© 1998 Justine Davis Randers-Pehrson
This document, based on a chapter from the author's Germans and the Revolution of 1848-1849, which appears in the New German-American Studies series published by Peter Lang, is presented in recognition of the 150th anniversary of the March Days in Berlin that followed the deposition of King Louis-Philippe in France and the fall of the Austrian minister Clemens Metternich in Vienna, events that triggered a wave of revolutions all across the continent of Europe.
This account should be of special interest to descendants of Forty-Eighters who fled to the United States after conclusion of the revolutionary debates and hostilities.
A revolution has to have a geographic focal point as well as a target for popular displeasure. Paris was the focus in February 1848, and Louis-Philippe was the target. In Austria of March 1848, Vienna was the focal point, and Clemens Metternich was the obvious target for the ire of the people. In Germany of March 1848, with its bewildering multiplicity of independent states governed by absolute monarchs and held together loosely by the so-called federation (the Deutscher Bund), there were various points where disorder erupted as the revolutionary impulse spread out over Europe, but Berlin was the recognized center of power.
As to a target, rage was not directed against Friedrich Wilhelm IV, the Prussian ruler. There were complaints about his policies, his hesitations, and his ministers, but on the whole the Berliners were loyal to their king. However, they had a clear target -- the army. Hostility between the army and the people of Berlin had been a fact of life for decades, and after the violence of the 1847 "potato revolution" there had been a growing cold animosity on both sides.
The situation was understandable. Berlin had become an enormous industrial city, yet its police force was ridiculously inadequate (a grand total of 110 to 120 men). For that reason even a minor episode that involved nothing more than a few overturned stalls in the market, or a half-dozen shattered windowpanes could be enough to warrant the calling in of the army. The army was hardly the instrument for quiet control of a civilian population because the officers were for the most part arrogant young sons of aristocrats who looked down contemptuously on shop keepers, while the troops themselves were country lads recruited against their will. They knew that city folk looked down on them, and they were resentful because workers in a place like the big Borsig locomotive factory seemed to be lording it over them. The pay earned by those fortunate employees with their valuable mechanical skills must have looked princely to lowly infantrymen. An explosive mixture in March 1848!
In the general nervousness of February and March 1848, Prussia had brought various army corps to full strength and flooded the city of Berlin with cavalry units and infantry battalions. A conservative estimate places the number of uniformed military in the capital at about twenty thousand.
Early in March, while news and rumors trickled in gradually from Paris and Vienna, the potentials for popular unrest were dramatically increased by the agitated reaction of the stock market and the simultaneous dismissal of four hundred workers from the Borsig machine works. The number of unemployed persons then stood at about seven thousand, causing dismay among the police officials, although they seem to have been inclined to think that the local working class was not seriously infected with the virus of communism that was spreading out from Cologne and the Rhenish towns. The surface impression of Berlin's mood must have been deceptive. Karl Gutzkow, the dramatist, recently arrived in the city, remembered at a later date that "I found it so quiet, so peaceful, so patriarchal" that he had been inclined to settle in Berlin for a time in order to write, in spite of the fact that his works, like Heine's, had long been banned in Prussia. He wrote that the coffee houses were full, and that as one passed by on the street one could hear the names of Louis-Philippe, Lamartine, and Ledru-Rollin being read out from the current newspapers. There was as yet no word from Vienna, he noted.
In consideration of the unusual number of idle persons on the city streets, it was not too astonishing to find increasingly large public gatherings near the Tiergarten, around the little bandstands and pavilions in the amusement area popularly known as Die Zelten (there had originally been tents there, hence the name). The police seem to have thought, with the weather suddenly so fine and sunny, that these crowds were harmless, simply celebrating the springtime after all the cold and rain. However, there was enough purpose and solidarity at Die Zelten to generate an official address (on 7 March) to Friedrich Wilhelm IV in which it was firmly stated that it was necessary immediately to establish freedom of the press and to call the united Landtag. Even at that late date, the ignorance of the crowds that surged around the speakers' platform could be deplorable. Some believed that freedom of the press meant freedom from taxation (they would no longer be "pressed"), or that henceforth advertizing matter could be placed in the newspapers without charge.
Unemployed laborers in the crowd who were perhaps a little more sophisticated refused to sign the address, saying pessimistically that it would not do any good. No doubt they felt justified as days dragged by and his Majesty declined to receive the document. -- He did in fact belatedly accept it (on 14 March) and issue a half-hearted order relating to press censorship, and announce that he would call the Landtag for a meeting on 27 April, but by that time there had been a clash between armed soldiers and unarmed civilians late in the afternoon of 13 March, when demonstrators returning peacefully from Die Zelten were dispersed by a cavalry charge on Unter den Linden. Responsibility for this unfortunate skirmish seems to rest on the shoulders of Freiherr von Minutoli, the prefect of police of the city, thought to have acted as an agent provocateur.
Citizens were cautioned on the following day (14 March) to avoid public assemblies. Friedrich Wilhelm was showing signs of panic. He sent a note to his minister of the interior (Bodelschwingh) insisting that the foreign elements in the crowds must be sent away on "various railway trains" with guards who carried loaded weapons, adding an agitated postscript that "yesterday in whole groups on Unter den Linden they were speaking French" This foreign Literatenpack must be forcibly removed!!! Parenthetically, it is striking to see how quickly the idea of railway transportation had become accepted.
Late that evening an appalling incident occurred in the Brüderstrasse that showed all too clearly that the presence of so many troops was no protection, but rather that it was a provocation or even worse. In this case, cavalry suddenly rushed headlong toward the royal palace, howling, banging on doors, and frightening the residents, who scurried indoors. Then ten people appeared on the empty Brüderstrasse, coming from the opposite direction (from the direction of the palace, in other words), moving quietly in pairs or singly on their way home. The cavalry madly attacked these innocent people with their broadswords, seriously wounding a number of them. This was the most blatant of a series of similar incidents. There was little evidence that the officers were in control of their units. To put it bluntly, they may not have wanted to control such excesses. A seasoned officer wrote at the time to his mother that these things should not be taken too seriously: there had been an element of "gayety" in the Brüderstrasse episode. Besides, the people under attack in Berlin at this time were wretches who had come in from southern Germany, probably workers who had been "bought". He was happy to be able to tell her that he and his men had delivered some "good sabre blows".
