The Revolutions of 1848 101: Introduction I, The Congress of Vienna and The Revolutions of 1820


The revolutions of 1848 are a separate chapter in the study of modern and contemporary European history. The “Springtime of the Peoples,” as they are called by some historians, played a decisive role in the development of the historical events of the 19th century, the 20th century, and also the present. This is the main reason why this 101 series of articles, dedicated to these revolutions, came into being. Specifically, reference will be made to the cases of many European countries and regions, such as France, the German States, the Italian States, Denmark, the territories of the Habsburg Empire, Sweden, Poland, and so on.

The Revolutions of 1848 series consist of nine main articles:

- Introduction I, The Congress of Vienna and The Revolutions of 1820

- Introduction II, The Revolutions of 1830 and The Ideological Background

- The Italian States

- The February Revolution in France

- The German States

- Habsburg Monarchy

- The Cases of Denmark and Sweden

- The Polish Uprising

- Legacy

Before narrating the events of the revolutions of 1848 in Europe, the causes and how the situation led to this critical point must be explained. Essentially, it all started with the Congress of Vienna (1814-1815), whose decisions will be examined, because they were strongly challenged by many peoples of Europe. This is already evident from the revolutions during the 1820s and also from those during the 1830s, which served as a precursor to those of 1848. The main difference between the revolutions, that preceded 1848, is that they were not entirely successful, while those of 1848 were effective and brought about radical changes in the status quo of Europe, set by the Great Powers. The subject of this first introductory article will be the decisions of the Congress of Vienna and the first revolutionary wave against them during the early 1820s.

The Congress of Vienna: The Restoration of European Order

The Congress of Vienna (1814-1815) reorganized Europe after the Napoleonic Wars and the final defeat of Napoleon. The settlement was the most-comprehensive treaty that Europe had ever seen. This Congress was organized by the four Great Powers that were chiefly instrumental in the overthrow of Napoleon: Austria, Prussia, Russia, and Great Britain. Prince Klemens von Metternich, principal minister of Austria, was the host and a protagonist figure of the congress.

The procedure of the congress was determined by the difficulty and complexity of the issues to be solved. First, there was the problem of the organization of the congress, for which there was no precedent. The Great Powers discussed the main territorial problems informally among themselves. A committee of German states met to draw up a constitution for Germany. Following strong protests from the representative of France (Talleyrand), Bourbon France was included in the committee of four, which now became the committee of five. It was that committee of five that was the real Congress of Vienna. The committee settled the frontiers of all territories north of the Alps and laid the foundations for the settlement of Italy. The congress as a representative body of all Europe never met.

The major points of friction occurred over the disposition of Poland and Saxony, the conflicting claims of Sweden, Denmark, and Russia, and the adjustment of the borders of the German states. In return for acquiring Poland, Russia gave back Galicia to Austria and gave Thorn and a region around it to Prussia; Kraków was made a free town. The rest of the Duchy of Warsaw was incorporated as a separate kingdom under the Russian emperor’s (Alexander) sovereignty. Prussia got two-fifths of Saxony and was compensated by extensive additions in Westphalia and on the left bank of the Rhine River. Austria was compensated by Lombardy and Venice and got back most of Tirol. The outline of a constitution, a loose confederation, was drawn up for Germany. Denmark lost Norway to Sweden but got Lauenburg, while Swedish Pomerania went to Prussia. In Italy, Piedmont absorbed Genoa, and Tuscany and Modena went to an Austrian archduke. The Papal States were restored to the pope, and Naples went to the Sicilian Bourbons.

The Final Act of the Congress of Vienna comprised all the agreements in one great instrument. Almost all of the European powers acceded to it. The statesmen had successfully worked out the principle of a balance of power. However, the idea of nationality had been almost entirely ignored. Territories had been bartered about without much reference to the wishes of their inhabitants (e.g., Poland). It was later realized how difficult their task was, as was the fact that they secured for Europe a period of peace, which was its cardinal need. The statesmen failed, however, to give to international relations any organ by which their work could be adapted to the new forces of the 19th century, and it was ultimately doomed to destruction (Britannica, 2021) (1).

