How do you debate a constitutional conservative?

Revolution of 1848

On May 18, 1848, the National Assembly began its deliberations in the Paulskirche in Frankfurt. It makes decisions about the constitution, the structure of the state and the expansion of a future German empire.

This historical illustration shows the entry of the parliamentarians of the first German National Assembly into the Paulskirche in Frankfurt am Main. (& copy AP)

Setting the course of the pre-parliament

In the two months up to the meeting of the first German parliament on May 18, 1848, which was named after its meeting place, the Paulskirche in Frankfurt, Germany's policy became the focus of interest.

Initially, liberals and democrats had submitted proposals to their respective state governments for the appointment of a German national parliament, in line with the constitution. On March 5, 1848, however, an assembly of mostly liberal representatives of the German national movement in Heidelberg provided impetus in the unification process. It made use of competences that actually only belonged to the Federal Assembly by appointing a "pre-parliament" made up of members of the individual states, which was supposed to enforce popular elections for the National Assembly and create a new German government. The pre-parliament for its part later appointed a "fifties committee" with the same tasks.

Weakening of the democrats

When the pre-parliament, in which the Liberals formed the majority in the presence of numerous South German representatives, met in Frankfurt am Main from March 31 to April 3, elections for a national assembly were initiated with no problems. With the project of forming a government, however, the question of Germany's future form of government arose. The Democrats hoped to be able to turn Germany into a republic at the all-German parliamentary level. When a corresponding request from left-wing Baden MPs around Hecker and Struve failed because of the liberals, the majority of the democratic MPs bowed to this decision.

However, the group around Hecker and Struve undertook a new, now extra-parliamentary advance, had armed units set up and proclaimed the republic on April 12 in Constance. A demonstration march through Baden was supposed to be given such impact by influx from the people that the republican cause was automatically helped to victory, as it were. Troops of the German Confederation and W├╝rttemberg put an end to the company, which had remained weak, on April 20 near Kandern, after which eleven people died and Hecker had to flee abroad.

The consequences were considerable. The Democrats were definitely split, which at the same time weakened their parliamentary wing. A leftist, especially in Baden, saw Hecker as a hero and a revolutionary, since only he had dared to make a consistent attempt to create a democratic and republican Germany. In the case of the liberals, who at this time relied on containing the revolution and cooperating with reform conservatives, the possibility of personal coalitions with the moderate democrats was now a long way off. Eventually, the failed operation offered the gradually rallying Conservatives ammunition for their propaganda equating democrats with dangerous anarchists.

Delay tactics of the old forces

With the success of the Liberals' vote in the pre-parliament, however, no government had yet been created. Rather, this project turned out to be so difficult that a final solution was left to the National Assembly.

The reason was that Austria and Prussia made no move to submit to the Frankfurt parliamentarians. All-German elections were the extreme that could be wrested from them at this point in time. The government of the Habsburg Monarchy signaled that it would only take part in the pre-parliament so as not to "lose its influence" in Germany. The preservation of the statehood of Austria was more important to her. After all, the Austrian Anton Ritter von Schmerling (1805-1893), one of the most energetic liberals, soon appeared on the Frankfurt stage. In Prussia, the monarch strictly refused to cooperate with the "revolutionary" pre-parliament and only wanted to bow to the federal assembly's order of primary elections for a German national assembly.

This also took part in the preparations for the creation of a state leadership. It had changed completely since the March Revolution and was now trying to distinguish itself as a reform body, staffed by leading, mostly right-wing liberals. Its aim was to act as a link between the parliamentarians gathered in Frankfurt and the individual states, but not infrequently also as a steering body in Germany. She immediately got rid of the old laws on the oppression of the people and was heavily involved in the preparation of elections in Germany.

However, when the Federal Assembly was called upon to anticipate the national assembly in conjunction with reactionary forces when it was unauthorized to set the course for the formation of a government and when drafting a constitution, it, like the German Confederation, was deemed to have been done. From then on, the National Assembly was more or less alone with the task of creating Germany.

Decision for a democratic consensus

Regardless of all animosities between liberals and democrats, ideas of the left wing of the liberals came to the fore, which advocated largely sovereign action by the representatives. The moderate liberals, among them Heinrich von Gagern (1799-1880), took up this strategy, which was more revolutionary than the initial attitude of the liberals in the March Revolution. The old should not be destroyed as far as possible, but from this point onwards the leading role of the parliament in the reorganization of Germany was undisputed.

From then on, revolutionary acts as well as equal negotiations with individual states and consideration for conservative forces were a thing of the past. What remained was sovereign action by the National Assembly. On the one hand, this meant that reaching a parliamentary-democratic consensus as a political procedure was a done deal. On the other hand, the consequence of the trust that the electorate had placed in the representatives of the people was that the principle of "popular sovereignty" became decisive, even if the liberals, under Gagern's guidance, circumvented this term by using the expression "sovereignty of the nation".

