The Road to Democracy: Highlights and Stages

Hambach Castle

When people rise up forcefully, Most oppressed by ruler's hand, And prescribe the law unto themselves; The powers that be tremble with fear Then May approacheth freedom!

(Freedom song, sung at the Hambach Festival of 1832)

Before us lies a blessed hope, The golden time of future, A whole heaven opens up The bliss of freedom becomes mature
(Excerpt of speech by Carl Theodor Barth at the Hambach Festival on May 27, 1832).

Today, the Federal Republic of Germany is a parliamentary democracy. Its Basic Law defines popular sovereignty, separation of powers, and respect for human rights as inviolable structural principles.

This has not always been the case. When the theory of the state first spread in Europe along with the Enlightenment at the end of the 17th century, when people began to take a stand for fundamental rights, popular sovereignty, and the separation of powers, there was not yet a united constitutional state in today's Germany. The German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) proposed the maxim "Have the courage to use your own reason" as the prerequisite for free and humane coexistence.

A Brief History of the Emergence of Democracy in Germany

The Glorious Revolution of 1688–89
The Glorious Revolution of 1688–89 began in England, and marked the end of absolutist rule and the start of the development of parliamentarism. The Bill of Rights, which was passed on October 23, 1689 was an important milestone on the way to an enlightened state with a parliamentary system. The absolutist power of the king was restricted, and the rights of parliament were increased. The monarch's autocracy was replaced by popular sovereignty. 
The French Revolution of 1789
Even today, the storming of the Bastille in 1789 still symbolizes the birth of the French Revolution. Although the Bastille was never actually stormed—the commander voluntarily complied with the call to surrender—the event was the prelude to the most momentous epochal turning points in modern history. The introduction of a democratic constitution, which already established the separation of powers, included the declaration of the basic democratic values we take for granted today, and also introduced voting rights. The radical political upheavals were followed by social and societal changes that still shape us today.

The French Revolution Comes to Germany

The French Revolution (1789) had consequences for the whole of Europe. In the course of the French Revolutionary Wars, the territory of today's Rhineland-Palatinate was particularly affected by the events.

In October 1792 the area to the left of the river Rhine was occupied by French troops who brought with them their ideas of liberty, equality, and fraternity. "Trees of liberty" were set in public spaces such as marketplaces, and were used by the population to express their sympathy with the new ideas of freedom.

The Republic of Mainz (1793)
In occupied Mainz, a Jacobin club was founded after only a few days, which quickly grew to around 500 members. Political newspapers and pamphlets spread the new ideas of freedom and equality among the population. However, this did not yet give rise to the emergence of a mass movement. Among other reasons, the population was still too unaccustomed to the idea of political self-determination.

French Freedom on the Rhine?


At first, this worked surprisingly well. However, politicizing and revolutionizing the German population progressed less rapidly than expected by the occupying forces. In addition, the French increasingly experienced military failures in the Mainz region. Consequently, the French changed their strategy at the end of 1792 and start of 1793.

In February 1793 direct elections initiated by the French were held, which were linked to the establishment of the revolutionary system. On March 18 the elected representatives of the Rhenish-German National Convention who were assembled in the Deutschhaus government building proclaimed the "Republic of Mainz." It ended only a few months later in July 1793 with the siege by Prussian troops, followed by the surrender of the city of Mainz.

However, the short lifespan of the Republic of Mainz should not diminish its importance in the history of German democracy. The actions of the occupying forces and the Jacobins were not free of contradictions, and yet, for the first time, citizens fought for democracy, freedom, and human rights. For the first time they opposed the monarchical principle of the monarch, or "Fürst," being the sovereign bearer of state power. For the first time, direct elections were held in which all free men over the age of 21 were allowed to take part—regardless of their status.

The public also began to become political for the first time, which culminated in another milestone in the history of German democracy years later in the "Vormärz" period (pre-March, the period of time before the March Revolution).

The Bergzabern Republic of 1792/93

By the time of the French Revolution, Southern Palatinate also became a hotspot of the revolutionary movement, along with Rheinhessen. The Bergzabern Republic of 1792–93 is much less prominent than the Republic of Mainz, but no less impressive. Conflicts took place and received little attention from the territorial sovereign; this caused displeasure among the population, and revolutionary ideas quickly developed into a driving force to take action against such grievances.

