The revolutions of 1848

Key Facts & Summary:

  • Several European countries experienced a series of revolutions due to three main factors: The poor governance and the negligence of the European monarchs towards the people, a wide range of liberalism that suddenly prevailed in Europe and a large sense of nationalism created by foreign rule and thus hope of unification by certain countries.
  • Most of the revolutions of 1848 generally failed due to the conflicting philosophies of the revolutionaries and thus conservatives regained power.
  • These revolutions represent the end of the age of Metternich.
  • Britain and Russia were not caught up in these revolutions even though they swept over the continent while the Netherlands barely escaped due to the monarch at the time King Willem II.
  • He decided to fundamentally alter the constitution to reform and effectively reduce the power of the monarchy.

Throughout the nineteenth century, Europe witnessed it’s most widespread revolutionary wave now often referred to as the Spring of Nations or the Year of Revolution in 1848. This affected more than 50 countries with France, the Netherlands, the states of the German Confederation, Italy and the Austrian Empire being the most affected. The uprisings led to little political change but had a significant social and cultural change. Some reforms lasted and brought with them certain changes such as the abolition of serfdom in Austria and Hungary, the end of absolute monarchy in Denmark, and the introduction of representative democracy in the Netherlands.

The initial success yet also the failure of the revolutions of 1848 can be attributed to the coming of different groups to oppose the conservative order. Even though these groups were not necessarily compatible with each other they did initially win ground but then they argued and fought against each other, they were either leaderless or lacked a clear goal, until most of the conservatives’ regained power.

The revolutionaries consisted of:

  • The liberals: Who wanted to limit church influence and state power, generally wanted a republican government without monarchy and economic freedom & civil liberties.
  • The nationalists: They wanted a national unity based on a common language, culture, religion, and shared history.
  • The radical democrats: Wanted universal male suffrage which is not popular amongst liberals.
  • The radical socialists: Wished for worker ownership of the means of production, redistribution of wealth and higher taxes, which again is not something that the liberals can agree upon.

These series of revolutions took place primarily in urban areas and as stated above the political signs are triggered by these “-isms”: nationalism, liberalism, and romanticism. These three concepts triggered and led the people to have all these revolutionary feelings and ideas. But this mainly applies to the middle class.

The other factors that come together and act as the sparks of revolution for the common man are:

  • The crop failures and Irish potato famine of 1846, which affected most of Europe, led to food supply problems and high prices for food.
  • The industrialization – which had poor working conditions and living conditions.
  • High unemployment because of the lack of jobs or the disappearance of certain jobs such as manual labour due to mechanization.

In England, there were no major revolutions due to the Parliament which already instituted liberal reforms to restore some freedoms. It provided some freedoms and protection to the people through the Factory Act and Mines Act. Suffrage in the great Reform Bill of 1832 – all of these things have been provided already and so in 1848 the English people are not prone to revolt due to these rights and freedoms. Russia, on the other hand, is very conservative. The Tsar immediately puts down the Decembers revolt, silencing any sort of liberal reforms or enlightenment teachings that get brought up. There is also absolutely zero bourgeoisie middle-class presence, and very little industrialization. It doesn’t provide an impetus to push liberal reform through.

Let us take a look at France, the revolution that took place here was called the February Revolution. Klemens von Metternich, foreign conservative minister of Austria, the architect of the Congress of Vienna once stated:
“When France sneezes, Europe catches a cold…”

This basically states, that whenever a revolution happens in France, it will also affect Europe. In 1848 France was ruled by a king named Louis Phillipe, who had been installed after the Bourbons were unseated in 1830. Philippe is a fan of the bourgeoisie, known as the bourgeoisie king, he tries to help the bourgeoisie with his policies but they are not working. In February 1848 he is forced to abdicate, together with the premier Francois Guizot who had a big influence over these policies, in a conservative manner.

