In the late 17th century, King Louis XIV outlawed the practice of reformed Christianity, or Protestantism, in France. So, a great number of adherents, derisively called Huguenots by the French, fled to Berlin to make a new home. Here’s what happened:
Protestantism emerged in France in the early 16th century, inspired by the writings of Jean Calvin. The movement's primary focus was to make the Bible accessible to the masses by translating it into local, or vernacular, languages. Up to that point, Catholic mass was delivered in Latin and understood only by the educated classes. Reformers took issue as well with the heavy reliance on ritual in the Catholic religious practice, believing that this did nothing to help pave the way toward salvation. They preached, instead, that the best expression of faith in God was in leading a simple life based on biblical law. They felt that the Catholic Church had become impure, rife with hypocrisy and corruption, and was, therefore, doomed to fail.
The Roman Catholic Church responded to these criticisms with such fanatic zeal that violent persecution of French Protestants, whom they called Huguenots, became the order of the day. The origin of the name "Huguenot" is not clearly understood today, though we do know it was used as a term of derision. French Protestants, in contrast, called themselves Les Reformés, meaning reformers or reformed.
Tensions between the Catholics and Les Reformés sparked the late 16th century Wars of Religion whose violent pinnacle came with the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of 1572. The killing began in Paris, but quickly spread throughout the country. Approximately 70,000 Huguenots were cut down in a mere eight days. Many more fled France in horror of the bloodbath.
In 1598, King Henri IV, a one-time Protestant who turned Catholic upon accepting the French Crown, put a stop to the violence. Striking a balance with the Edict of Nantes, he declared Catholicism the state religion of France, but granted Protestants the right to religious freedom.
Nearly 100 years later, however, in 1685, France’s Sun King (Louis XIV) revoked this freedom with the Edict of Fontainebleau. He forbade the Protestants from leaving the country; but they left quickly and in droves, the memory of St. Bartholomew’s Day, 1572, still heavy on their minds.
It was then that Friedrich Wilhelm, the “Great Elector” of Brandenburg and Duke of Prussia, welcomed French Huguenots to Berlin. Though a staunch Calvinist himself, his motivations were not purely altruistic. He had economic objectives as well. He looked to the French Protestants, among them farmers and highly-skilled artisans such as goldsmiths, jewelers, watchmakers and sculptors, to help rebuild his war-ravaged and under-populated country. And that is precisely what they did.
Meanwhile, back in France, the exodus of the Huguenots created a “brain drain” from which that country would take decades to recover. What's more, renewed legalized persecution of Protestants in France greatly damaged Louis XIV’s reputation abroad, especially in England. But intolerance toward Huguenots continued well beyond his reign and into the 18th century. Indeed, it wasn’t until the French Revolution (1789-99) that Protestants were finally granted full citizenship under the law.
Not long after their arrival in Berlin, Huguenot refugees began work to erect their own church following the design of that which they'd left behind in France. The French Church went up on the same city square as the German Church. The two domed buildings continue to face each other today on the Gendarmenmarkt Square in historic Mitte in what was once East Berlin.
Gendarmenmarket Square, 2008, by Jhintz, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
"The Saint Bartholomew's Day Massacre", by François Dubois (1529–1584), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.(1529)
Portrait of Friedrich Wilhelm (1620-1688), the Elector of Brandenburg, by Frans Luycx, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.