Modern history


Splendour and Misery of the Prussian Revolution


By the end of February 1848, the population of Berlin was growing accustomed to the news of revolution. In the winter of 1847, Protestant liberals in Switzerland had fought – and won – a civil war against the conservative Catholic cantons. The result was a new Swiss federal state with a liberal constitution. Then, on 12 January 1848, after reports of unrest in the Italian peninsula, came the news that insurgents had seized power in Palermo. Two weeks later, the success of the Palermitan revolution was confirmed when the King of Naples became the first Italian monarch to offer his people a constitution.

It was above all the news from France that electrified the city. During February, a liberal protest campaign gained momentum in the French capital, culminating in bloody clashes between troops and demonstrators. On 28 February, an extra edition of Berlin’s Vossische Zeitung featured a ‘telegraphic despatch’ reporting that King Louis Philippe had abdicated. In view of the ‘current state of France and of Europe’, the editors declared, ‘this turn of events – so sudden, so violent and so utterly unexpected – appears more extraordinary, perhaps more momentous in its consequences than even the July Revolution [of 1830].’1 As the news from Paris broke in the Prussian capital, Berliners poured on to the streets in search of information and discussion. The weather helped – these were the mildest and brightest early spring days that anyone could remember. Reading clubs, coffee-houses and public establishments of all kinds were crammed to bursting. ‘Whoever managed to get his hands on a new paper had to climb on to a chair and read the contents aloud.’2 The excitement grew as word arrived of events closer to home – large demonstrations in Mannheim, Heidelberg, Cologne and other German cities, the concession of political reforms and civil liberties by King Ludwig I of Bavaria, the dismissal of conservative ministers in Saxony, Baden, Württemberg, Hanover and Hesse.

One important focal point for debate and protest was the Municipal Assembly, where elected members of the burgher elite regularly met to discuss the affairs of the city. After 9 March, when a crowd forced its way into the City Hall, the usually rather stolid assembly began to mutate into a protest rally. There were also daily political meetings at the ‘Tents’, an area of the Tiergarten just outside the Brandenburg Gate reserved for outdoor refreshments and entertainments. These had begun as informal gatherings, but they soon took on the contours of an improvised parliament, with voting procedures, resolutions and elected delegations, a classical example of the ‘public meeting democracy’ that unfolded across the German cities in 1848.3 It was not long before the Municipal Assembly and the Tents began to work together; on 11 March, the assembly discussed a draft petition from the Tents demanding a long list of political, legal and constitutional reforms. By 13 March, the gathering at the Tents, now numbering over 20,000, had begun to hear speeches from workers and artisans whose chief concern was not legal and constitutional reform, but the economic needs of the working populace. A gathering of workers at one corner formed a separate assembly and drew up a petition of its own pressing for new laws to protect labour against ‘capitalists and usurers’ and asking the king to establish a ministry of labour. Distinct political and social interests were already crystallizing within the mobilized crowd of the city.

Alarmed at the growing ‘determination and insolence’ of the crowds circulating in the streets, the President of Police, Julius von Minutoli, ordered new troops into the city on 13 March. That night, several civilians were killed in clashes around the palace precinct. The crowd and the soldiery were now collective antagonists in a struggle for control of the city’s space. Over the next few days, crowds flowed through the city in the early evenings. They were, in Manzoni’s memorable simile, like ‘clouds still scattered and scudding about a clear sky, making everyone look up and say that the weather has not yet settled’.4 The crowd was afraid of the troops, but also drawn to them. It cajoled, persuaded and taunted them. The troops had their own elaborate rituals. When confronted by unruly subjects, they were required to read out the riot act of 1835 three times, before giving three warning signals with the drum or the trumpet, after which the order to attack would be given. Since many of the men in the crowd had themselves served in the military, these signals were almost universally recognized and understood. The reading of the riot act was generally greeted with whistling and jeers. The beating of the drum, which signalled an imminent advance or charge, had a stronger deterrent effect but this was generally temporary. On a number of occasions during the struggles in Berlin, crowds forced troops standing guard to run through their warning routines over and over again by provoking them, melting away when the drum was sounded, then reappearing to start the game again.5


42. From the club life of Berlin in 1848. Contemporary engraving.

So poisonous was the mood in the city that men in uniform walking alone or in small groups were in serious danger. The liberal writer and diarist Karl August Varnhagen von Ense watched with mixed feelings from his first-floor window on 15 March as three officers walked slowly along the footpath of a street adjoining his house followed by a shouting crowd of about 200 boys and youths. ‘I saw how stones struck them, how a raised staff crashed down on one man’s back, but they did not flinch, they did not turn, they walked as far as the corner, turned into the Wallstrasse and took refuge in an administrative building, whose armed guards scared the tormentors away.’ The three men were later rescued by a troop detachment and escorted to the safety of the city arsenal.6

The military and political leadership found it difficult to agree on how to proceed. The mild and intelligent General von Pfuel, governor of Berlin, with responsibility for all troops stationed in and around the capital, favoured a mix of tact and political concessions. By contrast, the king’s younger brother, Prince William, urged the monarch to order an all-out attack on the insurgents. General von Prittwitz, commander of the King’s Lifeguards and a hard-line supporter of Prince William, later recalled the chaotic atmosphere that reigned at the court. The king, Prittwitz claimed, was buffeted about by the conflicting advice of a throng of advisers and well-wishers. The tipping point came with the news (breaking in Berlin on 15 March) that Chancellor Metternich had fallen, following two days of revolutionary upheaval in Vienna. Deferential as ever to Austria, the ministers and advisers around the king read this as an omen and resolved to offer further political concessions. On 17 March, the king agreed to publish royal patents announcing the abolition of censorship and the introduction of a constitutional system in the Kingdom of Prussia.

By this time, however, plans had already been laid for an afternoon rally to take place on the following day, 18 March, in the Palace Square. On that morning the government broadcast the news of its concessions across the city. Municipal deputies were seen dancing in the streets with members of the public. The city government ordered the illumination of the city that evening as a token of its gratitude.7 But it was too late to stop the planned demonstration: from around noon, streams of people began to converge upon the Palace Square, including prosperous burghers and ‘protection officers’ (unarmed officials recruited from the middle classes and appointed to mediate between troops and crowds), but also many artisans from the slum areas outside the city boundaries. As the news of the government’s decisions circulated, the mood became festive, euphoric. The air was filled with the sound of cheering. The crowd, ever more densely packed in the warm sunlit square, wanted to see the king.

The mood inside the palace was light-hearted. When Police Chief Minutoli arrived at around one in the afternoon to warn the king that he believed a major upheaval was still imminent, he was met with indulgent smiles. The king thanked him for his work and added: ‘There is one thing I should say, my dear Minutoli, and that is that you always see things too negatively!’ Hearing the applause and cheering from the square, the king and his entourage made their way in the direction of the people. ‘We’re off to collect our hurrahs,’ quipped General von Pfuel.8 At last the monarch walked out on to a stone balcony overlooking the square, where he was greeted with frenetic ovations. Then Prime Minister von Bodelschwingh stepped forward to make an announcement: ‘The king wishes freedom of the press to prevail! The king wishes that the United Diet be called immediately! The king wishes that a constitution on the most liberal basis should encompass all the German lands! The king wishes that there should be a German national flag! The king wishes that all customs turnpikes should fall! The king wishes that Prussia should place itself at the head of the movement!’ Most of the crowd could hear neither the king nor his minister, but printed copies of his recent patents were being passed through the throng and the wild cheering around the balcony soon spread across the square in a wave of elation.

There was only one dark cloud on the crowd’s horizon: under the arches of the palace gates and in the courtyards behind them, lines of troops could be seen. At the sight of this familiar enemy, the mood began to sour. There was some panic on the edges, where people feared to be pushed up against the soldiers. The chanting began: ‘Soldiers out! Soldiers out!’ The situation in the square seemed about to slip out of control. At this point – it was around two in the afternoon – the king transferred the command over the troops in the capital from Pfuel to the more hawkish Prittwitz and ordered that the square be cleared immediately by soldiers and ‘an end be put to the scandalous situation prevailing there’. Bloodshed was to be avoided: the cavalry should advance at marching pace without drawing swords.9 A scene of utter confusion followed. A squadron of dragoons pushed slowly forward into the crowd, but failed to disperse it. Controlling the men was difficult, because the noise was so intense that no orders could be heard. Some of the horses took fright and began to pace backwards. Two men fell when their mounts lost their footing on the cobbles. Only when the dragoons raised their sabres and made to charge did the crowd flee the centre of the square.

Since substantial numbers of people were still concentrated on the eastern edge of the palace precinct between the Langenbrücke and the Breitenstrasse, a small contingent of grenadiers was sent to clear them. It was during this action that two weapons were accidentally discharged. Grenadier Kühn’s musket caught on the handle of his sabre; warrant officer Hettgen’s gun went off when a demonstrator struck it on the hammer with a stick. Neither shot caused an injury, but the crowd, thinking with its ears, was convinced that the troops had begun to shoot civilians. Word of this outrage passed swiftly through the city. The rather surreal attempt of the palace to correct this misinformation by employing two civilians to walk the streets with a massive linen banner bearing the words: ‘A misunderstanding! The king has the best intentions!’ was predictably futile.

Barricades sprang up across Berlin, improvised from materials to hand. These makeshift barriers became the focal points of most of the fighting, which followed a similar pattern across the city: infantry advancing on a barricade came under fire from the windows of buildings in the vicinity. Tiles and stones rained down from the roofs. The houses were entered and cleared by troops. Barricades were demolished with artillery shot or dismantled by soldiers with the aid of prisoners taken during the fight. Varnhagen von Ense described how the defenders of a barricade near his house responded to the sound of approaching troops: ‘The fighters were instantly ready. You could hear them whispering, and upon the order of a youthful sonorous voice: “Gentlemen, to the roofs!” each went to his post.’10 A Private Schadewinkel who took part in the storming of a barricade in the Breitenstrasse later recalled his role in the action. After the man beside him had been killed by a shot to the head, Schadewinkel joined a handful of soldiers who broke into a building where protesters had been seen. Fired with murderous rage, the men charged up stairways and into apartments, ‘cutting down anyone who resisted’. ‘I am unable to give any precise account of events inside the house,’ Schadewinkel declared. ‘I was in a state of agitation such as I have never been in before.’11 Here, as in many parts of Berlin, innocent bystanders and the half-involved were killed along with the combatants.

