The German ‘Revolution’ of 1848

The ‘old order’ of post-Vienna Europe – that of absolute rulers and their reactionary plutocrats enforcing their rule on a subjugated population – seemed on the brink in the year of 1848. From Sicily in the south through the heart of Central Europe, voices for constitutional reform and national re-awakenings grew in tandem to generate a wave of Republican revolt across the continent. For a while it seemed the rolling back of Europe’s respective ‘ancien regimes’ was as inexorable as it would be successful; yet within a year the revolutions had floundered and fizzled out and the older order was seemingly restored. However, despite the repression and soul-searching amongst the liberals of Berlin, Paris and Vienna in the immediate aftermath of the events, an important seed had been planted for the future.

Obviously our primary focus for this unit is that of how the 1848 Revolutions impacted upon the German Confederation and its constituent states and peoples. Yet the shifting forces and dynamics of European society as a whole mean that a general thread runs throughout – from Ireland in the West to Russia in the East – of social and political upheaval exacerbated by the twin evils of economic depression and rural poverty and famine which created conditions which were ripe for revolution. The pace of industrialisation – whilst varied across the continent – brought with it a new social class and a new political voice, that of the urban working class, who would in time become the source of radicalism and revolutionary fervour. But for now they were not the key enablers for revolutionary success despite the publication of a political document written by a German exile in London by the name of Karl Marx. Germany in particular had been slow to develop as an industrial society; indeed German still wasn’t a nation in the orthodox sense by 1848.

Overview of the wider European perspective and experience of 1848. Specifically German focused media is at the end of this post.

Causes of the 1848 Revolutions in Germany

  • Increasing population: as was the case in much of Europe, Germany witnessed a population explosion in the 19th century. Whilst much of this surplus population was able to emigrate to the USA, there were many who couldn’t and this growth in population placed stress on the German rural society which operated in an almost feudal-style manner which peasants beholden to the Junker (aristocracy) class.
  • Germany may not have embraced industrialisation to the extent of the UK or even Belgium but slowly throughout the 1830s and 40s the early rumblings of the Industrial Revolution lead to urbanisation and rural flight from countryside to city. Much of these new arrivals to Berlin, Munich, Hamburg etc were poor and disenfranchised and found themselves living in squalor – ready recruits for any nascent revolution!
  • A more immediate cause could be highlighted as that of the European-wide economic crisis brought on by disastrous harvests and the devastating potato blight which decimated the diets of both urban – and primarily – rural poor and caused food prices to sky rocket. As with all self-respecting revolutions, the need to be able to feed oneself and family (Peace! Land Bread!) always seems to find a firm foothold in the reasons why change should happen.
  • Whilst Marx’s vision of a class conflict resulting in the overthrow of the status quo by the proletariat (industrial working class) came to fruition at a later date, its hard to argue that class consciousness had any real effect in being a driving force behind the German Revolution of 1848. Only the UK and Belgium had any sense of a developed working class by this time and the German experience hinged more on the angst from landless rural peasants at their feudal existence and a desire from liberal minded middle classes for political reform and an end to inherited privilege and – in small numbers – to absolutist monarchy.
  • A consequence of this desire for change political and socially was the growing awakening for many in the liberal middle classes that the best way forward for the states of the German Confederation was to break down the old and archaic barriers and come together as a unified German whole, thus nationalism was also on the revolutionary agenda (as it was in other areas of Europe such as Italy).

The Events of 1848 in Germany

Baden in the south was the first state to experience revolt, reform and repression in 1848

Given the nature of ‘Germany’ in 1848 it is not a surprise that several revolutions – each with distinct flavour and ambitions – broke out concurrently that year. Once again France was the catalyst for European-wide revolt and upheaval (the king overthrown and a people’s Republic installed in February) and perhaps the visible magnitude of the early success of the French revolutionaries egged on those movements which sprung up in its wake to go that bit extra and further than was absolutely necessary. A case in point being the first German revolution in the south-western state of Baden, where initial success in constitutional reform was undone a few months later when radical republicans attempted to overthrow the whole state in an uprising which failed miserably due to poor organisation and Prussian military intervention. The initial support and legitimacy the movement had gained in the eyes of German liberals and middle classes – the core base of revolutionaries at this period – was lost and the gains of the early reformists repressed.

