The role of the Liberals

While there was a reaction against the influence of France, Napoleon's rule introduced some of the liberalisation and political change that the French Revolution had brought about. Some in the German states wanted this process to continue.

A great deal of effort was made to supress new political ideas throughout the German states, but the decline of Austrian influence and events in Prussia saw Liberalism and nationalism grow.

What is Liberalism?

Liberal thinkers promoted the idea of an elected parliament to pass laws and run the country, rather than power held solely by an absolute monarch. They also championed freedom of speech and an end to censorship.

Suppression under Metternich

Austrian State Chancellor, Klemens von Metternich viewed liberalism as an evil force that threatened the power of the aristocracy. It would allow middle and working class attitudes to influence political decisions.

Nationalistic student societies, called Burschenschaften had grown throughout the German states at the time of the French occupation. Students combined nationalistic ideals with liberal thinking and hence, wanted the removal of the old regime.

In 1817, an extreme and widespread student society was formed, which promoted violent action in order to achieve their goals. In the same year, an effigy of Metternich was burned by students in Wartburg. In 1819, a Tsarist agent was also murdered.

In response to this growing movement, the German Confederation met at Carlsbad, where Metternich was able to introduce the Carlsbad Decrees in 1819. This was a set of reactionary restrictions which allowed states to ban societies, censor material and forcibly stop the spread of nationalistic ideas. Academics who supported nationalistic and liberal ideas were dismissed from their posts.

Under Austria’s dominance of the German Confederation in the mid-1830s, Liberalism was suppressed.

Flourishing Liberalism in Prussia

In 1840, Frederick William IV became ruler of Prussia. He was unstable and swung between ultra-conservative beliefs and promotion of Liberal ideals.

Frederick William encouraged free thinking and academics dismissed from other German universities were allowed to teach in Prussia. Censorship was relaxed and Liberals appointed to government positions.

However, demands for an elected parliament were refused and by the mid-1840s, Prussia had begun to suppress nationalistic ideas. A United Diet of the Prussian Estates was dissolved after it demanded a written constitution and free elections.

The 1848 Revolutions

In early 1848, revolution spread across Europe. In France the monarchy was overthrown. But there was not such extreme change in Germany.

Although much of the discontent amongst the lower classes resulted from economic hardship and social problems, there was a push from the Liberals and Nationalists for political change. There was a demand for the end to censorship and for the creation of a united Germany.

The revolutions achieved short-lived change. However, by 1850 this had been reversed.

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