This is a discussion of what was achieved by the Revolutions in 1848 in Europe.

The Discussion
“We still only have the name of the Republic, we need the real thing. Political reform is only the instrument of social reform” (The Manifesto of the Club de la Revolution of 1848 in Paris)

Here one can see one the most fundamental points facing the revolutionaries. They may have had success in overturning regimes across Europe but what did this revolution actually mean. The translation of conflicting ideas to government and power was to be a massive stumbling point for the revolutionaries. The revolutions occurred In France, the Italian States, The Austrian Empire and the German Confederation. But although there was a common theme of unrest against the Restoration manner of politics this was not a single revolution. As the question indicates there were a series of revolutions across the continent. The manner of this indicates the existence of common themes but one needs to differentiate as well to fully understand the revolutions. One can view this in two ways. The internal causes and consequences of the revolution: the political, social and economic change of the state itself. Further the international dimensions of the internal change and debate and the effect on the international relationships of these states and indeed all Europe. The revolutions had immediate and long-term effects. The success of the counter-revolution cancelled out many of the changes brought by the revolutions. Yet if one looks over the long term the key importance of the revolutions of 1848 becomes apparent. They mark the beginning of the shift into the modern world. One sees the new importance of nationalism in the German Confederation, the Austrian Empire and the Italian states. Further one sees the confirmation of the vital importance of a constitutional political system for states to remain healthy. The Revolutions of 1848 confirmed the fundamental shift in the political and social reality of Europe since the French Revolution and indicated the failure of the Restoration monarchies to adapt successfully by this time.

To understand the revolutions one must first consider the broad situation of Europe. The mid to late 1840s had seen economic crisis which caused the cost of basic food essentials to double due to poor harvests. But this meant there was less money to be spent on manufactured goods which helped cause an industrial slump. These are all indicates of a society in structural economic transition. The huge expanding population of the countries of Europe made this transition all the more difficult e.g. between 1816 and 1865 Hanover saw a 45% rise in population. One must then consider the failure of some ruling groups to incorporate aspiring interest groups into the political system. This expresses the unwillingness and entrenchment of many of these groups such as in the Habsburg Empire. But it is fundamentally a consequence of the question of the legitimacy of a political system or government. Their refusal to grant serious concessions was a result of the particular legitimacy of a regime. In the Habsburg Empire authority was derived from God and so a compromise could only undermine this link. France however saw a constitutional monarchy where the monarch sought to maximise his power. This too meant compromise was unwanted for it would undermine this intention.


France was the first country to experience Revolution, this occurred in February 1848. The parliamentary opposition prior to this had been pressing for a modest reform movement. It supported extension of the franchise, limitations on political patronage and an extension of civil liberties. Yet in the 1846 elections it had faced the biggest government success since the establishment of the electoral system. The failure of reform can be seen in one policy example: the right of civil servants to enter parliament. In 1846 it was denied for the 17th time since 1830. What this marks is the inability of the July Monarchy to facilitate debate and adaptation. Effectively the political system itself ensured that serious opposition would be channelled not only against the government but also against the system and its legitimacy. Louis-Phillipe’s monarchy had based its existence on the support of the people. Without that it lacked recourse to a monarchical tradition which it had undermined when Charles X abdicated and Louis Phillipe secured the throne. This was the first important effect of the 1848 Revolution: to end the July Monarchy and pose the fundamental question- from where does power emanate?

The next point to consider is the importance of military and defence forces for government and a political system. One of the most crucial mistakes of Louis Phillipe was to allow the Guarde Nationale to become a disgruntled force. He refused to inspect after 1840 as a sign off his displeasure. Unfortunately this meant that when the demonstrations which began on the 23rd of February began to become increasingly aggressive and the King called on the guard he found that it had joined those calling for reform. Now this helps highlight the importance of government forces for the maintenance of authority. The King’s failure to provide adequately in this field was a crucial factor in deciding the fate of the July Monarchy. Furthermore the king had failed to act decisively in dealing with the insurgents initially; it may well have been within the capability of the Guarde Municiple to seriously undermine the opposition forces. This shows two important facts: the failure of the July Monarchy to adequately prepare for serious trouble by the 1840s and lack of confidence of the government in its own power. The king and Guizot were taken by surprise and the legacy of the French Revolution had undermined the monarchy’s faith in its ability to cope with Revolution. The 1848 Revolution in this manner confirmed the failure of the monarchies of France to deal with the problem of the changing world of Restoration Europe. The July Monarchy was a hybrid of popular sovereignty and monarchical principle but ultimately found itself lacking both.

