France could very well be called the progenitor of revolutions. It has indeed seen more than its fair share of internal revolutions, sure, but it can also be easily claimed that the first two major revolutionary periods in European history – namely the period from 1789 to 1799 and the Revolutions of 1848 – precipitated directly from French actions. Simply, the French began the revolutionary craze with their own Enlightenment-inspired revolution of 1789 and then forcibly brought them to other countries through its military. In 1848, the revolution in the German states was directly inspired by the concurrent revolution in France. With this context, there is no small irony in the conclusion that the Revolutions of 1848 marked a clean break from the previous period of revolutions; furthermore, it marked the demise of France as a major influence on revolutionary activity. Despite some lingering similarities, the Revolutions of 1848 were markedly unique – and significantly, other revolutions were quite divergent from France’s. It is useful to take the revolution in the German states as a case study. Though similar in scope, that revolution can be seen as a departure from French influence, and this departure stems from two major factors: the nationalism infused in German states’ revolution and the long-term effects in the German states.
First, it is important to establish the fact that although divergent in nearly all other aspects, the German revolution was indeed triggered by French action and shares some structural similarities with that revolution. Historian Charles Breuing points out that French action still largely served as the inspiration or tipping point for revolutions in other countries: “When news of France’s successful February Revolution crossed the Rhine, a wave of popular discontent spread through the states of Germany, beginning in the south and the west […] and reaching Prussia and the north by the middle of March” (238). The French were clearly still the torchbearers of the revolution game, so to speak, as of the start 1848. Notably, the two revolutions also shared striking structural similarities – namely, their ephemeral nature. Alexis deTocqueville, noted French traveler political essayist, could predict the fall of the July Monarchy even by January 27, 1848: “Gentlemen, it is my profound conviction that we are asleep on a volcano, of this I am certain. […] Yes, the danger is great! Let us take steps to prevent it while there is still time." De Tocqueville, a Frenchman himself, is deeply concerned for the future of his country. There is very little reason to believe his prognostication had any ulterior motive other than making his voice herd to the chamber – indeed, there is evidence that his forecast of doom was not even taken seriously (Breuing 232). It should have been, though; neither the French nor German revolutions of the year 1848 were successful in accomplishing what they set out to do; the July monarchy in France failed, as did the plan to unify the German states through revolutionary activity. Indeed, Jonathan Sperber’s encyclopedia article on the Revolutions of 1848 was quick to claim that “full consideration of the 1848 revolutions must take into account these opposing features – the wide spread of the mid-nineteenth century revolutions and the remarkable political mobilizations accompanying them, but also their ultimate failure” (1988). Clearly, it is impossible to deny that the revolution of the German states was precipitated by the Revolution in France. However, there is quite enough evidence to safely propose that from here on out the German revolution was a mostly self-contained and unique entity – an entity motivations far removed from French concerns.
The role of nationalism in the revolution in the German states immediately signals that the German revolution was taking a unique path. The nationalist-driven revolution is separate from French influence for reasons both obvious and slightly obfuscated. First, France was an already a wholly unified country in 1848, so nationalistic tendencies were not the primary focus of its reform-centric revolutionaries. In fact, the French Revolution of 1848 could very well be considered a group identity crisis. An official document from the time period indicates that the revolutionaries wanted to get back to basics, so to speak, by prominently mentioning the key principles from France’s first revolution:
The unity of the nation (formed henceforth of all the classes of citizens who compose it); the government of the nation by itself; liberty, equality, and fraternity, for fundamental principles, and "the people" for our emblem and watchword: these constitute the democratic government which France owes to itself, and which our efforts shall secure for it. (“Overthrow”)
This official document could certainly convey the bias of the new government, but it therefore reliably reflects their values. Ironically, the French revolutionaries were not looking for a reinvention: they wanted reestablishment. Meanwhile, the German revolutionaries had an identity crisis of an entirely different sort: that of national uniformity. The German unification movement, without too much oversimplification, can be said to have its official birthplace in the Revolutions of 1848. Issues of nationalization were deeply imbued in German revolutionaries’ minds. Nowhere is the sentiment more explicitly stated than in Johann Gustav Droysen’s address to the Frankfurt parliament in 1848: “We need a powerful ruling house. Austria's power meant lack of power for us, whereas Prussia desired German unity in order to supply the deficiencies of her own power. Already Prussia is Germany in embryo. She will "merge" with Germany […].” Droysen may be one ambitious German, but his is imbued in the political process, and his opinion is a reliable reflection of many political figures at the time (if not necessarily all denizens of the German states). In fact, in historian John F. Flynn’s comprehensive historiography, historians of the German Democratic Republic often mark the Revolutions of 1848 as the beginnings of a promising unification – with no small amount of bias: “To GDR historians therefore the united front of workers and bourgeoisie had enabled the German people to articulate its revolutionary will to establish a political democracy with promised to accelerate the capitalist restructuring of society.” Indeed, this mindset is intrinsic even to German history; unification was hot on the minds of Germany’s key players both during and long after the Revolutions of 1848. Therefore, the nationalist tendencies of the German revolution distinctly separate it from its French counterpart.
Ultimately, though, it is the long-term affects of the revolution in the German states that strictly separates it from the one in France. The July monarchy basically failed in France, as predicted by de Tocqueville, and very little was made of its existence afterwards. The revolution itself can actually be considered more of a repetition: “In France the Revolution of 1848 did not constitute a crisis in the special sense which we attach to this term: it did not upset a tradition, bury an ideal, or replace one way of thinking and feeling with another” (Rempel). The German Revolution of 1848 had an entirely different legacy. The revolution showed that unification was possible, and showed a precedent of Germany taking steps towards consolidation. The Frankfurt Parliament clearly struggled with the concept, as evidenced by its reluctance to deal directly with Bohemia, but the seeds were there (“German”). Additionally, serfdom was abolished permanently in the region (Sperber). Ultimately, the German revolution was markedly unique in both intent and resolution from the French revolution.
Ironically, then, the champion and torchbearer in revolutionary activity was old hat by 1848. France, while still playing a notable role in the beginning of the slew of revolutions, was by no means a pivotal player. States and countries had their own unique and self-contained reasons for revolutionary activity, reasons far removed from French concerns – especially considering German efforts towards unification. But perhaps the greatest irony is that while the other revolutions of 1848 showed the blooming of new ideas and attitudes in their respective countries, the revolution in France was not much of a revolution at all – just a retread of tired and true idealistic principles.
Breuing, Charles. The Age of Revolution and Reaction, 1789-1850. 1970: Norton & Company, New York.
De Tocqueville, Alexis. “27 January 1848: Speech to the Chamber.” Alexis de Tocqueville. 27 January 1848. 11 June 2009 .
Droysen, Johann Gustav. “Speech to the Frankfurt Assembly, 1848.” Modern History Sourcebook. 1848. 11 June 2009 .
Flynn, John F. “The German Revolution of 1848 and Historiography in the German Democratic Republic.” 9 September 2004. 11 June 2009 .
“The German Revolution of 1848.” Age-of-the-Sage.org. 11 June 2009 .
“The Overthrow of the Orleanist Monarchy.” Documents of the Revolution of 1848 in France. 1848. 11 June 2009 .
Rempel, Gerhard. “The Revolution of 1848.” 11 June 2009 .
Sperber, Jonathan. “Revolutions of 1848.” Europe: 1789 to 1914. 2006: Thomson Gale, Farmington Hills.