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Unity and Justice and Freedom

The German Revolution of 1848/49 by the German Information Center

The dream of German unity had been dreamt before. Long before the post-World War II division of Europe and long before "silent revolutions" in Eastern Europe ended that division, there was another time when Germans took to the streets to demand freedom and unity and for a few months seemed to achieve their goal. This month in today's free and united Germany, its citizens recall and honor those revolutionaries of 1848. And by the same token, they reflect on how their history might have been changed if the revolution of 1848 had achieved its aims. Germany before 1848 was fragmented and retained much of the feudal system. It was a place of many large and small principalities, many of them ruled by absolute sovereigns; it seethed with territorial rivalries and conflicting interests. Its people were the aristocracy and the downtrodden masses of peasants and land workers, as well as tradesmen, craftsmen and small shop owners.


A strong, although not unified, movement of liberal and democratic opposition began forming early in the 19th century. Though of varied political beliefs, all sought such basic rights as freedom of the press, trial by jury and constitutional systems of government in the states, as well as the unification of Germany into one nation-state. Social and political tensions grew toward the end of 1847 as an economic crisis, including a failed harvest that sparked food riots, spread through Europe; the number of people's gatherings and peasants' revolts increased. Finally, an uprising in Paris in February 1848 sparked similar armed uprisings in Vienna and Berlin; these two cities, as well as Baden and the southwest of Germany, were to form the centers of the revolution. The German rulers were frightened enough to grant concessions: they promised liberal constitutions, appointed liberals to ministries, promised freedom of the press, the freedom to hold meetings and a German national parliament.

Frankfurt was the center of revolutionary activity and the site of the National Assembly that was convened by the revolutionary movement and officially opened on May 18, 1848 in St. Paul's Cathedral (Paulskirche). From the beginning, the work of the Assembly was hampered -- and finally crippled -- by the political divisions among its members. In fact, power struggles among conservatives, liberals and left-wing democrats led to an abandonment of the original revolutionary program even before the Assembly convened. From the beginning, the liberal/bourgeois positions taken by a majority of Assembly members focused on appeasement and compromise with the states. The Assembly did not reflect the social composition of the nation. Dubbed the "professor's parliament," it was dominated by civil servants and academics who brought to their task intellectual commitment but little knowledge of what was politically feasible. About a sixth of the deputies came from trade and industry and the landed gentry. Peasants and workers remained without direct representation. In addition to philosophical and ideological conflicts, the Assembly was hampered by the fact that its members had no established parliamentary procedure to draw upon, and that political groupings were fluid. The result was a plethora of petitions, motions and speeches on every single point. The Assembly had two primary tasks: to draw up a national constitution and to create a centralized government. It formed a temporary Imperial government, but its composition reflected the problems of relations between a unified German state and the individual states, particularly Austria and Prussia. The election of the Austrian Archduke Johann as Imperial Administrator was seen as promotion of Austrian interests. The Assembly was unable to invest this central administration with power and authority. The newly created government had no civil service and no army, and a number of German monarchs refused to swear the allegiance of their troops to the Imperial Administrator. The summer months of 1848 were spent in debates over the formulation of "Basic Rights for the German People" and they were promulgated in December 1848. Truly revolutionary in this class-based, hierarchical society, the basic rights proclaimed equal opportunity and equal rights for all citizens before the law.

The Beginnings of Reaction

Opposition was forming and new crises brewed even as the Basic Rights were being drawn up. The National Assembly lent support to nationalists in Schleswig-Holstein, which was threatened by annexation by Denmark, by sending Prussian troops. On September 21, radical democrats proclaimed the "German Social Republic"; but were beaten back by the united armies of Prussia, Austria, Hessen and Bavaria. In Frankfurt, the National Assembly was directly threatened by opponents of the cease-fire in Schleswig-Holstein. Again the weak National Assembly had to accept the assistance of Prussian and Austrian troops to repulse the threat. The compromise policies of the Assembly were again evident when work on drawing up a German constitution began in September in the Paulskirche. The overriding issue before the Assembly was setting the borders of the German nation-state. Initially, a majority of deputies favored a "greater German solution" that would include the German-speaking areas of Austria and separate them from the rest of the Habsburg Empire. Their plans were thwarted by Austrian Prince Felix Schwarzenberg, who introduced a centralized constitution for the entire Austrian Empire. Prince Schwarzenberg's action was the beginning of the end for the fledgling German state. The title of Emperor of a Germany without Austria (the "small solution") was then offered to the Prussian King Frederick William IV. Frederick rejected the offer, however and spoke out against the 28 states that had already recognized the Imperial constitution. Turmoil continued into 1849. A large number of liberal delegates left the Assembly, and the republican left became the dominant force. The Assembly was finally forcibly disbanded by the military forces of Württemberg. For all intents and purposes, the revolution of 1848/49 was over. The achievements of March 1848 were repealed in all states; by 1851, the Basic Rights had also been abolished nearly everywhere. In the end, the revolution also failed because of the overwhelming number of tasks it faced. It was supposed to overcome feudal political structures, end German particularism and lead Germany to national unity, develop a free constitution focusing on basic rights for all, establish a parlimentary system and solve massive social problems, all at once. The bourgeoisie was a major force behind the initial revolutionary ardor. As was the case everywhere in Europe at that time, it was liberal but clearly not democratically minded. The revolution's point of crisis was reached when the bourgeoisie saw its economic and social position threatened by the increasing demands of the proletariat and placed itself under the "protective" hand of the reactionary authorities. The "March Revolution" was flawed and short-lived, but it was not in vain. Quite the contrary: the ideals that motivated the revolutionaries and the parliament they established led directly to the 1919 constitution of the Weimar Republic, to the Basic Law of the post-WWII Federal Republic of Germany and to German unification in 1989. The political groupings and alliances that emerged during this time, however ineffective, may be seen as precursors to the political parties of modern Germany. The romance and idealism of 1848 also lives on in a rich legacy of songs and poems. Part of a popular song in 1848, as the National Assembly grappled with the creation of a new German government, went as follows:

