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Europe (1815-1848)

Germany and Prussia in 1848

1848 Revolutions: The Austrian Empire

Study Questions



In Prussia, the old king, Frederick William III, had always been opposed to giving the Prussian people a constitution. Frederick William IV, who was generally as weak and unskilled as his father, similarly feared giving the people a constitution. However, the success of Prussia in the last few decades had been almost entirely due to the skilled group of bureaucrats and administrators serving the government, and all of these administrators were pushing hard for a constitutional monarchy.

In March 1848, rioting began in Berlin, as the 1848 revolution fever crossed from Austria into Prussia. Frederick William IV quickly mobilized the disciplined Prussian army to suppress the revolution. However, he surprised everyone by taking a liberal stance and allowing an election to take place to elect a Prussian assembly. The elected radical revolutionaries wanted to unite Prussia with all of Germany to create a force that could challenge Russia. The Assembly also desired to grant the Polish minorities living in eastern Prussia a right of self-government. Deciding that the experiment in democratic government had gone on long enough, Frederick William IV changed his mind and dissolved the Prussian Assembly.


The 1848 revolutions inspired a similar nationalist movement in Germany proper. In May 1848, a group of German nationalists met at the Frankfurt Assembly. The goals of the assembly included creating a unified Germany that was Liberal and constitutionally governed. The Frankfurt assembly argued over various topics, including the question of who (the Prussian or Austrian ruler?) should rule a unified Germany.

In December of 1848, the Frankfurt Assembly issued the Declaration of the Rights of the German People, based on the Declarations of the Rights of Man in France and the Declaration of Independence in the United States. Following the Nationalist rather than Enlightenment ideal, this declaration ignored the universal rights of all mankind and simply proclaimed the rights of Germans.

In 1849, the Frankfurt Assembly offered Germany to Frederick William IV. Though he coveted the territory, Frederick William knew that an acceptance would lead to war with Austria and make him into a constitutional monarch, neither of which he desired. He turned the offer down. Thus, all the deliberation of the Frankfurt Assembly resulted in nothing. Germany remained fragmented after 1848, and the small rulers of the various small German states came back to power.


Wanting to maintain the power they held within the loose confederation of the Bund, the leaders of the small German states staunchly opposed revolution. Furthermore, Prussia and Austria, who combined to dominate Germany, liked a weak Germany, primarily because they feared the possibility of a united, powerful Germany on their borders.

The Frankfurt Assembly consisted of a fairly bland group of liberal German professionals. They were not particularly fiery revolutionaries, and were essentially unwilling to consider violent revolution. The German bourgeoisie involved in the Frankfurt Assembly failed to unite broad lower-class support in Germany. Instead of harnessing the power of lower-class discontent, the Frankfurt Assembly made the mistake of alienating the lower classes, and this anti-proletariat attitude doomed the Frankfurt Assembly from the start. When lower-class riots did break out in Germany, the Frankfurt Assembly did its best to stop them. Furthermore, the Frankfurt Assembly was plagued by difficult questions that it could not resolve. Its members debated whether Germany should contain only the Bund, or also include parts of Austria or Prussia. The ownership of Schleswig-Holstein, officially the property of Denmark, was another contentious issue. Roughly split between a German and a Danish population, the Frankfurt Assembly wanted to annex Schleswig-Holstein, hoping to call on Prussia for help. However, they also knew that Russia and Great Britain would team up against Prussia if it tried to take over Schleswig-Holstein.

In many ways, the Frankfurt Assembly can be seen as indicative of the larger context of 1848. Just as the Frankfurt Assembly was dominated by various minor squabbles, the 1848 revolutions were filled with many nationalist groups, all of whom had different visions of the future of Europe. Further, just as the Frankfurt Assembly disappeared with a whimper, turned down by the man it had selected as ruler of a unified Germany, so too did the revolutions of 1848 generally lead to little change: France was ruled by an Emperor, Austria was more autocratic than ever, and Germany remained a patchwork of minor states. But the ideas animating the revolutions did not die with the revolutions themselves. Though the Frankfurt assembly ended in a sort of wounded embarrassment, the desire to unify Germany remained strong, as did nationalism everywhere. The year of revolutions yielded little result, but in the following years the nationalist impulse to unify would take on greater proportions, and the years between 1848 and 1871 could easily be termed an age of unification.

Further, in 1848, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels published the Communist Manifesto. Although the work did not greatly influence the revolutions of the time, its authors were themselves influenced by the events of that year and the context of that period. Future revolutions would begin to incorporate the ideology Marx and Engels developed, an ideology tempered by battle between reactionaries and revolutionaries in the years from 1815 to 1848.

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