On the next day (15 March), a civil guard of sorts was established, but it was a body that had little or no organization and no authority. Its members were none too impressive in appearance, being distinguished by a white brassard and armed with a baton. This half measure was annoying: people were asking for a true civil guard and withdrawal of the irresponsible soldiery. That evening popular unrest assumed a more menacing character, when a huge mass of people gathered by the palace. Troops cleared the square, firing into the crowd and causing a large number of casualties as well as several deaths. People had started to erect barricades on the previous day. Now they tore up street pavings and hurled stones at the soldiers in vicious hand-to-hand combat.
The heir to the throne was a trouble-maker. The king's brother Wilhelm had been angered during this encounter because Berlin's governor, Generalleutnant Ernst Heinrich Adolf von Pfuel, had been reluctant to fire on the people. The prince had taken it upon himself to order the attack, and his order had then been countermanded by von Pfuel. Two days later there would be a serious altercation when the prince confronted von Pfuel, saying that he was compromising the army. Von Pfuel reacted by going to the king and demanding an apology. The prince indeed apologized, but he was still an angry man. He had complained aloud that he was dissatisfied with the marksmanship of the troops, and he had been overheard saying "rather too loudly" that the people ought to be fired on energetically. He and his supporters must have begun at once to seek ways to effect the removal of von Pfuel and his replacement by Generalleutnant von Prittwitz, who tended to look at matters with a hostility that matched their own.
Fürst Wilhelm had shown his true colors on 16 March, when there was again a massive meeting on Unter den Linden. The city was in turmoil that day, reacting to the news of Metternich's fall. Infantrymen were everywhere, and cavalry rode through the streets. In spite of this, a crowd of hostile demonstrators collected around the prince's residence (they had begun to understand that he was their enemy), and Friedrich Wilhelm ordered him to come at once to the palace, for his physical safety, no doubt. However, before the prince obeyed that command, a half company of infantry marched out from the arsenal, and then there was a series of confused directives that brought still more troops onto the scene. A couple of innocent bystanders were killed when shots were fired.
An eyewitness of the event of 16 March observed that whereas Austrians had had a detested minister who fully embodied the old system, the Prussian ministers (Bodelschwingh and his colleagues) were indistinct in most people's minds and therefore failed to rouse public anger. On the other hand, there remained before them one object for their rage -- the soldiery that ceaselessly injured and infuriated them. With reference to the event of 16 March, he wrote:
Up ahead there was fighting ... a rapid drumroll, and since nobody left the square -- gunfire. Two dead and several wounded I was forced over toward the residence of the Crown Prince. Because in spite of the panic, there was a dense mob. When we came to a standstill, an elderly well-dressed man beside me flung down his hat -- in a gesture of anger or fear -- and wringing his hands heavenward he cried Prussians are shooting Prussians! The tears were coursing down his cheeks. The sight made an indelible impression on me.
Gradually, even citizens whose ignorance of political theory was abysmal were arriving at the conclusion that the military were at the root of their troubles. Needless to say, the incongruously romantic Friedrich Wilhelm would passionately cling to an opposite opinion because in spite of his dreamy misconceptions he was nonetheless a proud Hohenzollern. He believed himself to be sovereign by the grace of God, overlooking the fact that the divine grace to which he attributed his ineluctable authority was nothing other than arbitrary martial force.
He had also been overlooking the disgraceful conduct of the troops which was surely the result of arrogant mismanagement of the worst sort.
Metternich's fall had thrown Friedrich Wilhelm's ministers into a state of consternation. The royal councillors assembled, anxiously debating a variety of impractical schemes. Indubitably, a turning point had been reached. Cabinet minister Bodelschwingh labored throughout the night, developing a Patent that included various concessions that were generally in line with the program laid out by Max von Gagern during his mission from the Vorparlament at Frankfurt to sound out the various states on the idea of German unification.
When Bodelschwingh sat down to wrestle with the Patent that Friedrich Wilhelm intended to issue, he was facing a difficult task. As a loyal subject of the king, he had always dutifully acted as a rigid conservative, yet now he must prepare a list of concessions that were being forced upon his master. The most influential and "perspicacious" member of the cabinet, Bodelschwingh had become convinced that it was not possible to postpone the granting of a constitution, and he had in fact brought the king around to the same conclusion on 14 March, when it had been first announced that the united Landtag would meet at the end of April. Bodelschwingh had in his possession a letter written just days before the fall of Metternich by David Hansemann, the Rhineland business leader. This scorching indictment of Metternich's policy may have helped him to stiffen his resolve in favor of a more liberal approach to government.
Hansemann had written bluntly that the guiding principle of the continental governments under Metternich's leadership had been respect for dynasties, which were considered to be more important than the people. Mercilessly, he listed the "achievements" of the Metternich system:
Hansemann concluded with the statement that Germans had responded magnificently in the war of liberation (1813) , and that they would do so again if Friedrich Wilhelm were to issue a strong call while peace still prevailed in the land where danger threatened. Friedrich Wilhelm should summon a united Landtag, guarantee freedom of the press, etc., etc., etc. Hansemann himself was prepared to serve in whatever useful capacity might present itself in those parlous times.
Minister von Bodelschwingh completed his troublesome assignment and respectfully told Friedrich Wilhelm that since, as a loyal servant, he had always played the role of a die-hard conservative, it would not be helpful if he were to attempt to put on a different mask and continue to serve in his Majesty's cabinet under the new dispensation. He would therefore resign immediately, in the best interests of the king and his government.
He was to be replaced by Graf von Arnim-Boitzenburg, but before his successor actually took his seat, Bodelschwingh pushed through a second Patent that abolished censorship.