It proved much harder to take control of the city than the military commanders had imagined. At around midnight on 18 March, when General Prittwitz, the new commander-in-chief of the counter-insurrectionary forces, reported to Frederick William IV in the palace, he had to acknowledge that while his troops controlled the area between the river Spree, the Neue Friedrichstrasse and the Spittelmarkt, a further advance was currently impossible. Prittwitz proposed that the city be evacuated, encircled and bombarded into submission. The king responded to this grim news with an almost other-worldly calm. Having thanked the general, he returned to his desk, where Prittwitz observed ‘the elaborately comfortable way in which His Majesty pulled a furry foot-muff over his feet after taking off his boots and stockings, in order, as it seemed, to begin writing another lengthy document’.12 The document in question was the address ‘To My Dear Berliners’, published in the small hours of the following day, in which the king appealed to the residents of the city to return to order: ‘Return to peace, clear the barricades that still stand [… ], and I give you my Royal Word that all streets and squares will be cleared of troops, and the military occupation reduced to a few necessary buildings.’13 The order to pull the troops out of the city was given on the next day shortly after noon. The king had placed himself in the hands of the revolution.


43. The Barricade on the Krone and Friedrichstrasse 18 March 1848, as seen by an eyewitness; lithograph by F. G. Nordmann, 1848

This was a momentous decision, and a controversial one. The forced withdrawal from Berlin was the most vexing challenge the Prussian army had faced since 1806. Had the king simply lost his nerve? This was certainly the view taken by the hawks within the military.14 Prince William of Prussia, whose preference for hard measures had earned him the sobriquet ‘the shrapnel prince’, was the most furious hawk of all. Having heard the news of the withdrawal, he marched up to his elder brother and spat out the words: ‘I have always known that you were a babbler, but not that you are a coward! One can no longer serve you with honour’ before flinging his sword at the king’s feet. With tears of rage in his eyes, the king is said to have replied: ‘This is just too bad! You can’t stay here. You will have to go!’ William, by now the most hated figure in the city, was at length persuaded to leave Berlin in disguise and cool down in London.15

In retrospect, there is much to be said for the king’s decision. The early departure of the troops prevented further bloodshed. This was an important consideration, given the ferocity of the fighting during the night of 18–19 March. With a toll of over 300 dead protesters and around 100 dead soldiers and officers, Berlin saw some of the bloodiest urban fighting of the German March revolution. By contrast, the death toll for the March days in Vienna was around fifty.16 Frederick William’s decision also preserved Berlin from artillery bombardment, a fate that was visited upon several European cities during that year. And it allowed the king to emerge as a public figure with his reputation untarnished by the violent confrontations in the capital, a matter of some weight if he intended to seize the opportunity offered by the revolution to reassert Prussia’s leadership role among the German states.


The impact of the Berlin events was reinforced by the news of unrest and rebellion across the kingdom. Since the beginning of March there had been a crescendo of unlicensed rallies and mass meetings, riots, violence and machine-breaking. Some protests (mainly in cities) focused on the articulation of liberal political demands such as the call for a constitution, civil liberties and legal reform. Others were directed against factories, warehouses or machines that were seen as undermining the welfare of districts suffering from high unemployment. Around the Westphalian town of Solingen, for example, cutlery workers attacked and demolished foundries and factories on 16 and 17 March.17 In Warendorf, a textiles town, unemployed weavers and tanners protested against factories using mechanized production methods.18 Along the riverbank towns of the Rhine there were protests against the use of steamers that rendered the small river ports and the services they provided redundant; in some places protesters even fired guns and small cannon at passing boats.19

Sometimes liberals and radicals competed for control of the process of mobilization. In Cologne, for example, on 3 March, a meeting of city deputies who had gathered together to discuss a liberal petition to the monarch was broken up by a large crowd demanding universal manhood suffrage and abolition of the standing army. The deputies fled the chamber, one of them breaking his leg as he leaped from a window. In Silesia, where less had been achieved in the way of agrarian emancipation than in any other province, it was the peasants who took the lead, marching en masse to administrative offices and demanding the total abolition of the ‘feudal’ system.20 The towns were focal points for the labile street politics of the revolution. In Berlin alone there were 125 episodes of public unrest; forty-six were recorded in Cologne, forty-five in Breslau and twenty-one in liberal Königsberg. Smaller towns – especially in the Rhineland and Westphalia – also witnessed intense tumults and conflict.21 The simultaneity and force of this wave of protest, not only across the Kingdom of Prussia, but also across the German states and the continent of Europe, were overwhelming.

In Berlin, the king was now at the mercy of the citizens. The meaning of this was brought home to him on the afternoon of 19 March, when he and his wife consented to stand on the palace balcony while the corpses of those insurgents who had fallen during the night’s fighting were carried across the square laid out on doors and pieces of wood, decorated with leaves, their clothes peeled back to reveal the wounds struck by shot, shrapnel and bayonet. The king happened to be wearing his military cap; ‘Hat off!’ roared an elderly man near the front of the crowd. The monarch doffed his cap and bowed his head. ‘The only thing missing now is the guillotine,’ murmured Queen Elisabeth, white with horror. It was a traumatic ritual humiliation.22

And yet within days the king began to inhabit his new role with a certain gusto. On the morning of 21 March, after placards had appeared in the city calling upon him to take up the cause of the German national movement, Frederick William announced that he had decided to support the formation of an all-German parliament. He then engaged in a spectacular public relations exercise. Mounting his horse in the palace courtyard, he rode out into the city behind a civil guardsman carrying the German tricolour, much to the surprise and horror of his courtiers. The little procession moved slowly through packed and cheering crowds, stopping here and there so that the monarch could deliver short impromptu speeches expressing his support for the German national cause.23

Four days later, the king travelled out to Potsdam to see the commanders of the army, still furious over their removal from Berlin. ‘I have come to speak to you,’ he told the assembled officers, ‘in order to prove to the Berliners that they need expect no reactionary strike from Potsdam.’ The climax came with the king’s extraordinary declaration that he had ‘never felt freer or more secure than under the protection of his citizens’.24 According to one eyewitness, Otto von Bismarck, these words were greeted by ‘a murmuring and clattering of sabre-scabbards such as a king of Prussia in the midst of his officers has never heard and will hopefully never hear again’.25 Few episodes convey more succinctly than this one the complexity of the king’s position in the early days of the revolution. He suspected – rightly, as it turns out – that reactionary conspiracies were beginning to circulate among his alienated commanders and he intended to nip these in the bud by securing a renewed assurance of their loyalty to his person.26 But the meeting also had a broader public function: texts of the king’s address were published almost immediately in the Vossische and the Allgemeine Preussische Zeitung in Berlin with a view to assuring the city that the king had separated himself (at least for now) from his military, that his commitment to the revolution was genuine.

Over the next few weeks, a new political order began to unfold in Prussia. On 29 March, the distinguished Rhenish businessman Ludolf Camphausen, a leading liberal at the United Diet of 1847, was appointed prime minister. The new cabinet included as finance minister the liberal Rhenish entrepreneur and provincial delegate David Hansemann. Within a few days of its opening session at the beginning of April, the Second United Diet passed a law providing for elections to a constituent Prussian National Assembly. The franchise was indirect – the voters elected a college of electors, who in turn voted for deputies. Otherwise it was a remarkably progressive arrangement: all adult males were eligible to vote, providing they had resided in the same place for at least six months and were not receiving poor relief. The May elections returned a predominantly liberal and left-liberal assembly. About a sixth of the deputies were artisans and peasants – a higher proportion than could be found in the Frankfurt or Viennese revolutionary assemblies. Conservatives were few and far between; only 7 per cent of the deputies in the new National Assembly were landowners.27 The assembly was correspondingly robust in its handling of key symbolic issues. Over the summer and early autumn of 1848 it passed resolutions proposing narrower limits to the power of the monarchical executive, demanded the subordination of the army to the authority of the constitution and called for the abolition of seigneurial hunting rights without compensation – hunting policy was a potent weapon of class warfare.

The Camphausen government made valiant efforts to ensure that the new Prussia was run on liberal principles. There were bitter struggles with the king and his conservative advisers over the policy to be adopted vis-à-vis the Poles – Camphausen’s foreign minister, Baron Heinrich Alexander von Arnim-Suckow, a liberal who had served as the Prussian minister to Paris until March 1848, favoured making concessions to the Polish national movement, whereas the king and his advisers were reluctant to alienate Russia by appearing to encourage the Poles. Predictably, the foreign minister was forced to yield on this question and the Prussian army was sent into Posen to suppress the unrest there in May. There was also strife over the sensitive issue of ministerial co-responsibility for the conduct of military affairs. Frederick William, like his predecessors, regarded the Prussian monarch’s personal command over the army, the so-called Kommandogewalt, as an essential attribute of his sovereignty and was unwilling to make any concessions in this area; to do so, he informed the cabinet in characteristically extravagant terms, would be ‘incompatible with my honour as a human being, a Prussian, and a king, and would lead me directly to abdication’.28 Here again it was the ministry that backed down.

