By Frank Ganseuer
The all-German National Assembly founded a joint fleet on June 14, 1848 in the Paulskirche in the Free City of the German Confederation of Frankfurt am Main. Parliament reports recorded this hour of birth of the first German naval forces.
“Frankfurt, Pentecost. The Paulskirche stands empty, most of the deputies relax on short excursions, a first phase has begun in the activity of the National Assembly. This first stage was the time of preparation, but preparation for the greatest things. Things like a future German imperial constitution, like the development of a central authority.”
This was reported by the “Allgemeine Zeitung” from Augsburg, one of the most widely read daily newspapers in Germany. But when the MPs wanted to get back to work after their Pentecost excursions, these “biggest things” had to be put on the back burner. Because now, as the newspaper went on to say, “the Kriegsmarine” was suddenly on the agenda.
What had happened: The revolution had broken out in Germany, imported from France, as it were, and the princely thrones were shaking. The first German parliament, the National Assembly, was constituted in Frankfurt am Main on May 18 in the Paulskirche. Shortly before, Denmark had imposed a naval blockade of the German ports in April after the start of the war over the future of the duchies of Schleswig and Holstein. This paralyzed almost the entire German North Sea and Baltic Sea trade and the Germans had nothing to oppose it. A fleet was needed, and as quickly as possible. “For what is Germany without a fleet? A poor, old, weak man,” said the “Hallesche Zeitung”.
The German princes had already dealt with the naval question in the Federal Assembly of the German Confederation in mid-April. On April 18, four weeks before the first session of the National Assembly, they set up a naval committee.
A “permanent naval committee” will then also be set up in the Paulskirche to “supervise this extremely important and urgent matter”. On June 6, the Prussian deputy, General Joseph von Radowitz, made his first report. In addition to a few remarks on the “conditions that a German naval power has to meet at all”, the “defense of its own coasts” and the “advancement of the great commercial and political interests of the entire fatherland”, he quickly comes to the center of his remarks: the national symbol – and unifying power of a fleet and the historic task of the National Assembly as its creator. “Gentlemen!” said Radowitz. “We want to found the unity of Germany; there is no sign of this unity, which proclaims this decision to the extent within Germany and outside Germany, as the creation of a German fleet. [Bravo!].”
No sooner is the fleet project on the agenda than it picks up speed and immediately becomes a powerful, global object of national prestige. And the fleet-euphoric General von Radowitz already sees German warships under black, red and gold flags crossing the mouth of the Rio de la Plata.
He finally applied for the six million thaler funds calculated for the establishment of a fleet for the naval committee to compensate for the “moral humiliation” of the Germans and the “most deeply felt needs of the nation”. He does this because the National Assembly itself has no budget at its disposal, at the Federal Assembly of the German Confederation, i.e. precisely the institution that should actually be abolished by the revolution.
Great panache for a national issue
On June 14, this motion will be put to a vote on the agenda of the National Assembly. Since the deputies had recovered well on their Pentecost excursions, they devoted themselves with particular enthusiasm to the great national question of building a fleet. It is the “sixteenth session in the Paulskirche, Wednesday, June 14, 1848 (11 a.m.)”, the minutes record.
At the outset, the President of the House, Heinrich von Gagern, first announced donations for the fleet that had already been received by the National Assembly, such as the 306 guilders 42 kreuzer that the member of parliament from Künßberg brought from Ansbach, “as proceeds from a raffle of female handicrafts and other objects organized by women and virgins of Ansbach, also 148 guilders 20 kreuzer deposit in a box that was exhibited at the town hall”.
And in such a mood we are off: “On the agenda,” said the President, “is also the report by the Honorable Deputy von Radowitz, concerning the formation of a German Navy. The motion of the report goes as follows: ‘High National Assembly wants to resolve that the High Federal Assembly is to be caused to make the sum of six million thalers available by constitutional means, namely three million immediately and the further three million according to need’ . This is the request. Several speakers signed up. Mr. Möring has the floor.”
The US Navy as a role model?
The captain from Vienna had only recently made a trip to New York and studied the “American system” of the Navy there, in order to present the plenary session in a long and lecture that is exhaustive in several respects.
However, the deputies, most of whom had hardly ever set foot on a seagoing ship, let alone a warship, did not intend to concern themselves with this in any depth. And after Captain Möring’s technical lecture had found its well-deserved end, his compatriot Wiesner, on the other hand, now evokes the ideal values of German naval construction, how much he was imbued with the “necessity” to “establish the honor and sovereignty of Germany” and at the same time ” the principle of the will of the people, being able to express the sovereignty of the people” – the fleet is therefore above all a national symbol and, through its parliamentary midwife, a democratic symbol.
Above all, however, it has to be powerful and significant: “If we want to appear at sea, we have to do it in a great way, by building big ships, not by flooding them with so many cannon boats,” Wiesner continued. For his part, his left-wing parliamentary colleague Professor Tellkampf of Breslau emphasizes the economic and job-creating aspects of naval construction and its useful purposes for overseas trade and colonial expansion.
The imperial fleet as a source of rejuvenating power
All of this, according to Tellkampf, could also get the workforce enthusiastic about the fleet – especially since “through intercourse with other peoples the freest political life” develops, frees “from slavish conditions”, yes, “life at sea steels the peoples and with their feelings which breathes freedom and independence”. And in this way, according to the professor, “a people always remains young and strong through the fresh, risky sea life”. So the navy is a source of strength and a fountain of youth, the fleet a political and medical secret recipe. Who would deny themselves such privileges?
