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The German Revolutions of 1848

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The German revolutions of 1848 had two main goals, to unify a German nation state and moderate liberalisation and demands for political reform. The revolutions failed to unify Germany due to the weaknesses of the revolutions itself (lack of support, leadership, money, etc.), the failure of the Frankfurt parliament and the strength of the forces of continuity and forces of reaction. The main reason for failure of the revolutions came from the weakness of the revolutions itself as they failed to grasp what they needed to succeed and lost too many opportunities.

Popular enthusiasm for revolution is often short lived and within a few months the desire of nationalism and liberalism dyed down. The support needed amongst peasants for a revolution to occur was not in hand, the leaders of the revolutions failed to gain mass support with the lower classes and the peasants needed a leader to control them. They were causing disturbances in the countryside by refusing to perform feudal services and attacking castles but they did not want the same as the middle class and did not understand there ideologies and aims. The loss of support was encouraged by the slow progress of the Frankfurt parliament. The Industrial code that was put forward was hope for the working class but after it was rejected, many of the working class lost the faith they held and the support fell even more. Also, the support of the masses was divided and this led to riots and peasant risings that had no aims.

This meant that there was a lack of support that was needed in order for the revolution to occur as the peasants needed a leader to control them and this was another key reason why the revolutions of 1848 were a failure. They were causing disturbances in the countryside by refusing to perform feudal services and attacking castles. The group of people that caused unrest within towns were called ‘Handwerkers’, they provided the majority of manufactured goods, and were annoyed that machinery was taking over their jobs, and their trades were in decline. As a whole, the middle class people were a group that could have led the masses to a revolution but failed to do so. They were not representative and did not have the same ideas as the peasants and they were more interested in looking after their own economic priorities, and wanted to keep the princes ideas of order. The failure to support and organise the working class to their benefit resulted in the failure of the revolutions as a whole.

The Frankfurt parliament was not experienced enough to handle a revolution as they wasted time on discussions instead of taking action. Their naivety was exposed in their belief that they could convince the princes to merge and co-operate. They also had no organized political parties to hold the deputies together for voting as a block, which lead to the failure. The Frankfurt parliament lacked ‘muscle’ they were unable to collect taxation and had no financial power. The parliament had no way of raising an army or enforcing any laws that were passed. They were stuck in a loose-loose situation, where without a bureaucracy they could not raise any money and without any money they could not raise a bureaucracy.

The support of no army always left the German confederation and Frankfurt parliament in a weak and unstable situation, the only army capable of acting as a national army was the Prussian army. However, the Prussian army only accepted the post on the condition that he would no be made to act in any way contrary to the wishes of the King of Prussia, therefore the German confederation was subservient to the king of a Prussia and this meant they would never gain approval to use the military power against Prussia or other reactionary forces and left them in a situation to could not succeed.

The leaders of the revolution were unpopular and could not agree on basic and major decisions – they could not even decide if they wanted a Germany which included Prussia and Austria, or a Germany simply made up of the German states, a GrossDeutschland or KleinDeutschland. This was simply a lost opportunity and the Austrian military, allowed to do so by the inefficiency and indecisiveness of the Frankfurt Assembly, took control again with his army and marched back into Vienna in October 1848, driving out the city government of democratic and socialist workers, artisans and students within five days. The Frankfurt parliament needed a leader and head of Germany, so in March 1849 they elected the Prussian king Frederick William IV who directly opposed revolution as the Emperor of Germany. When members of the Frankfurt Parliament travelled to

Berlin to offer him their crown on 3 April 1849, he refused on the grounds that it was not the parliaments to offer. The disunity among the leaders and the lack of leadership which was needed as a basis of a revolution was another reason for the failure of the revolution of 1848.

By 1849, it was clear the German revolutions failed and the forces of reaction were once again in the ascendant. Prussian liberals were defeated and police powers increased and local government powers reduced. Franz Joseph, Austrian emperor had regained control and martial law enforced. The three dynastic empires – Austria, Prussia and Russia continued to dominate central Europe and remained a threat to the German confederation as they would not support the German unification and resulted in its collapse. Most of the failure of the German revolutions was due to the situation in Germany however in the end the revolutions also failed because the enemy was stronger, better organised and above all had military power.

After Austria had crushed the Italian revolts of 1848/1849, the Habsburgs were ready to turn their attention back to Germany and there uprising, as Germany lacked support from the German states and had no army, they could resist Austrian power and the Frankfurt assembly was dissolved and the revolutions failed. Given their military advantages and determination they won in the end and once order was restored in Austria they continued to dominate Germany and by keeping her weak and divided, there was no possibility of any moves towards an united Germany being allowed to take place. Germany could only ever be united if the Austrian Empire collapsed and lost its power, therefore the force of Austria resulted in the failure of the German revolutions.

The failure of the German revolutions consisted of both the weaknesses of the revolutions itself and the force of reaction, especially from Austria. However, the German revolutions of 1848 cannot be classed as a total failure as although there were no immediate successes there were outcomes that in the long term would benefit Germany. The abolition of the remnants of feudalism meant that many workers were free to work in factories. After 1848, all the monarchical regimes accepted the need to modernise and conservatives saw the need to show an interest in the social problems of the working classes. Most importantly, the 184 revolutions had helped stir nation consciousness across Germany and a general drift towards democracy and parliamentary government.

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