Unsurprisingly, there was also much contention over the new draft constitution, prepared in great haste by the Camphausen government in the hope that it would be ready for presentation to the National Assembly after its opening on 22 May. Frederick William was unhappy with many aspects of this document and later described his constitutional discussions with the ministers as ‘the most ghastly hours of my life’. The amended draft duly included revisions asserting that the monarch was king ‘by the grace of God’, that he exercised exclusive control over the army and that the constitution was to be understood as an ‘agreement’ (Vereinbarung) between himself and his people (as opposed to a basic law imposed upon the sovereign by the popular will).29

By the time this much-discussed document came before the National Assembly in June, the mood in the city and in the assembly itself had begun to sour. In Berlin, as in many parts of Prussia and Germany, the radical left was growing in numbers and confidence. Organizations and newspapers emerged to articulate the aspirations of those who rejected the elitism of the liberal programme. On the streets, too, there were signs that the liberal government was losing its grip on popular opinion. There were bitter disagreements over how to manage the legacy of the March uprising. Should the insurrection be retrospectively decriminalized? There was bitter debate over this question in the Berlin National Assembly. When the majority of deputies refused to accept the legality of the uprising, the radical deputy Julius Berends delivered a thundering oration in which he reminded the deputies that the assembly owed its very existence to the barricade fighters of 18–19 March. At around the same time, the democratic newspaper Die Lokomotive accused the National Assembly of denying its origins ‘like a badly brought up boy who does not respect his father’.30 A memorial procession in honour of the ‘March fallen’ attracted well over 100,000 people, but these were virtually all labourers, working women and journeymen, or to put it more pointedly, people from the same social stratum as the dead barricade fighters themselves. Middle-class burghers of the kind who predominated in the National Assembly were conspicuous by their rarity.

In this increasingly troubled climate, the chances of securing a majority in the National Assembly for the compromises enshrined in the first draft constitution were slim. When he failed to do so, Camphausen resigned on 20 June and Hansemann was asked to form a new government. Prime minister of the new cabinet was the liberal East Prussian nobleman Rudolf von Auerswald (Hansemann remained finance minister). Over the following month, the assembly’s constitutional committee, chaired by the distinguished democrat Benedikt Waldeck, presented a counter-proposal for the assembly’s consideration. The new draft constitution limited the monarch’s power to block legislation, provided for a genuinely popular national militia (a throw-back to the programme of the radical military reformers), proposed the introduction of civil marriage and removed the last traces of patrimonial privilege in rural areas.31 This draft was as contentious as the previous one. The resulting debates further polarized the assembly and no agreement was reached. The constitution remained in limbo.

It was the question of the relationship between the civilian and military authorities – a problem that would revisit Prussia in generations to come – that did most to undermine the fragile political compromise in Berlin. On 31 July, a violent clash over the arbitrary orders of a local army commander in the Silesian town of Schweidnitz resulted in the death of fourteen civilians. There was a wave of outrage, in the course of which the Breslau deputy Julius Stein presented a motion to the National Assembly proposing that measures be introduced to ensure that officers and soldiers acted in conformity with constitutional values. By this he meant that all army personnel should ‘distance themselves from reactionary tendencies’ and fraternize with civilians as proof of their commitment to the new political order.

Stein could be faulted in retrospect for his diffuse formulations, but he expressed the understandably deepening alarm of the new political elite over the unbroken power of the military. If the army remained the compliant tool of interests opposed to the new order, then it might be said that the liberals and their institutions were living on sufferance, that their debates and law-making amounted to little more than a farcical performance. The Stein motion tapped a deep vein of nervousness in the Assembly and was passed with a substantial majority. Sensing that the king would not yield to pressure on the military issue, the Auerswald Hansemann government did its best to avoid taking actions that would precipitate a confrontation. But the patience of the assembly soon ran out and on 7 September it passed a resolution demanding that the government implement Stein’s proposals. Frederick William was enraged and talked of restoring order in his ‘disloyal and good-for-nothing’ capital by force. In the meanwhile, the controversy over the Stein proposals forced the government to resign.

The new prime minister was General Ernst von Pfuel, the very man who had commanded the forces in and around Berlin on the eve of 18 March. Pfuel was a good choice – he was not a hard-line conservative, but a man formed by the enthusiasms and political ferment of the revolutionary era. His youth had been consumed by an intense homoerotic friendship with the romantic dramatist Heinrich von Kleist. Pfuel was among those who had emigrated in a spirit of injured patriotism during the French occupation. A popular figure at the Jewish salons and a friend of Wilhelm von Humboldt, he was widely admired by liberal contemporaries for his tolerance and erudition. But not even the mild-mannered Pfuel could mediate successfully between a recalcitrant king and an obstreperous assembly, and on 1 November, he too resigned.

The announcement that his successor would be Count Friedrich Wilhelm von Brandenburg was greeted with dismay in the liberal ranks. Brandenburg was the king’s uncle and the former commander of the VI Army Corps in Breslau. He was the favoured candidate of the conservative circle around the king and the purpose behind his appointment was straightforward. His task, according to Leopold von Gerlach, one of the king’s most influential advisers, would be to ‘show in every possible way that the king still rules in this country and not the assembly’.32 The assembly sent a delegation to Frederick William on 2 November to protest against the new appointment, but it was brusquely dismissed. One week later, on the foggy morning of 9 November, Brandenburg presented himself before the assembly in its temporary home on the Gendarmenmarkt and announced that it was adjourned until 27 November, when it would meet in the city of Brandenburg. A few hours later, the new military commander-in-chief, General Wrangel, entered the capital at the head of 13,000 troops and rode to the Gendarmenmarkt to inform the deputies in the assembly personally that they would have to disperse. The assembly responded by calling for ‘passive resistance’ and announcing a tax strike.33 On 11 November martial law was declared, the Civil Guards were disbanded (and disarmed), political clubs were closed down, and prominent radical newspapers were banned. Many of the deputies did attempt to congregate in Brandenburg on 27 November, but they were soon dispersed and the assembly was formally dissolved on 5 December. On the same day, in an astute political move, the Brandenburg government announced the promulgation of a new constitution.

The revolution was over in the capital, but it smouldered on in the Rhineland, where the exceptionally well-organized political networks of the radicals were successful in mobilizing mass opposition to the counter-revolutionary measures of the Berlin government. There was strong support throughout the Rhine province for the tax boycott pronounced by the National Assembly in its dying hours. Every day for a month, the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, organ of the socialist left, ran the words ‘No more taxes!’ on its masthead. ‘People’s committees’ and ‘citizens’ committees’ sprang up to support the boycott in Cologne, Koblenz, Trier and other towns. Outrage over the dissolution of the assembly blended with provincial hostility to Prussia, confessional resentments (especially among Catholics) and the discontents associated with the patterns of economic stress and deprivation in the region. In Bonn, angry crowds insulted and beat tax officers and defaced or removed the Prussian eagles fixed to public buildings. In Düsseldorf on 20 November, there was a parade of the (now illegal) Civil Guard that culminated in a public oath to fight to the bitter end for the National Assembly and the rights of the people. The tax boycott campaign revealed the strength and social depth of the democratic movement in the Rhineland, and it certainly alarmed the Prussian authorities in the area. But the formal dissolution of the assembly in Brandenburg on 5 December deprived the democrats of a political focus. The arrival of troop reinforcements, coupled with the imposition of martial law in some hotspots and the disarmament of makeshift leftist militias sufficed to restore state authority.34

How had this happened? Why was the revolution that unfolded with such force in March so easily checked in November? It has often been noted that the overwhelmingly proletarian fighters who died on the barricades in Berlin and the wealthy liberal businessmen who occupied ministerial posts in the ‘March ministry’ represented utterly different social worlds and correspondingly opposed political expectations. The resulting divide ran right through the history of the revolution. The inability of liberals and radicals to agree on joint candidates for the May National Assembly elections, for example, meant that conservative and right-liberal candidates won instead.35 In the National Assembly in Berlin, the liberals consistently marginalized and stigmatized the social issues at the centre of the radical programme. As for the democratic left, it was successful in mobilizing mass support, especially in the Rhineland – a process facilitated by the politicization of popular culture in the 1840s. But the left, too, was divided. In May 1849, when a democratic uprising was organized in the Rhineland in support of the imperial constitution drawn up by the Frankfurt Parliament, the movement split between ‘constitutional’ and ‘Marxist’ or Communist democrats, who abstained on the grounds that the fate of a ‘bourgeois’ constitution ought to be a matter of indifference to the working class.36

What really tipped the scales in Prussia was the underlying strength of the traditional authority. In this connection, it is worth noting that Frederick William IV, the ‘romantic on the throne’, acted with more intelligence and flexibility during the crisis than he has often been given credit for. Indeed he performed his new role with surprising aplomb. Remaining in the capital after the troops had left and consenting in principle to the constitutionalization of the monarchy, he locked the liberals into an arduous process of negotiation while biding his time and looking for an opportunity to regain his freedom of manoeuvre. Behind the scenes, he gathered about him a cabal of conservatives determined to end the revolution at the earliest opportunity. By associating himself with the unionist objectives of the German national movement, he even secured a degree of popular legitimacy. In August 1848, when he visited the Rhineland, the popular enthusiasm was so intense that Karl Marx’s Neue Rheinische Zeitung had to cancel an issue after the workers in the press-room took the day off to cheer the king. Frederick William IV may have suffered from a ‘psychopathic’ fear of revolutionary upheaval, but his actions during the months of upheaval showed a sound tactical instinct.37

Then there was the fact that the revolution remained confined to particular areas of the kingdom. It was above all an urban event. There was certainly widespread rural protest, but with the exception of parts of the Rhineland, rural disorder tended to be very locally focused; urban politicians found it difficult to win the interest and support of people in the countryside, and protesters there rarely mounted a principled challenge to the authority of the king or of the state and its organs. For the most part, the countryside, especially in the East-Elbian provinces, continued to support the crown. It was here that conservative opposition to the revolution began to organize itself as a mass movement. During the summer of 1848, a range of conservative associations – veterans’ societies, patriotic leagues, Prussian leagues and peasants’ associations – proliferated across Brandenburg and Pomerania, the old core provinces where attachment to the Hohenzollern monarchy ran deepest. By May 1849, organizations of this kind encompassed a membership of over 60,000. It was a movement of artisans, peasants and shopkeepers – the people who had traditionally supported the evangelical voluntarism of the missionary societies.38

Another sign of the vitality of popular conservatism was the proliferation of ‘military clubs’ for patriotic veterans. Groups of this kind had existed since the 1820s, but they generally catered specifically to veterans of the Wars of Liberation and there were few of them. Their numbers rocketed from the summer of 1848; in Silesia, where there were eight military clubs before 1848, a further sixty-four were founded in the immediate aftermath of the revolution. In all, it is estimated that around 50,000 men in Brandenburg, Pomerania and Silesia joined such associations during the years 1848 and 1849.39 In this sense it could be said that the revolution of 1848 represented a coming of age for Prussian conservatism, which began to find its way towards a practical partisan articulation of conservative interests as well as ways of incorporating the voices and aspirations of ordinary people.

