The Autumn Crisis of 1850: A Struggle for German Supremacy

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On 29 November 1850, Prussia yielded to Russia-backed Austria in the so-called ‘Punctuation of Olmütz’. The event is sometimes more acerbically termed the ‘Humiliation of Olmütz’, for Prussia’s acceptance of these terms – casting aside a Prussian-dominated North German confederation for one led by Austria – surely represented a defeat. The balance of power would not shift back into Prussia’s favour until the Austro-Prussian War of 1866.

The Autumn Crisis of 1850, a disagreement between Austria and Prussia that very nearly launched the Germanic states into war, was not an isolated incident but the culmination of the ongoing Vienna-Berlin struggle for hegemony over smaller states which had risen out of the ashes of the Holy Roman Empire, abolished by Napoleon in 1806.

The German Confederation was the first major organisation to try to replace the former authority of the Holy Roman Empire. The Confederation was a largely decentralised body in which all the member states still held sovereign power but were bound together in a mutual defence agreement and protected by a collective armed force. The looseness of the organisation had deliberately been retained by Prussia and Austria, who both dreaded the domination of the other.

Still, within the organisation, Prussia and Austria were not on equal footing. It was Austria that was deemed the ‘Präsidialmacht’ (presiding power) and it was an Austrian delegate who supervised the Assembly – the most senior role in the Confederation.

Prussia was not content to let Austrian domination occur without resistance. Therefore, the Prussian government sought to establish rival bodies to limit Austrian influence and forge closer links with German states. For instance, in 1834, the Zollverein, a customs union, was founded, with Prussia recognised as the body’s leader – Austria was notably absent from the list of members. There was no opportunity for more fundamental change until the Europe-wide revolutions of 1848.

On 1 May 1848, the Frankfurt Parliament was elected, hoping to form a coherent and contiguous German nation state out of the many minor Principalities, Duchies and Kingdoms of the former Holy Roman Empire. Disagreements quickly arose, however, between those deputies in favour of a Kleindeutsche Lösung (Lesser German Solution) and those propagating a Großdeutsche Lösung (Greater German Solution).

This discord centred on the issue of Austrian inclusion: the Kleindeutsche Lösung was one that excluded all Austrian states, both German-speaking and otherwise, whilst Großdeutsche would include these areas. A Lesser Germany, as a result, would be dominated by Prussia, whilst the hegemon of a Greater Germany would likely be dictated by the outcome of the Austro-Prussian rivalry.

In October 1848, the deputies actually voted in favour of a Greater German solution, but Austria vetoed the motion, declaring on 27 November that the Habsburg monarchy would remain a politically separate entity.

Prussia, on the other hand, had long been  keen to integrate itself into a new German state. Frederick William IV – King of Prussia – had committed himself to the notion and had ordered the creation of a German constitution. For instance, he made a rousing speech on 21 March 1848 titled ‘To My People and to the German Nation’, in which he argued for the collaboration of Princes under one ruler. Boldly, he declared that he “placed [himself] and [his] people under the venerable banner of the German Reich” and that “Prussia [was] henceforth merged in Germany.”

And so, parliamentary consensus swung rapidly in the other direction; so quickly, in fact, that mere days later Heinrich von Gagern, the minister-president of the nascent Frankfurt government, implored Frederick William to take up the German imperial crown. Over the coming months, the Frankfurt Parliament drafted a constitution, the Declaration of Fundamental Rights, that would institute a constitutional monarchy, with Frederick William IV as ruler. Later, that March, they would agree a Constitution of the German Empire, declaring King Frederick William IV of Prussia as Emperor of the Germans.

However, the Empire quickly unfolded as, rather shockingly, a week after the constitution passed, Frederick rejected it. Not only did he deem the contents too liberal, but he also held onto an anachronistic, romantic aspiration to re-establish the Holy Roman Empire.

His rejection obliterated any legitimacy that the Frankfurt Parliament might possess. Nonetheless, the chances of unification were not dead, as the Prussian government began their own push for a German nation.

In Berlin, the Prussian capital, an alternative constitution was soon devised, which intended to bolster the monarch’s power alongside that of the aristocracy. In lieu of the German Empire, it envisaged the ‘Erfurt Union’, a confederation of North German states ruled by King Frederick IV. King Frederick William IV plotted to inaugurate himself as the King of a unified German state. The difficulty was in securing the agreement of the other German states.