The First Armed Reactions: The Revolutions of 1820s

The revolutions of 1820 were the first challenge to the conservative order of Europe established after the fall of Napoleon and the Congress of Vienna in 1815. They demonstrated the rising strength of the liberal-nationalist movement that would eventually sweep away the conservative order. This movement was supported by a liberal-nationalist minority, deeply discontented, which organized secret societies dedicated to overthrowing the existing order. The most important was the Carbonari, which played a key role in the 1820 revolutions.

The revolutions began in Spain. In 1820 a regiment of liberal officers entered the capital, Madrid, and forced King Ferdinand VII to grant a constitution, but he secretly appealed to the conservative powers to aid him in overthrowing it. After the initial refusal of the Great Powers, France declared war and invaded Spain. They easily overcame all resistance, and restored Ferdinand to his throne.

Revolutions broke out in Italy too. In 1820, liberal army officers, members of the Carbonari (an informal network of secret revolutionary societies), revolted against Ferdinand I, the King of the Two Sicilies, demanding a constitution. The revolt succeeded and the new government won some support from moderate liberals among the people. After long consultations between the great powers, it was decided at Laibach, that there would be no mediation and no constitution. In 1821, Austria moved south, defeated the Neapolitan army and easily suppressed the revolutionary regime. Meanwhile, another revolution was organized in the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia and the Austrian province of Lombardy in order to drive out the Austrians and form a constitutional Kingdom of Northern Italy. The liberal army officers demanded from the King to lead them against Austria, but he refused, and the Austrians quickly suppressed the rebels.

The Spanish and Italian revolts had failed because they had little popular support, and because the powers were united against them. Neither of those factors weakened the Greek Revolution. The revolution came because the new idea of nationalism had begun to influence many educated Greeks. A small but active secret society, the Society of Friends, had grown up since 1814, dedicated to Greek independence. The revolution against the Ottomans began in 1821. In the beginning, the Greeks were not supported by the Great Powers, as they did not want the order in Europe to be disturbed or other revolutions to be encouraged apart from Italy and Spain. However, the Greek revolution endured and the philhellenic movement in Europe grew. The Great Powers changed their attitude towards the Greeks and the revolution succeeded. In 1832, the Greek state was officially founded (, 2021) (2).


The decisions of the Congress of Vienna, despite their initial stability, soon began to be shaken. The great powers were indifferent to the demands of the European peoples (Democracy, Constitution, Liberties, National Independence), which were clearly inspired by liberalism and nationalism. The revolutions of 1820 were simply the first blow. The Spanish and Italian revolutionaries may have failed, but not the Greeks. The Greek Revolution, the first break in the status quo of 1815, began a new era. As Metternich had feared, Greek victory encouraged liberal-nationalists everywhere, and marked the beginning of the end for the conservative order of Europe. Τhe second blow would come about a decade later.

Image Sources

  1. Campe, A. The Congress of Vienna [Painting]. OpenHistory.

  2. The new map of Europe emerged from the Vienna Congress in 1815 [Map]. Retrieved from

  3. Spain (1820). Liberal Triennium. Felipe de Arco. [Photograph]. © Copyright Mary Evans.

  4. The Revolution of 1820 in Napoli. [Photograph]. Copyright Giannis Korinthios.

  5. Vryzakis, T. (1855). The Army Camp of Karaiskakis [Painting]. National Gallery of Greece. Greek Reporter.


  1. Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia (2021, June 2). Congress of Vienna. Encyclopedia Britannica.

  2. "Revolutions of 1820." Encyclopedia of Modern Europe: Europe 1789-1914: Encyclopedia of the Age of Industry and Empire. Retrieved November 24, 2021 from

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Miltos Spiratos

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