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The 1848 Revolutions and Why They Failed

Often neglected, mocked gently and greeted with excessive sarcasm by historians, the 1848 revolutions of Europe were the largest revolutionary wave to strike the continent. They were a series of political upheavals and revolts in Europe that affected over 50 countries (with practically no coordination), toppling monarchies and reaching from Paris to Prague. Led by the united middle (particularly the bourgeoisie) and working classes in response to rampant absolutism by the ruling upper class and the feudal-serfdom systems, the revolutions faltered soon after due to inevitable differences between the classes.

You'd be forgiven if you haven't heard of any of these events before. By the end of 1848, all these uprisings had failed, resulting in the deaths of tens of thousands and exile of thousands more. The only real lasting reforms being the abolition of the serfdom in Austro-Hungary, the end of the Capetian monarchy in France and the end of absolute rule in Denmark.

Painting of Battle at Soufflot barricades at Rue Soufflot Street on 24 June 1848. Horace Vernet

But what caused all this?

Historians (surprisingly) have managed to agree that the revolutions were a result of six factors:
  • widespread dissatisfaction with political leadership; 
  • demands for more participation in government and democracy;
  • demands for freedom of press; 
  • the general demands of the working classes; 
  • the upsurge of nationalism; 
  • the regrouping of the reactionary forces based on the royalty, the aristocracy, the army, and the peasants
It should also be considerated that Europe was plagued with a severe famine in 1846 which drove up the prices of crops such as grain, whilst wages remained largely stagnant. Profits plummeted and tens of thousands of workers were laid off. With this high unemployment and high prices, the scene was set for a liberal revolt.

Fair enough. What really happened though?

A map of Europe, showing the major events of 1848 and 1849.
Good question. Though the earliest revolt in the year was the Sicilian revolution in January 1848, things started rolling when the middle and working class French of Paris openly revolted against oppression (see Campagne des banquets) on 22 February and managed to topple the monarchy by 24 February, thus proclaiming the second French Republic.In December, Louis Napoleon, nephew of the former emperor, was voted into office as president.

A revolutionary wave was sparked. In March, protests in the German states and Prussia resulted in reform and the establishment of a Prussian assembly respectively. With the autocracy in chaos, the liberals of the German states (civil servants, lawyers and intellectuals) met in Frankfurt in May to discuss plans to form a united, liberal Germany with the Kaisar of Prussia at the helm. The Kaisar refused, dooming such hopes.

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 in March. Similarly, in Prague, the Czechs revolted in the name of self-government. In 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.

The Danish peasantry and liberals marched upon Copenhagen, demanding the end of absolute rule by the Danish monarchy while still calling for a centralised state. The Danish King accepted a new constitution, establishing a parliament of the people.

Other revolts that took place include the Famine Revolt in Ireland, the Wallachian revolution in present-day Romania, the Greater Poland rebellion amongst others.

Sounds awesome! How did they fail?

Endless pragmatism. But really, the classes were united in their discontent towards the ruling upper class. Once they were overthrown, it was a matter of time before the unlikely alliance between the bourgeoisie and the workers crumbled down.

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.

And the concessions? In Prussia, the promised assembly had little power and was constituted by the aristocratic elite. In Austria, a new emperor, Franz Josef I, continued Austrian dominance over all the minorities of eastern Europe. To summarise, nothing had come of the revolutions of 1848.

A caricature by Ferdinand Schröder on the defeat of the revolutions of 1848/49 in Europe
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