Revolutions of 1848 in the German states

Revolutions of 1848 in the German states

"Germany" at the time of the Revolutions of 1848 had been a collection of 39 states loosely bound together in the German Confederation. As nationalist sentiment crystallized into resistance to the traditional political structure, repeated calls for freedom, democracy and national unity came to threaten the status quo. The Hambacher Fest of 1832, for instance, reflected growing unrest in the face of heavy taxation and political censorship, and culminated in the origination of the black-red-gold as a symbol of the republican movement, and of a unity among the people.

Liberal pressure spread throughout the German states, each of which experienced the revolutions in their own way. Fearing the fate of Louis-Philippe of France, some monarchs accepted some of the demands of the revolutionaries, at least temporarily. The revolution was triggered by events in France at the end of February and soon spread to Germany, known there as the March Revolution. In the south and the west of Germany, large popular assemblies and mass demonstrations took place. They primarily demanded freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, arming of the people and a national German parliament.


Main causes of the revolution

The demands for political reform included freedom of the press, self-organization of the universities and a parliament representing German citizens, instead of the federal council representing only the monarchs of the German states.

Nationalist sentiment was stimulated by the Rhine crisis of 1840 when it seemed France would invade the Rhineland. This event spawned a wave of anti-French sentiment, and the composition of patriotic Rheinlied songs. Denmark's declaration that it would invade Schleswig-Holstein provoked widespread opposition. Poems and songs were written, such as the Deutschlandlied ("Deutschland über alles", 1841) which eventually became the national anthem. New journals, magazines, and papers arose, such as "Die Deutsche Zeitung" (The German Newspaper)", widening awareness of events in France and Denmark.

Poor living conditions also played their part. A Cholera epidemic led to widespread death and suffering in Prussia. Significant population growth and the failures of harvests in 1846 and 1847 caused famine and misery. Many people moved to the cities for work, but working conditions were generally terrible, with long working days and low wages.

The Prussian-Hessian Customs Union was formed in 1828, which attempted to set standards for taxes for goods and travelers among German States. Initially, the union area outside of Prussia was rather small, yet by 1834 had grown into the Zollverein which encompassed most of what was to become Germany. Amongst other achievements it established standards for weights and currency in Germany.

Events across Europe in 1848 had an impact also on the Germans. In February 1848, King Louis-Phillipe of France abdicated the throne, triggering revolutions across the entire European continent, especially in the German provinces.

Why did the revolution fail?

* Failure of the Frankfurt Parliament
** Poor leadership: (Heinrich von Gagern was considered too weak to lead the group).
** Many of the leaders, as liberals, did not want to use force. They preferred intellectual debate to violence, and this led to accusations that the Frankfurt Parliament was a 'talking shop with no teeth'.
** No military backing. They did have theoretic backing from the Prussian army under Von Peucker, who they appointed as minister of war, however he announced that he would only use the army in the interest of Prussia.
**No bureaucracy and lack of funds meant the parliament had no way of raising an army or enforcing any laws that were passed. They were stuck in a Catch-22 situation, where without a bureaucracy they could not raise any money and without any money they could not raise a bureacracy.
** Major divides between the Grossdeutschland/Kleindeutschland, Catholic/Protestant Austria/Prussia supporters, made worse by the lack of political parties in the group.
**Lack of support from the princes of each respective state. They were unwilling to give up any power, and had only allowed the parliament to exist while they quelled their respective rebellions. As soon as they had done this, they took the example of Prussia, recalling their members.
* Effect of Prussia
** In the Danish Conflict, Prussia ignored the Frankfurt Parliament completely when Britain put pressure to end the war, and made her own armistice. Because they had no army, the Frankfurt Parliament couldn't do anything about it except found the Reichsflotte Navy on 14 June 1848
** King Frederick William IV was offered the crown, to become emperor of all Germany, by the FP, but he turned down, because he would not accept a crown from revolutionaries.