Most important of all was the continuing loyalty and effectiveness of the Prussian army. It hardly needs saying that the army played a crucial role in the suppression of the revolution. It marched into Posen in May 1848 to put an end to the Polish uprising there; it expelled the National Assembly from its Berlin premises in November and closed down its successor in Brandenburg a few weeks later; it was called in to deal with countless local tumults across the country. Yet the loyalty of the army was a less straightforward phenomenon than we might imagine. It was, after all, an army of Prussian citizens. The majority of soldiers were drawn from the very social strata that supported the revolution. Moreover, many of them were recalled at short notice from leave during the summer, which meant that they went directly from participating in the revolution to assisting in its suppression.40

It thus makes sense to ask why more men of the ranks did not defect or refuse to serve, or form revolutionary cells within the armed forces. Some did, of course. The radicals in particular made strenuous efforts to woo soldiers into crossing the picket line, and they were sometimes successful. Some local Landwehr units split into opposing democratic and loyalist factions – in Breslau, a radical Landwehr Club succeeded in attracting a membership of over 2,000.41 Despite the worst fears of the military leadership, however, the great majority of troops remained loyal to the king and their commanders. This was true not only of the East-Elbian troops (though it was especially true of them), but also of most of those who hailed from hotspots such as Westphalia and the Rhineland. The motivations for their compliance obviously varied according to local conditions and individual circumstances, but one factor stands out. This is the widespread belief among soldiers entrusted with the repression of local insurgencies that they were not closing down, but on the contrary protecting the revolution, safeguarding the constitutional order against the anarchy and disorder of the radicals. Soldiers did not, on the whole, see themselves as the shock troops of counter-revolution, but as the preservers of the ‘March achievements’ against the threat posed by radical tumult. Indeed, so strong was the identification of some units with the struggle of the Prussian state to restore order that it could temporarily sweep aside the particularism of local and regional identities. So it was that the tax boycott campaign supported by radicals in Düsseldorf was brought to an end in November 1848 by two companies of the XVI Westphalian Infantry Regiment, who marched into the city singing the ‘Prussia Song’: ‘I am a Prussian, do you know my colours?’42

This perspective acquired a certain plausibility from the fact that the focus of initiative within the revolution did indeed pass swiftly to the radical left. From mid-April until July 1849, the German states were rocked once again by a wave of insurrections that extended from Saxony and the Prussian Rhineland to Baden, Württemberg and the Bavarian Palatinate. Although the insurgents involved in this second revolution claimed to be rising in support of the Frankfurt Parliament and its national constitution, they were essentially social revolutionaries whose programme recalled the politics of Jacobin radicalism. The position was especially critical in Baden, where the collapse of morale within the army opened the way to the establishment of a Committee of Public Safety and a revolutionary provisional government. Prussian troops, working beside contingents from Württemberg, Nassau and Hesse, played a crucial role in suppressing this last radical spasm of the revolution: they assisted the Saxon army in putting down the insurrection in the city of Dresden (in which Richard Wagner and the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin both participated) and then marched south to retake the Palatinate. On 21 June, Confederal forces defeated an insurgent army at Waghaäusel and ended the revolution in the Grand Duchy of Baden. These were bitter and deadly encounters: unlike in 1848, the revolutionaries of the second phase formed an armed force numbering over 45,000 men and fought pitched battles with the enemy, in which they defended themselves with courage and desperation.

The campaign in the south ended only with the capitulation of the hungry and demoralized remainder of the revolutionary army at the fortress of Rastatt on 23 July 1849. Under a Prussian occupation administration, three special courts were established in Freiburg, Mannheim and Rastatt to try the leading insurrectionists. Staffed by Badenese jurists and Prussian officers and operated in accordance with Baden law, these tribunals issued verdicts against sixty-four civilians and fifty-one military personnel. There were thirty-one death sentences, of which twenty-seven were actually carried out – executed by Prussian troops. According to one eyewitness, who saw the firing squads at work inside the walls of Rastatt fortress, the Prussians obeyed their orders to a man, though they returned from the execution grounds with faces ‘as white as chalk’.43


1848 was the year of the nationalists. Across Europe, the political and social upheavals of the revolution were intertwined with national aspirations. Nationalism was contagious. German and Italian nationalists were inspired by the example of the Swiss liberals, whose conquest of the conservative Sonderbund in 1847 paved the way to the creation of the first Swiss federal state. In the southern German states, republican nationalists even formed volunteer brigades to fight alongside the Protestant Swiss cantons. Italian revolutionary nationalism in turn stirred the ambitions of the Croats, whose chief nationalist organ, in the absence of an agreed Croatian literary idiom, was the Italian-language L’Avventura in Dubrovnik. German nationalism stimulated the Czech patriotic movement. So powerful was the spell cast by the national idea that Europeans could derive vicarious excitement from each other’s national causes. Liberals in Germany, France and Britain became enthusiasts of Polish, Greek and Italian liberty. Nationalism was a potentially radical force for two reasons. Firstly, nationalists, like liberals and radicals, claimed to speak for ‘the people’ rather than the crown. For liberals, ‘the people’ was a political community composed of educated, tax-paying citizens; for the nationalists it denoted an ethnicity defined by a common language and culture. In this sense, liberalism and nationalism were ideological cousins. Indeed nationalism was in some respects more inclusive than liberalism, whose horizons were confined to a wealthy, educated and largely urban elite. Nationalism by contrast, in theory at least, embraced every last member of the ethnic community. There was a close affinity here with the democratic orientation of mid-century radicalism; it is no coincidence that many German radicals became uncompromising nationalists. Secondly, nationalism was subversive because in many parts of Europe, the realization of the national vision implied fundamental transformations of the political map. Hungarian nationalists sought to separate themselves from the commonwealth of peoples under Habsburg rule; Lombard and Venetian patriots chafed under Habsburg rule; the Poles dreamed of a reconstituted Poland within the borders of 1772 – some Polish nationalists even called for the ‘return’ of Pomerania. Greek, Romanian and Bulgarian nationalists dreamed of throwing off the yoke of Ottoman imperial power.

If nationalism implied the political disintegration of the Habsburg monarchy, in Germany its thrust was integrative, it aimed to solder together the sundered parts of a putatively single German fatherland. How exactly the new Germany would look in practice was unclear. How would the unity of the new nation be reconciled with the rights and powers of the traditional monarchies? How much power would be concentrated in the central authority? Would the new German union be led by Austria or by Prussia? Where would its borders lie? These were questions that prompted endless contention and debate as the revolution unfolded. The national question was discussed in all the chancelleries and legislatures of the German states, but the pre-eminent theatre of public debate was the national parliament that opened on 18 April 1848 in St Paul’s Church in Frankfurt/Main. This assembly, comprising deputies from all over the German states elected under a national franchise, set itself the task of drawing up the constitution for a new united Germany. The interior of the parliamentary chamber, an elegant elliptical rotunda, was draped in the national colours and dominated by a huge painting of Germania by the artist Philip Veit. Veit’s monumental allegorical work, which was painted on to canvas and hung in front of the organ loft in the main chamber, showed a standing female figure crowned in oak leaves, a cast-off manacle at her feet; behind her the rising sun loosed darts of light through the tricolour fabric of the national flag.

The attitude of the Prussian authorities to the national project was of necessity ambivalent. Inasmuch as nationalists posed a principled challenge to the authority of the German territorial crowns, they were recognized as a subversive and dangerous force. This was the logic behind the campaign waged against the ‘demagogues’ in the post-war years. On the other hand, Prussian governments had no objection in principle to the creation of a tighter and more cohesive political organization of the German states, so long as this process served Berlin’s power-political interests. This was the logic at work in Prussia’s sponsorship of the Customs Union and its support for stronger Confederal security arrangements. By the 1840s, this consistent and self-interested pursuit of greater inter-territorial cohesion implied a more nuanced response to nationalism than had been possible in the immediate post-war years: if national sentiment could be managed, if it could be co-opted into some kind of partnership with the Prussian state, then national enthusiasm was a force that might be cultivated and exploited. This policy could bear fruit, of course, only if the nationalists in question could be persuaded that Prussia’s interest and that of Germany as a whole were one and the same.

