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Joseph Maria von Radowitz (1797-1853)

Joseph Maria von Radowitz (1797-1853) was a Prussian general and statesman whose historical significance is associated with a proposal to unify Germany under Prussian leadership by means of a negotiated agreement among the reigning German princes. Radowitz was born on February 6, 1797 to Roman Catholic nobility of Hungarian origin, received a military education in France and fought in Napoleon's army. In 1823 he entered the Prussian service where his intellectual brilliance brought him rapid advancement, and his marriage into an old aristocratic family entrance to the Hohenzollern court. He developed a close and lasting friendship with the crown prince who, as Frederick William IV, often relied on his counsel and service in matters of state.

In 1836 Radowitz was appointed Prussian military attaché to the German Confederation. From his vantage point he came to recognize the need for reforming this post-Napoleonic organization of the old Holy Roman Empire so as to strengthen it as the effective center of German politics. In November 1847 he persuaded Frederick William to support reform, and four months later he was in Vienna to negotiate the issue with Metternich. The outbreak of revolution in March 1848 shifted the discussion of organizing German nationhood to a national assembly that convened at Frankfurt. Radowitz participated in this assembly as representative of a Catholic constituency and as a conservative opponent of the liberal-nationalist conception of a "little Germany." In the end, he did vote for this kleindeutsche solution of the Frankfurt parliament, but Frederick William's refusal to head a German Empire based on popular sovereignty gave Radowitz another opportunity to advance his own design for the political consolidation of the German states.

By the Spring of 1849, Radowitz had persuaded Frederick William IV that supporting the national idea would strengthen Prussia's future position in Germany. Unlike the Frankfurt Assembly, Radowitz proposed making princely sovereignty the basis of unification. Like the Frankfurt scheme, his plan called for a federal Germany ("German Union") under Prussian auspices--excluding Austria, and a larger confederation ("German Reich") between this Prussian-led union and the whole Austrian Empire as well as those German states which preferred not to join the Prussian union. The larger association would coordinate the commercial, foreign, and military policies of its members. To secure the support of the popular national movement, the new German state was to have a constitution and an elected parliament whose legislative functions, however, would be subsidiary to that of a college of six princes. By this design, Radowitz hoped to harness the national element of the revolution against its liberal and radical forces for the preservation of a conservative order in Prussia and Germany.

Entrusted with the necessary negotiations, Radowitz made some initial progress in implementing his plan. By the end of the summer 1849, most German states with a few significant exceptions had pledged to join the new Germany, however reluctantly. Their governments' lingering fear of popular unrest and Austria's preoccupation with its still undefeated Hungarian revolutionaries gave Prussia a persuasive voice in German affairs. Even a moderate rump of Frankfurt parliamentarians, now transplanted to Gotha declared its support. But Radowitz's success did not hold. In August 1849 Austrian troops with Russian help crushed the Hungarian revolt, and a new government in Vienna reasserted the Habsburg's traditional interests in Germany. Its efforts to thwart Prussian national ambitions by reestablishing the old Confederation with an enhanced Austrian role found resonance at many German courts wary of Hohenzollern dominance. Opposed as well from abroad by the Russian czar and home by an ultraconservative camarilla, Radowitz's work foundered.

By the time the elected assembly of his proposed Prussian union met at Erfurt in Marsh 1850 to debate a constitution, several important states had already deserted Radowitz. Two months later they joined Austria with other holdouts to reestablish the Diet of the old German Confederation. And in November Prussia and Austria, supported by their respective German allies, were at the brink of war. Faced with the prospect of a military conflict, Frederick William IV retreated from his German ambitions and abandoned his friend: Exploiting the threat of war with Austria supported by Russia and uncertainty about the new Napoleonic France, the king's ultra conservative advisors forced Radowitz's resignation as foreign minister. Within weeks, the Prussian and Austrian minister presidents met in Olmütz (Olomonc) to diffuse the military crisis, laid to rest Radowitz's plan, and prepared for Prussia's reentry into the old Confederation.

For many contemporary Prussian and German patriots, the Olmütz agreements represented the surrender of Prussia's German mission, a "humiliation" that was avenged only by Bismarck's resolution of the Austro-Prussian dualism in 1866. Nationalist German historians have argued that a Prussian-led German nation-state was the only solution of the German problem and the natural outcome of the historical process. They have portrayed Radowitz as an impractical idealist who failed in 1849 to move Frederick William IV decisively beyond his Romantic attachment to divine-right kingship and the Habsburg's historic place in the German Reich. More dispassionate recent scholarship, however,has provided a broader perspective of the 19th century idea of German nationhood. James Sheehan, for example, has persuasively emphasized the diversity of meaning then understood by the term "Germany." He has suggested that the country's future as a more or less loose association of states or as a centralized nation-state was not decided until 1866. In this light, Radowitz's plan for restructuring the German policy deserves more credit then his critics have granted him. For clearly, his aim was much like Bismarck's: to accommodate the old Prussia to a new age so as to ensure the survival of its conservative elites and institutions.

J. H. Hoffman


Josef von Radowitz. Nachgelassene Briefe und Aufzeichnungen zur Geschichte der Jahre 1848-1853. W. Moring (ed.) (1922).

Friedrich Meinecke. Radowitz und die deutsche Revolution. (1913).

James J. Sheehan. German History 1770-1866. (Oxford, 1989).

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