Revolution 1848

A 1848er
A 1848er

Germany, 1848.  The great social need and pent-up anger against the restoration policy finally erupted in the March revolution. The news from Paris spread quickly, and already in the first days of March uprisings occurred in Germany. In February 1848, revolution broke out in France, King Louis-Philippe of France was forced to abdicate.

March 1848

In many cities people marched through the streets, waving black-red-golden flags and demanding unity, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, arming of the people and a national German parliament that would represent the citizens, not only the monarchs. Nonetheless, most Germans would accept a constitutional monarchy and preferred a peaceful transition. Caught by surprise and off guard, the rulers of the small and medium German states gave in to the “demands of March” and appointed liberal ministers, the “March ministers”. The Federal Council released censorship of the press and declared black-red-golden as national flag.

In Vienna, Chancellor Metternich, who had dominated the Pre-March, had to resign and flee to London. In Berlin, King Frederick William IV was distressed, but on March 18, he promised a constitution and a liberal government. Then the mood swung and tensions escalated: barricades were erected and from March 18 until the morning hours of March 19, street fights raged in Berlin. The cause of the insurgents was almost lost, but the King did not want any more blood to be shed and ordered his troops to retreat. In March 1848, the revolution had won.

In our region there were democratic clubs too. At Bonn University, professor Gottfried Kinkel from Oberkassel and his student Carl Schurz from Liblar had become friends, they founded the “Bonner Zeitung” and advocated democratic reforms.

National Assembly in St. Paul’s cathedral, Frankfurt

A prototype parliament called for free elections for a National Assembly for all of Germany. The march of the parliamentarians into the Paulskirche (St. Paul’s cathedral) in Frankfurt on May 18, 1848, was a big day. Everywhere black-red-golden flags were waved and people cheered for the parliamentarians. Among them were Jakob Grimm and Ernst Moritz Arndt. The National Assembly had to face tremendous tasks. Its standing, however, was low from the very first. The princes had given in only for the moment, and most of them, above all the big powers Prussia and Austria, did not even think of accepting the victory of revolution. They acted as if the National Assembly did not exist. There was nothing that the National Assembly could do except protest, since it had no executive power. While the National Assembly discussed about a new constitution, it was overtaken by reality. The fights continued and the old powers regained territories and might.

Troops against democrats

In November 1848, Count Schwarzenberg crushed the revolutionary movement in Austria and restored absolute monarchy with Francis Joseph I (in German Franz Joseph, 1848-1916) as new Emperor. Robert Blum, a member of the National Assembly, had been sent to Vienna to encourage the republicans. In those desperate days, he got involved in street fights and was arrested. In defiance of his immunity as a member of the National Assembly and all the protests, he was executed on November 9, 1848. Troops marched into Berlin, and the old powers regained control. Frederick William IV appointed a new cabinet that consisted of conservatives only.

On December 5, 1848, he imposed a constitution of his own which was based upon the work of the National Assembly. It provided for a two-house-parliament. The upper house, the Herrenhaus (“House of Lords”), was appointed by the King. The lower house, the Landtag, was elected by all male taxpayers. Yet, their votes did not have the same weight. According to the amount of taxes paid, the voters were divided into three classes. As a result, the few voters with a high income, and therefore a considerable amount of taxes paid, had a lot more political influence than large parts of the population with little or none income.

In March 1849, the National Assembly had finally finished its work. In December 1848, the “Basic Rights for the German People” proclaimed equal rights for all citizens before the law. On March 28, 1849, the constitution was passed: Germany should become a constitutional monarchy with the Hohenzollern dynasty of Prussia as emperors. On April 2, 1849, a delegation of the National Assembly travelled to Berlin and offered the crown to Frederick William IV. He turned it down in a polite, but unmistakable way. For a man who believed that his was king by the grace of God, it was inconceivable to receive the crown from the people.

The National Assembly was forced to dissolve in 1849. A second revolutionary wave went through Germany, mainly Saxony, Baden, the Rhineland, Westphalia and the Palatine – democrats took up arms again to force the monarchs to accept the constitution. Prussian troops under Prince William crushed the second revolutionary wave in Baden and the Palatinate.

Schurz and Kinkel join the revolutionaries

Schurz, Kinkel, and others from the University of Bonn community were among them. In the night of May 10/11, 1849, they both marched at the top of 120 citizens to the arsenal in Siegburg, to get the Landwehr’s weapons stored there. But the operation failed, Kinkel and Schurz had to flee. They joined the revolution in the Palatinate and Baden. Prussia sent an army under the command of Prince William. The revolutionaries were no match for the skilled Prussian troops. Kinkel was wounded and captured. The last revolutionaries, among them Schurz, were locked up in the in the fortress of Rastatt. They had to surrender to avoid more bloodshed. As a Prussian citizen, he had to face death sentence, but had a narrow escaped.


In 1850, Schurz returned secretly to Prussia and rescued Kinkel from prison at Berlin-Spandau, they both escaped to Edinburgh, Scotland.Later Schurz went to Paris, but on the eve of Napoléon III’coup d’état in December 1851 revolutionaries were no longer welcome in France, the police forced him to leave the country. Schurz went to London. There he met Margarete, who become his wife. In August 1852, they emigrated to the United States. Margarethe opened a kindergarten in Watertown, the first in the United States. Carl Schurz became an accomplished journalist and later American statesman and reformer, almost friends with President Lincoln, and Secretary of the Interior under President Rutherford B. Hayes.

Read more about him in my emigrants’ story “At home at the Rhine and in America”.

The photos are from the German Wikipedia, public domain section.

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