The Parliamentary reforms in Britain probably saved the Brits from the kind of revolution that occurred almost everywhere else in Europe in 1848. Russia, too, managed to escape 1848 revolution-free, but only because it lacked a true middle class. The revolutions were ostensibly led by liberals against oppressive conservatism, but there was more going on in Europe prior to 1848 than just liberalism and nationalism versus conservatism.
After 1815, Europe was a wreck. Napoleon left a mess and the Congress of Vienna tried to clean it up. Economies were in shambles, crop failures left poor Europeans hungry, and hungry poor people always cause problems. The hunger peaked after 1845 when the Irish potato famine left Ireland desperate for food and the rest of Europe dealing with Irish refugees. To make matters worse, Europe had embraced industrialization, but the workers had yet to really be rewarded for their labor. Socialists produced thought-provoking literature about ideal societies and hinted at revolution. Europe was ready to listen.
Revolution in France
After Napoleon’s final defeat in 1815, Louis XVIII took the throne and maintained order basically by not doing anything stupid. His brother, Charles X, wasn’t so interested in maintaining order.
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One of the things that irritated the French most about Charles X was his insistence on getting rid of the tricolore, the blue, white, and red French national flag adopted during the French Revolution.
From the moment of his ostentatious coronation in 1824, he sought to reestablish absolute monarchy in France, finally succeeding in 1830. He took voting rights away from many citizens and tightened controls on the press.
Paris took to the streets, and for “three glorious days,” as the event was remembered, revolutionaries created chaos. Charles fled for his life and, after some tricky maneuvering, the upper middle class declared the throne vacant and replaced Charles with Louis-Philippe (1773-1850).
The Revolution of 1830 accomplished almost nothing in the long run. Louis-Philippe’s government suffered from inactivity and corruption. He refused election reforms to allow people other than the rich to vote. Socially conscious citizens complained about the lack of social welfare under his rule. Economic conditions worsened throughout the 1840s, and the situation grew more volatile with each passing month.
In February of 1848, the people of Paris did what they always seemed to do when they got mad and hungry: the combined forces of the workers and the middle class barricaded the streets and revolted. The prime minister resigned and Louis-Philippe abdicated the throne in favor of his grandson, but Parisians were through with monarchies. They created the Second Republic, named after the First Republic that followed the 1789 Revolution.
Though all the revolutionaries agreed on a republic, the people were divided on what to do next. The moderate middle class didn’t want to grant universal male suffrage, nor did they want too many social programs. As the situation worsened, the government set up National Workshops in Paris at the urging of socialist Louis Blanc and a worker named Albert, guaranteeing employment for tens of thousands of Parisians.
The disorganized government managed to stage elections in April and the people of France elected monarchists, moderate middle-class representatives, and socialists to the Constituent Assembly, the legislative body of France. The middle and upper classes, along with the rural peasants, feared the radical socialists. Furthermore, the rural poor and the middle class did not want to be taxed to guarantee jobs for the urban poor.
The government cut ties with Blanc and moved away from socialism, so reactionary urban poor and artisans from Paris stormed the Assembly in May and tried to form a new state. The National Guard crushed their attempts. In June, the government closed the workshops, touching off violent warfare between the classes. Unfortunately for the socialist urban workers, the National Guard brutally put down the revolution in three days, called the “June Days.” Because deep divisions between all parties promised instability, the Assembly wrote the constitution so that the executive branch of the government had significant power. In December, a national election placed the authoritarian nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte in charge as president. The failure of the revolutionaries to work together resulted in the ultimate failure of France’s 1848 revolution. It was successful only in that the king was gone.
Revolution in Austria
The situation in Austria’s holdings greatly resembled that of France in 1848. Liberals from all walks of life demanded voting rights, constitutions, and other liberal concessions. As word of uprisings spread through Europe, liberals got their hopes up and revolution erupted in Vienna. In Hungary, which had long had nationalist ideas, nationalists demanded universal suffrage, liberty, and even independence from Austrian rule. Slow to act initially, Habsburg ruler Ferdinand I (1793-1875) agreed to some liberal concessions after rebellious students took to the streets. In addition
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After Metternich resigned, he disguised himself and fled to England.
to pressuring the conservative Metternich to step down, Ferdinand abolished serfdom in Hungary. This may have seemed like a victory for Hungarian revolutionaries, but it actually divided them. The serfs were rural poor who, after being freed, lost interest in radical action. The urban workers and the middle class then found themselves divided over socialist ideas.
The nationalist Hungarian government created a new constitution that would unite all of Hungary into a single nation and restrict participation in the process to Hungarian speakers only. Minorities like the Serbs and Croats had national aspirations of their own—and powerful allies in Austria and Russia. After a year of fighting over the creation of an independent state, Hungarian nationalists seemed close to their goal. However, Austria had put down uprisings everywhere else in its territory and turned its attention to Hungary. Led by Francis Joseph (1830-1916), the new emperor, the Austrians, with aid from the Russians coming in the form of additional troops, dashed Hungary’s revolutionary hopes. The troops surrounded and recaptured the major cities that the Hungarians had captured. For years, Austria ruled Hungary with an iron fist and forbade such activities as public gatherings and the display of Hungarian nationalist colors. Again, the lack of solidarity among the revolutionaries prohibited the success of the revolution.
Prussians Make Demands
The 30-plus states of the German Confederation took notice when Louis-Philippe abdicated the throne in France. Liberals from all the German states had for some time longed for a unified German state under a constitution. Prussian liberals followed the French lead and called for reform by petitioning Prussian King Frederick William IV (1795-1861) in the Prussian capital of Berlin. The workers of Berlin took to the streets and joined the liberals in cries for reform. Frederick William buckled under the pressure and agreed to grant Prussians a constitution and to merge Prussia into a German state. Once again, though, the moderate middle class and the urban workers were divided over how democratic and socialist the new government should be, and conservatives of the middle class were able to convince Frederick William to change his position.
Plans for a unified German state led by Prussia were already being worked on by the National Assembly in Frankfurt. At the same time, an assembly of Prussians were hard at work on a Prussian constitution in Berlin. In the midst of the planning for a federal German constitution, Denmark attempted to annex Schleswig-Holstein, a region full of Germans. The National Assembly called on the Prussian army, which went to war with Denmark. The National Assembly finished its constitution in 1849 and offered Frederick William the chance to be emperor of the new German state. Having been persuaded by conservatives in Berlin, Frederick refused. He disbanded the assembly back in Berlin and returned Prussia to a state under rule as King of Prussia rather than under the government of bureaucracy. The uprisings around Prussia had been put down and the opportunity for unification had been squandered. Frederick William later wanted the German kings to make him emperor, but Austria wouldn’t agree. He tried to exclude Austria from the union of German states but Austria resisted so he backed down. Yet again, division among the revolutionaries had resulted in a failed revolution.
Failed liberal uprisings occurred in Poland and in Italy in 1848, too. Again the revolutionaries had initial successes, then spent their time bickering over the direction of the new government. In each case, the old regime used the revolutionaries’ period of indecisiveness to regroup and quell the revolutions. The revolutions of 1848 were failures in the short-term, but they would eventually give revolutionaries some of what they wanted. For example, Italy and Germany each would undergo major changes over the next 20 years. Also, in 1867, Hungary forced Austria to grant it dual monarchy status, resulting in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
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Frederick William later remarked that he wanted to be asked by his peers to be emperor and that he didn't want a crown “from the gutter," with “the stink of revolution."