May 1st in German History: The German Federal Election

Frankfurt Parliament - Simple English Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
The Frankfurt Parliament. Image Credit: Wikipedia

1848 was a year of revolution and change in Europe. In France, the population overthrew a corrupt and ineffective monarch. In the Austrian Empire, the Hungarians revolted against their Hapsburg rulers but were put down with Russian supports. In Italy, a series of revolts against Austrian rule failed to create an independent Italy. Finally, in Germany the people of Prussia rose up and demanded a constitution, a parliamentary monarchy, and a united Germany.

The Frankfurt Parliament was the democratic body set up in the aftermath of the March Revolution. The Frankfurt Parliament was elected on May 1st, 1848 and it was in session from May 18th of that year to May 31st of the next. The Parliament had several Prime Ministers, the most famous of which was Heinrich von Gagern. The Parliament’s main accomplishment was the creation of the Frankfurt Constitution. This constitution proclaimed the creation of the German Empire. This Empire would be a parliamentary democracy and would have basic rights for all its citizens. The Kaiser would be a constitutional monarch. The Parliament had to deal with several crises during its short existence. Chief of these was the war with Denmark, which had attempted to occupy Holstein and blockade the German coast. That episode consumed all of the funds of the Parliament and it had to rely on donations from citizens as the finances of most of the German States were in disarray and the Princes were not inclined to give money to a Parliament that sought to take some of their power away. The Frankfurt Parliament also dealt with defining Germany and choosing who exactly the Emperor of Germany would be. Because it had no military force or method of compelling funding, the Parliament gradually lost influence and power until April of 1859 when all of the Austrian deputies left the Parliament and the elections called for by Prime Minister Gagern did not take place. Gagern was unable to get the Regent, an Austrian Archduke, to intervene in favor of implementing the Constitution and he resigned, leaving the Parliament without any real effective leader. In the following months, all of the Prussian ministers left followed by most of the moderate and all of the conservative deputies. The radical liberal members of Parliament called for a revolution to force the implementation of the Constitution, but this failed to achieve any real results. Following this, the assembly was forced to move to Stuttgart on the 31st of May and continued to lose members; it now had 154 members when it had once had nearly 500. The Parliament was now effectively dissolved, but the radical liberals would still call for a revolution across the entirety of Germany. The Prussian Army put down the small revolutions which did occur as a result, and shortly after the government of Wurttemberg, the state which Stuttgart was in, sent troops to occupy the Parliament’s chambers and had the deputies expelled.

The Frankfurt Parliament’s failure ended any real possibility of the peaceful unification of Germany into a democratic state. The bourgeoisie liberals who would have led such an effort were discredited by the utter failure of the Parliament to establish itself and enforce its directives, and the Parliament would only be viewed positively once the Wiemar Republic replaced the German Empire. The revolution and Prussia’s suppression of it also led to some of the smaller German States seeing Prussia more favorably. The Frankfurt Parliament thus had the opposite of the intended effect. It empowered an authoritarian Monarchical state and discredited democratic movements in Germany. There was a silver lining as many of the Parliament’s laws and practices would be implemented into the Wiemar Republic. For the time being, though, the Parliament’s attempt to lead a peaceful and moderate revolution only pushed Germany towards conservative monarchism.

One thought on “May 1st in German History: The German Federal Election

  1. James, I would love to hear more about the beginnings of your interest in Germany and its history. Can you share what the catalyst was?


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