"Who shall our German Kaiser be? A prince from Elbe or Rhine maybe? Perhaps a prince from Leuchtenberg, Munich, Hanover, Wurtemberg? O no! O no! We all agree, Not one of these shall Kaiser be!

Now tell us true, who shall it be? Whose hand shall stablish Germany? Whose brow deserve the dignity? Perchance the People's sovereignty? Ah, there again we all agree, The People shall our Kaiser be! The revolution affected other countries as well. Many of the "Forty-Eighters," as they came to be called, fled to the United States and played a significant role in 19th century U.S. history. The "Forty-Eighters" in the United States

The "Forty-Eighters" who emigrated to the United States after the failed revolution left their mark in a number of ways. Generally young and well-educated, they were political activists who often assumed leadership positions in their communities, thus strengthening solidarity and a sense of ethnic identity among German immigrants. Two of the many prominent "Forty-Eighters" are described briefly below. Frederick Hecker belonged to the republican left and was one of the deputies sent to Frankfurt to create the new German nation-state. Disillusioned and angered by the pro-monarchy leanings of many Frankfurt delegates, he and his followers attempted a coup d'état in May 1848. The coup failed and Hecker fled to the United States, leaving heartbroken followers. One of them penned the following lines:

"Hecker, farewell! How sore the spirit labors!
Thy loyal friends will nurse for thee their sorrow.
Man's treachery our leader from us stole."

Arriving in Cincinnati, Ohio, Hecker lost no time in founding the first Turnverein* (gymnastics club, see below) in the United States. He then settled in Belleville, Illinois, where he lived as a "gentleman farmer" until the Civil War. In 1864, Hecker assembled a regiment of primarily fellow German immigrants (the 82nd Illinois, called the "Hecker Regiment") and marched into battle for the Union. He returned at the end of the war disabled and lived out the rest of his life in Belleville.

Carl Schurz remains one of the best-known German immigrants to America. He fought in the 1848/49 revolution as a young man and again fifteen years later in the American Civil War. He was a skilled orator and an ardent supporter of Lincoln, who appointed him Minister to Spain afterbecoming president. Resigning to take up a military career, he fought at Chancellorsville as a division commander in May 1863; in July of 1863, he assumed command of the 11th Corps in Gettysburg. After the war, Schurz became a prominent political figure. He was sent by President Andrew Johnson on a tour of the defeated South, on what would today be called a fact-finding mission. Serving a term in the United States Senate, he advocated a conciliatory policy toward the South. He served as a cabinet minister in the administration of Rutherford B. Hays and late in life took up political journalism.

*(Turnvereine were founded in Germany by Friedrich Jahn with the idea of combining physical training with the inculcation of the ideals of free and self-respecting citizens. Strange as this may seem today, the notion of gymnastics as part of an education for the people was startling in autocratic, paternalistic Germany. The Turner were banned in 1819, but the ban was lifted in March 1848 in one of the initial victories of the revolution.) Remembering the 1848 Revolution

The revolution of 1848/49 remains a pivotal moment in German history and it is far from forgotten. On Friday, February 27, -- the day in 1848 when unrest in France spread to Germany -- an exhibition-on-wheels (mounted in four train cars and organized jointly by the states Hessen, Rhineland-Palatinate and Baden-Württemberg) rolled out of the Wiesbaden (Hessen) station and began its journey to the sites of the Revolution. During the trip to a large "history festival" in Karlsruhe, where the train arrived later that day, two prominent passengers, the prime ministers of Hessen and Rhineland-Palatinate, discussed the events of 1848 with students. Frankfurt will host a festival week May 18-24, 1998 to commemorate the momentous events that took place there one hundred and fifty years ago. The activities center around a major exhibition called 1848: Awakening to Freedom (1848: Aufbruch zur Freiheit) that will be opened by Federal President Roman Herzog. In Karlsruhe (Baden-Württemberg), the exhibition 1848: Revolution of German Democrats in Baden (1848: Revolution der deutschen Demokraten in Baden), running until August 2, contains more than a touch of historical irony. The exhibition is housed in the former princely residence and dramatically portrays the hasty flight of Duke Leopold before the advancing revolutionaries. In the United States, the Max Kade German-American Center in Indianapolis will host a symposium titled "150 Years: The German Revolution 1848-1998: German-American Dimensions." April 23-26 in Indianapolis.

More information on all of these events is available at

By Susan Steiner, German Information Center

Sources: Questions on German History.
Catalogue of an exhibition in the Berlin Reichstag. 1984: Publications Section of the German Bundestag
The German-American Forty-Eighters 1848-1998. Edited by Don Heinrich Tolzmann. 1998: Max Kade German-American Center, Indianapolis
The Forty-Eighters. Edited by A.E. Zucker. 1950: Columbia University Press


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