The Revolution itself set up a Republic and established universal male suffrage for parliamentary (On 4th March 1848: 250,000 voters became 9million) and presidential elections. This was to enshrine the idea of popular sovereignty: the nation was now in control. This idea of popular sovereignty as established by the 1848 Revolution was in a sense a mediating force between the French Revolution and contemporary France. This specific idea was used and was crucial to the counter-revolution of Louis Napoleon Bonaparte. 1848 in France did not have as did the German Confederation, the Habsburg Empire and the Italian States the crucial theme of the unification of peoples with a linguistic and cultural heritage. 1848 in France was centred in a more concentrated fashion on constitutional and social reform. Yet as indicated by the Manifesto of the Club de la Revolution opinion was divided on what course the revolution should take. The decree of the 25th of February (which was drawn up by Louis Blanc) stated that:

“The provisional government of the French Republic undertakes too guarantee work for all citizens”.
This was part of the socialist tradition within the Republican ideal. Workshops were provided for the unemployed (most workers made 2 francs per day in this fashion: a minimum of 1.5 francs was guaranteed): by mid March there were 20,000 working in these. The removal of these benefits was a major cause of the June 1848 rioting. Also important was the voting in the Easter Elections. 500 out of 900 deputies basically supported a conservative Republic which would not see social revolution. What this reveals is the relative isolation of the socialists within the Second Republic. They posed some of the crucial questions that would continue to affect France and these were in some degree answered by Louis Napoleon Bonaparte’s coup d’etat which was in the main supported by the bourgeoisie as well as other sections of society. There was an air of fear of the possible undermining of the structure of French society and this can be linked to the previous Revolutionary experience of the French. Therefore an ironic consequence of the revolution was the repression of political debate by the Republic and the subsequent counterrevolution of Louis Napoleon Bonaparte. 1848 saw the termination of one form of ideas and its replacement with another. This change reflected a shifting social structure with an increasingly wealthy middle class which desired a significant role in the political administration of the country.

Yet it also witnessed a new form of political integration with the countryside. This idea of 1848 as a politicising event is very interesting. Whilst it is true to say there was a new appropriation at the local level of national political slogans, the actual knowledge and proactive nature of the peasantry must be doubted. Notables tended to need to lead for the peasants of a commune to actually to a follow socialist/Republican cause. For example Dr. Victorin Mazon spoke of the New World of the Republic:

“The poor will pay practically no taxes… the rich who now dine on their chickens will be justly reduced to eating only the potatoes that the people eat”( November 1850 at Laurac).
In fact when opposition to a particular notable’s view came it would be from another notable. For example in Digne, where the Fortouls were Orleonists and the Duchaffauts were Republicans. This can be seen in within the terms of a local conflict. Often the peasants didn’t actually understand the concepts they were chanting. As the Procureur-Generale at Agen stated:
“The country populace are utterly indifferent to political struggles that have nothing to do with their interests or habits” (Gascony 30th of June 1850).
What they cared about was their welfare i.e. forest and grazing rights and taxes. They would appropriate different slogans if they believed they could help them. Therefore when considering the peasant rising against Louis Napoleon Bonaparte and the new political involvement of the peasantry one must be weary of over emphasising the effect of 1848. But this does not mean one cannot put forward the idea that 1848 saw the beginning of the involvement of the peasantry in national politics. There was a definite shift. Yet one also sees the continuation of pre 1848 relations in the way notables led peasants. The 1848 revolution saw a synthesis of the world before the coming changes and the beginnings of these changes. This dynamic keeps reappearing.

