Revolution and the National Assembly in Frankfurt am Main 1848/1849

The March revolution of 1848: street battle in Berlin on 18 and 19 March 1848

The March revolution of 1848: street battle in Berlin on 18 and 19 March 1848 (© picture-alliance / akg-images)

From the start of the 1840s, economic crises, mass poverty and general political discontent destabilised the social and political order in numerous European countries, culminating in a wave of revolutions that swept through the whole of Europe in 1848. In Germany too, demands were made at public gatherings and demonstrations for fundamental rights and freedoms and national unification. Shaken by the revolutionary momentum, the forces of the Restoration finally gave way and made major concessions to the movement, which was backed by broad sections of the population: censorship was lifted, political activities were permitted, and reform-friendly governments were appointed. The rulers in the individual German states also consented to the convening of a National Assembly, which was intended to pave the way for the creation of a German nation state.

The German National Assembly in Frankfurt am Main

At the end of March 1848, the Vorparlament or preliminary parliament, comprising members of state assemblies and leading representatives of the liberal and democratic opposition, decided that the members of the German National Assembly were to be chosen by adult ‘independent’ males in a general election based on the principle of one man, one vote. The conduct of the elections was the responsibility of the individual states and varied extremely widely between states. The statutory number of members of the assembly in St Paul’s Church was to have been 649, but because of election boycotts there were only 587 regular members. Including all those who deputised for or replaced the original members in the period up to the final dissolution of the rump parliament in Stuttgart, a total of 809 members took part in the proceedings of Germany’s first national parliament.

On 18 May 1848, the members of the first German parliament assembled in St Paul’s Church to deliberate on a liberal constitution and the formation of a German nation state. For its first President (Speaker), the National Assembly elected Heinrich von Gagern, a highly respected liberal politician. The parliament adopted its rules of procedure and appointed committees and commissions for the preparatory discussion of new proposals. Foremost among these was the Committee on the Constitution, which drafted the bulk of the constitution that was subsequently adopted by the Assembly in St Paul’s Church.

Creation of parliamentary groups

Members with similar political objectives and interests formed clubs, in which they gathered to prepare for their work in the plenary chamber and the committees, to discuss matters on the agenda and to coordinate their line of approach. These clubs, each of which bore the name of the hostelry where its members met, are regarded as the forerunners of parliamentary groups; although they were not yet as cohesive and politically disciplined as later parliamentary groups, their role in the organisation and structuring of debates and decisions nevertheless proved to be indispensable. The parliamentary clubs of the National Assembly represented the main political currents of the day. The monarchist Right (Steinernes Haus and Café Milani) stood for the preservation of the privileges enjoyed by the individual states and their monarchs. The various liberal groups to the right and left of centre (Casino, Augsburger Hof, Landsberg, Pariser Hof and Württemberger Hof) advocated a federally structured constitutional monarchy with a parliament and a hereditary emperor as head of state. The clubs of the democratic Left (Deutscher Hof, Donnersberg, Nürnberger Hof and Westendhall), for their part, sought the establishment of a republic based on parliamentary democracy and sovereignty of the people.

Fundamental rights and the Imperial Constitution

Among the foremost historic achievements of the Frankfurt National Assembly was the Imperial Act concerning the Basic Rights of the German People (Reichsgesetz betreffend die Grundrechte des deutschen Volkes), which was adopted on 21 December 1848 and through which human and civil rights became legally binding in Germany for the first time. The core elements of the catalogue of fundamental rights, which would also have a formative influence on the Weimar Constitution and the Basic Law of the Federal Republic, were the equality of everyone before the law, the abolition of all class privileges, guaranteed personal and political liberties, such as freedom of the press, freedom of expression, freedom of association, freedom to practise a trade or profession and freedom of movement, and the abolition of the death penalty.

The Imperial Constitution that was adopted on 27 March 1849 was intended to establish a unified federal German state to which all the states of the German Confederation belonged except the Austrian Empire (the kleindeutsche or ‘Little German’ solution). It provided for a hereditary emperor as head of state, who was also empowered to appoint the government. The main responsibilities of the Reichstag, which was to comprise a House of States and a democratically elected House of the People, were legislation, enactment of the budget and scrutiny of the executive. The key question of the government’s accountability to Parliament, however, remained unanswered and was to be resolved at a later date.

Collapse of the revolution

In April 1849, Frederick William IV, King of Prussia, having been elected ‘Emperor of the Germans’ by the National Assembly, declined the honour bestowed upon him, invoking the grace of God as the sole source of monarchical legitimacy. This meant that the efforts made in St Paul’s Church to draw up a constitution and establish a German nation state had effectively come to naught. In view of the reinvigoration of the monarchist forces of the Restoration in the individual German states, the Assembly, which was rapidly losing popular support, bowed to the inevitable and dissolved itself at the end of May. Neither the rump parliament which reconvened in Stuttgart, consisting mainly of left-wing members of the Assembly in St Paul’s Church, nor the campaign to defend the imperial constitution that was waged, sometimes violently, in the south-west of Germany could stem the counter-revolutionary tide. With the dissolution of the rump parliament in Stuttgart and the capture of the fortress of Rastatt in Baden in the summer of 1849, the final resistance of the revolutionaries was broken, and the high hopes with which the liberal and democratic movement for unity and freedom of 1848/49 had set out were finally shattered.