THE REVOLUTIONS OF 1848

A combination of political and social ideologies, economic crises, and romanticism combined to create upheaval in every country in Europe except Great Britain, which had commenced internal reforms, and Russia, which was largely immobilized by its own gargantuanism. It was in many respects a glorified version of the 1960’s in the United States, when idealists took to the streets. The result was a series of revolutions for national independence, liberal-democratic constitutions, and social reform. These were the famous revolutions of 1848, one of the more significant events in modern European history.

The Irish potato famine had repercussions on the mainland. Poor harvests caused food prices to skyrocket and also caused widespread unemployment in cities. Violence broke out in Poland in an attempt at revolution which was quickly put down. Naples, Italy and Austria also saw armed uprisings. Even sedate Switzerland saw a civil war between radicals and conservatives.

France: King Louis Philippe had ascended the throne amid promises of reform and plans to establish a "bourgeoisie monarchy." However, he did not make good on his promise. His government was dominated by scandal with only the rich able to vote for deputies to the Assembly, many of whom were government bureaucrats. Legislation for social reform was practically non-existent, and the government refused to consider electoral reform. Shopkeepers and artisans as well as unskilled working people grew increasingly angry at being shut out of the electoral process, as a result of which fighting broke out in Paris. On the night of February 22, 1848, barricades went up in Paris. Two days later on February 24, Louis Philippe abdicated in favor of his grandson. This was not enough, however; the common people would have no more monarchy. A provisional republic was proclaimed headed by a ten-man committee. The French monarchy was no more, and the Second Republic was born. All males were given the right to vote, slaves were freed in all French territories, the death penalty was abolished, and a ten hour work day in Paris decreed.

There was division, however, even among the revolutionaries. The liberal moderate republicans wanted universal male suffrage, which they considered to be the ultimate concession to be made to popular forces, and opposed any radical social measures. The other group was the radical republicans who were appalled by poverty and the misery of the poor and were committed to some form of socialism.

Louis Blanc represented the republican socialists in the provisional government, and pressed for recognition of a socialist right to work. He claimed that permanent government workshops should be established for workers which would be an alternative to capitalist employment. He hoped to establish a noncompetitive social order. The moderate republicans wouldn’t hear of it, so the end result was the establishment of national workshops—sort of an early French version of the WPA—which soon became an army of desperate poor looking for any kind of work. The economic situation grew steadily worse, and the workshops swelled. In March, there were 10,000 enrolled; by June, 120,000, with another 80,000 waiting.

In the meantime the first true popular election was held. Among the moderate republicans elected to the Constituent Assembly was Alexis de Tocqueville, the author of Democracy in America.

The political debate between liberal capitalism and radical socialism soon became an armed conflict. The Assembly was invaded by socialists on May 15 who tried to proclaim a new revolutionary government; but the government called in the National Guard to put down the uprising. On June 22, the government dissolved the national workshops for fear that their members were growing more and more radical. Workers were given the choice of going to workshops in the provinces or joining the army.

The dissolution of the workshops was too much for the desperate poor; and spontaneous violent class war broke out. Barricades were set up in the streets of Paris and the working poor, according to one writer, "fought with courage of utter desperation." The fighting, the "June Days," lasted for three months, after which the French army put it down savagely. Over ten thousand people were killed or injured. The working man’s socialist revolution in France ended in spectacular failure.

Rather than establish a democratic republic, the Constituent Assembly completed a constitution which provided for a strong executive. The winner of the election by a landslide was Louis Napoleon, Bonaparte’s nephew. The 1848 revolution in France had been a spectacular failure. The old coalition of the middle and working classes had turned into class conflict between the two within four months. The appeal of Louis Napoleon’s name and the wish of the landed classes for order at any cost had laid the groundwork for an authoritarian regime.

The Austrian Empire: Word of the popular uprising in France spread all over Europe. Liberals, inspired by the French revolt, demanded written constitutions, representative government, and greater civil liberties from authoritarian regimes. The governments hesitated, and popular revolts ensued. Urban workers and students allied with middle class liberals and peasants. As a result, monarchs gave in and granted almost anything requested. Yet the victory of the liberals was short-lived. Just as in France, the established monarchy and aristocracy, with the aid of the regular army, recovered its nerve, reasserted authority, and took back most (but not all) reforms.

