Gabriel Riesser -
a Famous Jewish "Father" of the German Constitution of 1849
Zum Abschnitt: >I< >II< >III< >IV<
When in May 1848 the first German National Assembly met in St. Paul's
Church ("Paulskirche") of Frankfurt on the Main, one of the most fascinating
Jewish personalities, Gabriel Riesser, was among the representatives. Together
with leading figures of the time such as Dahlmann, Droysen and
to mention only a few,
he was elected for Schleswig-Holstein-Lauenburg, representing the Duchy
of Lauenburg. Riesser also was well-known and respected all over Germany
right from the beginning of his period in St. Paul's Church. The reasons
for this, however, were to be found on a different level: as a writer and
lawyer he had persistently and successfully fought for the emancipation
of the Jews in the different German states.
But at that time nobody could foretell the extraordinary career Riesser
would have as a member of the Frankfurt Parliament and his important role
in the development of democracy and parliamentarism in Germany. Gabriel
Riesser became one of the "fathers" of the German constitution of 1849
and so influenced the German liberal and democratic constitutional tradition
in his own particular way.
To those who had observed Riesser's life since his birth in Hamburg
in 1806, it had to come as a surprise that the high reputation he had gained
in mainly Jewish circles even increased during his period in St. Paul's
Church and that he became one of the most distinguished and influential
men in the National Assembly. Riesser's intellectual capacities manifested
themselves early in the course of his life but did not allow him to pursue
an academic career as he desired. In spite of his extraordinary education
- partly at the Lübeck Katharineum and the Hamburg Johanneum - and
in spite of his excellent university career in Kiel, Heidelberg and München
his academic career failed due to his confession.
He neither had the opportunity to become a university lecturer in Heidelberg
or Jena nor was he allowed to become an attorney in Hamburg. Not before
1840 when the legal situation changed favourably was he able to become
a notary. After having worked as a journalist for some years he founded
various Jewish journals
and legally defended and assisted German Jews, even those who, like Heinrich
Heine and Ludwig Börne, had left the country.
Riesser's reputation, which he enjoyed from the very beginning of his
activities in St. Paul's Church was due largely to his fight for the emancipation
of the Jews. He was not willing to accept any compromise in that respect
and acted in a frank and persistent manner. His well-known refusal to convert
to the Christian belief as many others did was rooted in his personal understanding
of honour and honesty. He repeatedly pointed out that he had not immigrated
but was born a Jewish German (nicht eingewandert, sondern
- a wording that makes clear, why he did not see himself only as representative
of a confessional or racial minority which was suppressed in many states,
but as an elected member of the Frankfurt Parliament. As a matter of fact
it was mainly the "liberal, enlightened bourgeoisie" of Lauenburg which
had elected him and sent him to Frankfurt, as Riesser said in a letter
of May 1848.
Today one can hardly understand that it was self-evident for Riesser
to combine his commitment for the civil emancipation of the Jews with his
comprehensive political objectives and above all with the aim to create
a constitution for all Germans. In 1846, for example, he claimed that all
necessary steps were to be taken to liberalize Schleswig-Holstein. To transform
Germany into a federal union with a liberal constitution and to include
Austria in this union was one of his political goals in St. Paul's Church,
for which he fought fervently before eventually accepting the "kleindeutsch-erbkaiserliche"
solution (unity of Germany without Austria) in 1849. The intrinsic nexus
between Riesser's various objectives is apparent in a quotation from one
of his publications:
"... If you offered me emancipation, which I desire ever so much
with the one hand and the implementation of the beautiful dreams of German
political unity and political freedom with the other hand, I would not
hesitate to take the latter since I am fully convinced that it includes
Like many others in St. Paul's Church, Riesser consequently wanted
to achieve freedom in the interior by uniting the German people in one
The question as to the political camp Riesser adhered to in St. Paul's
Church can be easily answered after having read the preceding ideas. Riesser's
concept of justice, freedom and political unity was clearly that of a liberal-minded
politician of his time. He joined the so-called left-centre, the "Württemberger
which was by no means a radical democratic group as would have been most
likely for him. His well-known political realism prevented him from promoting
any political anarchism; his personal aversion to the latter might explain
why he desired a parliamentary monarchy since he was convinced that politically
disadvantaged minorities were better off in a constitutional system than
in the uncertainty of political illusions.
