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The Revolutions of 1848

The Revolutions of 1848

Revolutions of 1848, series of violent uprisings in European countries where legal attempts at economic and political change had proven unsuccessful. The revolutions were initiated by members of the middle class and nobility who began demanding constitutional and representative governments, and by workers and peasants who revolted against developing capitalist practices that were resulting in greater poverty. Participating in the revolutions were Poles, Danes, Germans, Italians, Czechs, Slovaks, Hungarians, Croats, and Romanians who demanded self-determination from the empires that dominated them. Although governmental changes achieved by the revolutions of 1848 were short-lived, the revolutions influenced the course of European government in the long term by undermining the concept of absolute monarchy and establishing an impetus for liberalism and socialism.

Revolution first erupted on February 22, 1848 in France, where supporters of universal suffrage (voting rights) and the socialists, led by Louis Blanc, overthrew King Louis Philippe and established the Second Republic. However, differences within the new government over political and economic reforms led to bloody street battles in Paris. At the end of 1848 the nephew of Napoleon I, Louis Napoleon, was elected president. The February revolution in France sparked movements for unification in several German and Italian states. Liberals in the German states proposed the formation of an elected national parliament for a united Germany. But the provisional government could not decide on a form for the new Germany, and the old order was restored.

Growing nationalism among the Czechs, Hungarians, Germans, and other groups under the control of the Austrian empire led to rioting. The news from Paris inspired popular demonstrations that drove the conservative minister Klemens von Metternich from office. A sequence of German liberal reform ministries followed, but the other nationalities within the Austrian Empire wished to control their own affairs.

On March 5, Hungary, which was under Austrian rule, the patriot Lajos Kossuth assumed control of a break-away government and declared independence for all Hungarian lands. Kossuth's extreme Hungarian nationalism alienated many of Hungary's minority groups. As a result, the Serbs, Croats, and Transylvanians, with the help of Austrian and Russian troops, defeated the Hungarian bid for independence in 1849.

In Italy, where the expulsion of Austria had long been the goal of the Italian unity movement called the Risorgimento, a Venetian republic was proclaimed, and a revolution in Milan (March 18-22) was promptly supported by a new liberal regime in Sardinia-Piedmont. But the tide soon turned. The revolution forced the flight of Pope Pius IX and led Giuseppe Mazzini, an advocate of unification, to set up the short-lived Roman republic in 1849. The Italian states, however, proved too protective of their independence to achieve unity. Although these revolutions in the German and Italian states failed, the movement for unification gained strength in later years-resulting in the unifying of Italy in 1861 and Germany in 1871.

In June, Czech leader Frantisek Palacky organized a Pan-Slav Congress in Prague to demand equality with the Germans. On June 17, Austrian forces crushed this rebellion and a month later regained control in Milan. Then a constituent assembly convened in Vienna to draft a constitution for the empire. It succeeded in abolishing serfdom, but in October it was driven from Vienna by a working-class rebellion; its work was later repudiated by a new prime minister, Felix Schwarzenberg. In December the young Francis Joseph succeeded Ferdinand I as emperor of Austria and imposed a severely centralized administration. On Apr. 13, 1849, the Hungarians, under Lajos Kossuth, declared their independence. Schwarzenberg called in a Russian army, and in August the Hungarians surrendered. That summer a Roman republic created by Giuseppe Mazzini and Giuseppe Garibaldi collapsed, and the Austrian forces recaptured Venice.

The Hambacher Convention in Maz 1832 was the
first mass-meeting of the nationalists, who later
promoted the German Revolution of 1848.

In Germany, too, the Paris revolution inspired unrest. A bloody confrontation in Berlin (March 15-21) forced the Prussian king Frederick William IV to summon a constitutional assembly, an example followed in other German states. Above all, however, the liberals hoped to create a unified German empire, and to this end the Frankfurt Parliament was elected and convened (May 18). It adopted a bill of rights and a moderately democratic form of government. When Schwarzenberg made clear his determination to centralize Austria, however, the Frankfurt Parliament decided to exclude the German-speaking provinces of Austria from the German empire and in March 1849 offered the crown of a constitutional Germany to the king of Prussia. He declined, and without Prussia the work of the parliament came to nothing. Meanwhile, in Prussia itself the king dissolved the constituent assembly and imposed his own constitution, which favored the wealthy classes but gave Prussia a measure of parliamentary government.

Despite a few lasting gains, the Revolutions of 1848 resulted in severe defeats for liberal nationalists seeking democratic reform.

Enno E. Kraehe Bibliography: Langer, W. L., Political and Social Upheaval, 1832-1852 (1969);
Price, R., The Revolutions of 1848 (1989);
Robertson, Priscilla, The Revolutions of 1848: A Social History (1952);
Stearns, P. N., 1848: The Revolutionary Tide in Europe (1974).

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