Sunday, 22 February 2015

The Revolutions of 1848

Proclamation of the Roman Republic in the Piazza
del Popolo, 1849
Public Domain
The Frankfurt Parliament, Paulskircke,
with an imposing figure of 'Germania'
prominently displayed.
Public Domain
Much of the information for this post is taken from Jonathan Sperber, Revolutionary Europe, 1780-1850 (Longman, 2000) and Robert Gildea, Barricades and Borders: Europe 1800-1914, 3rd edn (Oxford, 2003). 

The revolutions of 1848 ignited the countries of Europe in a way that would not be repeated until 1989. Violence broke out because legal and parliamentary movements for change were frustrated. The only countries where revolution was avoided were those were adequate concessions were made in time (Great Britain, Belgium, the Netherlands) of where opposition was negligible and repression total (Russia).
The earlier revolutions of 1830 had resulted in the replacement of the Bourbon monarchy by the Orleans monarchy in France and by Belgium’s independence from Holland; but the Polish revolt against Russian rule had failed. The overall result was the tacit partition of Europe into a western part dominated by the relatively liberal powers, France and Britain, and a central, southern and eastern portion, dominated by the three conservative powers, Austria, Prussia and Russia.

Metternich: a waning politician

Prince Klemens von Metternich
Public Domain

The dominant figure of Europe between 1815 and 1848 was Austrian Chancellor, Prince Klemens von Metternich, the champion of post-Napoleonic conservatism. 

Metternich’s role in Vienna shows his brilliant diplomacy but also the limitations of what he was able to achieve. He was unable to prevent the spread of nationalism and liberal ideals. He had intended the Diet of the German Confederation to suppress revolutionary thought all over Germany. But in 1818 Bavaria and Baden promulgated constitutions that reflected not Metternich’s ideas but those of limited monarchy.

In the 1820s his influence waned. He was powerless to prevent the July Revolution in France. The death of Francis I and the accession of his feeble-minded son the archduke Ferdinand in 1835 further lessened his influence.

Before 1848


Italy in the 1840s was what Metternich called a ‘geographical expression’. Following Guiseppe Mazzini’s failed insurrection in the 1830s, it lacked national unity, parliamentary representation or any guarantees of civil liberties. The most repressive part of the peninsula was the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. Only the small north-western Kingdom or Piedmont-Sardinia was free of Austrian rule (or patronage).

Pius IX in 1846
Public Domain

In 1846 the arch-reactionary Pope Gregory XVI died. His successor, the bishop of Imola, took the title of Pius IX (‘Pio Nono’). He was reputed to be a man of liberal sympathies and he took cautious steps to reform the extremely reactionary government of the Papal States. Between July 1846 and July 1847 he released about 2,000 political prisoners, relaxed press censorship and invited provincial delegates to a consultative assembly. Much to the fury of Metternich, Charles Albert of Piedmont-Sardinia and Leopold of Tuscany responded by granting a freer press.

Charles Albert of Piedmont
Public Domain

The German States

The thirty-nine states of the German Confederation presented a very diverse picture. Some of the states in the south had constitutions and elected legislatures, but Prussia and Austria were absolutist powers, though within Prussia unofficial liberal and/or nationalist associations flourished, many of them centred on the churches.

From 1 January 1834 the Zollverein, the All-German Customs Union, provided a model for national unity. It incorporated the majority of Germans outside Austria.

Frederick William IV
King of Prussia
Public Domain
In 1840 the rigid absolutist Frederick William III of Prussia died, and was succeeded by Frederick William IV, a romantic conservative who dreamed of restoring the Holy Roman Empire.

In view of the dominance of conservative governments, radicals and liberals remained hard to tell apart in Germany. The main ideological difference was in economics. Liberals believed in laissez-faire while the radicals believed that government intervention was necessary to redress the balance between capital and labour. They also became impatient of gradualism and began to consider forms of political mass mobilization. Their disagreements took place against a background of economic hardship and declining standards of living.

The Austrian Empire

This was a very diverse territory comprising many groups of people and many nationalisms: Germans, Czechs, Italians, Hungarians, Croatians, Slovenes, Romanians, and Poles. In the rural eastern parts of the empire there was mass illiteracy and the institutions of civil society were poorly developed. In the larger cities with student populations, such as Vienna, Prague, Milan, Venice, Buda, Krakow, Ljubljana and Zagreb, crypto-political associations developed. Whereas in many other parts of Europe the oppositionists were middle class (or even working class) in the Empire they comprised a large proportion of nobles. But the most noted abolitionist by the 1840s was the lawyer Lajos Kossuth  a member of the Hungarian Diet, a lawyer, journalist and talented public speaker.

