When I started In Touch I was reading Francis Wheen’s biography of Karl Marx (Fourth Estate Paperback 2000). Wheen makes reference to Marx’ impatience in 1848 with the very first German national parliament in Frankfurt-am-Main. Marx complained about the delay in proclaiming an all-German democratic constitution. This is understandable since he had placed such high hopes in this potentially far-reaching attempt to undo the post-Napoleonic counter-revolution. He was furiously disappointed with the German Liberals who dominated the Assembly and had a tendency, according to Marx, whenever real progress appeared imminent, to adjourn for lunch. Actually, like so much of what Marx “wrote”, it was written by Engels, but the two were agreed in their fierce attack on many of the delegates by name.
One of these delegates was Friedrich Daniel Bassermann, member of a well-known Mannheim family. He was one of the Liberals who were opposed to the extreme left-wing supporters of Marx and Engels and who put all his efforts onto establishing a constitutional monarchy in Germany. Had this succeeded, who knows how different the ensuing history of Germany might have been? But Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia declined the offer made to him by the Assembly of becoming emperor of a united Germany because, as he said, it smelt of revolution. The “smell” came not from the hard-working, conscientious Liberal members of the Frankfurt Assembly but from the extremists on the left who were infected with French revolutionary thinking and impatient to set up a much more radical arrangement, more radical even than Marx wanted at this stage.
Bassermann was the son of the banker and Bavarian consul in Mannheim, Friedrich Ludwig Bassermann. The Bassermanns, whose fine house still stands on the market place in Mannheim on the Rhine, were a well-known and respected family in the Principality of Baden and their name recurs frequently in the annals of bourgeois Germany. Other well known Bassermanns were Ernst Bassermann (1854-1917), Leader of the Nationalliberale Partei in the Reichstag from 1907, and Albert Bassermann (1867-1952),the great German actor who worked under Max Reinhardt and later in the USA in several films. The name Bassermann is associated also with three prominent German companies: Bassermann Minerals GmbH, once owned by Friedrich Daniel himself and now producing just about anything in the field of mineral and earth products; one of the oldest tinned food producers in Germany, Sonnen Bassermann, now thoroughly globalised and proud of its environmentally friendly foods; and the distinguished Weingut Geheimer Rat Dr. von Bassermann-Jordan in Deidesheim on the German wine route. All three have websites worth a visit.
Das deutsche Bürgertum, that self-confident, cultured, prosperous and immensely stable German middle class, dominated civic life and commerce in a way unfamiliar in British history. Because there were so many states in Germany, power was not centralised in a single capital city like London, but developed throughout the Middle Ages in over three hundred small and large principalities and self-governing Imperial cities. There was ample opportunity for the growth of a governing class with real power in every one of the many states. Not until the rise of Prussia as the dominant German state in the second half of the nineteenth century did affairs become centred on Berlin, although by no means exclusively. If your German is good, that is, able to cope with long compound sentences and historical vocabulary, the German historian Lothar Gall has written a fascinating and impressive book, Bürgertum in Deutschland (Berlin: Siedler Verlag 1989).
At the time of Friedrich Daniel Bassermann’s political career Mannheim was part of the Grand Duchy of Baden in the southwest of Germany along the French border. It was here that French ideas of liberty and equality fell on most receptive ears. Friedrich Daniel firmly believed that real democracy depended on extensive political education. Alongside his own career in the Baden parliament and later in the national assembly at Frankfurt he founded a publishing house to print and sell books and pamphlets on political matters, and he published a newspaper. However, all his attempts to bring democracy and constitutional monarchy to Germany failed when Mannheim was taken over by Prussian troops in June 1849. Bassermann had devoted his life and fortune to the cause of democracy and had nothing left to live for. On 29th July 1855, one day after his parents, in the company of their six children, twenty-five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren, had celebrated their Golden Wedding, Friedrich Daniel shot himself.
The suicide of Friedrich Daniel Bassermann touches one’s imagination. He was known to be a man of honour and was much respected, not only in his home town of Mannheim. He was married and had five children. The cause of constitutional monarchy to which he devoted himself was neither extreme nor alien to public opinion in much of Germany at the time. Bassermann was convinced that he could negotiate with Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia about the formation of a united Germany based on a constitution limiting the autocratic powers of the monarch. In fact the National Assembly in Frankfurt appointed him leader of the negotiations with the Prussian government in Berlin. Their proposals were moderate, too moderate, evidently, for the revolutionaries in the Grand duchy of Baden.
Bassermann and his co-delegates were caught between two extremes. Friedrich Wilhelm IV clearly feared an inevitable curtailment of his powers if he agreed to the Frankfurt proposals. In addition, he saw the real threat of revolution. In April 1848 Mannheim was the scene of skirmishes, soon suppressed but not far off civil war. It was understandable, perhaps, that the Prussian King was unwilling to accept the position of Kaiser of a federal Germany which he doubtless feared might tend ever more to the left. Nevertheless, Bassermann was treated with respect as the official negotiator by the Prussian Crown Prince, the later Wilhelm I, in the autumn of 1848. In 1850, however, the Crown Prince visited the Prussian troops in Mannheim and completely ignored not only Bassermann but also all the city dignitaries. It was presumably the catalyst. From then on Bassermann and his fellow Liberals were “Männer von gestern”, passé. Bassermann was isolated. Even his friends left to find careers elsewhere. It was a very public fall from grace. He evidently saw only one way out.