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Prussia experienced the vexing problems common to all Germany in the immediate pre-March period: catastrophic crop failures, bread riots, a serious business recession and a government incapable of dealing with them. In early 1847 King Frederick William IV, responding to the growing crisis, summoned delegates from the eight provincial diets to consider Prussia's ailing finances. But his refusal to make the United Diets, as the meeting was called, into a permanent representative institution offended its members and it accomplished nothing.

Dramatic change in Prussia began only with the "March Days" of 1848. After the French February revolution the king, unlike most other German princes, ignored the demands for political reform until a bloody insurrection in Vienna demonstrated that some action was imperative. On March 18 he prepared to offer some modest reforms, but unfortunately he did not curb his soldiers, for whom even a friendly crowd at the royal palace constituted a dangerous mob to be brutally harassed and fired upon. The crowd responded by barricading city streets and beginning a 16-hour street battle that took the lives of more than 300 civilians and 24 soldiers and shook the monarchy. The distraught king ordered his troops to withdraw, then announced a startlingly progressive program designed to placate the unrest: he authorized an armed civic guard to keep order, assumed temporary leadership of Germany by donning a red-black-gold armband and announcing that "henceforth Prussia is merged with Germany," appointed a responsible "March Ministry," headed by the Rhenish liberal leader Ludolph Camphausen and called for the electi on of a constituent assembly for Prussia. These actions did restore public confidence, but they gave the misleading impression that the king had adopted the program of the liberal opposition. In fact, he had only made a tactical retreat.

For several months in 1848 the new ministers occupied a middle position in an unstable interim power structure. On one side was the king, gradually recovering his courage under the influence of a group of reactionary advisers known as the Kamarilla, who challenged every liberal initiative. On the other side was the elected constituent assembly, which convened on the May 22 and quickly adopted a far more liberal tone than the king could countenance, presuming to exercise political control over the ministers. There ensued a series of cabinet reshuffles that reflected the constant tug-of-war between these two extreme tendencies, eventually ending in a partial royal victory. In early summer the democratizing momentum of the revolution gave an advantage to the claims of the assembly. At the end of June Camphausen resigned in favor of his more expansive Rhenish colleague, David Hansemann, who openly cultivated parliamentary support by naming several assembly deputies to ministerial posts. But European events soon gave evidence that the revolutionary momentum was slowing down. The "June Days" in Paris and the "September Days" in Frankfurt crushed violent uprisings and drew applause from a middle class increasingly apprehensive about law and order. With this development in mind, the king searched for more compatible ministers. He found them in November and made Count Brandenburg, an active Prussian general, his minister- president. Brandenburg prorogued the troublesome assembly and sought to reconvene it in a remote provincial city where it could be more easily managed. The outraged deputies refused to go. The minister-president countered by declaring martial law and chasing them out of a succession of improvised meeting halls. The deputies called on the citizens to support them by withholding tax payments, but the taxpayers gave them little heed. Then on December 5 the king played his trump card. On his own authority he published a Prussian constitution based on a draft that the assembly's constitutional committee had just produced, though with added royal emergency powers to strengthen his own hand for the future. He announced that he would submit it to the next elected legislature for acceptance or revision. The effect was to put an end to the constituent assembly by making it superfluous, while splitting the potential opposition by giving it half a loaf: a constitution, if not an ideal one, together with an opportunity to change it through lawful political activity.

The king had now regained considerable freedom of action. When the newly-elected "revision chambers" that met in spring 1849 proved quarrelsome, he dissolved them, too, and held yet another election under a 3-class electoral law that preserved t he broad suffrage of 1848 but gave much greater weight to the votes of the prosperous in order to secure a more tractable outcome. The new constitution was duly approved in the following months. That this systematic exclusion of democratic influence could be accomplished with relative ease shows the extent to which the revolutionary forces had lost ground. Yet the king did not feel able to retreat entirely into the absolutism of the Prussian past. By adopting his constitution, such as it was, Prussi a became a constitutional state, and that is one of the most visible and enduring accomplishments of the revolution.

Prussia's impact on the broader German revolution was rather less productive. In the early stages there were hopeful signs: the king's apparent conversion to the German cause in March, and the Prussian army's defense of Schleswig against Denmark's endeavor to annex it -- a defense of German interests, since Schleswig was wanted for Germany. Yet Prussia was never prepared to merge with Germany. She stubbornly retained control of her own army and foreign policy, in spite of efforts by Frankfurt to influence or absorb them, as when in September 1848 Frankfurt tried in vain to cancel an armistice just signed between Denmark and Prussia at Malmo. And when in May 1849 the Prussian king was offered the title of German emperor he turned it down, dooming all efforts to realize German unity through non-violent methods. There remained the revolutionary path, and that was attempted in earnest in the bloody encounters that ensued. But it was mainly Prussian soldiers, fighting in Saxony and Baden, who firmly blocked that alternative. It is true that a year later, in 1850, the Prussian king proposed the Erfurt Union, a confederation of several non- Austrian states that would have been a faint echo of Frankfurt's German Empire. But that was a bid for the expansion of Prussian influence, not for German unity, and it failed. Thus in the end no trace remained of the king's March promise of Prussian leadership of Germany.
Donald Mattheisen


Büsch, Otto, ed. Friedrich Wilhelm IV in siener Zeit: Beiträge eines Colloquiums. Berlin: Colloquium Verlag, 1987.

Botzenhart, Manfred. Deutscher Parliamentarismus in der Revolutionszeit 1848-1850. Düsseldorf: Droste, 1977.

Hoffmann, Jürgen. Das Ministerium Camphausen- Hansemann: Zur Politik der preussischen Bourgeoisie in der Revolution von 1848. Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 1981.

Prittwitz, Karl Ludwig von. Berlin 1848: Das Erinnerungswerk des Generalleutenants Karl Ludwig von Prittwitz und andere Quellen zur Geschichte Preussens um die Mitte des 19 Jahrunderts. Gerd Heinrich (ed.) Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1985.

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