The two documents went through the hands of his successor and the king. The only change made by Friedrich Wilhelm was substitution of the teutonic word Verfassung for Bodelschwingh's original gallic word Constitution, which his Majesty thought was unpleasantly suggestive of revolutionary tendencies. (It was true that reformers and revolutionists tended to use terms like Militär and Revolution instead of the German Kriegsvolk and Umwälzung, in tacit recognition of their debt to France.) The main paragraph stood as Bodenschwingh had written it: Germany would cease to be a federation of states, to become a federal state with representation of the members of the various Stände of all the German states. There would be a federal army on the Prussian model, a fleet, a national flag, a federal court, freedom of travel from state to state, extension of the Zollverein, codification of the law, and standardization of weights and measures. The Prussian Landtag would be convened on 2 April. "Prussia has already had her revolution" breathed Bodelschwingh with relief on the morning of 18 March. He was perhaps too weary to realize that the omission of any reference to withdrawal of the troops from the city streets might have a troublesome effect.
That morning the king received a number of delegations, including one that jointly represented the municipal authorities of Cologne, Halle, and Breslau. The demands they presented were drastic and urgent because there was much unrest. Around noon, a delegation of the city council of Berlin was received, and Bodelschwingh sent them into ecstasies of joy when he told them of the impending ministerial changes and read the proclamation to them. They thanked his Majesty "with tears" and assured him that there would be no more disorders in the city. Soon a delirious crowd poured into the palace courtyard, cheering. Friedrich Wilhelm appeared on a balcony and was madly acclaimed.
The crowd was enormous because on the quiet previous evening, a meeting had been held by the influential editors and agitators of the radical Zeitungshalle, where it was decided that there ought to be a powerful demonstration on the following day (18 March), emphasizing the importance of an address that would be presented to the king, calling once again for removal of the troops. Some people attending the meeting had expressed doubts -- a huge demonstration like that could turn into a revolution if the military interfered. ... It is possible that some of the men who were insisting on a demonstration hoped that something of the sort might happen. As events turned out, this big throng had assembled , and with announcement of the royal proclamation, people felt that at the very least they ought to go to the palace and express loyal thanks.
As the happy mob pressed closer and closer to the palace, cheering their king, they were disconcerted to discover that soldiers were massed in a rear court in a way that looked threatening, although as one observer remarked, they were just standing there patiently. Voices began to call Militär zurück! [troops stand back] and the shouting rose to a confused, noisy crescendo. Karl Gutzkow, an eyewitness, recalled that those who first shouted did not number more than twenty "respectably dressed" individuals. The French emissary de Circourt who was present imagined that the shouts were those of foreign agitators. He mentioned Swiss, Italians and Poles but admitted that he had no personal knowledge of such persons. (It was soon to become the received gospel of conservatives that the revolutionists in Berlin were in fact not Berliners at all, but foreign agitators and riffraff.)
The overall situation had appeared so peaceful that morning that the military commandant, General von Pfuel, had allowed himself the luxury of an hour to check on his family, whom he had not seen for several days. This was just the opportunity that the crown prince and his supporters had been waiting for. In that brief interval they had managed to persuade tired, uneasy Friedrich Wilhelm that an emergency existed and that their candidate, the militant von Prittwitz, ought to command. This unfortunate move was made in a trice. Therefore, when the tumult and shouts for withdrawal of the troops grew louder, it was von Prittwitz who, in response to the king's command to "put an end to this and clear the plaza", led out his cavalry. There was so much noise that the general knew that vocal commands would be inaudible. He therefore unsheathed his sword, raising it above his head. Some of his dragoons imitated the gesture. (The king boldly asserted in his letter which he wrote that night to the people of Berlin that all swords had been sheathed.) To the crowd, the advance of cavalry with naked swords raised had the look of planned aggression.
At that point, two shots were fired into the air. Explanations subsequently offered by the military were disingenuous. (For example, a by-stander was said to have caused a gun to discharge by striking the barrel of it with his cane. Obviously, anyone having even the most rudimentary experience with firearms would know that a gun does not discharge unless the firing mechanism has been cocked.) It is worth noting that neither the Russian ambassador nor the Austrian mentioned any accident in their reports.
Eyewitness accounts of the melee that immediately erupted are not in total agreement, but one thing is certain. This was revolution. The newly appointed civil guards promptly ripped off their white brassards, shouting BETRAYAL! ASSASSINS! and hurried to join the fray. Only immediate by-standers would have been aware that there had been no injuries from the shots. To the crowd at large, it was enough to know that the troops were their enemies. A huge white banner was displayed from a palace window, bearing the single word Missverständniss [misunderstanding]
In the words of Karl Gutskow, Wenn hier ein äusseres Missverständniss stattfand, ein inneres gab es nicht. [If there had been a superficial misunderstanding, there was no inner misunderstanding]. Gutzkow saw and understood that all those years of repression were bearing their bitter fruit. Why should people care about deposed ministries? -- All they thought of was the old familiar brutality and arrogance of officers, the blind raw violence of country kids in uniform. Anything printed was just so much trash to them.. A bewildered sixteeen-year-old boy standing near Gutzkow in the crowd, in his blue smock and clutching a bucket of paste against his chest, whined "I'm to paste up the proclamations for the Magistrate but they're shooting at me."
Apprentices, shopkeepers, and women -- all were running with eyes furiously raised to heaven. They were shouting "Weapons! Weapons! They've betrayed us!" Everywhere there was frantic activity. The first barricade went up almost as though by magic on the Jägerstrasse. Barrels were being rolled into position, and planks that covered the gutters were being snatched up. Their bodies charged with adrenalin, people were performing prodigies of physical exertion. Circourt observed a scrawny "miserable student" who single-handedly hauled an enormous metal block from one side of the street to the other. Later, three husky soldiers with bulging muscles struggled and strained to put it back.
All in all, this was the catharsis that everyone required. Resentments and foiled expectations had been dammed up too long, and a point had been reached at which citizens everywhere longed for action -- almost any kind of action. How good it felt, just to fly into a wild releasing physical explosion, kicking aside the old hates and frustrations and attacking with all one's might whatever lay in the way! Bare your teeth, people!
Whatever the infuriated citizens lacked in knowledge of tactics was offset by their determination and energy. A pair of students set off at a gallop in order to summon workmen from the Borsig plant, returning with hundreds, all armed with hammers and iron rods. While women and children panted up stairways, carrying cobblestones and bricks to the rooftops, squads were roaming the city collecting weapons. They invaded the opera house, taking away lances and spears and swords. Others scoured residential neighborhoods, banging on the doors of private homes.