It was therefore important not to get involved in maritime half-heartedness, especially not in small, weakly armed sailing ships like the first and only Prussian warship launched in 1843, the 33 meter long sailing school corvette “Amazone”, which the Hanoverian MP Wedekind then and very carelessly brings it into play. Because this little ship is not exactly what the naval-winged deputies of the National Assembly dreamed of as the basis of an imposing German “naval fleet”, and so his contribution is also drowned out in great “hilarity” and “continuous laughter”, as the minutes note.
The small “Amazone”, which had to be taken overboard for reasons of stability after its first great sea voyage in 1844, would rather, as MP Osterrath now adds with relish, “become the victim of the first large warship, the met them, and that would be at all too unfavorable beginning for the first operation of the German Navy”.
“Bravo!” from the plenum and the greatest spirit of optimism among the “enthusiastic sailors” (Heinrich Heine) around the Paulskirche, with the fleet as an equally powerful and unifying national symbol. Were it not for the irksome procedural and constitutional issues, such as the National Assembly’s lack of financial responsibility for such a resolution, which is suddenly maneuvering the naval issue, which had started so brilliantly in Parliament, to the brink of shipwreck. With the motion by Deputy Eisenstuck to ‘suspend the entire permit until after the resolution on the dismissal of an executive committee ‘”, i.e. the establishment of a Reich government, the “central authority”, it was otherwise impossible to “allow even a penny” for the fleet.
The naval debate is making MEPs sleepy
That hits like a bomb in the maritime-winged parliamentary society. But the sovereign and parliamentary experienced president, Heinrich von Gagern, former member of the Hessian state parliament and for a time Hessian Prime Minister, finally navigated this threatening cliff with great elegance and a trick – namely, referring to the establishment of a Reich government that was to be expected soon anyway. “What we are doing today is preparatory work for the future central authority, which will thank us for it,” he exclaims, beginning, as the “Allgemeine Zeitung” then reports, “a somewhat confused negotiation that arose from this”. end gratefully welcomed by MEPs.
After three and a half hours of debate, the gentlemen were quite exhausted. “You’re probably tired, so am I,” Frank, a deputy from Schleswig, said frankly. It must now all the more be a matter of moving on to the decision and thus to the “foundation of the first major national work” while putting aside reservations about the rules of procedure – it is clear, according to the representative Jordan from Berlin, that “there is far more to the big thing here than depends on the way” – especially since, according to General von Radowitz, regarding the “necessity that Germany should have a navy” in the National Assembly “there is generally no doubt, in both directions: in relation to the material Necessity and to the far higher moral meaning”.
So President von Gagern included the reference to the soon to be established “central authority” in the motion, Deputy Eisenstuck withdrew his motion for postponement, and when the President was called out from the plenum that the motion’s actual purpose, “for the German fleet or Navy” is missing and the President gratefully inserts this not inconsiderable detail, then the “German Navy” finally has a free ride.
The moment of birth of the Reich fleet
“I’m going to put the question like this,” says von Gagern. “If the National Assembly decides that the Federal Assembly is to be caused to make available the sum of 6 million thalers for the purpose of justifying a start for the German Navy, for the use and representation of which the provisional central power of the National Assembly will be responsible, which has hitherto been constitutional to make 3 million at once, and the further 3 million according to need? I ask those members who want the Bundestag to be persuaded to stand up in this way. [Almost the whole assembly stands up.] The question is answered in the affirmative by a majority bordering on unanimity. [General bravo.]”
The “Allgemeine Zeitung” reported on June 16 about “lively acclamation”. In its supplement of June 17, it once again refers to the resolution, which was adopted with a majority “which was only 5 or 6 votes short of unanimity. – Infinite rejoicing greeted this result.”
In this jubilation, however, a less glorious fact was somewhat lost: “If the princes had not approved the building of the fleet and had not provided Parliament with the necessary funds: the parliamentarians in the Church could have decided what they wanted: nothing would have happened!”, said the historian Michael Salewski. In fact, the decision was made before a government had even been formed in Frankfurt. Because it was only on June 17th, three days after the naval decision, that the deliberations that then culminated in the law on the “Introduction of a provisional central authority for Germany” on June 28th began with the “Reichsverweser”, the Austrian Archduke Johann the top, who was elected on June 29 and took office on July 12.
In the Paulskirche, however, the naval meeting was closed by the President after five and a half hours at 2:30 p.m. on June 14, not without first having received the report from Deputy Kerst that he had been appointed accounting officer of the Naval Committee, responsible for collecting the hopefully large number of incoming “voluntary contributions” for the “German Navy” that has now been launched.
A “delicious” pair of binoculars for the first German warship commander
From then on, the reading of these contributions introduced the sessions of the National Assembly like a ritual. Then followed, through the President of the Parliament himself, the announcement of the “Princely Thurn- und Taxis ‘ sche General-Postdirection” for the postage-free transport of all “money remittances, which are indicated on the address for the formation of a German war fleet”, that also “Mr. Merz, Owner of the former Fraunhofer Optical Institute, for whom the captain of the first German warship” intends to donate a “delicious telescope” and that people in the south are busy collecting for a ship that “should carry the name of Bavaria through the seas”. Then the fleet disappeared from Parliament.
But it actually saw the light of day, with its steamships one of the most modern and, thanks to its commander-in-chief, Rear Admiral Carl Rudolph Brommy, one of the best-trained in Europe. Although she was not granted a long life, she continued to exist even after her departure under Hannibal Fischer’s auction hammer in the ships that went to the Prussian Navy from her bankruptcy estate and in the regulations that were passed by the naval administration during the short period of their existence had been created under Brommy and which still extend into the regulations of today’s German Navy, namely the Navy Service Regulation 400/1, “Service on board”.
Frank Ganseuer is a naval historian and former naval officer. He received his doctorate in 1984 from the Philipps University of Marburg. Between 1986 and 2014 he served on board frigates, but also as a consultant in the Federal Ministry of Defence. Most recently he was a military attaché in Rome.