germany, and which were usually made up of outlaws, dropouts, and masterless servants. Yet the Hessians possessed a sense of honor–the Hessian landgraf Karl sent five of his sons to battle (two died), and refused to sell his armies to non-Protestant nations like France (though one wonders whether or not this was just part of the long German tradition of hating the French).

Over several wars, the soldiers of Hesse-Kassel became famous for being tough, professional, and willing to deal with the kind of gruesome casualties one experienced during the days of canons and sabers. They were hired for the War of the League of Augsburg, the War of Spanish Succession, and even fought for both sides in the War of Austrian Succession. In the early 1700s, British Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpoole convinced Parliament to set aside £240,000 just so England could have 12,000 Hessians always at the ready. Meanwhile, Hesse-Kassel’s soldier business meant that the landgraviate saw incredible economic stability, and could lower taxes significantly. All that was required was that every man between 16 and 30 taller than 5’6″ needed to be ready to at a moment’s notice be inducted into the military (it was like Sparta in 300, only with less baby-killing and more getting-to-be-a-farmer-if-you-were-short).

It was during the American Revolution, when Britain brought in a little over 30,000 German soldiers to help them kill America in its crib, that the Hessians earned their mythic status as vicious killers. Only about 13,000 of these soldiers were from Hesse-Kassel, but because the Hessians were so good at their jobs the English began calling all their German soldiers ‘Hessians’, as a way of spreading fear. And it worked–French troops would sometimes refuse to fight the Germans due to the stories of their brutality, and General Washington ambushed the German soldiers while they were hung over on Christmas morning rather than deal with them at full alert (which, hey, good for George, fuck yeah America, but come on, that’s a little low).

Washington Irving even immortalized the Hessians in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, by having Ichabod Crane chased by “the ghost of a Hessian trooper, whose head had been carried away by a cannonball, in some nameless battle during the Revolutionary War.” In fact, the headless corpse of a Hessian Jäger–known as incredible sharpshooters and horsemen–was found in Sleepy Hollow, and was buried in an Old Dutch Church and Burial Ground (thanks, Wikipedia). Between the classic European tradition of fearsome headless ghosts, the rumors of Hessian brutality, and the presence of an actual headless German soldier in the town, it’s no wonder that a Hessian was cast as the Headless Horseman.

But the truth is, the Hessians weren’t evil, they were just efficient and hard-working. Killing was their business, and business was good. On top of that, diaries have often shown Hessian soldiers disapproving of Britain’s wartime tactics of executing prisoners and wantonly destroying property. For a Hessian, being a soldier wasn’t about getting a chance to rape and pillage, it was a way of life and a point of pride. They weren’t “mercenaries” the way we define the word; your average Hessian soldier fought only for his daily rations and the solace that his family back home weren’t being taxed to death. In fact, 3,000 Hessian soldiers chose to remain in American after the Revolution was over.

As to when ‘Hessian’ became ‘hesher’ and started getting applied to owners of sleeveless Slayer tees and bitching Camaros, well, that’s less well-recorded. But even with the myths of the rapacious Hessian hussars dispelled, the comparison makes sense. Heshers aren’t casual metalheads, they’re lifers. They don’t fold their arms or bob their heads at shows, they windmill their hair and pump their fists. They live, breathe, fight, and die for metal. And though superstition may abound that heshers are uncouth psychopaths (and some are, to be sure), the truth is that they’re just more dedicated to a brutal way of life than most.

So the next time you call someone a hesher, remember the warlike Hessians and their fascinating history that inspired the coolest ghost story in American history. Next week, Professor Rhombus will teach you how to cook meth using everyday objects found around the house!

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