Such a group burst into the quiet, dignified abode of Alexander von Humboldt. The leader at least made an attempt to acknowledge the distinction of the elderly scientist. "Dear and venerable sir," he began. "You are aware that Christians and brothers must help one another. It is impossible that you could have such an impressive collection of stuffed birds in this gallery without being the possessor of an armory of muskets. Give them to us for the well-being of the fatherland." Humboldt's servant gave them an old carbine and tried to usher them out, but the invaders suddenly lost their solemn courtesy and broke the windows, threw the scholar's papers around in disorder, and ended by invading the wine cellar. Humboldt was resigned: at least they had not taken anything.
Even at that late hour, while artillery was being wheeled forward, efforts were being made to quiet the situation. Gutzkow saw the rector of the university and the professors in their long heavy velvet robes hurrying to the palace, where they hoped to persuade his Majesty to arm the students, but already cannon were beginning to speak. The king reportedly said sharply that if the citizens of Berlin were rebels, they had to be treated as such.
The sound of the firing of heavy field pieces was said to have upset Friedrich Wilhelm terribly. Some who had been near him asserted that he had clutched his brow, moaning and even sobbing, and then had flung himself back into a chair in paralyzed apathy. Others, notably the staid von Gerlach, insisted that the king had maintained his calm dignity throughout the ordeal. Modern historians who have critically examined contemporary records have been led to conclude that the descriptions of a distraught, unnerved monarch were derived from nothing more than Offiziersklatsch [the disgrunted chatter] of officers who on the whole remained loyal to their king.
The insurgents lacked both weapons and ammunition, but they were prepared to fight with all the instruments of rage and desperation. Circourt reported that people fought with pitchforks, shovels, meat-spits and tiles that they tore from the roof tops.. They had two small brass cannon that they resourcefully loaded with Murmeltiere ["marmots"] -- a play on words based on the fact that the actual charge was a load of childrens' marbles [Murmeln] crammed into a stocking. One of the heroes of the barricades, the journeyman locksmith Gustav Hesse, managed this extraordinary artillery.
There were no appointed leaders. Gustav Hesse was unusual in that he was able to enforce a certain amount of order and cooperation by taking his stand dramatically at the barricades, iron gunner's rod in hand, and roaring Citoyens! Liberté! -- Students were everywhere, but they seem to have had no designated leader. It must have been students with a classical background who inspired the coronation of the heroic gunner Hesse. Someone must have remembered that a hero in Roman battles customarily received a crown -- a special "mural crown" for being first to scale a city wall, for example -- and in a curious throwback to this ancient practice, they contrived to honor Hesse. Throughout the turmoil of the March days, Hesse wore his crown, and there were enough people in the milling throng who understood its significance to cause civil guards to come to attention and salute him whenever he stalked by.
The pandemonium of street fighting began at about three o'clock in the afternoon and continued all through the night. Young apprentices climbed the church towers and rang the bells hour after hour, and flames shot up from fires set at the iron foundry, at the customs offices, and at various factories. It is impossible to know just how many combattants were involved -- some think four thousand. As the Russian ambassador reported, "all citizens believed that they had been betrayed" with the result that middle class men readily fought shoulder to shoulder with the workers (nine hundred had come in from the Borsig plant). The revolutionists were indeed genuine Berliners, not outside agitators.
Individuals of all ranks were engaged in this hand-to-hand struggle. Circourt at one point found prince Friedrich-Karl von Hohenlohe, his face black with gunpowder and his garments torn, snatching food in a moment of quiet. He also encountered the spectacular adventurer, prince Felix Lichnowsky and was "revolted" by the "cruel lightness" of his talk, but made the penetrating comment that Lichnowsky was probably experiencing the frémissement martial que donne à un homme de coeur l'approche de dangers [the martial shiver that the approach of danger imparts to a brave man].
The furious struggles at the hundreds of barricades were not executed with much skill, militarily speaking. At first, General von Prittwitz had his men attack frontally, with disastrous results because the men were exposed to fire from the upper floors of houses behind the barricades. Graf von Benckendorff, the Russian military attaché, noted that he had seldom heard such massive firing. At one point he counted at least forty wounded and dead among the soldiers. On the other hand, the barricade defenders usually had to retreat rapidly. Sometimes one lone fighter would defend the barricade against a stormy attack. People never forgot the 17-year-old apprentice Ernst Zinna who held out valiantly all by himself against an infantry assault until he died.
Prisoners taken at the barricades numbered as many as one thousand. Hundreds of them were herded into the cellars of the palace, where they spent a wretched night jammed into a black hole of Calcutta, subjected to blows and insults and deprived of water or food.. One of them reported later that he and his fellow prisoners had been kicked, struck with gun butts and generally mistreated, but he felt that perhaps the soldiers' rage was justified at that point. He himself had been hauled and kicked downstairs from a rooftop from which he presumably had been shooting or hurling stones. The king, seeing these bloody tattered captives, jumped to the conclusion that all of them were scum from the gutters and wondered jokingly if the people would want them back if they saw them -- a curious reaction from a man who later that very night was to write so movingly of his concern and love for his dear Berliners.
In his nocturnal wandering, Circourt came upon a new barricade being built in Oranienbaumstrasse. It was made entirely of fire-engine pumps and other materials that could serve to protect a growing city, especially like this in the center of a manufacturing quarter where all kinds of accidents might occur. "I know of nothing more diabolic, more capable of characterizing the face of revolution in a single stroke," he concluded sadly.
The overwrought and emotionally labile Friedrich Wilhelm was being pulled this way and that. Early in the evening of that impossible day, the king received an importunate letter from his trusted emissary and friend, Joseph Maria von Radowitz, written from Vienna on 16 March. Radowitz was clinging to his conviction that whatever reforms were needed ought to be granted by the king after restoration of order. He should under no circumstances act as though under duress Von Radowitz predicted accurately that there would be a storm of petitions and threatening demonstrations, and that all eyes would be fixed on Berlin. If it turned out that there was a reasonable chance of gaining a genuine victory, his Majesty ought to follow that course to the very end. In other words, if necessary he must leave Berlin and withdraw the troops, because experience had shown time and again that prolonged street fighting only demoralized the men and their officers. Pull back to Spandau, he pleaded. Concentrate the troops there and leave maintenance of order in Berlin to the civilians.
