The German Revolutions of 1848
The German Revolutions of 1848 swept across 50 countries in Europe, and had a major impact on the German-speaking states. The Revolutions of 1848 in the German states were a series of loosely coordinated protests and rebellions in the German Confederation and Austria which sought to challenge the status quo. The revolutions, which stressed pan-Germanism, emphasised popular discontent with the traditional, largely autocratic political structure of the thirty-nine independent states of the Confederation that inherited the German territory of the former Holy Roman Empire. Furthermore, they demonstrated the popular desire for increased political freedom, liberal state policies, freedom from censorship democracy, and nationalism. The middle class elements were committed to liberal principles while the working class sought radical improvements to their working and living conditions. However, the middle class and working class components of the Revolution split, and in the end the conservative aristocracy defeated it, forcing many liberals into exile.
The camapigners in the German revolution of 1848 had two main goals, a unified German nation state and the introduction of civil liberties.
The demands for political reform included freedom of the press, self-organization of the universities and a parliament representing all German citizens, instead of the federal council representing only the monarchs of a multitude of sovereign German states.
Nationalist sentiment which was widely spread among students and the educated middle class was stimulated by the Rhine crisis of 1840, when it seemed France would invade the Rhineland. The historian Fichte, the writer Arndt and Jahn ("Turnvater Jahn") had contributed in their different ways to the growth of a diffuse German national sentiment. Fichte had raised the national temper with his lectures on the German state, Arndt had declared his undying hatred of the French and Jahn had called for the creation of a strong national body of men ready to die for the fatherland. All three had lived throught the occupation of the German states by the Napoleonic armies, and France was seen as the great rival to the German states, which in their scattered composition had been unable to form a coordinated defence against Napoleon. The Rhine crisis caused a new wave of anti-French sentiment and the composition of patriotic Rheinlied songs. In addition, Denmark's declaration that it would occupy part of Schleswig-Holstein provoked widespread opposition. Nationalistic poems and songs were written, such as the Deutschlandlied ("Deutschland über alles", 1841) which eventually became the national anthem. New journals, magazines, and papers arose, such as Die Deutsche Zeitung (The German Newspaper)", widening awareness of events in France and Denmark. From 1840 on there was a consensus among German liberals that only the dual aim of unity and freedom was worth fighting for.
Disastrous economic conditions also played a part. A cholera epidemic led to widespread death and suffering in Silesia. Population growth and the failures of harvests in 1846 and 1847 caused famine and misery. Many people moved to the cities in order to survive, but wages were very low and living conditions were appalling.
In 1828 the Prussian-Hessian Customs Union was formed, which was designed to make trade in Prussian goods more efficient. Austria was the only state that did not join and it was a powerful motor for the unification of the states within the federation. The Zollverein set standards for taxes for goods and made travel between states much easier. Initially, the union area outside of Prussia was rather small, yet by 1834 it had grown into the Zollverein which encompassed most of what was to become Germany. Amongst other achievements it established standards for weights and currency in Germany.
Events across Europe in 1848 had an impact also on the Germans. In February 1848, King Louis-Phillipe of France abdicated the throne, triggering revolutions across the entire European continent, especially in the German provinces.
Failure of the revolution
The Revolution of 1848 failed in its attempt to unify the German speaking states into a single nation because the Frankfurt Assembly (officially the All-German National Assembly) as an elected body, reflected the many different interests of the German ruling classes and it was difficult, if not impossible to form coalitions in order to push for specific goals. The first conflict arose over the aim of the assembly. The moderate liberals wanted to draw up a document that would be presented to the monarchs as a constitution, whereas the small radical group of members wanted the assembly to declare itself a law-giving parliament. With such a fundamental division within the assembly it was not possible to take any definitive action toward unification or the introduction of democratic rules, and so the assembly became little more than a debating society. While the French revolution could draw on a nation state, the democratic and liberal forces in Germany of 1848 were confronted with the need to build a nation state and a constitutional state at once, which overstrained them. When the Frankfurt Assembly first opened on May 18, 1848, the deputies elected Heinrich von Gagern as the first President of the Assembly. Gagern had strong support from the Center-Right Unionist party and had some influence with some of the moderates of the left, such that he could control perhaps 250 of the deputies of the Frankfurt Assembly. Gagern was a strong supporter of unification of all the German states into a single nation. He insisted however that progress towards unity could only be achieved with the agreement of the monarchs, all of whom were died in the wool reactionaries. Only the Kingdom of Prussia had the military force necessary to effect this unification. Many in the Frankfurt National Assembly, including Gagern, were distrustful of the motives of the Prussian state and their absolutist government. Their reewservations were later to be shown to be justified, when the Prussian army chased the rump assembly out of Frankfurt in 1849.