The more Austria isolated itself politically, the more the members of
the National Assembly changed their political positions and in the end
there was only the alternative between the "kleindeutsch-erbkaiserliche"
solution and the complete failure of the constitutional efforts. In December
of 1848 Riesser changed over to the parliamentary group of the "Augsburger
He met von Gagern whose constitutional concepts including the Simon-Gagern-Pact
Riesser defended until the end. Together with Robert von Mohl, Rümelin,
Stedmann, Laube and others
Riesser was one of about forty representatives who brought about the constitution
in March 1848. According to a general contemporary appraisal Gabriel Riesser
was a liberal-minded patriot, who in view of the strengthening of German
particularism drew the necessary political conclusions and acted accordingly.
These necessarily very general political classifications, however, do
not explain why Riesser gained increasingly more influence in the course
of the deliberations. It culminated in his famous "Kaiserrede" on March,
21st 1849, by which Riesser, who was the final rapporteur of
the Constitutional Committee, deeply impressed the audience and provoked
thunders of applause;
this speech was later described as "epoch-making" (Biedermann) and
Georg Beseler and others thought that Riesser proved to be the greatest
speaker of the Assembly. "We saw Riesser and Gagern embracing each other",
was how Haym described the atmosphere after Riesser's final speech.
The symbolic nature of that description clearly points to Riesser's growing
reputation since May 1848 and the position he had acquired in the meantime.
Yet it would be wrong to attribute Riesser's importance to his eloquence,
although that was one reason for his excellent reputation. But it was no
more than the exterior glamour of his interior capacities. These were to
be found on two levels, as contemporary observers indicated: firstly the
unbiased argumentation inspired by intellectual disputes and thus well-equipped
with the power of persuasion and secondly, the most essential prerequisite
of his success and importance, the difficult and responsible parliamentary
work based on a broad humanist education.
If we look at the first point, we find some hints in a portrait of Riesser
by Wilhelm Robert Heller published at the turn of the year 1848/49:
In his comments about the Jews, which are biased to some extent, he says:
"Those of us who think that they (Jews) are anything but kind have to recognize
Mr. Riesser as a charming and amiable man. Despite important talents he
is modest and confident and as a patriot he only works for the good cause."
The fact that Riesser concentrated exclusively upon intellectual disputes
became one of his specific features. This characteristic is confirmed by
a remark Riesser made in a since-lost "parliamentary album" in favour of
an ill parliamentarian on March, 13th 1849:
"Real unanimity tolerates contradictory ideas: the highest unanimity
emerges from a conflict of genuine convictions. As in more difficult times
war was meant to bring the people closer together, nowadays the conflict
of ideas might serve the approximation of mind."
That does not necessarily mean that one has to do without passion in
politics. But Riesser only or almost exclusively knew passion as an "indignant
sense of justice" to which he referred when he condemned the riots of the
16th and 18th September 1848;
it was the very same passion that inspired him to react to an anti-Jewish
pamphlet as early as in 1832:
"Whoever disputes my rights to my German fatherland, disputes
at the same time my ideas, my feelings, the language which I speak, the
air that I breathe; therefore I have to defend myself against those people
as if they were murderers."
During his period in St. Paul's Church outbursts of that kind, which
were rooted in a deeply hurt sense of honour and justice did not occur
very often. It was not bitterness, as one might have assumed, that influenced
his consultations and work with the representatives of the different parliamentary
groups but rather the moderate attitude which he assumed before making
difficult decisions and which he cultivated in private meetings with exponents
of other political groups.
The fact that Riesser's work was widely appreciated becomes apparent
if we take into account that he was elected member of several committees
such as the committee of petitions, several extraordinary committees and
above all since the 7th of September 1848 the famous Constitutional
Committee which was meant to prepare and work out the future constitution.
The Constitutional Committee brought together high-ranking representatives
of the National Assembly
such as Dahlmann and Beseler. Due to his comprehensive juridical
knowledge and his high reputation Riesser became an extremely important
member of the Constitutional Committee. Thus his advice very soon proved
to be indispensable and influenced substantially the work of the plenary
assembly. The fact that Riesser was Vice-President of the parliament from
October to December of 1848 allows conclusions about his work in the Committees
and his general reputation.
Riesser's personality and influence, however, can only be judged properly
against the background of the National Assembly itself. In contrast to
the general opinion that persisted for many years, even after 1945, the
parliament in St. Paul's Church was not a more or less romantic academic
organization but right from its beginning an intensely working body, especially
in the committees. In the beginning it had to organize its work by creating
its own parliamentary rules of procedure and thus acted in the infancy
of German parliamentarism. Parts of the legislation drafted in the committees
were later on adopted by the particular states when the National Assembly
itself no longer existed. The intensity of committee work becomes even
more obvious if one takes into account that all this was achieved in less
than one year after which the newly strengthened particular states put
an end to St. Paul's Church. A letter by Gabriel Riesser of October 1848
gives evidence of the work of the Constitutional Committee:
"I am a member of one of the three subcommittees which prepare
the revision of the fundamental rights; we have just finished our work.
