For God and Kaiser 1742: An Interesting Story from the Austro-Bavarian Borderland and its Digital Aftermath

© Ilya Berkovich

von Ilya BERKOVICH

The figurines lining the top of the sign of the modern hotel ‘Zur Post’, which stands on the main square of the Bavarian border town of Burghausen, commemorate an actual event which took place at that same building almost 280 years ago. On 16 October 1742, Burghausen – then occupied by Habsburg troops – was retaken by a surprise Bavarian attack. This success was due, in large part, to Franz Karl Cura.

Burghausen Castle as viewed from the West. Cura’s duties as Hofkaminfegermeister, the official court craftsman in charge of cleaning all the castle chimneys, made him intimately acquainted with every part of the kilometre-long medieval complex.
Image credit: ©Ilya Berkovich

Before the War of the Austrian Succession, Cura served as the master chimneysweep of the castle, which still overlooks Burghausen from the west. When the fighting broke out, Cura formed a band of volunteers to fight against the Austrian light troops who had begun raiding the environs of the city. But the enemy skirmishers were soon followed by the main Habsburg field army, which captured Burghausen after a short but heavy bombardment in February 1742. Cura and his comrades were forced to cease operations, but in autumn that year they reassembled, prompted by news of the approach of the Bavarian army. On the evening of October 15, they slipped into Neuötting, a town some fifteen kilometres west of Burghausen, where they captured a forward post of enemy hussars. After the prisoners were brought to the Bavarian advance guard, which was encamped nearby, Cura suggested they should exploit this success and attempt to seize Burghausen by surprise that very night.

While not stated directly in Cura’s account, it is likely that the Bavarians broke the gates of Stephan’s tower, which stands over the pathway connecting the inner core of the castle and Burghausen’s market square. Hotel ‘Zur Post’ is located a short distance from the parish church of St. James, whose belfry is seen on the right.
Image credit: ©Ilya Berkovich

Having reconnoitred the road, together with Cura, the general gave him forty volunteers from the regiment of horse grenadiers. After swimming across the Alz, a river halfway between the Neuötting and Burghausen, the force suddenly fell upon and cut down the unsuspecting enemy pickets placed in front of the castle. The sentries at the gate were similarly surprised and were forced to surrender. The castle was quickly secured but the city gates remained locked. Cura then guided the grenadiers to a small wicket at the back of the castle. As anticipated, it was left unguarded. Breaking through, the Bavarians descended directly into the city centre. 

Surprised by the enemy attack, a large group of Croats took refuge in one of the houses facing the town square. Originally built in the sixteenth century, this house was then owned by the mayor. Subsequently it became a hotel, first ‘Zur Korone’, and today ‘Zur Post’. Shooting from windows, the Croats were able to hold the Bavarians at bay for two hours. According to Cura, they were offered the opportunity to surrender on condition that their lives would be spared, but the Croats ignored this. At that time, ‘Croats’ was a generic term denoting the military settlers, not only Croats but also Slovenes and Serbs, who lived along the border of the Habsburg Monarchy with the Ottoman Empire. Traditionally employed in fighting against the Turks, they were masters of irregular warfare and excelled in raiding and marksmanship. The War of the Austrian Succession was the first time a large force of these border troops was sent into Central Europe. Stories immediately began circulating about their supposed ferocity and brutality, although these must have been prompted, at least in part, by the way Croats were seen by their enemies. The Croats wore traditional clothes rather than uniform and spoke an incomprehensible Slavic language. In an age of enlightened discourse, these attributes alone were sufficient to brand them as savages and barbarians. Either way, the actual record of Croat units from the War of the Austrian Succession, as well as from the Seven Years War, does not reveal any particular tendency to commit atrocities, at least no more so than regular troops. Whether or not the Croats behaved particularly violently towards the inhabitants of Burghausen – assuming they actually understood the offer given to them – the defenders of the house had sufficiently good reasons not to give themselves up to the mercy of the Bavarians.

Eventually, Cura fetched two heavy axes from aanearby house, ran to the building and, with the help of the other grenadiers, broke the gate open. The defenders retreated to the first floor, from where they kept constant fire on the stairway. Bringing bands of straw from the stable behind the house, Cura set fire underneath the stairs, until the heat and smoke forced the Croats to abandon the stairwell. Climbing upstairs, the Bavarians discovered that the enemy had barricaded themselves behind a locked door. One of the grenadiers started to hack it open before he fell, hit by five shots fired from within. Nevertheless, the door soon gave way and the Bavarians, leaping over the body of their dead comrade, rushed inside. What followed, according to Cura, was a bloodbath. The confined space of the overcrowded room meant men fought face to face with bayonets, sabres and rifle butts. According to an official Bavarian report, 92 Croats were killed in storming of the house.[1] The same number is shown in the commemorative marble plaque on the façade of the modern hotel.

