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The Revolution of 1848

The Revolution of 1848 and the Significance of the Student Fraternities

The Roots of Third Lager Thought

After the Napoleonic Wars, the 1814/15 Congress of Vienna created the German Confederation, a loose federation that comprised German states and parts of the Austrian Empire. Numerous contemporaries regarded this absolutist structure as a suppression of nationalist and liberal movements, and demanded a German nationstate.

 

Right across Germany, there developed a new bourgeois movement calling for freedom. The driving force behind this movement were students, who in 1815, in the city of Jena, established the very first student fraternity (Urburschenschaft, or original fraternity). They demonstrated in support of freedom and constitutional government, including at the Hambacher Festival of 1832, at which 30,000 people championed national unity and national sovereignty, whilst waving the student fraternities’ black-red-gold flag, the colours of which were later incorporated into the flag of Germany.

 

On 12 March 1848, students gathered at the University of Vienna, amongst them members of the hitherto secret fraternity Arminia. They presented a petition demanding freedom of the press and of speech; academic freedom at universities; religious freedom; equal rights for Jewish fellow citizens, as well as a popularly elected parliament. The following day was marked by an uprising, at which the students were joined by additional citizens and heavy casualties ensued. Parallel to this, workers protesting against their working conditions stormed factories in the Vienna suburbs. This bourgeois revolution gripped the whole of Germany, from Berlin to Vienna, and was not without consequences. It resulted in the first free democratic elections in the whole of Germany, namely, those for a future German National Assembly. The latter met for the first time on 18 May 1848 in the Paulskirche in Frankfurt and as its President, it elected the liberal student fraternity member, Heinrich Freiherr von Gagern. The most important task of the National Assembly was to develop a German constitution.

 

There were further uprisings on the part of students and revolutionary citizens, but they were ultimately defeated by the bloody intervention of the Imperial Army. In October 1848, Vienna was captured by Imperial troops and Franz Joseph I restored the Austrian Empire’s pre-existing absolutist system. The revolution had failed.

 

However, the idealism of the revolutionaries of 1848, their commitment to the idea of freedom, their democratic aspirations and their social commitment to workers and to the poorest sections of the population have continued to this day to shape the development of the national-liberal Lager (camp) in Austria.

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