1848 Chapter 5: The Struggle for Freedom and Unity
The First all-German Parliament
It was a great moment in German history: May 18th 1848, the first all- German parliament, which also included deputies from Austria, convened in Frankfurt’s Paulskirche. One third of the almost 800 deputies are lawyers, followed by landowners, merchants and clergymen. The „working class“ is not represented.
The parliament is supposed to accomplish mighty things: bring about German unity, draw up a constitution for all of Germany and establish a central government. Will Austria be part of the new German Empire?
Should the new federal state be a republic or a hereditary monarchy with a constitution?
In the struggle for national unity, nationalist tones are also being heard, denying ethnic minorities in German lands, such as the Poles, the right to independence. The dream of a springtime of nations turns into a petty struggle between conflicting interests. But one task succeeds: a constitution is drawn up and a „provisional imperial government“ is established. In the revolution of 1849, the parliament falls apart. The „rump parliament“ flees to Stuttgart. Württemberg’s military drives the last deputies apart.
Gabriel Riesser: Vice President and Champion of the Jews
In his hometown of Hamburg, the Jew Gabriel Riesser, born in 1806, is denied admission to the bar and notary profession for a long time. He founds a magazine in which he writes against the prejudices that prevail everywhere in Germany.
He became involved in the Hamburg Temple Association and advocated a reform of Judaism. After 1840, Riesser is finally able to become a lawyer. In 1848, he is sent to the pre-parliament and later elected to the Frankfurt National Assembly. Through his stirring speeches, he helps to ensure that full equal rights for members of all confessions are enshrined in the imperial constitution.
As a result, Hamburg also grants Jews full citizenship rights. In 1860, Gabriel Riesser is the first German Jew to be appointed to the office of judge in Hamburg. He dies three years later.
Jakob Venedey: The 'fundamental rights' are his Concept
Already as a student in Cologne, Jakob Venedey, born in 1817, has to leave school because of his sympathy for the banned “Turner movement”. After the Hambach Festival, he flees to Paris. There, he writes for German newspapers, is friends with Heinrich Heine, and in 1834 co-founds the socialist „Bund der Geächteten“.
During the revolution of 1848 he becomes a member of the pre- parliament and a deputy of the National Assembly. He fights for the Greater German solution, the unification of the empire with the inclusion of Austria. As a lawyer, he advocates a strong parliament in the constitutional deliberations. He proposes the term „basic rights“ for the elementary rights of freedom.
In 1854 Venedey marries the militant democrat Henriette Obermüller. After a few years of exile in Zurich, Henriette runs a boarding house in Oberweiler, Baden. Jakob dies in 1871. His children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren have continued the tradition of political commitment.
Frederick William IV: The King Does Not Want a Democrat's Crown
Frederick William IV has reigned as King of Prussia since 1840. Born in 1795, the artistically gifted monarch is no friend of the Enlightenment. His worldview is shaped by Christian and Romantic ideals. He rejectes the monarch’s allegiance to a constitution.
Nevertheless, he welcomes technical progress and promotes the urban development of Berlin. When an uprising breaks out in Berlin in March 1848, Frederick William IV sees foreign powers at work. The military shoots at the demonstrators. Now the king shows himself to the people wearing a black-red-gold cockade, and he also appoints liberal ministers to the government.
He rejectes the German imperial crown offered to him by the National Assembly on April 3rd 1849: he did not want to wear a „crown from the gutter”. The exclusion of Austria from the empire also needed to be avoided. When uprisings break out in Saxony and southern Germany, Frederick William IV sends the Prussian army.
After the uprising, the principality of Hohenzollern-Hechingen is incorporated into Prussia. Frederick William IV has Hohenzollern Castle, ancestral seat of his family, rebuilt. Due to a neurological illness, he is incapable of ruling from 1858 onwards. His brother Wilhelm takes over the regency. Frederick William IV dies in 1861.
Dominik Kuenzer: An Early Campaigner for the Synodal Way
Since 1836, priest Dominikus Kuenzer has been pastor at the Constance hospital. The young Kuenzer is on friendly terms with the reformer and last vicar general of the bishopric of Constance, Baron von Wessenberg. As a school councilor, he advocates a reform of the school system and teacher training.
The population elects the liberal clergyman to the Baden state parliament. Initially, the curia refuses to grant him the leave he needs to exercise his mandate. With the help of an association that he founds in neutral Schaffhausen, Kuenzer fights for a synodal reform of the church and for the involvement of the laity. Rome and the Archbishop of Fribourg reprimand Kuenzer and forbid his membership in the association.
Kuenzer’s voters, however, are loyal to him and elect the 55-year-old to the Frankfurt National Assembly in 1848. There, the Catholic free spirit is in the camp of the resolute democrats. After the failure of parliament and revolution, Kuenzer lives a while in exile in Appenzell, before returning to Constance. Shaken by the reactionary politics of church and state, Dominikus Kuenzer dies in 1853.
