At the Congress of Vienna in 1815, in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Era, Europe's leaders worked to reorganize Europe and create a stable balance of power. After that Congress, The Austrian diplomat Metternich would call several more congresses to try and preserve European stability: the Congress of Aix-la-Chapelle (1818), the Congress of Troppau (1820), and the Congress of Verona (1822). The Congress System that Metternich established was Reactionary, that is, its goal was to preserve the power of the old, monarchical regimes in Europe.
Revolution was brewing, however. In Britain, the Industrial Revolution continued to accelerate, causing economic transformations that had serious political and social implications. All across Europe, and especially in France and Britain, the rising Bourgeoisie class challenged the old monarchical Reactionaries with their Liberal ideology. "Isms" abounded. Ideologies such as Radicalism, Republicanism, and Socialism rounded into coherent form. In response to events like the 1819 Peterloo Massacre, worker consciousness of a class struggle between Proletariat and Bourgeoisie began to emerge. The Bourgeoisie was clearly the ascendant class between 1815 and 1848; the Proletariat began to gain a sense of similar unification.
Another "Ism" coming into its own at this time was Romanticism, the intellectual response to the French Enlightenment rationalism and emphasis on Reason. At the same time, Romantic thinkers, artists, and writers posed powerful challenge to the Enlightenment emphasis on rationalism and reason. Such artists and philosophers as Herder, Hegel, Schiller, Schinckel, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Shelley, John Keats, William Wordsworth, and Delacroix, to name a few, achieved remarkable intellectual and artistic heights and gained a wide following throughout Europe, particularly in Germany, Prussia, England, and to a lesser extent France.
Of all the "Isms" competing in this period, perhaps the greatest was Nationalism, an ideology, like Romanticism, which reacted against the Universalist claims of French enlightenment thought. Whereas Romanticism often focused on intellectual and artistic matters, Nationalism, which proclaimed the unique character of ethnic and linguistic groups, was more overtly political. The Nationalist movements in Germany and Italy, which involved an effort at national unification, and those in the Austrian Empire, which involved efforts to carve the Austrian Empire into ethnically or linguistically defined states, created a great amount of instability in Europe.
In 1830, the various ideological beliefs resulted in a round of revolutions. These revolutions began when the Paris Mob, manipulated by the interests of the Bourgeoisie, deposed the Bourbon monarchy of Charles X and replaced him with Louis Philippe. In the rest of Europe, the French example touched off various nationalist revolts; all were successfully quelled by conservative forces.
Britain notably escaped any outbreak of violence, but it by no means escaped change: the battle between the formerly dominant landed aristocracy and the newly ascendant manufacturers led to the passage of the Reform Bill of 1832, which partially remedied the Rotten Boroughs and gave the manufactures an increased amount of Parliamentary representation. The working class benefited from the growing class rivalry between aristocracy and middle-class. Often the aristocrats would ally with the working class to act against the manufacturers, forcing the manufacturers, in turn, to ally with the workers against the aristocrats. Although the working class did not yet have the vote in England, they were pushing for universal adult male suffrage in the late 1830s and early 1840s via the Chartist Movement. While this movement failed in the short- term, its demands were eventually adopted.
In the rest of Europe, political change would not happen so peacefully. In 1848, the February Revolution broke out in Paris, toppling Louis Philippe and granting universal suffrage to adult French men, who elected Louis Napoleon Bonaparte (Napoleon III) solely on name-recognition. Europe once again took its cue from Paris, and revolutions broke out nearly everywhere in Europe during 1848. Rebellion in Germany led to the establishment of the Frankfurt Assembly, which was plagued by internal squabbling and was unable to unify Germany. In the Austrian Empire, the various ethnicities revolted, and the Magyar nationalists led by Louis Kossuth pushed for an independent Hungary. Rioting in Vienna frightened Metternich so much he fled the city. All of the Eastern European rebellions were ultimately put down, a triumph for the reactionaries. However, the events of 1848 frightened the rulers of Europe out of their complacency and forced them to realize that gradually, they would have to change the nature of their governments or face future revolutions.
The Revolutions of 1848 (1848) Summary Beginning shortly after the New Year in 1848, Europe exploded into revolution. From Paris to Frankfurt to Budapest to Naples, liberal protesters rose up against the conservative establishment. To those living through the cataclysmic year, it seemed rather sudden; however, hindsight offers valuable warning signs.
The year 1846 witnessed a severe famine--Europe's last serious food crisis. Lack of grain drove up food and other prices while wages remained stagnant, thus reducing consumer demand. With consumers buying less and less, profits plummeted, forcing thousands of industrial workers out of their jobs. High unemployment combined with high prices sparked the liberal revolt. The subsequent events in February 1848 in France made Austria's Prince Clemens von Metternich's saying seem true: "When France sneezes, Europe catches a cold."
