S a a r b r ü c k e r   B i b l i o t h e k


Fiedler, Wilfried/Ress, Georg (Hrsg.):
Verfassungsrecht und Völkerrecht,
Gedächtnisschrift für                             
Wilhelm Karl Geck, Köln/ Berlin u.a.:
Carl Heymanns, 1989, S. 189-197.

Wilfried Fiedler

Gabriel Riesser -
a Famous Jewish "Father" of the German Constitution of 1849

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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 Waitz,[1] to mention only a few,[2] 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.[3] 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.[4] 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[5] and legally defended and assisted German Jews, even those who, like Heinrich Heine and Ludwig Börne, had left the country.[6]

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 eingeboren)[7] - 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.[8]

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 the former."[9]

 Like many others in St. Paul's Church, Riesser consequently wanted to achieve freedom in the interior by uniting the German people in one state.[10]



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 Hof",[11] 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 Hof".[12] He met von Gagern whose constitutional concepts including the Simon-Gagern-Pact[13] Riesser defended until the end. Together with Robert von Mohl, Rümelin, Stedmann, Laube and others[14] 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;[15] 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.[16] 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."[17] 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."[18]

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;[19] 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."[20]

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[21] 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.[22]

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."[23]

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.[24] 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.[25] 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 again[26] but Gabriel Riesser contributed substantially to holding elections on the basis of the sovereignty of the people.[27]

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.[28] 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,[29] Riesser held a spontaneous and impressive speech against any discrimination against Jews on August, 29th 1848.[30] 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" (Frank Eyck).[31] 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[32] 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."[33]

For those who knew about Riesser's rhetoric capacities this was a very clear statement.

 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 "Mediatization".[34] 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.[35] 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.[36] 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.[37] After that he did not yet leave the political scene, but represented Hamburg in Gotha and in the Parliament of Erfurt.[38] From 1859 to 1862 Riesser was member of the citizenry of Hamburg and for some time its first Vice-President.[39] In 1860 he continued his long-interrupted juridical career quite successfully as the first German judge of Jewish confession at the Supreme Court of Hamburg (Obergericht):[40]



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.[41]

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.[42]

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".[43] 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.[44] 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.[45] 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

[1] 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.

[2] See the list of representatives in: Max Schwarz, Biographisches Handbuch der Reichstage, 1985.

[3] Fritz Friedlaender, Das Leben Gabriel Riessers, Diss. Berlin 1925, p. 30 ff.; Frank Eyck, op. cit., p. 100, 139, 242.

[4] See Allgemeine Deutsche Biographie (ADB), Vol. 28, 1889, p. 586; Friedlaender, op. cit., p. 24 ff.

[5] F.e. "Der Jude. Periodische Blätter für Religion und Gewissensfreiheit" (1832); "Jüdische Briefe zur Abwehr und Verständigung" (1840).

[6] Comp. f.e. Riesser, Börne und die Juden, 1832; the relations to Heine and Börne showed some tensions, comp. Friedlaender, op. cit., p. 73.

[7] See Erich Lüth, Gabriel Riesser, 1806-1863, 1963, p. 27.

[8] M. Isler (ed.), Gabriel Riessers gesammelte Schriften, 4 vol., 1867-8, I., p. 552; comp. Eyck, op. cit., p. 242.

[9] "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).

[10] See Wilfried Fiedler, Das Parlamentsalbum von 1849/50 und die Entwicklung des deutschen Parlamentarismus, Zeitschrift für Parlamentsfragen 1985, p. 71 ff., 93 ff.

[11] Comp. Ernst Rudolf Huber, Deutsche Verfassungsgeschichte seit 1789, Vol. II, p. 616 f.; Eyck, op. cit., p. 139.

[12] See Eyck, op. cit., p. 193.

[13] Comp. Eyck, op. cit., p. 373; Huber, op. cit., p. 816; Karl Biedermann, Das erste deutsche Parlament, 1898, p. 69 ff.

[14] See Huber, op. cit., p. 619.

[15] 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.

[16] For details see Friedlaender, op. cit., p. 115 ff.

[17] Brustbilder aus der Paulskirche, 1849, p. 25.

[18] Deutsche Rundschau CVI, Januar - März 1901, p. 99 ff.

[19] 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.

[20] See Lüth, p. 34.

[21] See Kühne, op. cit., p. 544 ff.

[22] Comp. Friedlaender, op. cit., p. 98 ff.

[23] Letter of the 29th of Oct. 1848; see Friedlaender, op. cit., p. 99.

[24] Friedlaender, op. cit., p. 99.

[25] Dokumente zur Deutschen Verfassungsgeschichte, ed. by E.R. Huber, vol 13, 1978, p. 335.

[26] See Kühne, op. cit., p. 416 f.; Huber, op. cit., p. 787 ff.

[27] Friedlaender, op. cit., p. 89.

[28] Wigard, op. cit., vol. VIII, p. 5503 f.

[29] Wigard, op. cit., vol. III, p. 1754.

[30] Wigard, op. cit., vol. III, p. 1755 ff.; for the whole dispute and its consequences see Eyck, op. cit, p. 241 ff.

[31] Op. cit., p. 100.

[32] 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.

[33] Wigard, op. cit., vol. IV, p. 2765.

[34] 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.

[35] Wigard, op. cit., vol. VIII, p. 5899; Riesser spoke as rapporteur for the Constitutional Committee.

[36] 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.

[37] ADB, p. 589; Friedlaender, op. cit., p. 131.

[38] 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.

[39] ADB, p. 539, Kühne, op. cit., p. 562.

[40] Comp. Lüth, op. cit., p. 50 f.

[41] 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.

[42] For the tableau of influences see Fiedler, op. cit., p. 86 ff.

[43] See the informing analysis by Hartwig Brandt, Restauration und Frühliberalismus, 1979, p. 1 ff. (Introduction).

[44] Comp. only Fiedler, op. cit., p. 80 ff.

[45] Lebenserinnerungen, 2 vol., 1902, vol. 2, p. 56.