When considering the effects of 1848 on France one must remark on Louis Napoleon Bonaparte imprisoning 28,000 Republicans. The system he imposed with his constitution placed him as the representative of the people. Parliament became the home of a body of delegates, elected every 6years. The people were still sovereign and they approved his coup d’etat through a plebiscite. But what was occurring was the conflict between the ideas of a parliamentary republic versus the power of the executive. It was a continuation of the problems that had dogged France with the issue of legitimacy since 1789. The lack of cohesion during 1848 of Revolutionary groups had facilitated the rise of the counter-revolution with the fear of instability relating to property and social revolution. It re-established the debate on democracy and social change but failed to establish a Republic.

The cases of the German Confederation, the Habsburg Empire and the Italian states all have one fundamental point of departure from France because of the factor of nationalism. Another difference is the attempt to abolish the remaining feudal relics. These two points reveal entities at different levels of development. France already had a defined and established nation. Therefore internal interest was far more concentrated on constitutional and social reform. These other political entities had much attention taken by the debate on the suitability of unification, manner of unification and in the Habsburg Empire the existence of competing forms of nationalism’s e.g. Polish and Ukrainian. France was far more liberal than most of the other states that made up these entities. In this way one can see the demands in the German Confederation, the Habsburg Empire and the Italian states reflect states at different levels of development from France. The demands in France were far more persistently radical during the initial stages of the revolution that in the aforementioned states. This helps one understand the difference in the 1848 Revolutions across Europe each of which dealt with a different political situation but one can see the clear distinction between France and the other three political entities.

The German States

The German revolutions of March 1848 can be seen to have been sparked by the news of the successful revolution in Paris. They started in the south-west (Baden) and spread to Berlin and Vienna. One must consider the European nature of revolution in 1848. Success in one state generated confidence in another and so on. This link between action can be seen as a dynamic unique to 1848. It was not part of its legacy. 1848 rather marked the end of the idea of a widespread European legacy. It showed the importance of success at the national level. In fact it helped establish the nationalist forces that came to dominate Europe as common liberal ideas came not to be thought of on a European scale but rather on the national- new competing forces were set in motion.

There were two main political aspects to the German revolutions. On the one hand political freedom and constitutional reform within individual states and on the other the cause of national unity. This led to a deeply complex situation. Initially 1848 saw the dual action of liberals and democrats in the German states. But looked at over a longer period one can see the problem of cohesion within liberalism. The Gebildeten who played a significant role in leading the liberal cause was made up of men from various backgrounds. So too was there a difference within those involved in commerce. There were the small businessmen e.g. innkeepers and the important financiers. On a wider scale there was the economic, social and cultural gap between the Gebildeten and those engaged in commerce. The communal bond between the liberals was formed from their attachment to the existing order and their desire to benefit from a promising but uncertain future (as discussed by J.J.Sheehan in his article: Liberalism and Society in Germany). The revolution of 1848 meant they now had an opportunity to shape the political system of the German states. Yet at the same the same time the revolution exposed the weakness of German liberalism. Until this point it had been united in its call for change though there were disagreements on what this change should be within the liberal movement. For example there were two views within the strand of agreement state intervention in trade: Rotteck argues for state limits on industrial development whilst Hansemann saw the state as the necessary ally for economic growth. The revolution made practicality become all-important and it was this that helped undermine liberalism post 1848.

The Democratic left however was a far more cohesive group. Its main figures were those from professions which had grounds for discontent especially due to lack of status. This situation saw lawyers denied the right of transition to public office (A consequence of which according to O’Boyle was 11 out of 12 lawyers dying poor), journalists were perceived to be those who had failed at all else and school teachers were paid poorly and lacked status. 1848 showed the importance of the integration of these excluded social groups into the state. By the 1850s according to the moderate liberal August Lammers:

“Today… no one would any longer assume or say that he is too good to write for the papers.”
The situation as indicated in 1848 came from the fact that there was an over supply of intellectual workers. This can be linked to the artisans who faced increasingly stiff competition from factories. Industrialisation was not occurring fast enough to provide jobs for them. So 1848 in the German states brought to the fore the shifting nature of society as modernisation occurred. It showed the problems of the transition period and also set the agenda on how to adapt to the changing nature of things. In this way although the left was not able to form government and create a political system it did bring to the fore crucial themes.

