German Empire (1848–49)

The German Empire (German: Deutsches Reich) was a short-lived nation state which existed from 1848 to 1849.

German Empire

Deutsches Reich
The German Confederation in 1815.
GovernmentHereditary monarchy
• 1849
Frederick William IV1
Imperial Vicar 
• 1849
Archduke John[1]
LegislatureFrankfurt National Assembly
28 March
• Frankfurt National Assembly dissolved
31 May 1849
• German Confederation restored
Preceded by
Succeeded by
German Confederation
German Confederation
1: Frederick William IV was offered the imperial crown, but refused to "pick up a crown from the gutter".[2]


The state was created by the Frankfurt Parliament in spring 1848, following the March Revolution. The empire officially ended when the German Confederation was fully reconstituted in the Summer of 1851, but came to a de facto end in December 1849 when the Central German Government was replaced with a Federal Central Commission.

The Empire struggled to be recognized by both German and foreign states. The German states, represented by the Federal Convention of the German Confederation, on July 12, 1848, acknowledged the Central German Government. In the following months, however, the larger German states did not always accept the decrees and laws of the Central German Government and the Frankfurt Parliament.

German National Assembly in St. Paul's Church, Frankfurt

Several foreign states recognized the Central Government and sent ambassadors: the United States, Sweden, the Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland, Sardinia, Sicily and Greece.[3] The French Second Republic and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland installed official envoys to keep contact with the Central Government.

The first constitutional order of the German Empire was the Imperial Law concerning the introduction of a provisional Central Power for Germany, on June 28, 1848. With the order, the Frankfurt Parliament established the offices of Reichsverweser (Imperial Regent, a provisional monarch) and imperial ministers. A second constitutional order, the Frankfurt Constitution, on March 28, 1849, was accepted by 28 German states but not by the larger ones. Prussia, along with other German states, forced the Frankfurt Parliament into dissolution.

Several of this German Empire's accomplishments outlasted it: the Frankfurt Constitution was used as a model in other states in the decades to follow and the electoral law was used nearly verbatim in 1867 for the election of the Reichstag of the North German Confederation. The Reichsflotte (Imperial Fleet) created by the Frankfurt Parliament lasted until 1852. The imperial law issuing a decree concerning bills of exchange (Allgemeine Deutsche Wechselordnungen, General German exchange bills) was considered to be valid for nearly all of Germany.

Continuity and status

13 November 1848 RGBl Aquarell Entwurf Kriegs und Handelsflagge
Imperial war and commerce flag, according to the law of November 12, 1848

Contemporaries and scholars had different opinions about the statehood of the German Empire of 1848/1849:

  • One group followed a positivist point of view: law was statutory law. A constitution for Germany had to be agreed upon with the governments of all German states. This was the opinion of the monarchists and the German states.
  • The other group valued natural law and the principle of the sovereignty of the people higher; the National Assembly alone had the power to establish a constitution. This was the opinion of the majority of the Frankfurt Parliament, but especially the republican left.[4]

In reality the distinction was less clear. The majority of the Frankfurt Parliament, based on the liberal groups, wanted to establish a dualist system with a sovereign monarch whose powers would be constrained by a constitution and parliament.

A German Confederation was created in 1815. This treaty organization for the defense of the German territories lacked, in the view of the national movement, a government and a parliament. But it was generally acknowledged by German and foreign powers – to establish a national state, it was the easiest to present it as the continuation of the Confederation. This was actually the road the National Assembly took, although it originally saw itself as a revolutionary organ.

Archduke John of Austria, the Imperial Regent and uncle of the Austrian Emperor

The continuity between the old Confederation and the new organs was based on two decisions of the Confederation's Federal Convention:

  • The Federal Convention (representing the German states' governments) called for elections of the Frankfurt Parliament in April/May 1848.
  • The German states immediately acknowledged Archduke John, the provisional monarch elected by the Frankfurt Parliament. On July 12, 1848, the Federal Convention ended its activities in favor of the Imperial Regent, Archduke John. This was an implicit recognition of the Law concerning the Central Power of June 28.[5]

Of course, the German states and the Federal Convention made those decisions under pressure of the revolution. They wanted to avoid a breakup with the Frankfurt Parliament. (Already in August this pressure faltered, and the larger states started to regain power.) According to historian Ernst Rudolf Huber, it was possible to determine a continuity or even legal identity of Confederation and the new Federal State. The old institution was enhanced with a (provisional) constitutional order and the name German Confederation was changed to German Empire.[6] Ulrich Huber notes that none of the German states declared the Imperial Regent John and his government to be usurpatory or illegal.[7]

State power, territory and people

Introductory law of the Basic Rights, December 27, 1848, with the signature of the Imperial Regent

The Frankfurt Assembly saw itself as the German national legislature, as made explicit in the Imperial Law concerning the declaration of the imperial laws and the decrees of the provisional Central Power, from September 27, 1848.[8] It issued laws earlier, such as the law of June 14 that created the Imperial Fleet. Maybe the most notable law declared the highly acclaimed Basic Rights of the German People, December 27, 1848.[9]

