When the 1848 revolutions swept Germany many Liberals sought to unify Germany under a liberal constitution. However, King Friedrich-Wilhelm IV of Prussia was not sympathetic toward the revolutionaries. The king initially moved to repress it with the army, but on March 19 the king had a change of heart and recalled the troops and place himself at the head of the revolutionary movement.
The king committed himself fully to the ideal of German unification. The king formed a liberal government, convened a national assembly, and ordered that a constitution be written. It would seem the conservative Prussian king had become a liberal. Or had he? These actions did calm the tensions in the State and once his position was more secure again, however, he quickly had the army reoccupy Berlin and in December dissolved the Liberal assembly.
Although the king’s change from conservatism to liberalism was a ruse to keep order, He did, however, remain dedicated to unification for a limited period of time. In reality his support for German Unification was paper-thin. When the moment came to unify Germany as a Liberal state, the king blinked. On April 3rd, 1849, the Frankfurt Parliament offered Freidrich-Wilhelm IV the Imperial Crown of Germany. The King flatly refused saying that he would not accept “a crown from the gutter”.
It is interesting to note that the king did not want to unify Germany under his Hohenzollern dynasty. The King had romantic aspiration were to re-establish the medieval Holy Roman Empire, comprising smaller, semi-sovereign monarchies under the limited authority of a Habsburg emperor. Therefore Friedrich-Wilhelm IV would only accept the imperial crown if he had been elected by the German princes, as per the former empire’s ancient customs. He would not accept the crown from German politicians whom the king did not believe had the authority to create an emperor. He expressed this sentiment in a letter to his sister the Empress Alexandra Feodorovna of Russia (wife of Emperor Nicholas I of Russia), in which he said the Frankfurt Parliament had overlooked that “in order to give, you would first of all have to be in possession of something that can be given.” In his eyes, only a reconstituted College of Electors (consisting of princes of the Empire) could possess such authority.
After the failure of the Frankfurt Parliament even King Freiedrich-Wilhelm IV began considering a Prussian-led union where all German states, excluding those ruled by the Habsburgs, would be unified under Hohenzollern authority. However, Friedrich-Wilhelm IV abandoned the idea of German Unity after the Punctuation of Olmütz on November 29, 1850, in the face of renewed Austrian and Russian resistance to the notion of a Hohenzollern controlled German Empire. The German Confederation remained the common government of German Europe.
One of the benefits of these failures was that Friedrich-Wilhelm IV promulgated a new constitution that created a Parliament of Prussia with two chambers, an aristocratic upper house and an elected lower house. The lower house was elected by all taxpayers, but in a three-tiered system based on the amount of taxes paid, so that true liberal principle of universal suffrage was denied. The constitution also reserved to the king the power of appointing all ministers, reestablished the conservative district assemblies and provincial diets, and guaranteed that the civil service and the military remained firmly in the hands of the king. This was a more liberal system than had existed in Prussia before 1848, but it was still a conservative system of government in which the monarch, the aristocracy, and the military retained most of the power. This constitution remained in effect until the dissolution of the Prussian kingdom in 1918.
After 1850, the increasingly depressed king withdrew from the public eye and began surrounding himself with advisers who preached absolute orthodoxy and conservatism in religious and political matters. In 1857 a stroke left the king partially paralyzed and largely mentally incapacitated, and his brother (and heir-presumptive) Prince Wilhelm served as regent from 1858 until the king’s death in 1861, at which point the regent acceded to the throne himself as Wilhelm I of Prussia.
Next week. German unification under Wilhelm I and Chancellor Bismark.