The Professionals of 1848
Political scientists offer new insights into the Frankfurt Parliament
German democracy dates back to the year 1848. The first German federal parliament convened for its first session on 18 May of that year. For years, it was decried as a chaotic professorial parliament and the constitution worked out there never became law. But recent findings at the University of Bamberg show that the first federally elected lawmakers worked in a highly professional manner.
To find out whether the operating principles of the Frankfurt Parliament resemble the principles of contemporary parliaments, Dr. Ulrich Sieberer, professor of Empirical Political Science at the University of Bamberg, and his colleague Dr. Michael Herrmannfrom the University of Konstanz analysed the results of all 299 name-based votes of the Frankfurt Parliament. This constitutes an extraordinary project since political scientists rarely address historical issues; and it’s even rarer that they do so using modern empirical methods. So what did the two researchers find? Firstly, even though most members of parliament lacked professional political experience, their parliamentary work hardly differed from the work of contemporary representatives. “Within six weeks, the representatives already established parliamentary factions”, says Ulrich Sieberer. “This is surprising because there were no political parties at this point in time. They simply realised very quickly that consolidation is necessary if you want to achieve anything in a parliament.”
Moreover, the parliamentarians installed a provisional central government that was dependent on the parliament’s confidence. This arose, for example, during the dispute concerning the cease-fire of Malmö between Denmark and the German troops under Prussian command. A majority of the parliament rejected the accord, whereupon the first cabinet that had argued in favour of the truce resigned. “In that way, the parliament had essentially established a parliamentary form of government”, Ulrich Sieberer says. “Right up to the present, it is part of our democracy that the government requires the confident support of the parliament.”
Using the Basic Space Theory, the researchers also looked into the patterns with which the representatives cast their votes. This theory of the political space assumes that political disputes in each society are decided along a few specific lines of conflict. Ulrich Sieberer and Michael Herrmann identified two lines of conflict in the Frankfurt Parliament: The first conflict revolves around the question of who should govern – a monarch or the people. The other conflict was sparked by the question of whether the unification of Germany should include a lesser German or greater German solution, meaning whether or not Austria should be part of Germany in the future. With the help of statistical calculations, the two political scientists can accurately predict how a single representative, who might be a supporter of the greater German solution, will vote in a short-term political issue. Thus, something resembling political policy can be deduced from the elementary conflicts of the Frankfurt Parliament. “The representatives knew exactly how their ideology could be translated in specific policy”, Sieberer says. “This achievement is especially astonishing considering the representatives’ lack of political experience.”
Thus, what happened in 1848 continues to have an effect to this day. The representatives voted for the lesser German solution, created a second chamber for the federal state that is very similar to today’s Bundesrat, and established basic elements of a parliamentary system of government that still endure, despite the fact that continuing historical developments of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries only made the enduring establishment of these elements possible with the foundation of the Federal Republic of Germany.
Michael Herrmann und Ulrich Sieberer. 2018. The basic space of a revolutionary parliament: Scaling the Frankfurt Assembly of 1848/49, Party Politics, Online First, doi: 10.1177/1354068817749778.
Contact for questions regarding content:
Prof. Ulrich Sieberer
Professorship of Empirical Political Science, University of Bamberg
Press Officer, University of Bamberg