Table of Contributors   Table of Contents   Return to Encyclopedia Home Page


Grossdeutschland or greater Germany, proved to be one of the most contentious issues during the 1848 Revolution. Almost all of the participants at the F rankfurt Assembly agreed that a unified Germany would help modernize the economy, strengthen it as a world power, and guarantee its citizens certain fundamental rights. The chairman of the economic committee, Friedrich von Rhne, summed up the position of many when he said on June 3, 1848:"The liberated German nation is eager to reap the fruits of its political emancipation. It demands law and order, it demands the revival of industrial activity...It demands the political unity of Germany so that it can b reak the chains which bind domestic commerce and which even now still separate one German state from another. It demands the political unity of Germany so that it can win for its country the eminent position in foreign commerce...The divided states of Germany have until now been in no position to assert this claim against foreign nations, but the united states of Germany will know how to enforce it." There was little disagreement about reducing the number of German states, but many arguments erupted over the precise demarcation of which territories should constitute the new Germany. The proponents of a greater Germany advocated the inclusion of Austria into the configuration. The problem was that the Austrian Empire included many non-German territories.

The members of the constitutional commission at Frankfurt believed that "no part of the German Reich shall belong to a state with non-German territories." Early in 1848 when it appeared that the Habsburg empire might collapse, the Grossdeutsch solution looked attractive for Austrians. Many representatives of the assembly favored the inclusion of Austria proper for various reasons. Catholics were concerned that without Austria, Protestantism would dominate the new state. South Germans feared that without Austria, Prussia would impose its militarism. Many others believed that a federated state with Austria was the best means to secure state's rights. However, by October when the Habsburg empire had recovered, the chan ces for a merger between the German confederation and the Austrian empire seemed remote.

On October 19, 1848 the parliamentarians began deliberations on the complexion of the new Germany. One week later they passed a proviso declaring that all German territory would be joined in the new nation, but any state with non-German possessions, like Austria, would be accepted as part of the new Germany only by abandoning its non-German lands or by holding them exclusively through a personal union in the crown. This action virtually excluded Austria from the new nation unless the Habsburgs wanted to dissolve their empire. This decision suited many in the parliament who believed, as Johann Droysen did, that "Germany has been demoralized, has fallen into ruins and become powerless for three centuries because of Austria." Heinrich von Gagern, the president of the assembly and quintessential German liberal, sought support for a compromise plan to create a Germany ruled by a Hohenzollern, but joined in a spe cial relationship to Austria in a unified Reich. By January 1849 this proposal, supported by most Protestants and Prussians, passed despite objections from any Catholics, southern Germans, and radicals. Yet, ten days later Gagern's coalition disintegrated over the debate on the new king's exact powers. The Grossdeutsch forces were dealt their final blow by the leading Austrian minister Prince Felix Schwarzenberg. Schwarzenberg proposed a scheme that would extend Austrian h egemony over the German confederation. This ran counter to the wishes of most German liberals who looked to Prussia rather that Austria as the source of leadership. Many liberals feared that the prince's plan was more a greater Austria than a greater Germany. The prince advocated the amalgamation of the whole empire with the German confederation. Because of this, members of the greater Germany coalition who had previously feared that a Prussian dominated state would be neither national nor constitutiona l joined the Kleindeutsch faction after extracting guarantees that the power of the Prussian sovereign would be minimized. Many of the delegates who had altered their position were so-called radical democrats who believed that political freedom was more important than the precise borders. In other words, they cared more about the political structure of Germany than specific geographic boundaries. Moreover, the new Habsburg emperor Franz Joseph I promulgated a new constitution in March, 1849 that reaffirmed the unity and integrity of his empire precluding any possibility of Austria's joining the German confederation. As it turned out the final constitution which favored a "small" German approach, and narrowly passed the Assembly, was rejected by the Prussian King Frederick William IV. The king would accept no limitations on his holy right to rule, whether it be in a Prussian or Austrian led state.

In addition to the decision of whether or not to include Austria, the Frankfurt assem bly debated numerous other questions relating to the configuration of a greater Germany. The Polish question epitomized the parliament's dilemma. Prior to 1848, German liberals supported a reconstituted Polish state. As late as April 1848 the assembly seemed to favor restoring Poland to its 1772 frontiers. Nevertheless, when Poles in the Prussian province of Poznan (who slightly outnumbered Germans) demanded autonomy, the assembly denounced their actions and upheld the Prussian decision to use troops to subdue the uprising. Many liberals now feared that Polish nationalism was infringing on German liberty. One delegate declared that Germany's right to dominate the Poles was "the right of the stronger, the right of conquest." In the great Polish debate of July 1848 the assembly overwhelmingly voted to seat the delegates elected from the eastern provinces of Prussia which had belonged to the former Polish state, frustrating Polish hopes for German aid in setting up an independent Polish state within the b orders of 1772..

The hostile attitudes in thequestion of the demarcation of Germany's borders were mirrored in the case of Schleswig and Holstein. These two northern provinces with a mixed German and Danish population were annexed by Denmark causing the Germans in these territories to revolt. The Danish violation of international law in annexing the German state of Holstein caused Germans generally to view this as a matter a national honor. Most Germans supported Prussian military efforts to uphold internatinal law in the duchies. Thus they were angry at the armistice (Malm) signed by the Prussian government in August 1848. After initially electing to resist the treaty, the assembly, realizing that it was powerless without an army, narrowly voted to approve it in September 1848. The incident illustrated the almost universal support for the German cause in Holstein. In the eyes of the international community Germans greatly suffered for what seem to outsiders as annexation of Danes, Poles a nd Czechs into a "Grossdeutschland,"but for Germans was no more than a very fuzzy protection of the border areas of the old German Confederation merged with the new national principle of protecting Germans. The border areas question would cause major problems for Germany in subsequent history.

Glenn R. Sharfman


Eyck, Frank. The Frankfurt Parliament, 1848-1849. (London, 1968).

Langewiesche, Dieter. "Germany and the National Question in 1848," in John Breuilly (Ed.), The State of Germany (London: Longman, 1992), pp. 60-79.

Wollstein, Günther. Das 'Grossdeutschland' der Paulskirche: Nationale Ziele in der bürgerlichen Revolution, 1848/49. (Düsseldorf: Droste Verlag, 1977).

Table of Contributors   Table of Contents   Return to Encyclopedia Home Page

jgc revised this file ( on October 26, 2000.

Please E-mail comments or suggestions to

© 2000 James Chastain.