Frankfurt Parliament

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political and social divisions
the national question
the failed constitution

The German Revolution of 1848 received its popular energy from aggrieved peasants, artisans, and workers; its political program, however, from the liberalism of the educated upper middle class. The liberal aim was constitutional government both in the separate German states and in a new national state.

In March 1848, under the pressure of revolutionary turmoil, the Confederation Diet called for a National Parliament (Nationalversammlung) to meet in Frankfurt and draft a national constitution. The Frankfurt Parliament, created to establish a united German state, also became its symbol.

political and social divisions

The Revolution subsequently failed, and the Parliament was unable to secure support for its constitution, in part due to liberal politicians' alienation of their popular base; even the May 1848 parliamentary election seems to portend this. The Diet had appeared to endorse manhood suffrage, but in fact suffrage varied by locale, often to the exclusion of poor men. Likewise, the elected members, who met in Frankfurt on 18 May, tended to be middle class, the majority having a university degree, many with careers in state administration.

St. Paul's Church (Paulskirche) was the setting for the Frankfurt Parliament's deliberations, which were marked by bitter ideological division. No party system gave coherence to the debate, but historians categorize the parliamentarians by certain broad views of governmental form. A small radical group on the left sought a republic with full democracy—one man, one vote. The great majority sought to balance monarchy with popular representation. The liberal position was to concede considerable authority to the monarch and limit suffrage by property or education. On the right, based on conservative ideology, some delegates favored as much power for the monarch, and as much autonomy for the separate states, as possible.

the national question

Nationalism colored every discussion of German identity or interest, but ideas about "the nation" varied. Of Prussia and Austria, the dominant states, should one play the leading national role? Religion influenced this debate, Protestants tending to favor the Prussian Hohenzollern dynasty, Catholics the Austrian Habsburg. Also controversial was the issue of national boundaries. Another question was the treatment of non-German minorities and German-speaking Jews.

Foreign policy came to the fore as "Germany" opposed Denmark in the crisis over Schleswig-Holstein. The Prussian king, Frederick William IV, sent troops to assert the German claim to these duchies, a move applauded by German nationalists, including those in the Frankfurt Parliament. International pressure and the threat of the Danish navy convinced Prussia to sign an armistice at Malmön 26 August 1848. Amid nationalist outcry, Frankfurt, by a slim majority, condemned this agreement, but then reversed itself in recognition that it lacked the power to compel Prussia against her will.

Frederick William's withdrawal from Schleswig-Holstein was a sign not only of Prussian indifference to the Parliament, but also of the recovery of initiative by conservative, monarchical forces.

the failed constitution

In the meantime, the Parliament made slow progress in drafting the constitution. In final form, in March 1849, it merged monarchy and democracy. Its national conception centered Germany around Prussia. Even after Malmö, Protestant members from north Germany sought the Prussian and not the Austrian solution, Kleindeutschland (smaller Germany) rather than Großdeutschland (greater Germany). And as the Austrian monarchy grew more conservative, so did the movement to exclude it from a more liberal, predominantly Protestant nation. That had the advantage, too, of excluding Austria's non-German lands. Germany would be an "empire," its throne occupied by the Prussian king. This vision, favored by Frankfurt's Minister President and leading liberal spokesman Heinrich von Gagern, failed at first to win a parliamentary majority. The liberals' recourse was to secure votes on the democratic left, thus broadening the franchise and limiting the Emperor's power.

The constitution addressed the catalog of liberal rights, although not without controversy. Freedom of speech and religion was affirmed, while the traditional right of noble privilege was abolished. However, on the removal of feudal tenure from peasant land, the door was left open to peasant indemnification of landlords in return for ownership. On the issue of free residency the Parliament bowed to pressure from towns fearing an influx of new residents. About the "right to work," demanded by many workers, the constitution included nothing, and in general tended to affirm political and civil rights while leaving lower-class economic grievances unaddressed.

It is often emphasized that Frankfurt favored German over other national claims and interests. Schleswig-Holstein is one example; another is the decision to draw German boundaries to include many Poles in the Prussian province of Posen.

Frederick William IV rejected the Imperial crown, and the German constitution came to naught. By April 1849 the German political tide was so conservative that liberal initiatives almost everywhere were stymied. The Parliament, remote from the populace and powerless to halt counter-revolution in the states, fell apart.


The classic account is the 1968 study by Frank Eyck, The Frankfurt Parliament. Eyck's condemnation of the parliamentary left attracts little interest in the early twenty-first century. The real shift in historiography has come from work that portrays Frankfurt against the background of an economy moving from a traditional to a market structure, with society unsettled by this change. Wolfram Siemann, in an important 1985 study of the Revolution, cites writers in the nineteenth century dealing with social demands that the Parliament failed to meet. One such writer was Friedrich Engels, the collaborator of Karl Marx. Siemann's point is not to reinforce the Marxist view of Frankfurt as the forum of an economic bourgeoisie, but to underline concern with the popular uprising. Siemann's own tendency is to cast German social unrest as a "modernization" crisis.

In the early 2000s, the historian Brian Vick countered the view that Frankfurt liberals were fierce nationalists, showing that their nationalism permitted moderation—for example, in addressing minority rights and in drawing German borders.

Conservatism, shocked but not destroyed in March 1848, returned and brought down the Parliament. The divided Germany of the Confederation, also, had too many centers from which this solitary national institution was undermined and attacked.

But the Frankfurt Parliament was a boost to German liberals in the long term, by representing the value of parliamentary government and by its political divisions, which later reappeared as parties. It continued as a symbol of the national claim to self-determination, not yet achieved.

See alsoFrederick William IV; Germany; Nationalism; Revolutions of 1848.


Primary Sources

Engels, Frederick. Germany: Revolution and Counter-Revolution, edited by Eleanor Marx. New York, 1969. Written by Engels, but originally appeared under the name of Karl Marx as articles in the New York Daily Tribune, 1851–1852.

Secondary Sources

Eyck, Frank. The Frankfurt Parliament. New York, 1968.

Siemann, Wolfram, The German Revolution of 1848–49. Translated by Christiane Banerji. New York, 1998. Translation of Die deutsche Revolution von 1848/49 (1985).

Vick, Brian E. Defining Germany: The 1848 Frankfurt Parliamentarians and National Identity. Cambridge, Mass., 2002.

Robert E. ackett

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