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German Revolution of 1848 and Historiography in the German Democratic Republic

The revolution of 1848 in Germany was a critical subject to historians from the German Democratic Republic. As communists they wanted to analyze the revolution to make good the claims of their republic to represent the revolutionary will of the German people. This aim caused them to limit their investigation to answering three major questions about the revolt. The first concerned the connection between political behavior and social struggles. Recognizing that Germany was a society inexorably progressing from feudalism to capitalism to socialism in 1848, they sought to show the emerging conflict of interest of the bourgeois and proletariat classes. Their second major question dealt with the experience of the working classes. This matter drew their attention to workers' goals, organizations, leaders, and to the impact of Marx and Engels who both participated in and wrote about the revolt. Their third priority was to verify the profound impact of a democratic revolutionary movement upon the German people in 1848 which created its revolutionary tradition.

GDR historians cogently explained the initial success of the revolution of 1848 by showing how various factors produced an alliance between the bourgeoisie and workers. Long term developments, caused by the impact of capitalism, had created a revolutionary situation in Germany by 1847. The source of acute tension was a power struggle between an industrial bourgeoisie, frustrated over anachronistic fetters imposed upon the expansion of capitalism, and the half-feudal nobility and absolute monarchies which refused to relinquish their authority. To alter political structures, however, the bourgeoisie needed the populace to resist the government. Suddenly a successful revolution in France provided the impetus. The establishment of a French republic by workers and bourgeoisie in February of 1848 encouraged German students, peasants, craftsmen, and workers to take to the streets and revolt against their governments in early March. When monarchs feared for the loss of their thrones and the industrial bourgeoisie linked their aspirations with those of the revolutionists in the streets, Germans obtained a new pattern of politics by the end of March. The new order was seemingly based upon popular demand for an expansion of civil liberties, representative government, universal suffrage, a centralized nation state, and economic and social opportunity for the individual. To GDR historians therefore the united front of workers and bourgeoisie had enabled the German people to articulate its revolutionary will to establish a political democracy which promised to accelerate the capitalist restructuring of society. To be sure, these historians were aware of the tactical nature of this agreement. The contracting parties had not revealed their different ultimate goals. The bourgeoisie wanted the economic benefits of capitalism and class rule over all society. The workers wanted to use bourgeois democracy to move on to the next stage of social democracy and popular or republican government.

Although GDR historians have studied the outbreaks of revolution throughout Germany, they celebrated the events in Prussia, where capitalist industry was concentrated in Germany, as the epicenter of the revolutionary earthquake. Even their detailed narratives of the spring revolution in Prussia illustrated the democratic consequences of proletarian-bourgeois cooperation. Readers of these accounts are left with the impression that it was the heroism of a seventeen year old journeyman-apprentice locksmith, Ernst Zinnas, who died at the barricades in the Friedrichstrasse on the eighteenth of March and whose corpse was set in front of the king on the nineteenth by the Berlin crowd, which persuaded the king to call off his troops and give in to the demands of the Prussian bourgeoisie for power and constitutional changes.

GDR historians explained the defeat of the revolution by the disintegration of the union between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie in Germany which occurred from the summer of 1848 to the fall of 1849. At the same time the democratic revolution moved from center stage back into the streets among increasingly powerless groups of activists until it ultimately found a home in the collective memory of the working class as its self-proclaimed spokesmen, Marx and Engels, indicated in retrospective analyses of the event. Against this background, GDR historians argued that the bourgeoisie bore primary responsibility for the breakup of its union with the workers. They insisted that the workers had remained faithful to democracy to the bitter end, but were weak, unorganized and lacked the maturity to act effectively alone. The bourgeoisie, on the other hand, wavered in their support of democracy because they feared the working class more than the aristocracy. First the industrial bourgeoisie, then, the petty bourgeoisie, found themselves supporting the forces of order. They manifested their disloyalty both directly and indirectly. The latter occurred when they favored such policies and positions as moderate constitutionalism, restricting suffrage, non-responsible executives, and limitations upon the powers of representative assemblies. The former occurred when their representatives actually authorized police action against street demonstrators. Indeed, accounts of several such incidents which happened in the summer of 1848 constitute in GDR historiography the major turning point in the defeat of the revolution.

