Wednesday, December 26, 2012

March 18, 1848 – Violence Begets German National Assembly

1848 became the Year of Revolution as nation after nation rose up, questioning their feudal leaders and calling for great populist reforms. The end of the first era of the Industrial Revolution had created a huge body in the Working Class. New ideas such as Nationalism and Socialism expanded, filling the population with demands from their traditional rulers. Revolution began in France, where it toppled King Louis Philippe, and spread throughout Europe as well as Latin America, but nowhere had as dramatic of a change as in Germany.

The German peoples had been largely disunited for as long as history recorded. Romans pitted tribes against one another to maintain vague control, but the people's strength was proven as Goths and Visigoths overran Rome. Otto I carved out the Holy Roman Empire, a confederation that included the German-speaking people as well as other groups. During his conquests of Europe, Napoleon dissolved the antiquated HRE and installed a new system with the Confederation of the Rhine that laid the groundwork for a true German nation. After Napoleon's defeat, the Congress of Vienna created a looser Federal Confederation, presided over by the Austrian emperor. It held a Federal Assembly in Frankfurt, which met weekly and was used to block attempts at liberalizing.

In 1848, Germans charged by nationalism cried for unity. Taxes and censorship spurred the people forward, and cities began to see demonstrations. Nobles, fearful that they might lose everything as Louis Philippe had, quickly bowed to liberal demands, such as freedom of the press, elections, and the right of arms for the people. Most anticipated the liberalism to be temporary and simply wished to ride out the storm.

One of the largest uprisings took place in Berlin, the capital of Prussia, Germany's most powerful nation. The army had initially been used in an attempt to scare the people from the streets. However, the people continued to return to protest, even facing oncoming fire from the army that killed hundreds. Rather than fleeing, the people became more aggressive, fighting back and establishing barricades. King Frederick Wilhelm IV was shocked that his people acted out and immediately agreed to all of their demands, calling for a new National Assembly to be elected through universal male suffrage.

Among those elected was Professor Jacob Grimm. He and his brother, Wilhelm, had become famous after compiling their collection of German folktales, Kinder- und Hausmärchen (“Children's and Household Tales”). The two became professors at the University of Göttingen in 1830 but were forced to leave when they refused to give loyalty oaths to King Ernest Augustus after he had eliminated Hanover's constitution in 1837. Their fame preceded them, however, and the brothers were invited by Frederick Wilhelm to professorships at the University of Berlin. They were also awarded scholarships from the Academy of Science to continue their studies, Wilhelm in mythology and Jacob in philology, together working to create the first German dictionary.

As Jacob left for the Assembly, Wilhelm sent along with him a special annotated edition of their fairy tales. Each story was given a description of its relation to the important work of unifying Germany. Jacob appreciated the gift, and its significance showed how cohesive and effective story is to the human spirit. As he came into the Assembly, Jacob made speeches referencing the stories, often reading them in entirety and showing their perspective on the situation. He made himself into a sort of “whip” for the Assembly, refusing to allow factional ideals to halt any progress.

Jacob's main point to force unification was the Schleswig War. On the southern end of Jutland, a great many Germans lived under the rule of the Danish king. In March of 1848, like the rest of Europe, the Germans began demonstrations to achieve a German government. The Danish king sent 7,000 troops to quell the uprising, and the Prussians reacted by sending troops of their own. Jacob did not rest at having Prussia take up so much responsibility alone and drafted a bill calling for soldiers from every corner of Germany. The Assembly had no clear legal authority to do so, but the positive response from the people forced the nobility to comply. A navy followed on June 14, which would end Danish blockades of German harbors. By the end of June, a massive German force fully garrisoned Schleswig. International pressure called for an end to the war, which was signed at the Treaty of Berlin with the National Assembly approving the annexation of Schleswig into a unified German state with Frederick Wilhelm as Kaiser.

The Assembly's next action was to appease the “Großdeutsche” (Greater German faction), which wished to include Austria. At times, they refused to cooperate with “Kleindeutsche” (Lesser Germany), but Jacob Grimm was able to convince them to be patient and work in steps, as in “The Tailor in Heaven,” who is cast out of paradise because he is not yet ready. In Austria, similar protests had caused the Emperor Ferdinand to abdicate, giving the throne to his nephew Franz Joseph, who immediately proclaimed Austria was indivisible. Jacob contributed to continuing the German revolution there until the rest of Europe became distracted by the Crimean War. In the Austro-German War, the Empire shattered into numerous ethnic states, destabilizing the Balkans but establishing Germany as the great new Central European power.

Through the nineteenth century, Germany would join the new balance of power in Europe and participate in colonial wars in Africa and the Pacific. In the twentieth century, governments worked to suppress uprisings at home and overseas in the next great political movement: socialism.


In reality, the German National Assembly failed to follow through on the revolution. Grimm, despite his fervent nationalism, did not make much of a show at the Assembly, which disintegrated into factional infighting. After the failure of the First Schleswig War and Frederick Wilhelm refusing the crown (later saying he did not want to receive it “from the gutter”), the movement had clearly fallen out of favor. Germany would not be unified until military successes in the Austro-Prussian War and Franco-Prussian War two decades later.

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