German Revolution of 1848
[n.b.: this quick explanation of a major European Revolution is necessarily reductive and woefully incomplete. The purpose of this page is to put the Wisconsin Forty-Eighters' political activism into some sort of context.]
Europe in the mid-19th Century was ripe for revolution. After the Napoleonic Wars, many European countries were in disarray. Citizens that had hoped for democracy and the establishment of constitutional governments were disappointed. As Rudolf Cronau puts it, "The rulers, forgetful that the people had saved their thrones, denied [the people constitutional government ], and opened instead a long period of reaction which manifested its triumph in dark acts of oppression and tyranny" ("The Men of 1848," German Corner). Add to this economic crises and failed harvests, and many citizens were ready to revolt.
The first revolutionary lob came from Paris in February of 1848. Louis Blanc and other socialists overthrew King Louis Phillipe and established the Second Republic. The revolutionary spark spread to Germany, leading to armed uprisings in Vienna and Berlin. Students were particularly active in fighting in the revolutionary army against the forces Prussian Kaiser Frederick Wilhelm IV.
Liberals had long wanted a unified Germany instead of a fragmented and quasi-feudal Germany. To this end, the National Assembly was convened.
The National Assembly, convened in Frankfurt on May 18, 1848, sought to:
However, the National Assembly itself was not a unified group, and infighting as well as outside opposition eventually led to its downfall. For example, the Assembly could not agree on the borders of a German nation-state--especially in terms of Austria and the Hapsburg empire. In terms of outside forces, Austrian Prince Felix Schwarzenberg proposed a centralized Imperial constitution for the entire Austrian empire and offered Prussian Kaiser Frederick Wilhelm IV the unifying crown. However, the Kaiser refused and spoke against any type of unification. In effect, the ideas of the National Assembly were going nowhere (and several liberals left the Assembly). The Assembly was disbanded by military force; the German Revolution of 1848 was effectively over.
Historians often see the Forty-Eighters as the inheritors of the liberal tradition of Kant and Schiller, Washington and Jefferson (Tolzmann, German Corner). And while the ideals of the German Revolution were not successful in 1848, they provided a base for the Weimar Republic and for German unification in 1989.
For more on the German Revolution, see Unity and Justice and Freedom: The German Revolution of 1848/49 by the German Information Center.