European studies blog

Exploring Europe at the British Library

28 August 2013

Church - Parliament - Monument

As readers of our predecessor blog DACH will know, I have a research interest in the social and political upheavals of 1848 in the German-speaking countries. So a recent trip to Frankfurt am Main had to include a visit to the Paulskirche (St Paul’s Church) where in that year representatives from all over what was then the German Confederation assembled as the first democratically-elected German Parliament to draw up a constitution for a united Germany.

The church was chosen as a venue because of its large size and circular shape: designed so that a preacher could be clearly seen and heard throughout the body of the building, it lent itself well to political speeches and debates.

Drawing of the Frankfurt Parliament 1848
A session of  Parliament in the Paulskirche, 1848  (Picture by Leo von Elliott, from Wikimedia Commons)

As we now know, the work of the Frankfurt Parliament was largely in vain. It successfully drafted a constitution but when in April 1849 the Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm IV refused to become constitutional ruler of the planned German state,  support for the Parliament – already fragile –  began to ebb away. It was finally dissolved two months later and in 1852 the Paulskirche’s Lutheran congregation moved back in and the building returned to its religious function.

Despite its failure at the time, seventy years later the constitution drafted in Frankfurt  was to be an important influence on Germany’s 1919 Weimar Constitution. During the years of the Weimar Republic, the Paulskirche began to take on a powerful symbolic role for democrats – somewhat to the dismay of its clergy, whose views tended more towards conservative nationalism. Nonetheless the church hosted annual commemorations of the new constitution and a celebration to mark the 75th anniversary of the  Parliament in 1923.

After the Second World War the Paulskirche was an empty shell, seriously damaged but not completely destroyed by bombing in 1944. When the new West German Federal Republic (which also modelled its constitution in part on that devised by the Frankfurt Parliament) was looking for new national symbols of a democratic tradition, the Paulskirche was an obvious choice.  A decision was made early on not to restore it as a church but to turn it into a secular monument, the ‘cradle of German democracy’.

Today the centre of the building is taken up by a large and rather austere hall used for civic and national events. Perhaps the best known of these is the annual award of the Peace Prize of the German Book trade. Another regular award ceremony is that of the Goethe-Prize, named for Frankfurt’s most famous son and awarded on the anniversary of his birth, 28 August – although there will be no ceremony today as the prize is only given every three years and the next award will be in 2014.

Photograph of the assembly hall in the PaulskircheThe central assembly hall in today's Paulskirche (Picture by Blueknow from Wikimedia Commons)w:en:Creative Commons

Around the outside of the central hall is an exhibition telling the story of the church and the Frankfurt Parliament. This also looks a bit austere and rather wordy at first glance, but is fascinating and well worth spending time on if you’re visiting Frankfurt. On the outside of the building are various memorials to historical figures who embody German and international democratic traditions, and a striking monument to the victims of Nazi concentration camps.

Exterior of the Paulskirche
The Paulskirche today (photo by Susan Reed)

The conservative clergy of the Weimar period might be shocked to see their church today, but I like to think that the men who assembled in 1848 to try and create a democratic, united Germany would be delighted.

Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Studies


Stenographischer Bericht über die Verhandlungen der deutschen constituirenden Nationalversammlung zu Frankfurt am Main (Leipzig, 1848-1850). 9335.l.12

Verfassung des deutschen Reiches, einschliesslich der Grundrechte und der Reichswahlordnung.  (Karlsruhe, 1849).  RB.23.a.28060

Von der Barfüsserkirche zur Paulskirche : Beiträge zur Frankfurter Stadt- und Kirchengeschichte, herausgegeben von Roman Fischer  (Frankfurt am Main,  2000). YA.2002.a.7395



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