France provided the spark that touched off the unrest [of 1848]. Dogged by a powerful wave of opposition to his unpopular rule, on February 24 King Louis Philippe abdicated and fled to England, leaving the reins of power in the hands of a coalition of reform-minded moderates and liberals. This turn of events electrified opposition movements across the continent, and they immediately raised the pressure on their respective governments. On March 13 Austria’s archconservative chancellor, Prince Metternich, was forced to step down, and the royal family fled Vienna soon thereafter. Surrounded by a large, angry crowd and fearing the same fate, [Prussian King] Friedrich Wilhelm IV made a series of extraordinary concessions. On March 18 he came out in support of a constitution for Prussia and the creation of a united Germany. The next day he appeared on the balcony of the royal palace to face the thousands of Berliners gathered there, and at their insistence he paid homage to the corpses of citizens killed by the military in recent street clashes. On March 21 he agreed to take part in a parade through the city following the black, red, and gold flag that had come to symbolize the cause of German unification. One of his closest advisers, Friedrich Wilhelm von Rauch, traveled alongside the king that day and burned with shame as the aura of the Prussian monarchy was reduced through such vulgar associations. “I cannot describe the impression that this ride made on me,” he noted. “It seemed to me as if everything had gone mad.”
The atmosphere in Poznan had been highly charged in the weeks preceding the Berlin revolution. Many nobles from the surrounding region had gathered in Poznan in order to obtain late-breaking reports from around the continent. When the courier arrived early on March 20 with news of the recent events in Berlin, the city crackled with activity. By ten o’clock almost everyone had heard, with the reports growing more exaggerated with each retelling. The Polish response was amazingly swift. Before long, women had hung dozens of red and white Polish flags from the windows of the Bazar and many private residences, and thousands of Poles filled the streets.
In his memoir Marceli Motty recalls his impressions of that memorable day: “The streets were choked with people like on a major holiday; without a trace of the police or army and with the government either in hiding or maintaining a very low profile…. Here in the market square teemed men and women and people of all ages. Seeing their faces and hearing their voices, one would have thought it was Poznan in the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries, for on this day just about every person and every word in circulation was Polish. The Germans and Jews were sitting at home, not sure of what to make of our intentions.” Motty’s comments capture how the initial breakdown of royal power in Berlin ignited the hopes of a broad cross section of the Polish population, unnerved most Germans and Jews, and paralyzed local Prussian authorities. His description also suggests how the events of that day displayed in dramatic, palpable fashion what was at stake for the city. For Motty and other Poles, the fluttering Polish flags and the chorus of Polish voices in the streets allowed them to imagine themselves back in time to a preferred Poznan that was proudly and indisputably Polish, an idealized past that could serve as a model for the future. For Germans and Germanized Jews, however, these same scenes likely brought less savory associations to mind. The temporary eclipse of the symbols of Prussian power and the presence of German culture underscored how fragile their privileged position in the city actually was.