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Why Did the Revolutionaries of 1848 Achieve so Little in Germany?

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In 1848, Europe experienced several revolutionary out brakes. These were mainly about issuing constitutions, and the increase of people’s involvement in running the country (I.E. More middle class representation in various parliaments). In Vienna and Berlin, similar revolutions occurred. As in the rest of Europe, these were led by the middle class, and just like the other revolutions, they all failed. The reasons for their failure will be discussed in this essay.

The revolutionaries of 1848 seemed quite promising to start with. They managed to gather working class support, and scared many monarchs who feared their overthrow due the revolutions. As a result, concessions and constitutions were granted by various monarchs throughout Germany. The “Frankfurt Parliament” was also allowed to be established in May 1848, as a result of the revolutions. Its main goals were to create a unified Germany under a constitutional monarch who would rule through an elected parliament. (Stiles, p.29).

Despite the hopes that lay in the Frankfurt parliament, it ended up as a complete failure, and was also a major reason for the failure of the revolutions themselves. The Frankfurt parliament was very inefficient in its decision making process. It took a lot of time to pass decisions and to finally issue a constitution. Even when it actually did issue a constitution, the rulers of Bavaria, Saxony, Hanover, and Prussia rejected it. The King of Prussia at the time, Frederick William 4th , also rejected the throne of “Emperor of a united Germany” (Stiles p. 36) which was offered to him by the Frankfurt parliament. In any case, by June 1849 the parliament was dispersed, and with it died many hopes for a change in Germany. (Encarta 98′ p.117).

As mentioned, the working class supported of the 1848 revolutions. Unfortunately, due to the slow progress and the eventual failure of the Frankfurt parliament, much of the working class lost support in the revolutions. In fact, the working class only supported the revolutionaries because it wanted better working and living conditions. They hoped the Frankfurt parliament would provide them that, but once it failed, they saw no reason for why they should keep supporting the revolutions. Along with their loss of support, much of the popular enthusiasm which surrounded the revolutions declined as time passed by. People saw the revolutions had no future, and the end of the revolutionaries was approaching. (Stiles p. 31-32).

Another reason for the failure of the revolutionaries was the unclear aim of the revolution itself. There was no consensus among the middle class revolutionaries regarding what were the goals they were looking for. If Germany were unified, would it be a “Kleindeutchland” (Little Germany), which was a Protestant Germany with Prussia as its dominant state, or a “Grossdeutchland” (Great Germany), which would include much of the German speaking parts of Austria, and would create a Catholic Germany with Austria as its dominant state. Whether Germany would be a more liberal monarchy (liberal view) or a newly proclaimed Republic (radical view) was also a point conflict between the various revolutionaries. Some revolutionaries even questioned whether actual unification was necessary. These disagreements weakened the unity among the revolutionaries, and made the revolutions more vulnerable to monarchs’ opposition and eventual full regain of power. (www.Britannica.co.uk- “Frankfurt Parliament”)

The middle class revolutionaries also lacked of power when they conducted the revolutions. Most of the revolutions were actually peaceful demonstrations and petitions. If the revolutionaries would of used violent uprisings as their weapon, the picture would’ve looked very different in the eyes of the monarchs. For instance, when a violent upheaval occurred in Berlin, where clashes took place between the king’s army and the demonstrators in March 1848, the king quickly appealed for peace and agreed to some of the demands for reforms, and to the demand of a written constitution. Nevertheless, Berlin was an exception in the revolutions of 1848-49, and with hardly any “Iron and Blood” (Bismarck, 1862. Stiles p. 52), the revolutions had little chances of bringing about efficient concessions and reforms. (Stiles p.39)

The lack of nobility support, although not very significant, was also one of the factors that led to the failure of the 1848 revolutionaries. The revolutionaries never actually tried to gather the nobility into supporting the revolutions. Should the nobility have supported the revolutions, they would have been able to apply more pressure on the monarchs to enact reforms and to give concessions. (Encarta 98′ p.117)

The nobility had a much bigger influence over the monarchs than the working and middle class had. If the monarchs would of found themselves facing working and middle class discontent along with nobility pressure, they probably would of given in to many of the concessions demanded. Unfortunately, instead of gathering nobility support, the revolutionaries managed the opposite. They made the nobility oppose the revolutions. The nobility, not wanting to lose their rights and privileges, despised the revolutionaries and supported the monarchs’ tough stands (I.E. not to give in to demands, etc.). This was a missed opportunity to the revolutionaries who could of found their help very beneficial. (Encarta 98′ p.117)

Instead of gathering the nobility’s support, the revolutionaries aimed higher. They were trying to get monarchs’ co-operation. For example, in March 1849 they tried to obtain the Prussian king’s support in the revolution by offering him the throne of “Emperor of a united Germany” (Stiles p.36). The revolutionaries were convinced that if the monarchs were presented with the benefits of a united Germany, these would’ve supported their goals. Plans, however, didn’t go as intended.

At first, monarchs seemed to co-operate. Eventually, however, they changed their minds and worked against the revolutions. There were two possible things causing that sudden change. The first was pressure applied on the monarchs to seize their support of the revolutions (Pressure which came from other monarchs, or nobles). This was similar to what happened to King Frederick William 4th after he issued reforms at the beginning of his reign in 1840, and was met by harsh opposition from the “Junkers”. (Stiles 38)

The second possible reason was that the monarchs suddenly felt they had too much to lose by supporting the movements for a unified Germany. They knew a united Germany would mean a limit to their authority and that was the last thing they wanted to see happen. After the monarchs withdrew their support from the revolution, the revolutionaries found themselves having to face more and more enemies. Each with a well equipped and organized army ready to suppress any revolutionary activities. (Stiles p.38)

The main reason, however, for the failure of the 1848 revolutions was that the enemy was stronger, and held control over the army. All the monarchs had to do was to wait until popular enthusiasm was reduced, and then regain control using their army. Once back in control, they abolished the constitutions they issued, and cancelled all reforms they made. In this aspect, Austria played the biggest role. After it suppressed its own revolts (e.g. the Vienna uprising in March 1848), it helped other monarchies suppress theirs. Until it wasn’t defeated in one way or another, popular revolutions would never have a chance of changing anything within German borders. (Stiles p.38 + Encarta 98′ p.117).

Overall, when looking back at the revolutions of 1848-49, it’s evident they were destined to fail. The revolutions were only short – lived moments of enthusiasm, with no real future. There were too many factors which “Pre – ensured” their failure. There is, however, one benefit the revolutionaries created. They made the Germans aware of their individuality, and of the need for a unified Germany. This awareness remained until Germany was finally unified in 1871.


– “The Unification of Germany 1815 – 1890” by: Andrina Stiles. Published in 1986. (viewed: 26.9.01).

– “‘Encarta Encyclopaedia 98”. Unsigned copy. (viewed: 26.9.01).

– www.Britannica.co.uk. Website. (viewed: 24.9.01).

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