The final break from the old regime was expressed by means of a petition submitted to the French National Convention by 32 municipalities in Southern Palatinate, in which they asked to join the French Republic. Until this finally happened, a free state was founded on January 22, 1793 called the "Bergzabern Republic." After Mainz was recaptured, Prussian and Austrian troops also occupied the Zweibrücken territory.

The Rhenish Institutions


Even after the recapture of Mainz by Prussian troops in 1793, rule over the area to the left of the Rhine had not yet been fully resolved. In the following decades, the region was occupied again and again by the French army, until the Treaty of Campo Formio (1797) and the Treaty of Lunéville (1801) confirmed that the region belonged to France under international law. The area of what is Rhineland-Palatinate today was divided up into the French Départements of Mont-Tonnerre, Sarre, and Rhin-et-Moselle.


In March 1804 the Civil Code (also known as the "Code Napoléon" or Napoleonic Code) entered into force, becoming one of the most important civil law books of modern times. The Civil Code also introduced civil law in today's Rhineland-Palatinate and regulated, among other things, the abolition of guilds, freedom of trade, freedom and independence of the courts, and the separation of church and state. However, the legal equality and freedom of all citizens was of particular importance—this legally implemented the guiding principle of the revolution, namely "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity."


The French reforms gave the areas to the left of the Rhine a developmental advantage. As "Rhenish institutions" people tried to hold on to them even after the end of the French rule and becoming part of the Kingdom of Bavaria.

The July Revolution in France of 1830


In July 1830 there was another revolution in France. The French King Charles X had tried to dissolve parliament and reinstate the dominance of the nobility. After he was forcibly dismissed, Louis-Philippe was celebrated as the new citizen king and a liberal constitution was passed.

The events in its neighboring country triggered further uprisings and unrest in almost all parts of Europe…

…especially in Poland…

…in the kingdoms of Saxony and Hanover, the Duchy of Brunswick, the Electorate of Hesse-Kassel, and Italy.

The successful liberal revolution in the southern provinces of the Netherlands (Belgium) was another defeat of the monarchical principle and strengthened the liberal movement throughout Europe.

The Hambach Festival of 1832
After the 1830 Revolution in France and the events in Belgium, Poland, and several German states, King Louis I of Bavaria pursued a reactionary course. The political change of course was particularly noticeable in the Palatinate, which was shaped not only strongly by free and liberal ideas due to its decades being part of France, but also by a flourishing liberal media landscape. Civil rights and liberties were suddenly severely restricted. At the Hambach Festival on May 27, 1832, around 30,000 people gathered to speak out openly in favor of civil liberties and national unity.

They expressed their displeasure and their wishes for the future in political speeches and songs:


"O! Brothers, fan the noble flame of freedom, This noble fire deep within your breast, Yes! If we only come together as one, And every man aware of his power be! Then the good cause must prevail And the bad yield to the good A beautiful May shall soon appear, We Germans, Poles, crying out: we are free."


"O! - sweet hope, you cannot deceive me, that Germany shall soon rise up in strength, history and the zeitgeist would both liars be, If our cause might founder. We want to wrestle to us the rights of man We want it, and we must succeed: We swear this to the German festival in May, We want to see all nations free."


(German May Song, sung at the Hambach Festival in 1832)

The Revolution of 1848–49

As had happened in previous years, the revolution of 1848–49 began in France. The deposition of the king and the proclamation of the Republic spread like wildfire throughout Europe. The repressive and restorative powers were no longer able to suppress the overpowering desire for change.


In many countries, people's assemblies came together, their top priorities being freedom of expression, freedom of the press, freedom of association and assembly, the demand for the right to bear arms, and for a German parliament. At first, the revolutionary movement enjoyed rapid success. After the initial swift concessions of the rulers, elections were held for a constituent National Assembly, which met on May 18, 1848 in St. Paul's Church in Frankfurt am Main.

The aim of the first democratically elected parliament for the whole of Germany was to finalise German unity and a constitution for the new unified state. Spontaneous people's assemblies were a repeated occurrence, and these occasionally resulted in unrest. Other places saw street brawls and barricade fights.

Catalog of Fundamental Rights


On May 18, 1848, the National Assembly met for the first time in Frankfurt and began its deliberations on an imperial constitution. One of the main objectives of the meeting at St. Paul's Church, was to put down civil rights and liberties for everyone in writing in a binding manner. On December 20, 1848 the catalog of fundamental rights of the imperial constitution was adopted.