During the 1840s, the idea of an alliance between Prussia and the liberal nationalist movement came to appear increasingly plausible. In the aftermath of the war scare of 1840–41 and the crisis in 1846 over the future of the ethnically mixed duchies of Schleswig and Holstein on the border with Denmark, moderate liberals throughout Germany looked increasingly to Prussia as a surrogate for the underdeveloped security arrangements of the Confederation. ‘Prussia must place itself at the head of Germany,’ the Heidelberg professor Georg Gottfried Gervinus told Friedrich Engels in 1843, though he added that Berlin would first have to enact constitutional reform. The Deutsche Zeitung, a liberal journal founded in May 1847, explicitly advocated the pursuit of German unity through an active foreign policy, to be achieved through an alliance between the Prussian state and the nationalist movement.44

The appeal to national aspirations featured prominently in the Prussian king’s early reactions to the revolutionary upheaval of March 1848. On the morning of 21 March, two days after the uprising and the departure of the army from the capital, a poster authorized by the king broadcast the following oracular announcement:

A new and glorious history is beginning for you today! You are henceforth once again a single great nation, strong free and powerful in the heart of Europe! Trusting in your heroic support and your spiritual rebirth, Prussia’s Frederick William IV has placed himself at the head of the movement for the redemption of Germany. You will see him on horseback today in your midst with the venerable colours of the German nation.45

Sure enough, the Prussian king appeared at midday, sporting a tricolour armband (some accounts speak of a sash in the national colours), with the national flag behind him, held aloft by a member of a Berlin shooting club. Throughout this curious royal perambulation through the capital the talk was of the nation. Students hailed the passing king as the new German Emperor, and Frederick William halted at intervals to address onlookers on the great importance of current developments for the future of the German nation. To drive the message home, the red, black and gold flag was flown that evening from the dome of the royal palace. A cabinet order despatched to the ministry of war announced that since the king would henceforth be devoting himself entirely to the ‘German question’ and expected Prussia to play a role in the resolution of the same, he wished the troops of his army to wear the ‘German cockade as well as the Prussian one’.46

Most astonishing of all was the declaration issued on the evening of 21 March under the title ‘To My People and to the German Nation’. The address began by recalling the dangerous days of 1813, when King Frederick William III had ‘rescued Prussia and Germany from shame and humiliation’ and went on to argue that in the current crisis, the collaboration of Germany’s princes under a unified leadership was essential:

Today I assume this leadership [… ]. My people, which does not fear danger, will not forsake me, and Germany will join me in a spirit of trust. I have today taken up the old German colours and have placed myself and my people under the venerable banner of the German Reich. Prussia is henceforth merged in Germany.47

It would be a mistake to see these extravagant gestures simply as an opportunist attempt to rally mass support around a beleaguered monarchy. Frederick William’s enthusiasm for ‘Germany’ was entirely authentic and long predated the outbreak of the 1848 revolutions. Indeed there is something to be said for the view that he was the first truly German-minded monarch to occupy the Hohenzollern throne. Frederick William was deeply involved in the project to resume the construction of Cologne Cathedral, an imposing Gothic structure begun in 1248 but unfinished since work had ground to a halt in 1560. There had been talk of completing the cathedral since the turn of the century and Frederick William became an enthusiastic advocate and supporter of the idea. In 1842, two years after his accession, the king travelled to the Rhineland to take part in celebrations inaugurating the building works. He attended Protestant and Catholic services and presided over a cornerstone ceremony at which, to the astonishment and delight of the onlookers, he delivered a sparkling impromptu speech praising the ‘spirit of German unity and strength’ embodied in the cathedral project.48 At around the same time, he wrote to Metternich that he had decided to devote himself to ‘ensuring the greatness, power and honour of Germany’.49

When Frederick William spoke of German ‘unity’, he was not referring to the political unity of a nation-state, but to the diffuse, cultural, sacral unity of the medieval German Reich. His speculations did not, therefore, necessarily imply a challenge to Austria’s traditional captaincy within the community of German states. Even during the war crisis of 1840–41, when Frederick William supported efforts to extend Prussia’s influence over the security arrangements of the south German states, he was reluctant to contemplate a direct confrontation with Vienna. In the spring months of 1848, the Prussian king’s vision of the German future was still in essence a vision of the past. On 24 April, Frederick William told the Hanoverian liberal and Frankfurt deputy Friedrich Christoph Dahlmann that his vision for Germany was a kind of reinvigorated Holy Roman Empire, in which a ‘King of the Germans’ (a Prussian, perhaps) would be chosen by a revived College of Electors and wield executive power under the honorary captaincy of a Habsburg ‘Roman Emperor’.50 As a romantic monarchical legitimist, he deplored the idea of a unilateral bid for power that would injure the historic rights of the other German crowns. He thus professed to be horrified when his new liberal foreign minister (Heinrich Alexander von Arnim-Suckow, appointed 21 March) proposed that he should accept the crown of a new ‘German Empire’. ‘Against my own declared and well-motivated will,’ he complained to a close conservative associate, ‘[Arnim-Suckow] wants to present me!!!!!! with the imperial title… I will not accept the crown.’51

Yet the king’s objection to a Prussian imperial title was by no means categorical. It would be another matter entirely if the other German princes voluntarily elected him to a position of pre-eminence and the Austrians were willing to renounce their ancient claim to leadership within the German Commonwealth. Under these circumstances, he told King Frederick August II of Saxony during the first week of May, he would be willing to consider accepting the crown of a new German Reich.52 These were highly speculative reflections at the time, but as events unfolded over the summer and autumn of 1848, they came to seem increasingly plausible.

Within a month of the outbreak of the revolution, Prussia had an opportunity to demonstrate its willingness to show leadership in the defence of the German national interest. A crisis was brewing over the future of the duchies of Schleswig and Holstein, predominantly agrarian principalities that straddled the frontier between German- and Danish-speaking northern Europe. The complex legal and constitutional status of the two duchies was defined by three awkward facts: firstly, a law dating back to the fifteenth century forbade the separation of the two principalities; secondly, Holstein was a member of the German Confederation but Schleswig to the north was not; thirdly, the duchies operated under a different law of succession from that of the Kingdom of Denmark – succession through the female line was possible in the kingdom but not in the duchies, where the Salic law prevailed. The inheritance issue began to cause consternation in the early 1840s, when it became clear that the Danish crown prince, Frederick VII, was likely to die without issue. For the government in Copenhagen, the prospect loomed that Schleswig, with its numerous Danish speakers, might be separated for ever from the Danish state. In order to guard against this eventuality, Frederick’s father, Christian VIII, issued the so-called ‘Open Letter’ of 1846, in which he announced the application of Danish inheritance law to Schleswig. This would permit the Danish Crown to retain its rights in the principality through the female line, should the future king die childless. The crisis triggered in the German states by the Open Letter brought about a dramatic intensification of nationalist sentiment; as we have seen, it also prompted many moderate liberals to look to Prussia for leadership in the face of the threat posed to the German interest (and specifically the German minority in Schleswig) by the Danish government.

Shortly after his accession to the Danish throne on 20 January 1848, Frederick VII brought the issue to a head by announcing the imminent publication of a national Danish constitution and stating that the king intended to integrate Schleswig into the Danish unitary state. A process of escalation was now under way on both sides of the border: in Copenhagen, Frederick VII’s hand was forced by the nationalist Eiderdane movement; in Berlin, Frederick William IV was pressured into responding by Arnim-Suckow, a beneficiary of the March uprising. On 21 March, the new Danish government annexed Schleswig. The Germans in the south of Schleswig responded by forming a revolutionary provisional government. Outraged by the Danish annexation, the Confederal authorities voted to make Schleswig a member of the German Confederation. Acting with the official endorsement of the German Confederation, the Prussians assembled a military contingent, reinforced by small units from several other northern German states, and marched into Schleswig on 23 April. The German troops quickly overran the Danish positions and pressed northward into Danish Jutland, though they found it impossible to break the superiority of the Danish forces at sea.

There was jubilation among the nationalists, especially in the Frankfurt Parliament, where several of the most prominent liberal deputies – including Georg Beseler, Friedrich Christoph Dahlmann and the historian Johann Gustav Droysen – had close personal connections with the duchies. What the nationalists failed adequately to appreciate was the fact that the Schleswig-Holstein question was swiftly becoming an international affair. In St Petersburg, Tsar Nicholas was furious to find his Prussian brother-in-law working, as he saw it, hand-in-hand with the revolutionary nationalists. He threatened to send in Russian troops if Prussia did not withdraw from the duchies. This energetic Russian démarche in turn aroused the disquiet of the English government, which feared that the Schleswig-Holstein question might serve as a pretext for the creation of a Russian protectorate over Denmark. Since the Danes controlled access to the Baltic Sea (the Danish straits of Sund and Kattegat were known as the ‘Bosporus of the North’), this was a matter of great strategic concern to London. The pressure for a Prussian withdrawal began to mount. Sweden soon joined the fray, along with France, and Prussia was forced to agree to a mutual evacuation of troops under the terms of the Armistice of Malmø, signed on 26 August 1848.53

The armistice came as a profound shock to the deputies in Frankfurt. The Prussians had signed it unilaterally, without the slightest reference to the Frankfurt Parliament. Nothing could better have demonstrated the impotence of this assembly, which was headed by a provisional ‘imperial government’, but had no armed force of its own and no means of obliging territorial governments to comply with its will. It was a serious blow to the legitimacy of the parliament, which had already begun to lose its grip on public opinion in the German states. In the initial mood of outrage that greeted the news of the armistice, a majority of the deputies voted on 5 September to block its implementation. But this was mere posturing, since the executive in Frankfurt had no means of controlling the situation in the north. On 16 September, the members voted again; this time they capitulated to power-political realities and accepted the armistice. During the riots that followed in the streets of Frankfurt, two conservative deputies were slain by an angry mob. Prussia thus demolished the hopes of the German nationalists. And yet this setback paradoxically helped to reinforce the Prussophilia of many moderate nationalist liberals, for it confirmed the centrality of Prussia to any future political resolution of the German question.

In the meanwhile, the Frankfurt Parliament was struggling to resolve the matter of the relationship between the Habsburg monarchy and the rest of Germany. Towards the end of October 1848, the deputies voted to adopt a ‘greater-German’ (grossdeutsch) solution to the national question: the Habsburg German (and Czech) lands would be included in the new German Reich; the non-German Habsburg lands would have to be formed into a separate constitutional entity and ruled from Vienna under a personal union. The problem was that the Austrians had no intention of accepting such an arrangement. Austria was by now recovering from the trauma of the revolution. In a vengeful crusade that took 2,000 lives, Vienna was retaken by government troops at the end of October. On 27 November, Prince Felix zu Schwarzenberg, chief minister in Vienna’s new conservative government, exploded the greater-German option by announcing that he intended the Habsburg monarchy to remain a unitary political entity. The consensus at Frankfurt now shifted in the direction of the ‘lesser-German’ (kleindeutsch) solution favoured by a faction of moderate Protestant liberal nationalist deputies. Under the terms of a lesser-German option, Austria would be excluded from the new national polity, pre-eminence within which would pass (by default if not by design) to the Kingdom of Prussia.

