Riehl, Wilhelm Heinrich (1823-1897)

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Wilhelm Heinrich Riehl (1823-1897), a German historian and important writer of historical fiction, was born at Biebrich, a suburb of Wiesbaden, Germany. He was educated at the universities of Marburg, Tübingen, Giessen, and Bonn. From 1845 to 1853 he served on the editorial staff of several newspapers. In 1854 he was appointed as professor at the University of Munich. He wrote innumerable articles (745 by 1853) and over fifty Novellen, which were published in seven volumes. His most important work was Die Naturgeschichte des Volkes als Grundlage einer deutschen Social-Politik, which appeared in four volumes—Land und Leute (1853), Die bürgerliche Gesellschaft (1851), Die Familie (1855), and Wanderbuch (1869). In 1857 his Die Pfälzer, ein rheinisches Volksbild appeared. He was an outstanding folklorist.

Riehl had many Mennonites contacts. In the Rheingau, where he grew up, there were Mennonites and Amish. Riehl's father was the manager of the castle of the Nassau regents, and thus had contact with the outstanding Mennonite farmer and elder Valentin Dahlem, who had leased the Koppenstein land at Wiesbaden. It is possible that this was the Mennonite farm depicted in Riehl's first work. His maternal grandfather, who lived in Marnheim, near the Weierhof, is said (Schmidt) to have been related to Mennonites there (as yet unproved). On his lecture tours Riehl frequently stopped at Crefeld in the 1870s and 1880s and also visited Johannes Molenaar, the Mennonite minister at Monsheim.

It is possible that Riehl's attention was called to Anabaptist history by Carl Adolf Cornelius, who was about the same age as he and lived in the same general area. Both were professors at Munich in related fields at much the same time. In the 1872 issue of Raumers Historisches Taschenbuch, which Riehl edited 1871-1880, Cornelius published an article, "Die Eroberung der Stadt Münster im Jahre 1535."

In 1846 Riehl published a novel, Richard Zürbach, in the literary supplement of a Frankfurt newspaper; this novel he reworked in 1848, and called it Die Geschichte vom Eisele und Beisele. The mother of the hero was the daughter of a Mennonite, or rather Amish, family which disowned her for marrying a Protestant minister. Riehl describes the mother and her father as healthy, frugal, and sensible, but intellectually dormant, with rather expressionless faces.

In 1852 Riehl published in the Allgemeine Zeitung an essay concerning the permission granted by Russia for West Prussian Mennonites to settle in the province of Samara, giving them the doubtful tribute of having contributed more to agriculture than to church history. In his 1857 book Die Pfälzer Riehl describes the Mennonites in the Palatinate, distinguishing between the Mennonites and the Amish, and praising the learning of some of the Mennonite ministers. In 1869 Riehl's Wanderbuch speaks of the contribution made to Crefeld's prosperity by the Mennonites and other Separatists, and describes the monument erected in Crefeld to Cornelius de Greiff (1781-1863), one of Crefeld's great philanthropists.

In 1875 Riehl published in the volume Am Feierabend the Novelle Mein Recht, which deals sympathetically with the Mennonite position of non-vengeance. The hero, Henneke Gülzow, has set his heart on obtaining justice for his brother who met his death in a scuffle. When at the end it is apparent that he has been in error in seeking vengeance, even though his motive was the preservation of order in the world, he loses his mind and dies. The psychological conflict is excellently portrayed. The book deserves wider reading than it enjoys at present.

Through all these works Riehl's attempt to be fair to the Mennonites is obvious. An occasional error in historical fact or in interpretation may be pardoned. (See Literature.)


Bender, Elizabeth H. "The Anabaptist Novelettes of Adolf Stern and Wilhelm Heinrich Riehl." Mennonite Quarterly Review XVIII (1944): 179-85.

Geramb, Viktor von. Wilhelm Heinrich Riehl, Leben und Wirken. 1823-1897. Salzburg, 1954-56.

Hege, Christian and Christian Neff. Mennonitisches Lexikon, 4 vols. Frankfurt & Weierhof: Hege; Karlsruhe: Schneider, 1913-1967: v. III, 506-9.

Krehbiel, Albert. "Wilhelm Heinrich Riehl, Zu seinem 100sten Geburtstag. "Mennonitischer Gemeinde-Kalender (1923): 65-68.

Schmidt, B. J. C. "W. H. Riehl, seine geistige Entwicklung bis zur Uebernahme seiner Professur in München.” Doctoral dissertation, Strasbourg, 1913.

Author(s) Ernst Crous
Elizabeth Horsch Bender
Date Published 1959

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MLA style

Crous, Ernst and Elizabeth Horsch Bender. "Riehl, Wilhelm Heinrich (1823-1897)." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1959. Web. 18 Oct 2021. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Riehl,_Wilhelm_Heinrich_(1823-1897)&oldid=146162.

APA style

Crous, Ernst and Elizabeth Horsch Bender. (1959). Riehl, Wilhelm Heinrich (1823-1897). Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 18 October 2021, from https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Riehl,_Wilhelm_Heinrich_(1823-1897)&oldid=146162.


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 4, p. 329. All rights reserved.

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