The revolution saw constitutions granted throughout the German Confederation and the abolition of remaining feudal relics. The liberals sought to channel the revolution as soon as possible into a constitutional path to prevent further revolution. The attempt was made to form a German state. The National Assembly was elected with about 75% of the male population taking part (first met in May 1848). The basic problem was the lack of power to implement the parliament’s will. The parliament would have to either compromise with existing state governments or call upon further revolution: neither of which the liberals wanted it to do! The Parliament showed the fundamental problem of a peaceful attempt at unification: the lack of power to enforce it. The Malmö agreement of August 1848 indicates this. Here Prussia had invaded Schleswig-Holstein to enforce the Frankfurt parliament’s claim to these territories. Yet the involvement of Russia and Britain caused a backdown. But it was Prussia not the Frankfurt parliament which signed the agreement which settled the dispute. With this one came see the key problem as established by 1848: how to ensure unification of the German states. The Frankfurt parliament decided after much debate on kleindeutsch with a Prussian lead rather than grossdeutsch which would have included Austria. This debate and conflict between two rival models was a crucial theme to continue throughout the 1850s until the 1860s when Prussia defeated Austria in the war of 1866. 1848 acted as a starting point for this conflict and was provided the Prussians with a desire to avenge the humiliation of the restoration of the German Confederation. The other two key consequences of 1848 was the emphasis of the Prussian monarchy on legitimacy. Frederick William IV refused the Imperial crown offered by the Frankfurt assembly, as it was the epitome of an act of a sovereign parliament. Secondly the Frankfurt parliament was willing to include Polish Prussia within the German State. In this way a crucial theme was set out which would last in Germany later to be capitalised upon by Adolf Hitler. That is the willingness of the German nation to subordinate other peoples to it.

The counter-revolutions of 1849 saw the return of conservative power. In a way the failure of the ideology of the revolutions to succeed can said to have created the space for realpolitik to fill. The aims of 1848 had been too grand, attempted over too short a space of time and the forces backing them were too divided. Yet the revolutions throughout the German confederation saw a new era of mass politicisation and mass mobilisation. They saw the first German Parliament and constitution and provided the beginnings of unified middle class and state action. 1848 also provided the template for future divisions within society as peoples social and economic background became increasingly important in determining political conflict.

The Habsburg Empire and the Italian States

The case of the Habsburg Empire can be linked to two other key aspects of 1848. That is revolution in the Italian states and the significance of foreign intervention and the balance of power. The Empire faced a dire economic situation in 1848 and on the day the local estates were to meet to debate the problems (13th of March 1848) revolution broke out. The government gave in to the pressure of the Burgerwehr (a form of citizens’ guard), students and the Estates members and on the 15th of March granted a constitution. What ensued was the collapse of central governmental power and the attempt of the various ethnic entities that made up the Empire to establish self-government. The most obvious example was Hungary. A national assembly was created yet the Austrian Emperor was retained as king. This is a key theme confirmed by 1848. The power of Hungary within the Habsburg Empire. Indeed the settlement in 1867 which created Austro-Hungary was rather similar in outlook to the system in place in 1848. The events confirm the growth of liberalism in Austria over the 1840s which followed the general movement of the German Confederation. But 1848 in the Habsburg Empire set out the possible reality of Austria’s detachment from German Reunification. Although in the short-term Prussia had been cowed in the long term Austria showed an inclination to be concerned in its multi-ethnic Empire. The importance of an increasing sense of nationality in a multi-ethnic Empire is obvious and 1848 confirmed this phenomenon. The weakness of Central government and its lack of economic and military success facilitated this happening.

The Italian states saw revolution throughout. Constitutions were established and the Piedmontese fought to undermine Habsburg rule in Lombardy. The liberal movement in the Italian states came largely as a result of the restrictive nature of Restoration monarchy there. The classic example for this is the Papal states where the 1810s saw a return to the Ancien Regime and absolute Papal and clerical power. The key themes here were the attempt of the bourgeoisie to increase its political rights, the beginning of Piedmontese leadership of Italian unification and the importance of foreign powers for the internal politics of the Italian states. The Austrian military success of 1849 indicated that unification would need a more sophisticated diplomatic policy. In 1859 Piedmont ensured it had the backing of the French Empire. In this one can see a direct political consequence of 1848.