* Austria
** The Frankfurt Parliament happened only because Metternich fell from power and was weak. After Austria had crushed the Italian revolts of 1848/1849, the Habsburgs were ready to turn their attention back to Germany. With no army to muster and not enough support from member states, the Parliament could not resist Austrian power.

March Revolution 1848


After news broke of revolutionary victories in February 1848 in Paris, uprisings occurred throughout Europe, including the German states.

Events began rolling on February 27 in Mannheim, where an assembly of the 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 the Märzforderungen (demands of March) almost without resistance.

The disorders, fomented by republican agitators, nonetheless continued in Baden; and the efforts of the government to suppress them with the aid of federal troops led to an armed insurrection. For the time this was mastered without much difficulty; the insurgents, led by Friedrich Hecker, lost at Kandern on April 20.


Austria was the leading German state of that time. Austrian chancellor Metternich had dominated the German Confederation from 1815 until 1848.

On March 13 in Vienna the Diet of Lower Austria demanded Metternich's resignation. With no forces rallying to Metternich's defense, Emperor Ferdinand reluctantly complied and dismissed him. Metternich fled to London and Ferdinand appointed new, nominally liberal, ministers.


In Berlin crowds of people gathered their demands culminating in an "address to the king". King Frederick William IV, overwhelmed by this pressure, yielded verbally to all the demonstrators' demands, including parliamentary elections, a constitution, and freedom of the press. He promised that "Prussia was to be merged forthwith into Germany."

However, on March 18, a large demonstration occurred and two shots fired by soldiers led to an escalation of tensions. Barricades were erected, fighting started, and blood flowed until troops were ordered to retreat a day later, leaving hundreds dead. Afterwards, Frederick William attempted to reassure the public that the reorganization of his government would proceed. The king also approved arming the citizens. On March 21, he paraded through the streets of Berlin to the cemetery where the civil victims were buried, accompanied by some ministers and generals, all wearing the revolutionary tricolor of black, red, and gold which form today's flag of Germany.


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 and social justice.

Richard Wagner passionately engaged himself in the revolution, supporting the democratic-republican movement. Later in the May Uprising in Dresden from May 3-9, 1849, he supported the provisional government. Together with the leaders of the uprising, Wagner left Dresden on May 9 to avoid the warrant for his arrest by flight to exile in Switzerland.

In 1849, other residents left for destinations across the Atlantic. Many natives of Saxony, such as Michael Machemehl, left for Texas where they joined other Germans in creating a German-Texan community.


In Bavaria, a new liberal government (the "March ministry") was installed; King Ludwig I was forced to abdicate in an attempt to pacify the public, contain the spreading of revolutionary ideas and save the monarchy by offering concessions.

Frankfurt: The National Assembly meets in St. Paul's Church

In Heidelberg, in the state of Baden (southwest Germany), on March 5, 1848, a group of German liberals 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. Of the 586 delegates of the first freely elected German parliament, so many were professors (94), teachers (30) or had a university education (233) that it was called a "professors' parliament" ("Professorenparlament").

There were few practical politicians. Some 400 delegates can be identified in terms of political factions - usually named after their venues:

* Café Milani - Right/Conservative (40)
* Casino - Right centre/Liberal-conservative (120)
* Landsberg - Centre/Liberal (40)
* Württemberger Hof - Left centre (100)
* Deutscher Hof - Left/Liberal democrats (60)
* Donnersberg - Far left/Democrats (40)

Under the chairmanship of the liberal politician Heinrich von Gagern, 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. Archduke Johann of Austria was chosen as a temporary head of state ("Reichsverweser" i.e. imperial vicar). This was an attempt to create a provisional executive power, but it did not get very far since most states failed to fully recognize the new government. The National Assembly lost reputation in the eyes of the German public when Prussia carried through its own political intentions in the Schleswig-Holstein question without the prior consent of Parliament. A similar discredition occurred when Austria suppressed a popular uprising in Vienna by military force.