A man named Louis Blanc, who was a socialist, gains influence. He has the idea of government-run factories to provide employment. Many working-class people love this idea however once Louis Blanc installs these things as a part of this new republic, there’s a call for elections to get a new government in France. The elections happen, but the only people to get to vote in this democratic process, are at the very poorest, the middle class.

The middle class and upper class don’t want to support the people of the lower class. Blanc is not elected and the workshops are closed. From this outrage, another revolution erupts. The workers put up barricades in the streets. The National Guard teams with the bourgeoisie to crush the lower classes. The National Assembly creates a Constitution which allows for a strong president and a unicameral legislature.

Napoleon’s nephew – Louis Napoleon – wins the election and becomes president of the Republic and sets the stage for an authoritarian regime. Economic pressure was also being felt due to the ever-increasing population. This could easily be seen in Paris where George Fascel vehemently explains:
“If such observers were based in Paris, as many were, they beheld a massive immigration from the provinces which the capital was simply not equipped to absorb. The city grew from 547.000 inhabitants at the beginning of the century to nearly 775,000 in 1831 and to over a million by 1846.”

The concentration of large numbers of working-class people in Paris was important to the revolution. This increase in population was not limited to Paris but throughout the whole country. This resulted in increased pressure on food and resources. Amplified demand led to increased prices and smaller land plot sizes, making it difficult for many rural workers to make a living. The Industrial Revolution had also come to France. Mechanization had eliminated the need for certain types of trades. One machine could do the work of many, which meant less manual labour was needed, decreasing the overall number of jobs.

The final event that pushed many over the edge, was the crop failures of 1846 and the resulting economic depression of 1847. What happened in France was different from what happened in Italy, Germany and Hungary, because the revolutions were profoundly social in their nature. The French working class attempted to create a new type of unified Republican state out of the shambles left behind by the July Monarchy 1830 – 1848.

We have to understand that France already went through two revolutions prior to this: The French Revolution in 1789 and the July Revolution of 1830. This led to the creation of the July Monarchy but all in all did little for the working-class people. These revolutions failed because of the conflict between the rural and urban working class. Although the revolutionists tried to address the immediate concerns of the workers, it did not fix the deep-seated economic and social problems of both the urban and rural working class.

During this time, Italy was fragmented under foreign dominance. The north was under the control of the Austrian Empire, in the south, there was a Bourbon kingdom of the Two Sicily’s while in central Italy, the Pope personally controlled the Papal States. These three barriers stood in the way of Italian unification and nationalism. The revolutionists here were led by intellectuals and agitators who desired a liberal government, nationalists who wished for a unified Italy.

The modern state of Italy did not exist before 1860; rather the Italian peninsula was divided into many small kingdoms each under the authority of a separate monarch. The end of Napoleon’s French Empire in 1815 brought the ideas of Enlightenment to most of Europe. These ideas challenged traditionally held political structures and convinced many of the ability of people to become successful due to their talents.

In Germany and Italy, the removal of the French Empire led to the return of the conservative monarchs and as such to the removal of these Enlightenment ideas. This loss would be felt in 1848 as many sought a return of the rights associated with the Enlightenment. In 1848, nationalist and liberals wanted to kick out foreign leaders in Italy. Liberals wanted the individual right to control their own government. Giussepe Mazzini establishes the Roman Republic in a revolt in Rome. Pope Pius IX is forced to flee and Mazzini establishes a new Rome centred in Italian pride and not catholic pride. He wanted an Italian state and not a catholic state. The Austrian and French troops come in and retake the regions to gain favour from the Pope. Mazzini is defeated both because of the lack of support from the rural people as well as a lack of leadership among revolutionaries.

The revolutionaries were not united, and one by one fell back under foreign dominance. Mazzini and Massimo d’Azeglio demonstrated the intense liberal demands of the people. The Italian people became so caught up in the ideas of Mazzini and others, that they overlooked immediate threats, both politically and military. The attempt at the Roman Republic was futile without the support of the Pope. There were too many great powers eager to win favour by restoring papacy to Rome. Despite the noble effort and feelings of many Italians, the Revolution of 1848 in Italy was not cohesive enough to achieve its goals.

