The Carlsbad Decrees were a series of measures adopted by the German Confederation in 1819 that established severe limitations on academic and press freedoms and set up a federal commission to investigate all signs of political unrest in the German states.
The Napoleonic Wars had spurred the growth of a small but influential nationalist movement in Germany, which garnered some of its most fervent supporters from among students and professors. After the anti-Napoleonic campaigns of 1813–1815, student veterans returned to their universities and founded a series of nationalist fraternities or Burschenschaften, which were intended to promote the values of "Germanness, militancy, honor, and chastity." While the Burschenschaften were active throughout Germany's Protestant universities, the radical hub of the movement was Jena. There students and like-minded professors took advantage of the new press freedoms granted in Saxony-Weimar's 1816 constitution to promote liberal and nationalist positions and critique the slow pace of reform in Germany since the Congress of Vienna. Saxony-Weimar was also the site of the Wartburg Festival (October 1817), in which students gathered to sing nationalist hymns, issue vague demands for freedom and unity, and burn a list of books they deemed reactionary or anti-German. These developments were viewed with alarm by the Austrian chancellor Clemens von Metternich, who saw the student movement as a serious threat to the Restoration order established at Vienna. Metternich maintained that such radicalism was encouraged by an overly lenient attitude among government officials in Prussia and by the broader push toward constitutional government in Baden, Bavaria, Württemberg, and Saxony-Weimar.
Metternich was already seeking to clamp down on the Burschenschaften and their supporters when they provided him with a perfect pretext. On 23 March 1819 the student Karl Sand assassinated the conservative playwright August von Kotzebue in his apartment in Mannheim. Kotzebue had been a vociferous critic of the radical nationalist movement (one of his books was on the list burned at the Wartburg Festival); moreover, as a prolific and highly successful author of light comedies he was widely seen as the embodiment of Old Regime frivolity and lasciviousness. Recently it had become known that Kotzebue was sending reports on German cultural affairs to the Russian tsar. Sand, a student of theology at Jena and a member of the local Burschenschaft, resolved to take matters into his own hands, striking down this "traitor" to the German nation. With Kotzebue dead, Sand attempted to kill himself but was instead arrested, tried, and eventually executed. Meanwhile, a deranged student had made an attempt on the life of a district official in Nassau, adding to the sense of unrest and imminent revolution.
Sand's act represented a substantial reversal for the reform party in Prussia, as moderates like Karl August von Hardenberg and Karl von Alten-stein lost influence with Frederick William III (r. 1797–1840) to more reactionary members of his cabinet. At a meeting in Teplitz on 1 August, Metternich and the Prussian king agreed that their states would take a common hardline policy against the "revolutionary party" in Germany. The outlines of that policy were hammered out two weeks later at a conference of ministers from ten leading German states, which took place in the resort locale of Carlsbad. The conference drafted a series of decrees, which were then approved unanimously at a meeting of the Federal Diet on 20 September 1819.
The Carlsbad Decrees consisted of four laws. The University Law established a state plenipotentiary for each university, who was responsible for maintaining proper discipline and morality. The state governments were obligated to remove any teacher who taught subversive doctrines or otherwise abused his authority and to enforce existing laws against secret student organizations (that is, the Burschenschaften). Professors fired by one university could not be hired by another, and students found guilty of involvement with the Burschenschaften were banned from future employment in public office. The Press Law required that all books and periodicals shorter than 320 pages be approved by a censorship board before they could be published. Periodicals that harmed the interests of a German state could be shut down and their editors banned from publishing for as long as five years. An Investigative Law set up a federal investigative body that was charged with examining and reporting on all evidence of political unrest in Germany (though prosecution of suspects was left to the individual states). Finally, the Provisional Execution Order granted the Confederation the authority to take action against states that failed to suppress revolutionary activities within their borders.
The immediate effect of the Carlsbad Decrees was a stifling of liberal political expression in Germany. The Burschenschaften were banned, liberal professors were fired, and students suspected of illegal activities found the path to government office blocked. Thus Prussia and Austria were able to impose an effective conservative hegemony within the Confederation, hampering efforts toward liberal or constitutional reform. Once the decrees attained permanent status in 1824, government spying and censorship became a way of life in Germany, often lamented in the writings of Heinrich Heine and Ludwig Börne. Yet the impact of the Carlsbad Decrees should not be overstated. Application of these laws was always uneven, and opposition figures became quite skillful in skirting the censors. Moreover, the Revolution of 1830 in France would unleash a new wave of political unrest in Germany, which led to new constitutions in Hannover and Saxony and liberal reforms in a number of other states. Still, it required another revolution (that of 1848) before the Carlsbad Decrees were finally repealed by the Federal Diet in April 1848.
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George S. Williamson