Frederick William’s speculations on a Prussian-imperial Crown were drifting from dream into reality. Late in November 1848, Heinrich von Gagern, the new minister-president (prime minister) of the provisional Reich government in Frankfurt, travelled to Berlin to attempt to persuade Frederick William to accept – in principle – a German-imperial Crown. Frederick William initially refused, observing famously that the imperial title on offer was ‘an invented crown of dirt and clay’, but he also kept open the option of an acceptance, should the Austrians and the other German princes be in agreement. The signals broadcast by the government in Berlin were sufficiently encouraging to keep the small-German option afloat for the next few months. On 27 March 1849, the Frankfurt assembly voted (by a narrow margin) to approve a monarchical constitution for the new Germany and, on the following day, a majority voted for Frederick William IV as German Emperor. In one of the famous set-pieces of German history, a delegation from the assembly, led by the Prussian liberal Eduard von Simson, travelled to Berlin to make a formal offer. The king received them on 3 April, thanked them warmly for the trust that they, in the name of the German people, had placed in his person, but refused the crown, on the grounds that Prussia could accept such an honour only on terms agreed with the other legitimate princes of the German states. In a letter addressed to his sister Charlotte – officially known as Tsarina Alexandra Federovna – but intended for the eyes of her husband, he spoke a different language: ‘You have read my reply to the man-donkey-dog-pig-and-cat delegation from Frankfurt. It means in simple German: “Sirs! You have not any right at all to offer me anything whatsoever. Ask, yes, you may ask, but give – No – for in order to give, you would first of all have to be in possession of something that can be given, and this is not the case!” ’54

With Frederick William’s rejection of the crown, the fate of the great parliamentary experiment in Frankfurt was sealed. Yet the idea of a Prussian-led German union was not yet dead. During April, the Berlin government made it clear through a sequence of announcements that Frederick William IV was still willing to lead a German federal state of some kind. On 22 April, the king’s old friend Joseph Maria von Radowitz, who had been serving as a deputy to the Frankfurt Parliament, was recalled to Berlin to coordinate policy on a German union. Radowitz aimed to disarm the objections of Vienna by proposing a system of two concentric unions. Prussia would lead a relatively cohesive ‘narrower union’, which in turn would be loosely linked to Austria through a broader union. During May 1849, there were arduous negotiations with representatives of the lesser German kingdoms, Bavaria, Württemberg, Hanover and Saxony. At the same time, it was recognized that the new entity would not succeed unless it possessed some degree of legitimacy in public opinion. To this end, Radowitz rallied liberal and conservative advocates of the small-German idea at a widely publicized meeting in the city of Gotha. Amazingly, the Austrians seemed willing to consider the Radowitz plan; the Austrian envoy in Berlin, Count Prokesch von Osten, was much less hostile than might have been expected.


44. Frederick William IV receives a delegation from the Frankfurt Parliament. Addressing the king is the deputy Eduard von Simson. Standing beside the monarch is Count Brandenburg.

Despite these positive signs, the union project soon ran into serious trouble. It proved extraordinarily difficult to forge a compromise acceptable to all the key players. Twenty-six lesser territories expressed their willingness to join, but Bavaria and Württemberg, as ever, remained suspicious of Prussian intentions and stayed out. By the winter of 1849, Saxony and Hanover had also pulled back, followed by Baden. The Austrians, for their part, turned decisively against the idea, and began insisting first (from late February 1850) upon the inclusion in any proposed union of the entire Habsburg monarchy and later (from early May) upon the reinstatement of the old German Confederation. In this they were supported by the Russians, who heartily disapproved of Radowitz and his programme and intended to assist Austria against any serious challenge to its position in Germany.

The accumulating tension between Berlin and Vienna came to a head in September 1850. The flashpoint was a political conflict in the Electorate of Hesse-Kassel, a small territory that straddled the network of Prussian military roads linking Rhineland and Westphalia with the East-Elbian core provinces. The Elector of Hesse-Kassel – a notoriously reactionary figure – had attempted to force through counter-revolutionary measures against the will of the territorial diet, or Landtag . When influential elements within the army and the bureaucracy refused to comply, he called upon the aid of the revived German Confederation (the diet had been reinstated in Frankfurt, albeit without delegates from the union territories, on 2 September). Schwarzenberg immediately saw his opportunity: the deployment of Confederal troops in Hesse-Kassel would force the Prussians to back away from their unionist plans and to accept the resurrected Confederal Diet, with its Austrian presidency, as the legitimate political organization of the German states. Steered by the Austrians, the diet accordingly voted to restore the Elector’s authority in Hesse-Kassel through a ‘federal execution’. Enraged by this provocation, Frederick William IV appointed Radowitz foreign minister, with a view to signalling that Prussia had no intention of backing down.

A German civil war now seemed imminent. On 26 October, the diet in Frankfurt authorized Hanoverian and Bavarian forces to intervene in Hesse-Kassel. The Prussians deployed their own forces to the Hessian frontier, ready to resist a Confederal incursion. There followed a chain of stops and starts. On 1 November, news reached Berlin that the federal execution had begun – Bavarian troops had crossed the Hessian border. The Prussian cabinet was initially inclined to stop short of a full mobilization and seek a negotiated settlement, but this changed four days later when Schwarzenberg, pressing for an outright humiliation, demanded that Berlin remove the small troop contingents guarding the key Prussian military routes across Hesse-Kassel. Frederick William and his ministers now reluctantly resolved to order a full mobilization. On 24 November, Schwarzenberg, supported by Russia, served an ultimatum to Berlin demanding a complete Prussian withdrawal from Hesse-Kassel within the next forty-eight hours. Just as time was running out, Prussia agreed to further negotiations and everyone backed away from war. At a conference in Olmütz, Bohemia on 28–29 November, the Prussians stood down. Under the terms of the agreement known as the Punctation of Olmütz, Berlin undertook to participate in a joint federal intervention against Hesse-Kassel and to demobilize the Prussian army. Prussia and Austria also agreed to work together as equals in negotiating a reformed and restructured Confederation. These negotiations duly took place, but the promise of reform was not fulfilled; the old Confederation was restored, with some minor modifications, in 1851.


Through the shouting and gunfire of the March days, Frederick William IV had heard German music. Among the many German sovereigns who feared for their thrones in that tumultuous year, he was the only one to drape himself in the colours of the nation. While the Habsburg monarchy turned inward to confront its multiple domestic revolutions, Prussia began to play a leading role in German affairs, confronting the Danes over Schleswig and leading the effort to repress the second revolution of 1849 in the southern states. With some success, Berlin cultivated the pro-Prussian faction emerging within the German liberal movement, creating a degree of public legitimacy for its hegemonial designs. Prussia pursued the union project in a spirit of flexibility and compromise, hoping thereby to build a German entity that would be both popular (in the elitist, liberal sense) and monarchical without alienating Vienna. But the union project failed, and with it the king’s hopes of placing Prussia at the head of a united Germany. What light does this failure shed on the condition of Prussia and its place in the commonwealth of German states after the revolutions of 1848?

The events of 1848–50 revealed, among other things, how very disjointed the Prussian executive still was. Because the monarch – rather than the cabinet or ministry of state – was still at the centre of the decision-making process, factionalism and rivalry within the antechamber of power remained a serious problem. Indeed, in some respects, this tendency was reinforced by the revolutions, which forced the king into the arms of the conservative circles at court. This was a source of endless problems for Radowitz, who was loathed by the court camarilla and lived in constant fear of conspiracies against him. It also meant that Berlin’s support for the unionist initiative at times appeared half-hearted, as powerful ministers and advisers close to the king let it be known to compatriots and foreign emissaries alike that they did not support the Radowitz policy. Even Frederick William IV himself, who liked to peer at questions from every possible angle, occasionally gave signs of wavering in his support for his beloved favourite. This systemic irresolution in Berlin in turn reinforced Schwarzenberg’s determination to press the Prussians hard over Hesse-Kassel. His ultimate aim was not to wage war against Prussia, but to ‘get rid of the radical leadership’ there, and ‘strike an agreement with the conservatives, with whom one could safely share power in Germany’.55 The Austrians could still, in other words, exploit the divisions within the Prussian executive, just as they had done in the 1830s and 1840s. Here was a problem that would be resolved only when a powerful prime minister succeeded in suppressing the antechamber and imposing his authority on the government.

The particularism of the lesser states was a further obstacle. Bavaria refused to join the Prussian union; Baden and Saxony refused to stay in it. This was a poor reward for the bloody work the Prussians had done in restoring monarchical authority in all three states. In Baden, the Grand Duke owed his very existence as sovereign to the intervention of the Prussians, who remained in occupation until 1852. It was as if the treasury of merits the Prussians had worked so hard to accumulate through the Customs Union, German security policy and the suppression of revolution counted for nothing. The irony did not escape the notice of those two percipient contemporary Prussians, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, who wrote from London in October 1850:

Prussia had restored the rule of the forces of reaction everywhere and the more these forces re-established themselves, the more the petty princes deserted Prussia to throw themselves into the arms of Austria. Now that they could again rule as they had done before March [1848], absolutist Austria was closer to them than a power whose ability to be absolutist was no greater than its desire to be liberal.56

The débâcle of 1850 thus conformed to a time-honoured pattern. The Habsburgs would never be able to sound the bright trumpets of German unity, but they could still play masterfully upon the wheezing organ of the Confederation. In the ears of the lesser German dynasties, this was still the more congenial music.

