The Revolutions of 1848 in the German states

From Academic Kids

The Revolutions
of 1848
Revolution in France
Revolution in Habsburg areas
Revolution in Germany
Revolution in Italy
Revolution in Poland


"Germany" at the time of the Revolutions of 1848 was a collection of over 30 states loosely bound together in the German Confederation after the Congress of Vienna in 1815.

Liberal pressure spread throughout the German states, each of which had a characteristic history of the revolutions. We look at but a few. Fearing the fate of Louis-Philippe of France, many kings capitulated to the revolutionaries -- for a while. The revolution began in France at the end of February and soon spread to Germany. 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.

The Revolutions in Prussia

In Berlin, the Prussian capital, people gathered particularly in the beer gardens and outside the gates, their demands culminated in an "address to the king". King Frederick William was completely overwhelmed by this situation, and 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 forthwith into Germany." However, the situation escalated on March 18 when during a huge demonstration two people were accidentally shot. Barricades were erected, fighting started, and blood flowed until troops were ordered to retreat. Beyond that Frederick William assured the reorganization of his government and approved the armament of the citizens. On March 21, he paraded through the streets of Berlin accompanied by some ministers and generals, all wearing the tricolor of black, red, and gold (the flag of the new Germany).

Counter-revolution in Prussia

By late 1848, the Prussian aristocrats (among them Otto von Bismarck) and generals had regained power in Berlin. They had not been defeated during the March days, they had only retreated temporarily. General von Wrangel led the troops who recaptured Berlin for the old powers. King Frederick William immediately rejoined the old forces. In November he dissolved the new Prussian parliament and promulgated a constitution of his own (based upon the work of the assembly, but 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.


In Bavaria, a new liberal government (the "March ministry") was installed; King Ludwig I was forced to abdicate and get rid of his free-spending mistress, Lola Montez -- these were attempts to pacify the masses, contain the spreading of revolutionary ideas and save the monarchy by offering concessions.


Missing image
The May uprising in Dresden in a contemporary print

In Dresden, the people took to the streets pressing the king with their demand for 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, he left Dresden on May 9 avoiding the warrant for his arrest by flight to exile in Switzerland.

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. The pre-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 550 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 - Extreme 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 particularism and the Austro-Prussian dualism. 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. Hence the weakness of the assembly became apparent right from the start. 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 damage 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 comprise the German-speaking areas of Austria and thus separate these territories constitutionally from the remaining areas of the Habsburg Empire ("greater German solution"), or should it exclude Austria, with leadership falling to Prussia ("smaller German solution")? 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 reality.

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 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

On April 2, 1848, 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. In a letter to a relative in England, he revealed his true feelings writing 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 which 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 March 1848 were repealed in all states and by 1851, the Basic Rights had also been abolished nearly everywhere. In the end, the revolution failed 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. Such emigrants became known as the Forty-Eighters.


  • Klaus Herdepe: Die Preußische Verfassungsfrage 1848, (= Deutsche Universitätsedition Bd. 22) ars et unitas : Neuried 2003, 454 S., ISBN 3-936117-22-5 (The Prussian Constitution in 1848)
  • Justine D Randers-Pehrson (1999), Germans and the Revolution of 1848-1849 (ISBN 082044118X)

External links and references

Next: The Italian states de:Märzrevolution


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