The basic rights demanded the freedom and equality of all citizens, freedom of trade…

…abolition of privileges of the nobility…

…freedom of thought and religion…

…the inviolability of property, and freedom of opinion and of the press.

In the meantime, however, the counter-revolution had formed. When the Prussian king rejected the imperial dignity proposed to him by the Frankfurt Parliament and also rejected the imperial constitution, this meant the Frankfurt Parliament had failed.


Although it was not yet enforceable at that time, the constitution drawn up and adopted by the National Assembly in St. Paul's Church was an example for the later constitutions of 1919 and 1949. The catalog of fundamental rights of 1848 is a central component of our Basic Law today. As such, the revolution of 1848–49 is one of the important milestones on Germany's path to becoming a democratic constitutional state.

The "Campaign for an Imperial Constitution"

After the failure of the Frankfurt Parliament, the "Rumpfparlament" (Rump Parliament) was first formed in Stuttgart whose aim was to enforce the adoption of the imperial constitution through the Campaign for an Imperial Constitution.

In the Palatinate, people's assemblies decided to separate from Bavaria because the Bavarian state government refused to recognise the constitution of the National Assembly. A provisional government was formed and a people's army was set up. The Palatinate people were given support from the Rhine-Hessian voluntary corps.

However, the "Palatinate Revolution" was ended by Prussian troops in June 1849 with much bloodshed and violence. On June 14, 1849 the battle of Kirchheimbolanden (Palatinate) signaled the end. Further battles in Ludwigshafen and Rinnthal sealed the fate of the Palatinate rebels.

Was it All for Nothing?

In retrospect, the failure of the revolution clouded the successes of 1848–49. During these years of revolution, however, some sustained progress was made, which could not be reversed even by the incipient counter-revolution and restoration. The first and foremost of these was the abolition of the feudal society. Everything that was learned about basic democratic structures, in connection with early forms of the first parties, was also retained.


The parliament of St. Paul's Church, being the first democratically elected, all-German parliament, was an important point of reference for the further development of German democracy. In the previous few years, the focus had also shifted to the pan-European perspective. The revolutions of 1848, which took place in various European territories, promoted cross-border modernization and parliamentarization and have had a lasting influence on the political culture of most European states to this day. Ideational approaches to a "Europe of peoples" even provided impetus for the development of the European Union (EU) in the late 20th century.

Women's Suffrage (1919)

As early as 1791, French feminist Olympe de Gouges formulated a "Declaration of the Rights of Women and Citizens." In this declaration, she called for political majority and equal rights for women.


Women were explicitly mentioned in the invitation to the Hambach Festival and ultimately went up to the castle together with the men.


In the revolution of 1848–49, women's associations were formed whose members intervened openly in political discussions. Despite their commitment to universal suffrage for women, they were initially still denied political participation.


The foundation of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance in 1904 created the first international network.
In the course of state reorganization after the First World War, universal suffrage for both sexes was introduced in many countries. On November 30, 1918, the imperial electoral law came into force in Germany with the universal right of women to vote and to stand as a candidate. During the election to the German National Assembly on January 19, 1919, women's suffrage was applied for the first time in the Weimar Republic.


Even today, the right of women to vote and to stand as a candidate is not taken for granted everywhere—in Kuwait it was only introduced in 2005, in Saudi Arabia in 2015.

The Weimar Republic (1919–33)


After the end of the First World War and the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II, the Republic was proclaimed in Berlin in November 1918. In January 1919, elections were held for a constituent National Assembly, which met for the first time in Weimar on February 6, 1919. Friedrich Ebert became the president. On February 13 Germany's first democratic parliamentary government, which had resulted from free and general elections, was sworn in.

The central constitutional principles were popular sovereignty, separation of powers, and basic rights; equal rights for women were included for the first time.

In practice, however, the liberal provisions guaranteed by the constitution were often undermined. Ongoing crises, attempted coups d'état, and a lack of confidence in democracy weakened the new government. The Weimar Republic shows that a democracy can only survive if the majority of citizens approve of and defend fundamental rights and the democratic constitution.

By the beginning of the 1930s at the latest, a slow process began which gradually led to the transformation of democratic structures into the totalitarian rule of the National Socialists. The result was a 12-year dictatorship in which basic and human rights were severely disregarded.

