Frankfurter Nationalversammlung (The National Assembly in Frankfurt)

After the bourgeois movement had urgently been demanding a national parliament since 1847, and the “Februarrevolution” in Paris had started off a revolutionary movement in Austria, the German states and finally also in Prussia, it was already too late for a reform of the confederation from above – as planned by the German and the Austrian government; in March 1848 the system of the German Confederation (Deutscher Bund) collapsed. The parliament in Frankfurt – fundamentally changed in structure when joined by liberal representatives of the confederate states – made far-reaching concessions to the revolutionary movement; the parliament installed a committee of 17 confidants to prepare the draft of a new German constitution. On 30.3.1848 the parliament decided to request the governments of the confederate states to hold general elections for a German constituent assembly. Independently, the preliminary parliament (Vorparlament) met in Frankfurt on 31.3.1848. Invited to participate were all members of the legislative corporations of the confederate states as well as a number of important public figures, however, the representatives of south-west Germany had the majority. Having agreed on principles for the election, the parliament appointed a committee of 50 members (Fünfzigerausschuß) that passed the resolution to elect a national assembly. After the parliament had adopted this resolution, the elections were held in accordance with the relevant laws of the confederate states as well as with the principles of universal and equal suffrage in the German Confederation and the eastern provinces of Prussia and Schleswig-Holstein, which did not belong to the territory of the confederation.

The members of parliament entering the “Paulskirche” on 18.31848. The “Paulskirche” – built in classical style from 1786 to 1833 – was used by the National Assembly for its meetings. Contemporary illustration.

“Deutsche Nationalversammlung” (The German National Assembly)

On 18.5.1848 the German National Assembly was opened in the “Paulskirche” in Frankfurt and is therefore often only referred to as “Paulskirche“. The assembly elected Heinrich von Gagern as president. The members of the National Assembly were part of the German intellectual elite: numerous professors, judges, lawyers, teachers, clergymen and high-ranking administrative officials had been elected, but nearly no workmen, farmers and labourers.
The conservative right was only sparsely represented, the extreme conservatives were not represented at all. The liberals held the majority whereas the left-wing democrats were split into a moderate and a militant – revolutionary persuasion.
The National Assembly had the task to work out a constitution supposed to replace the German Confederation by a German federal state. As the governments of the confederate states did not come to an agreement referring thereto, the National Assembly had no choice but to act on its own: on 28./29.6.1848 a provisional central authority was installed and Erzherzog Johann von Österreich elected as “Reichsverweser” (administrator). He soon appointed a “Reichsministerium” but this ministry lacked an administrative apparatus to draw on. Although the “Bundesrat” – still in existence besides the National Assembly – handed over its responsibilities to the “Reichsverweser”, it soon became clear that the central authority was not able to assert itself against the more influential confederate states.


The first major crisis of the National Assembly was the dispute about the “Waffenstillstand von Malmö” (an armistice agreement), concluded with Denmark, due to Prussia having exceeded the authority conferred by the “Reichsverweser”. At first the majority of the representatives refused the armistice as Schleswig-Holstein had to be given up but finally they had to realize their powerlessness, particularly as the foreign powers Russia, England and France disagreed with the National Assembly on this matter. The acceptance of the armistice by the National Assembly led to an uprising of the left on 18.9., which was put down by Austrian and Prussian troops. Since then the parliament had to recourse to military protection for its meetings. The political differences between the left, headed by Robert Blum, and the liberal centre got more and more intense. The moral reputation that the National Assembly had gained throughout Germany rapidly declined and the disputes between the parliaments of the confederate states came to the fore. The large number of parliamentary bodies was damaging to the liberal and democratic ideas, particularly as the Prussian national assembly – which met in Berlin – was in opposition to the parliament in Frankfurt.

