Friedrich Kaiser (1815-1881), Einzug in Lörrach unter der Führung von Gustav Struve am 20. April 1848

1848 in Baden, the German Confederation, Switzerland and France

Near the town of Eigenbrakel in the province of Walloon Brabant (Belgium) stands the Lion of Waterloo. The monument was commissioned by King William I (1772-1843) of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands. Belgium was part of this Kingdom until 1831. The monument commemorates the Allies’ last battle (18 June 1815) against Napoleon.

After the Congress of Vienna(1814-1815), peace and the ancien régime seemed to be restored. The Holy Alliance of Austria, Russia and Prussia (concluded on 26 September 1815) guarded order and nipped revolutionary and democratic movements in the bud.

Austrian Foreign Minister Klemens von Metternich (1779-1859) was the driving force behind this alliance until 1848. Von Metternich also played a prominent role in the German League and censorship and political repression in the German states.

He was also an advocate of military intervention in the relatively democratic and liberal Swiss Confederation. Not only did thousands of political opponents from European monarchies flee to Switzerland, but he also distrusted liberal movements and democracy in several cantons.

A veto by England and revolutions at home prevented intervention in the Sonderbundskrieg of 1847 and during the Neuchâtel crisis in 1848.

However, peace did not return, not in Switzerland (and its Confederation of sovereign cantons), not in the German Confederation (a loose confederation of 34 sovereign kingdoms, principalities and duchies and four free cities, established on 8 June 1815 by the Congress of Vienna) and not in France (and numerous other countries).

The revolutionary year 1848

The Dreiländermuseum (Three Nations Museum) in Lörrach (Baden-Württemberg) is devoting an exhibition Der Ruf nach Freiheit-Revolution 1848/49 und heute (The Call for Freedom-Revolution 1848/49 and today) to this period. The show concentrates on developments in Switzerland, France and Germany, with the revolutionary year 1848 as a guideline and the Grand Duchy (Grossherzogtum) of Baden, the Kingdom of Prussia and the German Confederation (Deutscher Bund) as the main protagonists.

Collection Dreiländermuseum in Lörrach

The museum is an appropriate place to highlight these events from a comparative perspective. This region was a laboratory of political experiments. Industrialisation, with Mulhouse and Basel as major industrial cities, a class of bourgeois citizens and workers’ movements had already developed. They were at the root of calls for political and social reforms.

The perspective focuses on constitutional and democratic changes with industrialisation, hunger and poverty in the (emerging) industrial cities and the working class in the background. Each country had its perspective, interest groups and leaders.

The German Confederation (Deutscher Bund), 1815-1866


The emerging bourgeoisie in the states of the German Confederation claimed its place in the political system after 1830. These adjustments came at the expense of the power of (local) kings, princes and dukes in the 34 German states. In 1830, national unity and social issues still played a secondary role; by 1848, they were  central themes of the reformers as well.

In centralist France, the demands were the same, but Paris was the main centre, and unity was already a reality. The revolt of the bourgeoisie led to the deposition of King Charles X (1757-1836) in July 1830. Louis Philippe (1773-1850) became the new king, only to be deposed in 1848.

In Switzerland, the ‘Regeneration‘, the constitutional changes in eleven liberal cantons and the split of Canton Basel in 1830-1833 are important points of attention. The situation in Switzerland varied from canton to canton. The main topics of discussion were the power of the (restored) ancien régime in the (old) cantons, modernisation and the powers of the central government. The Confederation had existed for centuries as a loose alliance of sovereign cantons. The Confederation was not under discussion, but the federal government’s powers were the main issue.

On the left: the situatie in France explained and the Palais Bourbon (seat of the parlement in 1848), in the middle: the situation in the German Confederation explained and the Pauluskirche in Frankfurt, on the right: de situation in the Swiss Confederation and the Bundeshaus in Bern

The revolutions of 1848

The exhibition begins with an overview of the political situation in these countries before, in and after 1848. What these countries had in common were armed uprisings or civil wars. In Switzerland, it was the Sonderbundskrieg of 1847 (partly motivated by religion).

Germany had rebellions in cities and several states. In particular, three campaigns by insurgents in the Grand Duchy of Baden in 1848 and 1849 and the prominent (repressive) role of the King of Prussia are discussed.

In France, the February uprising of 1848 in Paris and the establishment of the Second Republic with Louis Napoleon Bonaparte (1808-1873) as president are the main points of attention. The French Republic went down in chaos and violence, leading to the coup by Louis Napoleon Bonaparte in 1851 and the establishment of an autocratic empire (1851-1871) with Louis as Emperor Napoleon III.

The Parliament in Frankfurt

The parliament of the German Confederation met for the first time in Frankfurt’s Pauluskirche on 18 May 1848. The princes of the 34 German states initially recognised this parliament for fear of revolution. The parliament was composed of moderate liberals and conservatives from among the members of the German Confederation. They sought dialogue and compromise with the princes. Their goal was the unification of the states of the German Confederation and a constitutional monarchy with the Prussian king as emperor.

