Revolutions of 1848  

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"The revolutions of 1848 destroyed the middle ground upon which Liberalism had flourished since the eighteenth century. In the following age historians, like everyone else, had to take a stand for or against revolution and to decide to read history with either a Conservative or a Radical eye. The vision of Tocquevil1e, like that of Hegel, seemed far too flexible, too ambivalent, too tolerant, to thinkers who felt the necessity to choose in philosophy between Schopenhauer and Spencer, in literature between Baudelaire and Zola, and in historical thought between Ranke and Marx."--Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe (1974) by Hayden White

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The European Revolutions of 1848, known in some countries as the Spring of Nations or the Year of Revolution, were a series of political upheavals throughout the continent. Described by some historians as a revolutionary wave, the period of unrest began on 12 January 1848 in Sicily and then, further propelled by the French Revolution of 1848, soon spread to the rest of Europe.

Although the most of the revolutions were quickly put down, there was a significant amount of violence in many areas, with tens of thousands of people tortured and killed. While the immediate political effects of the revolutions were reversed, the long-term reverberations of the events were far-reaching.

Alexis de Tocqueville remarked in his Recollections of the period that "society was cut in two: those who had nothing united in common envy, and those who had anything united in common terror."



These revolutions arose from such a wide variety of causes that it is difficult to view them as resulting from a coherent movement or social phenomenon. Numerous changes had been taking place in European society throughout the first half of the 19th century. Both liberal reformers and radical politicians were reshaping national governments. Technological change was revolutionizing the life of the working classes. A popular press extended political awareness, and new values and ideas such as popular liberalism, nationalism and socialism began to spring up. A series of economic downturns and crop failures, particularly those in the year 1846, produced starvation among peasants and the working urban poor.

Large swathes of the nobility were discontented with royal absolutism or near-absolutism. In 1846 there had been an uprising of Polish nobility in Austrian Galicia, which was only countered when peasants, in turn, rose up against the nobles. Additionally, an uprising by democratic forces against Prussia occurred in Greater Poland.

Next the middle classes began to agitate. Working class objectives tended to fall in line with those of the middle class. Although Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels had written at the request of the Communist League in London (an organization consisting principally of German workers) The Communist Manifesto (published in German in London on February 21, 1848), once they began agitating in Germany following the March insurrection in Berlin, their demands were considerably reduced. They issued their "Demands of the Communist Party in Germany" from Paris in March; the pamphlet only urged unification of Germany, universal suffrage, abolition of feudal duties, and similar middle class goals.

The middle and working classes thus shared a desire for reform, and agreed on many of the specific aims. Their participations in the revolutions, however, differed. While much of the impetus came from the middle classes, much of the cannon fodder came from the lower.Template:Citation needed The revolts first erupted in the cities.

Urban poor

The population in French rural areas had rapidly risen, causing many peasants to seek a living in the cities. Many in the bourgeoisie feared and distanced themselves from the working poor, who had shown their muscle in 1789. The uneducated, teeming masses seemed a fertile breeding ground of vice. Urban industrial workers toiled from 13 to 15 hours per day, living in squalid, disease-ridden slums. Traditional artisans felt the pressure of industrialization, having lost their guilds. Social critics such as Marx became popular, and secret societies sprang up. At the time of the Revolution, there was widespread unemployment as a result of an economic crisis that began in 1846, and workers agitated for the right to vote and for state subsidies to the major trades.

The situation in the German states was similar. Prussia had quickly industrialized. During the decade of the 1840s, mechanized production in the textile industry brought about inexpensive clothing that undercut the handmade products of German tailors. Reforms ameliorated the most unpopular traditions of feudalism, but industrial workers remained dissatisfied with these and pressed for greater change.

Rural areas

Rural population growth had led to food shortages, land pressure, and migration, both within Europe and out from Europe (for example, to the United States). Population concentration led to disease, especially cholera, which contemporary scientists had not yet connected with contaminated water supplies. In the years 1845 and 1846, a potato blight, originating in Belgium, caused a subsistence crisis in Northern Europe. The effects of the blight were most severely manifested in the Great Irish Famine (where it was combined with rack-rents and concurrent export of cash crops), but also caused famine-like conditions in the Scottish Highlands and throughout Continental Europe.

