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The Prussian King Bows to the Dead: March 21, 1848

In the years following the end of the Congress of Vienna in 1815, the people of the German Confederation had been fairly happy and prosperous. They had little political freedom, but that did not seem to bother most Germans very much. Liberals there were, and revolutionary types; but these did not exert a great deal of influence over much of the German population.

King Friedrich Wilhelm IV

The late 1840s, however, were hard years for Germany. In 1845 and 1846 there had been poor harvests, and a blight destroyed the potato crop. Such disasters increased the price of goods at a time when businesses and factories in the cities were laying off workers. Just as in England, the industrial revolution was dramatically changing the lives of many people in the German cities. Workers often lived in poverty and in squalid conditions, and losing a job meant homelessness and hunger. If factories were not hiring workers, there was nowhere to turn for employment; for factories had put many small craftsmen and tradesmen out of business. It is not surprising, then, that many German workers looked to socialism and democracy for a solution to the hardships the Liberal capitalist economy had brought on them.

All these hardships made the German cities centers of revolutionary feeling. In the late 1840s, voices from all over Germany demanded constitutions and parliaments. This was true not only in those parts of southern Germany that had been influenced by revolutionary France, but in Prussia as well. When news of Metternich’s fall reached Prussia’s capital, Berlin, King Friedrich Wilhelm IV could no longer ignore the calls for government reforms. Great crowds were gathering in the city, where they demanded Liberal reforms, including a written constitution. On March 18, 1848, the king summoned a diet representing his kingdom to meet in Berlin on April 2.

Germany in 1848. Prussia is in blue; the Austrian empire is in gold.

News that the king was calling a diet spread quickly through Berlin. Ecstatic crowds gathered and began making their way toward the castle. There, from a balcony, King Friedrich Wilhelm graciously received the cheers of his subjects. Twice he appeared before them; but seeing they would not disperse, he grew worried and at last ordered his troops to clear the square. The soldiers had almost accomplished this peacefully, when shots rang out. Cries of “treason!” rose from the people. A street battle broke out.

For a day and a half, about 4,000 townsmen (mostly workers, small craftsmen, and students) battled 14,000 Prussian soldiers in the streets of Berlin. The rioters raised barricades, but the army brought in 34 cannon. By the end of the struggle, 230 revolutionaries lay dead. The Prussian army broke through the barricades but could not quell the uprising. At last, the king gave in to the people’s demands.

The laying out of the dead in Berlin

After he ordered his army to leave Berlin, the proud Prussian king had to perform an act of public humiliation. The insurgents had placed the bodies of their fallen townsmen on beds of flowers in the courtyard of the king’s palace. Friedrich Wilhelm, with his queen, descended into the courtyard and bowed to one corpse after another. All the while, the people sang the Lutheran hymn, “Jesus Christ, My Sure Defense”:

Laugh to scorn the gloomy grave

And at death no longer tremble;

He, the Lord who came to save

Will at last his own assemble.

They will go their Lord to meet,

Treading death beneath their feet.

On March 21, King Friedrich Wilhelm pledged his support for a constitution and a national assembly. Then, donning the German revolutionary tricolor (red, black, and gold), he rode on horseback through the city, surrounded by his people.

The Hymn for the King’s Humiliation

Jesus, meine Zuversicht (“Jesus Christ, My Sure Defense”) was likely not King Friedrich Wilhelm’s favorite hymn in the days following his humiliation on March 21, 1848. Here is a chorale setting of the hymn by Johann Sebastian Bach.

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