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18 May 2011

On this day in history: Frankfurt Parliament convened, 1848

1848 was a year of revolutions: the Sicilian Revolution of Independence from the Bourbon monarchy; elsewhere in Italy - the Roman and Venetian republics; the Hungarian Revolution against Hapsburg rule; the Polish uprising against Prussian rule; the Revolution against the July Monarchy in France; the Romanian uprising in Wallachia; the Praieira revolt against the Brazilian Empire; and the March Revolution in various German lands.

The March Revolution of 1848 was a liberal revolution within the German Confederation, which was the loose federation of thirty-eight states created by the Congress of Vienna in 1815. In the south and west of the country a rise of nationalist sentiment and demands for liberal reform crystallised in mass demonstrations and the formation of popular assemblies. A group of these reformers from across Germany met in Heidelberg, in the state of Baden, on 5th March to plan elections for a German national assembly. Later that month liberal reformers met up in a 'Preparliament' in St. Paul's church in Frankfurt to formulate guidelines for the first ever national elections in Germany with the blessing of the leaders of the various states of the Confederation

The states held elections in late April through to early May that year (with some variation in suffrage between states, due to the vague requirement that the voters be 'independent' male adults). Then, on 18th May 1848, around eight-hundred delegates to the Frankfurt Parliament convened their first session. So many of the delegates were professors, teachers or at least university graduates that the assembly became known as the Professorenparlament ('Professors Parliament'). The delegates then embarked on the process of writing a constitution for a unified German nation.

Over the next year, problems dogged this process of nation building: a lack of a national bureaucracy and military; weak leadership; a resurgent aristocracy; and a lack of support from Prussia (arguably the most powerful state in Germany). This last problem effectively ended the dreams of the parliamentarians when Prussia's King, Frederick William IV, refused the title of Emperor of Germany in 1849. The ensuing constitutional crisis resulted in the majority of states recalling their delegates from the Parliament, the rump of which reconvened in Stuttgart and was finally dispersed by troops and police on 18th June 1849, bringing an end to the dream of a German unification.

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