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:
Even though there have been plenty of greater revolutions in the history of the modern world, there has been none which spread more rapidly and widely than the revolutions of 1848, running like a bushfire across frontiers and countries. The year of 1848 was painted with the colors of revolution all across continental Europe. Apart from England and Russia, almost all other states and empires in Europe witnessed a revolution in this year (Hobsbawm, 2012). This is why this period was named as “The Springtime of Peoples” or “The Springtime of Nations” by many historians. In terms of events the revolutions of 1848 may have failed, with the exception of France, but in terms of ideas they triumphed. Since 1815, people challenged the conservative order established in Europe by Klemens von Metternich at the Congress of Vienna three times. Metternich was a conservative foreign minister of the Austrian Empire and the host and a protagonist figure of the congress. 1848 was the culmination of this dispute. Through this challenge, the ideas of Nationalism, Liberalism, Socialism, and Radicalism were strengthened and magnified. The combination of the development of these ideas with the political reforms that emerged from the revolutions of 1848, even if they were short lived or were revoked after the defeat of the revolutionaries, constitutes the legacy of these revolutions. First, political reforms will be considered and then emphasis will be given to these ideas.
Although most governments retained power after the revolutions, their administration changed radically. The Prussian Prime Minister declared that the state could no longer be run like the landed estate of a nobleman and that the constitution of January 1820 was to be retained. The revolutions in the German states and in the Prussian-occupied Poland obviously contributed to these changes. Governments after 1848 were forced into managing the public sphere and popular sphere with more effectiveness. Nevertheless, there were a few immediate successes for some revolutionary movements, notably in the Habsburg lands. A great achievement of the revolution within the Austrian empire was the resignation of Metternich on March 13, 1848. Austria and Prussia eliminated feudalism by 1850, improving the lot of the peasants. European middle classes made political and economic gains over the next 20 years; France adopted universal male suffrage and has had it, almost uninterrupted, ever since. Slaves were freed in the French colonial empire too. Serfdom was abolished where it existed in Central and Eastern Europe. Russia would later free the serfs on February 19, 1861, despite the fact that there was not revolutionary action within its territory. The Habsburgs finally had to give the Hungarians more self-determination and to the other nations under Austrian control more liberties. Moreover, the revolutions inspired lasting reform in Denmark as well as the Netherlands. The absolute monarchy ended in Denmark, while representative democracy was introduced in the Netherlands. In many other countries, peasants and workers enjoyed their first taste of politics, voting in elections, joining political clubs and forming trade unions. Although women were denied formal political rights, they participated in political societies and engaged in journalism (Britannica, 2020).
The Evolution of Ideas
Liberal democrats looked to 1848 as a democratic revolution, which in the long run ensured liberty, equality, and fraternity. For the liberals who led the uprisings and then took power, “freedom” meant civil and personal rights and liberties, freedom of the press and of religion, and the creation of constitutions and parliaments, even though they were not always democratically elected. But above all it meant national independence and unity. It is characteristic that Metternich called Nationalism and Liberalism “mania for constitutions”.
For nationalists, 1848 was the springtime of hope, when newly emerging nationalities rejected the old multinational empires. Germans and Italians demanded their own independent state, while many different nations within the Habsburg Empire fought for their autonomy and independence. The Hungarians were the most notable example. The Poles, who were provocatively ignored at the Vienna Congress, were also eager for national independence. Liberalism and nationalism stood together in 1848, since most liberals believed that their ideals of individual liberty would find their fullest expression within free nation-states. Liberation from foreign rule and national unification were seen as essential conditions to secure the individual rights and dignity of citizens (Rapport, 2008).
Concerning Socialism, communists denounced 1848 as a betrayal of working-class ideals by a bourgeoisie indifferent to the legitimate demands of the proletariat. The view of the Revolutions of 1848 as a bourgeois revolution is also common in non-Marxist scholarship. Middle-class anxiety and different approaches between bourgeois revolutionaries and radicals led to the failure of revolutions. Karl Marx expressed his disappointment at the bourgeois character of the revolutions, as he and Engels were expecting a different kind of revolution when they published the communist manifesto on February 1848, just days before the revolutions broke out. Marx elaborated in his 1850 Address of the Central Committee to the Communist League a theory of permanent revolution according to which the proletariat should strengthen democratic bourgeois revolutionary forces until the proletariat itself is ready to seize power (Hobsbawm, 1962).
The revolutions of 1848 had a catalytic influence on the modern and contemporary history of Europe. Essentially, the great historical events of the second half of the 19th century emerged from the ideas of 1848, such as the establishment of the unified states of Italy and Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Compromise (Ausgleich), the rise of the nation-states in the Balkans, and the slow but steady rise of the democratic and liberal institutions. It is 1848 that lent true character to Europe. It would even be possible to claim that the rise of Nationalism after 1848 would set Italy and Germany on the path towards authoritarianism. It can also be seen as a major precursor to the two most devastating events of the 20th century; the First World War (1914-1919) and the Second World War (1939-1945) (Narayan, 2016).
Hobsbawm, E. (2012). Age of Capital: 1848-1875. London: Abacus. p. 22.
Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia (2020, May 12). Revolutions of 1848. Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved from: https://www.britannica.com/event/Revolutions-of-1848
Rapport, M. (2008). The death of a dream: why Europe’s great year of revolution in 1848 failed. Retrieved from: https://www.historyextra.com/period/victorian/why-did-french-europe-revolution-fail/
Hobsbawm, E. (1962). The Age of Revolution: Europe 1789–1848. Weidenfeld & Nicolson. pp. 163-193.
Narayan, S. (2016). The Seeds of the "Springtime of the Peoples:" A Study in the Causes of the Revolutions of 1848. Retrieved from: http://www.inquiriesjournal.com/articles/1411/the-seeds-of-the-springtime-of-the-peoples-a-study-in-the-causes-of-the-revolutions-of-1848
Delacroix, E. (1833). Liberty Leading the People. [Painting]. Louvre Museum. Retrieved from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Eug%C3%A8ne_Delacroix_-_La_libert%C3%A9_guidant_le_peuple.jpg
Map showing the different revolutionary movements of 1848-1849 in Europe. [Map]. inquiriesjournal.com. Retrieved from: http://www.inquiriesjournal.com/articles/1411/the-seeds-of-the-springtime-of-the-peoples-a-study-in-the-causes-of-the-revolutions-of-1848
Sorrieu, F. (1848). The Dream of Worldwide Democratic and Social Republics – The Pact Between Nations. Retrieved from: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Frederic_Sorrieu_-_Universal_Democratic_and_Social_Republic_1848.jpg