Aristocratic wealth (and corresponding power) was synonymous with the ownership of land. Owning land at this time was practically synonymous with having peasants under one's control, often duty-bound to labor for their masters. In a problem mirroring that of slaveholders in the United States, a principal aristocratic problem was controlling one's laborers. Peasant grievances exploded during the revolutionary year of 1848.

Early rumblings

Until 1789, with the advent of the French Revolution, there had been no significant challenges to the rule of kings in continental Europe (although there had been at least two such challenges offshore, one in England (1640s-1688) and one in North America (1775-1783), in which the United States declared independence from Great Britain). After 1789, there were revolutions or civil wars in France (1789 and after), Ireland (1798), as well as Mexico, which split from Spain between 1810 and 1821. In 1815, after Napoleon, a close resemblance of the Ancien Régime was restored at the Congress of Vienna. This was no sooner established when the monarchies, the church, and the aristocracy were again threatened. A revolution in the United Kingdom of the Netherlands resulted in the secession of the southern provinces and the formation of the Kingdom of Belgium in 1830, a year that also saw another revolution in France. Unrest was in the air.

Despite forceful and often violent efforts of established powers to keep them down, disruptive ideas gained popularity: democracy, liberalism, nationalism, and socialism.

In short, democracy meant universal male suffrage. Liberalism fundamentally meant consent of the governed and the restriction of church and state power, republican government, freedom of the press and the individual. Nationalism believed in uniting people bound by (some mix of) common languages, culture, religion, shared history, and of course immediate geography; there were also irredentist movements. At this time, what are now Germany and Italy were collections of small states. Socialism in the 1840s was a term without a consensus definition, meaning different things to different people, but was typically used within a context of more power for workers in a system based on worker ownership of the means of production.


. . . We have been beaten and humiliated . . . scattered, imprisoned, disarmed and gagged. The fate of European democracy has slipped from our hands.|Pierre Joseph Proudhon

In the post-revolutionary decade after 1848, little had visibly changed, and some historians consider the revolutions a failure, given the seeming lack of permanent structural changes.

On the other hand, both Germany and Italy achieved political unification over the next two decades, and there were a few immediate successes for some revolutionary movements, notably in the Habsburg lands. Austria and Prussia eliminated feudalism by 1850, improving the lot of the peasants. European middle classes made political and economic gains over the next twenty years; France retained universal male suffrage. Russia would later free the serfs on February 19, 1861. The Habsburgs finally had to give the Hungarians more self-determination in the Ausgleich of 1867, although this in itself resulted only in the rule of autocratic Magyars in Hungary instead of autocratic Germans.

But in 1848, the revolutionaries were idealistic and divided by the multiplicity of aims for which they fought—social, economic, liberal, and national. Conservative forces exploited these divisions, and revolutionaries suffered from mediocre leadership. Middle-class revolutionaries feared the lower classes, evidencing different ideas; counter-revolutions exploited the gaps. As some reforms were enacted and the economy improved, some revolutionaries were mollified. When the Habsburgs lightened the burden of feudalism, many peasants were satisfied by the reforms and lost interest in further revolt; revolutions elsewhere met similar resolutions. International support likewise waned.

Autocratic Russia did not support such revolutions at home, but actively helped the Austro-Hungarian Empire in her war with a restive Hungarian splinter group. Both Britain and Russia opposed Prussia's plans on Schleswig-Holstein, tarnishing their view among Germany's liberal nationalists.

The net result in the German states and France was more autocratic systems, despite reforms such as universal male suffrage in France, and strong social class systems remained in both. What reforms were enacted seemed like sops thrown to quell dissent, while privilege remained untouched. Nationalistic dreams also failed in 1848.

The Italian and German movements did provide an important impetus. Italy was unified in 1861, while Germany in 1871 was unified under Bismarck after Germany's 1870 war with France. Some disaffected German bourgeois liberals (the Forty-Eighters, many atheists and freethinkers) migrated to the United States after 1848, taking their money, intellectual talents, and skills out of Germany.

The revolutions did inspire lasting reform in Denmark as well as the Netherlands. King William II of the Netherlands, afraid of the revolutions spreading into the Netherlands, ordered Johan Rudolf Thorbecke to revise the constitution. Thorbecke's revision resulted in the king losing most of his powers in favor of the parliament, effectively turning the Netherlands into a Constitutional Monarchy.

1848 was a watershed year for Europe, and many of the changes of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries have origins in this revolutionary period.

See also

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