The houses of Frankfurt am Main were decorated on March 31, 1848, thousands of flags waved, fir branches lined the sidewalks. With the thunder of cannons, the ringing of bells and the cheers of the residents, 574 members of parliament from the states of the German Confederation entered the Paulskirche through a trellis of vigilantes. The task of the preliminary parliament was to prepare the elections for a national assembly after the successful uprisings in March. After all, only economically “independent” men were allowed to vote.

“There was high spirits,” says Frankfurt historian Markus Häfner, curator of an exhibition on the 1848/49 revolution in Frankfurt. The bourgeoisie hoped for more freedom rights, farmers for an end to the tithe payment, journeymen for social rights, for example being allowed to sleep in a bed instead of on sacks and to get every 14th day off to rest. A national assembly should create a united, democratic Germany.

The obvious place for this was Frankfurt: the city, governed by a bourgeois senate and not by a prince, had been the coronation site of German kings and emperors, and with the seat of the Federal Assembly, it was effectively the capital of the German Confederation. The venue for the preliminary parliament and then the national assembly was the largest and most modern hall in the city, the 15-year-old, elliptical central building of the evangelical Paulskirche.

The German National Assembly, which met on May 18, represented the upper bourgeoisie: three-quarters were academics, more than half were civil servants, and one-fourth were professionals. On the other hand, there were only four craftsmen and three farmers, and there were no workers or women at all. “The bourgeoisie were afraid of a red revolution,” says Häfner. Journeymen and workers demanded a minimum wage and popular sovereignty, but soon felt abandoned by parliament. The spark for the uprising ignited on September 16 in anger over the armistice agreement between Prussia and Denmark in the Schleswig-Holstein war, which was disadvantageous for the Germans.

Two Conservative MPs were murdered and 10,000 protesters gathered on September 17th. The Frankfurt Senate requested Prussian and Austrian military forces. On September 18 the cries went out: “To arms! Barricades!” Feverishly, boards, barrels and furniture were piled up in around 50 places in the alleys and streets to form barricades. For hours, the tenfold superior military tried in vain to storm the barricades. It was Hessian artillery that shot down the uprising with cannons in the evening. Eleven soldiers and 40 barricade fighters were dead.

“September 18 was the turning point of the revolution,” comments historian Häfner. Born out of the March Revolution, the National Assembly had called in the military of the princes to put down the September Revolution. The parliament, meanwhile, continued the work and passed the Paulskirchen constitution on March 28, 1849. However, when the Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm IV rejected the imperial crown offered to him a month later, the state draft had failed. The National Assembly dissolved in May. Uprisings in Saxony and south-west Germany were put down.

“Many say the revolution of 1848/49 failed,” says Häfner. “But the National Assembly has fulfilled its task: the draft constitution was a great success for the time.” However, large parts of the Liberals did not want a fundamental change to a republic. The political awakening of 1848/49 did not change the form of government, but the political public, the historian sums up. The newspapers, political clubs, and connections of the Democrats continued to exist. Parliaments met in public, political discussions continued. “Everything that was initiated in 1848 will come up again in the next few years,” says Häfner.

The National Assembly exerted significant influence with the drafting of the “Basic Rights of the German People”, the core of the Paulskirchen Constitution. When the princes were firmly in the saddle again, the federal assembly in 1851 declared the rights to equality and freedom to be illegal. But they served as a model for the Weimar Constitution of 1919 and the Basic Law of 1949.

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