Furthermore I am one of the rapporteurs on the part of the constitution
under discussion; as such I acted reporting last week and shall act this
week and thereafter alternately."
A letter of Riesser of November 1848, in which he says that he became
a member of the Constitutional Committee and was appointed Vice-President
"for no obvious reasons" underlines his great modesty.
In fact, his capacities, appreciated later on, had become apparent in the
Pre-Parliament (Vorparlament) which held session from the end of March
until April, 4th, 1848. This private assembly which was not
an elected but a convened one, determined the democratic foundation of
the National Assembly. The question as to the composition of the future
National Assembly could only be answered after extreme difficulties. In
fact, it was Gabriel Riesser who already at that time found a solution
to this problem and prepared a decision according to his own proposals
on public, general and equal elections. The Pre-Parliament supported Riesser
and decided that every German of full age without consideration of rank,
patrimony or confession be eligible.
This constitutes an extraordinary historic decision and still has its impact
today. The dispute on the right to vote in St. Paul's Church arose once
but Gabriel Riesser contributed substantially to holding elections on the
basis of the sovereignty of the people.
Compared to other speakers of the National Assembly Riesser was a reserved
parliamentarian who did not request to speak very often. At times when
he did, however, his speeches were of high significance. They culminated
in the famous "Kaiserrede" of March 1848, mentioned above. Above all, we
would like to emphasize three problem areas that appear in Riesser's reports:
these are questions on fundamental rights, on federal problems including
the question of Schleswig-Holstein and finally on the administrative organization
of German unity.
It is not possible to describe Riesser's speeches in detail here, such
as his debut on the 18th of August dealing with the question
of the postal secret. His reports, however, on the right to vote, which
were significant in the Pre-Parliament, are worth mentioning. If in the
Pre-Parliament the main problem had been the one of establishing voting
procedures for the National Assembly; the new parliament now debated upon
the introduction of universal suffrage on the one hand and upon combining
the planned electoral law with the constitution on the other hand. Riesser's
contributions on particular questions of the right to vote reveal important
nuances, for example that he advocated direct but public elections. For
Riesser elections were the moral expression of courage and thus were preferable
to secret suffrage.
The fact that he finally gave up his idea of universal suffrage is due
to the changed political groupings in the final stage of the Assembly,
when Riesser tried first and foremost to bring about a unified constitution
and to guarantee the necessary majorities in a pragmatic way; the same
is true for the problem of Austria as a part of the new empire. Founding
the constitution was given priority over other quite important questions.
Yet Riesser continued persistently to promote the emancipation of the
Jews with regard to civil rights. When a representative of Stuttgart, Moritz
Mohl, demanded a special passage about the "Israeli tribe" and proposed
to concede them no more than the right to vote and to be elected,
Riesser held a spontaneous and impressive speech against any discrimination
against Jews on August, 29th 1848.
According to the minutes his speech was greeted with general applause.
His ideas were welcomed and supported by the House at the same time. This
very speech as well as the reactions of the representatives made clear
that for the broad majority in St. Paul's Church Jewish membership was
self-evident whether the deputy had converted to Christianity or not. It
is true that the Assembly showed an "absence of religious and racial prejudice"
The fact that Eduard von Simson became Heinrich von Gagern's
successor as the president of parliament from December 1848 to May 1849
characterizes and pays tribute to the first German National Assembly. Von
Simson, too, descended from a Jewish family
and became known for his later activities as president of the Reichstag
(1867-1873) and as first president of the Supreme Court of the Reich.
It was common knowledge that Riesser was in favour of Schleswig-Holstein
being affiliated to Germany and that at the same time he tried to safeguard
the position of Lauenburg. Riesser accepted the wording of SS 1.2 of the
constitution of the Reich, which says that the conditions for the Duchy
of Schleswig-Holstein were subject to change, because he was convinced
that Denmark would pursue a moderate policy accordingly.
"If Denmark does not pursue a moderate policy accordingly, if
Denmark dares to make a hostile decision on the same question... I believe
that such a presumptuous attitude will be harmful to the Danish and useful
to the German question."
For those who knew about Riesser's rhetoric capacities this was a very
Riesser's influence appears in several wordings of the later constitution
adopted by the Reich, for example with respect to the principle of federalism
(SS 5), the wording of which was heavily disputed due to the question of
Riesser became one of the founding fathers of the constitution of the Reich
not only because he was a member of the Constitutional Committee but also
because of his enormous success in Parliament. The most important example
of this is the famous "Kaiserrede" of March, 21st 1849.
