Friedrich Wilhelm Raiffeisen

(1818-1888)
 
 

Frederich Wilhelm Raiffeisen was born on 30th March 1818, in the little village of Hamm on the river Sieg, a tributary of the Rhine that flows between Bonn and Koblenz. He was the seventh of nine siblings,had by Amalie Susanna Maria Lantzendorf and Gottfried Friedrich Raiffeisen.

The father, from Mittelfiscach, was a mayor (burgomaster) and Protestant pastor. He died of tuberculosis when Frederick was only 4. Throughout the years of his childhood and adolescence he got a deep religious education, memorising a good part of the catechism. His figure of reference, after his father’s death, was pastor Seippel, who will be his Godfather at Confirmation. Since the family couldn’t afford the son, already really talented, to study, he had to renounce the middle-school in a city close to his native village and studied at a popular school.

After completing his studies, he started his military career. In 1835 he enlisted as an official apprentice in the artillery of the Prussian army. From the age of 17 to 20 he could deepen the study of various subjects like mathematics, his favourite, natural sciences and all other disciplines that concerned his military formation. Subsequently he was seconded, as a non-commissioned officer, at the school of students in Koblenz. In 1840, at the age of 22, he took and brilliantly passed the officer’s test. The year after, in 1841, he was moved to Sayn, in a foundry of weapons of the Prussian empire. The first eye health problems go back to that. Problems that, aggravated by the fumes and vapors of the factory, forced him in november 1842 to be hospitalised. In that period, being a member of an Euterpia cultural association, he will know Emilia Storck, originally from Remangen, who only later, in 1845, will become his wife, during his term as a mayor in Weyerbusch.

The deterioration of health conditions persuaded the young Raiffeisen to abandon the military career after seven years of service and to go back to his native village. In the autumn of 1843, through a maternal uncle, he could soon begin his second life, that lasted 30 years and was dedicated to administrative functions. He was initially employed as an off-duty in the Mayern district, thanks to his excellent qualities and his incredible organisational talent, he was immediately promoted as secretary. In 1845. At the age of 27 he was appointed burgmaster of Weyerbusch, a mountain village of Westerwald that included 22 little rural municipalities and that was well-known as ”the village of poor people”. Among his functions of public administrator there was also the representation of rural hamlets in the prefecture of Altenkirchen and by the government authorities in Koblenz.

It is worth remembering to the readers the first significant episode of Raiffeisen’s public life. After meeting the elementary teacher returning from the funeral of a small pupil, he decided to work hard at building a whole new school. In order to do this he relied on the generosity of the inhabitants of the village, by donating part of his salary to the cause. That will be the first of a long series of episodes, by which Raiffeisen showed the power of the motto “all for one, one for all” to his fellow citizens, at the foundation of his philosophy and his activity as mayor and founder of rural credit social funds.

Beyond the severe misery, farmers were suffocated by usury. Still lacking a functioning banking system in the suburbs of the German empire, the inhabitants of the rural villages often ended up in the hands of usurpers, who imposed loans with disproportionate and criminal rates. Weather conditions in 1845 were bad enough throughout Germany to ruin the harvest of the fields. The spectre of the “great famine”, which went through Europe, was dangerously advancing: the mayor committed to founding a Commission of assistance for the poor and decided to ask for a loan to the most affluent inhabitants of the 22 municipalities.

As a cover he introduced the principle of unlimited liability of members. With the money thus collected he could buy wheat in Cologne and distribuite flour among the needy farmers. To overcome hunger he fostered the construction of a communal oven, once again a result of the collaboration of the whole community. The Assistance Commission became then an Association for Bread, that was sold on credit to all families, even the poorest, at a very low cost.

After 3 years, during which he had two daughters from Emilia, Raiffeisen was entrusted with a new important task. On 1st July 1848 the imperial decree came with the new destination: the district of Flammersfeld, in the same region of Westerwald, counted 33 municipalities and circa 5000 inhabitants. Here, facing the same, if anything more dramatic, problems of misery and ignorance, he decided to create an association of farmers for the joint purchase of livestock. Thus on 1st December 1849 the Flammersfeld mutual aid Company for assisting farmers without means. Thanks also to the extended reputation benefitted by the new mayor, the League received numerous deposits from wealthy citizens. A system of loans and deposits was thus created, a sort of first rural and artisanal credit cooperative. After only four years, in autumn 1852, a new order of transfer arrived from the prefecture of Cologne: Raiffeisen, whose family had become bigger with the arrival of two daughters, of which one died just after being born, abandoned the Rhine countryside to reach Heddesdorf, a rural village of 9000 people, near the industrial city of Neuwied, on the Rhine. Here, in May 1854, with the help of 59 rich people, he founded the Heddesdorf charitable Society in favour of not only small and medium-sized farmers but also, as the statute stated, of abandoned children, ex-cons and jobless people. After 8 years he decided to establish a mutual credit fund for poor classes.

In August 1862, also due to an eye disease that led him to blindness Raiffeisen decided to leave the role of official of the Empire under William I of Prussia. Given the precarious financial situation of his family, he had to reinvent himself as an entrepreneur, practicing commercial activities. At first in a cigar factory in Neuwied and later opening in the same city a wine shop. In August 1863 only 37 years old, his wife Emilia died.

From that moment on Raiffeisen is cared for by Amalia, his oldest daughter, who accompanied him as a secretary and help him in the writing of the work dedicated to the mutual credit, published for the first time in 1886 with the title “Le associazioni di credito come mezzo per combattere la miseria delle popolazioni rurali”. One year after the book publication, Raiffeiesen married Maria Panserot in a second wedding. In 1896 he decided to establish a first central bank “for the compensation and management of surplus funds”. Later in 1874 there was the establishment of a German general Bank of agriculture. Eventually, 1877 was the year in which the Federation of central banks was established, a supervisory authority, to spread credit associations in the Reich. Raiffeisen died, almost 70 years old, on 11th March 1888 in Heddesdorf, where he was buried.

