Gagern, Heinrich von

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GAGERN, HEINRICH VON (1799–1880), German politician.

Heinrich von Gagern's life and career mirror the fortunes of German liberalism and nationalism during the crucial period from the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 to the final unification of Germany in the 1870s. Gagern draws most attention (sometimes admiring, sometimes critical) for his central role in the liberal-nationalist revolution of 1848, but he was also a significant figure in the decades before and after.

Born August 20, 1799 into the German imperial nobility, Gagern came from a noted political family. Already in 1815 he upheld the strong family commitment to German nationalism as a volunteer at the Battle of Waterloo (16–18 June 1815). Gagern became even more deeply involved in the German nationalist movement during his university years and by 1818 had assumed a leadership position within the new nationalist Burschenschaft or student fraternity movement. Forced into exile in the reactionary year 1819, Gagern was still able to enter the service of the Grand Duke of Hessen-Darmstadt two years later.

In the wake of the revolutions of 1830, Gagern was elected to the Diet of the Grand Duchy. His position as a vocal member of the opposition cost him his government post in 1833, but he continued in the parliament for three more years. Having retired to his estate, Gagern returned to the Darmstadt Diet as opposition leader in 1847.

It was during the revolution of 1848, however, that Gagern reached the summit of his political influence. First he was named to lead a new liberal government in the Grand Duchy. Already at this state level Gagern displayed his moderate liberal tendencies, supporting a catalog of liberal rights and reforms while trying to steer between the potential dangers of a radical popular revolution and an unreconciled reactionary regime. Many historians have criticized Gagern and other liberals for not going far enough during the revolution and leaving the door open for the eventual return to power of the old order.

Gagern's commitment to national unification, his parliamentary experience, and his relatively rare ability to command respect on both the left and right wings of the political spectrum led to his election to the presidency of the German National Assembly when it met in Frankfurt beginning in May 1848. In June, Gagern gave a demonstration of his perhaps unique political position when he broke a deadlock over the question of forming a temporary executive for the new German state by forging a centrist compromise solution.

Gagern became head of the national government in December as the result of yet another deadlock, this time over the question of whether to draw up a constitution that would allow the Austrian monarchy to participate in the new German nation-state (the so-called Grossdeutsch or Greater Germany solution). Before 1848, Gagern had favored the idea of a Prussian-led German state (the Kleindeutsch or Little German solution). Even then, however, Heinrich had wanted to prevent Austria's complete exclusion by forging a "wider union" with it. In this he was motivated in part by his nationalist and imperialist desire to maintain an outlet for German emigration and goods in southeastern Europe. During the revolution Gagern continued to pursue this policy, and in March of 1849 it was another of Gagern's compromise solutions that produced a narrow majority in favor of a Prussian hereditary emperor coupled with universal manhood suffrage. The Prussian king's notorious refusal to accept the offer so associated with Gagern's policies effectively ended the latter's power.

Gagern hung on for two more months on a caretaker basis before he and many other moderate liberals finally left the parliament. During the 1850s Gagern occasionally let his voice be heard in various liberal and nationalist causes. By the early 1860s, when competing versions of German unification were once again on the political table, Gagern this time surprised and alienated many former allies when he put his weight behind a Germany including Austria rather than backing the new Prussian-led unification being engineered by Otto von Bismarck (1815–1898). He did come out in guarded support of the new German Reich in 1870–1871, but was mistrusted by both political parties and failed in his bid to secure election to the new German Reichstag. Gagern died on 22 May 1880.

By the 1870s, Gagern had clearly become a marginal if controversial figure, facts that probably go some way toward explaining the strange lack of later scholarly attention to such a central figure of nineteenth-century German liberal and nationalist politics. If neglected, he was nonetheless one of the most prominent and important political actors of the period.

See alsoGermany; Liberalism; Nationalism; Revolutions of 1848.


Eyck, Frank. The Frankfurt Parliament 1848–1849. London, 1968.

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

Wentzcke, Paul. Heinrich von Gagern: Vorkämpfer für deutsche Einheit und Volksvertretung. Göttingen, 1957.

Brian Vick