Prussian Revolution of 1848 Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Prussian Revolution of 1848 attempted to institute liberal political and economic reforms but ended in a return to conservative government.

Summary of Event

Throughout Prussia in the revolutionary period there were several distinct political and social groups, among whom there was little or no understanding or agreement. Prussia’s King Frederick William IV was the focus of the whole process, and a more complex and misunderstood personality can scarcely be found. Given to flights of liberal oratory, Frederick William adhered rigidly to absolutism while vacillating and hesitating to act. The nobility and the army wanted him to use direct and forceful action to stamp out the uprisings, while the middle class also expected the king’s leadership in implementing desired reforms. Complaints of the lower classes, from both town and country, were directed less against the king than against prevailing economic and social conditions and the upper classes. This lack of unity of aims was one of the principal reasons why Prussia’s own revolution failed. Prussia;revolution Revolutions of 1848;Prussia [kw]Prussian Revolution of 1848 (Mar. 3-Nov. 3, 1848) [kw]Revolution of 1848, Prussian (Mar. 3-Nov. 3, 1848) [kw]1848, Prussian Revolution of (Mar. 3-Nov. 3, 1848) Prussia;revolution Revolutions of 1848;Prussia [g]Germany;Mar. 3-Nov. 3, 1848: Prussian Revolution of 1848[2610] [c]Government and politics;Mar. 3-Nov. 3, 1848: Prussian Revolution of 1848[2610] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Mar. 3-Nov. 3, 1848: Prussian Revolution of 1848[2610] Bismarck, Otto von [p]Bismarck, Otto von;and revolution of 1848[Revolution of 1848] Camphausen, Ludolf Brandenburg, Friedrich Wilhelm von Frederick William IV Hansemann, David

Genuine cooperation among the diverse revolutionary forces on any ground was conspicuous by its absence. Common grounds could be found in the quest for liberal political reforms and relief from the current economic depression, but beyond that, each faction had its own grievances and proposals. Moreover, there is no evidence that the revolutionaries were willing to plunge the dagger up to its hilt into the body politic and, if need be, twist it and, thereby, permanently divest Prussia of its absolute monarchy.

The middle class provided much of the leadership for the revolution. Its members sought political liberalism in the form of constitutional government, guarantees of property rights, order, security, domestic peace, and return to prosperity under enlightened government. However, the middle class was not a majority that could effect change alone. Reliance upon the support of the artisan guildsmen and the peasantry was essential.

The artisans, on the other hand, were motivated by economic distress and directed their demands against the rising industrial capitalists, the factory system, and mechanization. Theirs was a lost cause, for they were determined to enforce guild regulations in opposition alike to free enterprise and industrial unionism. Mutual fear and distrust between members of the middle class and the more numerous workers were ever present.

The workers and the middle class had even less in common with the agrarian revolt of the peasantry. In Prussia, the peasant revolt never reached the proportions evidenced in southern Germany. Peasant demands remained the most consistent and continuous of all. Peasants wanted ownership of land in fee simple, the right and opportunity to buy more land, and the freedom to be left alone by everyone else, however well-meaning. In reality, they were the most conservative social group.

After 1840, the ingredients for revolution increased in number and complexity in Prussia. The crisis first emerged in the Rhine districts, notably Cologne, a center for artisans whose livelihoods were threatened by industrial machines. On March 3, 1848, a rally to petition for labor reform was dispersed by military force in Cologne. The Rhineland was the center of modern industry. Rhenish West Prussia (Westphalia) Westphalia , the most populous and economically advanced sector, contained liberal leaders among the rising industrial middle class.

In Berlin, Berlin;and revolution of 1848[Revolution of 1848] radical intellectuals joined with the Artisans’ Society and the liberal newspaper Zeitungshalle to promote public pressure for reform. Women were active in the propaganda war and in political clubs. Some even fought on the barricades. On March 13, 1848, revolutionaries in Berlin square were attacked by the cavalry. Two days later, protesters again gathered outside the royal palace. They threw stones and bottles at the guards, and demanded removal of the military troops. To end the violence, King Frederick William Frederick William IV promised that the United Diet, which had last convened in 1847, would resume its “periodic meetings.”

The respite was short-lived. Seething revolutions elsewhere in Europe rekindled the spirit of revolution in Prussia. The unrest soon reached Berlin. To avert open warfare, Frederick William announced a new decree. He promised a constitutional government, freedom of the press, and Prussian leadership for pan-German unity. The large crowd gathered in the square applauded the king until they saw the soldiers massing in the palace courtyard. For four days, from March 18 to 22, the revolutionaries fought the king’s cavalry and infantry with stones and bottles, and boiling water poured from rooftops.

