Students tend to minimize the historical importance of the twenty-three years that begin the second half of the nineteenth century. Industrialization had already taken hold in Britain, Germany, and, to a lesser extent, France; few alive in Europe at the time, furthermore, could remember what life was like under Napoleon Bonaparte. In many ways, this millisecond in the grand scope of recorded history is a bridge--from x to y. Historians have named many varying notions as x and y; in this SparkNote, we hope to provoke thought on each and, hopefully, inspire you to come to your own answer to the following question: What, if anything, changed in Europe from 1848 to 1871?
Let's say, as some historians do, that x equals the "early modern" period and y equals the "modern" period. Now, this makes it necessary for us to define two things: "modern," and "modern" in terms of what? Do we mean politics, technology, industry, society, culture, and so on? Let us try to define these terms.
Traditionally, "early modern" European history is seen in a much broader scope--namely, the period immediately after the Renaissance, the true bridge from pre-modern, or Medieval, to modern history. Within "modern history," traditionally defined, we can make two subdivisions: the "early" stage of modern history, ending within years of 1815, and the "late" stage of modern history, beginning within years of 1871. Simply put, therefore, the period between 1848- 1871, is an essential plank in the bridge that connects modern history.
Consider these "before and after" contrasts: Before, the "concert of Europe" maintained peace; after, Europe was on the road to World War I. Before, the Russian army dominated the continent; after, Russia was humiliated and weakened by European and Asian enemies. Before, central Europe was a disjointed region of independent principalities; after, the newly unified nation-states of Germany and Italy upset the balance of power in Europe forever. Before, national interests were, without question, bound up with the interests of the ruling aristocracy; after, the notion of workers' rights and social democracy dragged European politics forever leftward. Before, Europe occupied only a small percentage of the world's land; after, the imperial centers of Europe commanded nearly all the world outside the Western Hemisphere. All this is to say that before 1815, Europe was vastly different than after 1871. We will focus on the second part of the bridge within modernity from 1815-1871, spanning Europe from 1848 to 1871.