The crucial importance of the impact of 1848 on the balance of power can begin to become evident. It saw Russian involvement in the Habsburg Empire, British and Russian in Schleswig-Holstein and Austrian in Italy. 1848 saw the beginning of problems for the traditional attitude of the Great Powers. In 1848 one of these powers existence (the Habsburg Empire) had actually been threatened and with this one saw a rallying of Great Britain, Russia and the German States to the maintenance of the Empire.


The revolutions were complicated in their immediate and long-term achievements. One can see many common themes. These can be seen in terms of dealing with revolution itself: the importance of military power and the importance of quick action against revolution. In Paris, Berlin and Vienna a lack of appreciation of the potential seriousness of revolt in capitals helped facilitate the initial success of the revolutionaries. In Berlin and Vienna especially it may well be the case that revolution could have been stifled. This needs to be appreciated when considering the consequences of the Revolutions for one the key ones of this was the better preparation of states for disturbances in the cities. The successful handling of the Chartist march in London on April 10th 1848 can be seen as an example of the heeding of a warning. In this way an ironic achievement of the revolutions of 1848 was to be better preparation against more of their kind.

The Revolutions were a vital part in the long-term success of liberalism in Europe which can be seen in such things as constitutional government and a wider male suffrage, for example Prussia and its three class grouping. The idea of their failing to achieve their immediate goals is hard to assess for the revolutions did not contain a clear set of aims. Rather there was a shifting intonation of aims across social and economic boundaries throughout Europe. These aims were largely unfulfilled in immediate terms but in the long term many became the important themes of the time. They did mark a crucial transition point in Europe between the modern world with its themes of nationalism, social welfare, mass mobilisation and mass politicisation. This impacted on the internal affairs of nations and International relations.

But when considering the revolutions one should relate them to arguably the crucial question that was posed throughout this period: the origin of political power. 1848 marked a vital stage in the confirmation of the collapse of monarchical power. Monarchical states that were in transition could not survive without change and in particular a constitution. The political events following 1848 confirmed this. Legitimacy was increasingly linked to the people and 1848 was a key event in this phenomenon. The July Monarchy fell because its claim to have popular legitimacy was undermined by its increasing unpopularity and disengagement with the public as a whole. But 1848 did not resolve these key questions, rather it posed another stage in the development of their significance and provided an example of how conflicting aims within groups of reformers can bring down a reform movement. 1848 did mark the beginning of the final end of feudal relics in central and Eastern Europe. Furthermore it emphasised the division between Russia and the rest of Europe. Russia’s poor financial situation, the stifling regime of Nicholas I and the lack of development meant its politics were far behind the rest of Europe. 1848 saw Russia intervening to try and maintain a more conservative Europe. The Habsburg Empire was aided but Russia arguably created a dislike for it in the very Empire it saved. Furthermore the increasing dominance of Prussia in Germany in the 1860s shifted the balance of power in an unfavourable direction for Russia.

  • R.J.W.Evans: 1848-49 in the Habsburg Monarchy (from The Revolutions in Europe)
  • F.Furet: Revolutionary France 1770-1880
  • W.L.Langer: The Pattern of Urban Revolution in 1848
  • L.O’Boyle: The Democratic Left In Germany 1848
  • H.Hearder: Italy in the Age of Risorgimento 1790-1870
  • R.Price: Revolutionary Movements in 19th Century Europe
  • H.Pogge von Strandmann: 1848-9 A European Revolution (from The Revolutions in Europe)
  • David Saunders: A Pyrrhic Victory: The Russian Empire in 1848 (from The Revolutions in Europe)
  • J.J.Sheehan: Liberalism and Society in Germany 1815-48
  • J.Sperber: The European Revolutions 1848-51
  • E.Weber: The Second Republic, Politics and the Peasant

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