The Revolutions of 1848

The first uprising was in the Bourbon kingdom of Sicily and Naples in January, forcing Ferdinand II to form a liberal ministry and authorize a constitution, modelled on the French constitution of 1830. In March the Sicilians deposed Ferdinand and set up a regency. Within two months constitutions had also been proclaimed in Tuscany, Piedmont and Rome, and the Milan and Venice had proclaimed their independence of Austria. 

On 22-24 February a revolution broke out in Paris. Guizot’s ministry fell, and Louis Philippe, unable to form another ministry, abdicated and fled. On 25 February the moderate provisional government was forced by angry crowds to set up the Second Republic.

All the subsequent revolutions followed the same pattern: the news of revolution in France would attract excited crowds in the major cities, groups of men (mostly journalists, lawyers, and students) met to discuss the rumours. The government, in fear of revolution, would call out the army, which would begin to skirmish with the citizenry. Barricades would come up and mob action would ensue.

The origin of the German flag
19 March 1848
Public Domain
The most symbolic event was the flight of Metternich to exile in London in March, which was followed by an uprising in Berlin (above) that panicked Frederick William IV into abolishing censorship and introducing a constitutional system in Prussia. But it was only in France and Venice that the initial wave of revolution led to the proclamation of a republic.

Some aspects of the revolutions harked back to 1789. National or civic guards were formed, trees of liberty were planted and tricolore flags were raised. This revolutionary euphoria was described by contemporaries as the ‘springtime of the peoples’.

The mass movements of early 1848 were accompanied by an unprecedented wave of communication, organization and assembly. The newly installed liberal governments abolished censorship and newspapers circulated as never before. New voluntary associations of workers, professionals and even soldiers sprang up. The formation of political clubs was reminiscent of the French Revolution, though on a much larger scale.

Each country experienced the revolution in different forms. Some avoided revolution. In the Low Countries and Scandinavia, governments quickly introduced reforms. For entirely different reasons, Britain and Russia were both relatively untouched. Russia saw sporadic serf uprisings that were put down by the tsar’s troops. In Britain a Chartist rally on Kennington Common on 10 April passed off peacefully.

But even without Britain and Russia the Revolutions of 1848 covered an enormous area, ranging from the Atlantic to the Ukraine and the Mediterranean to the Baltic. It was the most widespread of all the waves of revolution from 1789 to 1989. The revolutions took many forms. In central and eastern Europe they were primarily serf riots against their lords and the burning of castles. With the disturbances, serfdom came to an end in the Austrian Empire and the German states. In Italy and in parts of the Austrian empire the peasants tried to gain control of the woods. In the more economically advanced parts of Europe the urban lower classes attacked new technologies: craftsmen and labourers destroyed machines and bargeman attacked steamships on the Rhine.
The development of the 1848 revolution can be divided into four parts:
1. January – March 1848: the initial struggles on the barricades (eg in Paris, Berlin and Milan) and the coming to power of liberal regimes;
2. Spring of 1848: the generally unexpected development of political conflicts in these regimes;
3. May-November: a series of violent confrontations ending in the defeat of the revolutionary forces;
4. 1849-51: a new round of organization and agitation but also of a growing political polarization.

Why did the Revolutions fail?

Some of the seeds of the failure of the 1848 Revolutions lay in their  initial success. Elections were held for constituent assemblies in France, Germany, Prussia, the Austrian Empire and Denmark. The franchise was broad and participation was high. The most prominent of the bodies that sprang up from the revolutions was the all-German Parliament at Frankfurt. But the bulk of the electorate was conservative and the resulting parliaments were opposed on principle to revolutions.

Liberals and radicals were unable to agree. Radicals pressed for manhood suffrage and social reform, but liberals simply wanted a wider franchise. Even the radicals were predominantly middle class and often out of touch with the working classes and the peasants.

This can be seen in the ‘June Days’ in Paris. When the Assembly decreed that all unmarried workers in the National Workshops (which had been set up to provide work for the unemployed) should join the army and the remainder disperse to the provinces, the barricades went up again. In six days of bitter fighting, the army under the command of the conservative republican Cavaignac, reinforced by the National Guard, recaptured the city street by street. Thousands of prisoners were held in terrible conditions before being sent to Algeria. Victor Hugo said that in the June Days civilization defended itself with the methods of barbarism.

The revolutions were faced with clashes of nationalist demands. Both the new liberal government in Denmark and the German National Assembly at Frankfurt laid claim to Schleswig. The Assembly attempted to take over the conduct of a war with Denmark, but in August Frederick William IV, under international pressure, renounced German claims, and destroyed the credibility of the Assembly. Germans and Poles also contested Posen (Pozn├án). 