Republican flag from 1848

The Parliament guaranteed the fundamental rights of citizens in December 1848, and in May 1849 the first Constitution of united Germany with fundamental rights for citizens and universal male suffrage was a reality. The Frankfurt experiment ended the same month, however, by a military intervention, much violence, death sentences and restoration of the ancien régime. Troops of various states of the German Confederation led by the King of Prussia intervened and dissolved parliament.

Cover and Constitution of Baden from 1818

Baden and the German Confederation

The Grand Duchy of Baden was already a liberal forerunner in 1818 in the German Confederation. Baden therefore had the name of ‘Liberales Musterland‘ and also played a pioneering role in 1848.

Its proximity to France and thus the French Revolution of 1789 and contacts with the Swiss Confederation played a role. Even in relatively liberal Baden, citizens organised rallies for more freedom and democracy on 27 May 1832 (Hambacher Fest) and 11 June 1832 (Badenweiler Fest). German unity still played a secondary role at the time. The liberal Karl von Rotteck (1775-1840) formulated it on 11 June 1832: “Lieber Freiheit ohne Einheit, als Einheit ohne Freiheit“.

Bernhard von Neher (1806-1886), Friedrich Hecker and Gustav Struve (probably). Museum der Stadt Schopfheim

On 26 April 1848, after previous military defeats, insurgents led by Friedrich Hecker (1811-1881) proclaimed the German Republic on the Schuster Island (Schusterinsel). This island was located in the Rhine between Baden, Switzerland and France. However, the military defeat on 27 April against troops of other German states led by the King of Prussia ended this Republic.

Hieronymus Hess (1799-1850), declaring the German Republic on the Schusterinsel (disappeared today) near Weil am Rhein on 26 April 1848.

The parliament of the German Union had been meeting since May 1848 but did not want a republic. However, the revolutionaries in Baden wanted a united German Republic, and Gustav Struve (1805-1870) proclaimed it in Lörrach on 21 September 1848 with the motto “Wohlstand, Bildung, Freiheit für Alle“.

Altes Rathaus Lörrach

Original plate from September 1848. Dreiländermuseum Lörrach

This time, the uprising was better prepared militarily and politically. Moreover, many citizens and workers in Baden supported this movement. However, this revolt, too, was doomed and led to defeat on 24 September 1848. Due to transport by train, troops of the Confederation could be moved quickly to Baden to put down the uprising.

Ludwig von Elliot in the Illustrierte Leipziger Zeitung, arrival of Gustav Struve in Lörrach on 21 september 1848

The last armed revolt took place in 1849. The immediate cause was the German resistance to the parliament in Frankfurt. The citizens and military of Baden did not accept the military interference led by the King of Prussia. This revolt, too, was put down in July. The Grand Duke of Baden then made his comeback after a short exile. Switzerland became the place of exile for many liberal politicians and revolutionaries from Baden and other German states.

The aftermath 

The aftermath of these (civil) wars and armed uprisings distinguishes Switzerland from France and Germany. In Switzerland, there were no death sentences or persecution of members of the Sonderbund, but dialogue, reconciliation, compromise and pragmatism. It was not wholehearted, especially in the cantons of the Sonderbund, but the 1848 Constitution was the foundation for further democratisation in 1874 and 1891 to the present day.

There was no room for this approach in France and Germany, but political opponents were persecuted, (re)introduction of authoritarian systems, reparations and censorship.

Liestal, the monument to the poet, politician and revolutionary Georg Herwegh (1817-1875)

Liestal, the capital of Canton Basel-Landschaft, created in 1833 as a separation from Canton Basel-Stadt, is the final resting place of Georg Herwegh (1817-1875) according to his last will (“in freier Schweizer Erde”). He was one of the leaders of the armed rebellion in Baden. Liestal was the cradle of the armed revolt against the ancien régime in Basel-Stadt in 1831.

The exhibition not only looks back but also looks to the present and the future. It focuses on current themes and self-reflection, with particular attention to young people and their perception of democracy and freedom.


Impressions of the exhibition


The period 1847- 1849 is still of great importance for the current constitutions in these neighbouring countries. In Switzerland, there is continuity from 1848 to the present. In France and Germany, there is none. However, the foundations of today’s constitutions were already in place in 1848.

The Grand Duchy of Baden even had a relatively liberal constitution as early as 1818, followed by the liberal Constitution of the German Confederation in 1849. Civic and labour movements were already pushing for democratisation, freedoms and fundamental rights.

Baden, while more radical than other German states in 1848 and 1849, symbolised the commitment of most German states at the time. The German Constitution has a solid foundation today, after several lows in the 20th century and the German unification in 1990.

France has had five republics and even more constitutions since 1815, and it is questionable whether constitutional process reached its final stage yet. But here, too, democracy, fundamental rights and freedom are guaranteed by the Constitution.

The diversity of political cultures and constitutional history between these three countries stands out the most, although the calls for more freedom, democratisation and fundamental rights were the same.

Therefore, how can an effective constitution be shaped at the European level if only three neighbouring countries with German and French as their primary languages already have such different political cultures and references?

(Source and further information: Dreiländermuseum in Lörrach)