Robin Oomkes on the German Revolution and the execution of Robert Blum…
Germany may not have escaped Napoleon’s seemingly unstoppable armies—but it did, for a long time, manage to avoid the liberal, bourgeois revolution that had allowed Napoleon to come to power in France in the first place. When the dust from the Napoleonic wars had settled, Germany was still as Ancien Régime as ever, a very loose federation of 38 independent states (including four “free cities”), each of which had their own form of usually monarchic and absolutist government.
The revolution of 1848 initially changed all that. Remembered both as a bourgeois, liberal uprising as well as the first expression of the socialist or communist movement (the terms were still used interchangeably at the time), the event came about via an emphatically diverse set of players: lawyers, historians, professors of German linguistics, socialist thinkers…even the German gymnastics league.
Each group’s purposes and goals were equally diverse. Some wanted liberal reforms such as freedom of expression and an end to censorship, others wanted social reforms or greater political and national unity throughout the German speaking parts of Europe.
The revolution itself was triggered by events elsewhere in Europe, but in Germany it began in the Grand-Duchy of Baden and rapidly spread throughout present-day Germany and Austria. The revolutionaries, much to their own surprise, were often initially successful in forcing their absolute monarchs into accepting new, liberal cabinets.
Within a short time, they had in many places managed to abolish press censorship, liberate the crofters from serfdom and initiate the first steps towards greater national cooperation by holding elections for a constituent National Assembly (which held its sessions in Frankfurt’s St. Paul’s church).
However, by mid-1848 it started to become clear to the ruling classes that the “Liberal” (right-wing, bourgeois) and “Democrat” (left-wing, socialist) strains of the revolution were hopelessly divided on many issues. A counter-revolutionary movement began, in which monarchs and the aristocracy joined forces with the liberals in order to defeat the Democrats.
Enter Robert Blum (1807-1848). The son of a cooper from Cologne, Blum tried his hand at many trades before starting a career as a writer. Moving to Leipzig, he started a newspaper that promoted democracy. Working as a journalist helped feed his conviction that the Kingdom of Saxony’s political oppression and heavy-handed censorship should be replaced with a republic. Despite his controversial views, the authorities allowed him to be elected as a Leipzig city councillor in 1847.
In 1848, Blum was a key player during the March revolution in Saxony, where, through his rousing speeches in Leipzig and Dresden, he managed to get the king to replace his government with a more liberal set of ministers. He was elected to the Frankfurt Parliament, and joined its Constitutional Committee. But as the rifts grew in the Frankfurt Parliament between Liberals and Democrats, Blum accused the former of being too cosy with the old clique of monarchs and aristocrats.
Things came to a head in September 1848 after a number of failed parliamentary votes. The Liberals finally won the vote, the Democrats staged demonstrations in protest, and the former proved Blum’s earlier point by asking the Prussian and Austrian armies to crush the Democrats’ protests.
In Vienna, developments had turned to violence too. Revolutionaries had occupied the city and ousted the Habsburg Kaiser and his army. Blum travelled to Vienna to convey the sympathy of the Frankfurt Democrats, joining the insurgents as a commander on the barricades. The Imperial Army retook Vienna after heavy fighting on 1 November, and Blum was arrested.
Despite diplomatic efforts both from the Frankfurt Parliament (who claimed Blum’s immunity from prosecution as a deputy) and from the Saxon authorities, the Imperial military command, who considered Blum a most dangerous anarchist, condemned him to death in a two-hour trial on the night of 8th November. He was shot at nine o’clock in the morning of November 9th, 1848, the day before his 42nd birthday.
The Frankfurt Parliament protested at the death of one of their most prominent deputies, and decreed that those guilty of Blum’s death should be punished but no action was ever taken. The shocked reaction among the German people upon learning of Blum’s death initially strengthened the revolutionary movement, but the reactionary forces had by then already regained the upper hand and the revolution of 1848 lost its momentum.
Blum became something of a martyr for democracy throughout the nineteenth century, and interest in him was renewed during the centenary of his death in 1948, when both Germanies needed new national examples. However, although the German revolution of 1848 fit the socialist narrative of being a crucial stepping stone in Marx and Engels’ dialectics (not entirely coincidentally; it was also the year that Marx and Engels published their Communist Manifesto), Blum’s emphasis on democracy and freedom of speech meant he could not initially be positioned as a hero by the incoming Communist regime of East Germany.
Looking back at the importance today of this first fateful 9th November in German history, the murder of Robert Blum on that date is symbolic of all that the 1848 revolution failed to achieve. Had the initial promise of progress on liberalisation, democracy, unification and a representative national parliament been fulfilled, then there might possibly have been no war with France in 1870, no Kaisers, no World War One, no Versailles, no Nazis and no World War Two—and probably no GDR and no Berlin Wall either.
For those interested in this topic, there is a monument to the revolution of 1848 in East Berlin on Sredzkistrasse near Kollwitzplatz (pictured above), as well as a Cemetery for the Fallen of the March Revolution hidden away in Volkspark Friedrichshain, which also remembers the fallen of the November revolution of 1918.