Table of Contributors   Table of Contents   Return to Encyclopedia Home Page

Dahlman, Friedrich Christoph

Dahlman, Friedrich Christoph (1785-1860) historian and liberal politician was born in Wismar, the port city of Mecklenburg, Friedrich Dahlman became a historian at the University of Gšttingen and helped to write the Honoverian constitution in 1883. Four years later, Dahlman found himself embroiled in a conflict that propelled him to fame throughout the German confederation. He was the leader of the Gšttingen Seven. These seven professors were dismissed by the new ruler Ernst Augustus because they had protested the prince's arbitrary abrogation of the constitution. "Must I now teach," wrote Dahlman, "that the supreme princip le of the state is whatever pleases those in power, is law? As a man of honor I would rather give up teaching altogether than sell it to my audience as truth that which is a lie and deceit." Dahlman's dismissal stood, but he found employment as the Prussian University of Bonn in 1843.

What angered Dahlman most about the Hanoverian prince's actions was his contempt for written law. In 1835 Dahlman authored a classic treatise on German liberalism entitled Politics, Reduced to the Ground Measur e of Existing Conditions. Dahlman believed that the state was the most integral institution of human life. The state was closer to the divine order than anything else, Dahlman reasoned, and could justifiably demand compliance with its regulations of secular affairs. The respect for historic institutions as embodying the seeds of a transcendent ideal and the simultaneous belief that progress toward the ideal state required the preservation of governmental authority remained sacred to Dahlman and Ge rman liberalism. Dahlman, like most German liberals, was envious of the British system and thought that a hereditary monarch was the most effective way to guarantee order and individual liberties. The monarch, however, must be limited by written law which must not be changed without popular consent. By popular consent Dahlman meant the middle class which was the source of enlightenment and progress. One man should be born to rule, Dahlman believed, but no one should be born to serve. The p ublic sphere should be opened to all with talent. Should the laws be arbitrarily broken by the sovereign, the people still did not have the right to rebel. Freedom has often come out of order, Dahlman wrote, but never order out of freedom. Like most German liberals, Dahlman harbored a great distrust of the masses.

Dahlman became active in the movement to unite Germany, which the historian felt would be the best way to guarantee a constitution to all citizens and to remove the abuses and incons istencies of the existing political system. He quickly became one of the liberal leaders at Frankfurt during 1848 helping draft the constitution. His belief in the sanctity of tradition showed in his preface to the constitution. He wrote, "To our princely houses belong not only the old habits of truth they are the only possibility to lead gradually this multifaceted and diverse Germany into a unified state." His political vision for the new Germany called for a hereditary monarch, an uppe r house reserved for the various princes, and a lower house that would also have restricted suffrage.

His position on the precise definition and the borders of Germany were somewhat ambivalent. He advocated a Kleindeutsch solution professing that a whole nation need not be included in the same state. He looked to Prussia to lead the German state, but became greatly disillusioned when the Prussian government disregarded the assembly and concluded with a peace treaty at Malmš with th e Danish, abandoning the struggle for the "German" duchies. Dahlman strongly felt that Schleswig and Holstein must be included in the German state. He declared that if justice was not done to Schleswig and it was not freed from the Danes, the whole German cause would suffer.

Dahlman's dream of a Prussian dominated German state ruled by one constitution failed in 1848. He never was able to persuade a majority of the parliamentarians of the wisdom of his political philosophy, despite fact that most were professionals like himself. But even had he succeeded in placating the many factions at Frankfurt, Dahlman realized that the failure of the parliament was due more to its lack of military power than its internal bickering. Reflecting on the revolution in January 1849, Dahlman presciently said: "The road of power is the only one that will satisfy and appease our yearning for freedom... Germany as such must finally step forward into the ranks of the great political powers in the world." Dahlmann's emp hasis on state power was not lost on his most famous student and admirer Heinrich von Treitschke who also believed in the importance of Prussian/German power and a hereditary monarch subject to constitutional law.

Glenn R. Sharfman


Hamerow, Theodore S. Restoration, Revolution, Reaction: Economics and Politics in Germany, 1815-1871 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1958.

Sheehan, James. German History: 1770-1866 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989).

-----. German Liberalism in the Nineteenth Century (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1978).

Table of Contributors   Table of Contents   Return to Encyclopedia Home Page

jgc revised this file ( on october 13, 2004.

Please E-mail comments or suggestions to

© 1997, 2004 James Chastain.