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Popular Militias

A key issue among the pre-1848 German liberal opposition to the existing order was the reduction if not the abolition of princely standing armies and their replacement by militias based on universal male military service (also see entry under Military Reform). Their models were the 1793 French levee en masse, an idealized memory of the halcyon days of the Prussian Landwehr during the 1813 war of liberation or the local municipal civil guards of self-governing towns. What these shared was a stress on a non-professional armed force of citizens serving only in times of emergency. Liberals generally associated standing armies with wars of aggression and believed that militias could only be used for defense. A Europe of militias would be at peace.

Demands for arming the populace, along with the election of officers, was common among petitions during the 1848 March days. But what exactly was meant by the several German terms used for this reform varied widely, since revolutionary leaders, denied the right to influence military organizations, had not had to think through issues such as how to train citizens' armies, how to organize them, how to pay for their armament and, more basically, who should be armed or how to arrange for aa united German defense. A few military men, such as Wilhelm Rüstow, a Prussian officer and talented writer who embraced the goal of a militia, had professional answers to such questions, but few listened to their proposals.

One of the first requests made by the earliest assemblies in March 1848 was for weapons so that the citizens could defend their homes against invasion from France or Russia, maintain "Quiet and Order" in the face of the breakdown of police enforcement, and defend their lives and property against either radicals or counter-revolutionaries. Since almost no citizens possessed arms of their own, the newly-formed organizations requested and frequently obtained them from the state. The names chosen for these units varied from "Citizen's Militia" to "Security Guard" and "Communal Watch."

The militias were largely communal organizations, although some university students and factory workers in cities also organized units. In most cases any adult male citizen of a community could enlist so long as he possessed a respectable reputation. Militias chose their officers by open election and most officers came from the more prestigious, prosperous and educated segments of local society. In Saxony and Cologne some militias excluded day laborers and workers as unreliable, but in Bavaria both served in a number of units.

In addition to weaponry, the militias chose to appear as quasi-military units sporting uniforms and specifying necessary military equipment. Communities and individual members shared the costs of membership which varied a great deal from place to place. Colors, too, tended to mirror attitudes toward national loyalties. Drilling and weapon practice were minimal and by all reports few units posed a serious military threat to the regular armies. Nationally, however, the number of men enrolled was in the tens of thousands and caused both governments and military forces concern.

Thus many governments yielded to public pressure by authorizing the formation of civic guards; that could be done without touching existing military establishment. WYrttemberg, which introduced civic guards for urban propertied classes in 1847, extended them and in April 1848 granted every adult male the right to bear arms. The government ordered the guards to protect the constitution, to uphold public peace and order, and to develop marksmanship. The Bavarian king Maximilian II, whose kingdom already had civic guards, appointed a commission to study a general arming of the population. It included military professionals and rejected the idea as too costly and not likely to provide a well-trained, reliable armed force. In other states, aside from setting up civic guards where they had not previously existed, as in Prussia, little actually happened, though many governments followed Austria's lead in limiting the guards to middle classes membership, by excluding journeymen, domestic servants and wage earners. No German government effectively integrated local guards into a coordinated state-wide organization.

The demands of the democratic and republican left to admit all adult males into popular militias and to merge them with existing armies met determined opposition from moderate liberals and conservatives at the Frankfurt National Assembly. Though the Assembly never discussed this issue, its committee on military reform advocated a national defense system based on a professional line army which would train and direct the more numerous men in the militia, that is, a military, not a civilian militia which would be formed along the lines of the Prussian Landwehr. Throughout Germany the March liberals who formed the new governments preferred regular troops over risking the instability of radical institutional change. By mid-summer state governments came to distrust the newly formed civil guards and, in Prussia, the Landwehr; they failed their mission to maintain order against lower class, urban uprisings. Among the middle classes the enthusiasm of March quickly waned; for many the right to serve had become an onerous, risky obligation which did not secure their protection.

The civic guards disappointed even their strongest advocates. Their military effectiveness, whether used to put down riots or to fight regular troops, proved to be inferior. A citizenry in arms could not be quickly built on part-time,volunteer efforts. It needed bonds of trust between the government and the population which could not develop in a socially divided and fragmented body politic. Guards of whatever social and political makeup needed training, equipment and discipline; they needed expert officers. As the liberal springtime euphoria evaporated in the autumn of 1848 the excluded lower classes and radicals renewed their revolutionary commitment and turned to building an organizational base in their continuing struggle for power.

Practically, the militias played no role at all in national defense, especially as there was no invasion. As far as helping to keep order, the record was mixed. In some large cities in the early months of the revolution and in rural areas then and later, militias played a limited role as "peace-keeping" forces. A few units became involved in confrontation with the government, which occasionally resulted in bloodshed. Most rural units only wished to serve in their home communities, and, as little happened in these areas, were not called upon to perform more than a social function. Militias served a social and patriotic function and were prominently featured in mass meetings and parades.

During the spring revolution of 1849 radicals, democrats and republicans introduced their own popular militias in Saxony, the Bavarian Rhenish Palatinate and Baden. In the crisis period of spring 1849 some militias, or at least parts of them, largely in Baden, WYrttemberg and the Palatinate, supported the radical elements of the Frankfurt assembly who fought against the Prussians. These were few in number and were unable to withstand successfully the Prussian regular army, which was quickly victorious. Concerned by the possibility of communal militias using the weapons given them in spring 1848 by the government, several states acted swiftly in spring and summer 1849 to disarm and disband the militias. Although most of the militias were clearly either pro-government or anti-revolutionary, the governments, as in the case of Bavaria, perceived them as unreliable if not actually radical. Thus, the movement to create effective popular militias had come too late. They had no time to organize, equip and train. By then the Frankfurt Assembly was dissolved, while reactionaries controlled the crushing superiority of the Prussian army and found collaborators among monarchs, military men and liberals in the rest of Germany willing to aid in suppressing this last effort to create popular militias.

Loyd E. Lee and James F. Harris



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Gottfried Bruckner. "Der Bürger als Bürgersoldat. Ein Beitrag zur Sozialgeschichte des Bügertums und der bürgerlichen Gesellschaft des 19. Jahrhunderts" Dissertation, Bonn, 1968.

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

J.F. Harris, "Arms and the People. The Bürgerwehr of Lower Franconia in 1848 and 1849," in Larry Eugene Jones and Konrad Jarausch, eds. In Search of a Liberal Germany. Studies in the History of German Liberalism from 1789 to the Present London, 1990, 133-60.

W. Pinkow. "Der literarische und parlamentarische Kampf gegen die Institution des Stehenden Heeres in Deutschland in der ersten Hälfte des 19. Jahrhunderts (1815-1850)" Dissertation, Berlin, 1912.

Paul Sauer. Revolution und Volksbewaffnung. Die Württembergerischen Bürgerwehren im 19. Jahrhundert, vor allem während der Revolution von 1848/49 Ulm, 1976.

E. Schwalm, Volksbewaffnung 1848-1850 in Schleswig-Holsteinische Erhebung Neumünster, 1961.

Steinhilber, Die Heilbronner Bürgerwehren 1848 und 1849 und ihre Beteiligung an der badischen Mai-revolution des Jahres 1849 (Heilbronn, 1959).

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