In central Europe, revolutions sprung in the Austrian Empire and the German States. Austria encompassed a multitude of ethnicities and cultures, including the Italians in Northern Italy. The yearning for nationalism made this type of political structure increasingly difficult as ethnic groups began to demand their own government or political agenda. Louis Kossuth was the leader of a group of people called the Magyars and they were “hungry” for independence, they were demanding for their own independent country. The emperor of the time gave them their own constitution. Because of this Metternich who was the architect of this whole conservative era in Europe is forced to abdicate his position. The other groups are also demanding independence and start revolting against the Austrian Empire but are defeated one by one due to a lack of cooperation between them.

In the German States, many liberals wanted a united Germany with a constitutional monarchy led by Prussia. The king first accepts the idea but then changes his mind and imposes his own new constitution. This is the opposite problem of the Austrian Empire. While in the Austrian Empire the people couldn’t unite due to different ethnicities, in the German states all the people were German yet couldn’t overcome their differences.

The revolution in the Germanic states is particularly interesting because of its failure to bring about a new social and political structure. They ended in the same place from which they started.
The elements for a successful revolution were present when it began, yet in the end, it was revealed that the most important element for success was missing: a common identity. In this revolution the middle and working-class united in an effort to create a system that allowed for their ideals to be realized in a united Germany. But, the middle class ‘sluggishness and division within the working class destroyed the common ideology and thus resulted in failure. Understanding the 1848 revolution is not possible without comprehending the political and social situations in the years following 1815 and the end of the Napoleonic Wars.

The French Revolution and its aftermath had left the aristocracy of Europe in a fearful state dreading the day of a working-class revolt. This fear developed from the thought of lower-class workers having any sort of power in the government. In response to this, a wave of conservatism spread among monarchs and their states. The workers were prevented from obtaining power because the conservatives supported restoration of strongly hierarchical governments. The idea of “von Gotten Gnaden” (king by the grace of God) found new life as monarchies were restored throughout Europe in wake of the French Revolution.

Alongside this, different social ideas began to emerge. One was called liberalism, an ideology which came from Great Britain and one that valued the concept of inalienable rights. This view held that the rights of freedom of the press, a separation between church and state, freedom of trade, the establishment of a militia, the protection of the habeas corpus, and the security provided by a constitution were rights too which everyone was entitled. These ideas were a direct product of the Enlightenment. It would be detrimental to the state to not allow those with the talent to participate in the political process due to their birth.

The precedent for this effective ideology could be seen in the successful implementation of the Magna Carta and Bill of Rights. In the Germanic States, this was not supported by the aristocracy, yet due to these ideologies and the industrial revolution, a new middle class rose up made up of merchants, bankers and other professional occupations. Members of the middle class were generally well educated and the vast majority of them attended university. They provided the individual basis behind liberalism. The rule of the German Kaiser and others nobles was contrary to their ideology, for these people had not earned their position of power, rather they had only obtained them through their birth.

That being said, the middle class also did not want the working class to have too much power. The middle class were strong supporters of nationalism. Another new ideology that was taking shape in Germany at this time was socialism, which was a response to the industrial revolution and the plight of the working class. This new ideology called for all of society, including the working class to have complete control of the government and its functions. These ideas were defined by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, but the idea did not gain popularity right away.

These theories were defined in the book The Communist Manifesto, written in February 1848. The two authors wrote this book in response to what they had observed in the revolutions that occurred in France, Italy, and Germany.

The idea of the lower class gaining more power was feared both by the aristocracy as well as the middle class. The 1848 revolution in the Germanic states was a remarkable opportunity for the establishment of liberal and socialist ideas in a new governing body, but neither the middle nor the working class was able to achieve that goal. The revolutions in 1848 ended in failure, however, the seeds that were planted then, sprung out in the events that followed. It can be considered that overall they failed in the short run, but succeeded in the long run.


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