During the first months the National Assembly in Frankfurt mainly discussed the basic rights and inacted a law, dealing with the basic rights of the German people (in force since 27.12.1848), – a law in which the catalogue of civil rights, already included in the constitutions of some confederate states, had been expanded to a comprehensive system of civil and political liberties. The so-called “Deutsche Frage”, i.e., the size and the organization of the future German “Reich”, could not be dealt with as long as the future of the Habsburg monarchy had not been cleared up. During the first months of the revolution it had seemed as if the monarchy would fall apart, so that there might have been the possibility to create a so-called “grossdeutscher Bundesstaat“ (an extended German federal state) with a Prussian head of state, i.e., with a Prussian king to be the German emperor.

The German National Assembly in the “Paulskirche”, with President Heinrich von Gagern on the podium. The podium stands on the place where formerly the pulpit altar had been. Contemporary illustration.

The so-called “Deutsche Frage“

The disputes about the “Deutsche Frage”, which began in autumn 1848 and culminated in January 1849, were made even more difficult when in autumn 1848 the reactionaries gained the upper hand in Prussia and Austria so that breaking up the Habsburg state into its parts was out of the question. The Austrian government, headed by F. Fürst zu Schwarzenberg, had Robert Blum – the representative of the left in the National Assembly in Frankfurt – executed during the suppression of the revolution in Vienna. Austria strongly emphasized that the German constitution had to submit to Austrian needs, that the continued existence of the Austrian state had to be guaranteed and that Austria, including its non-German territories, had to be an integral part of the new German state. These demands led to changes in the National Assembly: the left vehemently opposed a monarchical solution and the previous majority split into two groups – since January 1849 called the “Kleindeutsche“ and the “Grossdeutsche“. The majority of the “Kleindeutsche“, who called themselves “Erbkaiserliche“, rejected an admission of the entire Austrian state and its non-German territories because of national motives. They favoured a provisional German federal state with the King of Prussia as emperor. The “Grossdeutsche“ – in their political views not consistent at all – were against a Prussian head of state for political and particularistic reasons. Moreover, both groups were strongly influenced by denominational differences.

The execution of Robert Blum, a member of the National Assembly, near Vienna on 9.11.1848. Contemporary illustration.

The end

In December 1848 the Austrian A. Ritter von Schmerling resigned from his post as head of the “Reichsministerium” which he had held since September. The attitude of his government had deprived him of all possibilities to resolve the conflict “Deutsche Frage“ by incorporating Austria and its non-German territories into the future German federal state. On 18.12.1848 Heinrich von Gagern became head of the “Reichsministerium” and E. Simson was elected as the president of the parliament. Von Gagern tried in vain to bridge the gap between the political differences by a “Programm des Engeren und Weiteren Bundes“, i.e., he fought for a German federal state with a Prussian head of state, complemented by a federation with the Austrian monarchy. But in the end, the politics of the Habsburg monarchy foiled this solution as a constitution for the entire territory of state was issued. The “Kleindeutsche” were only able to have the majority when a number of concessions had been made to the left-wing group concerning questions of domestic policy, such as the suffrage. On 28.3.1848 King Friedrich Wilhelm IV von Preußen was elected by 290 votes and 248 abstentions as the hereditary emperor.

The National Assembly had completed its task. However, its constitution never came into force, even though it had been recognized, officially and unconditionally, by 28 German governments: the Prussian king rejected the imperial crown and the reactionaries gained the upper hand in most of the larger states. Austria and Prussia as well as the majority of the German confederate states recalled their representatives from the National Assembly. Insurrections broke out in Saxony and Baden-Württemberg, aimed at pushing through the constitution despite opposition from the governments, but were suppressed with Prussian aid. The remaining representatives – the so-called “Rumpfparlament”, which was a group of about 100 radicals – transferred their meetings to Stuttgart. On 18.6. – exactly 13 months after the meeting of the National Assembly, which had been perceived as a hopeful sign – the government of Württemberg broke up the “Rumpfparlament” by use of troops.

Despite its failure the political significance of the National Assembly in Frankfurt and its after-effects from Bismarck’s state to the constitution of the Weimar Republic was immense. Although its constitution never came into force, many of its basic ideas have always had a bearing on the political life in Germany.