The Revolutions of 1848 101: The German States

Foreword

The Revolutions of 1848 are a separate chapter in the study of modern and contemporary European history. The “Springtime of the Peoples,” as they are called by some historians, played a decisive role in the development of the historical events of the 19th century, the 20th century, and also the present. This is the main reason why this 101 series of articles, dedicated to these revolutions, came into being. Specifically, reference will be made to the cases of many European countries and regions, such as France, the German States, the Italian States, Denmark, the territories of the Habsburg Empire, Sweden, Poland, and so on.


The Revolutions of 1848 series consist of nine main articles:


The flame of the revolutions of 1848 was impossible not to extend to the wider German area. The charm of the “Springtime of Nations” overcame the Germans, whose common demand was the unification of all the German states into a single German nation state. It should be noted that this article will refer to the German-speaking regions of Prussia and the approximately 39 autonomous states that emerged from the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire during the Napoleonic Wars. Reference to the German territories of the Austrian Empire will be made in the following article, in which the revolutions of 1848 in the territories of the Habsburg monarchy will be analysed. Subsequently, the revolutions in the German states had all the common features of the other revolutions in Europe; they were inspired by liberal principles and had democratic demands. However, they were mainly national revolutions, as they were expressing the idea of Pan-Germanism. Particularly, they were a series of loosely coordinated protests and rebellions. The revolutions demonstrated popular discontent with the traditional, largely autocratic political structure of the 39 independent states. This process began in the previous years. The middle-class elements were committed to liberal principles, while the working class sought radical improvements to their working and living conditions (Hobsbawm, 1962) (1).

Painting of the fights between revolutionaries and the royal military in the Breite Street, Berlin during the March 1848 revolution.
Painting of the fights between revolutionaries and the royal military in the Breite Street, Berlin during the March 1848 revolution (1).

The States in Revolutionary Turmoil

After the news of the revolutionary victories in February 1848 in Paris, uprisings occurred throughout the German states. Baden was the first state in Germany to have popular unrest, even though it was one of the most liberal states in Germany. There were several unorganized instances of peasants burning the mansions of local aristocrats and threatening them. In February 1848, in Mannheim an assembly of people from Baden adopted a resolution demanding a bill of rights. Similar resolutions were adopted in Württemberg, Hesse-Darmstadt, Nassau, and other German states. The surprisingly strong popular support for these movements forced rulers to give in to many of their demands almost without resistance. Demands were made for an elected representative government and for the unification of Germany. The disorder fomented by republican agitators continued in Baden. Fearing greater riots, the Baden government began to increase the size of its army and to seek assistance from neighbouring states. A full-scale uprising broke out in April 1848. The Bavarian government suppressed the revolutionary forces with the aid of Prussian troops.


Then it was Prussia's turn. In March 1848, crowds of people gathered in Berlin to present their demands to the king. King Frederick William IV was taken by surprise. He verbally yielded to all the demonstrators' demands, including parliamentary elections, a constitution, and freedom of the press. He even promised that Prussia was to be merged into Germany. After warnings by the police against public demonstrations went unheeded, the army charged a group of people, leaving one person dead and many injured. A large demonstration occurred. After some shots from the soldiers, demonstrators erected barricades, and a battle ensued until troops were ordered to retreat, leaving hundreds dead. Afterwards, King Frederick William IV attempted to reassure the public that he would proceed with reorganising his government. The King also approved of arming the citizens.


In Dresden, the capital of the Kingdom of Saxony, the people took to the streets asking King Frederick Augustus II of Saxony to engage in electoral reform, social justice, and for a constitution. Since some revolutionary events of 1830, Saxony had been ruled as a constitutional monarchy with a two-chamber legislature and an accountable ministry. The revolutions of 1848 brought more popular reforms in the government of Saxony.


In Bavaria, King Ludwig I, at the urging of his favourite mistress, tried to launch liberal reforms through a Protestant prime minister. The state's Catholic conservatives were outraged. In February 1848, conservatives came out onto the streets in protest. This demonstration was the first in that revolutionary year. It was an exception among the wave of liberal protests. The conservatives wanted to get rid of the King’s mistress and they had no other political agenda. Liberal students took advantage of this affair to stress their demands for political change. All over Bavaria, students started demonstrating for constitutional reform, just as other students were doing in other cities. Ludwig tried to institute a few minor reforms, but they proved insufficient to quell the storm of protests. In March 1848, Ludwig I abdicated in favour of his eldest son Maximilian II. Although some popular reforms were introduced, the government regained full control. In the following year 1849, other revolutions broke out in the German states, e.g., in the Palatinate and the Prussian-dominated Rhineland. However, this 101 series of articles will refer strictly to those that took place in 1848 (Marx and Engels, 1977) (2).

Troops storming a barricade in the Donesgasse in Frankfurt, Germany, on Sept. 18, 1848.
Troops storming a barricade in the Donesgasse in Frankfurt, Germany, on Sept. 18, 1848 (2).

