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Europe (1848-1871)

The Revolutions of 1848 (1848)

Timeline

The Crimean War (1854-1855)

Summary

Beginning shortly after the New Year in 1848, Europe exploded into revolution. From Paris to Frankfurt to Budapest to Naples, liberal protesters rose up against the conservative establishment. To those living through the cataclysmic year, it seemed rather sudden; however, hindsight offers valuable warning signs.

The year 1846 witnessed a severe famine--Europe's last serious food crisis. Lack of grain drove up food and other prices while wages remained stagnant, thus reducing consumer demand. With consumers buying less and less, profits plummeted, forcing thousands of industrial workers out of their jobs. High unemployment combined with high prices sparked the liberal revolt. The subsequent events in February 1848 in France made Austria's Prince Clemens von Metternich's saying seem true: "When France sneezes, Europe catches a cold."

Moderate liberals--lawyers, doctors, merchants, bourgeoisie--began pushing actively for extension of suffrage through their "banquet campaign," named thus because its leaders attempted to raise money by giving rousing speeches at subscribed dinners in France's major urban areas. When on February 22, 1848, Paris officials canceled the scheduled banquet, fearing organized protest by the middle and working classes, Parisian citizens demonstrated against the repression. Skilled workers, factory laborers, and middle class liberals poured into the streets. The National Guard, a citizen militia of bourgeois Parisians, defected from King Louis-Philippe, and the army garrison stationed in Paris joined the revolutionary protesters as well. Louis-Philippe attempted reform, but the workers rejected the halfhearted changes. The king fled and the demonstrators proclaimed the Second Republic on February 24th.

The overthrow of the monarchy set off a wave of protest throughout east and central Europe, led by radical liberals and workers who demanded constitutional reform or complete government change. In March, protests in the German provinces brought swift reform from local princes while Kaiser Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia yielded to revolts in Berlin by promising to create a Prussian assembly. The collapse of autocracy in Prussia encouraged liberals in the divided Germany provinces to join together at the Frankfurt Assembly to frame a constitution and unite the German nation. Meeting in May 1848, the convention was populated by middle class civil servants, lawyers, and intellectuals dedicated to liberal reform. However, after drawing the boundaries for a German state and offering the crown to Friedrich Wilhelm, the Kaiser refused in March 1849, dooming hopes for a united, liberal Germany.

In Austria, students, workers, and middle class liberals revolted in Vienna, setting up a constituent assembly. In Budapest, the Magyars led a movement of national autonomy, led by patriot Lajos Kossuth. Similarly, in Prague, the Czechs revolted in the name of self-government. In Italy, new constitutions were declared in Tuscany and Piedmont, with the goal of overthrowing their Austrian masters. Here, middle class liberals pushed the concept of Italian unification alongside the defeat of the Austrians with the help of the Young Italy movement, founded in 1831 by nationalist Giuseppe Mazzini, an Italian patriot who favored a democratic revolution to unify the country. In February 1849, Mazzini led a democratic revolt against the Pope in Rome, becoming head of the Republic of Rome later that month. By attacking the Pope, the democrats went too far. The self-proclaimed protectors of the Pope, the French, moved in and defeated Mazzini's Roman legion. The Pope was restored and a democratic Italy collapsed, for now.

Meanwhile, from August 1848, the Austrian army soundly defeated every revolt in its empire. In Vienna, in Budapest, in Prague, the Austrians legions crushed the liberal and democratic movements, returning the empire to the conservative establishment that ruled at the beginning of 1848. Nothing had come of the revolutions of 1848.

Commentary

The revolutions of 1848 were a "turning point in modern history that modern history failed to turn." Every one was an utter failure; though minor reforms emerged in the Germany provinces and in Prussia, the conservative regimes that canvassed Europe remained in power.

Though utter failures themselves, the 1848 revolutions inspire much more discussion. Consider the following four points:

PARGRAPH The year 1848 marked the end of the so-called "concert of Europe" that had been defined after the defeat of Napoleon in 1815 as a way to maintain the European balance of power by having the continent's major powers meet to resolve their differences and prevent aggression. After 1848, the European powers seemed incapable of united action to maintain the status quo, probably because the revolutions of 1848 weakened the regimes in the eyes of their people. Secondly, the revolutions failed to bring about any significant change. In France, the December 1848 presidential election brought Louis Napoleon, nephew of the former emperor, into office; it took him less than three years to consolidate absolute power. In Austria, a new emperor, Franz Josef I, continued Austrian dominance over all the minorities of eastern Europe. In Prussia, the promised assembly had little power and was constituted by the aristocratic elite.

The final two points emerge from here: 1) Why did the revolutions fail? and 2) why was it so easy for conservative forces to return? The revolutions probably failed due to lack of organization. In Austria, for example, the revolts in Prague, Vienna, and Budapest maintained no communication among them, allowing the Austrian army to attend to each in isolation, without a united front. Finally, the return of conservative and reactionary forces was probably due to the middle class. Another reason why the revolutions failed was because moderate liberals of the middle class feared the radicalism of the workers, preventing any type of lasting alliance. Therefore, when radicals took control of the revolutions in Paris and in eastern Europe, the middle class liberals turned their backs, preferring absolute rule and law and order, to the uncertainty of radical revolution.

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