Schwarzenberg’s success in facing down the Prussians over Hesse-Kassel would have been unthinkable without the advantages of an international setting that favoured Vienna against Berlin. Here was another lesson that Prussian sovereigns had had to learn at intervals throughout the history of the kingdom. The German question was ultimately a European question. It could not be addressed (let alone resolved) in isolation. Russia, France, Britain and Sweden all joined in pressing Berlin to back down in the war with Denmark in the summer of 1848, and Russian aid was essential in restoring Vienna to a position where it could respond forcefully to the challenge from Berlin. It was the Russians who tipped the balance in the struggle between Habsburg forces and the Hungarian revolution, the largest, best organized and most determined insurrection of 1848 anywhere in Europe. Behind Schwarzenberg at Olmütz stood the incalculable power of the Russian Tsar. ‘At the Tsar’s command,’ Marx and Engels predicted in October 1850, ‘rebellious Prussia will finally give way without a drop of blood being spilled.’57 From the perspective of November 1850, it was clear that a successful bid for German unity by Prussia would require a fundamental change in the power-political constellation of Europe. How this transformation might come about and what consequences it would entail were matters beyond the horizons of even the most imaginative contemporaries.

For the enthusiasts of the unionist project, the Punctation seemed a shocking defeat, a humiliation, a stain on the kingdom’s honour that called out for vengeance. The liberal nationalist historian Heinrich von Sybel, who had studied with Leopold Ranke in Berlin, later recalled the mood of disappointment. The Prussians, he wrote, had cheered their king as he took up the national cause against the Danes and defended the worthy people of Hesse-Kassel against their tyrannical Elector. ‘But now came a change: the dagger slipped from the trembling fist, and many a doughty warrior shed bitter tears into his beard. [… ] From a thousand throats rang a single cry of pain: for the second time the work of Frederick the Great had been annihilated.’58 Sybel was exaggerating. There were many who welcomed the news of Olmütz, including of course the conservative enemies of Radowitz. One of these was Otto von Manteuffel, who had long been pressing for a negotiated settlement with Austria and was appointed minister-president and foreign minister on 5 December 1850 – he was to remain in both posts for most of the following decade. Another was the conservative deputy Otto von Bismarck. In a famous speech to the Prussian parliament on 3 December 1850, Bismarck welcomed the Olmütz agreement, adding that he did not think it lay in Prussia’s interest ‘to play Don Quixote all over Germany on behalf of disgruntled parliamentary celebrities [gekraänkte Kammerzelebritaäten]’.59

And even those national-minded Protestant liberals who had supported the unionist project conceded that Olmütz was also a moment of sobriety and clarification after the rhetorical excesses of the revolution. ‘Realities,’ wrote the small-German nationalist and historian Johann Gustav Droysen in 1851, ‘began to triumph over ideals, interests over abstractions[…] Not through “freedom”, not through national resolutions would the unity of Germany be achieved. What was called for was one power against the other powers.’60 Far from undermining Droysen’s belief in Prussia’s German vocation, the setbacks of 1848–50 actually reinforced it. In an essay published in 1854 on the eve of the Crimean War, he expressed the hope that a determined Prussia would one day emerge to assert its leadership over the other German states and thereby found a unified, Protestant German nation. ‘After 1806 came 1813, after Ligny, Waterloo. In truth, we only need the cry “Forward”, and everything will spring into motion.’61


Historical narratives of the 1848 revolutions across Europe commonly end with an elegiacal reflection on the failure of revolution, the triumph of reaction, the execution, imprisonment, persecution or exile of radical activists and the concerted efforts of subsequent administrations to erase by force the memory of insurrection. It is a commonplace that the restoration of order in 1848–9 ushered in an era of reaction in Prussia. There was a concerted effort to erase the memory of insurrection from public awareness. Ceremonies in honour of the ‘March fallen’ and processions to their graves in the Friedrichshain cemetery were strictly forbidden. The police force was consolidated, enlarged and its sphere of responsibility extended.

The democratic suffrage conceded by the Prussian authorities under the constitution of December 1848 was rescinded in April 1849. Under the new franchise, nearly all male inhabitants of the kingdom were entitled to a vote, but their votes differed in value, since they were divided into three ‘classes’ according to their taxable income. Each class voted for one third of the electors who in turn elected the deputies to the parliament. In 1849, the steep income differentials across the kingdom’s population meant that the first class, representing the wealthiest 5 per cent of the electorate, voted for as many electors as the second (12.6 per cent) and the third (82.7 per cent).62 The parliament was saddled in 1855 with a new upper house, the Herrenhaus, loosely modelled on the British House of Lords and containing not a single elected member. The revived German Confederation returned to its time-honoured role as an organ of domestic repression throughout the German states and issued the Confederal Act of 6 July 1854, which, coupled with supporting legislation in the individual states, introduced a range of instruments to inhibit the circulation of subversive publications. Even more significant was the Confederal Act on Associations, passed just over a week later, which subjected all political associations to police supervision and forbade them to maintain relations with each other.63

Yet there was no return to the conditions of the pre-March era. Nor should we think of the revolutions as a failure. The Prussian upheavals of 1848 were not, to borrow A. J. P. Taylor’s phrase, ‘a turning point’ where Prussia ‘failed to turn’. They were a watershed between an old world and a new. The decade that began in March 1848 witnessed a profound transformation in political and administrative practices, a ‘revolution in government’.64 The upheaval itself may have ended in failure, marginalization, exile or imprisonment for some of its protagonists, but its momentum communicated itself like a seismic wave to the fabric of the Prussian (and not only the Prussian) administration, changing structures and ideas, bringing new priorities into government or reorganizing old ones, reframing political debates.

Prussia was now – for the first time in its history – a constitutional state with an elected parliament. This fact in itself created an entirely new point of departure for political developments in the kingdom.65 The Prussian constitution of 1848 was promulgated by the crown, rather than drawn up by an elected assembly. Yet it was popular with the great majority of liberals and of the moderate conservatives.66 The leading liberal newspapers welcomed the constitution and even defended it against its detractors on the left, on the grounds that it incorporated most of what the liberals had demanded and was thus ‘the work of the people’. The fact that the government had broken with liberal principle by issuing it without parliamentary sanction was widely overlooked.67 Over the years that followed, the constitution became ‘a part of Prussian public life’.68 Moreover, the unwillingness of the moderate liberals to risk a return to open confrontation and revolution on the one hand, and the readiness of the government to persevere with a policy of reform on the other, furnished the basis for a governmental coalition of factions that could generally muster a majority in the lower chamber.69

By contrast with the old provincial Estates of the pre-March era, which were dominated by the regional nobilities, the new representative system, centred on the Landtag in Berlin, had the effect of gradually pruning back the political dominance in rural areas of the old landowning class and thereby altered in a lasting way the balance of power within Prussian society.70 This effect was amplified by the Commutation Law of 1850, which completed the work begun by the agrarian reformers of the Napoleonic era and finally eliminated patrimonial jurisdictions in the countryside.71Otto von Manteuffel, minister-president of Prussia from 1850 until 1858, was thus not wrong in seeing himself as overseeing the advent of a new age for Prussia. The basis for what would later be called the ‘new era’ of liberal resurgence after 1858 could already be discerned within the constitutional system forged by the revolution.

The tone was set after 1848 by a loose post-revolutionary coalition that answered to the aspirations both of the more statist and moderate elements of liberalism and of the more innovative and entrepreneurial elements among the old conservative elites – there were parallels here with the ‘marriage’ (connubio) between right-liberal and reform-conservative interests that dominated the new parliament in post-revolutionary Piedmont and with the trans-partisan coalitions of the Regeneração in Portugal and the Unión Liberal in Spain.72 This informal coalition was not confined to parliament and the bureaucracy, but also embraced parts of civil society. New channels of communication opened up between the administration and powerful lobby groups of liberal entrepreneurs who found ways of making themselves heard and influencing the formulation of policy. The result was an amalgamation of old and new elites based not on an identity of interest, but on a ‘negotiated settlement’, from which both sides could draw benefits.73

So effective was this new politically and socially composite elite in controlling the middle ground of politics that it successfully marginalized both the democratic left and the old right. The ‘Old Conservatives’ found themselves on the defensive, even at court, where they were outmanoeuvred by those less doctrinaire conservatives who were willing to work within the new political constellation and to orient themselves pragmatically towards the state. It is remarkable how quickly the king himself and many of the conservatives around him came to accept the new constitutional order. The monarch who had once vowed in public that he would never allow a ‘written piece of paper’ to come between his Lord God in heaven and his country, soon made his peace with the new regime, though he continued to look for ways of shoring up his own authority within it. An important figure in the process of conservative accommodation was the new minister-president, Otto von Manteuffel, a sturdy and unexcitable career bureaucrat who took the view that the purpose of government was to mediate between the conflicting interests of the entities that constitute civil society.74The conservative university professor Friedrich Julius Stahl was another important modernizer; he led the way in reconciling conservative objectives with modern representative politics.

Even Prince William of Prussia, initially a more vehemently conservative figure than Stahl had ever been, was quick to adapt to the demands of the new situation. ‘What is past is past!’ he wrote in a remarkable letter to the Camphausen government only three weeks after the March events. ‘Nothing can be brought back; may every attempt to do so be abandoned!’ It was now the ‘duty of every patriot’ to ‘help build the new Prussia’.75 The former ‘grape-shot prince’ returned from Britain in the summer of 1848 ready to work within the post-revolutionary order. The politics of the traditional conservatism, with its pious legitimism and its attachment to corporatist structures now appeared narrow, self-interested and retrograde. It was unthinkable, Prussian Minister-President Otto von Manteuffel pointed out to the conservative rural opponents of fiscal reform, that the Prussian state should continue to be run ‘like the landed estate of a nobleman’.76 In their unwillingness to embrace the new order, the exponents of an unreconstructed pre-March conservatism risked acquiring the taint of opposition, or even of treason.

