NAPOLEONIC GERMANY AND THE REVOLUTION OF 1848
The March Revolution of 1848 pitted the forces of absolutism against radical liberals and nationalists, bringing mass demonstra-tions and violent clashes to the streets of Germany’s cities. The previous six decades had brought bewildering change to Europe, beginning with the turmoil and terror of the French Revolution, an upheaval inspired by the ideals of the Enlightenment that toppled France’s monarchy in 1792.
The wave of revolutionary fervor that transformed France swept across Europe during the Napoleonic Wars, shaking the Continent’s political and social order to its core and stirring nationalist passions in Germany after the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806.
After the defeat of Napoléon (1769–1821) in 1815, however, the hopes of Europe’s revolutionaries were dashed when the great powers met in Vienna and established the “Concert of Europe,” an alliance of mon-archs that established a balance of power and suppressed liberal politi-cal agitation. In the spring of 1848, however, this conservative order was threatened by the outbreak of spontaneous revolts across Europe, as angry mobs took to the streets, demanding everything from moder-ate liberal reforms to radical political change.
In Dresden, capital city of the Kingdom of Saxony, the revolution began quietly enough. Once the German Confederation approved a general election for delegates to a National Assembly that would meet in Frankfurt to draft a constitution, however, the mood quickly changed. In April 1848, a new nationalist political organization known as the Patriotic Association emerged, and its candidates won election to all but one of the seats in the Frankfurt Parliament.
The Association’s leaders were bourgeois intellectuals, content with constitutional monar-chy, but its base was made up of more radical laborers, who agitated for republican government. Radical newspapers, including the Volksblätter published by the conductor at the Dresden Opera House, August Röckel (1814–76), stirred the passions of the populace and helped the Patriotic Association gain new members.
By the winter of 1849, Dresden had become a hotbed of radical politics, and a cadre of revolutionaries began plotting to overthrow the Saxon monarchy. These conspirators included the republican jurist Samuel Erdmann Tzschirner (1812–70), the radical publishers August Röckel and Ludwig Wittig (1815–74), as well as the Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin (1814–76). Alarmed by the growing radicalism in the city, on April 28, 1849, King Friedrich Augustus II (1797–1854) refused to accept the liberal constitution issued by the Frankfurt Parliament and suspended the lower house of the Saxon assembly.
This move sparked widespread outrage, and amid the gathering storm the Prussians offered military assistance to the Saxon monarch to quell the disturbance. In response, angry demonstrators ﬁ lled the streets of Dresden, marching on the municipal armory, where on May 3 they demanded weapons to defend themselves from the expected arrival of Prussian soldiers in the city. When frightened Saxon troops opened ﬁ re on the protesters, the crowd went wild and began barricading Dresden’s streets. The May Uprising of 1849 had begun.
As Friedrich August hesitated, the revolutionaries elected a demo-cratic provisional government, headed by Tzschirner. The revolutionar-ies hoped that the king would be forced to recognize the revolutionary government and accept the Frankfurt constitution, but instead he holed up in a royal fortress at Königstein. While the provisional govern-ment tried to arrange a diplomatic solution, the military governor of Dresden mobilized Saxon military units and awaited the arrival of crack Prussian infantry so he could end the insurrection by force.
Unable to convince the rest of Saxony to come to their aid, or to convince the army to join the revolution, the revolutionaries manning the barricades waited grimly for the soldiers to begin their assault. Fighting began around midday on May 5, and the 5,000 professional troops supporting the monarchy quickly crushed the rabble of around 3,000 disorganized and poorly equipped revolutionaries.
At least 250 of the revolutionar-ies died, and hundreds were wounded in the street ﬁ ghting. By May 9, the rest had ﬂ ed into exile in Switzerland, like the famous composer Richard Wagner (1813–83), or in the United States, or were captured and sentenced to long prison terms.The May Uprising in Dresden was the bloodiest episode in the wave of revolutionary fervor that spilled over Germany in 1848–49. These uprisings erupted in all the major capitals of the empire, Berlin, Vienna, Dresden, Frankfurt, Stuttgart, and forever changed the course of German history.