85 Review of Revolutions of 1848

1848 was the turning point at which modern history failed to turn.

— G. M. Trevelyan.

A series of European revolutions which, funnily enough, took place in 1848. They failed.

First, rewind to 1815. The end of The Napoleonic Wars was essentially a victory for reactionary forces. They blamed Napoleon Bonaparte on the radicalism of The French Revolution, which ironically, Napoleon wanted to end. Thus, as the allies met in Vienna to decide the fate of post-war Europe, their aim was to prevent anything like the French Revolution from happening again. The traditional European order, divine-rights monarchs and suchlike, was to be restored as much as possible. The crowned heads of Europe agreed that when one of them was threatened by the next would-be French Revolution, they would act together to put it down.

Fastforward to 1848. A wave of revolutions swept across Europe as the people of various countries rebelled against the post-Napoleonic conservative order. Who were these people that rebelled? Generally, they were a mix of liberal republicans, radical socialists, and various kinds of nationalists — in other words, people who had little in common other than their shared opposition to the current order in Europe. These differences allowed reactionary forces to use a Divide and Conquer strategy, combined with their superior military force, to regain control of the situation. By the early part of 1849, the revolutions had been crushed, but they had begun to change many Europeans’ way of thinking about society.

Quite a lot of stuff happened during and as a result of the Revolutions of 1848:

  • In France, King Louis Philippe was overthrown and the Second French Republic was proclaimed. An election was held, which was won by Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, the nephew of the Napoleon Bonaparte. France managed to stay a republic until 1851, when Louis-Napoleon noticed that his term was starting to run out. He decided the solution was to follow in his uncle’s footsteps and become emperor. As Napoleon III, he ruled France until his defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870.
  • Nationalist revolts threatened to tear apart the multiethnic Austrian Empire. Austria’s dominant ethnic minority, the Hungarians, rebelled in the hopes of forming their own separate country. Weirdly foreshadowing 1956, the Russians invaded to put down the Hungarian Revolution. With Habsburg rule over Hungary restored, the Austrian Empire had been saved from fracturing… for now.
  • At the same time, the Austrian Empire was also threatened by Italian nationalists. Hoping to begin the process of creating a united Italy and taking advantage of Austria being destabilized by revolution, the Kingdom of Sardinia invaded Austria’s Italian possessions, beginning the First Italian War of IndependenceThe Papal States initially supported the Sardinians, but later The Pope decided that Catholic countries going to war with each other wasa no-no. Outraged, the nationalists ousted the Pope and proclaimed a new Roman Republic. In the end, the Austrians regained control of their Italian possessions and the Papal States were restored.
  • All the Little Germanies attempted to unite into one country through liberal reform. This so-called “liberal nationalism” failed, paving the way for Otto von Bismarck‘s more warlike approach. Incidentally, this revolution is the first time that a black, red, and gold tricolor was used as the German flag.
  • Not every European country had a revolution in 1848. Great Britain, Russia, Portugal, Spain, and the Ottoman Empire were among the most notable European countries to be left out of the party. The Netherlands also didn’t have a revolution, but constitutional reforms were made there as a means of avoiding unrest.
  • Although the Revolutions of 1848 are regarded as a European phenomenon, related revolutions took place as far afield as Brazil.
  • Speaking of the Americas, the United States was indirectly affected — not so much by the revolutions themselves as by their aftermath. After the revolutions failed, many European radicals fled to the U.S., where a number of them became involved in the American anti-slavery movement. Also, the influx of immigrants fueled the rise of the nativist “Know Nothing” party.
  • It’s a coincidence that Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote The Communist Manifesto in 1848. Unsurprisingly taking the side of the socialists, Marx and Engels argued that the bourgeoisie, i.e. the liberal republicans, would eventually have to be overthrown by the proletariat, i.e. the working classes.
  • And finally, liberal constitutional regimes actually were established in Denmark and Switzerland without violence, only protests.

The actual consequences of 1848 and Europe as a whole has been debated by historians. The consensus is that the Revolutions failed but were widespread enough to force governments on a path of reform, and directed many reactionaries in favor of social reforms that they would formerly have regarded as an outrage but now considered Necessarily Evil. The suppression of the revolutions also showed the greater power and authoritarianism of European and Central European nations. The biggest impact of these events in the eyes of historians is the “lessons” various participants and observers learned from it. Bismarck believed that the liberal regimes and reformers should revolutionize from above and, in effect, bribe the lower classes via The Moral Substitute. Marx and his later interpreters felt that the events failed because of a lack of cohesiveness and organization, and that later revolutions would need to be organized and coordinated. So at once it was a sign of its times and couched in the rhetoric of 19th Century republicanism, but it was a sign of things to come as well.

The Arab Spring of 2011 has often been compared to the Revolutions of 1848.


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