1849 Counter – Revolution in Europe

Festung Rastatt 1849

The acerbic nationalism and arrogant feeling of cultural superiority of the Frankfurt parliament of 1849 is singularly unattractive, but is far removed from later manifestations of German national sentiment. No claim was made for Alsace or for areas in the Baltic outside the bounds of the Confederation, where there were substantial German populations. Furthermore, the Frankfurt parliament was mindful that minority rights within the new Germany should be respected. On the other hand there was a lot of heady talk of Germany as the future European superpower that would turn its mighty army against the barbarous Slavs as the newborn nation had its baptism of fire. Much of this was little more than hot air, over – compensation for Germany ‘ s pathetic weakness; but it betrayed a disturbing cast of mind. Monsters were slumbering in Germany that only the keenest of minds such as the poet Heinrich Heine and the novelist Gottfried Keller were able to detect.

The Frankfurt parliament was plagued not only by the national question but also by the social problems of a society in the process of fundamental change. An artisans ‘ congress was held in Frankfurt in an attempt to put pressure on the parliament. Politically the artisans were mostly liberal democrats, but economically they were arch – conservatives. They were anti – capitalist and anti – industrial. They hankered after the pre – industrial society of guilds and proud master craftsmen. They called for an ordered brotherhood under a protective and interventionist state.

The working classes were also active in 1848. Workers ‘ associations (Arbeitervereine) sprang up all over Germany. At the end of August a national congress organized by Stefan Born, at that time a disciple of Karl Marx, was held in Berlin at which an umbrella organization called the Workers ‘ Brotherhood (Allgemeine Deutsche Arbeiterverbrüderung) was formed. It was a reformist rather than a revolutionary organization, which stood for working – class solidarity, the formation of unions and cooperatives, and, above all, for education. It called for ” social democracy, ” by which was meant fair wages and justice for all in a humane and caring society. Obviously there were widely differing views on how these ideals could be realized, but there was general agreement when Born denounced ” dreamers who foam with rage ” and urged a moderate and pragmatic approach. The intellectual giants of the socialist movement, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, ignored the workers ‘ associations, and their Communist League played no role in the revolution. They had precious few followers and their articles in the Rheinische Zeitung failed to resonate among the nascent working class.

Meanwhile, the forces of the counter – revolution prepared to strike back. In Prussia the ” camarilla ” around the crown prince was tirelessly active. The Gerlach brothers, Ernst and Leopold, founded an ultra – conservative newspaper soon to be known as the ” Iron Cross ” (Kreuzzeitung) because of the medal printed above its title: Neue Preußische Zeitung. This was to become the authoritative voice of Prussian conservatism. The Junkers formed an association to further their interests, meeting in what came to be known as the Junker parliament, to discuss matters of common concern. The army was solidly behind the counter – revolution and longed to seek revenge for the humiliation it had suffered in March. Its attitude was succinctly expressed in the title of an influential pamphlet: Soldiers Are the Only Remedy for Democrats.

The radicals had been crushed in April in Baden, but they were still active in the Paul’s Church, where they continued to demand the creation of a republic based on popular sovereignty. They railed against the conservatives and the liberals, issuing jeremiads about the horrors of the counter – revolution. Disillusioned with parliamentary procedures, they hoped to push the revolution forward by extra – parliamentary activism. They called for a second and more radical revolution in which the will of the people would be directly expressed by means of a Jacobin dictatorship. Some 200 delegates representing radical associations from throughout Germany as well as some delegates to the Paul’s Church, met in Frankfurt in mid – June under the chairmanship of Julius Fr ö bel, the nephew of the founder of the kindergarten movement. They decided to form a national republican movement with a distinctly totalitarian flavor based in Berlin. They gained considerable support from the disaffected lower orders, who were yet to feel the effects of an economic upturn. But it was the acceptance of the Malmö armistice by the Frankfurt parliament that brought matters to a head. On September 18 a radical mob stormed the Paul’s Church, which was defended by Austrian, Prussian, and Hessian troops. Eighty people were killed on both sides, including the conservative deputies General von Auerswald and Prince Lichnowsky, whereupon the Archduke John placed the city under martial law. It was a richly significant scene: the Frankfurt parliament could only continue to exist as long as it was still tolerated by Austria and Prussia.

