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Frederick William's rejection of the imperial distinction effectively wrecked the National Assembly's plans. By June the delegates had been dispersed from Frankfurt, ending the experiment in popular nation-building. None the less, Prussia continued to explore the possibilities of forming a kleindeutsch state with the other German princes, over Austria's stated objections. Only upon learning late in 1850 that Russia would support Austria should war break out did Frederick William back down. At the Bohemian town of Olmütz, he agreed to restore the German confederation as it had existed before the upheavals of 1848. Austria regained its pre-eminence within German Europe, Germany remained divided, and the politics of reaction returned.

Yet, it was too late to turn back the clock. With the exception of Austria, most German princes - including Frederick William - ruled constitutionally after 1850. Significantly, the constitutional provisions for legislative institutions and elections opened up German political life as never before. Long term, this also undermined rulers' efforts to revive censorship and restrictions on political associations. Moreover, the princes granted the Christian churches much of the freedom promised by the stillborn imperial constitution of 1849. The Prussian constitution of 1850 gave the Catholic and the Protestant churches significant autonomy to run their internal affairs. Frederick William even placed the direction of the Protestant church in a new organisation, the Superior Church Council (Oberkirchenrat), which no longer reported to the Prussian ministry for church affairs (although it remained responsible to the king as summus episcopus). To gain Catholic support for their conservative policies, several states signed new agreements with the Vatican. The most generous of these was the Austrian concordat of 1855, which not only freed the church from state control over clerical nominations and internal administration, but effectively subordinated civil society to the church. The church gained extensive rights over the public schools, and the state pledged to uphold canon law as civil law, particularly with respect to marriage. But even in Württemberg, Hesse-Darmstadt and Baden, the new concordats reduced state influence over episcopal and priestly appointments, gave the churches a freer hand in exercising church discipline and organising religious services, and enhanced the church's role in public schooling.

The years after 1848 also witnessed important changes in the complexion of German Protestantism and Catholicism. The return to reaction strengthened the conservative-orthodox position in many Protestant state churches, particularly in Mecklenburg, Bavaria, Hesse-Kassel and Prussia. Once more, the princes looked to the church to help guard against sinful revolution. But now conservative churchmen used this support to undercut liberal

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