The revolution also placed the Prussian state on a new fiscal footing. Among other things, it enabled the administration to escape from the shackles of Hardenberg’s State Indebtedness Law, which had limited public spending in the Restoration era. As one deputy of the Prussian parliament declared in March 1849, the previous administration had ‘stingily refused’ to provide the sums necessary to develop the country. ‘However,’ he added, ‘we now stand at the government’s side and will always approve the funds required for the promotion of improved transport and for the support of commerce, industry and agriculture…’77 Neither the new income tax introduced in 1851 (whose legitimacy was perceived as deriving from the suffrage) nor the long-awaited reform of the old land tax in 1861, would have been possible before the revolution.78 Flush with new cash, the Prussian administrations of the 1850s could afford a substantial rise in public spending on commercial and infrastructural projects, not only in absolute terms, but also in relation to spending on defence, which had traditionally absorbed the lion’s share of Prussian government budgets.79 The problem of raising a loan for the Eastern Railway, which had forced the government to summon the United Diet in 1847, was solved by the new constitution; 33 million thalers were duly approved for this and two other unfinished arterial lines.80

This unaccustomed liberality was underwritten by a new emphasis on the right and obligation of the state to deploy public funds for the purpose of modernization.81 Such arguments benefited from the congenial climate of contemporary German economic theory, which underwent a reorientation during the middle decades of the nineteenth century away from the stringently anti-statist positions of the German ‘free trade school’ towards the view that the state had certain macro-economic objectives to fulfil that could not be achieved by individuals or groups within society.82 Closely linked with this holistic view of the state’s economic competence was an insistence upon the need to develop administrative measures in accordance with an over-arching preconceived plan. During the business crisis of 1846–8, some prominent Prussian liberals had called upon the state to take over the administration of the kingdom’s railways and unite them into ‘an organic whole’.83 But it was not until the 1850s that the Prussian finance minister, August von der Heydt, himself a liberal merchant banker from Elberfeld, presided over a gradual ‘nationalization’ of the Prussian railways, motivated by the conviction that only the state was capable of ensuring that the resulting system was rational in terms of the state as a whole – private interests alone would not suffice. In this he was fully supported by the lower house of the new parliament. A parliamentary railways commission formed to advise the government expressed the view that ‘the transfer of all railways to the state’s possession must remain the government’s goal’ and that the authorities must ‘strive to reach it through every means available’.84

On the other hand, the implicit terms of the post-revolutionary settlement also required that the state at times step back and honour the autonomy of the business sector. This is what happened in 1856, when conservatives within the cabinet attempted to put a stop to the proliferation of ‘commandite’ banks in the Kingdom of Prussia. These banks were essentially private investment vehicles used by the business community to bypass the government’s continuing reluctance to charter joint-stock banks. The conservatives (including the king himself) viewed these institutions as dubious French innovations that would encourage high-risk speculations and destabilize the social order. In 1856, therefore, the cabinet drew up a draft decree prohibiting the formation of commandite banks. Manteuffel, who had been approached by leading businessmen, was able to block this initiative and the government gradually relinquished its authority to control the flow of credit to financial institutions. Even in the coal and iron industries, which had traditionally been subject to close government supervision, entrepreneurs were successful in negotiating a loosening of state controls.85

Steps were also taken after 1848 to secure the unity and coherence of the central administration. In 1852, Minister-President Otto von Manteuffel elicited a cabinet order from the king establishing the minister-president as the sole conduit for formal communications between the ministry and the monarch. This important document signalled an attempt to realize at last the unity of administration that Hardenberg had struggled for in the 1810s, but it was also a reply to the challenge thrown up by the revolution which had pushed the king into the arms of his camarilla and thereby undermined the coherence of the supreme executive. In the short term, the cabinet order did not suffice to eliminate the influence of courtiers, intriguers and favourites. Manteuffel suffered, as all his predecessors had, from the incessant plotting of the ultra-conservatives who clustered around the king. The intriguing reached fever pitch in 1855, when the outbreak of the Crimean War split the political elite into the usual western and eastern factions. The ultras, who favoured an alliance with autocratic Russia against the west, did their utmost to dislodge the king from his commitment to neutrality.

Unsettled by these machinations and uncertain of the king’s confidence in himself, Manteuffel kept abreast of the situation by employing a spy to secure copies of confidential papers from the apartments of key ultras, including the venerable Leopold von Gerlach, still faithfully serving his king as adjutant-general. There was profound embarrassment when the spy in question, a former lieutenant by the name of Carl Techen, was picked up by police and confessed under questioning that he had purchased them on behalf of the minister-president. The embarrassment deepened yet further when one of the stolen letters revealed that Gerlach had himself been employing a spy to watch the king’s brother, Prince William, who was seen as a powerful opponent of a Russian alliance. This ‘Prussian Watergate’86 revealed that the problem of the antechamber of power remained unsolved. The Prussian central executive was still a loose assemblage of lobbies clustered around the king. The cabinet order of 1852 was an important start, nevertheless. In later years under the premiership of the far more ruthless and ambitious Otto von Bismarck, it would provide a mechanism for a concentration of power sufficient to ensure a measure of unity across cabinet and administration.

The years following the revolutions of 1848 also saw a renegotiation of the relationship between government and its public. The revolutions of 1848 triggered a transition towards a more organized, pragmatic and flexible handling of the press than had been the norm in the Restoration era. A central feature of this transition was the abandonment of censor-ship. Censorship – in the sense of the vetting of printed material for political content prior to publication – had been an important instrument of government power in the Restoration era and the call for its abolition was one of the central themes of liberal and radical dissent before 1848. In the course of the revolutions, censorship regimes across Germany were dismantled and the freedom of the press enshrined in laws and constitutions. To be sure, many of the permissive press laws issued in 1848 did not survive the reimposition of order. On the other hand, this did not imply – in most states – a return to pre-March conditions. In Prussia, as in a number of other German states, the focus of press policy shifted from the cumbersome pre-censorship of printed material to the surveillance of those political groups that produced it. A substantial component of the liberal programme thus survived the déba^cle of the revolution.87

This was an important shift, because the transition from a preventive to a repressive policy brought governmental measures into the open. Newspapers and journals could be penalized only after they had begun to circulate, that is, after the ‘damage’, as it were, had been done. The administration was thus under increasing pressure to find other, less direct means of influencing the press. At the same time, differences between the police authorities, the judiciary and responsible ministers as to what constituted an illegal printed utterance meant that the efforts of the former were often thwarted. This problem was particularly pronounced under Minister-President von Manteuffel, who disagreed with the extremely conservative Interior Minister Ferdinand von Westphalen on what was permissible in print and what was not.88 The fact that all citizens now enjoyed the right, in theory at least, to express their opinions in print provided the basis for all those involved with the production of political reading matter – booksellers and newsagents, publishers and editors-in-chief – to besiege the authorities with petitions, constitutional objections and appeal proceedings. In such cases, the governments found themselves confronting not merely an isolated journalist or editor, but the entire circle of those who supported a specific journal.89

In Prussia, as in most European states, the expansion of political print and of the politicized reading public that had taken place during the revolution proved irreversible. The government dealt with this problem by adopting a more supple and coordinated approach to the business of shaping public attitudes. Here as in so many other areas of administrative innovation, it was the experience of revolution that provided the impetus behind reform. In the summer of 1848, under the liberal government of Minister-President Auerswald, the Prussian administration established a Literary Cabinet in order to coordinate an official response both to liberal policy critiques and to the more fundamental anti-constitutional opposition of the Old Conservatives and their organ, the Neue Preussische Zeitung .90 The first Literary Cabinet collapsed in November 1848 after the change of government, but it was reconstituted under Otto von Manteuffel in the following month, and its activities gradually broadened to encompass the strategic placement of government-friendly articles in key journals and the purchase of a semi-official newspaper, the Deutsche Reform, that would support the line of the Cabinet while retaining the appearance and credibility of an independent publication. On 23 December 1850, the coordination of press policy was at last given a secure institutional basis in the Central Agency for Press Affairs (Zentralstelle für Pressangelegenheiten). The agency’s responsibilities included the administration of funds set aside for the purpose of subsidizing the press, the supervision of subsidized newspapers, and the cultivation of ‘relationships’ with domestic and foreign papers.91 The Zentralstelle also ran its own newspaper,Die Zeit, which was known for its blistering attacks on the chief spokesmen of the conservative camp, including Otto von Bismarck, the Pietist Hans Hugo von Kleist-Retzow and even Interior Minister Westphalen himself.92

Manteuffel believed that it was time to move beyond the traditionally confrontational relationship between press and government that had been the norm before 1848. The administration would not enter directly into political debate, but through its press agency it would inaugurate ‘an organic exchange [Wechselwirkung] between all arms of the state and the press’; it would work proactively to establish in advance the right attitude to governmental activity. The government would draw on privileged sources within the various ministries to promulgate news concerning the life of the state and important events abroad.93 During the early 1850s, the Central Agency succeeded in building up a network of press contacts that penetrated deep into the provincial press. Cooperative editors were provided with privileged information or funding, and many local newspapers became financially dependent on the various perks that came with joining the system: fees for official announcements, subsidies, ministerial block subscriptions and so on.

Manteuffel’s innovation thus heralded the transition from a system based on the filtering of press material through a cumbersome apparatus of censorship, to a more nuanced method of news and information management. All this was persuasive testimony to the irreversibility of the changes wrought by 1848. ‘Every century has seen new cultural powers enter into the sphere of traditional life, powers which were not to be destroyed but to be incorporated [verarbeitet],’ Manteuffel wrote in July 1851. ‘Our generation recognizes the press as such a power. Its significance has grown with the expanded participation of the people in public affairs, a participation that is partly expressed, partly fed and directed by the press.’94 Among those entrusted with disbursing Manteuffel’s cash to friendly journalists and newspaper editors was none other than Otto von Bismarck, who took up his post as Prussia’s representative at the Confederal Diet in 1851.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!