The violence in Frankfurt, particularly the brutal murder of two deputies, discredited the radicals in the eyes of most Germans. The subsequent uprising in Baden, led once again by Hecker and Struve, who blamed the rich and the Jews for the failure of the revolution, had precious little popular support. It was quickly suppressed by the minuscule Baden army. Elsewhere in the southwest there were murmurs of discontent, but little violence.

Moderate liberals, terrified by the prospect of further violence, felt obliged to join forces with the conservatives to combat the radicals. They thus stopped the revolution in its tracks. The vast majority of Germans agreed with them in prioritizing law and order at the expense of freedom and due process. The radicals refused to give up the struggle. At the second Democratic Congress, held in Berlin at the end of October, they pronounced the Frankfurt parliament illegitimate and demanded new elections. But by this time the counter – revolution was virtually complete in Vienna and in Berlin, leaving the radicals hopelessly divided among rival factions.

Frederick William IV hoped to reach some compromise agreement with the National Assembly over the constitutional question. By insisting on its sovereign rights, the Berlin parliament, a somewhat more radical body than the Paul’s Church, was in direct conflict with the king. There was constant pressure from the radical democratic working classes and the unemployed leading to frequent clashes with the bourgeois citizens ‘ militia. Prince William, the ” Grapeshot Prince, ” returned to Berlin in June as a delegate to the National Assembly, thus rendering the atmosphere increasingly tense. On June 14 the mob stormed the Berlin arsenal, the citizens ‘ militia was unable to control the situation and the army had to be called in from Potsdam. The reactionaries called for the dismissal of the National Assembly, but the king felt this would be too drastic a move.

On July 26 the National Assembly published a draft constitution. It was a moderate liberal document but one that was unacceptable to conservatives and the left alike. It called for the army to be bound by the constitution. In the struggle over this central issue the moderates in the Assembly found themselves caught between the reactionaries and the radicals. The king took a step in the direction of the reactionaries and then a step back in the direction of compromise. The Assembly ‘s position began to harden as it called for parliamentary control over the judiciary and police, the abolition of aristocratic titles along with all orders and titles, plus the ending of the king ‘ s claim to rule by the grace of God. There were sporadic outbursts of violence as the mob grew restless. The moderate reforming minister president, General Pfuel, seeing his hopes for compromise dashed, resigned at the end of October. His place was taken by Count von Brandenburg, who favored a little Germany with the Prussian king as emperor. The arch – reactionary Otto von Manteuffel was minister of the interior. The National Assembly was promptly adjourned but refused to move. General Wrangel marched his troops into Berlin and proclaimed martial law. The National Assembly and the citizens ‘ militia were disbanded. The reaction was in full command. Not a shot was fi red, not a drop of blood spilt. On December 5 the king granted a constitution which, to the extreme annoyance of the conservatives, bore a distinct resemblance to that proposed by the National Assembly. It was a shrewd move. It eased the tensions and bought time. The line to Frankfurt was not broken, the German question left open.

Although the counter – revolution was near complete, discussions continued in Frankfurt over the constitution. It was finally voted upon on December 20, but the cardinal issues of whether Germany should include Austria and who should be the head of the new nation – state were left open. It was a moderate liberal document that upheld principles of equality before the law, civil rights, and the abolition of all remaining vestiges of the feudal system. It was resolutely liberal on economic issues. Radicals were disappointed that it did not address the social question, that it was not more robustly democratic, that the influence of the churches was not to be curbed, and, a favorite demand, that the Jesuits were not to be turfed out of Germany. The new Germany was to be a federal state, but the framers of the constitution could find no solution to the problem of overcoming the disparities between the component states. Should the smaller entities be annexed or the large states like Prussia be divided up into smaller federations? Although the existing situation was highly unsatisfactory, it was decided to leave things as they were and hope for the best. There were to be two houses of parliament, a House of the People (Volkshaus) which would be democratically elected and a House of the States (Staatenhaus) in which the individual states would be represented. The suffrage question was not settled until the beginning of March 1849. Many liberals voted for universal direct manhood suffrage in the confident hope that this would make it impossible for the Prussian king to accept the imperial crown.

