The Execution of Johann Philipp Palm
By Tom Holmberg
Johann Philipp Palm (b., 17 November 1768 at Schorndorf—d., 26 August 1806 at Braunau-am-Inn), an obscure bookseller from Nuremberg, was executed in the early afternoon of 26 August 1806. He was shot by a French firing squad in a field outside of the town of Braunau, an Austrian town garrisoned by the French. A single pistol shot to the head finished him off. Palm had been arrested 12 days earlier and charged with publishing and distributing libelous pamphlets about France and Napoleon. A military court had tried Palm on 25 August 1806 and found him guilty.
The author of the pamphlet, "Germany in Its Deep Humiliation" (Deutschland in seiner tiefsten Erniedrigung), which called on Germans to resist France by force of arms, remains unknown. The pamphlet called the French army "cannibals" and "drunks" and personally vilified Napoleon and the King of Bavaria. Palm claimed that he did know the name of the author, but took that name with him to the grave. The pamphlet itself does not seem to have been widely popular. An Augsburg bookseller reported that he had sold only 9 copies of the pamphlet and another bookseller reported selling only one. Napoleon never set forth his reasons for executing Palm.
Southern Germany had been transformed by the defeat of Austria at Austerlitz and the Grande Armée was occupying southern Germany while Napoleon was reorganizing it into the Confederation of the Rhine. A French protectorate in Germany had been authorized by the Treaty of Paris, 17 July 1806. The South German states had largely benefited from Napoleonic policies and its courts were favorably disposed to the French. Bavaria joined the Confederation of the Rhine in 1806, receiving Nuremberg and 13 other small principalities in compensation, and Napoleon's stepson Eugene de Beauharnais married into the Bavarian royal family.
In mid-March 1806 troops under Gen. Frere were stationed in Nuremberg and vicinity. Nuremberg was an Imperial city that had been transferred to Bavaria in an earlier reorganization of Germany by Napoleon. The presence of French troops, which needed to be housed and fed, was both a burden and a blow to the pride of the Germans. Madame Monteglas, wife of the Bavarian prime minister, wrote to Talleyrand: "I have loved the French who have driven away our enemies [the Austrians] and who have returned us to our legitimate sovereigns, but I detest those who live at the expense of my poor country and become leeches on it." Future Marshal Bugeaud complained of the "pillage, vexations, and ruin" the occupation, of what was an ally, had caused. Bavaria had already been exhausted by the presence of the presence of both the Austrian and French armies the previous year and the continued occupation by French troops exacerbated an already bad situation.
Pamphlets calling for armed rising against the French and Napoleon's assassination were being distributed throughout southern Germany. The French saw this as a danger to their plans in reorganizing Germany. Napoleon's ambassador, Louis Otto, warned in March 1806 that the Austrians were once more making moves towards a renewal of hostilities. Otto considered these pamphlets, funded in his opinion by the British, Austrians and French Royalists—Friedrich von Gentz, one of the earliest pamphleteers was later Metternich's secretary at the Congress of Vienna—as part of that effort.
On 10 July 1806, Napoleon ordered 1 million francs to be distributed to the inhabitants who had "suffered the most and are the most discontent." He also ordered 6 weeks pay be given to the troops so that their spending would ease the disgruntled feelings of the populace. On 5 August 1806, Napoleon ordered Talleyrand to effect the "arrest and exemplary punishment of the authors and distributors of those libels." He sent orders to Berthier in Munich to see that those arrested were "led before a military court and shot within twenty-four hours." The distribution of such tracts, Napoleon argued, in territories occupied by French troops constituted "a crime of high treason."
Local authorities began a search for the culprits. The manager of an Augsburg bookshop reported that he had gotten his copies from the bookshop owned by Palm. The Bavarian government cooperated with the French, though it is rumored that Baron Monteglas was trying to warn off Palm. The Nuremberg police searched Palm's shop and home, on 28 July and 4 August , without finding either Palm or the books. A letter from Palm's assistant though indicates that Palm was the publisher of the tract. The assistant wrote to Palm, who was in hiding, on 7 August that "We can always say we received them from someone else, and that the name of the sender was not on the package." In fact, Palm, in his defense, claimed that he received three bundles of books, completely wrapped in paper. That he was totally ignorant of the contents of these packages. And that he was simply arranging a transaction between two separate clients.
Palm returned to Nuremberg on 14 August and was arrested. Palm was taken first to Ansbach, where he conferred with an attorney and was informed he would be taken to Braunau for trial. Palm was given two short hearings on August 22. An Extraordinary Military Commission, created by Napoleon in a decree of 5 August 1806, tried Palm with 4 other booksellers. Seven French colonels sat as judges with Latrille, colonel of the 46th Line, presiding.
The judgment of the court stated, "Considering that wherever there is an army, the first and most pressing duty of its chief is to watch over its preservation; that the circulation of writings tending to revolt and assassination menaces not only the safety of the army, but that of nations; that nothing is more urgent than to arrest the progress of such doctrines, subversive alike of the law of nations, and the respect due to crowned heads; injurious to the people committed to their government; in a word, subversive of all order and subordination—declares unanimously, That the authors, printers, publishers, and distributors of libels bearing such a character, should be considered as guilty of high treason, and punished with death."
No transcript of the trial exists so it is impossible to say what evidence was brought to bear against Palm. There was no attorney attending Palm at his trial, however it is unclear whether, in Allen Cronenberg's view, if this was due to Palm's attorney failing to appear in time.
The other four booksellers were also found guilty but mercy was granted at the request of King Maximilian I. At 11 o'clock, on 26 August 1806, Palm's prison door was opened. He presumed he was to be set free, as the other booksellers had been. Instead, he was notified that he would be summarily shot at 2 p.m.
As the hour of his execution approached, Palm was placed on a cart, and taken outside the walls of the town. His wrists were bound behind his back. The firing squad of six French soldiers fired. All but one bullet missed. Palm fell to the ground with a cry of pain. As he struggled to his feet he received another volley. He fell to the ground again, grievously wounded, but not yet dead. A pistol shot to the head ended the life of the obscure Nuremberg bookseller.
Though a Protestant, Palm was attended by a Catholic priest during his final hours and buried in a Catholic churchyard. A monument to Palm was erected there in 1866.
Napoleon's opponents used Palm's execution to inflame public opinion. A deluge of cartoons and pamphlets were directed against the French and Napoleon. It is usually reported that execution particularly outraged the Prussian king, helping to convince him to declare war on France. However it was the formation of the Confederacy and especially the news, which was received by the Prussian King on 6 August 1806, that France had offered Hanover to England in a bid for peace that were the real causes of the war. Orders had been given on 9 August to mobilize the Prussian army. The execution of Palm served as a convenient moral lever to use against Napoleon's France. By the beginning of September Napoleon was already preparing for war.
The "Black Legend" version of the story is presented by Alan Schom:
Bigelow, Poultney. History of the German Struggle for Liberty. Vol. 1. N.Y.: Harper, 1896.
Cronenberg, Allen. "Johann Philipp Palm" in The Consortium on Revolutionary Europe. Proceedings. 1986. Athens, GA: Consortium on Revolutionary Europe, 1987. p. 306-314.
Schom, Alan. Napoleon Bonaparte. N.Y.: HarperCollins, 1997. p. 422.
Placed on the Napoleon Series: August 2005
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