The king would not leave Berlin and let the army annihilate the protesters. Instead, he declared the whole uprising an agitation by foreign powers and prepared a speech to his “dear Berliners,” in which he promised to withdraw the troops and meet with the people’s representatives. Dressed in German national colors of black, red, and gold, he declared Prussia “henceforth merged in Germany” and rode in procession through the streets of Berlin. He ordered the removal of all troops, including the palace guard, from the city. After the Civic Guard replaced the soldiers, the revolution appeared to be a success.

The king called on Ludolf Camphausen Camphausen, Ludolf , a banker from Cologne, to head the new ministry. David Hansemann Hansemann, David , a liberal businessman from the Rhineland, was named minister of finance. The Diet was convened on April 2 to form a national assembly that would draw up a Prussian constitution. However, distrust among the various groups thwarted the process from the outset. The constitution submitted by the Camphausen administration was rejected as too moderate, and continuing political instability undermined Hansemann’s economic recovery program.

Meanwhile, the king’s conservative supporters urged him to stand firm against the revolution. Otto von Bismarck, Bismarck, Otto von [p]Bismarck, Otto von;and revolution of 1848[Revolution of 1848] a conservative Junker member of the Prussian Diet, raised a vigorous assault on all liberal reform measures. He rallied the agrarians to support the monarch. By deepening the distrust between the middle class and the workers, Bismarck brought about stalemate in the Diet. The liberal middle-class leaders, facing opposition from the workers and the conservative monarchists, were unable to complete an acceptable constitution.

Finally, the revolution in Prussia ended on November 3, 1848, after the king dismissed the liberal Camphausen Camphausen, Ludolf ministry and called upon the ultraconservative Count Friedrich Wilhelm von Brandenburg Brandenburg, Friedrich Wilhelm von to form a new ministry. Ordered to end the revolution, Brandenburg recalled the regular troops to Berlin Berlin;and revolution of 1848[Revolution of 1848] , established martial law, dissolved the Civic Guard, closed down the political clubs, and resumed censorship Censorship;German of the newspapers. In April of 1849, the king formally dismissed the assembly and announced his own constitution. Key elements included male suffrage based on tax rates, an independent military, and a ministry answerable only to the king. The ultraconservative constitution became effective in January, 1850, and lasted until 1918.


Prussia’s revolution was one of the most important of the many chapters in the larger story of the revolutions that swept across Europe in 1848. The causes and character of revolutions, never simple or clear, were especially complex and confused in the various German states. The political and economic woes were complicated by the German unification movement. The fates of both German unity and the revolution rested in the hands of Prussia, the most powerful and the most conservative German state. When German unification was finally achieved in 1870, it was implemented under the ultraconservative leadership of Prussian minister-president Otto von Bismarck. Bismarck, Otto von [p]Bismarck, Otto von;and revolution of 1848[Revolution of 1848]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Eyck, Frank. The Revolutions of 1848-49. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1972. Analyzes causes of the 1848 Prussian revolution in the context of the revolutions sweeping the rest of Europe during that same year.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Feuchtwanger, Edgar. Bismarck. London: Routledge, 2002. Concise biography that reassesses Bismarck’s historical significance in nineteenth century Europe.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hamerow, Theodore S. Restoration, Revolution, Reaction: Economics and Politics in Germany, 1815-1871. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1958. Part 2 is a discussion of political, sectional, and economic issues involved in the Prussian Revolution of 1848.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lougee, Robert W. Midcentury Revolution, 1848: Society and Revolution in France and Germany. Lexington, Mass.: D. C. Heath, 1972. Compares the roots of the French and Prussian revolutions of 1848; attributes the failure of the Prussian assembly to competing interests of diverse social groups.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Robertson, Priscilla. Revolutions of 1848: A Social History. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1967. Two chapters on Prussia’s revolution treat the social aspects and the mind of the king.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Siemann, Wolfram. The German Revolution of 1848-49. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 1998. Stimulating revisionist history of the Prussian revolution that examines its contradictory forms of collective protest to explain its failure.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stearns, Peter N. 1848: The Revolutionary Tide in Europe. New York: W. W. Norton, 1974. Distinguishes issues of the German revolution, including unification, from other European revolutions.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Taylor, A. J. P. “1848: The Year of German Liberalism.” In 1848: A Turning Point?, edited by Melvin Kranzberg. Boston: D. C. Heath, 1959. Taylor analyzes the ideas that inspired the Germanic revolutions and sees the failure of the Prussian revolution as a failure of liberalism.

Great Britain Withdraws from the Concert of Europe

Young Germany Movement

German States Join to Form Customs Union

Blanc Publishes The Organization of Labour

Italian Revolution of 1848

Marx and Engels Publish The Communist Manifesto

Paris Revolution of 1848

Swiss Confederation Is Formed

Bismarck Becomes Prussia’s Minister-President

North German Confederation Is Formed

German States Unite Within German Empire

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Categories: History