Table of Contributors   Table of Contents   Return to Encyclopedia Home Page

Lorenz Brentano

LORENZ BRENTANO Born on November 14, 1813 in Mannheim into a Catholic merchant family Brentano studied law at both of Baden's universities, Freibu rg and Heidelberg, before becoming a supreme court lawyer. Elected to the Baden Diet in 1845, he was noted for his incisive logic and rhetorical skills. Though not a romantic revolutionary like Friedrich Hecker, nor a social theorist like Gustav Struve, Brentano aligned himself with the radical opposition against the moderate liberal bureaucrat and experienced parliamentarian Johann Bekk who headed the government after 1846. Though siding with Hecker and popular demands for a radical extension of re forms in 1848, Brentano scorned Hecker's attempted April putsch, thinking it had no chance of success. He attended the Heidelberg meeting of elected representatives from the German states at the end of March and the preparliament in Frankfurt in April, but, like other radicals, he failed to gain a seat on the steering committee of fifty. Elected to the Frankfurt national assembly by two Baden constituencies, he joined the extreme left Donnersberg faction but returned to Baden after the assembly refused to seat Hecker and devoted himself to organizing political clubs and agitating against the moderates.

Though disassociating himself from the three day uprising led by Struve in September, Brentano defended the revolutionaries and became the recognized leader of Baden's democratic left. Bekk's ministry refused to confirm his election to the mayoralty of Mannheim in early 1849, an action he never forgave. Meanwhile, democratic political clubs flourished in spite of government repression, reaching al most five hundred in number with a membership of over 30,000. The authority of their state committee, chaired by Brentano from its headquarters in Mannheim, soon rivaled that of the government in Karlsruhe. When the government opened the conspiracy trial against Struve and his associates in March, Brentano put it on the dock.

In both the courtroom and the chambers of the Diet Brentano relentlessly pursued the Bekk ministry and its moderate policies. The democrats' state committee's campaign c ulminated when it orchestrated hundreds of petitions demanding the abolition of the privileged upper house of the Diet and the dissolution of the lower house to be followed by new elections for a constituent assembly based on universal male suffrage. The second chamber rejected these demands, correctly fearing that the electorate would return a democratic, perhaps even republican majority. To protest and weaken further the diet's effectiveness, radical representatives resigned their mandates. Though the legislature struggled to survive, the crisis fatally weakened its legitimacy. Bekk's government nonetheless stuck to its liberal reform path and enthusiastically embraced Frankfurt's national constitution, even after Frederick William IV rejected the imperial crown. But Bekk could not stem the tide.

As the national crisis heightened Brentano shied away from a call for revolution, though democrats and republicans throughout Germany, many of whom flocked to Baden, called for resistance. When the Mannheim state committee sponsored a mammoth popular assembly at Offenburg on May 10 Brentano, allegedly recuperating in Baden-Baden from the previous months of political activity, failed to turn up. The gathering called for a general arming of the population at state expense along with other radical measures such as the formation of a national bank, the introduction of a progressive income tax and a state pension fund for all workers. A soldier's mutiny the day before in the federal fortress at Rastatt led to the grand duke's decision to flee the state and the resignation of the Bekk ministry. Forced to act Brentano rushed to Karlsruhe to establish a provisional government on the 15th. Instead of declaring a republic and carrying the revolt to other parts of Germany, however, he formed an executive commission to run the state and reestablish order with the cooperation of the former bureaucracy.

Trying to pursue domestic compromise and avoid external intervention, Brentano had to contend with radicals who sometimes issued orders in conflict with his. Struve attempted unsuccessfully to force him from office, but elections on June 3 for a new constituent assembly led to victory for Brentano's supporters. When the assembly opened the next week Brentano's waning revolutionary fervor was reinforced by the disorganized behavior of the inexperienced people's representatives. Meanwhile troops from Prussia and other German states converged on north Baden.

Brentano's motives, judgement and character have been questioned ever since. Republicans to his left charged him with selling out and preventing the revolution's coalescence into a genuine popular upheaval against the German ruling houses. Liberals on his right thought he fed the flames of reaction by toying with dangerous revolutionist and social experimentation. From his viewpoint the reality was different. Without the legitimacy of the grand duke's approval, much of Baden's petty bourgeoisie would not rally to his support even if it understood his moderate intentions. He furthermore faced the impossible task of bridging the gap between liberals who were fighting for the new national constitution written by the Frankfurt assembly and the democrats and republicans who rejected it in the name of an incipient social democracy. Such illusory hopes led to indecision and half-hearted measures satisfactory to neither camp. Likewise, his efforts to avoid outside intervention were doomed from the start. Liberals in other German states, whos e power was also ebbing rapidly, dreaded radicalism and Jacobinism more than they feared reaction. Brentano's position was tragic, something he undoubtedly understood; though his exhaustion may have clouded his mind, he knew that there was no way out.

The revolutionaries, with far greater, better trained and better led men in arms than in 1848, fought serious battles. They briefly held their own in mid-June, but under pressure of overwhelming numbers began to yield. By June 21 their fate was seal ed. Brentano left Karlsruhe on the 25th and, after a brief contest with leftists in Freiburg, fled to Switzerland. From there he published a scurrilous attack on his former comrades.

Tried and sentenced in absentia to life imprisonment Brentano emigrated to the United States in 1850. There he founded a German language newspaper, joined the abolitionist movement, was elected to Congress and served as American consul in Dresden from 1872 to 1876. He died on September 17, 1891 in Chicago.

Loyd E. Lee


see "Baden"

Table of Contributors   Table of Contents   Return to Encyclopedia Home Page

Holly Johnston revised this file ( on April 25, 1997.

Please E-mail comments or suggestions to

© 1997 James Chastain.