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Popular Culture (Germany)

Popular Culture (Germany) Serious study of popular culture is usually concerned more with long-term trends than with sudden convulsions. But the impact of the short-lived upheavals of 1848-49 deserves attention because this brief period of unprecedented legal and political permissiveness revealed some of the tensions in mid-century German society that were normally concealed under a blanket of official repression. One striking feature of the revolutionary years was the obvious upsurge for spontaneous association. Large open gatherings (Volksversammlungen), though illegal, appeared in many places in Germany as the news of the French February revolution arrived. With the formal introduction of freedom of assembly shortly thereafter these gatherings became a characteristic feature of public life, in small towns as well as in big cities. They were often ebullient but, surprisingly, seldom disorderly. They typically observed basic parliamentary procedure, electing a presiding officer who would supervise debate and conduct votes on proposed resolutions. These assemblies supplied a sort of popular sanction for the liberal "March demands" of 1848, and they continued to be a source of visible political support at crucial moments thereafter. The meetings also provided a sporadic democratic forum for political discussion, fulfilling a sort of public educational function as well. The orderly procedure observed at these gatherings suggests that many German citizens already had experience in managing large meetings. That experience had been furnished by participation in the social clubs or associations ( Vereine) that had been developing since the late 18th century. There were reading, choral, gymnastic and marksmen's clubs, associations for promoting education or business or social welfare -- every sort of social activity was conducted through a club of some sort, the number of which had increased rapidly in the 1830s and 1840s. Only political clubs were lacking, because they were forbidden under the old regime. But when political activity was legalized in 1848 nearly every locality quickly acquired both a democratic and a liberal club, at least. For a nation immersed in club activities it was the most natural form for a political action to take.

The new political clubs acted in a variety of ways. They tried to influence public opinion, and they joined in the almost universal drive for collecting signatures on petitions. (Nearly every organization in Germany seems to have initiated a petition of some sort: The Frankfurt parliament alone got 17,000 of them, many with hundreds or even thousands of signatures.) The political clubs also supported candidates for election, and they formed the core constituency organizations of the slowly emerging national political parties.

Though neither the public gatherings nor even many of the clubs were socially restrictive, they tended to be dominated by their middle class members, whose education and professional experience gave them advantages in those venues. Artisans, peasants and laborers were actively recruited especially into the democratic clubs, but they were often ineffective there. They developed their own forms of participation, sometimes to the dismay of their better-placed fellow citizens. One type of popular political activity was the charivari (Katzenmusik), a traditional method for expressing group displeasure with an individual, now given a political direction. A large group of people wearing masks or carnival disguises would assemble before the victim's dwelling after dark and deliver a "serenade" of unpleasant noises, threats and insults, sometimes followed by a shower of stones. The treatment was intimidating; in Wurtemburg alone it resulted in the resignations of dozens of unpopular mayors and public officials.

Workers and artisans organized their own clubs as well (Arbeitervereine). These organizations varied greatly, but most of them refrained from conventional political activity and concentrated instead on social issues. They supported such organizing and lobbying efforts as artisans' congresses, which worked against laisser-faire economic policies, and the large national associations called Workers' Fraternization (Arbeiterverbrüderung), a federation of clubs and incipient unions that championed workers' interests within the framework of democratic politics.

The unfettered press of 1848 also facilitated and augmented these tendencies toward freer public communication. Surprisingly, the ending of censorship was accompanied by a decline in book sales. That was mainly because the atmosphere of crisis had concentrated the reading public's attention on politics, and that interest could better be served by other media. For example, newspaper circulation climbed rapidly, and the stodgy old local papers has to increase their political reporting, sometimes at the insistence of their readers. Even that did not suffice for the growing numbers who wanted political commitment with their news, and scores of newspapers, most of them democratic, were founded. This was not a mass-circulation penny press, since few papers had large circulation. But overall German newspaper circulation in 1848 equalled that of France or Britain, and it reached a high proportion of the public -- 25 percent on one estimate, perhaps as much as 50 percent in progressive Baden.

More colorful was the pamphlet literature, which poured out in greater quantities than at any time since the Reformation. The selection ranged from broadsides illustrated with caricatures to serious messages from clubs, parties or individuals. Some were popular literary productions as well, for example the series of satirical dialogues on current events by Nante and Brennecke, stock figures of Berlin folk humor. The pamphlets were disseminated by street peddlers in some of the larger cities, where their competition on the basis of topicality created a continuous printed colloquy on public affairs.

It is sometimes said that this general upsurge of public activity provided a positive education in social and political liberation for the German people. Certainly the Germans learned a lot from this novel period of uninhibited freedom of action and expression, but it is important to note that not everyone learned the same lessons, for the goals were often in conflict.

In general, most German workers and artisans seem to have endorsed the democratic program, with its emphasis on securing individual rights and liberties. Beyond that rough general consensus, however, lay considerable diversity, reflecting the great disparities within this amorphous social category. In the more modern sectors of the industrial economy, in places like Leipzig, Berlin or Elberfeld, were some first-generation "proletarian" workers who sought the benefits of freedom to organize themselves within the emerging capitalist industrial system. It might be said that the modern German labor movement was born here. But large-scale industrialism was itself anathema to most artisans, for it spelled the extinction of their traditional way of life. Once aroused, they lobbied passionately for the restoration of the guild economy, or at least for a market economy that would favor the small producer. Even primitive Luddism, with its violent attacks on labor-saving machinery, was by no means absent, nor were occasional outright assaults on democrats by laborers convinced that the continued revolutionary disorders were the root cause of their unemployment and misery. Crossed purposes, not harmonious solidarity, describe the activities of Germany's industrial laboring population in 1848.

The rural population had its own agenda. Although peasant insurrections often embraced the vocabulary of the liberal or democratic educated elite, they invested concepts like "republic" and "freedom" with meanings that reflected their own specific needs. "Freedom of the press," for example, or even to permit "pressing others the way they have pressed us." The peasantry in general pursued with single-minded diligence the abolition of the onerous and costly "feudal" obligations to their landlords, and it was largely successful. Beyond that it showed little interest in the broader political dimensions of the revolution, and sometimes made common cause with former landlords to resist the importunities of the landless laborers. Only the Silesian Rustikalvereine remained reliable allies of the democratic movement.

Recent research has unearthed a quantity of evidence to show the creation of a considerable women's movement during this revolution. Women founded several journals for the advocacy of female emancipation, and there were some large and active Frauenvereine as well. Women even participated in the barricade fighting and on the front lines of the armed confrontations in 1849. But the women's movement found little support among the exclusively male representatives of the liberal and democratic forces in parliaments and governments and it found mostly ridicule and hostility among the general public. There were well-defined limits to the scope of the liberating impulse of thisrevolution.

Jewish emancipation also made no perceptible headway in 1848. Many German governments had taken steps during the pre-March era to mitigate the inherited discriminatory legal position of the Jews, but they had encountered resistance, and there were serious anti-semitic outbursts in some of the rural areas in 1848. Even sympathetic legislators during the revolutionary years deemed it inopportune to introduce such legislation at this time for fear that it would intensify popular anti-semitism. Thus the net result of this brief period of political freedom in Germany was a sudden, wholesale politicization of nearly all aspects of life; but his politicization led in many different directions at once. Donald Mattheisen


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Kaschuba, Wolfgang, and Carola Lipp. 1848: Provinz und Revolution: Kultureller Wandel und soziale Bewegung in Königreich Württemberg. Tübingen: Tübinger Vereinigung für Volkskunde, 1979.

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