Table of Contributors   Table of Contents   Return to Encyclopedia Home Page

Liberalism (Germany)

Liberalism, Liberal in Germany The revolutionary wave of 1830 in German unleashed by the French July revolution allowed liberals their first experience with constitutional and popular movements. They differentiated themselves into a right, moderate, and left movement, whereby the democratic stream of liberalism in particular began to diverge, consistently promoting the idea of popular sovereignty and criticizing the liberal political tactic of reforms. Liberalism above all stood for the sovereignty of the state. Liberal theory of sovereignty could only think in terms of a division of powers. The plenitudo potestatis, according to liberal doctrine only referred to the abstract state as such. Thus any concrete state organ had jurisdiction over only a portion of state power, not over real sovereignty. In addition to the constitutional-liberal party ("right center" among the professors' group), the Rhineländer and southwestern German group, and the liberal Hegelians, existed also a parliamentary-liberal party ("left center"). Karl von Rotteck and Karl Theodor Welcker's Staatslexikon (1st. ed. 1834-1843) drew together the political theory and the current practical wisdom of southwestern liberals.

As a result of the industrial revolution the social basis of liberalism evolved in the 1840s, because a true bourgeoisie now emerged which clearly and fully expressed the bourgeois-capitalistic character of liberalism. In 1842-43, the Rheinische Zeitung, edited by proponents of Rhine-Prussian liberal bourgeoisie and some Young Hegelians, followed a pragmatic liberalism. Thus they formulated a qualitatively new criticism of liberalism, which above all widened the general liberal demands for freedom and equality in a revolutionary-democratic and social-critical direction. With this differentiation the movement as a whole lost in ability to integrate. Increasingly a political, theoretical and then also an organic identification and division of radical liberals or petty bourgeois democracy ensued.

After the entry of right-radicals into the cabinet in Baden in 1846, liberalism and democracy openly divided. The wavering moderate liberals were designated "apparent oppositional" (Scheinoppositionelle) or the so-called "bourgeois party of the chamber, consisting of tradesmen and industrialists," while the others were seen as representatives of the "fourth estate" (artisans, peasants, and workers). In the 1848-49 revolutionthe liberals for the most part remained characterized by the Deutsche Zeitung and "Heppenheimer Program," a political line true to: unity of the German nation; the principle of constitutional monarchy, only with the participation of the people; social measures; anti-feudal, and anti-aristocratic. Liberalism prevailed in the early stage of the revolution, basically following a policy of limiting the revolution's scope. The attempts at reform by liberal-constitutionalists of the "March Cabinets" in April-May 1848 to transform the Greater German confederation with the consent of reigning dynasties into a federal national state with a liberal constitution failed in any case as did the further offensive to create a fait accompli before the election of the German constituent national assembly. In the discussion of the Preparliament the basic problem of the revolution arose clearly, since the bourgeois revolutionary movement again split into two camps: the liberals and democrats. The alternative ways were "creation of a national constitutional order" built on the power of the revolutionary right or "coalition with the representatives of the traditional dynastic-federative rulers." The liberals decisively favored an early restriction of the revolution's reform movement and proposed basic changes while maintaining legitimacy and legal continuity, the principles which determined the liberal's parliamentary course in 1848. Liberals also participated in the extra-parliamentary revolutionary movement, for example in the political associations.

The constitutional work of the Frankfurt St. Paul's Church, which closed with the election of emperor in 1849, was a compromise between liberal and democratic concepts. The liberals' great successes in elections to the Frankfurt national assembly reached, were the suffrage right, which the right center obtained in the early months. A broad front of liberal deputies consciously abandoned the party's program in order not to endanger the attempted integration through discussion as well as to turn back a recourse to revolution. The basic law ought not to appear in isolation, rather only in enacted in cooperation with the governments of individual states. The liberals above all believed that the Frankfurt parliament ought only to work as a constituent assembly.
Helmut Reinalter translated by James Chastain


H. Bleiber (ed.), Bourgeoisie und bürgerliche Umwälzung in Deutschland, Berlin 1977.

H. Brandt (ed), Restauration und Frühliberalismus, Darmstadt,1979.

L. Gall - R Koch (ed.), Der europäische Liberalismus im 19.Jahrhundert, Frankfurt/M.-Berlin-Wien 1981.

G. Hildebrandt, "Programm und Bewegung des südeutschen Liberalismus", Jahrbuch für Geschichte IX (1973),7ff.

G Hildebrandt, Politik und Taktik der Gagern-Liberalen in der Frankfurter Nationalversammlung 1848/49 Berlin 1989.

D. Langewiesche, Liberalismus in Deutschland, Frankfurt/M. 1988

W. Scheider (ed.), Liberalismus in der Gesellschaft des deutschen Vormärz Göttingen 1983.

James J. Sheehan. German Liberalism Chicago : University of Chicago Press, 1978.

_______. German history, 1770-1866 Oxford, 1989.

G. Wollstein, Das "Grossdeutschland" der Paulskirche Düsseldorf, 1977.

Table of Contributors    Table of Contents    Return to Encyclopedia Home Page

JGC revised this file ( on October 26, 2004.

Please E-mail comments or suggestions to

© 1999, 2004 James Chastain.