With the successful vote on the Constitution, Riesser had achieved the
aim for which he had fought passionately. It followed that Riesser should
become a member of the so-called "Kaiserdeputation", which offered the
crown of the united German empire to the Prussian King.
Even after Prussia's refusal Riesser remained in St. Paul's Church and
only later on May 21st 1849 decided to leave the Assembly together
with most of the representatives of the centre. He did this with deep disappointment
as it was expressed in his "report of activities" addressed to his constituency.
After that he did not yet leave the political scene, but represented Hamburg
in Gotha and in the Parliament of Erfurt.
From 1859 to 1862 Riesser was member of the citizenry of Hamburg and for
some time its first Vice-President.
In 1860 he continued his long-interrupted juridical career quite successfully
as the first German judge of Jewish confession at the Supreme Court of
Today we know that although the Assembly in St. Paul's Church failed
to transform Germany into a federal union with a liberal constitution,
the concepts that originated from it were of lasting significance. The
Assembly in St. Paul's Church shaped German parliamentarism, accelerated
the acceptance of fundamental rights in Germany and constituted a decisive
starting point for a liberal, democratic constitution.
There was no need for the efforts of the Weimar period to emphasize
the merits of the National Assembly for the development of a constitutional
State. The roots of the free and constitutional democracy, in which the
Federal Republic of Germany is living today, are not to be found in the
Weimar Republic nor in the period after the Second World War, nor exclusively
in the historical influences of the French or the American Revolution.
The German constitutional tradition is based on the specific historical
development since the wars of liberation; it was achieved through fighting
and suffering during the first half of the 19th century, not
least by many of the representatives of St. Paul's Church, whose faces
bore the marks of long imprisonment.
The thorny path towards a free constitution had be pursued through heavy
sacrifices, political persecution and the troubles of the "Vormärz".
The memory of the wars of liberation as well as the events linked to the
"Hambacher Fest" and the "Göttinger Sieben" constituted some of the
intellectual trends represented in St. Paul's Church in Frankfurt.
Among the representatives who had entered the National Assembly in May
1848 were many Germans who had had to emigrate in order to escape from
persecution and who were persecuted again after the dissolution of the
Stuttgart "rump parliament".
Gabriel Riesser is remembered today not only as the first Jewish judge
in Hamburg, the Vice-President of the Frankfurt Assembly and member of
the Constitutional Committee, but for his leading role in shaping German
parliamentarism and its traditions which live on today. This contribution
could not be overshadowed by the dark periods of the 20th century.
In his memoires Robert von Mohl said that there was hardly any
representative in St. Paul's Church who was as widely recognized and appreciated
as Gabriel Riesser.
In addition to his fight against confessional and racial discrimination
Riesser made an extraordinary contribution of historic and actual importance
to the development of German parliamentarism which, because it originated
from intellectual efforts rather than practical work, was all the more
significant and convincing.
F u ß n o t e n
Friedrich Dahlmann, historian (1785-1860); Johann Gustav Droysen,
historian (1808-1884); Georg Waitz, historian (1813-1886); in detail
Jörg-Detlef Kühne, Die Reichsverfassung der Paulskirche,
1985, p. 546 f., 554 f.; Frank Eyck, The Frankfurt Parliament 1848-1849,
1968, p. 206 ff.
See the list of representatives in: Max Schwarz, Biographisches
Handbuch der Reichstage, 1985.
Fritz Friedlaender, Das Leben Gabriel Riessers, Diss. Berlin 1925,
p. 30 ff.; Frank Eyck, op. cit., p. 100, 139, 242.
See Allgemeine Deutsche Biographie (ADB), Vol. 28, 1889, p. 586; Friedlaender,
op. cit., p. 24 ff.
F.e. "Der Jude. Periodische Blätter für Religion und Gewissensfreiheit"
(1832); "Jüdische Briefe zur Abwehr und Verständigung" (1840).
Comp. f.e. Riesser, Börne und die Juden, 1832; the relations
to Heine and Börne showed some tensions, comp. Friedlaender,
op. cit., p. 73.
See Erich Lüth, Gabriel Riesser, 1806-1863, 1963, p. 27.
M. Isler (ed.), Gabriel Riessers gesammelte Schriften, 4 vol., 1867-8,
I., p. 552; comp. Eyck, op. cit., p. 242.
