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Heinrich von Gagern

Heinrich von Gagern (1799-1880) Wilhelm Heinrich August von Gagern was one of the most famous German liberals of 1848. He was not a political theorist but a practical politician. He had helped launch the national Burschenschaft movement in 1819 and led the liberal opposition group in Hesse-Darmstadt's Landtag in the early 1830s. During the crisis-ridden 1840s he tried to weld the regionally-fragmented liberal movement into a national political force -- though not a revolutionary one. Like most German liberals, Gagern feared that the princes' stubborn opposition to inevitable political change could provoke a violent and destructive revolution.

The main task of the liberal movement, in Gagern's view, was to persuade the princes to seize the initiative before that happened. Ideally, the princes themselves would form a German government and endow it with a legislative chamber elected by the German people to give it the proper national flavor. The delicate problem of multinational Austria might be solved by conceding preponderance to Prussia in heading up a union of non-Austrian German states, and associating an intact Austria with it in another, larger union. Thus Germany could unite with a minimum of political disruption and a maximum of consideration for the conservation of existing institutions.

Gagern had many opportunities to promote these ideas when the revolutionary crisis finally arose. He participated in the assembly of moderates at Heppenheim in 1847. His Landtag motion of February 28, 1848, calling on the princes to form a provisional government received national attention. He was a member of the Heidelberg assembly of March, 1848, and of the subsequent pre-Parliament. He also briefly headed Hesse-Darmstadt's "March ministry." But his fame stems mostly from his service to the national cause as President of the Frankfurt Parliament (May 19 to December 16, 1848) and then as Minister-President of the German Provisional Government (December 17, 1848 to May 10, 1849) which it created.

Gagern's formal, solemn demeanor gave dignity to the Parliament's proceedings, and won him respect and support beyond his own Casino party. But he was always impatient for results in the national cause. He used his office to urge the princes finally to create a German government. When they failed to do so he persuaded the Parliament to take the almost revolutionary "bold stroke" of choosing its own "Vicar of the Empire," who then appointed a German Provisional Government. But this major success did not overcome the chief obstacle, which was the continued reluctance of the princes to cooperate with Frankfurt. When both Austria and Prussia staged counterrevolutionary coups in late 1848, he took over the Provisional Government himself, determined to forge a solution acceptable to them. When Austria's hostility ended that hope he backed the scheme to elect the King of Prussia as hereditary German emperor, for that seemed to be the last opportunity for German unity under his formula of princely cooperation. But when the Prussian king finally rejected that offer, Gagern had run out of alternatives. He resigned as German Minister-President, and a few days later led a secession of moderate deputies who opposed any attempt by the left to unite Germany through revolutionary action.

Thereafter Gagern continued to work for German unification, but except for supporting Prussia in the abortive Erfurt Union parliament of 1850, he never again achieved a leadership role, perhaps, because he was so thoroughly identified with the failed attempt of 1848.
Donald J. Mattheisen



Wentzcke, Paul. Heinrich von Gagern: Vorkämpfer für deutche Einheit und Volksvertretung. Göttingen: Müsterschmidt, 1957.

Wentzcke, Paul, and Wolfgang Klötzer, eds. Deutscher Liberalismus in Vormärz: Heinrich von Gagern: Briefe und Reden 1815-1848. Göttingen: Mösterschmidt, 1959.

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