3.15 The Revolutions of 1848

The Politics of the Nineteenth Century

The new political ideologies that had emerged from the backdrop of the French Revolution and Napoleonic period coalesced in 1848. That year, all across Europe, there were a series of revolutions that combined the liberal, socialist, and nationalist movements in a temporary alliance against the conservative order. Starting in France, but quickly spreading to Prussia, Austria, the smaller German kingdoms, and regions like Italy and Hungary, coalitions rose up and, temporarily, succeeded in either running their monarchs out of their capital cities (as in Paris) or forcing their monarchs to agree to constitutions and rationalized legal systems (as in Prussia and Austria).

In February of 1848 in France, the unpopular king Louis-Philippe unwisely tried to crack down on gatherings of would-be reformers. A revolutionary crowd gathered and, after panicked soldiers fired and killed forty protesters, began to build barricades and prepare to fight back. The king promptly fled the city. A diverse group of liberals and socialists formed a provisional government, declared France to be a new republic, and began to draw up plans for a general election for representatives to a new government. There would be no property restrictions on voting – although women remained disenfranchised, as they did everywhere else – and never again would a monarch hold the throne of France simply because of his or her dynastic birth.

Meanwhile, in Austria, crowds took to the streets of Vienna after learning of the revolution in Paris (telegraphs now carried information across Europe in hours; thus, this was the first time revolutions were tied together via “social media”). Peasants marched into the capital demanding the end of feudalism. Workers demanded better wages and conditions. Liberals demanded a constitution. In non-German areas like the Czech lands and Hungary, after learning of the news in Vienna, nationalists rose up in the regional capitals of Prague and Budapest demanding their own independent nations. For a time it looked like the Austro-Hungarian Empire itself was on the verge of collapse.

Altenhof, Alexander. "Europe 1848 – 1849."
Altenhof, Alexander. “Europe 1848 – 1849.” August 29, 2016. Wikimedia. April 14, 2017.

In Prussia and the other German kingdoms, a series of revolutions saw the beginning of the movement that would lead to the unification of Germany (See Nationalisms Across Europe and Unification).

This flowering of revolutionary upheaval, however, proved shockingly short-lived. The coalitions of artisans, students, and educated liberals who had spearheaded the uprisings were good at arguing with one another about the finer points of national identity, but much less good at establishing meaningful links to the bulk of the population who did not live in or near capital cities. The Frankfurt Congress was the quintessential expression of that form of dysfunction: impassioned, educated men, most of them lawyers, with few direct links to the majority of the German population, despite the growing popularity of German nationalism. The problem for the revolutionaries across Europe was that only in France did the king stay out of power permanently. In the German kingdoms, Italy, and Austria, monarchs and their officials worked behind the scenes to re-establish control of their armies and to shore up their own support while hastily-created assemblies were trying to draw up liberal constitutions. Likewise, revolutionary coalitions soon discovered that their constituent elements did not necessarily agree on the major political issues that had to be addressed in creating a new government. The first sign of this dissent was in France: the socialists in the new French parliament (called the National Assembly, just as it was in the first French republic half a century earlier) created new “National Workshops” in Paris that offered good wages to anyone in need of work. Soon, however, the alliance between liberals and socialists broke down over resentment at the costs of running the workshops and the Assembly shut them down. The workers of Paris rose up in protest and a series of bloody street battles called the June Days broke out in which thousands of Parisian workers were killed or imprisoned. Conservative peasants were sent by railroad from the countryside under orders from the Assembly and in just a few days, the great socialist experiment was crushed.

In the aftermath of the June Days, the government of the Second Republic was torn between liberals, socialists, and conservatives (the latter of whom wanted to restore the French monarchy). In the midst of the chaos, Napoleon Bonaparte’s nephew, Louis Napoleon, successfully ran for president of the Republic, winning in large part because of the simple power of his name. Posing as a unifying force above the fray of petty politics, he was genuinely popular across class and regional lines throughout France. In 1852 he staged a coup and declared himself Emperor of France, just as his uncle had decades earlier. And, also like the first Napoleon, he had his power ratified by bypassing the Assembly entirely and calling for a plebiscite (vote of the entire male population) in support of his title, which he won by a landslide. He took the title of Napoleon III (Napoleon II, the first Napoleon’s son, had died years earlier). Thus, in a few short years the second experiment in democratic politics in France ended just as the first one had: a popular dictator named Napoleon took over.

In both Austria and Prussia (as well as the smaller German kingdoms) conservative forces turned the tide as the revolutionary coalitions wasted time debating the minutia of the new political order. Forces loyal to the Austrian emperor, aided by a full-scale Russian invasion of Hungary in the name of Holy Alliance principles, restored Habsburg rule across the entirety of the empire by the autumn of 1849. In the meantime, by the time the representatives had finally drafted a constitution for a united Germany under Prussian rule, the Prussian king, Wilhelm IV, had verified the loyalty of the army. When he was presented with the constitution, he simply refused to accept it (he called the offered position a “crown from the gutter”), and one by one the kings of the smaller German states reasserted their control across the German lands.

Ultimately, all of the revolutions “failed” in their immediate goals of creating liberal republics, to say nothing of socialist dreams of state-sponsored workshops for the unemployed. One prominent historian, much later, noted that 1848 was the year that European history (specifically, German history, although the comment was often applied to the whole revolutionary enterprise) “reached its turning point and failed to turn.”4 That is not entirely true, however. Even though conservative regimes ultimately retained power, the very definition of conservatism and the methods conservatives used were altered by the revolutions. First, some limited constitutional and parliamentary reforms did occur in many kingdoms.

Even though (again, relying on Russian support) the Austrian Empire had been restored by conservative forces, the new constitution of 1849 did institute a parliament, and elected representative bodies became the norm across Europe by the latter decades of the century. Electorates were almost always limited to property-owners, and nowhere did those electorates include women until the twentieth century, but they still represented a major shift toward a key element of liberal politics. Likewise, the very fact that conservative monarchies accepted the need for written constitutions, and the final end of the old feudal obligations of peasants in areas where those still existed, were marked steps toward liberalism.

Second, just as significantly, the power of nationalism was obvious to everyone in the aftermath of 1848, conservative monarchs included. Only Russian invasion had prevented Hungary from achieving its independence, and Italian uprisings against Austria had been contained only with great difficulty. Subsequently, conservatives themselves began to adopt some of the trappings of nationalism in the name of retaining their own power – the most noteworthy success stories of nineteenth-century nationalism, those of Italy and Germany, were led by conservative politicians, not by utopian insurgents.


  1. A.J.P. Taylor, The Course of German History (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1945), 68, quoted in Kathleen Burk, Troublemaker: The Life and History of A.J.P. Taylor (London: Yale University Press, 2000), 252. image


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

PPSC HIS 1320: Western Civilization: 1650-Present by Wayne Artis, Sarah Clay, and Kim Fujikawa is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book