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Hesse-Kassel or Electoral Hesse (Kurhessen). Mid-size German state, strategically located between the main part of Prussia and the Prussian provinces of Westphalia in western Germany, traversed by two Prussian military roads. In the 1830s and 1840s, Hesse-Kassel was known chiefly for its poverty, its archaic agrarian structure, and its acrimonious constitutional politics. In the aftermath of the 1848 revolution, the very same issues which fed the constitutional conflict of the Vormärz resurfaced and, in 1850, jelled with the Austro-Prussian contest in Germany to produce a diplomatic crisis of the first order.

Like other central German states, Hesse-Kassel acutely felt the shock waves generated by the Paris revolution of July 1830. High food prices, feudal dues weighing on the peasantry, the absence of a constitution, the customs barriers among the various Hessian states all made for a volatile situation. To mollify at least some malcontents, the electoral government convened the estates-general to its first meeting since 1816, and, in January 1831, compromised with the legislature on a constituti onal draft. The new constitution--providing for a unicameral legislature, the legislative right to initiate and pass laws, the separation of royal from state revenues, a ministerial oath to the constitution, and an impeachment procedure for ministers--was widely admired outside of Hesse-Kassel. Some of the accolades, however, may have been premature--the elector still retained the right to appoint ministers and generals, to promote and transfer civil servants, to prorogue and dissolve the legislat ure; moreover, both the legislature's power to deny tax increases and the monarch's powers during a state of emergency were ill-defined.

The Hesse-Kassel constitution was symbolic--symbolic, in 1831, of the aspirations of many German liberals; symbolic, in later years, of their frustration. Once the revolutionary fervor had subsided, the elector's government made a determined effort to whittle down the powers of the legislature. Its point man in this enterprise was Ludwig Hassenpflug (1794-1862), minister of justice (1832-34) and of the interior (1832-37). Though married to the sister of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, Hassenpflug did not share the political outlook of his brothers-in-law. Instead, his name quickly became a byword for reaction, lending itself to the alliterative word play "Hassenpflug--Hesse's curse" (Hassenpflug--Hessens Fluch). In fact, one of Hassenpflug;s first targets was the principal architect of the 1831 constitution, the Marburg law professor Sylvester Jordan. The legislature fought back by bringing suit against Hassenpflug in the land's highest court--the first impeachment proceedings in German constitutional history. Hassenpflug left the government in 1837. Though the tug-of-war between legislature and various ministries took on a quieter tone over the next decade, Hesse-Kassel, when the 1848 revolution broke out in Paris, very much had the appearance of a state stranded in constitutional limbo.

In Hesse-Kassel, the French February revolution spawned a veritable flood of demands and petitions, running the gamut from freedom of assembly and the press to trial by jury, abolition of remaining seigneurial privileges (such as hunting rights), the formation of citizens' militias, decentralization of the administration, and participation in elections for an all-German parliament. To stem this tide and to head off the possibility that the protests might turn more radical, Elector Friedrich Willhelm appointed Bernhard Eberhard to head a new ministry. Eberhard, while mayor of Hanau, had earned impeccable credentials as a liberal; he now devoted himself to enacting the necessary changes. For the elector, the most delicate moment of the crisis came when members of his guards; regiment attacked protesters in Kassel on April 9; in the aftermath of the mêlée, he agreed to remove this unit from the city and ultimately had it disbanded. By and large, these developments in Kassel showed an uncanny parallel to those in Berlin, with the obvious difference that in Hesse-Kassel popular demands aimed at broadening the existing constitution whereas Prussia's constitution had yet to be written.

As in 1830, the call for change was perhaps loudest in the city of Hanau: dissatisfaction with the electoral government fanned local agitation on behalf of either outright secession or the unification of all three Hessian states under the rule not of Kassel, but of the House of Hesse-Darmstadt. Nor was it any coincidence that Hanau boasted Hesse-Kassel's strongest grassroots radical-democratic movement: Hanau's political clubs took a prominent part in the Frankfurt Democratic Congress of June 14-17 and in the September 18 defense of the Frankfurt barricades; in June 1849, 500 Hanau gymnasts set out for Baden to support the shortlived revolutionary government in that state.

As elsewhere in Germany, by mid-1849 the revolutionary movement in Hesse-Kassel had lost much of its élan The abolition of remaining feudal dues had coopted peasants and farmers at an early stage; the Frankfurt September riots, the Vienna revolution of October, the collapse of the Frankfurt constitution, and the Rhenish revolts of 1849 all left deep fissures between liberals and democrats. In the dénouement of August 1849, the Eberhard government joined the Prussian sponsored Three Kings' League (Dreikönigsbündnis)--perhaps because of Hesse-Kassel's exposed geographic location, perhaps because the Prussian project was now the sole remaining scheme for a reform of German institutions, perhaps because of the personal contacts of Joseph Maria von Radowitz, its principal architect, in Kassel. The passage of several months, however, fundamentally changed the calculus on which this equation rested.