Typically, GDR historians effectively wove this story of defeat into excellent narratives providing critical details to reveal their thesis of class conflict. The account of the June 1848 riots in Berlin is an excellent case in point. When a group of workers became aware of the prospect of a reactionary development resulting from delays experienced by the bourgeois leaders in moving the Prussian government in a democratic direction, the workers decided to seize weapons from the armory, (Zeughaus). This prompted the bourgeois city government to order the police and militia to stop the attack and impose order. When these forces routed the workers, the repression of the demonstrators was condoned by citizens frightened by the prospect of armed workers. As a consequence of this action, the workers, helpless and disorganized, became antagonistic towards the bourgeoisie, while the latter, lacking thereafter a mass base, stood virtually defenseless when in November the nobles and king sought to regain their former authority. In surrendering their power, the bourgeoisie merely gained some benefits for the stock exchange and assurances for the safety of their property.

In their assessment of the final outcome of the revolution, GDR historians concluded, first of all, that capitalism would continue to develop in Germany and nourish revolutionary thinking, irrespective of the reactionary implications of the new bourgeois alliance with the aristocracy. The second lesson of the revolution was that the working class had become more self conscious. As Marx explained, hencefor th it would rely upon itself and would be the guardian of the revolutionary tradition of the German people. The third lesson of the revolution was the inability of the bourgeoisie to surmount their desire to dominate and exploit the proletariat, for the revolution had clearly demonstrated the existence of that central source of tension in a mature capitalist society, the conflict of interest between bourgeoisie and proletariat.

Although GDR historians obviously can be criticized for their fai lure to fit major theories to events and to relate class interests to political categories in the revolution, they never seriously quarreled among themselves about such matters which struck at the heart of their interpretation of 1848. They did, however, argue about certain questions of detail. The problem of economic determinism came up concerning the behavior of the bourgeoisie. How, one asked, could the bourgeoisie be blamed for acting in their own interest? Moreover, had not those economic inte rests promoted capitalism? Or were the bourgeoisie in fact moral cowards who had reacted timidly out of fear of the masses? Another problem they could not resolve concerned the contradictory behavior of the masses. For example, the failure of the craftsmen to side with the workers led to many questions about their status as workers or petty bourgeois. The realism of workers was also a contested issue. Such arguments, however heated, never caused them to question the reality of bourgeois class hatred of the proletariat, and thus, they produced, as early as the late 1960s, a well documented and coherent Marxist view of the revolution that became the orthodoxy which subsequent GDR historians needed only to elaborate in order to please their government until its demise in 1990.

John F. Flynn


Dorpalen, Andreas. German History in Marxist Perspective: The East German Approach, Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1985

------. "Die Revolution von 1848 in der Geschichtsschreibung der DDR" in Historisches Zeitschrift, 210 (1970): 325-368.

Engels, Friedrich. The German Revolutions: The Peasant War in Germany and Germany: Revolution and Counter-Revolution. Chicago and London, 1967.

Fricke, Dieter, et al., eds. Die bürgerlichen Parteien in Deutschland. Handbuch der Geschichte der bürgerlichen Parteien und andere bürgerlicher Interessenorganisationen vom Vormärz bis zum Jahre 1945. Vol. II, Leipzig: VEB Bibliographisches Institut Leipzig, 1970.

Hamerow, Theodore S. Restoration, Revolution, Reaction. Economics and Politics in Germany, 1815-1871. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1958.

Schmidt, Walter, et al. Illustrierte Geschichte der deutschen Revolution 1848/49. 3d ed. East Berlin: Dietz, 1988.

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