In the opinion of Graf Benckendorff, the king had three options. He could continue the battle within the city, reducing the rebels to subjection by persistent massive ruthless attack.. He could withdraw along with his troops and cordon off the city. (That would be the most reasonable way to handle the problem militarily, Benckendorff thought.) Or he could hold present positions and wait -- a way that did not make much sense and would be excusable only if one needed to gain time.
The militarists around the beleaguered monarch wanted to fight. War is war, they said. Of course, it was also a civil war. If Friedrich Wilhelm were to withdraw, surrounding the city and allowing bombardment, half his capital would go up in flames.
There were other disagreeable possibilities that had to be considered. What if the Rhineland province were to declare itself separate? What would happen if there were risings in Silesia and East Prussia? Would Russia send in troops? What about war with Denmark over Schleswig-Holstein? Austria, of course, was a feeble reed at the moment, but what if the Poles were to rise? What about support of the Prussian army? The crown prince had already been infuriated in discussion of possible withdrawal of the troops, rasping out that he had always known that the king was a garrulous chatterer, but not that he was a coward. "A man can no longer serve you with honor!" With that he slammed his sword down at the sovereign's feet.-- If the people of Berlin felt betrayed, so did the distraught Friedrich Wilhelm.
Around midnight, Friedrich Wilhelm gave an order to General von Prittwitz. He was to hold whatever parts of the city he controlled, but not to attempt to take any more strategic positions. Prittwitz suggested that it might be necessary to withdraw from the city and bombard it, but the king made no comment, though the general understood the unspoken wish that there be no further bloodshed. His Majesty then said goodnight in a kindly way, and the general withdrew, seeing that the king had seated himself at his desk, encasing his feet cosily in a fur sack. Friedrich Wilhelm, full of fine resolve, then grasped his pen and firmly composed his fatuous letter An meine lieben Berliner [to my dear Berliners].
Friedrich Wilhelm's letter, so full of emotion and pathos, is an interesting example of history rewritten. Within less than twenty-four hours, the king had convinced himself that the voices that called Militär zurück had been those of "foreigners" who had infiltrated the crowd of loyal subjects, and that their shouts were "audacious, seditious demands". He also knew somehow that the number of these disturbers of the peace had increased as "well-intentioned" citizens departed. He wrote that the threat to his "brave and loyal soldiers" had necessitated the clearing of the square. This had been done by cavalry who advanced im Schritt [at a walk] with eingestechter Waffe [weapons sheathed]. These expressions were underlined for emphasis. Indignant citizens were to object that this passage in the royal letter was grundfalsch [dead wrong]. Troops had decidedly not advanced at a walk with sheathed weapons. Many witnesses knew better. -- His Majesty went on: Two firearms had then discharged von selbst [automatically] but there had been no injuries, thank God. However, the foreign miscreants [Bösewichtern] who had been infiltrating the good city of Berlin for more than a week in spite of efforts to detect them, now according to their evil plan incited the people, making them believe the lie that blood had been shed. In that mean dastardly way they had made the loyal people of Berlin themselves responsible for the ensuing bloodshed. The troops, -- your brothers and fellow countrymen --discharged their weapons only after many shots had been fired at them from the Königstrasse!
The letter continued: it was now the duty of the people of Berlin to renounce their appalling error, in order to prevent further calamities. He, their king and true friend, urged the people to remove the remaining barricades. He solemnly gave his "kingly word" that as soon as this removal had been completed, the troops would leave the streets, and only places like the arsenal and the palace would continue to be under military guard -- and even there, only for a short time.
In a final flourish, Friedrich Wilhelm urged his people to listen to his fatherly voice and to forget the past as he himself intended to forget it. "Your true mother and friend, the Queen" joined her tearful plea to his.
This labored document appears to have met with cynical indifference. Some wit chalked "An meine lieben Berliner" next to a cannon ball lodged in the wall near one of the barricades. In any case, on that morning (19 March) a flow of words could not be expected to hold the attention of exhausted barricade fighters and worn-out soldiers. The insurgents had had to give up a few key positions but they were far from defeated, still defiant and prepared to fight on. The troops on the other hand were beginning to waver a little. General von Prittwitz had had to retire the members of the elite Leibregiment [the king's own] as unfit for service. (These men were among the units selected to escort prisoners from the barricades to the fortress at Spandau. Their vicious mistreatment of the prisoners may be attributable to their humiliation and anger over this withdrawal from combat.). Fresh troops could be called in, to be sure -- there were reserves in the city -- but it was doubtful that their morale would hold.
The exhausted Friedrich Wilhelm, who had not slept or eaten throughout the whole ordeal, began receiving deputations at dawn. He told a delegation of city authorities that he was ready to withdraw the troops, but only on condition that the barricades be leveled first, as his letter had stated. The discussion with various officers and cabinet members dragged back and forth confusedly, until at last it became known that a few of the barricades had actually been razed. (True to their innate sense of orderliness, people went out onto the street and with teutonic domestic tidiness recovered belongings that had formed part of the structure, carrying home their chairs and tables and household goods that had been under fire during the battle.)
In spite of the fierce objections of Prince Wilhelm and his militant backers therefore, gradual withdrawal of the troops -- moving from case to case as barricades were leveled -- seemed to be the right and successful move. The prince wanted complete withdrawal (and departure of the king with them) in order to continue the fight on a larger scale from outside the city. The king continued to resist that demand but somehow slipped into a new decision, that as soon as work was begun in dismantling a barricade, the troops confronting it should be pulled back. This was clearly counter to his provisions in the "dear Berliner" letter, but Bodelschwingh was told to carry this decision to a delegation that was waiting in a palace anteroom.
General von Prittwitz and Prince Wilhelm objected strenuously, but Bodelschwingh retorted that his Majesty's command was unambiguous and must be obeyed.
The command may have been clear, but it handed unambiguous victory over to the barricade fighters, who had not yet won the battle, and handed defeat to the troops, who had not yet lost, and who certainly would have won in the long run.
