The Revolutions of 1848 are notable because they occurred in dozens of the then-European states, countries, and empires without any kind of international coordination. Although many of the gains were short-lived, the repercussions lasted for several decades. No single cause or theory can explain why so many revolutions, often with an emphasis on republicanism, erupted in so many European states. In particular, the Revolutions of 1848 in France, the German states, the Austrian Empire, the Italian States, and Denmark are examined more closely in this article.
Causes of the Revolutions in 1848
The revolutions that swept through Europe in 1848 still comprise the most widespread revolutionary wave Europe has ever seen. With no central coordination or cooperation, over 50 countries were affected. Given that the revolutions occurred in so many places and in so many countries, it is nigh on impossible to attribute a single general reason or theory as to why they transpired. Some historians have argued that the Revolutions of 1848 were largely caused by two factors: economic crisis and political crisis. Others have argued that social and ideological crises cannot be discounted. In many of the affected countries, nationalism was another catalyst for the revolutions.
Many regions of Europe experienced harvest failures in 1839, which continued throughout the 1840s. The failure of barley, wheat, and potato crops led to mass starvation, migration, and civil unrest. These failures most affected peasants and the growing urban working classes. The growth of industrialization led to decreased investment in agriculture. States issued bonds and shares to raise money for railways and industries; this credit expansion precipitated financial panics and crises in several countries, including Britain, France, and the loose confederation of German states. Social change gave rise to an increase in urban populations, where unskilled laborers worked from 12 to 15 hours a day, barely able to buy food to eat or pay rent for the slums they lived in. The bourgeoisie, or middle classes, feared these new arrivals, and the effect of industrialization meant that cheaper, mass-produced goods replaced traditional artisans’ products.
Throughout the first half of the nineteenth century and with the growth of the popular press, ideas such as liberalism, socialism, and nationalism took root. Discontent with political leadership led to demands such as republicanism, constitutional governments, and universal manhood suffrage. Workers clamored for more economic rights. Nationalism also played a significant factor in the Revolutions of 1848. German nation-states pressed for unification while some Italian nation-states resented the foreign rulers imposed on them at the Congress of Vienna of 1815. Independent countries that we recognize today balked at being subsumed into the Prussian, Austrian, and Ottoman Empires.
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The Revolutions of 1848 took hold in dozens of European states with varying degrees of success. Anti-monarchist sentiment prevailed in several of these states. With so many to choose from, we will take a closer look at five political states where revolutions took place.
1. Republicanism in France
In 1846, France suffered from a financial crisis and poor harvests. The following year, France restricted all international contacts with the United Kingdom, which at the time was the world’s largest economy. Thus, France shut itself off from its most important economic partner, one that could have purchased France’s surplus goods as well as supplied France with what it lacked.
Political gatherings and demonstrations were banned in France. Mainly middle-class opposition to the government began to hold fund-raising banquets towards the end of 1847 to get around the restriction on political meetings. On January 14, 1848, the French prime minister’s government banned the next of these banquets. Organizers were determined that it would still go ahead, alongside a political demonstration, on February 22.
On February 21, the French government banned the political banquets for a second time. Although the organizing committee canceled the events, the workers and students who had been mobilizing over the preceding days refused to back down. Anger over these cancellations brought crowds of people flooding into the streets of Paris on the 22nd. The following day, the French National Guard was mobilized, but soldiers refused to act against the people and instead joined them in their protests against Prime Minister François Guizot and King Louis Philippe. That afternoon, the King summoned Guizot to his palace and asked for his resignation. At first, people rejoiced the fall of the government, but with no new government put in place, republicans wanted further regime change.
On the evening of the 23rd, around 600 people gathered outside the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Soldiers guarded the building, and their commanding officer ordered the crowd not to pass, but the crowd began to press in on the soldiers. When instructions were given to the soldiers to fix bayonets onto their weapons to keep the crowds at bay, a weapon was discharged. The soldiers responded by opening fire into the crowd. Fifty people were killed or wounded, which drew more ire from the Parisians. New barricades were constructed overnight.
Still without a government and in an attempt to reduce further bloodshed, King Louis Philippe ordered officers in charge of maintaining public order to try to negotiate with the crowds before opening fire. Barracks in Paris were attacked, insurgents captured a convoy of ammunition, and the revolutionary National Guards were able to take the seat of the city’s administration. That morning, heavy fighting broke out in several parts of Paris. Armed insurgents attacked the Place du Château d’Eau, a guard post on the way to the Tuileries Palace. After intense fighting, the Château d’Eau was occupied and set on fire. The surviving soldiers surrendered.
By noon, with insurgents closing in on the royal palace, Louis Philippe realized that he had no other alternatives. He called off all resistance and abdicated the throne in favor of his nine-year-old grandson Philippe, Count of Paris. The king and queen departed from Paris, and the revolutionaries quickly seized the Tuileries Palace. Philippe, Count of Paris’ mother Helena, Duchess of Orléans, as regent of France, attempted to prevent the abolition of the monarchy. This was to no avail as the republicanism movement continued their calls for a new French republic. On the evening of the 24th, the names of the eleven individuals who would form the Provisional Government were announced, a compromise between moderate and radical tendencies of the republican movement. In the early hours of the 25th, deputy Alphonse de Lamartine announced the proclamation of the Second French Republic from the balcony of the Hôtel de Ville.
