Revolutions of 1848 explained

Event Name:Revolutions of 1848
Aka:Spring of Nations, Springtime of the Peoples, Year of Revolution
Participants:People of France, the German states, the Austrian Empire, the Italian states, Denmark, Wallachia, Poland, and others
Location:Western and Central Europe
Date:23 February 1848-early 1849
Result:Little overall structural change
Significant overall social and cultural change

The European Revolutions of 1848, known in some countries as the Spring of Nations, Springtime of the Peoples[1] or the Year of Revolution, were a series of political upheavals throughout Europe in 1848. It was the first (and only) Europe-wide collapse of traditional authority, but within a year reactionary forces had won out and the revolutions collapsed. This revolutionary wave began in France in February, and immediately spread to most of Europe and parts of Latin America. Over 50 countries were affected, but there was no coordination or cooperation among the revolutionaries in different countries. Five factors were involved: the widespread dissatisfaction with the political leadership; the demand for more participation and democracy; the demands of the working classes; the upsurge of nationalism; and finally, the regrouping of the reactionary forces based in the royalty, the aristocracy, the army, and the peasants.[2] The uprisings were led by shaky ad-hoc coalitions of reformers, the middle classes and workers, but it could not hold together for long. Tens of thousands of people were killed and many more forced into exile. The only significant lasting reforms were the abolition of serfdom in Austria and Hungary and the end of absolute monarchy in Denmark. The revolutions were most important in France, Germany, Italy, and Austria, and did not reach Russia, Great Britain, Spain, Sweden, Portugal, or the Ottoman Empire.[3]


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. Some historians emphasize the serious crop failures, particularly those of 1846, that produced hardship 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.[4] 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"[5] 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. The revolts first erupted in the cities.

Urban workers

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. Many unskilled laborers toiled from 12 to 15 hours per day when they had work, living in squalid, disease-ridden slums. Traditional artisans felt the pressure of industrialization, having lost their guilds. Revolutionaries such as Marx built up a following.[6]

The situation in the German states was similar. Parts of Prussia were beginning to industrialize. During the decade of the 1840s, mechanized production in the textile industry brought about inexpensive clothing that undercut the handmade products of German tailors.[7] Reforms ameliorated the most unpopular features of rural feudalism, while industrial workers remained dissatisfied with these and pressed for greater change.

Urban workers had no choice but to spend half of their income on food, which consisted of bread and potatoes. As a result of harvest failures, food prices soared through the roof and the demand for manufactured goods decreased, causing an increase in unemployment. During the revolution, to address the problem of unemployment, workshops were organized for men interested in construction work. Officials also set up workshops for women when they felt they were excluded. Artisans and unemployed workers destroyed industrialized machines when their social demands were neglected. [8]

Rural areas

Rural population growth had led to food shortages, land pressure, and migration, both within Europe and out from Europe, especially to North America. In the years 1845 and 1846, a potato blight caused a subsistence crisis in Northern Europe. The effects of the blight were most severely manifested in the Great Irish Famine,[9] 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 farm lands and effective control over the peasants. Peasant grievances exploded during the revolutionary year of 1848.

Role of ideas

Despite forceful and often violent efforts of established and reactionary powers to keep them down, disruptive ideas gained popularity: democracy, liberalism, nationalism, and socialism.[10]

In the language of the 1840s, 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.


Italian states

See main article: Sicilian revolution of independence of 1848 and Revolutions of 1848 in the Italian states. Although little noticed at the time, the first major outbreak came in Sicily, starting in January 1848. There had been several previous revolts against Bourbon rule; this one produced an independent state that lasted only 16 months before the Bourbons came back. During those months the constitution was quite advanced for its time in liberal democratic terms, as was the proposal of an Italian confederation of states. The failed revolt was reversed a dozen years later as the Bourbon kingdom of the Two Sicilies collapsed in 1860–61 with the Risorgimento.


See main article: French Revolution of 1848.