In an act that was the political equivalent of a declaration of war on Hesse-Kasse''s legislators, Elector Friedrich Wilhelm in February 1850 dismissed Eberhard and reappointed Ludwig Hassenpflug as chief minister. The legislature retaliated by refusing to pass the budget. Hassenpflug dissolved parliament and called for new elections, hoping that these would return a more amenable set of lawmakers. This assumption proved erroneous--after another rejection of the budget, the cycle of dissolution and new elections was repeated. On August 31, the estates again refused the critical element of the budget, a proposed tax increase. Friedrich Wilhelm, his patience at an end, now implemented the tax increase by decree, and declared a state of emergency. On September 12, Hesse-Kassel's highest court ruled these measures to be unconstitutional; the next day Friedrich Wilhelm abandoned his capital for his residence in Wilhelmsbad near Hanau. Left behind in Kassel to enforce the state of emergency, by military means if necessary, was Carl von Haynau (brother of the notorious Austrian general Julius von Haynau). His inept handling of his own forces caused 241 of 257 commissioned officers to resign rather than implement their government's policy: in an act unprecedented in German military history, Hesse-Kassel's officer corps had joined its civil servants and judiciary in passing a devastating verdict on the electoral government.

In its German policy, Hassenpflug's ministry reversed the course pursued by its predecessor. In May 1850, Hesse-Kassel left the Prussian-led Three Kings' Alliance (now styled the "Erfurt Union") and began to support Austria's efforts to reactivate the German Confederation. This change of course was no doubt motivated by the government's domestic dilemmas: the Hassenpflug ministry could reasonably expect Austrian backing in its contest with the legislature, whereas Prussian policy was far too erratic to warrant the same assumption.

When the Diet of the German Confederation reconvened under Austria's aegis in September 1850, it did so without Prussian participation. High on its order of business was the request of the Elector of Hesse-Kassel (and an analogous demand from the King of Denmark in his capacity as Duke of Holstein) for federal assistance in his dispute with his unruly legislature. The bulk of Hesse-Kassel's officer corps having resigned in the interval, the Diet on October 25 approved a federal military intervention (Bundesexekution) on the basis of Arts. 25 and 26 of the Vienna Final Act of 1820 and charged Bavarian and Austrian contingents with restoring the Elector's authority. When these units crossed into Hesse-Kassel on November 1, Prussia declared the Diet's action unconstitutional and dispatched its own forces to garrison the military roads across Hesse-Kassel. In the city of Kassel, Prussian trooops received a ready welcome. Farther south--at Bronnzell near Fulda--Prussian and Bavarian troops traded fire on November 8, with the horse of a Prussian bugler as the only victim of this lackluster skirmish.

As the showdown over Hesse-Kassel brought Prussia and Austria to the brink of war, the attitude of Russia proved decisive. In a meeting with the tsar in Warsaw on October 26, 1850, the Austrian prime minister, Prince Felix Schwarzenberg, secured Russia's support for the Diet's intervention in Hesse-Kassel (and Holstein). Facing the prospect of an Austro-Russian coalition as well as the opposition of most mid-size German states to its German policy, Prussia had little choice but to acquiesce. Its defeat was sealed in a meeting between the prime ministers of Austria and Prussia in the Moravian town of Olmütz on November 29; later generations would evoke the "humiliation of Olmütz" as a potent symbol of Prussia's fortunes at their nadir.

Prussia's retreat at Olmütz translated into a triumph for Hassenpflug and Elector Friedrich Wilhelm. Federal troops replaced all but one of the Prussian units in Kassel, dissident households of course having to bear a disproportionate share in the billeting of the "punitive Bavarians" (Strafbayern). With the support of the German Confederation, Friedrich Wilhelm in March 1852 decreed the annulment of the 1831 constitution. One month later, it was replaced by a new instrument providing for a bicameral legislature (heavily weighted in favor of the landed aristocracy which, however, remained shorn of its seigneurial rights), without the right to initiate legislation, approve new taxes, or bring suit against members of the government. But his and Hassenpflug's victory was remarkably shortlived. The elections of 1855 returned a lower house again sharply critical of the Elector; Hassenpflug's ministry fell the same year due to an unrelated conflict. By 1857, government and legislature reached aconstitutional compromise which retained the 1852 document in name only and reincorporated most of the elements of the 1831 constitution.
Ralph Menning


Bernhard Eberhard, Aus meinem Leben (H anau, 1911).

Karl E. Demandt, Geschichte des Landes Hessen (2d ed., Kassel, 1972).

Pilipp Losch, Geschichte des Kurfürstentums Hessen, 1803-66 (Marburg, 1922).

Friedrich Oetker, Lebenserinnerungen, 3 vols. (Stuttgart, 1877-85).

Gregory W. Pedlow, The Survival of the Hessian Nobility, 1770-1870 (Princeton, 1988).

Hans Julius Schoeps, Von Olmütz nach Dresden, 1850/51 (Berlin, 1 972).

Hellmut Seier (ed.), Akten und Briefe aus den Anfängen der kurhessischen Verfassungszeit, 1830-1837 (Marburg, 1992).

Hellmut Seier (ed.), Akten und Dokumente zur kurhessischen Parlaments- und Verfassungsgeschichte, 1846-1866 (Marburg, 1987).

Hellmut Seier, "Der unbewältigte Konflikt: Kurhessen und sein Ende, 1803-1866," in Uwe Schultz (ed.), Die Geschichte Hessens (Stuttgart, 1983).

Hellmut Seier, "Modernisierung und Integration in Kurhessen" in Walter Heinemeyer (ed.), Das Werden Hessens (Marburg, 1986)

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