Moderate liberals--lawyers, doctors, merchants, bourgeoisie--began pushing actively for extension of suffrage through their "banquet campaign," named thus because its leaders attempted to raise money by giving rousing speeches at subscribed dinners in France's major urban areas. When on February 22, 1848, Paris officials canceled the scheduled banquet, fearing organized protest by the middle and working classes, Parisian citizens demonstrated against the repression. Skilled workers, factory laborers, and middle class liberals poured into the streets. The National Guard, a citizen militia of bourgeois Parisians, defected from King Louis-Philippe, and the army garrison stationed in Paris joined the revolutionary protesters as well. Louis-Philippe attempted reform, but the workers rejected the halfhearted changes. The king fled and the demonstrators proclaimed the Second Republic on February 24th.
The overthrow of the monarchy set off a wave of protest throughout east and central Europe, led by radical liberals and workers who demanded constitutional reform or complete government change. In March, protests in the German provinces brought swift reform from local princes while Kaiser Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia yielded to revolts in Berlin by promising to create a Prussian assembly. The collapse of autocracy in Prussia encouraged liberals in the divided Germany provinces to join together at the Frankfurt Assembly to frame a constitution and unite the German nation. Meeting in May 1848, the convention was populated by middle class civil servants, lawyers, and intellectuals dedicated to liberal reform. However, after drawing the boundaries for a German state and offering the crown to Friedrich Wilhelm, the Kaiser refused in March 1849, dooming hopes for a united, liberal Germany.
In Austria, students, workers, and middle class liberals revolted in Vienna, setting up a constituent assembly. In Budapest, the Magyars led a movement of national autonomy, led by patriot Lajos Kossuth. Similarly, in Prague, the Czechs revolted in the name of self-government. In Italy, new constitutions were declared in Tuscany and Piedmont, with the goal of overthrowing their Austrian masters. Here, middle class liberals pushed the concept of Italian unification alongside the defeat of the Austrians with the help of the Young Italy movement, founded in 1831 by nationalist Giuseppe Mazzini, an Italian patriot who favored a democratic revolution to unify the country. In February 1849, Mazzini led a democratic revolt against the Pope in Rome, becoming head of the Republic of Rome later that month. By attacking the Pope, the democrats went too far. The self-proclaimed protectors of the Pope, the French, moved in and defeated Mazzini's Roman legion. The Pope was restored and a democratic Italy collapsed, for now.
Meanwhile, from August 1848, the Austrian army soundly defeated every revolt in its empire. In Vienna, in Budapest, in Prague, the Austrians legions crushed the liberal and democratic movements, returning the empire to the conservative establishment that ruled at the beginning of 1848. Nothing had come of the revolutions of 1848.
Conclusions The revolutions of 1848 were a "turning point in modern history that modern history failed to turn." Everyone was an utter failure; though minor reforms emerged in the Germany provinces and in Prussia, the conservative regimes that canvassed Europe remained in power.
Though utter failures themselves, the 1848 revolutions inspire much more discussion. Consider the following points:
The year 1848 marked the end of the so-called "concert of Europe" that had been defined after the defeat of Napoleon in 1815 as a way to maintain the European balance of power by having the continent's major powers meet to resolve their differences and prevent aggression. After 1848, the European powers seemed incapable of united action to maintain the status quo, probably because the revolutions of 1848 weakened the regimes in the eyes of their people. Secondly, the revolutions failed to bring about any significant change. In France, the December 1848 presidential election brought Louis Napoleon, nephew of the former emperor, into office; it took him less than three years to consolidate absolute power. In Austria, a new emperor, Franz Josef I, continued Austrian dominance over all the minorities of Eastern Europe. In Prussia, the promised assembly had little power and was constituted by the aristocratic elite.
The final two points emerge from here: 1) why did the revolutions fail? And 2) why was it so easy for conservative forces to return? The revolutions probably failed due to lack of organization. In Austria, for example, the revolts in Prague, Vienna, and Budapest maintained no communication among them, allowing the Austrian army to attend to each in isolation, without a united front. Finally, the return of conservative and reactionary forces was probably due to the middle class. Another reason why the revolutions failed was because moderate liberals of the middle class feared the radicalism of the workers, preventing any type of lasting alliance. Therefore, when radicals took control of the revolutions in Paris and in Eastern Europe, the middle class liberals turned their backs, preferring absolute rule and law and order, to the uncertainty of radical revolution.