Revolutions of 1848

Revolutions of 1848
Revolutions of 1848

The revolutions of 1848 were transitory events that erupted throughout Europe and collapsed as quickly as they arose. For a brief moment they promised much in the way of democratic and social reform, but without direction and steady leadership delivered little. The forces opposing revolutionary change and radical reform were far more formidable and better organized, so that repression was easy to achieve.

The backdrop for these revolts revealed a range of causes tied to industrialization and changing economic conditions. Rising prices tied to poor harvests, depressed industrial conditions, increased unemployment, radical and moderate political ideas, and nationalism all combined to create a climate that challenged the old regimes that were characterised by aristocratic and monarchical dominance.

Society was changing, and the hotbeds for these revolutions were Europe’s cities, which had witnessed sweeping changes. The still most populous section of Europe’s population, the peasantry, was largely witness to, but not participant in, the revolutions of 1848. It was in the cities that the bourgeoisie and the emerging working classes most wanted liberal political and economic reform such as an expanded franchise and workers’ rights.

As with many such events, the “Spring Time of the Peoples” began in France and spread to the German Confederation, Prussia, the Habsburg Empire, Italy, and Poland. In the initial February French revolt the middle class and working class combined interests and demanded constitutional change.

However, disagreements soon emerged, and the ending of a system of national workshops for the unemployed led the Parisian workers to raise a more radical agenda of class conflict and resistance. By June the provisional government, supported by the military, had brutally suppressed the workers.

There soon followed a presidential election in December, which saw Napoleon III take charge of this Second Republic. In 1852 Napoleon, by exploiting French nationalism, seized total power and replaced the Second Republic with the Second Empire.

In Prussia a constitutional monarchy was proposed for Frederick William III, and in the rest of the German Confederation the revolutionaries drew up the liberal Frankfurt constitution proposing a greater Germany and a liberal constitutional monarchy. Through Prussian resistance, the Frankfurt assembly broke down into factionalism, and by 1851 the old order was reestablished throughout the German areas.

In the Habsburg Empire revolts broke out in Vienna, Budapest, Venice, and Milan. Emperor Ferdinand dismissed the unpopular prince Clemens von Metternich who had overseen Austrian affairs since 1815. Metternich then sought exile in London. With its many nationalities, revolution could mean the end of the empire.

Hungary, led by Louis Kossuth, proved initially more successful in gaining independence from Vienna; however, the central government eventually crushed all ethnic revolts, including revolts in northern Italy, and put in place martial law, although some economic reforms did last.

In Italy the revolutionary flames spread throughout the politically fragmented Italian Peninsula. The Piedmontese unsuccessfully arose against the Austrians, and additional revolts challenged the established regimes throughout Italy.

These included revolts against King Ferdinand II of Sicily and insurrections in Bologna and Rome, where the prime minister of the Papal States was assassinated. Rebel leaders like Giuseppe Mazzini and Giuseppe Garibaldi proclaimed a Rome of the People. French intervention ended the Rome uprising, and in April 1849 the pope returned to power. Mazzini fled to England and Garibaldi to the United States.

The revolutionary spirit spread to Poland, where the people of the Grand Duchy of Poznan rose against an occupying Prussian army. However, internal divisions split the leadership, and the revolt failed by May 1848. Russia and Britain remained free of the 1848 unrest.

The oppressive Russian state, with its nonindustrial feudal base, was far removed from the conditions of the rest of Europe, and Britain, a more advanced industrial state, had secured a degree of reform in 1832, and with a freer political atmosphere there was less support for more radical change.

The revolutions of 1848 dramatically failed, and Europe remained autocratic, with national elites in power, although the monarchies after 1848 were sometimes described as constitutional. The pressing economic, political, and social problems remained: rapid industrialization, a rising urban population, a dissatisfied bourgeoisie denied political influence, and idealistic university students desiring change.

In Germany and Italy, a drive for national unification, built upon the romantic nationalist forces unleashed by the 1848 revolts, emerged. Within 20 years of the 1848 revolt, national unification occurred in Italy in the form of the Risorgimento, and in Prussia, Otto von Bismarck created a German empire by 1871. The European working classes, inspired by many socialist voices, most important Karl Marx, moved toward a class-based politics.