The Founding of the Federal Republic of Germany in 1949

By 1947 the 3 Western allies, France, the USA, and Great Britain, had founded states within their zones. In July 1948 the state parliaments sent representatives to a joint "Parliamentary Council" with the task of drawing up a constitution for a western German state.


The Basic Law came into force on May 23, 1949 with the founding of the Federal Republic of Germany. It is still valid today and represents the legal basis and as such the constitution of the modern German state.


The Basic Law, influenced by the failure of the Weimar Republic, set the course for a new democratic awakening. Fundamental rights are of top priority, and above all the inviolability of human dignity. Furthermore, the Basic Law enshrines, among other things, the right to freedom of personality development, freedom of expression, and freedom of the press as well as the protection of the family.


The Basic Law is a continuation of the constitutions of 1848–49 and 1919. Numerous innovations, primarily in terms of content, transformed the provisional arrangement into a fully developed constitution of a united Germany, and it is still used as a model example today. By not only being open to innovations, but by being able to actively shape them too, the Basic Law creates the conditions to unite political stability and peaceful change.

The Student Protests of 1950


Open borders and a European Union in the early 1950s? Certain matters that were only realized years or decades later under international law had been demanded by some as early as August 1950. Long before the founding of the European Union, a campaign on the German-French border caused a stir.


In the small German-French border town of St. Germanshof (near the German town of Bobenthal and the French town of Weissenburg), 300 young people and students from various European nations met on August 6, 1950. They sawed up the border trees and posts and occupied the area. With posters stating "You are coming from Europe. You are staying in Europe," they called for the opening of borders and a united Europe.

They denounced the hesitation and procrastination of politicians regarding the formation of a European Union in a resolution, and finally demanded action.


A few months later another protest action took place in front of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, in which many hundreds of young people took part once more.

Two German States and German Reunification in 1989–90

At the same time as the events in the 3 western zones, a people's council was set up in the Soviet occupation zone in March 1949, which adopted the constitution of the "German Democratic Republic" a year later. As a result, 2 independent states existed on German soil for decades.


Contrary to its constitution, the GDR was not a state with democratic principles, but a communist dictatorship led by the Socialist Unity Party of Germany, the SED ("Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands").

From the outset, the population criticised the SED regime, even though they were unable to express this freely. Under the protection of Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev's reform policy, support for the system among the senior positions within the SED at the end of the 1980s also dwindled increasingly. Protests erupting among citizens were no longer suppressed and led to the peaceful revolution in the GDR, culminating in the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989.

German Reunification


The accession of the GDR to the Federal Republic of Germany finally sealed German reunification on October 3, 1990.

The European Union

On May 9, 1950, French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman presented the plan for a European Coal and Steel Community for the first time. Schuman pursued the concept of solidarity—as did others described as the founding fathers of the EU. A few years after the end of the Second World War, the goal was reconciliation and the consolidation of peace between the formerly hostile European states. The foundation of today's European Union was laid in 1952 when the Community, also known as the Coal and Steel Community, was founded.


After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the consequent German reunification, as well as the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989–90, a new democratic awakening took place, especially in Eastern Europe.


In the meantime, the EU had grown from 6 founding countries to 28 members. The opening of borders and the creation of an internal market in 1993 were important milestones in achieving the political objectives through economic cooperation, as were the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union of 2002 and the introduction of the euro as the common European currency in 2002.


A common policy among all Member States was not only to create a single unifying element, but also a common European identity.

The EU represents peaceful development in Europe. It was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012 for its significant commitment to peace, reconciliation, democracy, and human rights.


In light of the large growth of national conservative and right-wing populist parties in its Member States, the EU is today confronted with growing criticism. Current socio-political problems such as the financial and refugee crisis are increasing the pressure on the EU.


These developments clearly show that democratic structures and European solidarity cannot be assumed to be guaranteed. An inclusive, tolerant, and pluralistic society needs to be supported on an ongoing basis. To preserve these values for future generations as well, it is necessary to stand up for basic democratic values.


"History reminds us that a democracy ceases to be democracy when it overrides its liberal foundations. Democracy does not remain democracy without human and civil rights, without the rule of law and the protection of minorities—even if some today, even in Europe, claim the opposite."
(Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier in the Landtag of Rhineland-Palatinate on March 19, 2018)


We must all remain committed to preserving that which we take for granted today.

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Exhibition Curator:
Sarah Traub, Institut für Geschichtliche Landeskunde an der Universität Mainz e.V. (IGL)

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