The Central Power or Central Government consisted of the Imperial Regent, Archduke John, and the ministers he appointed. He usually appointed those politicians that had the support of the Frankfurt Parliament, at least until May 1849. One of the ministers, the Prussian general Eduard von Peucker, was charged with the federal troops and federal fortifications of the German Confederation. The Central Government had not much to govern, as the administration remained in the hands of the single states. But in February 1849, 105 people worked for the Central Government (in comparison to the 10 for the Federal Convention).[10]

The Frankfurt Parliament assumed in general that the territory of the German Confederation was also the territory of the new state. Someone was a German if he was a subject of one of the German states within the German Empire (§ 131, Frankfurt Constitution). Additionally it discussed the future of other territories where Germans lived. The members of parliament sometimes referred to the German language spoken in a territory, sometimes to historical rights, sometimes to military considerations (e.g. when a Polish state was rejected because it would be too weak to serve as a buffer state against Russia). One of the most disputed territories was Sleswig.


  1. ^ elected by the Frankfurt National Assembly as Imperial Vicar of a new German Reich. The German Confederation was considered dissolved.
  2. ^ Encyclopædia Britannica Vol. 2 p. 1078.
  3. ^ Ernst Rudolf Huber: Deutsche Verfassungsgeschichte seit 1789. Band II: Der Kampf um Einheit und Freiheit 1830 bis 1850. 3rd edition, Verlag W. Kohlhammer, Stuttgart [et. al.] 1988, p. 638.
  4. ^ Simon Kempny: Die Staatsfinanzierung nach der Paulskirchenverfassung. Untersuchung des Finanz- und Steuerverfassungsrechts der Verfassung des deutschen Reiches vom 28. März 1849 (Diss. Münster), Mohr Siebeck, Tübingen 2011, p. 23.
  5. ^ Ralf Heikaus: Die ersten Monate der provisorischen Zentralgewalt für Deutschland (Juli bis Dezember 1848). Diss. Frankfurt am Main, Peter Lang, Frankfurt am Main [et. al.], 1997, p. 40/41.
  6. ^ Ernst Rudolf Huber: Deutsche Verfassungsgeschichte seit 1789. Band II: Der Kampf um Einheit und Freiheit 1830 bis 1850. 3rd edition, Verlag W. Kohlhammer, Stuttgart [et. al.] 1988, p. 634.
  7. ^ Ulrich Huber: Das Reichsgesetz über die Einführung einer allgemeinen Wechselordnung für Deutschland vom 26. November 1848. In: JuristenZeitung. 33rd year, no. 23/24 (December 8, 1978), p. 790.
  8. ^ Ralf Heikaus: Die ersten Monate der provisorischen Zentralgewalt für Deutschland (Juli bis Dezember 1848). Diss. Frankfurt am Main, Peter Lang, Frankfurt am Main [et. al.], 1997, p. 127-129, also footnote 288.
  9. ^ Jörg-Detlef Kühne: Die Reichsverfassung der Paulskirche. Vorbild und Verwirklichung im späteren deutschen Rechtsleben. Habil. Bonn 1983, 2rd edition, Luchterhand, Neuwied 1998 (1985), p. 380/381, 526; Dietmar Willoweit: Deutsche Verfassungsgeschichte. Vom Frankenreich bis zur Wiedervereinigung Deutschlands. 5th edition, C.H. Beck, München 2005, p. 304.
  10. ^ Hans J. Schenk: Ansätze zu einer Verwaltung des Deutschen Bundes. In: Kurt G. A. Jeserich (ed.): Deutsche Verwaltungsgeschichte. Band 2: Vom Reichsdeputationshauptschluß bis zur Auflösung des Deutschen Bundes. Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, Stuttgart 1983, p. 155–165, here p. 164.

Further reading

  • Ralf Heikaus: Die ersten Monate der provisorischen Zentralgewalt für Deutschland (Juli bis Dezember 1848). PhD thesis. Peter Lang, Frankfurt am Main [u. a.] 1997, ISBN 3-631-31389-6
Archduke John of Austria

Archduke John of Austria (German: Erzherzog Johann Baptist Joseph Fabian Sebastian von Österreich; 20 January 1782 – 11 May 1859), a member of the House of Habsburg-Lorraine, was an Austrian field marshal and imperial regent (Reichsverweser) of the short-lived German Empire during the Revolutions of 1848.

German Confederation

The German Confederation (German: Deutscher Bund) was an association of 39 German-speaking states in Central Europe (adding the mainly non-German speaking Kingdom of Bohemia and Duchy of Carniola), created by the Congress of Vienna in 1815 to coordinate the economies of separate German-speaking countries and to replace the former Holy Roman Empire, which had been dissolved in 1806. The German Confederation excluded German-speaking lands in the eastern portion of the Kingdom of Prussia (East Prussia, West Prussia and Posen), the German cantons of Switzerland, and Alsace within France which was majority German speaking.

