Germany: Peeps at History - John Finnemore

The German Confederation

When Germany settled down again after the French wars there were great changes in her political condition, as well as in the shape and size of some of her states. Prussia regained many of the territories of which she had been stripped and Austria was given possessions in the north of Italy and some provinces to the east. From this time Austria began to draw apart from the rest of Germany, and this was a natural consequence of the many races which inhabited her borders, Germans forming only one division of the subjects of Austria.

The German people now had to consider in what manner they should combine to make themselves safe against future enemies. Some wished the Empire to be set up again, but Austria and Prussia frowned upon this, and it was finally agreed to form a German Confederation. The states of Germany therefore entered into an alliance by which they bound themselves to stand together against any foreign foe, and to secure the independence of each state. Deputies from the states were to meet at a Diet in Frankfort to settle the affairs of the Confederation, and it was arranged that Austria should preside.

From this time, for many years, the history of Germany becomes the story of a great struggle for civil liberty. The ideas of the French Revolution had left a deep mark on German minds. German thinkers and patriots had no love for French rule and fought to throw it off, but the ideas upon which the Revolution was founded, that citizens should be equal before the law, that all should pay taxes, that the people should have some voice in making the laws they were forced to obey—these things seemed right and just. It had been far otherwise in the German states before the wars of the Revolution. In former days many princes had made laws and imposed taxes without a thought of the people, ruling absolutely as they pleased, and the German people resolved that, after the sacrifices they had made of blood and treasure to free their country, they would not go back to the old state of affairs. There were parts of Germany where the peasantry did not enjoy common freedom, and so late as the year 1820 the last remains of serfdom lingered in Mecklenburg.

The lovers of progress had a severe struggle before they made much headway. It is true that the Act of Confederation had promised that absolute rule should be abolished, and that the people should receive some share in the government. A number of states at once framed constitutions, but in others the ruler and his ministers fought hard to retain the absolute power of the monarch and keep the people in subjection. Those who wished to gain power for the people were called Liberals, and those who loved the old ways were known as Conservatives. The Liberals were found mainly in the universities, among the professors and students, the writers and thinkers, who had done so much to fire the minds of the people during the War of Liberation. But the power was largely in the hands of the Conservatives, and they used it freely to crush Liberal thought and to check freedom of speech and pen.

The chief Conservative state was Austria, where the famous minister Metternich used his power to arrest all progress and make the Emperor an absolute monarch. Prussia joined Austria in this line of action, and in the Diet resolutions were passed that the spread of Liberal ideas ought to be checked. A Commission of Enquiry was appointed, and writers and speakers were seized and shut up in prisons and fortresses, many professors being deprived of their chairs and sent out of the country. Among these were several of the famous poets and patriots who had nobly led the people to the attack upon Napoleon, and their punishment aroused deep anger among the German Liberals. It was said that the princes who had not dared to face the great tyrant were now persecuting the very men who had saved them and their thrones.

While the great states of North Germany were thus trying to crush freedom of thought, matters were much better in Bavaria and other states of South Germany. In the latter the people had gained much power; they had control over rates and taxes, and they took part in the making of the laws; thus a sharp contrast existed between them and their brethren in North Germany, who had no such rights and privileges.

As time passed on the discontent of North Germans with the government under which they lived grew more and more bitter. In 1830 the slumbering fire was fanned into flame by another, revolution in France, where a hated king was driven from the land and replaced by one who would be more favourable to the people. This example roused the Liberals of North Germany to demand reforms from their rulers, but Austria, Prussia, and Russia joined to crush the agitation and maintain the power of the monarch. Again a commission was set to work to find out Liberals and punish them. Many hundreds of men were imprisoned without reason, and kept in confinement without trial. Professors were driven from their university chairs and one university was closed. Freedom of the Press was abolished, and no one was allowed to print anything until it had been examined by a censor, who would allow nothing to pass unless it was in favour of the government and its methods. This led to much greater discontent and anger, and in the midst of these troubled times Frederick William III closed his long reign in 1840.

Frederick William IV (1840-1861) followed his father, and his reign opened well. He released the political prisoners, and promised reform in the government. But though he was a clever man he was not a strong one, and could not be relied upon to keep his word. Years passed and no reforms were undertaken: then the King said that he did not intend to make any reforms at all. The people who had been patiently waiting to gain some share of power were thrown into a state of great excitement and anger, and the excitement was increased by trouble in the Duchies of Schleswig and Holstein. These were small German states lying to the south of Denmark and forming the isthmus of the peninsula of Jutland. They are largely German in language, feeling, and customs, but were under Danish rule, and wished to break away from the sway of the King of Denmark and join the German Confederation. The Duchies declared that they were oppressed by the Danish king, and while all German minds were filled with sympathy for them, another tremendous wave of excitement swept through Europe, starting, as ever, from Paris.

In February 1848 Paris rose again upon her king, drove him out, and proclaimed the Second French Republic. In Germany this event was hailed with fierce delight, and the people rose everywhere to demand their rights. They, too, would wait no longer. If their rulers would not grant reforms then they, like the French, would sweep away the men who stood in the path of progress.

Governments tottered and fell in every direction, and the monarchs of Prussia and Austria trembled on their thrones. In Berlin there was a sharp conflict between the people and the troops. Barricades were thrown up in the streets, and the people fought so well that they seized the city, and the king was compelled to order his troops to leave Berlin. A few months later the army returned and the people were disarmed. But the power of the latter had been shown, and in the end Frederick William was forced to grant reforms and introduce a Liberal constitution.

In Austria the struggle was far longer and more bitter, the populace rising in several states of the empire. The Emperor and his minister, Metternich, were driven from Vienna, which fell into the hands of the citizens and students. In October the city was assailed by the Emperor's troops and for some days the people held their own in a fierce combat. Then the troops stormed Vienna, and shot down a large number of the insurgents. It was felt that there would be a better chance of peace with a new ruler, so the Emperor gave up his crown, and his nephew, Francis Joseph, came to the throne in December 1848. He still rules over Austria, the most venerable monarch of Europe, beloved by his people and respected by all nations.

Many other revolts broke out in the states of Germany, but the governments put them down by force, crushing the ill-armed and untrained insurgents by strong forces of soldiery. Yet the people, though beaten down again, had shown their strength, and many reforms were granted lest they should break out again.

Meanwhile Prussia, though backward in granting her people political liberty, had done an excellent piece of work for Germany as a nation. She saw how bad a thing it was that each state should look upon its neighbour as a foreign country in the case of exchange of goods. Every state had its own frontier line, where it collected the dues on goods entering or leaving the territory. Thus all Germany bristled with custom-houses where guards watched the transit of merchandise and collected the duty. This was very bad for trade, for it greatly hindered the free movement of goods from state to state. So Prussia proposed that all inland customs should be abolished and that the frontier should be the boundaries of Germany. Little by little this idea found favour, and state after state joined until, in 1834, eighteen states, with Prussia at their head, had formed the Zollverein, the Tariff or Toll Union. This union was not only a splendid thing for trade and commerce, but it was a first step in the reuniting of the German states to form a nation.