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Military Reform

Military reform was central to German political debate before 1848. Princely standing armies were criticized as instruments of monarchical authority, used for arbitrary repression and isolated from society. While some liberals would replace them with popular militias, all agreed to reduce their costs, require officers to take constitutional oaths and open their ranks to all men of ability, and subject armies to parliamentary control. Reformers also wanted to guarantee the civil rights of soldiers, decrease the length of military service, reform military judicial systems and create a more effective national military organization.

In the March days several states instituted many of the desired liberal reforms; only the creation of a national army was beyond their reach. Many recognized the right of soldiers to participate in public assemblies, to join clubs freely and to exercise free speech. They abolished corporal punishment. Wurtemberg ordered that all soldiers be addressed as equals by officers. New liberal ministries required officers to swear constitutional oaths and gave parliaments a greater say in military affairs. In Prussia, however, much of the liberal program remained promises. Radicals and liberals struggled among themselves while the military establishment regrouped and launched a propaganda campaign to discredit the revolution. In other states, most notably in south Germany, the officer corps more easily accepted the changes.

Wurtemberg began plans to end substitution, a practice whereby men of wealth could escape military service by hiring a replacement. Saxony abolished exemptions from service and substitutions, following a similar move by Electoral Hesse. Baden introduced the same changes and also doubled the size of its army in the autumn of 1848, in accordance with a national assembly law. Wurtemberg raised its draft quota as well.

When the national assembly opened in May 1848 the left spoke for a military system similar to that of Switzerland or the United States, but the majority rejected a complete revamping along the lines of popular militias. Instead it formed a military reform committee, which was increasingly dominated by right liberals and conservatives. Though it never reported back on a proposal for military organization, the assembly took a few interim measures and also debated the federal constitution which contained several articles relating to military matters.

In June the assembly granted the provisional government direction over all German armed forces, though key monarchies refused to recognize its authority. Though wary of infringing on middle class privileges, in its 1849 constitution the assembly asserted the military service obligation of all German men and abolished substitution. Frankfurt's military and political weakness became clear when it had to call upon Prussia to wage war against Denmark over Schleswig-Holstein and then accept the Malmš armistice. The triumph of reaction in Austria and Prussia later that fall made further plans for military reform moot.

Though the failure to place the German military system on a national basis, responsible to an elected parliament, forms only one segment in the larger revolutionary movement, it indicates the dilemmas, complexities and contradictions of German society at mid-century as it succumbed to the Prussian military state.

Loyd E. Lee


Jörg Callie. Militär in der Krise. Die bayerische Armee in der Revolution 1848/49. (Boppard, 1976).

Andreas Hohlfeld. Das Frankfurter Parlament und sein Kampf um das deutsche Heer. (Berlin, 1932).

Fred H. Stenkamp, "The Prussian Army and the Revolution of 1848" (Dissertation, Michigan State, 1972).

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