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  • James Houser

September 29, 1848 - High Tide of the Revolutions of 1848

Updated: Jun 13, 2021

September 29, 1848. The Hungarians have risen up, declaring themselves independent of the Habsburg Empire after 300 years. This wouldn’t be that special, if it wasn’t 1848. Revolution is breaking out everywhere, from Paris to Berlin to Vienna to Rome. The ruling classes and crowned heads of Europe feel the ground shift beneath their feet. Will the people prevail, or will the forces of order regain power? Welcome to the European Spring – Part 1.

I have brought up the Revolutions of 1848 in multiple other posts, always with the thought that I might come back to them at a later point. Well, today is that day – but so is tomorrow. See, the story of 1848 is one of the (in my opinion) most important stories in the history of the modern world, but it’s not the kind of tale where I can follow an individual, an army, or a couple of countries. That was what made it so important. 1848 happened everywhere simultaneously. It was chaos, it happened all at once, and the consequences for the whole world were even greater. It’s a story that deserves to be told in full. That’s why I will tell Part 1 today, and Part 2 tomorrow.

The word “revolution” scares a ruling class to death. The most well-known revolutionary symbol is the guillotine, and the guillotine was what kept the Kings and Queens of Europe awake at night in the 1840s. Ever since the French Revolution in 1789, it had become a very real possibility that any one of them could be the next ruler to share the fate of King Louis XVI or Marie Antoinette. So after Napoleon’s final defeat in 1815, the rulers of Europe met at Vienna to hammer out a new order in the wake of the French Revolution. Their goal was to put the genie back in the bottle.

The chief architect of this new order would be the Austrian Chancellor, Klemens von Metternich. Metternich was an old-school traditional conservative, and not in the American sense. Metternich believed in the absolute divine right of monarchs to rule their peoples, and saw ANY movement towards newfangled liberal ideas like voting rights, representation, free speech, or a free press as the first step towards revolution, guillotines, and all of them losing their heads. Metternich mediated the Congress of Vienna to establish a Europe-wide balance of power to prevent future wars and keep instability to a minimum, since it was this very instability that had caused the French Revolution in the first place. It was apparent to all the rulers of Europe that they now had more to fear from their own people than from each other.

Metternich’s balance of power in Europe worked – to a point. In fact, the period from 1815 to 1848 is traditionally called the “Age of Metternich.” It was a period of increasingly authoritarian, conservative monarchies that ruled their peoples with a flimsy screen of benevolence covering an iron fist of censorship, suppression, and secret police. Metternich’s Austria in particular became the beacon of autocratic suppression, using increasingly Orwellian methods to enforce the old order and prevent a new revolution from breaking out.

The Austrian Emperor ruled by divine right from God, as did the King of Prussia, the King of France, the Tsar of Russia. All these powers cooperated to keep their people nice and docile.

That did not mean there were no issues. In 1820, two revolutions popped up in Spain and Italy, but Metternich whipped out the hammer and played whack-a-mole. The French armies restored the Spanish King, and the Austrians put the King of Naples back in absolute power. Another revolution broke out in 1825 in Russia, but the Tsar was on the spot with the army and blood flowed in the streets. In 1830, the French and Belgians both overthrew their ruling dynasties, and Metternich held his breath (the French Revolution? Not again!) but let out a sigh of relief when both countries came out the other side with only SLIGHTLY less autocratic regimes. Europe remained under the grip of the nobility.

Well, except for Britain doing their weird Parliament thing, but no one really cared about them.

But Metternich and the rest of Europe were sitting on top of a volcano. The rising tide of resentment, when it came, would be so sudden and violent that no one would know what hit them. There were three driving forces to the coming storm: liberalism, nationalism, and socialism.

Liberalism had been the driving political ideology behind the American and French Revolutions – the belief in the equality of man, the right to vote, the sovereignty of the masses, civil liberty and human rights. All of this was obvious toxic to Metternich and his crowd, who predicated their rule on blatant inequality, the right to rule, the sovereignty of the…sovereign, and the rule of law. The liberals were usually the middle classes, the property-owners and professional groups, men who weren’t doing badly but were increasingly angry that they had no voice in government. They wanted the system to be reformed and they wanted a constitution, but that didn’t mean they wanted total societal upheaval. Their demands posed what we call the “political question.”

The nationalists were a new force, and often ran hand-in-hand with the liberals. The increased knowledge of cultural and ethnic differences within Europe caused many to dream of a unified nation-state for their peoples. For the Germans, for instance, this meant unifying the 40-odd German-speaking states into a unified Germany. For the Italians, this meant knitting together the Italian cities and princes into a solid nation. The main source of antagonism for most nationalists was the Austrian Empire, in whose borders dwelt Germans, Hungarians, Italians, Czechs and Croats, forced into union under a German monarch. They all dreamed of long-lost nations that could yet come to life again. Austria was also the babysitter of Italy, and its armies had suppressed revolution in all the independent Italian states wherever popular agitation reared its head.

Finally you have the newest force in Europe. The rise of the industrial revolution had changed the face of the continent, and now railroads and telegraphs had sprung up from France to Austria, making communication nearly instantaneous and transportation much faster. The factories of England, northern France, and the Rhineland were bringing mass manufacturing into the homes of Europe, driving hand crafters and traditional artisans out of business. With a rapidly rising birthrate, city populations swelled to bursting, with the urban poor becoming a major and new source of grievance. Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables and Charles Dickens’ novels would come out later in the century, but they presented a stark picture of what industrialization had done to the poor of Europe.

