What are the roots of the French Revolution

German Revolution 1918/19

Ernst Piper

Born in Munich in 1952, now lives in Berlin. He is an adjunct professor of modern history at the University of Potsdam and has published numerous books on the history of the 19th and 20th centuries, most recently "Night over Europe. Cultural history of the First World War" (2014) and "Rosa Luxemburg. A life" ( 2018).

The French Revolution of 1789, together with the American Revolution of 1776, shaped our image of a bourgeois revolution. In the 19th century, further revolutions failed in both the German Empire and France.

April 1871. A barricade of the Paris Commune on the Place Hotel de Ville / corner of Rue de Rivoli (& copy akg-images / Science Source)

The French Revolution of 1789 was the first revolution in European history; with its impressive consequences, it is "hardly comparable with any other historical event" (Ernst Schulin). The American Revolution with the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776 preceded it. These two historically significant events shape our picture from the bourgeois revolution to the present day. Above all, the French Revolution has inscribed itself in our historical memory; it is regarded as the central place of remembrance for the development of democracy. The absolutist corporate state, which had prevented social mobility through its rigid social order, was overcome with it. The ideas of 1789 - freedom, equality, fraternity - contain at the same time ideas of popular sovereignty, the universal validity of human rights and a liberal constitutional state based on the basic values ​​of the Enlightenment.

If the clergy (first estate) and the nobility (second estate) were privileged in feudal society, the aim of the bourgeois revolution was the emancipation of the third estate. The third estate mainly included the urban bourgeoisie, but also the peasants freed from their dependence on the noble and clerical landlords. France had to militarily defend its new order against its European neighbors.

Under the leadership of Napoleon Bonaparte, it waged successful wars of aggression, which in 1806 brought the end of the Holy Roman Empire of the German nation with it, but at the same time the replacement of the French republic by Napoleon's sole rule. In 1815, after the final defeat of Napoleon, the rule of the Bourbons was restored by the Congress of Vienna. It was not until 1830 that they were finally driven out by the July Revolution and the "citizen king" Louis-Philippe I came to the throne.

1848 was a year of revolutionary upheavals in many European countries. After the February Revolution in Paris, Louis-Philippe I had to abdicate, lengthy disputes ensued and in 1852 the increasingly authoritarian President Louis Napoléon Bonaparte settled as Napoleon III. to be crowned emperor. In Frankfurt am Main, a national assembly met in the Paulskirche in 1848/49, which wanted to create a unified German nation-state with freedom and basic rights. But the Prussian king refused the offered imperial crown and in the course of the restoration the traditional order was restored.

Thus the bourgeois revolution in Germany failed, instead it came to an "unification of the empire from above". After several wars, the so-called wars of unification, mainly waged by the Prussian Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, the German Empire was proclaimed on January 18, 1871 in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. Immediately preceded was the Franco-Prussian War, which ended with the defeat of France and the capture of Napoleon III. ended.

The Paris Commune existed from March 18 to May 28, 1871. A revolutionary city council, which included members of the National Guard as well as supporters of the socialist International Workers' Association, ruled Paris. The strongest faction was made up of the supporters of the revolutionary Louis-Auguste Blanqui, who had participated in the July Revolution of 1830 as a young man. They all shared the goal of defending the revolutionary autonomy they had achieved against the French government, if necessary by force of arms, but they had to surrender after almost two and a half months.

During the short period of its existence, the municipality tried numerous measures to create a democratic and socially just community. For Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx, the leading theorists of the International Workers' Association, the Paris Commune was the hour of birth of the dictatorship of the proletariat they propagated. This also included the abolition of the separation of powers. The separation of legislative and executive powers should be abandoned in favor of a single "working body". And August Bebel declared on May 25, 1871 in the German Reichstag that "the battle cry of the Parisian proletariat 'war on the palaces, peace on the huts, death of need and idleness!" Will be the battle cry of the entire European proletariat ".

Until 1917, the Paris Commune was the central place of remembrance for the European labor movement that fought for a socialist revolution. Here it became clear that there are fundamental differences between a bourgeois revolution and a socialist revolution (see table on p. 6).

Ideal-typical comparison of the bourgeois and socialist revolution
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, the leading theorists of Marxism, wrote in the "Communist Manifesto" in 1848: "The communists direct their main attention to Germany because Germany is on the eve of a bourgeois revolution and because it is this upheaval under advanced conditions of European civilization in general and With a much more developed proletariat than England in the 17th and France in the 18th century, the German bourgeois revolution can only be the immediate prelude to a proletarian revolution. " At that time they did not yet know that the German revolution of 1848 would fail and that it would not be a prelude to what was to come.

Source text

The Red flag

[…] [T] he events precipitate, all events seem to be set in fire brilliants, the street is the atmosphere of the day, so speaks Marx. But he also speaks of the shame that follows the bourgeois revolutions. Let’s beware of a misery.

This revolution must not only wash away all remnants and ruins of feudalism, it must not only break down all the fortresses of Junkerism [...], its slogan is not only a republic, but a socialist republic! Their banner is not the black, red and gold flag of the bourgeois republic of 1848, but the red flag of the international socialist proletariat, the red flag of the commune of 1871 and the Russian revolution of 1905 and 1917. The upheaval in the German Empire must clear the way under this symbol make for socialism. The revolutionary, victorious proletariat must build the new economy out of the rubble and rubble of the world war. This requires political power and economic strength. [...]

The Red Flag, the central organ of the Spartakusbund, dated November 10, 1918



It was not until 70 years later that there was a successful revolution in Germany; what its aim should be was, however, controversial from the start among the political forces that supported it. While many social democrats referred to the unfinished revolution of 1848, the communists saw the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 as their model.