"Bietet mir mit der einen Hand die Emanzipation, auf die alle meine innigsten
Wünsche gerichtet sind, mit der anderen die Verwirklichung des schönen
Traums von der politischen Einheit verknüpft, ich würde ohne
Bedenken die letztere wählen; denn ich habe die feste, tiefste Überzeugung,
daß in ihr auch jene enthalten ist." (Friedlaender, p. 81).
See Wilfried Fiedler, Das Parlamentsalbum von 1849/50 und die Entwicklung
des deutschen Parlamentarismus, Zeitschrift für Parlamentsfragen 1985,
p. 71 ff., 93 ff.
Comp. Ernst Rudolf Huber, Deutsche Verfassungsgeschichte seit 1789,
Vol. II, p. 616 f.; Eyck, op. cit., p. 139.
See Eyck, op. cit., p. 193.
Comp. Eyck, op. cit., p. 373; Huber, op. cit., p. 816; Karl
Biedermann, Das erste deutsche Parlament, 1898, p. 69 ff.
See Huber, op. cit., p. 619.
Franz Wigard (ed.), Stenographischer Bericht über die Verhandlungen
der deutschen Constituirenden National-Versammlung zu Frankfurt a. M.,
9 vol., 1848-49, vol. 9, p. 5911.
For details see Friedlaender, op. cit., p. 115 ff.
Brustbilder aus der Paulskirche, 1849, p. 25.
Deutsche Rundschau CVI, Januar - März 1901, p. 99 ff.
Session of 6th of October 1848, Wigard, op. cit., vol.
3, p. 2473; for the historical events see E.R. Huber, op. cit.,
p. 695 ff.
See Lüth, p. 34.
See Kühne, op. cit., p. 544 ff.
Comp. Friedlaender, op. cit., p. 98 ff.
Letter of the 29th of Oct. 1848; see Friedlaender, op.
cit., p. 99.
Friedlaender, op. cit., p. 99.
Dokumente zur Deutschen Verfassungsgeschichte, ed. by E.R. Huber,
vol 13, 1978, p. 335.
See Kühne, op. cit., p. 416 f.; Huber, op. cit., p.
Friedlaender, op. cit., p. 89.
Wigard, op. cit., vol. VIII, p. 5503 f.
Wigard, op. cit., vol. III, p. 1754.
Wigard, op. cit., vol. III, p. 1755 ff.; for the whole dispute and
its consequences see Eyck, op. cit, p. 241 ff.
Op. cit., p. 100.
Comp. Eyck, op. cit., p. 245; for the consequences of the leading
position of v. Simson and Riesser in the Assembly within
the Jewish emancipation discussion see Margarita Pazi, Fanny Lewald
- Das Echo der Revolution von 1848 in den Schriften, in: Juden im Vormärz
und die Revolution von 1848, ed. by Walter Grab and Julius H.
Schoeps, 1983, p. 233 ff., 244 ff.
Wigard, op. cit., vol. IV, p. 2765.
Comp. Wolfram Siemann, Die Frankfurter Nationalversammlung 1848/49
zwischen demokratischem Liberalismus und konservativerer Reform, 1976,
p. 195 ff., 215 f.; Wigard, op. cit., vol. V, p. 2971.
Wigard, op. cit., vol. VIII, p. 5899; Riesser spoke as rapporteur
for the Constitutional Committee.
For the refusal of the imperial crown by Friedrich Wilhelm IV. and the
following discussions see E.R. Huber, op. cit., p. 846 ff.; Eyck,
op. cit., p. 382 f.
ADB, p. 589; Friedlaender, op. cit., p. 131.
See ADB, p. 589; Friedlaender, op. cit., p. 123 ff.; for the continuity
argument concerning the development of the German parliamentarism see the
most important study of Kühne, op. cit., passim.
ADB, p. 539, Kühne, op. cit., p. 562.
Comp. Lüth, op. cit., p. 50 f.
The constitutional significance of the Frankfurt Parliament cannot be pointed
out by the dominating historical and political approach which underlines
exclusively the "failing revolution", comp. f. e. E.R. Huber, op.
cit., p. 842 ff. See Fiedler, op. cit., p. 80 ff.; for the most
convincing analysis of the consequences of "1848" comp. Kühne,
op. cit., p. 49 ff. and passim.
For the tableau of influences see Fiedler, op. cit., p. 86 ff.
See the informing analysis by Hartwig Brandt, Restauration und Frühliberalismus,
1979, p. 1 ff. (Introduction).
Comp. only Fiedler, op. cit., p. 80 ff.
Lebenserinnerungen, 2 vol., 1902, vol. 2, p. 56.