Around eleven o'clock, the barricade prisoners were removed from the palace cellars and marched off to Spandau. The French emissary de Circourt repeatedly commented on the disciplined behavior of the troops. According to his observations, the men performed their duty with courage, restraint and dignity. Where was de Circourt during the movement of the prisoners? One of them, Ludwig Pietsch, produced a detailed statement. They started off at four in the morning (19 March), escorted by grenadiers and Ulans from Pommerania. They went first along Unter den Linden to the Brandenburg gate, where they met another group, all of them bound together in pairs. These prisoners had spent the night in the offices of the War Ministry. All the prisoners were then marshalled four abreast in such close ranks that they unavoidably trod on the heels of the men in front of them. They were constantly prodded with gun butts and struck over the head with the weapons. All were regularly struck in the face, their noses bloodied.
Special attention went to those who had been wounded. The man next to Pietsch already had a serious wound in the thigh as well gashes on his head. His face and hair were bloody. One of the soldiers dealt him a terrific blow with the barrel of his gun on the fresh wounds, causing them to spurt blood again. The powerfully built young victim shrieked and collapsed. "I pulled him along with some difficulty." A Munich student had such noble bearing and such a fine intelligent face that he attracted the anger of the guards, who struck him on the back of the neck over and over again with their guns and fists, but he somehow haughtily managed to keep silent. The guard next to Pietsch was "on the whole rather merciful". This man did no more than kick him and jab him in the back with the sheath of his bayonet, and pour out a river of insults -- traitor -- you ought to get a bayonet in your guts -- etc etc etc. The officers, said Pietsch, sometimes remonstrated mildly, but otherwise did nothing to prevent the torment.
There is no reference in this report to pedestrians or by-standers, even though the wretched prisoners were being herded across the whole city. Were people still intimidated and unable to speak up, or did they -- like their king -- decide that these bloody victims were nothing but human scum? The prisoners were confined in ice-cold cells at Spandau, believing that the people had been defeated and that military dictatorship prevailed in Berlin. They were released late in the day, and a few indignant officials started to take up a collection for them.
General von Prittwitz sent most of his troops back to their barracks, but kept a battalion at the arsenal and seven companies in the palace courtyard. However, the king's commands continued to be contradictory, and the crown prince also was having his say. (Valentin comments that any consistency in the king's behavior existed only in the sense that his instructions were always the opposite of what he did or had previously said, and that if anyone objected he quickly reversed himself or initiated a third command.)
That afternoon, Friedrich Wilhelm learned to his consternation that there were only two battalions left guarding him. "That is not possible!" he exclaimed. It was indeed possible. Karl Gutzkow remembered:
I saw it myself. Twenty purposeful men would have found the entrance to the stairway completely free. They could have presented a decree of abdication to the king and declared the republic. The palace was only guarded by completely apathetic warriors, most of whom were sleeping. The aristocracy had fled or concealed itself. ... In the hours between eleven in the morning until two in the afternoon there was neither throne nor government in Prussia.
Someone spoke up, saying that his Majesty ought to go immediately with those two battalions to Potsdam, and he seems to have agreed, but at that moment an unearthly procession entered the courtyard and there was no escape for the unfortunate king. He would have to drink his cup of humiliation.
Slowly, solemnly, an enormous cortege was filing into the palace courtyard. They were carrying the bodies of the slain barricade fighters on stretchers, boards, planks, and improvized biers, all decorated with greens and flowers and accompanied by weeping families. The French emissary Circourt wrote disdainfully that the grim torchlight display of cadavers that had taken place in Paris was more dramatic, but he was mistaken. This sunlit display of open wounds and sorrowing people was certainly effective enough in its own way. One man in the harsh rigidity of death lay with his arm high, the fist clenched. On each body there was an identifying paper, held down against the wind by a stone. As each corpse was set down in the courtyard, someone read the information on the paper: "My only son. Fifteen years old." "The father of five small children." "No quarter was given. Killed after he had surrendered."
A few members of the king's entourage came out on the balcony, including General von Prittwitz, who had the decency to remove his helmet and to order the military who were present to do likewise. Suddenly there was a shout. The king must come. Let him see what he has done! The intrepid Felix Lichnowsky objected, telling the assembled mourners that the king was exhausted and much in need of repose. Various ministers came out and made ineffectual efforts to speak. At last his Majesty appeared, with his deathly pale, half fainting queen beside him. The bodies were brought closer while women wailed and the men growled threateningly. Another shout: Take off your hat! The monarch obeyed, and then attempted to speak to the people, wanting to warn them to keep order, but this time their voices drowned him out. They were singing Jesu meine Zuversicht [my hope]. When the hymn ended, the king turned away. His queen was overheard, saying "The only thing missing is the guillotine." As a pious man, Friedrich Wilhelm no doubt understood that one must honor the dead, but at the same time he was a Hohenzollern, a monarch by the grace of God, commander of a huge military machine. He had been forced to do homage publicly to those whom his own army had slain -- a bitter pill indeed for a Prussian ruler. "Everything is in question now -- even the Crown and the life of the king," said the Bavarian ambassador.
Immediately after this painful scene, Friedrich Wilhelm agreed that the barricade victims should be honored by a state funeral. The public mood changed abruptly. The king had been a traitor: now he was accepted.
On that same evening the troops were definitively withdrawn. They marched away in parade formation, bands playing. There were already Sunday strollers on Unter den Linden., but they objected to the jaunty music, demanding something solemn like a chorale. -- Perhaps the general release from emotional tension explains what happened next, though it seems odd when one reflects that all those two hundred and thirty barricade fighters were still unburied. The town was illuminated, as for a festival. Professor Fallati of Tübingen,writing to his friend Gustav Mevissen, was to wonder what people in other German countries would think of this Harlekinade auf blutgetränktem Boden [buffoonery on blood-soaked ground]. The American embassy glowed: the ambassador reported that Friedrich Wilhelm and his people were now on a firmer footing than before. Feelings of hostility against the king seem to have evaporated. He had paid his debt.
Hatred of the crown prince remained, however. His residence was invaded and on the wall there was chalked derisively, "Property of the entire nation". The prince had become the scapegoat. There was wild alarm that night when rumors flew that he was about to march on the city at the head of the troops in Spandau. Friedrich Wilhelm discovered that his brother was needed in England, and hastily sent him away on an unspecified diplomatic mission.