The "February Revolution" in France was sparked by the suppression of the campagne des banquets. This revolution was driven by nationalist and republican ideals among the French general public, who believed that the people should rule themselves. It ended the constitutional monarchy of Louis-Philippe, and led to the creation of the French Second Republic. This government was headed by Louis-Napoleon, who, after only four years, returned France to a monarchy with the establishment of the Second French Empire in 1852.

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."[11]

German states

See main article: Revolutions of 1848 in the German states. The "March Revolution" in the German states took place in the south and the west of Germany, with large popular assemblies and mass demonstrations. Led by well educated students and intellectuals,[12] they demanded German national unity, freedom of the press, and freedom of assembly. The uprisings were not well coordinated but had in common a rejection of traditional, autocratic political structures in the thirty-nine independent states of the German Confederation. The middle class and working class components of the Revolution split, and in the end the conservative aristocracy defeated it, forcing many liberals into exile.[13]


Denmark had been governed by a system of absolute monarchy since the seventeenth century. King Christian VIII, a moderate reformer but still an absolutist, died in January 1848 during a period of rising opposition from farmers and liberals. The demands for constitutional monarchy, led by the National Liberals, ended with a popular march to Christiansborg on March 21. The new king, Frederick VII, met the liberals' demands and installed a new Cabinet that included prominent leaders of the National Liberal Party. The national-liberal movement wanted to abolish absolutism but retain a strongly centralized state. The king accepted a new constitution agreeing to share power with a bicameral parliament called the Rigsdag. Although army officers were dissatisfied, they accepted the new arrangement which, in contrast to the rest of Europe, was not overturned by reactionaries.[14] The liberal constitution did not extend to Schleswig, leaving the Schleswig-Holstein Question unanswered.


See main article: First Schleswig War. Schleswig, a region containing both Danes and Germans, was a part of the Danish monarchy but remained a duchy separate from the Kingdom of Denmark. Spurred by pan-German sentiment, Germans of Schleswig took up arms to protest a new policy announced by Denmark's National Liberal government, which would have fully integrated the duchy into Denmark. The German population in Schleswig and Holstein revolted, inspired by the Protestant clergy. The German states sent in an army but Danish victories in 1849 led to the Treaty of Berlin (1850) and the London Protocols (1852). They reaffirmed the sovereignty of the King of Denmark, while prohibiting union with Denmark. The violation of the latter provision led to renewed warfare in 1863 and the Prussian victory in 1864.

Habsburg Empire

See main article: Revolutions of 1848 in the Habsburg areas. From March 1848 through July 1849, the Habsburg Austrian Empire was threatened by revolutionary movements, which often had a nationalist character. The empire, ruled from Vienna, included Austrian Germans, Hungarians, Slovenes, Poles, Czechs, Croats, Slovaks, Ukrainians/Ruthenians, Romanians, Serbs and Italians, all of whom attempted in the course of the revolution to either achieve autonomy, independence, or even hegemony over other nationalities. The nationalist picture was further complicated by the simultaneous events in the German states, which moved toward greater German national unity.


See main article: Hungarian Revolution of 1848. March 15, 1848 was the day that a group of Magyar nationalists rioted in Pest-Buda (today Budapest) demanding political autonomy for Hungary from Austria. This resulted in Klemens von Metternich, the Austrian prince and foreign minister, resigning. In turn, Emperor Ferdinand promised Hungary a constitution, an elected parliament, and the end of censorship. The new government, led by ministers Széchenyi and Kossuth, imposed the Magyar language on all the other nationalities in Hungary. This angered many people, and uprisings followed. Austria took back Hungary after one and a half years of fighting when Russian Tsar Nicholas I marched into Hungary with over 300,000 troops. Hungary was thus placed under brutal martial law, with the Austrian government restored to its original position.[15]


See main article: Sonderbund war. Switzerland, already an alliance of republics, also saw major internal struggle. The creation of the Sonderbund led to a short Swiss civil war in November 1847. In 1848, a new constitution ended the almost-complete independence of the cantons and transformed Switzerland into a federal state.