The Confederation was weakened by rivalry between the Kingdom of Prussia and the Austrian Empire, revolution, and the inability of the multiple members to compromise. In 1848, revolutions by liberals and nationalists attempted to establish a unified German state with a progressive liberal constitution under the Frankfurt Convention. The ruling body, the Confederate Diet, was dissolved on 12 July 1848, but was re-established in 1850 after failed efforts to replace it.The Confederation was finally dissolved after the Prussian victory in the Seven Weeks' War over Austria in 1866. The dispute over which had the inherent right to rule German lands ended in favour of Prussia, leading to the creation of the North German Confederation under Prussian leadership in 1867, to which the eastern portions of the Kingdom of Prussia were added. A number of South German states remained independent until they joined the North German Confederation, which was renamed and proclaimed as the "German Empire" in 1871 for the now unified Germany with the Prussian king as emperor (Kaiser) after the victory over French Emperor Napoleon III in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870.

Most historians have judged the Confederation to have been weak and ineffective, as well as an obstacle to the creation of a German nation-state. However, the Confederation was designed to be weak, as it served the interests of the European Great Powers, especially member states Austria and Prussia.

German Emperor

The German Emperor (German: Deutscher Kaiser [ˈdɔʏtʃɐ ˈkaɪzɐ]) was the official title of the head of state and hereditary ruler of the German Empire. A specifically chosen term, it was introduced with the 1 January 1871 constitution and lasted until the official abdication of Wilhelm II on 28 November 1918. The Holy Roman Emperor is sometimes also called "German Emperor" when the historical context is clear, as derived from the Holy Roman Empire's official name of "Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation" from 1512.

Following the revolution of 1918, the function of head of state was succeeded by the President of the Reich (German: Reichspräsident), beginning with Friedrich Ebert.

German colonial projects before 1871

When the German Empire came into existence in 1871, none of its constituent states had any overseas colonies. Only after the Berlin Conference in 1884 did Germany begin to acquire new overseas possessions, but it had a much longer relationship with colonialism dating back to the 1520s. Before the end of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806, various German states established chartered companies to set up trading posts; in some instances they also sought direct territorial and administrative control over these. After 1806 attempts at securing possession of territories overseas were abandoned; instead, private trading companies took the lead in the Pacific while joint-stock companies and colonial associations initiated projects elsewhere, although many never progressed beyond the planning stage.

Holy Roman Empire

The Holy Roman Empire (Latin: Sacrum Imperium Romanum; German: Heiliges Römisches Reich) was a multi-ethnic complex of territories in Western and Central Europe that developed during the Early Middle Ages and continued until its dissolution in 1806 during the Napoleonic Wars. The largest territory of the empire after 962 was the Kingdom of Germany, though it also came to include the neighboring Kingdom of Bohemia, the Kingdom of Burgundy, the Kingdom of Italy, and numerous other territories.On 25 December 800, Pope Leo III crowned the Frankish king Charlemagne as Emperor, reviving the title in Western Europe, more than three centuries after the fall of the earlier ancient Western Roman Empire in 476. The title continued in the Carolingian family until 888 and from 896 to 899, after which it was contested by the rulers of Italy in a series of civil wars until the death of the last Italian claimant, Berengar I, in 924. The title was revived again in 962 when Otto I was crowned emperor, fashioning himself as the successor of Charlemagne and beginning a continuous existence of the empire for over eight centuries. Some historians refer to the coronation of Charlemagne as the origin of the empire, while others prefer the coronation of Otto I as its beginning. Scholars generally concur, however, in relating an evolution of the institutions and principles constituting the empire, describing a gradual assumption of the imperial title and role.The exact term "Holy Roman Empire" was not used until the 13th century, but the concept of translatio imperii, the notion that he—the sovereign ruler—held supreme power inherited from the ancient emperors of Rome, was fundamental to the prestige of the emperor. The office of Holy Roman Emperor was traditionally elective, although frequently controlled by dynasties. The mostly German prince-electors, the highest-ranking noblemen of the empire, usually elected one of their peers as "King of the Romans", and he would later be crowned emperor by the Pope; the tradition of papal coronations was discontinued in the 16th century.

The empire never achieved the extent of political unification as was formed to the west in France, evolving instead into a decentralized, limited elective monarchy composed of hundreds of sub-units: kingdoms, principalities, duchies, counties, prince-bishoprics, Free Imperial Cities, and other domains. The power of the emperor was limited, and while the various princes, lords, bishops, and cities of the empire were vassals who owed the emperor their allegiance, they also possessed an extent of privileges that gave them de facto independence within their territories. Emperor Francis II dissolved the empire on 6 August 1806 following the creation of the Confederation of the Rhine by emperor Napoleon I the month before.


The Reichsadler ("Imperial Eagle") is the heraldic eagle, derived from the Roman eagle standard, used by the Holy Roman Emperors and in modern coats of arms of Germany, including those of the Second German Empire (1871–1918), the Weimar Republic (1919–1933) and the Third Reich (Nazi Germany, 1933–1945).

The same design has remained in use by the Federal Republic of Germany since 1945, albeit under the name Bundesadler ("Federal Eagle").

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