2. Mixed Results for the Revolutions in the German States
In what is now modern-day Germany, the Revolutions of 1848 emphasized pan-Germanism. While the middle classes were committed to liberal principles, the working classes wanted radical improvements to their working and living conditions. The German Confederation was an organization of 39 German states established by the Congress of Vienna in 1815 to replace the Holy Roman Empire. It was a loose political association formed for mutual defense with no central executive or judiciary. Its delegates met at a federal assembly dominated by Austria.
Inspired by what had happened in France, Baden was the first state in Germany where popular unrest occurred. On February 27, 1848, an assembly from Baden adopted a resolution demanding a bill of rights, and similar resolutions were adopted in Württemberg, Hesse-Darmstadt, Nassau, and other states. Rulers gave in to these demands with little resistance.
The March Revolution in Vienna was a further catalyst to revolution throughout the German states. The most popular demands were for an elected representative government and the unification of Germany. The princes and rulers of various German states conceded to the demands for reform out of fear. On April 8, 1848, the new all-German National Assembly approved laws allowing universal suffrage and an indirect voting system. The following month, the Frankfurt National Assembly was convened. In the nearby Palatinate (then part of the Kingdom of Bavaria), separated from Baden by the Rhein River, uprisings started in May 1849. The Palatinate contained more upper-class citizens than other parts of Germany who resisted the revolutionary changes. However, the army did not support the revolution.
Despite participation by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, the revolutions in Baden and the Palatinate were not successful. The Bavarian Army eventually suppressed the uprisings in the city of Karlsruhe and the state of Baden. In August 1849, Prussian troops crushed the uprising in the Palatinate. These suppressions marked the end of the German revolutionary uprisings that had started in the spring of 1848.
In Bavaria, protests took a different form. King Ludwig I was an unpopular ruler because of his mistress, an actress and dancer who had tried to launch liberal reforms through a Protestant prime minister. This outraged Bavaria’s Catholic conservatives, and, unlike in other German states, on February 9, 1848, it was the conservatives who went out into the streets to protest. Ludwig I tried to institute reforms, but when these did not satisfy the protestors, he abdicated his throne in favor of his oldest son, Maximilian II. While some popular reforms were introduced, the government eventually regained full control in Bavaria.
3. Revolution and Counterrevolution in the Austrian Empire
The Austrian Empire was an empire that only existed from 1804 to 1867, created out of the realms of the Habsburg monarchy. Much of the revolutionary activity in the Austrian Empire was nationalist in nature since the Austrian Empire contained ethnic Germans, Hungarians, Slovenes, Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Ukrainians, Romanians, Croats, Venetians, and Serbs. In Hungary, for example, there were conflicts over land-use rights and clashes between debtors and creditors in agricultural production that sometimes erupted in violence.
There was also religious friction between Catholics and those of other religions throughout the Empire. Despite a lack of freedom of the press, there was a burgeoning liberal German culture that supported the need for basic reforms. Middle-class liberals wanted to reform the labor system and improve government administration. Prior to 1848, liberals (but not radicals) had not yet demanded constitutionalism or republicanism, and they were opposed to the universal franchise and outright popular sovereignty.
After news of the February republicanism victories in Paris reached the Austrian empire, the parliament of Lower Austria in Vienna demanded the resignation of Prince Metternich, the conservative State Chancellor and Foreign Minister. With no forces to support him nor any word from Emperor Ferdinand I of Austria, Metternich resigned on March 13, 1848. Ferdinand went through five different nominally liberal governments between March and November of that year.
Austrian armies were weak and Austrian troops had to evacuate in the face of Venetian and Milanese insurgents in Lombardy-Venetia, now part of Italy. In addition to Venice and Milan, a new Hungarian government in Pest (half of modern-day Budapest) expressed its intention to break away from the Empire. The Polish National Committee expressed the same wish for the Kingdom of Galicia and Lodomeria.
Further tensions occurred in Piedmont-Savoy. King Charles Albert of Sardinia started a nationalist war on March 23. After initial success, military fortunes turned against King Charles Albert in July 1848, and he eventually abdicated on March 22, 1849. By early summer 1848, several conservative regimes in the Austrian Empire had been overthrown, new freedoms had been introduced, and several nationalist claims had been put forward. Elections were held throughout the empire, with mixed results. Counterrevolutions soon occurred. The first victory of the counterrevolution was in the Czech city of Prague, and counterrevolutions against Italian states were also successful. In 1849, the Kingdom of Hungary’s revolution was defeated by the collective military might of the empires led by the new Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph and Russia’s Czar Nicholas I.