Western Ukraine

During the revolution center of Ukrainian national movement was the Eastern Galicia. He started a group of representatives of the Greek Catholic clergy who appealed to the Austrian Emperor April 19, 1848 a petition. It expressed wishes: the introduction in schools and public institutions in Eastern Galicia the Ukrainian language, Ukrainian providing access to all positions, and equalize the rights of the clergy of all denominations.

May 2, 1848 in Ukraine was established the first Ukrainian political organization - the Supreme Ruthenian (Ukrainian) Council, which assumed the role of representative of the Ukrainian population of Galicia to the central government and performed it for years 1848-1851 Council, which consisted of 30 permanent members - the representatives of secular intellectuals, the higher and lower clergy led by Bishop Gregory Yakhimovich.

Greater Poland

See main article: Greater Poland Uprising (1848). Polish people mounted a military insurrection in the Grand Duchy of Poznań (or the Greater Poland region) against the occupying Prussian forces.


See main article: Wallachian Revolution of 1848. A Romanian liberal and Romantic nationalist uprising began in June in the principality of Wallachia. Closely connected with the 1848 unsuccessful revolution in Moldavia, it sought to overturn the administration imposed by Imperial Russian authorities under the Regulamentul Organic regime, and, through many of its leaders, demanded the abolition of boyar privilege. Led by a group of young intellectuals and officers in the Wallachian military forces, the movement succeeded in toppling the ruling Prince Gheorghe Bibescu, whom it replaced with a Provisional Government and a Regency, and in passing a series of major liberal reforms, first announced in the Proclamation of Islaz.


In Belgium, the uprisings were local and concentrated in the industrial basins of the Provinces of Liège and Hainaut. A more or less greater threat was coming from France, where among the seasonal workers Communism was spread by the small Communist clique of Belgium, basically the people were brought into a Belgian Legion, with the promise of a free ride home and money. The Belgian Legion would 'invade' Belgium by train and travel to Brussels where the government and monarchy had to be overthrown. Several smaller groups managed to infiltrate Belgium, but the reinforced Belgian bordertroops was successful in splitting up the larger groups of the Legion, and the invasion eventually came to nothing.[16]


The Young Irelander Rebellion of 1848 was a small, failed rebellion which broke out in Ballingarry, Co. Tipperary. It was led by the Young Ireland movement, inspired by famine conditions in Ireland and the 1848 rebellions throughout Europe.

Other English-speaking lands

Elsewhere in Britain, the middle classes had been pacified by general enfranchisement in the Reform Act 1832; the consequent agitations, violence, and petitions of the Chartist movement came to a head with their peaceful petition to Parliament of 1848. The repeal in 1846 of the protectionist agricultural tariffscalled the "Corn Laws"had defused some proletarian fervour.Henry Weisser, "Chartism in 1848: Reflections on a Non-Revolution," Albion: A Quarterly Journal Concerned with British Studies Vol. 13, No. 1 (Spring, 1981), pp. 12–26 in JSTOR

The Revolution had little impact in British colonies or the United States.

New Grenada

In Spanish Latin America, the Revolution of 1848 appeared in New Grenada, where Colombian students, liberals and intellectuals demanded the election of General José Hilario López. He took power in 1849 and launched major reforms, abolishing slavery and the death penalty, and providing freedom of the press and of religion. The resulting turmoil in Colombia lasted four decades; from 1851 to 1885 the country was ravaged by four general civil wars and fifty local revolutions.[17]


See main article: Praieira revolt. In Brazil, the "Praieira revolt" was a movement in Pernambuco that lasted from November 1848 to 1852. Unresolved conflicts left over from the period of the Regency and local resistance to the consolidation of the Brazilian Empire that had been proclaimed in 1822 helped to plant the seeds of the revolution.

