Op-ed: Germany’s journey to democracy

By Uta Rasche

It was 175 years ago when Germany’s first freely-elected parliament met in St. Paul’s Church in Frankfurt. The constitution they created is one of the most important chapters in the history of German democracy.

During the 19th century an unprecedented wave of revolutions swept across large parts of Europe. Following events in France, people in German states vehemently demanded freedom, democracy and national self-determination. The country’s population was unhappy and suffering from poverty. Many wanted the freedoms of the French Revolution to apply in Germany as well. Along with students and professors, people wanted to see the creation of a single nation out of the many small German states and princedoms.

Forming a unified state was therefore a key goal at the convocation of the National Assembly, which first met in St. Paul’s Church in Frankfurt on 18 May 1848 and was the first-ever freely elected representation of the people in Germany.

The National Assembly was Germany’s first-ever national parliament. Around 600 delegates wanted to draw up a constitution according to the principles of freedom, equality and the rule of law. Their aim was to create a federal state which respected the diversity of the German regions.

An exemplary and progressive constitution

The constitution they devised was one of the most progressive of its age. It included civil rights and fundamental freedoms which many members of the public in Germany consider self-explanatory 175 years on. Above all, the members of parliament wanted everyone to be equal before the law. They abolished the privileges of the aristocracy, serfdom and discrimination against Jewish people. Yet this “equality” was patchy, as the delegates thought it wholly normal to exclude women from the right to vote. A man could vote if he was aged over 25 and economically “independent” – i.e. not receiving poor relief. No less important were the freedoms of the press and expression, the freedoms of belief and conscience, the freedom to research and teach, and the freedom of assembly. In the period leading up to the revolution the princes had strictly limited these for their subjects. By abolishing the death penalty, including the principles of the rule of law and asserting the inviolability of the home, delegates aimed to protect against despotism.

The National Assembly convened on 18 May 1848. In less than ten months it adopted the constitution which created the constitutional monarchy. The radical democrats who advocated the creation of a republic were in the minority. With the exception of Austria, all the states in the German Confederation were to be included. The Reichstag was a two-chamber parliament. It was to have power to enact legislation, control the executive and the budget. The intention was for a Kaiser to remain as head of state, with the title passed down by succession.

The constitution of the National Assembly failed

The parliamentarians pinned great hopes on the new constitution. A delegation set out for Berlin to propose conferring the title of Kaiser on the Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm IV. But he refused. He would have been happy to take the throne as Kaiser, but not “from the hands of the people.” Unlike the parliamentarians, he had not given up on the idea of “God’s grace” of his rule. The delegates had not reckoned with that.

Following the Prussian king, other princes then refused to sign up to the constitution. Prussia, Austria and other states pulled their delegates out of Frankfurt. The National Assembly swiftly lost the backing of the population and dissolved. The constitution had only just been adopted but had foundered quickly. The radical democrats were persecuted and imprisoned. Many fled to the United States of America.

Freedoms enshrined in the Basic Law
Yet the ideas of the National Assembly in St. Paul’s Church lived on. The fundamental rights from the Constitution of St. Paul’s Church served as models for the Weimar Constitution of 1919. However, the Nazis removed the fundamental rights after taking power in 1933. After the Reichstag Fire of 27 February 1933 they arbitrarily arrested communists, social democrats and other political opponents. Later they stripped Jews and all members of opposition groups of their rights.

In 1949, after the Second World War, the fundamental rights of the Constitution of St. Paul’s Church were enshrined almost word-for-word in the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Germany also known as the Basic Law. It took just over 100 years from 1848 to 1949 to make the fundamental rights set down by the delegates in St. Paul’s church a lasting reality in Germany.

“The cradle of German democracy”
The Constitution of St. Paul’s Church was so significant for the development of democracy in Germany that in 1963 the then US president John F. Kennedy described it as “the cradle of German democracy” when he visited St Paul’s church while in Frankfurt. It is true that the constitution was at first a failure, but its section on fundamental rights is a major achievement. The civil rights and basic freedoms set down there still form the basis of many democratic societies.

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