There were few republicans in the Frankfurt parliament, and even those who inclined towards a republican solution realized that it would be impossible to abolish all the existing monarchies within the Confederation. They favored what came to be called a ” republican monarchy. ” Monarchs should exist by the grace of the people represented in parliament, not by the grace of God. Their model was the Glorious Revolution of 1688. But who was to be emperor? Should he be elected as in the old empire? Should parliament elect an emperor who would then establish a hereditary dynasty? Should Austria and Prussia takes turns in appointing an emperor, or should one or other ruling house rule in perpetuity? All this was highly theoretical, as was most of the discussion in the Paul’s Church. In the last resort the answer to the German question lay in the outcome of the struggle within and between Prussia and Austria.

The majority of delegates to the Paul’s Church assumed that the Habsburg empire was on the point of disintegration and that therefore German Austria and Bohemia would willingly join in the new Germany. Austria would then work out some form of personal union with what was left of the multi – national empire. This was a hopelessly unrealistic position. Austria could not possibly be both part of a German great power and remain a great power outside the new Reich. A greater Germany would have necessitated the dismemberment of the Habsburg empire. With the counter – revolution in Austria nearly complete on November 27, 1848, Metternich’s protégé and successor, Prince Schwarzenberg, proclaimed the indivisibility of the empire, thus putting paid to any hopes for a greater German solution. In March the following year he proposed that the entire Austrian empire should be included in the new Germany. This was totally unacceptable since Germany would then be dominated by Austria, a state in which the vast majority of the population was not even German.

The kleindeutsche solution was now the only possible answer to the dilemma. Its leading advocate was Heinrich von Gagern, who became minister president in mid – December, but the liberal Austrian Schmerling and his groß deutsche supporters were still numerous and hopeful that the Austrians might be persuaded to change their minds. German nationalists, among them many on the left, felt that Austria could not possibly be excluded. They imagined that it could well do without its non – German provinces. South German Catholics detested Protestant Prussia and identified with their Austrian co – religionists. Many feared that a Little Germany would provoke Russia and Austria to intervene, leaving the country under the knout.

Prussia, on the other hand, might be reactionary and militaristic, but at least it was a thoroughly German state and had gone through an impressive series of reforms. It was a rational state, at least in the Hegelian sense, the architect of the Zollverein, soberly Protestant, certainly not a threat, even prepared it seemed to ” dissolve into Germany. ” Schwarzenberg ‘ s intransigence led to a mass desertion from the groß deutsche cause, and even Schmerling defected in March. By now it was a case of either a Little Germany or none at all. On the 28th of that month Frederick William IV of Prussia was elected emperor of the Germans, with 290 votes in favor of the motion and 248 abstentions.

The ruling elite in Prussia favored acceptance, provided that the franchise was changed, provision made for an absolute veto, and the election accepted by the princes; but Frederick William was adamantly opposed. He saw himself as a king by the grace of God and refused to accept a crown that was made of ” muck and mire, ” a ” dog collar with which they want to chain me to the revolution of 1848. ” It was an unthinking and intensely emotional response, but subsequent events make it seem unlikely that even a compromise solution would have had much of a chance of success.

