The German Revolution of 1848/49 was a series of political and social upheavals that occurred throughout the German states. The revolution was sparked by the demand for constitutional reform and the desire for greater democracy and civil rights. The revolutionaries sought to create a united German nation-state and end the fragmentation of Germany into numerous small states. The revolution was initially successful in many parts of Germany, with constitutional assemblies established and liberal reforms enacted. However, the revolution ultimately failed to achieve its goals, as conservative forces reasserted their control and suppressed the revolutionary movements. The revolution did, however, set the stage for further attempts at German unification and laid the groundwork for the eventual creation of a unified German state in 1871.
In 1848, news spread throughout the German Confederation that an insurrection had overthrown the French King Louis-Philippe. As a result, sympathetic but loosely coordinated protests broke out in the German states, as well as many other European countries. Since the War of Liberation, student unions or Burschenschaften had been promoting the idea of a unified, democratic Germany under the colors of black, red, and gold. Their ideas were expressed when a large group of people peacefully gathered at Hambach Castle in 1832. However, other groups attempted to achieve German unification through more violent means. In 1833, for instance, the Frankfurt guardhouse was stormed, and police officers came under attack. The attackers planned to storm the parliament the following day to trigger a coup d'état. The Hambach Festival of 1832 laid the groundwork for growing unrest in the face of political censorship. The rebellions of 1848 demonstrated widespread discontent with the traditional autocratic political structure of the Confederation. Moreover, the hard times of the late 1840s, caused by economic depression, transformed these rebellions into a full-blown revolution.
Whereas artisans in big cities were fighting for a stable livelihood, the middle-class was committed to liberal
principles. In March 1848, crowds of people gathered in Berlin to present their demands for liberal reforms in an address to the king. On March 18, fierce fights swept across Berlins streets, and
more than 200 civilians lost their lives. King Friedrich Wilhelm IV yielded to all the requests, which included:
■ parliamentary elections
■ a unified Germany with a constitution
■ freedom of the press and
■ freedom of assembly
The German Revolution is also called the March Revolution.
The German Revolution of 1848/49 had historic relevance in the United States, which welcomed thousands of German refugees seeking political freedom. However, the German aristocracy was able to defeat the democratic process in 1849 by dividing the middle and working classes. As a result, many liberals were forced into exile to escape persecution, and those who fled to the United States became known as the Forty-Eighters.
Immigration to the US had already increased since 1845, but it spiked after the failed revolution of 1848. It is important to note that only the intellectuals and leading political heads who immigrated to the United States are called 48ers (not to be confused with the 49ers who moved to the West due to the California Gold Rush). Approximately 4,000 immigrants fell into this category. Although these refugees did not receive any governmental support, most Americans sympathized with them because of their shared democratic ideals.
The Forty-Eighters founded German-American organizations such as Turnvereine and became known as the Turners, who stood for liberty and supported the new Republican Party. Many of them were able to put their democratic ideas into action on American soil. Not a few 48ers became Americanized and launched successful careers, such as Carl Schurz, who became an ambassador to Spain and a general in the American Civil War before serving as Interior Secretary. Another German-American who made his career in the United States was Franz Sigel, who had led a militia during the Baden insurrection before fighting as a general for the Union cause during the American Civil War (1861 - 1865).
However, there were some 48ers who still engaged for the German cause once they reached American soil. They experienced rejection because they were expected to assimilate to American customs and practices. Some of them went back to Germany with broken dreams when things calmed down.