Nonetheless, discussions on the future constitution had started. The main questions to be decided were:

*Should the new united Germany include the German-speaking areas of Austria and thus separate these territories constitutionally from the remaining areas of the Habsburg Empire ("greater German solution", Großdeutschland), or should it exclude Austria, with leadership falling to Prussia ("smaller German solution", Kleindeutschland)? Finally, this question was settled when the Austrian Prime Minister introduced a centralised constitution for the entire Austrian Empire, thus delegates had to give up their hopes for a "Greater Germany".
*Should Germany become a hereditary monarchy, have an elected monarch, or even become a republic?
*Should it be a federation of relatively independent states or have a strong central government?

Soon events began to overtake discussions. Delegate Robert Blum had been sent to Vienna by his left-wing political colleagues on a fact-finding mission to see how Austria's government was rolling back liberal achievements by military force. Blum participated in the street fighting, was arrested and executed on November 9, despite his claim to immunity from prosecution as a member of the National Assembly.

Although the achievements of the March Revolution were rolled back in many German states, the discussions in Frankfurt continued, increasingly losing touch with society.

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 Paulskirchenverfassung 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 latter proposal was carried by a mere 290 votes in favour, with 248 abstentions. The constitution was recognized by 29 smaller states but not by Austria, Prussia, Bavaria, Hanover and Saxony.

The end of the Revolutions in the German states

Backlash in Prussia

By late 1848, the Prussian aristocrats including Otto von Bismarck and generals had regained power in Berlin. They had not been defeated permanently during the incidents of March, they had only retreated temporarily. General von Wrangel led the troops who recaptured Berlin for the old powers, and King Frederick William IV of Prussia immediately rejoined the old forces. 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.Elaborated in the following years, the constitution came to provide for an upper house (Herrenhaus), and a lower house (Landtag), chosen by universal suffrage but under a three-class system of voting ("Dreiklassenwahlrecht"): representation was proportional to taxes paid, so that more than 80 % of the electorate controlled only one-third of the seats.

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 felt honoured but could only accept the crown with the consent of his peers, the other sovereign monarchs and free cities. But later, in a letter to a relative in England, he wrote that he felt deeply insulted by being offered "from the gutter" a crown, "disgraced by the stink of revolution, baked of dirt and mud."

Austria and Prussia withdrew their delegates from the Assembly, and the Assembly itself slowly disintegrated afterwards. Its most radical members retired to Stuttgart, where they sat from June 6-18 as a rump parliament until it too 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. Leaders and participants, if caught, were executed or sentenced to long prison terms.

The achievements of the revolutionaries of March 1848 were reversed in all of the German states and by 1851, the Basic Rights had also been abolished nearly everywhere. In the end, the revolution fizzled because of the overwhelming number of tasks it faced and because of lack of mass support and actual power.

Many disappointed German patriots went to the United States, among them most notably Carl Schurz, Franz Sigel and Friedrich Hecker. Such emigrants became known as the Forty-Eighters.


* Theodore Hamerow, "Restoration, Revolution, Reaction: Economics and Politics in Germany, 1815-1871", Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1967.
* James J. Sheehan, "German History, 1770-1866" (Series: Oxford History of Modern Europe), Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990 (ISBN 0-1982-2120-7).
* Justine Davis Randers-Pehrson, "Germans and the Revolution of 1848-1849" (Series: New German-American Studies/Neue Deutsch-Amerikanische Studien), New York: Peter Lang, 1999 (ISBN 0-8204-4118-X).
* R. J. W. Evans and Hartmut Pogge von Strandmann, eds., "The Revolutions in Europe, 1848-1849: From Reform to Reaction", Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000 (ISBN 0-1982-0840-5)
* Jonathan Sperber, "The European Revolutions, 1848-1851" (Series: New Approaches to European History), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005 (ISBN 0-5218-3907-6).

External links and references

* Gerhard Rempel, [ 1848: REVOLUTION AND REACTION]
* [ German Revolution of 1848/49]
* [ The German 1848 Revolution: A German Perspective]
* [ Constitution of the German Empire ("Constitution of Paulskirche") of 28th March 1849, in full text] de icon

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