 
 

On the occasion of the bicentennial of Friedrich Raiffeisen’s birth (1818-2018), don Lorenzo Guetti Foundation, in collaboration with Trentina Federation of Cooperation, organised in Trento a convention to remember the thought and work of the German burgomaster. On the occasion the Italian translation of a very recent biographical profile was presented of the Rhine cooperative member edited by Michel Klein.

From the preface by don Marcello Farina we read:
Raiffeisen belongs indeed to that long line of characters who have been able to accompany, in a different and manifold way, whole generations of women and men in a context, dramatic and exciting at a time, of an historic transformation of human history, produced by the Industrial Revolution and by the effects in the economy, society, politics, culture and also religion caused by it.he knows how to sharply get the disastrous situation of pf people, of which he is responsible as mayor of some villages of the Rhine Westerwald in Germany and it progressively constitutes those forms of concrete ed effective intervention that will result especially in Loan funds associations, from 1866 onwards. Don Lorenzo Guetti made as well explicit reference to him and created his cooperative system, starting exactly from the statute of those associations created by Raiffeisen, adapting it to the situations of the second half of ‘800 in Trentino.

On the importance of Christian institutions for the cooperative enterprise:
Using the oldest existing organisational unit, the parish exactly, he intended to exploit the most striking feature, that is the mutual and precise knowledge of its own members, through which it would be possible “to awaken the sense of community”. That was essential for the associations, and “thus building a kind of extended family”, whose members would help each other but also monitor the moral reliability under the form of social control. It is clear anyway the greatest importance that Christianity and its institutions were to acquire in the same “material” organisation of the Raiffeisen credit institutions.
(...) For Raiffeisen, therefore, the time had come to give a different orientation to the prevailing spirit of that time, pursuing several objectives that were possible only with the return of all social classes to the Christian faith. The loan funds associations required individuals “who are aware of the reckoning in the afterlife and of the fact that eternal life depends on actions carried out in the earthly life”. It was, so to say, to recover the spirit of the first Christian communities, where, as the Acts of the Apostles write, “all believers lived together and shared all that they owned” (Acts 2,44).


RAIFFEISEN AND GUETTI by Michele Dorigatti
They are not famous, they have never enjoyed great attention. Yet, Friedrich Raiffeisen(1818-1888) and Lorenzo Guetti (1847-1898), in the mid 1800s, represented two very interesting cases of social redemption. Their work achieved un-hoped for results thanks also to a fertile culture medium, represented by the great traditions of Christian solidarity and socialist reformism within which the cooperative experience moved its first steps. What do the German burgmaster, who died 120 years ago, and the priest from Trentino, who died 110 years ago, at the age of 51, have in common?

Enlivened by an unshakable faith and both endowed with great organisational talent, they worked in marginal areas of the Kingdom of Prussia and the Austro-Hungarian empire from an economic point of view and brought to his knees by the agrarian crisis. Unrelated to the changes caused by the industrial Revolution, Rhineland and Trentino see their rural mountain populations plunge into an unprecedented crisis. It is the end of peasant civilisation based on a subsistence economy. The chronic lack of money, famines and natural disasters pushed farmers and artisans to use loan-sharking credits and, in the valleys of Trentino, to increase the phenomenon of migrations, first seasonal and domestic - towards the cities of northern Italy- then permanent and overseas- towards the European capitals and the New World.

Facing this dreary scenery, Raiffeisen and Guetti knew how to take out from people the last resource they had left: the mutual aid, well-symbolised by the German motto “Einer für alle, alle für einen” and by its Italian version “Tutti per uno, uno per tutti”. The Rhenish mayor and the priest from Giudicarie joined forces and acted together in a cooperative effort that abandoned the charitable dimension to gradually assume the logic of mutual aid and eventually that of self-entrepreneurial organisation.

To meet the need for microcredit, Raiffeisen established a first social credit fund in 1846, just two years after the opening of the first cooperative store in England, in Rochdale, industrial suburb of Manchester. Compared to the model recommended by another pioneer of German cooperation Herman Schulze, who favoured middle classes and cities of the empire with popular banks, the Raiffeisen system spread like wildfire among farmers and small landowners of the Rhine countryside. To small loans, some ecus altogether, the commissions, whose administrators operated free of charge, admitted, without too much red tape, all members of the community, taking as a guarantee the enjoyed reputation and the cultivated land.

After a thorough examination of the two solutions, the imperial institutions and the local church in Trentino, with don Lorenzo in the lead, chose to embrace the Raiffeisen model: it will actually be only for a coincidence that the first consumer cooperative will be created in Santa Croce in Bleggio and renamed “famiglia cooperativa”, to distinguish it from private businesses, and later, in Quadra, the (credit institution) “cassa rurale” in 1892. The two founders had great recognition in life: while the Prussian authorities noted how people’s trust towards the burgmaster was literally limitless, Lorenzo Guetti’s elections to the South Tyrolean Assembly took place by popular acclaim. More than a century after his death, still much can be done to fully enhance their invaluable heritage.


Further reading:

M. Klein, Friedrich Wilhelm Raiffeisen. Cristiano, riformatore, visionario, Fondazione don Lorenzo Guetti - Federazione Trentina della Cooperazione, Trento, 2018

CI STO? AFFARE FATICA!