4. Brief Collaboration Among the Italian States During the Revolutions
The Revolutions of 1848 in the Italian states were led by intellectuals and agitators throughout the Italian peninsula and Sicily who wanted a liberal government. The Austrian Empire ruled the Italian states in northern Italy. Italian revolutionaries wanted to drive out the conservative leadership of the Austrians, while as early as January 12, 1848, the Sicilians demanded a Provisional Government distinct from that of the mainland. King Ferdinand II of the Two Sicilies of the House of Bourbon tried to resist these demands, but a full-scale revolt broke out. Revolts also erupted in Salerno and Naples. Ferdinand II was forced to allow the establishment of a provisional government.
In the north, the Austrians tightened their grip with further oppression and more severe taxes. The Sicilian revolts inspired more revolts in the northern Kingdom of Lombardy-Venetia. In Milan, about 20,000 Austrian troops were forced to withdraw from the city. Italian insurgents were encouraged by the news of Prince Metternich’s abdication, but they were unable to wipe out Austrian troops completely. By this time, King Charles Albert of Sardinia had published a liberal constitution in Piedmont.
To fight against an Austrian counterattack, King Charles Albert called upon Leopold II, Grand Duke of Tuscany; Pope Pius IX; and King Ferdinand II, all of whom sent him troops. On May 3, 1848, they won the battle of Goito and captured the fortress of Peschiera. However, soon after this, Pope Pius IX hesitated about defeating the Austrian Empire and withdrew his troops. King Ferdinand II soon followed. King Charles Albert was defeated by the Austrians the following year.
Even though Pope Pius IX had abandoned the war against the Austrians, many of his people continued fighting against Charles Albert. The people of Rome revolted against Pius’s government, and Pius was forced to flee. Leopold II soon followed him. When Piedmont was lost to the Austrians, Charles Albert abdicated. In Rome, a very short-lived (February to July 1849) Roman Republic was proclaimed, led by Giuseppe Garibaldi and Giuseppe Mazzini. Economically doomed, Pope Pius appealed to the President of France, Napoleon III, for help. With the help of the Austrians, the French defeated the nascent Roman Republic.
5. The End of Absolute Monarchy in Denmark
The Revolutions of 1848 impacted Denmark differently than in other European states. The desire for outright republicanism was not as strong in Denmark as in other states. King Christian VIII, a moderate reformer but was still an absolute monarchist, died in January 1848 and was succeeded by his son, Frederick VII. On January 28, a public announcement of a reformed joint constitutional framework that had started under the former King Christian was made.
However, the National Liberal Party was displeased by this announcement because of the provisions for the joint Duchies of Schleswig and Holstein. The people of the Duchies of Schleswig and Holstein viewed themselves as more German than Danish. The Danish National Liberal Party viewed the reformed joint constitutional framework that gave equal representation to the people of the Duchies of Schleswig and Holstein as a violation of Danish people’s rights. The people of the Duchies were also dissatisfied because they did not want to be bound to the same constitution as the Danes.
On March 20, representatives of the Duchies dispatched a delegation to Frederick VII demanding a free constitution, the unification of Schleswig with Holstein, with Schleswig eventually becoming part of the German Confederation. In response, leaders of the National Liberal Party sent a declaration to Frederick VII stating that the state of Denmark would dissolve itself if the monarch did not form a new government. Between 15,000 and 20,000 Danish people marched up to Frederick VII’s palace to demand a new government the following day. There, they learned that Frederick had already dismissed his government. The National Liberals were still dissatisfied with the new government that Frederick VII had formed but accepted it because Frederick promised that he would no longer be an absolute monarch but a constitutional one. Frederick agreed to yield responsibility for running the government to ministers and share power with a bicameral parliament. The Schleswig-Holstein question remained unresolved for another two decades.
Legacy of the Revolutions of 1848
Throughout much of Europe, much of what was attained in the spring and summer of 1848 by the revolutions was overturned between 1849 and 1851. However, the aims of the Revolutions of 1848 were generally achieved by the 1870s. The Second Republic of France lasted just three years before the democratically elected Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte declared himself President for Life (and later Emperor) when he was constitutionally not allowed to run for a second term. France did not become a republic again until 1870.
In Hanover and Prussia, privileges were restored to the nobility in the early 1850s. However, nationalist aims were finally realized when Germany was unified in 1871. The Austrian Empire lost the Austro-Prussian War in 1866, and its continental power was severely diminished. The process of unifying Italy that started in 1848 was completed in 1871. As a result of the Prussian military victory in 1866, Denmark lost Schleswig-Holstein to Prussia.
In general, after 1848, European governments were forced to run the public sphere more effectively. By 1850, Austria and Prussia had eliminated feudalism which improved the lives of peasants. Over the next 20 years, the middle classes made political and economic gains. The Habsburg dynasty gave increased self-determination to the Hungarians in 1867, and lasting reforms were maintained in Denmark and the Netherlands. Little changed in Russia, and the ideologies of socialism and Marxism gained strength in the eastern half of the continent. The seemingly spontaneous yet contemporaneous Revolutions of 1848 changed the face of Europe, yet Europe would continue to undergo significant political, social, and economic change for several decades to come.