The 1574 city model of Burghausen by master turner Jacob Sandtner and the plan prepared in the early 1860s by the publisher and printmaker Joseph Lutzenberger allow tracing the progress of the Bavarian attack through successive castle courts and then, along Stattgangsteig [today Burgsteig,] on to the town below.
Image Credits: Wikipedia commons, Stadtmodell Burghausen von Jakob Sandtner aus dem Jahr 1574 im Bayerischen Nationalmuseum; nördlicher Teil der Stadt, XoMEoX – Own work, CC0 & Wikipedia commons, Plan von Bughausen, Joseph Lutzenberger, in J.A.G. Huber, Geschichte, Geschichte der Stadt Burghausen in Oberbayern, (Burghausen: Lutzenberger, 1862)

The Bavarians were able to hold Burghausen until May 1743 before they were forced to abandon the city in the face of a powerful Austrian counteroffensive. Cura was able to escape to the Bavarian army. On September 20 1744, he was again to play a crucial role in another successful recapture of Burghausen. After the war was over, Cura was rewarded by the Prince Elector with an annuity of grain and firewood, a free accommodation in one of the castle towers, and an exemption from the otherwise jealously guarded state monopoly to brew and sell beer. In parallel, Cura resumed his office as the castle’s chimneysweep. Sometime between 1756 and his death in 1765, Cura wrote an account enumerating his services to the Bavarian cause. The manuscript remained in the family possession for about a hundred years. In the late 1820s, it was consulted by the teacher and local history enthusiast from Neuötting, Johann Godhard Gigl, who prepared a story about Cura’s exploits for the Munich newspaper, Der Bayrische Volksfreund. Gigl’s piece stood out from the material usually received by the paper, prompting the editorial board to ask readers to send more pieces of similar interest and quality.[2] A generation later, J.G. Bonifaz Huber drew on the manuscript while working on his important local history Geschichte der Stadt Burghausen.[3] A native of that town, Huber was also able to interview several people who knew Cura’s only surviving son, Franz Xaver (1752-1834). Several years later, Cura’s original manuscript was acquired by the Historical Society of Upper Bavaria in whose collection it remains to this day.[4] In 1879, Cura’s account was published in full by the military historian and Bavarian Academy of Sciences member, Joseph Würdinger. A more recent edition prepared by the Burghausen City Archivist, Joseph Pfenningman, appeared in 1968.[5]

Cura’s memory is kept alive in his hometown. A cavalry broadsword, with the golden inscription ‘Pro Deo et Cesare 1742’, which Cura received as gift from the Bavarian Horse Grenadiers, is preserved in the Burghausen City Museum. The modern parking lot, built over what was once the main castle gate, is now called Curaplatz. A short distance away, installed into the wall of the Öttinger gate tower, is a memorial plaque identifying it (erroneously) as Cura’s residence after 1745. A street directly in front of that tower is named Curastrasse.  As mentioned above, another memorial plaque honours Cura at the Hotel ‘Zur Post’, in the old town below the castle. Until recently, in the new part of Burghausen, there was even a Cura Pharmacy, which sold painkiller pills called Curaphyrin. Finally, Cura is mentioned on a number of locally run internet websites, including the Burghausen re-enactment society, and there is a reasonably good entry on him on the German Wikipedia

The 1895 plaque in Cura’s honour at the Ötting gate tower (left). Cura, in fact, lived in the nearby Röhrenkehrerturm (right).
Image Credits:Wikipedia commons, Öttinger Tor Gedenktafel Cura, Blauer elephant – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, [Modified by Ilya Berkovich] & Wikipedia commons, Ehemaliges Hofkaminkehrerhaus mit Röhrenkehrerturm, Blauer elephant – Own Work, CC BY-SA 3.0

Although all this might suggest that Cura is a local celebrity of some note, he is completely unknown outside of Burghausen. In fact, his autobiography provides an excellent example of the ways in which the writings of an early modern commoner could pass completely unnoticed by modern scholars, in spite of the prevailing enthusiasm for people’s history. Keen as they are to investigate the experience of the lower orders in medieval and early modern Europe, many historians still take it essentially for granted that these people were mostly illiterate, that the few who were literate did not bother to write anything worthwhile, and that even if some personal narratives were produced, they must be long since lost. For those actively looking for the lost voices of men and women from medieval and early modern Europe, even published sources are not easy to identify. Archives and libraries usually catalogue individual items under a set of keywords which often include historical events and dates, but rarely give an indication who their author was.[6]

I learned about Cura only by chance when I visited Burghausen as a tourist in summer 2012. I was strolling along the main square looking for a place to eat dinner when I noticed the little grenadiers above the sign of the Hotel ‘Zur Post’, then read the inscribed tablet hanging on the wall nearby. While European cities have no shortage of plaques honouring local heroes from the early modern period, those usually commemorate officers, nobles or members of the urban elite. However, the inscription spoke of a local chimneysweep. Was it possible that I had come across what might be yet another overlooked account by an old-regime common soldier? Later that evening, I traced the bibliographical details of the two published versions of Cura’s memoir through the website of the Bavarian State Library. Neither were available online at that time, but eventually I was able to locate a copy of Würdinger’s edition in the Cambridge University Library. Several years later in Munich, I was also able to consult the newer 1968 edition, which cross-references Cura’s account with other contemporary documents.

