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Europe (1815-1848)

Germany and Prussia in 1848

1848 Revolutions: The Austrian Empire

Germany and Prussia in 1848, page 2

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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.

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