Basic Rights of All Germans - The Imperial Constitution of 1849
The greatest achievement of the first all-German parliament is the fundamental rights of the German people, proclaimed as an imperial law on December 27th 1848. They guarantee personal and political freedoms to all Germans. A constitutional order is to be established, with an independent judiciary, equality before the law and abolition of the death penalty. Old privileges of the nobility are abolished.
Social reforms in favor of the lower classes of the population, on the other hand, do not find a majority in the bourgeois majority of parliament. On March 27th 1849, the entire imperial constitution, including universal and equal suffrage, is adopted in parliament.
Germany is to be headed by a „hereditary emperor,“ so the conservative forces have prevailed. But Prussian King Frederick William IV
contemptuously rejects the imperial dignity offered to him by Parliament. Several German princes refuse to accept the constitution. Already, the reforms of the Revolution are being rolled back everywhere. The great powers, Prussia and Austria, prepare to strike back.
What does a Constitution do?
A constitution is, so to speak, the „operating manual“ of a democracy. Unlike in a monarchy or dictatorship, the people are the sovereign, i.e. power emanates from the people: All institutions are based on this democratic legitimacy. The constitution determines how power is shared and yet how the country can be governed without constantly having to ask those eligible to vote.
The constitution also determines which institutions control the power of those who govern. In democracy, the powers of the state are strictly divided: Legislative (the parliament), Executive (the government), Judicial (the courts).
Of particular important are the so-called „fundamental rights“ of all citizens. They are first laid out in the Constitution of the Paulskirche of 1848, primarily as defensive rights against the state.
Here we list the most important ones at that time:
The most important 'fundamental rights' at that time
Freedom of Movement
According to the laws of the German principalities, citizens needed permission to move away. Career advancement or private reorientation were thus often impossible because the permission to move away from ones homeland was denied. In the Basic Law, „freedom of movement“ is regulated in Article 11.
Principle of Equality
The nobility, the bourgeoisie and the mass of almost lawless workers and day laborers were sharply divided as „estates.“ While the nobility enjoyed inherited privileges and was partially deprived of jurisdiction and tax liability, the people had hardly any rights of defense against state powers. Today, Article 3 of the Basic Law also regulates the equality of men and women, which was not provided for at the time.
Abolition of the Death Penalty
In this provision, the Paulskirche Constitution had no predecessor and no successor, not until the 1949 Basic Law of the Federal Republic of Germany does it state: „The death penalty is abolished.“
Inviolability of the Home
A fundamental right for the democracy movement. Until then, the authorities could search apartments, editorial offices of newspapers and publishing houses at every opportunity in order to stifle unwelcome criticism throughthe means of justice. From now on, only a judge independent of the government was to be allowed to order the search of a home.
Freedom of Expression, Freedom of the Press
This provision has been incorporated into Article 5 of the Basic Law: The fundamental right to freedom of expression protects public discussion and the formation of opinion in a democracy. This right is not unlimited: It finds its limits today „in the provisions of general laws, the legal provisions for the protection of youth, and in the right of personal honor.“ (Basic Law, Art. 5)
Freedom of Faith and Conscience
An old demand of radical democrats: No one should be persecuted or discriminated against because of his faith or conscience. The Paulskirche constitution also wanted to break the long-established special rights of religious communities within the scope of the General Laws: Confessional schools, religious orders, bishoprics were not to be allowed to apply special law contrary to the Constitution.
Right of Petition
An important demand at the time: the state should have to deal with citizens‘ concerns if they were submitted as petitions. The „right to petition“ still exists today, and the state parliaments maintain their own petition committees. (Art. 17 GG)
Freedom of Assembly and Association
Every authoritarian state fears freedom of assembly: political gatherings in the open air demonstrate to the whole world the protest of the population against the regime. In the 19th century, freedom of association mainly concerned political singing or workers‘ education associations and later trade unions. The Basic Law devotes a separate article to freedom of assembly (Article 8) and another to freedom of association (Article 9).
The right to property is a special feature of bourgeois, capitalist society: property enables and secures private-sector initiative and social advancement. In the Basic Law, however, the guarantee of property is subject to a social obligation. Article 14 states: „Property is an obligation. Its use shall at the same time serve the common good.“
Independence of the Judiciary
This article describes the pre-modern legal practice of the German states of the time: Judges were appointed by the grace of the sovereign and recalled if they were not compliant. Noble landlords and officials of the regional authorities held their own penal power, and a review of their judgments (appeal, revision) was hardly possible. The Basic Law divides the powers from one another: the legislative (parliament), executive (government) and judicial branches are independent of one another, at least according to the constitution.