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.