There were strange festive scenes on the following day (20 March). A political amnesty brought about the release of the Polish revolutionist Mieroslawski and his forty followers from their two years of imprisonment at Moabit. A triumphant procession took them from the prison to the palace, in carriages pulled by enthusiastic Berliners. Mieroslawski waved a black-red-gold banner, proclaiming that Poles and Germans were brothers, and Friedrich Wilhelm stood on his balcony, swinging his hat. Karl Gutzkow had his spy glass trained on his Majesty's face and saw how impatient he was. Evidently he did not enjoy having to salute the crowned Polenthum.
De Circourt viewed the spectacle with profound displeasure. He had little use for the Poles in the best of circumstances, and the apotheosis of Mieroslawski was rather too much for him. He was much annoyed, watching him as he stood in the carriage in his bizarre "Slavic" clothes. If the poor deluded Berliners had seen those adventurers other than through their tears, they would have found in those round, insignificant faces no traces of the suffering they were supposed to have endured.
On that same morning, Friedrich Wilhelm published a manifesto in which it was announced that there would henceforth be German unity and freedom. The document mentioned general adoption of a true constitutional organization with ministerial responsibility in each of the respective states, and stated with a certain obscurity that Preussen geht fortan in Deutschland [Prussia is to be merged into Germany]. Was the king accepting the program being urged on him by Max von Gagern on behalf of the liberals in the south? He did not intend to be a usurper, he wrote, but he saw that at this crucial moment it was necessary for someone to take the helm, piloting a united Germany through dangerous waters. He was prepared to be that man..
With what looks like supreme effontery, Friedrich Wilhelm then proceeded to ride in a stately progress through the streets, wearing a black-red-gold brassard, accompanied by his generals who also wore the revolutionary tricolor, along with his similarly-decorated ministers. Civil guards, a city officer with the German flag and students with the Prussian banner led the way as honor guard. The king saluted the civil guard at the Brandenburger Tor and rode on to the university, where he addressed the assembled students in ringing tones. He repeated that he had no intention to be a usurper and that his sole desire was for Germany's unity and freedom.
I have only done what has so often been done in the past in German history, when powerful princes and dukes have grasped the banner in situations of disorder and placed themselves at the head of the whole people.
The listeners cheered and threw their hats in the air, but in their minds there must have lurked some doubt about this swift volte-face. An obscure courtier, Wilhelm von Kügelgen wrote at this time that the various concessions contained something degrading. "To give a promise that I cannot honor makes me despicable." "Oh, what sort of spring this could be if the king took the new path with complete conviction and a really courageous heart!"
Stephan Born, who had arrived in Berlin shortly after 18 March, sensed the uneasiness of the people. "In Paris I had seen a happily excited population that even well into March still had a feeling of the victory that had been so loudly hailed on the evening of 24 February. In Berlin just a few days after 18 March there was hardly any trace of the revolutionary intoxication that had swept all Germany. The intoxication had worn off rapidly. The people looked sober, as if they feared the future."
Born was an honest realist. He observed that people had seen the king on his balcony while the mob threatened, and they knew that he had removed his hat in honor of the fallen because he had been forced to do so.. They had seen him ride through the city with his hated chief of secret police Stieber bearing their honored black-red-gold banner. They had heard rumors that during the barricade turmoil the king had been reduced to tears and had been completely unmanned. The people, thought Born, were swinging back and forth between anger and sympathy. They saw him even in those first days surrounded by the old feudal and ecclesiastical councillors there in Potsdam. While it was true that the call for a republic that people in southern Germany were demanding had had no resonance in the north, the Prussians felt discouraged because this successor of Friedrich der Grosse "had so little marrow in his bones".
Like people everywhere, the Berliners appreciated bread and circuses, and for this reason they thronged to watch the ceremonial state funeral procession that honored the fallen barricade fighters (22 March). There had been some discussion, in the fervor of unity -- possibly the dead officers and soldiers ought to be buried with their victims -- but the idea was discarded. Honor was reserved for the heroes of the insurrection. Local newspapers, including the official Allgemeine preussische Staatszeitung, were printed with black borders.
Black flags flew from the palace and all public buildings, and heavy mourning wreathes decorated the doors of many private residences.. Representatives of the Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish faiths spoke, and then headed the solemn cortege. The civil guard lined up on either side, presenting arms and saluting as Gustav Hesse strode along, still wearing his crown. The various trades were represented by delegations bearing their colorful distinctive banners. Following custom in the Prussian Mark, these workers each carried a black gold-tipped rod to which a lemon had been attached. There were young women dressed in black, each carrying a cushion on which there rested a martyr's crown. There were representatives of all branches of the government, wearing their golden chains of office. The rector of the university and the venerable Alexander von Humboldt led an impressive train of faculty members in their robes, followed by armed students. A huge delegation from the Borsig plant was led by August Borsig himself. There were Poles with their national flag, and some Italians (most of them singers from the opera), gymnasts, members of all kinds of societies, and representatives from many cities. All this mass of humanity streamed in silence past the royal balcony, where Friedrich Wilhelm in full uniform stood with his ministers -- all with their heads bared.
Twenty thousand marchers accompanied the one hundred and ninety coffins, each of which was borne on the shoulders of six bearers. As the procession moved slowly past, people on the sidelines handed over offerings of wreathes and flowers. It was a devastating sight, "this confirmation of a fact, the kind that is often so easily exaggerated," recounted Karl Gutzkow, who had watched it all from an upstairs window on Königstrasse. When the head of the procession reached the Friedrichshain cemetery, where a mass grave had been dug, people were still being marshalled at the starting point. Altogether, the streets were filled with marchers for more than three hours.
Circourt was impressed. This people that had so recently undergone terrifying stress was so quiet -- not a single cry for vengeance or any expression of bitter recrimination. "One would have believed, witnessing this, that the Berliners were ripe for the exercise of the most extensive political liberty."
What about the military? There was something furtive about their funeral ceremony. At five o'clock in the morning on 24 March a modest cortege set out from the garrison hospital near the Brandenburger Tor. There were eighteen bodies in individual coffins, carried on horse-drawn vehicles. Because there was apprehension, various precautions had been taken. (Guards posted along the streets and at the cemetery.) The procession with its appropriate escort moved along streets where the windows were full of watchers, most of whom appeared to be sympathetic. There was even a crowd at the churchyard, but these people were not hostile demonstrators. They remained quiet but teilnahmslos [not participating].