The Frankfurt Assembly had no powers to raise taxes and relied completely on the goodwill of the monarchs. As many of the members held influential positions in provincial governments, their reluctance to call for radical reforms or annoy their employers in any way meant that it was never possible for the assembly to raise the funds necessary for raising an army or even to enforce any laws that were passed. Dominated by the moderate liberals, there was no chance that a more militant mood would take over and the hundred or so radicals, who believed that an armed uprising was necessary if the old powers were to be defeated, lost interest and left the assembly to try and raise forces at a local level to bring about a 'real' revolution. Without a bureaucracy they could not raise any money and without any money they could not raise a bureaucracy. The assembly started strongly with a great deal of motivation to get things done. This impetus was soon dissipated, however, as the various major divides between the various factions of the Frankfurt Assembly came to the fore—advocates of Grossdeutschland versus advocates of Kleindeutschland, Catholics versus Protestants, supporters of Austria versus supporters of Prussia. As various issues arose before the Frankfurt Assembly, the splits between the various factions became evident. Although the various interest groups began to gather in local meeting places in order to decide on tactics in the assembly these were not organized political parties in the modern sense of the term and faction discipline was at best tenuous.
Meanwhile, outside the Frankfurt Assembly, the rulers of the German states gradually realised that their positions were no longer under threat. The King of Bavaria had stepped down, it was true, but that was only partly the result of pressure from below. As the treat of an armed uprising receded it was clear that German unification was a dead letter. The princes were unwilling to give up any power in the pursuit of unification of the whole country. Some princes were so firmly opposed to the Frankfurt Assembly that they had only tolerated its existence while they quelled rebellions in their respective territories. As soon as they had crushed the rebels, they followed the example of Prussia, recalling their deputies from the Assembly. Only Prussia, with its overwhelming military might, was able to overcome the objections of local princes to the unification of Germany and protect the Frankfurt Assembly from military attack by the princes. But Prussia's motives with regard to the very existence of the Frankfurt National Assembly were always questionable at best.
There were few things on which the deputies of the Frankfurt National Assembly could agree to act. One measure of the Assembly that was significant for the future of Germany was the founding of the Reichsflotte, the German Navy, on June 14, 1848.
The powerlessness of the Frankfurt Assembly, however, was reflected in the debate over the Danish Conflict of 1848. Like many other events of 1848, the Danish conflict was sparked by a street demonstration. On March 21, 1848, the people of Copenhagen poured out into the streets to demand a liberal Constitution. The majority in the Danish province of Holstein and in the southern part of the province of Schleswig was German-speaking. The citizens of the city of Kiel located in the Danish province of Holstein, where a majority of the population spoke German, were unsure of what was occurring in Copenhagen and revolted themselves to establish a separate and autonomous province with closer relations with the German states. On March 24, 1848, they set up a new provisional, autonomous government in Holstein and raised a Schleswig-Holstein army of 7,000 soldiers. The broad range of national/unification opinion in the German states supported joining both provinces of Schleswig and Holstein to a new unified state of Germany. Prussia sent an army in support of the independence movement in Schleswig and Holstein. Prussia ignored the Frankfurt National assembly altogether when Great Britain and Russia applied international pressure to end the war. The Prussians signed a peace reached at Malmo which required the removal of all Prussian troops from the two duchies and agreed to all other Danish demands. The Treaty of Malmo was greeted with extreme public consternation in Germany, as reflected in the debate over the treaty in Frankfurt National Assembly. Because the Frankfurt National Assembly had no army of its own, it could do nothing about the unilateral actions on the part of Prussia. On September 16, 1848, the Frankfurt National Assembly approved of the Malmo Treaty by a majority vote. Public support for the National Assembly declined sharply following the vote on the Malmo Treaty. Indeed, the Radical Republicans came out in opposition to the Assembly itself as a result of the vote on the Malmo Treaty.
After many diversions, the Frankfurt National Assembly was finally able to take up the issue of a German constitution. In October 1848, King Frederick William IV of Prussia unilaterally issued a monarchist constitution. Under this new monarchist Constitution a Prussian Assembly was established. The Assembly was a bicameral legislature, consisting of a Herrenhaus (House of Lords) or upper house, whose members were selected by the provincial governments, and a Landtag (Country Diet) whose members were elected by male suffrage but were seated only through a complicated system of electoral committees. Otto von Bismarck was elected to this first Landtag. The Landtag was an attempt to directly undercut the authority of the Frankfurt National Assembly. In an attempt to regain some authority, the Frankfurt Assembly dispatched a delegation to offer King Frederick William IV the crown of German emperor in April 1849. King Frederick William, however, turned down the offer, because he would accept a crown only by the grace of God, not "from the gutter".
The Frankfurt National Assembly came into existence partly because of events that had begun in Vienna, Austria, which resulted in the fall of Prince Metternich from power. The support for the Assembly came mainly from the southern provinces, where there was a tradition of opposition to the local tyrants. After Austria had crushed the Italian revolts of 1848/1849, the Habsburgs were ready to turn their attention back to Germany. Unable to muster an army and lacking support from the German states, the Assembly could not resist Austrian power. The Frankfurt National Assembly was dissolved on May 31, 1849.
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