The counter-revolutionary and reactionary bulwark of Austria itself was not immune to Revolutionary fervour and upheaval in that tumultuous year of 1848. None other than the arch-reactionary and architect of Restoration Europe, Metternich, fell amidst a temporary collapse in Habsburg control in their own capital of Vienna; riots and protests ensued in other centres of the Austrian Empire such as Prague, Milan and Budapest as the Austrian government enacted a series of political and social reforms – a Constituent Assembly, universal male suffrage and a few other superficial reforms – from the safety of the alpine city of Innsbruck. Faced with what may well have been the collapse of their own empire in 1848, the Austrians were less disposed or inclined to intervene in goings-on in the rest of Germany. The fall of Metternich and the ensuing chaos in Vienna emboldened protestors across the German states and specifically in Berlin.

Berlin, bastion of Prussian power and absolutism, saw widespread street violence in early spring of 1848

In terms of Prussian rulers, Fredrick William was an enigma; he was a dichotomy between order and progress, between upholding ‘divine right’ rule and pacifism. This enigma of a king – who hated bloodshed yet ruled over Germany’s most militaristic state – seemed to be genuinely empathetic with the demands of the citizens who called for a New Prussian constitution, improved pay and working conditions as well as the dream of a unified German state and signed off (agreed to) a series of liberal-oriented reforms which pleased the majority and avoided serious violence enveloping Berlin. Yet he was rattled by this apparent challenge to his divine right to rule and would have reservations about being the figurehead for a Prussian drive to unite Germany.

I want liberty: I will have unity in Germany.’

Fredrick William IV, March 21st 1848

Political reform and concessions spread like wildfire through the German states that spring of 1848, with the demonstrations and protests overwhelmingly middle class and peaceful in their methods and make-up. The framework of feudalism which held Germany back was to be dismantled and all German states invited to participate in a newly formed parliament to replace the ineffectual Diet, one which would meet also in Frankfurt but with a clear focus to draw up a constitution for a united Germany. Overwhelmingly the make up of this ‘Professors Parliament’ was middle class, liberal and moderate in plotting a path to a united Germany, with the underlying ambition being that of German peoples united under a Constitutional Monarchy and an elected parliament. ‘Conservative-Liberals’ made up the vast majority of representatives at Frankfurt; radicals and reactionaries were scarce in representation and consensus on the Frankfurt Parliament taking prominence over the numerous German state governments was reached with minimum fuss. However agreeing on a constitution and the boundaries of this new Germany proved much more problematic – should Austria be included in a Grossdeutschland for example or should a Kleinedeutschland with Prussia as the pre-eminent power be the pragmatic solution to national unity – and the Frankfurt Parliament came to be regarded more as a talking shop than an institution that got things done (echoes of the proportional representation approach taken by the Weimar Republic to its constitution).

The Frankfurt Parliament was also undermined by its lack of financial and indeed military muscle. Prussia remained aloof and saw their own constitution and king as superseding that of any outcome suggested by the Frankfurt Parliament, whilst Northern and Southern German states viewed each other with suspicion borne of the religious divide between Protestantism in the North and East and Catholicism in the South. As would be expected from such a middle class, liberal institution the radicals were unsatisfied with the pace of progress and intended goals and on several occasions – one resulting in bloodshed – their protests spilled over into violence which horrified the majority moderates of the parliament. The death knell to the relevance and purpose of the Frankfurt was delivered with the refusal of Prussian king Fredrick William to accept the title of German Emperor; he refused to be answerable to the Frankfurt Parliament as the Constitutional Ruler and wear a crown he described as ‘disgraced by the stink of revolution, defiled by dirt and mud’ and equated to ‘a dog collar, with which they want to chain me to the events of 1848.’ With no leader, no direction and dwindling support the Frankfurt Parliament stumbled along until 1849 when – having been forced out of both Frankfurt and Stuttgart – Germany’s experiment at mixing liberal reform with a framework for national unity had the curtains called on its time.