Friedrich Wilhelm had attempted to hold out his hand to the German people, but the offer was coolly received. The hand was bloody, and it trembled, as Veit Valentin said.. His Majesty had not understood that he was too much a Prussian, too much a Hohenzollern, to become ruler of a united Germany simply by virtue of a manifesto. When Ambassador von Bockelberg suggested that as a first step the royal residence might be shifted from the north to Cologne, the king scratched a short notation in the margin of von Bockelberg's memo. "Is Bockelberg crazy?"
Soon he turned away from Germany, back to Prussia. There he addressed his officers in Potsdam (25 March), only to have them snarl and rattle their swords, smarting with indignation. He had blandly told them that with the withdrawal of the troops from Berlin, he had never been more secure than at that time. If he had hoped to initiate some kind of counterrevolution, the king must have understood that such an attempt was premature, even though he had at least made contact with those dissatisfied warriors, who were calling him the king who fell, though not in battle.
Meanwhile, his new liberal ministry, led by Ludolf Camphausen and David Hansemann, (appointed by the king on 29 March) was more or less left to its own devices in Berlin, while the monarch in Potsdam was comfortable in the company of his old friends, especially the ultraconservative Gerlach brothers. A counterrevolution might not be too far off. As early as 26 March, Ernst Ludwig von Gerlach had written a passionate call to his fellow conservatives.
Not only our well-being, our possessions, but all bases of German rights, German freedom -- everything on earth that is precious and holy to us -- is threatened ... The loyal troops of his Majesty the king, as true sons of the Fatherland, fought victoriously against the unrest that had broken out in Berlin until a superior command put a halt to their efforts. What followd has been experienced as shame and pain by many thousands of loyal Prussian and German hearts. It is of the utmost urgency to come to the aid of the Throne and the Fatherland ... defending them against revolutionary tyranny.
On that same day, the communist Andreas Gottschalk in Cologne wrote to his friend Moses Hess in Brussels, warning him not to become involved in a proposed invasion of Germany under the leadership of the radical poet Georg Herwegh. "You have no idea of the fear that our bourgeois have of the very name of the republic. To them, it is identical with theft, murder, Russian attack, and your legion would be seen as a troop of murderous arsonists."
Still on that same 26 March, there was an enormous rally at Göppingen (Württemberg) where a speaker described recent events in Berlin, asking if Friedrich Wilhelm could ever be accepted as ruler of Germany. Thousands of voices roared NEIN! There was in fact deep anger and disillusionment among the German people. Friedrich Wilhelm's portrait was publicly burned on the streets of Munich. Whatever confidence Germans in general had placed in Friedrich Wilhelm had been destroyed on the fatal night of 18 March.
Germany was destined not to experience much more armed violence. The revolution had moved into a political phase in which there was unfortunately plenty of room for conflict and misunderstanding. There were liberals who believed, even after 18 March, that Friedrich Wilhelm was genuinely a friend of German unity. It was so, in a way. He wanted German unity but what he understood by the term would have astonished the liberals. He thought it was obvious that Austria should lead, and that the princes ought to decide the basic questions, not representatives of the people. It never occurred to him that the revolution could be utilized as a firm basis for Prussian power.
With the king in Potsdam and his liberal ministers in Berlin, there was little actual communication, much to the advantage of the Gerlach party of conservatives.
Before long there would be two additional centers of activity -- the newly elected Prussian national assembly (successor to the second united Landtag that had met in early April), in which there was a fairly large number of radicals whose prime interest was in social reform and freedom, and the Parlament at Frankfort where most delegates represented a middle-of-the-road electorate that was interested in national unity.
At this critical juncture, all Germany was in desperate need of a calm, intelligent, steadfast ruler, but the man of the hour was Friedrich Wilhelm. He had never been a steady man, but in the spring of 1848 he was more and more under the influence of the Prussian nobility and the military. He had been brooding over the events of recent months, and with mental processes not unlike those of Alice's White Queen who could believe as many as six impossible things before breakfast, he had arrived at certain convictions that he hastened to communicate to his friend, Christian von Bunsen, his ambassador in London. Bunsen must have read this letter warily because even the introductory sentence was ominous: "I have something on my heart against you, my valued, loyal Bunsen, and it has to be discussed because I am your true friend." His Majesty was troubled because Bunsen had written that it was his considered opinion that there had been no conspiracy involved in the March unrest. Friedrich Wilhelm set out to correct the ambassador's error.
Stones for the stoning of my loyal soldiers were collected in all the houses of Berlin, Cologne, etc. People had observed them being brought in from long distances, like the grass sods that were to serve as barricade breastworks, and nobody had been able to explain this unusual requirement for stone and sod. Moreover, in the main thoroughfares all buildings were put into communication [by passageways] so that it would be possible to torment the troops as they moved back and forth by shooting and hurling stones from the top-floor windows . It has been proved that more than ten thousand -- probably twice that number that were not traced -- of the most disreputable scoundrels had streamed into the city over the course of weeks ...This included French riffraff (convicts from the bagne), Poles and South Germans, especially people from Mannheim, but also others, -- Milanese counts, merchants etc etc. ... They came from Paris, Karlsruhe, Mannheim, Bern ...
Liberalism is a disease, just like tuberculosis of the spine. [Here follows a remarkable set of "clinical" details.] Liberalism works like that on the soul. Appearances become deceptive and the consequences of clearly present causes are dismissed as superstition. There are people even now who don't believe that Napoleon was in Moscow. ... The most shameful products of godlessness destroy human feelings of nobility ... Black becomes white, darkness is called light .... I have, as in the case of physical disease, mentioned the mental symptoms of the final stages. God forbid that you, my friend, should be seriously ill. But you seem to me to be sick, because disbelief in conspiracy is the first unmistakable symptom of the liberalism that dessicates the soul. ....
The author of this wild document was the man on whom the moderates pinned their hopes. This was the man to whom the delegates of the Frankfurt Parlament would offer the crown of united Germany.
There are three versions of this document, with the images in different graphics formats. If your browser had trouble displaying them, try one of the other versions: