News | Party / Movement History - German / European History - Participation / Civil Rights - Western Europe The Epic Failure of the German Bourgeoisie

The defeat of 1848 paved the way for Germany’s reactionary path to unification and beyond


Postcard of barricade fighting in Berlin in 1848.
A contemporary postcard commemorating the barricade fighting in Berlin on the night of 18 March 1848. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Over the next few days, one could expect German society to commemorate the one-hundred-and-seventy-fifth anniversary of the 1848 Revolution. After all, the revolution led to the creation of the first national parliament and thus represented, in a way, the birth of German democracy. It also witnessed the founding of the first labour unions, marking the emergence of the organized workers’ movement.

Albert Scharenberg is a historian, political scientist, and international politics editor at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation.

Translated by Ryan Eyers and Louise Pain for Gegensatz Translation Collective.

Nevertheless, the anniversary is rarely a topic of discussion in German popular culture. Is this perhaps because the bourgeoisie are ashamed of their class’s epic failure both during and after the revolution?

They certainly have good reason to be, seeing how the royalist counter-revolution’s victory over the democratic and republican uprising ultimately secured the power of the traditional upper classes and shaped Germany for the next century. In that sense, the revolution and its failure constitute perhaps the single most important turning point in German history. But how did it come to pass?

Act I: The Masses Take the Stage

It is an irony of history that the spark for the 1848 Revolution in Germany began abroad. The French Revolution heralded the dawn of popular rule, having supplanted the Ancien Régime at the tail end of the eighteenth century. It also rendered historically obsolete the sovereigns’ traditional justification of possessing an absolute “divine right” to rule, although the back-and-forth of history meant that it would be some time before this particular “dead dog” well and truly expired.

As the revolution unfolded and Napoleon Bonaparte proceeded to conquer almost all of Europe, some of its underpinning ideas travelled with his troops across the continent, and therefore ultimately to Germany. The old powers collapsed under the combined might of the soldiers and the Napoleonic Code. Francis II abdicated his imperial throne in 1806 and dissolved the Holy Roman Empire, which had existed since the tenth century but now found itself a relic consigned to the past. Even Prussia, in the wake of its devastating defeat at the Battle of Jena-Auerstedt, recognized the need to modernize its state apparatus.

The German monarchs very consciously appealed to the German people’s “national consciousness” during the so-called “Wars of Liberation”, in which the countries occupied by France revolted against Napoleonic rule, hoping that it would result in them once again holding power, albeit in another form. After the 1813 Battle of the Nations at Leipzig, however, in which the forces of the Sixth Coalition defeated Napoleon’s army, thereby heralding the end of his rule, that nationalism was dropped faster than a hot potato. The mobilization of the masses appeared to pose too great a threat to the monarchist cause.

Act II: From Restoration to Revolution

Instead, the Congress of Vienna in 1814–15 saw the old rulers reinstated. The “Holy Alliance” between the “Three Black Eagles” — Russia, Austria, and Prussia — would have loved to undo the effects of the French Revolution, but the genie of democracy had been released from its bottle, and there was no way to force it back in. As a result, Europe’s following decades were characterized by tussles for supremacy between bourgeois forces — merchants, journalists, businesspeople, lawyers, professors, and students, all of whom pushed for democracy and republicanism — and the old powers, who sought a restoration of the old regime.

The Three Black Eagles, who had already divided Poland among themselves in the eighteenth century, remained the stronghold of European reaction. The Carlsbad Decrees of 1819 declared war on liberalism and democracy and tightened the screws of repression. Freedom of speech was abolished, the press was censored, gymnastics halls were closed, student societies were banned, universities were placed under supervision, and liberal-minded professors were dismissed from their posts.

The bourgeoisie had given up its historical task of democratizing society, and it was left to the fledgling workers’ movement to take it up in its stead.

The old powers were able to push back against the democratic and increasingly republican movement — at least for the time being. Yet, due to the emergence of a new economic order, capitalism, they nonetheless felt compelled to implement certain modernizing reforms “from above”. In Germany, these included the founding of the German Confederation and the German Customs Union. In so doing, however, they made changes to the outdated German constitution, thereby unintentionally encouraging the oppositionist movement in spite of themselves.

Around the same time, a kind of republican transnationalism emerged in what became known as the Vormärz (pre-March) period, as people began to see their own struggle for democracy and a republic as part of an international movement against the powers of the old Europe. The July Revolution in France and the November Uprising in Poland were greeted with great enthusiasm in 1830 in Germany, with Polish flags even seen flying at the Hambach Festival in 1832. Yet, even at the time, this universalist alignment conflicted with a rather essentialist interpretation of the “German nation”, regularly expressed in highly romanticized terms and often revolving around a supposed “essential German character”, that sharply distinguished it from the French tradition.

The 1844 Silesian Weavers’ Uprising saw the working classes, driven to hunger and poverty by the booming textile factories, abruptly storm the stage of history. Although the Prussian military brutally crushed the uprising, it nevertheless managed to draw society’s attention to the hardships faced by simple working people and met with much sympathy among the general population. Progressive forces, including a certain Karl Marx living in Parisian exile, were roused to action by the event. Meanwhile, the uprising’s violent suppression was seen as confirmation that the ruling powers would continue to obstruct any and all social change.

Act III: The 1848 Revolution

Because the ruling powers in France, Prussia, and elsewhere were unwilling to permit any changes to the reactionary state, Europe found itself engulfed by a wave of revolutions in February and March of 1848. With the revolutionary spirit once again emanating from Paris, people across the continent dared to rise up against those in power.

In Berlin, the confrontations culminated in fighting at the barricades on 18 and 19 March, resulting in hundreds of deaths. King Frederick William IV subsequently felt compelled to withdraw the military from the city and make political concessions. The revolution transpired in a similar manner in a number of other cities across the German Confederation. A parliament, the National Assembly, was elected soon after, holding its first official session on 18 May in Frankfurt’s St. Paul’s Church.

Resolute action was required to ensure the permanence of the revolution’s victory, as the counter-revolution being plotted by the old rulers, who categorically refused to admit defeat, would soon make its presence felt. The National Assembly, however, acted in a decidedly hesitant manner, its debates arduous and protracted. It would not be long before the assembly of professors” became the target of a great deal of scorn and derision.

The parliament’s indecisiveness was also partly due to the fact that the different political camps represented within it had different ideas about the revolution’s next steps: the monarchist right wanted to see it come to an end as soon as possible, while the so-called centre sought to establish a constitutional monarchy. Only the democratic left made the case for founding a democratic parliamentary republic, but they were in the minority.

The movement of workers and labour unions emerging at the time pursued an alliance with the democrats, as did the Communist League. Despite its nationwide organizational efforts, however, the movement was still too weak to exert any kind of tangible influence on the revolution’s future.

The turning point for the revolutions across Europe came in June 1848, with the successful quelling of the June Days uprising in Paris three months after the outbreak of revolution in Berlin. The mood among the bourgeoisie began to shift as a result. The property-owning classes may have feared the reaction of the crown, but they evidently feared the potential threat to their property they saw in the proletarian masses on the streets of Paris much more. Consequently, the royalist counter-revolution gradually gained the upper hand.

One year after the revolution began, on 27 March 1849, the parliament in St. Paul’s Church finally struck an agreement over an imperial constitution to establish a unified federal German state under a constitutional monarchy — albeit without Austria, in what was known as the “Little German solution”. It was the more reactionary of the two possible variants, as it led to the less-liberal Prussia (compared to the southern German monarchies) becoming the dominant hegemonic force in Germany. The balance of political power would have been different had the “Greater German solution” incorporating Austria been pursued instead.

The parliament stood on the brink of collapse one month later, when the Prussian king anointed “Kaiser of the Germans” by the National Assembly refused the throne offered to him, citing his “divine right to rule”. It ultimately dissolved itself at the end of May. A “rump parliament” began holding sessions in Stuttgart, but was soon dispersed by Württembergian troops, while the Prussian capture of Rastatt Fortress marked the violent end to the Baden Revolution, the dissonant final chord of the revolution.

Thousands of revolutionaries opted to flee and left Germany. The majority of the “Forty-Eighters” relocated to the United States, where many of them later went on to campaign against slavery as members of the Republican Party and fight alongside Union troops in the American Civil War. For the democratic movement in Germany, however, these “Forty-Eighters” were as lost to them as some of their erstwhile allies, who began moving closer to the ruling powers after the revolution’s defeat.

Act IV: Proletarian and Bourgeois Democracy Part Ways

The failure of the revolution also meant the end of the German bourgeoisie’s revolutionary ambitions — a defeat from which they would never recover. Yet, the bourgeoisie’s reluctance to endanger the personal gains they had made in terms of status and wealth, which practically exploded in the early phases of industrialization, meant that they were dependent on compromises with the ruling authorities and essentially at their mercy.

Rapid economic growth was accompanied by rising social inequality, and since the liberal bourgeoisie had decided in favour of an understanding with the ruling establishment, the workers’ movement was increasingly left to fend for itself. The “parting of ways between proletarian and bourgeois democracy”, as Gustav Meyer put it, was underway as early as the 1860s with the founding of the General German Workers’ Association and the Social Democratic Workers’ Party — the first independent workers’ parties in Germany.

The reactionary nature of German unification, forcibly constructed atop the ruins of the 1848 Revolution, fortified the traditional upper classes’ grip on power for decades.

As Jürgen Kocka observed, however, what was actually happening was the “supplanting of the latter by the former, since there was in reality little of a distinct bourgeois-democratic movement left to speak of … following the founding of the German Empire under Bismarck”. The bourgeoisie had given up its historical task of democratizing society, and it was left to the fledgling workers’ movement to take it up in its stead.

At the same time, this parting of ways meant that the social and economic upper classes were henceforth united in opposition to the workers’ movement. Shortly after the founding of the German Empire, a “unity of action” was forged between the old aristocratic order and the new bourgeoisie, ultimately reorienting the state’s repressive character to serve the interests of both groups and in opposition to the working class.

All activities undertaken by the Social Democratic Party and its unions were prohibited with the passing of the so-called “Anti-Socialist Laws” in 1878. Even after they were repealed in 1890, the workers’ movement remained isolated in German society. This isolation was by no means a conscious choice on the part of the movement itself, but instead a consequence of the behaviour — or, to be frank, cowardice — of the German bourgeoisie.

Final Act: The Reactionary Path to German Unification

The failure of the bourgeoisie and the revolution “from below” paved the way for the reinvigorated old powers to implement German unification “from above”, thereby setting politics in a reactionary direction that ultimately led to the founding of the German Empire under Prussian leadership.

The architect of unification was Otto von Bismarck. The East Elbian Junker had sided with the Prussian king during the revolution, and attributed his appointment as minister president of Prussia to his reputation as a “tough guy” capable of rendering the bourgeoisie well and truly toothless. The German bourgeoisie, for its part, simply rolled over and put up with its targeted humiliations, offering little more in response than what Marx once called a narrow-minded “beer-swilling patriotism”.

Bismarck was able to secure unification with “blood and iron” — that is to say, three wars. Ultimately, it was not Prussia that became part of Germany, but Germany that became part of Prussia. The new German Empire’s constitution did contain some progressive elements for its time, such as universal male suffrage (although it only applied to Reichstag elections, while the three-class franchise remained in effect in Prussian elections. It was not for nothing that Social Democrat Wilhelm Liebknecht labelled Prussia a “royalist insurance policy against democracy”.

Above all, however, unification “from above” ensured the predominance of the aristocracy, securing its privileged position in both state institutions and society as a whole. All top-level posts in the state apparatus and the army were reserved for the nobility, with all other members of society — even the wealthy — subordinate in matters of state. The new empire therefore did not represent a new beginning, but rather the continued ascendancy of the traditional upper classes. The traditional corporatist power structures were preserved.

Against this backdrop, it is no accident that Poles and Jews were the first victims of the German Empire proclaimed in Versailles’s Hall of Mirrors (of all places) on 18 January 1871. The Germanization policy directed at the Polish population intensified greatly after the empire’s founding, while antisemitism became much more prevalent to the extent that it was essentially a mass phenomenon. In the 1880s, the empire also became a colonial power.

The reactionary nature of German unification, forcibly constructed atop the ruins of the 1848 Revolution, fortified the traditional upper classes’ grip on power for decades. While the bourgeoisie, the owners of big capital, became the dominant economic force, political power remained in the hands of the corporatist state’s nobility.

The impact of this authoritarian unification extended beyond the 1918 November Revolution and its overthrow of the German monarchy, as the entire bureaucratic order — the judiciary, military, civil service, education system, and others loyal to the Kaiser — were able to remain in their posts and work towards abolishing the new Weimar Republic, which they ultimately accomplished in 1933. It is thus entirely fitting that a Prussian Junker in the form of Paul von Hindenburg appointed Hitler president, and that officials loyal to the Kaiser were eager to assist in consolidating the fascist Nazi regime.

This by no means implies that the revolutionaries of 1848 were responsible for that trajectory. What is certain, however, is that the revolution’s failure and consequent subjugation of the bourgeoisie to the corporatist ruling elite would play a decisive role in shaping German history for the century to come.