The aftermath of 1848: Failure and reform

“This Assembly of old women was, from the first day of its existence, more frightened of the least popular movement than of all the reactionary plots of all the German Governments put together.”

Friedrich Engels, scathing of the Frankfurt Parliament 1848
The ‘old guard’ steadied the ship and swept up/crushed remaining resistance in 1849

Ultimately the Frankfurt Parliament failed to be what its members refused to be; an organ of violent political revolution and upheaval which was necessary to overthrow the existing power structures of Germany at this time. Criticised for being too idealist and lacking any sense of substance or pragmatism (hello Weimar Republic!), the Frankfurt Parliamanent’s existence and chances of according success rested not within the numerous debates over constitutional reform but in the ‘buy-in’ from those states who’s influence was critical – Austria and Prussia. The Austrians had no wish to destabilise the status-quo and by association their own political hegemony over Europe, and the Prussians were still too aloof and devoted to their king alone to see the bigger picture and possibilities of being at the forefront of a united Germany. Also, once the threat of being overthrown by the numerous revolutionary movements within Germany in 1848 had receded, most other rulers of the German principalities saw little use for a parliament which would undoubtedly curb and perhaps one day take away their powers and independence. With Austria steadying the ship in 1849 and crushing the remaining movements within their empire, no state was brave enough either to raise their heads above the parapet and call for a progressive and united German nation-state.

Despite the ‘failure’ of both the 1848 Revolutions and the Frankfurt Parliament they spawned, they marked a sea change in German politics and attitudes towards social reform. Feudal privileges were abolished across the German states and even the most conservative politicians recognised the need to involve the middle class – and in some cases the growing working class – in political decision making. Fredrick William navigated this path between liberalism and absolutism in the Prussian Constitution of December 1848 which presented a genuine workable parliament and universal male suffrage under the overall control of the king, who retained executive decision making powers and control of the army. Ironically, in its role as the arch-reactionary to the ideals and dreams of the Frankfurt Parliament and by association the revolutions of 1848 (along with Austria) Prussia won the respect and alliances of more and more German states, gaining crucial allies for the struggles which were yet to come. Prussia may not have explicitly realised it at the time, but they were positioning themselves to take the driving seat in the quest for German unification.

Key Takeaways

  • Initial successes of 1848 were genuinely revolutionary and threatened to topple the existing order completely. Indeed they most likely ‘spooked’ the middle class moderates as having gone beyond their wildest expectations or needs
  • Austria gradually regained its grip on power across all its empire by 1849. The old adage ‘if America sneezes, the world catches the cold’ could be applied perfectly to Austria in relation to the other German states at this time. They were still the main players and the threat of Austrian military action was enough to dampen dreams of liberal reform and German unity being sparked by Frankfurt
  • The Frankfurt Parliament ultimately did ‘fail’ by virtue of its role as a parliament without a cohesive functioning state and most pointedly an army. Without this Austrian hegemony – and desire to keep Germany weak and divided – could not be challenged.
  • Prussia emerged as the saviour for much of the old order by refusing the overtures of the Frankfurt Parliament to take the lead role (and crown) and also for their willingness to crush radical revolts in other German states. However the enigmatic Fredrick William IV set the wheels in motion for Prussia to lead the way as the ‘middle way’ between liberal reformist and conservative traditionalist ideologies and consequently the lead German state and alternative to Austria.
  • ‘Did the Revolutions of 1848 fail?’ – ultimately yes, however they triggered widespread acknowledgement that things had to change within the German states and these reforms – when combined with the coming of the Industrial Revolution on a wide scale to German lands – laid the foundations for the inexorable rise of Prussia and a German national consciousness to follow.

Please find associated resources and additional media links below!

Playlist of shorts on the German experience of 1848
Further insight into the wider European perspective of events in 1848

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