When news of the February Revolution in Paris reached Germany, the liberals, nationalists, and radicals which had chafed under the post-Napoleonic restauration of the old order were ecstatic. They quickly set out to make their own revolutions. Soon, they reached complicated and interlocking questions of statehood and nationhood which needed answers – and, as the military interventions in Baden, Denmark, and Poland showed, the defenders of the old order still had an ace up their sleeves.
You can read all posts of this series here:
The Spark of Revolution (1848, #1)
Black-Red-Gold (1848, #2)
Fringes of an Empire (1848, #3)
The German Question
No German nation-state existed in 1848. Instead, the loosely organized German Confederation consisted of several dozen independent states, chief of which were the two great powers Austria and Prussia. Both – especially Austria – also ruled over extensive territories outside of the Confederation and/or populated by non-Germans.
News of the February Revolution impacted the south and west of Germany first – not only because of the geographical proximity, but also because of its traditional higher tolerance of liberalism. The liberals of Baden, Württemberg and Bavaria demanded constitutions (or reforms thereof) from their rulers, the inhabitants of the Rhineland toyed with the idea of seceding from their Prussian overlords, and the king of Bavaria was even forced to abdicate over his scandalous relationship with the dancer Lola Montez. In the meantime, representatives from the German states flocked to the pre-parliament congregating in Heidelberg, later in Frankfurt. The official representative organ of the German Confederation, the Bundestag (Federal Diet) attempted to appease the revolutionaries by declaring their colors – black, red, and gold – the official colors of Germany on March 9.
While the people in the south and west might have been first, the decisive role in the political struggle for Germany fell to the inhabitants and rulers of the two great powers – Austria and Prussia. And initially, they took inspiration from Paris not only in terms of political program, but also in velocity.
Spring in Vienna and Berlin
On March 12, the Viennese students first attempted to rouse the urban workers into protest – an undertaking which seemed neither likely to succeed nor powerful enough to endanger the conservative order in Austria. Yet on the following day the Viennese masses were beleaguering the Hofburg and engaging in inconclusive fighting with government forces. Austria’s chancellor Metternich, the architect of the European restoration of the old order, resigned in order to appease the protesters. Two days later, emperor Ferdinand I promised to give Austria a constitution. The events in Vienna also inspired the ethnic minorities within the Habsburg empire – most notably the Hungarians, but also the Czechs, Romanians, Polish, and others – to accelerate their own demands. More on that in the next post in this series!
Protests in Berlin had begun on March 9 already. Masses of protesters coexisted uneasily with the Prussian troops tasked to maintain order in the streets. When the news of Metternich’s resignation reached Berlin, Prussian king Frederick William IV was willing to make concessions: He promised to abolish censorship and reform the Prussian constitution. However, no promises were made regarding the army in Berlin – and these 20,000 soldiers were the protesters’ main worry at the time. On March 18, two shots were fired – if on purpose or by accident is unclear. The resulting street fights between soldiers and protesters were among the most violent in Europe and claimed over 300 dead within a day. Frederick William proposed a truce the next day, feeling compelled to appease his populace lest they overthrow him. He addressed the city’s inhabitants as “my dear Berliners”, doffed his cap to the revolutionary dead, and, on March 21, even promised them that Prussia would merge into Germany – the dream of the German national movement. The following day, Frederick William renewed his promise of a constitution and then left revolutionary Berlin for the much quieter (but very close) Potsdam. Here, he surrounded himself with aristocrat hardliners opposed to compromise with the revolutionaries. When one of these hardliners was asked by the king how he would deal with the protests, the young estate owner casually sat down at a piano and began playing the Prussian infantry’s attacking march. His name: Otto von Bismarck.
The Questions at Stake
The Frankfurt pre-parliament was split into liberals and democrats. While the liberals wanted to form a united German nation-state under a hereditary emperor (for which they eyed Frederick William) and introduce some personal freedoms like the abolition of press censorship, the democrats were in favor of more sweeping reform – a republic after the model of France or the United States, the separation of church and state, the workers sharing in the profit of the business at which they worked. (In both cases, these positions are very broadly generalized – as no formal parties existed yet, the representatives’ opinions differed on a very individual level.)
As the pre-parliament had no electoral legitimacy – it was made up of representatives of the individual German states based on invitation – and as both major factions were confident about their success on a broader level, liberals and democrats agreed on elections for a national assembly at the earliest possible date. The elections were thus held from April 1848 on. Suffrage was not universal – no women could vote, and only economically independent men – but with more than three quarters of adult men relatively broad. However, the electoral laws left it to the individual states if they had their representatives elected directly or indirectly (via electoral colleges). Voting by electoral college, which was practiced in most states, including Prussia and Austria, favored the local notables – and thus the conservatives and right-leaning liberals over democrats and republicans.
The national assembly convened in St. Paul’s church (Frankfurt) from May 1848 on. It hotly debated two main issues – which form of government should be the basis of the new German nation-state and which territories should make up that state.
