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WHAT THE GERMAN REVOLUTION OF 1848 CAN TEACH US FOR THE PRESENT AND THE FUTURE
On 18 March 1848 – exactly 175 years ago – hundreds of people took to the barricades in Berlin to demand democratic civil rights and liberties, free and equal elections, and an all-German parliament. Our author Magali Mohr, research associate for strategy and content at Futurium, is taking this anniversary as an opportunity to ask: what can we learn from the revolution for our present and future?
Image: Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication
On 18 March 1848, hundreds of people gathered in front of the Berlin Palace. They demanded the introduction of basic democratic rights, free and equal elections, and an all-German parliament. When the Prussian military used violence to counter their peaceful protest, many of the demonstrators decided to take to the barricades. Berlin’s city centre became the scene of a bloody street fight between the military and the revolutionaries. More than 250 people died on that day, which would later go down in history as the climax of the liberal-democratic revolution.
But this day should be remembered not just for its many victims. It also had a decisive impact on subsequent developments: in its aftermath, the first democratic election took place in Germany – in which, however, only the male population was allowed to participate – and the first all-German parliament, the National Assembly, was convened in Frankfurt’s St Paul’s Church.
Today’s anniversary of the revolution is also an occasion to take a closer look at the legacy of the revolution for our present and future. After all, in times when basic democratic rights, such as freedom of the press and freedom of assembly, are under attack all over the world, the anniversary of the revolution raises questions that could not be more topical. Must we take to the streets again to fight for our basic democratic rights? Do we need to stand up more strongly und show our faces? Or are there other ways to secure our democratic futures?
DO WE NEED NEW BASIC RIGHTS IN THE FUTURE?
The early democrats demanded rights that are still the fundamental building blocks of today’s liberal democracies. These rights included freedom of assembly, freedom of the press and freedom of religion, the equality of all individuals before the law, and the abolition of the death penalty and torture. Even today, people in many parts of the world can by no means take these rights for granted. They have to fight hard for them or protect them from being restricted.
In view of pressing challenges such as climate change, new technologies, demographic change and a growing gap between rich and poor, don’t we need new basic rights for the future? For example, do we need a right to an ecological minimum standard of living? Or rights for non-human creatures – such as animals, forests or rivers – in order to protect our ecosystems? And how can we formulate such long-term fundamental rights in the face of the great uncertainties that the future entails?
CAN NATIONALISM IN THE FUTURE ONCE AGAIN DEVELOP INTO A FORCE FOR PROMOTING DEMOCRACY?
Back in the days of the revolution 175 years ago, the still rather young concept of the nation state developed into a unifying force that promoted democracy. As historian Professor Dr Hedwig Richter writes in her 2020 book “Demokratie – Eine deutsche Affäre” (“Democracy – A German Affair”), “the nation acted as an equaliser”; it was one of the driving forces behind democratisation. Today, however, nationalism divides and polarises or, in its extreme form, even directly endangers our democracies through hatred, agitation, and the exclusion of minorities or dissenters. Nevertheless, nation states form the foundation of our global order, and democracies are constituted in them. What does this mean for the future of democracies and therefore for the future of nation states? The global dimension of the future challenges facing democracies adds a whole new urgency to this question.
The revolution of 1848 failed. Instead of leading to democracy, it resulted in a phase in which the established power relations were restored. The goals of the revolutionaries were far apart. In the National Assembly in Frankfurt (with only men participating), democrats were in the minority. The majority consisting of liberals and conservatives did not seek a republic based on popular sovereignty. They wanted a constitutional monarchy with a hereditary emperor holding a powerful position. This discord and the protracted negotiations ultimately led to the public’s growing resentment towards the deputies and consequently to the princes regaining their power. The revolution came to a final end when the Prussian King Frederick William IV refused the imperial crown offered to him by the parliament, because he considered it an insult to receive a crown from “ordinary citizens” and not – as he deemed proper – “from God”.
What conclusions can we draw from the end of the revolution for our present and future? Democracy thrives on dispute and negotiation – or, as the liberal pioneer Ralf Dahrendorf put it, “democracy is institutionalised conflict”. But in order ultimately to arrive at decisions that are capable of securing a majority, and to protect democratic societies from attacks by anti-democratic forces, democratic societies also need a common denominator. Particularly in the Coronavirus crisis, or in debates around climate policy, it has become evident that social division has increased in Germany too. But protecting democracy requires a basic level of social cohesion. Without it, we make ourselves vulnerable to those who seek to undermine it. The failure of the revolution therefore reminds us, even in the context of today’s heated political debates, and despite all our differences, not to lose sight of our lowest common denominator – namely, our common desire to lead free and self-determined lives.
The barricades at Kronenstraße and Friedrichstraße on 18 March 1848 as seen by an eyewitness
Image: F. G. Nordmann – Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International
EVEN THE FAILURE OF THE REVOLUTION WAS UNABLE TO DESTROY DEMOCRATIC IDEAS
But the revolution of 1848 also goes to show that even its failure could not destroy democratic ideas. The experience of mass protests and gatherings, the vision of a united Germany, and the desire for freedom and equality survived – even though it would take another 70 years for the first democratic constitution in Germany (the constitution of the Weimar Republic in 1919) actually to be adopted. In view of the current tense situation of democracies around the globe, this offers at least some degree of hope for the future. And the politics of the day confirm this too – whether in the form of the constantly simmering protests in Iran or Russia, or the incredible perseverance and impressive determination with which many people in Ukraine are resisting the Russian war of aggression. To this day, the democratic way of life has lost none of its persuasive power, and all our respect should go to those who are putting their lives at risk to fight for it today.
Last but not least, a look at the events of 1848 also reminds us how much we have in common with our European neighbours, how similar our pasts are and what values we share. For the revolution of 1848 was not merely a German, but also a European revolution. Starting in France, revolutionary upheaval affected almost all of Central Europe – in addition to the German Confederation, it spread to Italy, Poland and Hungary. The still new rail network and the increasing distribution of newspapers enabled a wide mass of people to follow events in their neighbouring countries with curiosity. Revolutionaries from different countries were in contact with one another. Although their demands were strongly influenced by nationalism and by their aspirations to create their own nation states, they all fought for the same freedom and human rights. As a result, historians have determined the revolutions to have been a starting point for the first emergence of a European general public. The revolution of 1848 can therefore also remind us how important it is for the future of democracy to approach the challenges of our time from a European, if not indeed a global, perspective.