The clashes were most severe in the complex territories of the Habsburg Empire: liberal Czech nationalists forcibly prevented the participation of Bohemia and Moravia in the German National Assembly; Poles and Ukrainians clashed over Galicia; Croatians refused to participate in the Hungarian National Assembly. In Transylvania Romanian-speaking peasants clashed with their Hungarian nationalist landlords in a civil war that cost 40,000 lives, by far the greatest death toll in the revolutions.

Events in Germany and Italy show how and why the revolutions failed.

The Frankfurt Parliament

The Frankfurt Parliament was very significant for the future history of Germany but it also encapsulates the reasons for the failure of the revolutions. 

At the end of October 1848 the deputies voted to adopt a ‘greater German’ (grossdeutsch) solution to the national question: the Habsburg German (and Czech) lands would be incorporated in the new German Reich; the non-German Habsburg lands would be formed into a separate constitutional entity ruled from Vienna. But the Austrians had no intention of accepting this. In November Schwarzenberg, the new chief minister, announced that he intended the Habsburg monarchy to remain a unitary political entity. This forced the Frankfurt deputes to adopt the kleindeutsch solution, in which Austria would be excluded from the new German polity and the pre-eminence would inevitably pass to Prussia.

In April 1849, delegates travelled to Berlin to offer the crown to Frederick William, but he refused the crown on the grounds that he would only accept it if the other German princes agreed. This sealed the fate of the Frankfurt Parliament. In 1850 Prussia and Austria agreed to work together. In 1851 the German Confederation was restored.

However, 1848 brought profound changes in Prussia. Frederick William’s constitution remained, though the franchise was altered and skewed towards men of property. The press was no longer censored though there was much surveillance of radical groups.

The revolutions in Italy

On 17 March the Venetian Arsenal was seized and, under the direction of the lawyer, Daniele Manin, a civic guard and a provisional government were instituted. The Austrians evacuated Venice on 26 March and Manin became president of the re-created Republic of San Marco. 

Daniele Manin
President of the Republic of San Marco
Public Domain

Following a revolution in Milan on 18-23 March, the Austrian General Josef Radetzky retreated to the four fortresses of the Quadrilateral.

On 23 March King Charles Albert declared war on Austria. It was a risky step but Piedmont had the best army in the peninsula and the King had expansionist ambitions. At first the Piedmontese were successful. They annexed Parma and Modena, whose rulers fled.

Pius IX faced a dilemma: he was an Italian ruler but also the head of the Catholic Church. He had to choose between his mildly patriotic feelings for Italy and his obligations to Catholic Austria. On 29 April in an address to the cardinals, he refused to support  the war against Austria. Some Italians never forgave him for this.

In May Ferdinand II regained Naples. His ruthlessness in reconquering Sicily in July earned him the nickname,‘King Bomba’.

In July Charles Albert was defeated by General Radetzky's Austrians at Custozza near Verona, after which he retreated to Milan. He then accepted a humiliating armistice with Austria.

On 15 November, 1848, Pellegrino Rossi, the very unpopular Minister of Justice of the Papal government, was assassinated. The following day, residents of Rome filled the streets, demanding  social reforms and a war against Austria. On the night of 24 November, Pius IX left Rome in disguise for Gaeta, a fortress in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies.

In February 1849 a constituent assembly, elected on manhood suffrage, proclaimed the Roman RepublicThe Roman Republic seemed to herald the rebirth of the Italian revolution. On 20 March Charles Albert, under pressure from Piedmontese democrats, renewed his war with Austria. However, following his defeat at Novara, he abdicated in favour of his son, Victor Emmanuel II, and went into exile in Portugal where he died shortly afterwards.

Following this, the Grand Duke was restored to Tuscany, and Austria re-conquered Lombardy. General Radetzky was made Vicecroy of Lombardy-Venetia. Only Rome and Venice now held out.

On hearing the news of Novara, the Roman Republic set up a governing triumvirate that included Mazzini, and Giuseppe Garibaldi set up an‘Italian Legion’ to defend the city. The Republic held out until 3 July against a French army sent by President Louis Napoleon, who needed the support of French Catholics in order to secure his position.

In August the Venetian Republic fell to cholera and starvation. Northern Italy was now back under Austrian rule, part of the dominions of the new emperor, the eighteen-year-old Franz Joseph.


In the immediate reckoning, 1848 was a series of disasters for liberalism. But it can be argued that the reactionary regimes had triumphed at such a heavy cost that they could not bear a repeat performance. The basic liberal principle of government by consent could not be denied and one by one over the next two decades government by consent steadily gained widespread acceptance. Metternich’s Europe had gone for ever.

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