The National Assembly in Frankfurt

All of the above resulted in the formation of a national assembly in Frankfurt. This historic assembly was of the utmost importance to the German nation. On March 6, 1848, a group of German liberals in Heidelberg (state of Baden), began to make plans for an election to a German national assembly. This prototype parliament met on March 31 in Frankfurt's St. Paul's Church. Its members called for free elections to an assembly for all of Germany and the German states agreed. Finally, on May 18, 1848, the National Assembly opened its session in St. Paul's Church. The Assembly started on its ambitious plan to create a modern constitution as the foundation for a unified Germany. From the beginning the main problems were regionalism, support of local issues over pan-German issues, and Austro-Prussian conflicts; a conflict between Germans. Unfortunately, the Assembly lost its reputation in the eyes of the German public when Prussia carried through its own political intentions in the Schleswig-Holstein question, an issue at the border between Prussia and Denmark, without the prior consent of the Parliament. Nonetheless, discussions on the future constitution had started. The main issues to be decided were three: the extent of the new united Germany and whether or not it would include the German-speaking areas of Austria, the form of the new regime of Germany, and whether it would be a federation of relatively independent states or have a strong central government. In December 1848, the "Basic Rights for the German People" proclaimed equal rights for all citizens before the law. On March 28, 1849, the draft of the constitution was finally passed. The new Germany was to be a constitutional monarchy and the office of head of state, "Emperor of the Germans," was to be hereditary and held by the respective King of Prussia. The constitution was recognized by 29 smaller states but not by Austria, Prussia, Bavaria, Hanover, and Saxony (Berstein and Milza, 1992) (3).

The Frankfurt Parliament in Frankfurt's Paulskirche in 1848/49. View at the President's table, over which the portrait Germania by Philipp Veit emerges.
The Frankfurt Parliament in Frankfurt's Paulskirche (St. Paul's Church) in 1848/49 (3).

The Collapse of the Revolution

By late 1848, the Prussian aristocrats and generals had regained power in Berlin. They had not been defeated permanently during the incidents of March but had retreated only temporarily. King Frederick William IV of Prussia immediately rejoined them. In November, the king dissolved the new Prussian parliament and put forth a constitution of his own which was based upon the work of the assembly, yet maintaining the ultimate authority of the king. This constitution provided universal suffrage but under a three-class system of voting, based proportionally on paid taxes. On April 2, 1849, a delegation of the National Assembly met with King Frederick William IV in Berlin and offered him the crown of the emperor under this new constitution. Frederick William told the delegation that he could only accept the crown with the consent of the other sovereign monarchs and free cities. Austria and Prussia withdrew their delegates from the Assembly, which was little more than a debating club. The radical members were forced to go to Stuttgart, where a rump parliament was dispersed by Württemberg troops. Armed uprisings in support of the constitution, especially in Saxony, the Palatinate, and Baden were short-lived, as the local military, aided by Prussian troops, crushed them quickly. The Frankfurt National Assembly was dissolved on May 31, 1849 (Lindemann, 2012) (4).


Conclusion

The reasons why the revolutions of 1848 in the German states failed vary and are of ideological, political, class, social, and national character. The revolutions failed in their attempt to unify the German-speaking states because the Frankfurt Assembly reflected the many different interests of the German ruling classes. Its members were unable to form coalitions and push for specific goals. While the French revolution drew on an existing nation state (you can find more information about the February Revolution in France in the previous article of this 101 series, here), the democratic and liberal forces in Germany of 1848 were confronted with the need to build a nation state and a constitution at the same time, which overtaxed them. The achievements of the revolutionaries of March 1848 were reversed in all of the German states and by 1851, the "Basic Rights for the German People" had also been abolished nearly everywhere. In the end, the revolutions fizzled because of the divisions between the various factions in Frankfurt, the calculating caution of the liberals, the failure of the left to marshal popular support, and the overwhelming superiority of the monarchist forces.


In a final analysis, overcoming all the causes and grounds mentioned, the arrogance of Prussia may be to blame for the failure of the revolutions. Prussia was by far the most powerful German state. It had the largest and most disciplined army and a strong and stable political power. Therefore, it would not accept the unification of all German territories into a state in which all German powers were equal or only Prussia and Austria were equals, perhaps the only power that could challenge Prussia. It is characteristic that when the unification of Germany was finally achieved in 1871, it took place under the leadership of Prussia, and Austria was left out. The pioneer of the unification was the outstanding Prussian politician and diplomat Otto von Bismarck, who first appeared and distinguished himself at the National Assembly in Frankfurt.


Image Sources

  1. Painting of the fights between revolutionaries and the royal military in the Breite Street, Berlin during the March 1848 revolution [Painting]. (1848–1850 ca). Retrieved from: https://www.deutsche-digitale-bibliothek.de/item/YSA74GHCTOXUCF2V3JY6ZQ2CC3TKLHP2

  2. Troops storming a barricade in the Donesgasse in Frankfurt, Germany, on Sept. 18, 1848 [Picture]. Contemporary German Colored Engraving. Poster Print by Granger Collection. © 2022 Posterazzi.com All Rights Reserved. Retrieved from: https://www.posterazzi.com/germany-1848-revolution-ntroops-storming-a-barricade-in-the-donesgasse-in-frankfurt-germany-on-sept-18-1848-contemporary-german-colored-engraving-poster-print-by-granger-collection-item-vargrc0009086/

  3. Elliot, L. (1849). The Frankfurt Parliament in Frankfurt's Paulskirche in 1848/49. View at the President's table, over which the portrait Germania by Philipp Veit emerges [Lithography]. Retrieved from: https://germanhistorydocs.ghi-dc.org/sub_image.cfm?image_id=309

References

  1. Hobsbawm, E. (1962). The Age of Revolution: Europe 1789–1848. Weidenfeld & Nicolson. pp. 163-193.

  2. Marx, K. and Engels, F. (1977). Karl Marx and Frederick Engels: Collected Works. New York: International Press. pp. 16, 154, 554, 605-606, 625, 662-663.

  3. Berstein S. and Milza P. (1992). The History of Europe: 1815-1919. Hatier, Paris. pp. 63-66.

  4. Lindemann, A. (2012). A History of Modern Europe: From 1815 to the Present. Wiley-Blackwell. pp. 145-147.

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Miltos Spiratos

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