So what was the „Provisional Central Power“ – and why should anyone take an interest?

While this blog is – and will remain – predominantly in German, it may be helpful to potential readers from other countries to provide an English-language version of our project’s mission statement, as previously published in German in this post:

Protokoll der 180. Sitzung des Gesamtreichsministeriums
Minutes of the 180th session of the cabinet of the Provisional Central Power. November 19, 1849

When revolutions are over, the aspects most likely to be remembered are those that contrast most starkly with everyday political life: barricades and fighting in the streets. This is certainly true for the Revolutions of 1848–49 in the collective memory of the German public. There is also some awareness that the revolution eventually led to the election of a National Assembly, which convened at Frankfurt. The installation of a provisional executive branch for the as yet nonexistent „German Empire“, however, is a different story: there is more or less no memory of this first parliamentary government for  Germany in its entirety. Very few are aware that an Austrian archduke, granted the title of „Imperial Regent“, presided over this „Provisional Central Power“ for roughly one and a half years, and was thus the first head of a German national government to have been appointed by an elected parliament.

In founding the „Provisional Central Power“, the moderate revolutionary movement incarnated by the Frankfurt National Assembly was attempting to assert its position with respect to the existing governmental power of the more than 30 German states organised in the German Confederation. The Assembly’s claim to the right to do so was based squarely on the doctrine of popular sovereignty, whereas none of the various kingdoms and principalities had moved beyond a liberal constitutionalism that recognised the hereditary right of the legitimate monarch as existing independently of any popular claim to participation.

Besides the Imperial Regent, Archduke John, the Provisional Central Power consisted of an „Imperial Cabinet“ with a Prime Minister, ministers leading half a dozen departments, and undersecretaries to assist them. This organisation was modelled on the ministerial governments present in many of the larger German states, and was intended to engage in similar activities. Notably, the Central Power published the „Imperial Laws“ passed by the National Assembly and attempted, with varying success, to see to it that they were accepted and enforced by the individual states. It laid claim to leadership in joint military operations, especially the conduct of the war against Denmark over the status of Schleswig and Holstein. By dispatching „Imperial Commissioners“ and occasionally by mandating military actions, it intervened to contain revolutionary insurrections in multiple states between September 1848 and May–June 1849. It was charged with the creation of the first German navy, a project which initially stimulated widespread nationalist enthusiasm. Last but not least, it made every effort to mediate the escalating disagreement between the Assembly and the state governments over the acceptance of the German Constitution enacted by the former. In all of these tasks, however, it was hampered at every step by its lack of any sort of administrative apparatus, by its very limited sources of real bargaining power – especially when faced with the two crucial German powers, Prussia and Austria –, and by the refusal of diplomatic recognition from nearly all other European governments. After the gradual dissolution of the Frankfurt Assembly in the spring of 1849, the Provisional Central Power remained in existence until the end of the year and, despite its sorely limited means, played a significant role in the power struggle between Prussia, Austria and the smaller German kingdoms over the constitutional framework for a future German national state.

Archduke John of Austria as Imperial Regent of Germany. Lithograph by J. Kriehuber, 1848

Both the secretariat of the cabinet and the offices of the individual ministries – Foreign Affairs, Interior, Justice, War, Finances, Trade and, eventually, Navy – rapidly devised their own record-keeping procedures. After the dissolution of the Provisional Central Power in December 1849, its archives were handed over to its successor institution, the Federal Central Commission. They were subsequently integrated into the archives of the Federal Assembly (the deliberative body of the reinstated German Confederation); when this in turn was suppressed in 1866, the records entered the Frankfurt Municipal Library, in whose care they remained until the creation in 1925 of a Frankfurt branch of the Imperial Archives (later the Federal Archives of the post-World War II Federal Republic). After the reunification of 1991, this branch was given up and its holdings were transferred first to Koblenz, then in 2010 to the Federal Archives in Berlin. The archives of the Provisional Central Power, totalling some 25 metres of shelf space, are remarkably well preserved and complete despite all these vagaries. In the period after World War II, difficult archival work was undertaken in order to restore them as far as possible to their original order, as set out in the filing instructions of the various ministries. Detailed inventories are a product of this process. Microfilms of the entire archives were made some years ago.

Until 1945, these sources had been almost completely ignored by academic historians. They have since been used somewhat more often, but their potential is far from being exhausted. Notably, there has been no publication of the minutes of the cabinet, while editions of this type have been in progress for decades for the governments of the major German states. Our project aims to close this gap, and thereby not only to cast new light on the role of a hitherto underestimated agency within the revolutionary sequence of events, but also to apply recent approaches from the political and social sciences, and especially a culturalist perspective, to Germany’s first parliamentary government and the ways in which it functioned (or failed to do so). That the Provisional Central Power was called upon to create the institutional infrastructure for its governmental activity more or less out of nothingness – by founding new administrative offices, recruiting personnel and obtaining financial means – provides a highly unusual perspective on the history of the growth of state institutions and bureaucracy, one of the great secular processes of the 19th century.

The goal of our undertaking is to publish the minutes of the 185 sessions of the Central Power’s cabinet in full, and to use them as the backbone of a collection of further documents from the archives of the Provisional Central Power chosen to best illustrate the scope of its activity, the difficulties it faced, and the expedients by which it attempted to surmount them. These additional materials will be presented in the form of summaries of their content. Beyond this, given that administrative documents usually do not record the political background of decisions or the atmosphere within an institution, extracts from the personal papers, letters and memoirs of the members of the cabinet will be incorporated into our publication to supplement the official records. Detailed indexes will facilitate use of the book by researchers and other readers with a variety of different interests. Our particular attention is focussed on the following four topics:

1. The Provisional Central Power’s relationships with the National Assembly on the one hand, and with the governments of the German states on the other hand; its means, methods, and degree of success in asserting itself with respect to either of these.

2. The tension, in the legal framework and the governmental reality of the Central Power, between traditional monarchical constitutionalism and parliamentary government based on popular sovereignty.

3. The institutional and administrative history of the Central Power, with particular attention to its unique challenges in rapidly creating governmental infrastructure.

4. The self-perceptions, motives, decisional processes, and emotional experiences of the members of the cabinet, seen from the perspective of a cultural history of politics; as well as their communicative and performative strategies for representing their activity to various audiences.

Text by Karsten Ruppert and Thomas Stockinger. English translation by Thomas Stockinger.

 


Thomas Stockinger

Thomas Stockinger ist Bearbeiter der Edition der Akten der Provisorischen Zentralgewalt und Administrator des Blogs „achtundvierzig“.

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