However, the parliamentary path and the assumption of political responsibility by liberals and democrats in Frankfurt also had unmistakable downsides: Finding a democratic consensus could take a long time, and during the period of the Paulskirche's activity there was no fixed institutional integration of the individual states, from the submission of conservative forces entirely not to mention.

The problem of the consent of the individual states to the planned reorganization of Germany was therefore only postponed. This is why the accusation has often been raised that the Frankfurt parliamentarians avoided early decisions, that individual states had given time to consolidate them and that they acted in a vacuum in terms of power politics. But early commitments to a government and thus to the future status of Germany were not without conflicts with the individual states, which would have led to crucial tests. What remained was the trust in a stronger National Assembly, which, by creating an unrivaled, attractive imperial constitution, would gain strong support among the population that would support power politics.

Confrontation with the nationality problem

The pre-parliament itself provided an initial huge time delay by scheduling elections for a Germany that included the western half of Austria, which was part of the German Confederation. When the March Revolution broke out, liberals and democrats, whose national attitudes showed no major differences, could not initially rely on the fact that there was a German national movement in Austria comparable to that in the rest of the German Confederation. As a result, the tendency was to concentrate on an area based on the contours of the German customs union.

When the black, red and gold flag fluttered over St. Stephen's Cathedral in the March days, this automatically led to the decision in the pre-parliament to schedule elections for a "Greater Germany" including the western half of Austria; the terms "Klein-" and "Gro├čdeutschland" only appeared at the turn of the year 1848/49.

The pre-parliament did not hesitate in its vote even when problems arose immediately on a detailed question: In Bohemia, a simultaneously emerging national movement of the Czechs, who made up the majority of the country's population, was not prepared to take part in the rebuilding of Germany. This raised the question - initially only recognized by a few - with which Austria was openly confronted in the autumn of 1848, whether the Habsburg monarchy would accept a division of the traditional great power and a rise in Germany.

The problem cases of Schleswig and Posen were hardly less serious. The predominantly German-speaking Schleswig, which in a tricky structure typical of the time of the German Confederation, unlike Holstein, did not belong to it, has long been considered a national focal point. His affiliation to Germany was again vehemently demanded at the time of the March Revolution. On the other hand, the hitherto dynastic-federal Denmark, to which the Kingdom of Denmark and the duchies of Schleswig and Holstein belonged, set about transforming itself into a liberal central state including Schleswig. When Danish troops invaded the duchy, a provisional government of the Elbe duchies was formed on March 24, which was supported in Berlin and Frankfurt. The German army defeated the Danish at Danewerk and Schleswig on April 23, and invaded Jutland on May 3. Denmark's fleet, on the other hand, blocked the German North and Baltic Sea coasts with considerable consequences for the local population.

The military aid for Schleswig was at the same time a Prussian and a federal enterprise, the latter being vigorously promoted by the pre-parliament and the fifties committee in trust in a "just" cause. With this warlike development, however, the risks of a policy of violence by the Frankfurt parliamentarians immediately became apparent. Only Prussia was able to set up effective units, and its king succeeded in deploying "his" army - as in Potsdam, the monarchically oriented army was not immediately democratized in the garrisons and thus left it on the right - a first step towards his political resurgence .

In addition, Russia and England sided with Denmark and thus formed a front against Germany, which was under construction. During the entire year of the revolution, Russia appeared as a resolute opponent of an unification of Germany, while the chances that liberal England covered the establishment of a liberal Germany in terms of foreign policy were not bad. The German reach for Schleswig, whose possession was important with a view to controlling the maritime connections between the Baltic and North Sea as well as a future sea power Germany, was sharply condemned by England and created an unbridgeable distance between England and the entire later work of St. Paul's Church.

Things were different in the Grand Duchy of Poznan: Although its Polish residents, analogous to the Kingdom of Poland, had been placed under special nationality protection thanks to the Congress of Vienna, after 1830/31 Posen was in fact converted into a "normal" Prussian province with a considerable German-speaking minority lived. But with the March Revolution, the enthusiasm for Poland cherished by liberals and democrats took hold once again in Prussia, Berlin citizens cheered the Poles, who had been condemned the previous year and now liberated, and this became - in many cases in anticipation of an imminent general freedom struggle against reactionary Russia led by France "Reorganization" of their country promised.

But when a Polish national movement, which was now rapidly gaining strength in Poznan itself, wanted to take the opportunity for a new beginning, a national counter-movement of the Germans in the province emerged, which enabled the Prussian king to quickly end the pro-Polish course . The "uprising" of the Poles was suppressed by the Prussian military at the beginning of May, to the applause of Russia and protests from France, and most of the province was henceforth included in Germany; only a residual pose should become autonomous.

This development drove the Frankfurt Liberals and Democrats from one embarrassment to the other. Above all, the arguments of the German Poznan, who did not want to become citizens of Poland parallel to the creation of a German state, as well as the striving for a Germany strong against Russia, led to a policy of unrestrained protection of Germany's interests came to the fore. Long before the Paulskirche met, the springtime of nations had come to an end.