On 26 May, 1849, the first advancements were made when Prussia, Saxony, and Hanover finalised the ‘Alliance of the Three Kings’. However, a clause that allowed Saxony and Hanover to withdraw from the Erfurt Union unless all other states except Austria joined – an arduous task given the idiosyncrasies of negotiating with all 35 other states – started the Prussian unification efforts in earnest.

In June 1849, the union was provided with a further degree of legitimacy when 150 former deputies of the National Assembly accepted the constitutional draft. By August, 28 states had agreed to the constitution. At this point, it even looked as if Austria may be willing to combine with the Erfurt Union in another, broader union. Still, such progress did not last long: in the winter of 1849, Saxony and Hanover grew hesitant, whilst Austria began to insist upon the revitalisation of the old German Confederation.

Perhaps most importantly, though, the January 1850 parliamentary elections to the Erfurt Union illustrated a total lack of popular support. Prussia had insisted that the three-class franchise – which disproportionately favoured those who paid the most taxes – be implemented to elect deputies, rather than the general enfranchisement of citizens. This decision was widely criticised, with the consequence that electoral turnout was below 50%.

With its authority threatened, the parliament never materialised and the constitution was never ratified; the Erfurt Union seemed to have reached a sudden end. Nevertheless, its importance did not vanish.

Conflict, and the Autumn Crisis of 1850, sprung up in Kurhessen, when Friedrich Wilhelm, the Elector of Hesse-Kassel – a province recently departed from the Erfurt Union – appointed a hyper-conservative, Hassenpflug, to the top office of his government. The parliament of Hesse refused to pass a radical budget proposed by Hassenpflug and so the Elector reacted by dissolving the Diet (parliament) and placing the state under martial law.

This move was unequivocally unconstitutional. The Elector and Hassenpflug, soon realising that they could not rely upon the local troops to ensure order, fled from the state. However, they then called upon the Federal Constitution of the German Confederation – re-established by Austria and supporting states on the 2 September – to reassert governmental power. Austrian and Bavarian troops began to mobilise to enter the German state and restore the status quo.

These events had significant reverberating effects for Prussia. Kurhessen harboured Prussian roads, splitting Eastern and Western Prussia and leaving the Kingdom geographically separated. Prussia did not wish for further, Austrian, interference in this matter.

Although the Union seemed to have died a quiet death after the Prussian government mostly neglected the body in the early months of 1850, the movement towards unification was suddenly reinvigorated towards the end of the year. Joseph von Radowitz, the Union’s founder, was made the foreign secretary of Prussia on the 26 September, demonstrating Prussia’s newfound commitment to the Union.

By the end of September, the Bundestag of the German Confederation had declared that it would support the Prince in his attempt to reassert sovereign authority. Prussia, believing the state still to be a part of the Erfurt Union and therefore still to be committed to the constitution of the Union, saw such a move as inexcusable. In addition, by moving troops into another German state and asserting itself as the federal arbitrator, the German Confederation was claiming itself as the legitimate federal power. Berlin saw such an act as a threat not only to the very existence of the Union, but to Prussia itself.

On 26 October, the Bundestag authorised Confederal intervention. The Prussians responded by deploying forces to the Hessian border. Large-scale war seemed imminent.

The situation escalated on 5 November when, in response to a Confederal ultimatum to remove the small corps of troops guarding the Prussian roads, Frederick William ordered a complete mobilisation. In fact, on 8 November, shots were briefly exchanged between Prussian and Bavarian troops near Bronnzell, meaning that conflict did officially occur.

On 25 November, Prussia – not wishing to face the Confederation and its backer, Russia, conceded to an ultimatum insisting upon complete withdrawal. Three days later, the Punctation of Olmütz followed, in which Prussia capitulated: both sides agreed to a demobilisation, but Prussia accepted the restoration of the old Confederation, and abandoned the Erfurt Union in its entirety.

Shockingly, Austria actually offered dual ownership of the highest powers of the Confederation as long as Austria remained de jure the organisation’s leader, but Prussia declined, instead agreeing to an unreformed version of the federation. Prussia would have its revenge just over 15 years later when it annihilated its old rival in the Austro-Prussian War. After all, although the Autumn Crisis may have concluded in 1850, the struggle for Germany hegemony certainly did not.

Austensen, Roy A. “Austria and the “Struggle for Supremacy in Germany.” 1848–1864.” The Journal of Modern History, vol. 52, no. 2, 1980, pp. 195–225.

Clark, C.M., 2006. Iron kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.