The Revolutions of 1848: Europe’s Spring

Reading Time: 5 minutes

In the years following the Congress of Vienna, the governments of Europe dedicated themselves to suppressing the forces unleashed by the French Revolution. Liberalism, nationalism and popular sovereignty were all direct threats to the monarchic empires, but the Seventh Coalition had been unable to simply exile these notions to St. Helena. For three decades, the post-Napoleonic statesmen were able to clamp down on the lid of chaos but, during the Revolutions of 1848, uprisings swept through Europe, beginning what has been dubbed a period of “world revolution.”

As Europe approached the middle of the 19th Century, turmoil was on the horizon. Phytophthora Infestans, a fungus-like organism, had devastated the supply of potato crops, while poor wheat harvests in 1845 only worsened conditions. As had happened more than half a century prior, starving workers and farmers began to align with the bourgeois middle class, many of whom were still enamoured with liberal ideas such as nationalism. While we often view nationalism as standing in opposition to liberal ideas today, for much of the 19th Century the two were joined at the hip.

Nationalists argued that states ought to be organised as nations; that is, the people in a given country ought to belong to that entity because they shared a language, a history and a mythology with their fellow countrymen. In contrast, conservatives of the 19th Century argued that states ought to be run by a single person, the monarch, as they had been for centuries. Liberals – who stressed the sovereignty of the people, steps towards legal equality and greater political participation for the populace – understandably felt a greater kinship with the nationalists than the conservatives, and so to be a liberal at this time generally meant one was also a nationalist. 

France’s ruler, Louis-Philippe (known as the Citizen King) had long been known for his indifference to the needs of the people and unwillingness to expand voting rights beyond a few landowners. Ultimately, his reign was the last gasp of an institution that had been dealt a terminal blow more than fifty years before. On 22 February 1848, Parisians took to the streets to protest a new law outlawing political banquets, a thinly veiled attempt by the King to try to restrict people’s opportunities to criticise the regime. Fires broke out in the riots, while the city was barricaded with bushes and trees. When his Prime Minister resigned, Louis-Philippe, fearing for his own safety, abdicated and fled to England.

Later that day, a provisional government termed the Second Republic was formed, and a President, Lamartine, was appointed. The first of the Revolutions of 1848 had occurred. National workshops were formed to give people jobs, but these were extremely unproductive, which only caused more resentment amongst French workers. A dispute between the workers and the military was eventually resolved in May and June, but it was clear that the current constitution could not control the crises caused by the political turmoil.

In June 1848, a new constitution was drafted. All adult males in France were granted the right to vote for an empowered President, who would head the government. Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, after several sporadic attempts to seize power, was elected President – largely by whipping up nostalgia for his uncle, Emperor Napoleon I. Louis Napoleon beat off the socialists and restored some order to France, but frustrations with the legislature and a desire to circumvent term limits on the Presidency led him to organise a successful coup. France’s new master declared himself Emperor Napoleon III.

Unsurprisingly, news of revolution and republicanism in France caused enormous alarm across Europe. Few were more frightened than Klemens von Metternich, the primary architect of the post-Napoleonic order, who noted that “when France sneezes, all of Europe catches a cold.” Revolution did indeed begin to spread across the Continent, and soon reached Austria, the state Metternich was Chancellor of. In March 1848 a radical Magyar group, led by Louis Kossuth, made a series of speeches around Vienna, advocating liberal nationalism. As the brilliant orator began to gain traction, Metternich fled.

With the ‘Coachmaster of Europe’ now absent from the scene, revolutions sprang up across the Austrian Empire. A Czech movement flared up in Bohemia, Austrian rule was overthrown in Milan and Slavic nationalists demanded not to be annexed by the German Confederation. Emperor Ferdinand finally sent in forces to crush the uprisings, but another revolution in December 1848 forced him to abdicate. He was succeeded by Emperor Franz Joseph I, who made a series of constitutional reforms, including the abolition of serfdom. Yet after the initial momentum of the movement began to dissipate, the Austrians requested assistance from their ally, the Tsar. Russian forces streamed into Hungary and smashed the Magyar revolt, and many concessions awarded previously were revoked, though feudalism was not reintroduced.