On the first question, the democratic-republican minority wanted to establish a republic, whereas conservatives and most liberals favored monarchy. The monarchists, however, were not in agreement on the details: Most of them wanted an hereditary monarchy, but some favored a fully elective monarchy. And, of course, the matter of who would be monarch needed to be decided – Prussian king Frederick William IV seemed like the natural choice for most of the northern German, Protestant monarchists, whereas the southern German, Catholic representatives feared that this would cement Prussian domination over them and turned to the Austrian emperor instead.
That brings us to the second question of the territorial extent of the new German state: Should a “Greater” or “Lesser Germany” be founded? Greater Germany would include German-speaking Austria as well (and could include the non-German-speaking parts of Austria), Lesser Germany would maintain more ethnic and religious homogeneity by leaving these parts out. Thus, the question produced curious bedfellows: The democratic-republican left favored Greater Germany (to allow all Germans to partake in their new nation), but so did Catholic conservatives (to fend off Protestant-Prussian domination).
Revolution, Nationalism, and War
Given the strong feelings conservatives, liberals, and radicals alike had for these matters, it is not surprising that they were not only fought out in parliament. The first move came from the radicals in the southwest: Friedrich Hecker and Gustav Struve had been in the pre-parliament, but their idea of a German republic had been defeated by the monarchist majority there. Their thoughts then moved to extra-parliamentary revolution… which was to start at their home state of Baden, a liberal grand duchy on the French border which teemed with radicals. Hecker decided to march from Constance, a city on the southern border of Baden, to the capital Karlsruhe. He envisioned that revolutionaries would flock to his campaign, swell his numbers, and overthrow the grand duke. He left with only a few dozen supporters on April 13, 1848.
The march was an utter disaster. While Hecker’s numbers did in fact grow, they were outnumbered by curious spectators in any village. Republican officer Franz Sigel joined Hecker, but his militia stayed home as their mayor forbade them to join. The direct marching route to Karlsruhe was blocked by Württemberg troops. Hecker took a detour, but German Confederation forces under Friedrich von Gagern (whose brother Heinrich would become the leader of the liberals in the Frankfurt National Assembly) drove him ever further southwest, away from Karlsruhe. After a week, Hecker’s 800 faithful were pushed into the very southwest corner of Baden where they gave battle at Kandern. The military amateurish revolutionaries were defeated in half an hour. Their leaders Hecker and Struve fled to Switzerland. Among the 14 dead on both sides was Friedrich von Gagern.
The defeat of the Baden Revolution would remain the only intra-German military action of spring 1848. However, German nationalism clashed with other claims at the fringes of the German Confederation.
The northern border of the Confederation ran between the border of Holstein (within the Confederation) and Schleswig (outside of it). Both were ruled by the king of Denmark. As the king wanted to forestall revolutionary upheaval, he decreed that Schleswig should be fully integrated into Denmark – which might have infringed on the rights of the ethnic Germans there and was generally regarded a slight to the unity of the two duchies which were supposed to remain “forever united” according to a medieval contract. When the Germans of the two duchies revolted against the Danish plans on March 24, they had German public opinion squarely behind them – including that of the members of the pre-parliament (and later the Frankfurt National Assembly).
Speeches and majority decisions in parliament would not be enough to repel the Danish army. The required blood and iron could only come from one of the German great powers and their armed forces. The German Confederation tasked the Prussian army with defending the claims of the Schleswig and Holstein Germans. From April on, Prussian and Danish troops fought inconclusively. The superior Danish navy blockaded northern Germany. The main takeaway of the war was that the forces of reaction still held all the chips when it came to the application of physical force. Frederick William IV must have been pleased.
Finally, 1848 also ended Germany’s romantic enthusiasm for non-German liberation movement: In the years before, German liberals had been infatuated with the Polish national movement which had fought for Polish national independence, most notably in the uprising against Russia (which had annexed most of Poland in the three partitions of the country during the 18th century) in 1830/1831. In 1848, however, the Polish majority in the Prussian province of Posen (Poznań) demanded independence. Polish nationalism was now directly opposed to German nationalism, and the former won outright in Germany: The Frankfurt National Assembly discussed a partition plan for Posen. As the discourse developed, the part of Posen which was to belong to a new, independent Poland grew ever smaller. Before anything was decided in Frankfurt, the Prussian army had already put down the uprising by force (May 9, 1848) – another encouraging sign for the reactionaries.
We’ll leave Germany at that for the time being – and will return to the 1848 revolutions in two weeks, then covering the Habsburg fringes Hungary and northern Italy!
1848 (Gerhard Kuhlmann, Kuhlmann Geschichtsspiele)
For a good blow-by-blow account of the 1848 revolutions, see Rapport, Mike: 1848. Year of Revolution, Abacus, London 2010.
On a more zoomed-out, analytical level: Hobsbawm, Eric: The Age of Capital. Europe, 1848—1875, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London 1975.
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