Heinrich von Gagern still hoped that a compromise was possible, but it was rejected both by Frederick William and the majority in the Paul’s Church. The Frankfurt parliament now began a gradual process of dissolution. Austria and Prussia withdrew their delegations, Saxony and Hanover followed suit. A rump parliament of intransigent radicals moved to Stuttgart, where they were soon chased away by a contingent of the Württemberg army. There were isolated outbursts of violence in protest against the reactionary course. Barricades were erected in Dresden and were graced with the presence of such luminaries as the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, Richard Wagner, who was in Dresden as director of the Semper Oper and had just finished his opera Lohengrin, the great architect Gottfried Semper, whose magnificent opera house had been opened in 1841, and the socialist Stefan Born. Prussian troops were called in to crush the uprising, and fierce fighting ensued. Rebels managed to install a temporary government in the Palatinate. A colorful assortment of radicals from all over central Europe rushed to its support. Once again the disorganized and ill – disciplined radicals were no match for the Prussian army, and the uprising was soon suppressed. In the Rhineland Friedrich Engels was able to put the relationship between theory and praxis to the test in a series of riots that were soon mastered by the citizens ‘ militia.

Defeated barricade fighters, mercenaries, and idealists now rushed to Baden for a last – ditch stand. Here the Prussian army took somewhat longer to repress the revolt, but the final outcome was never in any doubt.

Fair weather seemed to grace the Fortress of Rastatt on 20 July 1849. Carl Schurz, a young officer in the rebellious nationalist army holding the town, hurried to his post atop the highest tower of the citadel. Raising a telescope in one quick movement to his eye, Schurz began a routine observation of the surrounding country. To the east he saw the valley of the Rhine with its fertile fields and vineyards. An occasional church tower jutted upwards against the backdrop of the high hills and ridges that hid Baden-Baden from view. To the south he surveyed a flowering valley bordered by the Black Forest. To the north a plain stretched into infinity. Westwards Schurz spied the blue outlines of Alsace’s distant mountains. “How beautiful is nature,” he thought, “in all its loving, generous goodness.”

A short journey away to the north brought one to Bonn, the town of his university days. It was there, sixteen months earlier, that news of the fall of French King Louis Philippe had reached his ears. With the rest of the students he had gathered in the square, convinced that the political tremors from France would inevitably shake the earth throughout Germany. No one could concentrate on lectures. Instead, they flocked to pubs and raised glasses to the coming day of democratic rights in a mighty new German Empire. And during that first revolutionary spring it had all come to pass-as if in a dream…

Reality nudged the young man’s shoulder. He must lower his telescope and do his duty. The nearby picket lines and encircling campsites of Prince William’s Prussian soldiers contrasted starkly with the natural beauty and bounty of the distant Rhineland. Cavalry patrols and horse artillery scurried about like spiders weaving sticky webs around their prey. Schurz and his six thousand compatriots knew they were trapped-and the Prussians among them knew they would be executed for treason if captured. But somehow emboldening rumors always made the rounds: General Sigel’s rebel troops had defeated the Prussians in the Badenese highlands and would soon lift the siege; another revolution had broken out in France that would soon spread east to liberate Germany; the Hungarians had overwhelmed a combined Austro-Russian army and would soon join hands with beleaguered rebel soldiers in Baden. One day they heard cannon fire coming closer and closer to the fortress. Schurz and the other officers rushed to the tower to see Sigel’s advancing columns with their own eyes, but the cannon fire soon yielded to a demoralizing silence.

The only person to enter Rastatt on 20 July, a Prussian envoy, brought the depressing news that Sigel had been chased into Switzerland and that no other rebel troops remained on German soil. The besieged were allowed to send one scout outside the walls to ascertain the sobering truth of this message. Having seen Sigel’s armaments stacked ignominiously on the Badenese side of the Swiss border, the downcast scout returned.

On 23 July the last of Germany’s rebellious citizens laid down their weapons on the glacis and filed out of the gate. Prince William turned his back on the forlorn column of “traitors.” All Prussians found in this force met the fate they expected. Schurz was not among the corpses, having escaped through a sewage canal to freedom and later fame in the United States.

The revolution that began with such fury, hope, and apparent success in March 1848 was over.

 There followed a series of treason trials and summary executions. Every tenth man captured in the fortress town of Rastatt was shot. The brutality of the Prussians in Baden left a lasting trauma and bitter hatred and there was a fresh wave of emigration, mainly to the United States


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