The other major German power, Prussia, was also feeling the strains of revolution. In March 1848, riots demanding a constitutional monarchy broke out in Berlin. Eventually, Frederick William IV, the absolutist king, was able to use the Prussian Army to suppress the demonstrations, but in their aftermath he decided to introduce some representation in an attempt to reduce social unrest. Elections were held for an assembly, and, in a skilful use of triangulation, Frederick William rammed through a more liberal constitution.

He skilfully outflanked his political rivals by letting it be known he sympathised with the protestors, by wearing revolutionary colours and attending a funeral for those killed in the riots. Various models of assembly were summoned, and the one Prussia settled on was a bicameral legislature with a lower house known as the Landtag. This Landtag would eventually come into conflict with the King, and that conflict would begin in earnest the career of Otto von Bismarck, but in 1848 those events were some decades away. 

The other states in the German Confederation (a successor to the Holy Roman Empire that had been established after Napoleon’s defeat) also witnessed various protests and rebellions. The middle classes aligned with the workers to demand greater economic and political rights. Most rulers, however, were able to use their armies to defeat the uprisings and force liberal leaders into exile. Neighbouring countries also underwent enormous change; Denmark introduced both the Danish Constitutional Monarchy and the Constitution of Denmark, while in the Netherlands, political reforms paved the way for democracy. In Germany itself, however, rulers and their respective armies were largely able to subdue protests.

Yet while progress towards liberalism was minimal, German nationalism received a significant boost. By popular demand, the Frankfurt National Assembly met to draft a new constitution for a united German nation. The great question was whether Austria ought to be considered a part of this new nation – most nationalists viewed German-speaking Austrians as kinsmen, and wished for this new state to include them, but had no desire for the non-German-speaking elements of the sprawling Austrian empire to be also included. Unfortunately, the Habsburgs had no intention of gaining Germany at the cost of most of their empire, meaning this new state would not be under the control of Austria.

The only man, therefore, who had the power and the legitimacy to rule a German nation was the King of Prussia, Frederick William IV. When he saw how liberal this Germany’s constitution was to be, however, he refused the position, scuppering attempts at unification. The liberal nationalists had encountered a paradox: the only way to form a liberal German nation was to involve Prussia, but Prussia would not involve itself if this German nation was too liberal. This paradox would, eventually, be the wedge used by conservatives to split the liberals from the nationalists and create the variant of nationalism we are more familiar with today. In the short term, however, the Frankfurt Assembly failed.

Indeed, most of the revolutions of 1848 failed. The primary reason for this was the lack of cooperation between liberals, who sought new political systems, and workers and peasants, who sought immediate economic relief. Furthermore, the nationalist nature of these uprisings meant it was very difficult for revolutionaries across borders to concentrate their forces, while the alliance systems designed by Metternich and Tsar Alexander I at Vienna allowed conservative elements to do just that. Finally, the revolutionaries often lacked both military power and administrative experience, meaning that when they took cities such as Milan, they had little idea how to govern or defend them. Revolutionary victories were procured through speed and surprise, and, unless the revolutionaries quickly hounded out all opposition and established a strong government quickly, conservative factions were able to offer minor concessions to assuage anger, while also coalescing forces of their own to counterattack with.

Yet we ought to remember that substantive liberal measures had been introduced: feudalism was abolished in Germany, France had a new government and new constitutions were in effect in the Netherlands and Denmark. The Revolutions of 1848 had ended a chapter of European history dominated by strict conservatives and had begun to erode the continental balance established in 1815. They had created a more chaotic, but also more flexible Europe. Finally, they had reaffirmed that, despite the wishes and best efforts of the Vienna statesmen, the French Revolution had not been a dramatic anomaly, but the beginning of a new age in world history. 

Rady, M., 2020. The Habsburgs: The Rise and Fall of a World Power. Allen Lane

Robertson, P., 1952. Revolutions of 1848: A Social History. Princeton University Press

Steinberg, J., 2011. Bismarck: A Life. Oxford