The Austrian Empire saw its rebellion begin in Hungary, where nationalist Hungarians demanded national autonomy, full civil liberties, and universal suffrage. When the monarchy hesitated, students and workers took to the streets, and peasant revolts broke out in various parts of the Empire. Faced with widespread rebellion, the Emperor, Ferdinand I, promised reforms and to grant a liberal constitution. Metternich, the unrepentant conservative, saw the handwriting on the wall and fled to London in disguise.

Just as in France, however, the rebellion fell apart under its own weight. Part of the reforms promised by Ferdinand was the abolition of serfdom; but when the serfs were suddenly freed, they quickly lost interest in any political or social issues, such as those that had city residents fired up. In the cities, problems appeared when the urban poor and artisan guilds demanded socialist workshops and universal male suffrage. The middle class, mostly prosperous landowners, were alarmed, and backed down. Also, nationalist aspirations in the empire only served to weaken the revolt. Hungarian revolutionaries proposed an extremely liberal constitution, on the verge of democracy. They wished to create a unified Hungarian nation. This was unacceptable to minority groups within the empire, such as Croats, Serbs, and Romanians. Each of them felt entitled to their own political autonomy and cultural independence. They had no desire to be part of a nation of Hungary. The government in Vienna played these fears up and as a result caused the groups to turn on each other. To further aggravate matters, Czech nationalists in Prague clashed with German nationalists. By playing the groups off against one another, the Hapsburg monarchy managed to keep them weak.

Aristocratic forces finally united behind the archduchess Sophia, married to Ferdinand’s brother. She professed to be ashamed of Ferdinand’s caving in to "a mess of students," and insisted that he abdicate in favor of her son, Francis Joseph. A group of powerful nobles rallied around her and organized a secret conspiracy to crush the revolution.

On June 17, the army bombarded Prague, and crushed a working class revolt there. Other nobles led the minority groups in Hungary against the revolutionary government which the Hungarian nationalists had proclaimed. The regular Austrian army attacked student and working class radicals in Vienna and retook the city, but over 4,000 people were killed or wounded. The loyalty of the army and the determination of the aristocracy were the final ingredient in crushing the revolution.

Francis Joseph was crowned just after his eighteenth Birthday in December, 1848. AT that point, only Hungary was not back under Imperial control. That situation ended when Czar Nicholas I of Russia sent 130,000 Russian troops into Hungary and subdued the rebels. Thereafter for a number of years Hungary was a conquered territory of the Hapsburg Empire.

Prussia: Prussia, the largest German state besides Austria, contained middle class liberals who hoped to create a liberal constitutional monarchy there, and thereby unite the thirty eight states of the German Confederation into a unified nation. They were encouraged by the fall of Louis Philippe in France. In March, artisans and factory workers in Berlin revolted and joined with middle class liberals. The Emperor, Frederick William IV, caved in and promised a liberal constitution and to merge Prussia into a new national German state. But the Liberals were not satisfied. (They never are.) Workers issued a series of democratic socialist demands, and just as in other parts of Europe, their demands alienated them from their middle class colleagues. Once again, the conservatives rallied around the emperor and urged him to launch a counter-revolution.

An elected Prussian Constituent Assembly met in Berlin to write a constitution for the Prussian state, and a self-appointed committee of liberals from various states called for a national assembly to write a constitution for a unified German state. The National Assembly met in Frankfurt, but soon became embroiled in a war with Denmark over the northern provinces of Schleswig and Holstein. (The issue is too complicated to explain here.)

The National Assembly finally completed work on a liberal constitution in March, 1849, and elected Frederick William of Prussia as the new king of the German nation, with Austria and Schleswig-Holstein excluded. But, once more, reaction against the revolutionaries had turned the tide. Frederick William disbanded the Constituent Assembly and granted a constitution which was much more conservative. He stated that he ruled by divine right, and that he would not accept the "crown from the gutter." Frederick William then moved on his own to unite Germany under his personal rule. He tried to have the monarchs elect him Emperor, but Austria balked. Russia supported Austria, and Prussia was forced to renounce any plans to unify the country. The German Confederation was re-established and the attempt to unite Germany was a miserable failure, as had been the revolutions of 1848 everywhere.