Franz Karl Cura’s narrative of his wartime service is one of about 250 first-hand testimonies by private soldiers and non-commissioned officers, which I employed in my book Motivation in War: The Experience of Common Soldiers in Old-Regime Europe. Although it is not long since its publication, much has improved. For instance, the journal which published the first edition of Cura’s manuscript can now be consulted online via several different platforms. Furthermore, the massive scanning of old journals and out-of-print books by the Münchener DigitalisierungsZentrum (MDZ) allowed me to reconstruct Cura’s family tree as far as his great-grandchildren; to trace the previously unknown references to his manuscript by Gigl, and to learn about the career of the historian whose book has likely rescued Cura’s case from oblivion.[7] While demonstrating the potential of open-access digital data in retrieving long-forgotten sources, tracking their textual transmission and reconstructing the personal networks around their authors, the case of Franz Carl Cura also points to some of its limits. Digital humanities are heavily geared toward the analysis of printed material. We are lucky that Cura’s manuscript was first cited and then published. What would have happened, if it had remained in his family’s possession or deposited in one of the local archives in Burghausen or Neuötting? Previously unknown first–hand accounts by common soldiers continue regularly to surface,[8] so it is important to remember that modern technology cannot replace the resourceful researcher actively looking for new evidence in the archives.

Ilya Berkovich is a postdoctoral research associate at the unit History of the Habsburg Monarchy of the Institute of Habsburg and Balkan Studies. Working on the social and institutional history of the Habsburg army of the long eighteenth century, Ilya remains keen to continue re-discovering more first-hand accounts by common soldiers from that period.


[1]  Relation, Was vom 11. bis 17. October 1742 In der Kayserl. Haupt- und Regierungs-Stadt Burghausen sich anbegeben, (Munich: Vötter, n.d.).

[2] Der Bayrische Volksfreund 5 Nr. 50 (27 March 1828) p. 211 and Nr. 51 (28 March 1828) p. 215. Next year, Gigl included his piece on Cura in a revised edition of his primary school textbook on Bavarian history; see: Geschichte der Bayern für die vaterländische Jugend in den Volksschulen, 2nd Ed., (Passau: Pustet, 1829), pp. 120-2.

[3] Johann Georg Bonifaz Huber, Geschichte der Stadt Burghausen in Oberbayern, (Burghausen: Lutzenberger, 1862), pp. 306-20.

[4] Munich City Archive, Historischer Verein – Manuskripte, ‘Tagebuch des Kaminfegers Franz Carl Cura von Burghausen über seine Teilnahme am österreichischen Erbfolgekrieg’ DE-1992-HV-MS-0360.

[5] Joseph Würdinger, ‘Franz Carl Cura’s Tagebuch über dessen betheiligung am österreichischen erbfolgekriege’, Oberbayerisches Archiv für vaterländische Geschichte 38 (1879), pp. 1-41; Joseph Pfenningmann (ed.), Promemoria des Burghauser Hofkaminkehrermeisters an seine Kriegstaten im österreichischen Erbfolgekrieg: 1741–1745, Burghauser Geschichtsblätter kleine Reihe 1, (Burghausen: Stadtarchiv, 1968). The latter edition also includes a modern ballade in Cura’s honour, written in the Bavarian dialect by Max Dingler. An accomplished zoologist and writer, today Dingler is largely remembered for his Nazi past; see: Freddy Litten, ‘Max Dingler ‒ Die andere Seite’, Literatur in Bayern 43 (1996), pp. 10-23.

[6] Ilya Berkovich, Motivation in War: The Experience of Common Soldiers in Old Regime Europe, (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017), pp. 41-5.

[7] Born in 1823 in a poor family, Huber was supported by local patrons who enabled him to attend the Latin School in Burghausen and then move to a Gymnasium in Munich. In parallel to training as a teacher, Huber took holy orders as a Benedictine monk, defended a doctorate in medieval history, then served as a parish priest before becoming a pioneering prison educator. At the time of his untimely death in 1863, Huber was working on a new book on the history of prisons; see:  Maximilian Eisenberger, ‘Dr. Johann Georg Bonifaz Huber, Curat und Schulinspektor an der k. Strafanstalt München’, Jahresbericht des Historischen Vereins von Oberbayern 26 (1864), pp. 67-72.

[8] For some recent examples from Britain, Prussia and Habsburg Austria, see: Don N. Hagist, ‘Unpublished Writings of Roger Lamb, Soldier of the American War of Independence’, Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research 89 (2011), pp. 280-90 and 90 (2012), pp. 77-89; Christian F. Zander, Fundstücke: Dokumente Und Briefe Einer Preußischen Bauernfamilie: (1747-1953) (Hamburg: Kovac, 2015); Isolde Moser, “Bruder, komm zum militär”: Aus den Tagebuchnotizen des k.k. Artilleristen Josepf Sechterberger in der Zeit der Napoleonischen Kriege, (Klagenfurt: Hermagoras, 2019)


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