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:
The Polish Uprising
The Poles could not miss the Springtime of Nations as a nation deprived of independence and freedom since 1795. There had been no Polish state since the late 18th century, as the lands inhabited by the Poles were occupied by neighboring empires. The Prussian, Russian and Austrian empires divided and annexed the Polish territories and effectively deprived the Poles of their rights and their freedom. In fact, in the territories occupied by Prussia, an attempt of “Germanization” was made during the first half of the 19th century. The Polish language was replaced by the German language in the education system and only Germans were appointed to the local government and administration. The Poles rebelled many times, but without success. The first revolution was in 1807 with the support of Napoleon and another very important one took place in November 1830, to which a reference was made in the second introductory article of this series (here). Of course, the fair demands of the Poles were ignored at the Congress of Vienna in 1815 (more here). Subsequently, the Prussians attempted to Germanize the Polish areas, as it is mentioned. In these areas, the Poles were excluded from the local government of their territories and the German language was imposed on all schools. German settlements were founded in areas with purely Polish populations. This was somewhat the case before 1848. The characteristic of the Polish desire for freedom is that apart from the Polish uprising, Polish volunteers fought in the revolutions in Italy, Germany, and other European states (Pekacz, 1997) (1). It is important to note that in 1848, the Poles of the Prussian-occupied territories of the Grand Duchy of Poznan (Greater Poland) revolted, while in 1830 the Poles of the Russian-occupied territories resurrected.
The Start of the Confrontation
The uprising started in Poznan on March 20, 1848. It was inspired by the events of Berlin. The Polish revolutionaries were joined by Polish volunteers, who were released by King Frederick William IV of Prussia in Berlin and founded the Polish Legion. They had been arrested by Prussian authorities because of their participation in the outbreak of the revolution in the German states. The character of the revolution was liberal and democratic, and its purpose was the creation of an independent Poland. At first, the German liberals and radicals supported the Polish revolution as they wanted the establishment of a Polish state. According to their thoughts, this state would act as a shield to Russian expansionism and to their aspiration of a strong unified Germany. So, they wished to avoid a Polish-Prussian confrontation. However, the Polish National Committee was established in Poznan and the Poles demanded the secession of the Great Duchy of Poznan from Prussia. This secession was called National Reorganization by the Poles. The situation was changed in a matter of time. The atmosphere among the Germans began to change diametrically and they were now against the Polish revolutionary demands. In a few days, the Polish movement embraced the whole Greater Poland region. Polish peasants and urban citizens turned against Prussian officials. Polish nobility and peasantry took up arms, preparing for confrontation with Prussian Army. In a couple of places, fighting erupted with German colonists.
Nationalist voices could be heard in Germany demanding the incorporation of the whole Greater Poland into the German Confederation (Schäfer, 2020) (2). Overnight, Poles turned for Germans from a potential ally against Russia into the enemy that would threaten German control over Greater Poland. Polish successes created distrust in local Germans. They felt threatened and the news of the national reorganization of the province was the turning point. The assumption of power by a Polish administration and the creation of a military corps out of the local Polish population create a German fear for their position in a Polish-ruled Duchy. Thus a German National Committee was founded on March 23 in Poznan, largely influenced by German public officials loyal to the Prussian King. This committee subsequently engaged in a consistent opposition to the Polish movement. With the army protecting them, Germans started to paralyze the development of Polish self-rule. German officials and colonists seized the opportunity and began counteraction, demanding the incorporation of the Polish territories into a unified German state and they accused Poles of repressions. Soon Germans began to form paramilitary units to defend their interests and to prevent local Poles from organizing (Zielnica, 2004) (3).
Armed Action and Polish Defeat
The Prussian King ordered Prussian military commanders to prepare an invasion of Polish territories to crush the Polish movement. On April 4, Prussian military besieged Poznan. Poles on their side have begun to create armed units, which were supported by Polish officers from emigration. The Prussian troops terrorized the Polish population without restraint. Also, a role in the conflict was played by German colonists who formed their own militia, engaging in acts of terror against the Polish population. These colonists came from previous settlement efforts by the Prussian government which intensified efforts to settle Germans into the Poznan region after 1815 and were hostile towards the Polish movement. On April 30, the Polish revolutionaries defeated the Prussian forces in the Battle of Miloslaw. It was a very important victory for them, but they could not take advantage of their victory due to their extreme exhaustion. Therefore, the Prussians gained ground and counterattacked the Poles, who in the end suffered a defeat.
This defeat meant the end of the Polish revolution. The Grand Duchy of Poznan was subsequently replaced with the Province of Posen and the Prussian government rejected any ideas of autonomy. As a Prussian province, it was completely incorporated into the German Confederation. However, when the Frankfurt Parliament finalized the German constitution on March 28, 1849, Poznan was not mentioned. Many Poles were imprisoned in Poznan Citadel. The uprising demonstrated to Poles that negotiating with Germans for Polish statehood was impossible. 1848 was a turning point for the Polish national movement in every occupied Polish territory. It gained the support of city inhabitants and Polish peasants. The Poles decided to focus their energy on increasing their economic and political position before deciding on any other military confrontation. For 70 years Poles would work on developing their organization, increasing wealth, and development of Polish lands (Britannica, 2022) (4).
Polish independence would be too late to come. In 1918, after the end of the First World War, the Allies decided the reconstitution of the Polish state. After the revolution of 1848, the Poles waited another 70 years to enjoy national independence. The revolution of 1848 was mainly national in nature, even though it was influenced by radicals and liberal leaders of the revolutions in the Habsburg Empire and the German states. In the long term, the uprising stimulated nationalism among the Poles. This proud nation would revolt again in 1863 but would remain under foreign rule.
Kossak, J. (1868). The battle of Miloslaw in 1848 [Painting]. Retrieved from: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Miloslaw.jpg
Zajączkowski, J. (1848). Funeral of the Victims of the Year 1848 [Painting]. National Museum in Kraków. Retrieved from: https://zbiory.mnk.pl/en/search-result/advance/catalog/295281
Pekacz, J. T. (1997). Poles in European revolutions 1848-1849. Retrieved from: https://www.ohio.edu/chastain/ip/poleurev.htm. © 1997 James Chastain.
Schäfer, F. L. (2020). The Polish Contribution to the Baden Revolution 1848/49. p. 74. Retrieved from: https://repozytorium.uwb.edu.pl/jspui/bitstream/11320/10635/1/MHI_19_2_2020_F_L_Sch%C3%A4fer_The_Polish_Contribution_to_the_Baden_Revolution_1848_49.pdf
Zielnica, K. (2004). Polonica bei Alexander von Humboldt. Berlin: Akademie Verlag. pp. 161-162.
Britannica, (2022, February 4). Emigration and revolt. Retrieved from: https://www.britannica.com/place/Poland/Emigration-and-revolt