Legacy and memory

There were multiple memories of the Revolution. Democrats looked to 1848, as a democratic revolution, which in the long run insured liberty, equality, and fraternity. Marxists denounced 1848 as a betrayal of working-class ideals by a bourgeoisie that was indifferent to the legitimate demands of the proletariat. For nationalists, 1848, was the springtime of hope when newly emerging nationalities rejected the old multinational empires. They were all bitterly disappointed in the short run. 1848, at best, was a glimmer of future hope, and at worst, it was a deadweight that strengthened the reactionaries and delayed further progress.[18]

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

Nevertheless, 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. The revolutions inspired lasting reform in Denmark as well as the Netherlands.


Great Britain, the Netherlands, the Russian Empire (including Congress Poland), and the Ottoman Empire were the only major European states to go without a national revolution over this period. Sweden and Norway were little affected. Serbia, though formally unaffected by the revolt, actively supported the Serbian revolution in the Habsburg Empire.[19]

Russia's relative stability was attributed to the revolutionary groups' inability to communicate with each other. In the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, uprisings took place in 1830–31 (the November Uprising) and 1846 (the Kraków Uprising). A final revolt took place in 1863–65 (the January Uprising), but none occurred in 1848.

Switzerland and Portugal were also spared in 1848, though both had gone through civil wars in the preceding years (the Sonderbund war in Switzerland and the Liberal Wars in Portugal). The introduction of the Swiss Federal Constitution in 1848 was a revolution of sorts, laying the foundation of Swiss society as it is today. In the Netherlands no major unrests appeared because the king Willem II decided to alter the constitution to reform elections and effectively reduce the power of the monarchy. While there were no major political upheavals in the Ottoman Empire as such, political unrest did occur in some of its vassal states. In Serbia, feudalism was finally abolished in 1838 and power of the Serbian prince was reduced with the Turkish constitution.




Germany and Austria




External links

Notes and References

  1. Merriman, John, A History of Modern Europe: From the French Revolution to the Present, 1996, p 715
  2. R.J.W. Evans and Hartmut Pogge von Strandmann, eds., The Revolutions in Europe 1848–1849 (2000) pp v, 4
  3. Nor did it reach Spain, Belgium, Sweden, Portugal, or the Ottoman Empire. Evans and Strandmann (2000) p 2
  4. Robert Bideleux and Ian Jeffries, A History of Eastern Europe: Crisis and Change, Routledge, 1998. ISBN 0-415-1611-8. p. 295 – 296.
  5. Demands of the Communist Party in Germany
  6. Book: A History of Modern Europe: From the Renaissance to the Present. Merriman, John. 1996. 718. New York: W.W. Norton.
  7. Merriman, 1996, p. 724
  8. Book: Revolutions and the Revolutionary Tradition. Breuilly, John ed. Parker, David. 2000. 114. New York: Routledge.
  9. Helen Litton, The Irish Famine: An Illustrated History, Wolfhound Press, 1995, ISBN 0 86327-912-0
  10. Charles Breunig, The Age of Revolution and Reaction, 1789 – 1850 (1977)
  11. Tocqueville, Alexis de. "Recollections," 1893
  12. Louis Namier, 1848: The Revolution ofthe Intellectuals (1964)
  13. Theodote S. Hamerow, Restoration, Revolution, Reaction: Economics and Politics in Germany, 1825–1870 (1958) focuses mainly on artisans and peasants lalalallala
  14. Weibull, Jörgen. "Scandinavia, History of." Encyclopædia Britannica 15th ed., Vol. 16, 324.
  15. The Making of the West: Volume C, Lynn Hunt, Pages 683–684
  16. Belgium in 1848 – Encyclopedia of 1848 Revolutions
  17. J. Fred Rippy, Latin America: A Modern History (1958) pp 253–4
  18. Robert Gildea, "1848 in European Collective Memory," in Evans and Strandmann, eds. The Revolutions in Europe, 1848–1849 pp 207–235