It had become increasingly clear that the liberal solutions of political reform and the national aspirations of oppressed ethnicities were not interested in solving the problems of the working class. They followed a new siren song. The emergent socialists (still a very new, very diverse ideology) believed in completely upsetting the social order, redistributing wealth from the owners of business and land to the workers and laborers who never saw a cent of it. Their concern was not the "political question," but the "social question." It was in this new belief system that the 30-year-old Karl Marx wrote, though no one really knew his name – yet.

The final trigger was a great famine in 1846 and 1847. Though the most famous manifestation of this famine to us Americans is the Irish Potato Famine, the sudden spike in food prices coincided with a market collapse across Europe as multiple speculation bubbles burst. With the economy on the fritz, starvation rampant in the cities, and the newly unemployed laborers in the streets, anger was going to bubble over. The volcano was rumbling. It was only a matter of time.

Throughout January 1848, little rumblings started all over Europe. The Poles were getting restless, anxious to see their divided nation (ruled by Prussia, Russia and Austria) reunified into a single nation. The French liberals were holding multiple “banquets” that suspiciously resembled political meetings, with bad food and boring speeches. On January 12, a revolt broke out on the island of Sicily, with the islanders trying to gain independence from their Austrian-imposed King. The islanders quickly adopted a constitution and created a Parliament. Though the Sicilian Revolution of 1848 was technically the first of the 1848 Revolutions, it was not the trigger point for the rest. That one was coming.

In February 1848, King Louis-Philippe of France had started to feel the rumblings beneath his feet. He decided to get out in front of this whole thing and officially outlawed the “banquets” that had been causing such a stir in Paris. This blatant violation of freedom of speech and assembly touched off the powder keg that had been brewing in Paris due to unemployment, famine, political agitation and the spread of radical ideas. On February 22, 1848, swarms of Parisians began flooding the streets and erecting barricades to dominate the center of the city. The next day, in one of those accidents that always happens in these situations, a force of French soldiers in front of a public building lost their nerve and fired a volley into the crowd, killing 52 people.

Paris immediately went off the deep end, lurching into full revolution. The streetcars and carriages were erected into barricades taller than a man’s reach, trees were felled, and fires were set. The workers were “organized, armed, and masters of the terrain, at the mercy of the most fiery demagogues.” The angry mob of Paris was soon converging on the Tuileries Palace, and King Louis-Philippe was afraid for his life. He abdicated the throne in favor of his son and fled – but his son would never take the throne. Within hours, the liberal opposition came together to create a new government. Unusually, they would not have a king this time; they all remembered (from 1830) what happened when you replace one monarch with a slightly less terrible one. Instead, they founded the Second French Republic. Don’t get too attached to the Second Republic, guys, it’s not long for this world.

The 1848 Revolution in France was NOT over, but this outburst in Paris sent shockwaves rippling across the continent. A new French Revolution had overthrown their King in less than 72 hours. That was terrifying to Europe’s rulers, and electrifying to their people. Thanks to the telegraph, news now travelled much faster than ever before. Despite the efforts of men like Metternich to suppress or hide the news coming from France, the inspirational example of the Paris workers gave everyone ideas. Paris set the trend. Soon every capital city in Europe was in an uproar. Barricades went up, the liberals and nationalists and socialists were in the streets, and the volcano began to explode. But Paris was only the fuse. The real explosion came in Vienna.

In Vienna, the students of the Academic Legion marched down to the royal palace and demanded the resignation of Metternich. To them, and to everyone in Europe, Metternich was the face of the Old Order: the aristocracy, the nobles, the oppressive police state, everything that had held the people back and kept them from power and left them starving and poor. The Austrian army was unable to stop the industrial workers and the students from packing the alleys and avenues of Vienna, and the chanting was heard outside Metternich’s window. Much like King Louis-Philippe, Metternich feared for his life. On March 13, 1848, the man who had embodied the Old Order resigned and fled into exile in London.

If the overthrow of the French King lit the fuse, Metternich’s resignation really set everything ablaze. To the people of Europe, Metternich had been an institution: the most implacable, immovable force of conservatism and oppression. If he was gone, what else was possible? Anything. Anything was possible. All hell was about to break loose in Europe. And I mean ALL hell, in ALL Europe.

Switzerland burst into civil war between a secessionist Catholic faction and the main Protestant cantons. In Stockholm, there was rioting in the streets as the Swedish people demanded a constitution, only to be met with bayonets and shootings. In contrast, the National Liberals of Denmark marched on the Christiansborg Palace to demand that their King grant them a Constitution; to their enormous surprise, he was happy to, and the Danes rejoiced. In the small, backwards principality of Wallachia, a liberal and nationalist uprising emerged in Bucharest, which sought to reunify Romania’s territories under the red-yellow-blue tricolor. Belgian socialists who had been exiled abroad tried to invade the country and establish a republic. Ireland broke out into open revolt against Great Britain. The people of Prussian-ruled Poland mounted a military insurrection.

The biggest incidents happened in Italy, Germany, and the Austrian Empire. In Italy, multiple cities expelled their Austrian garrisons or ran their Austrian-backed rulers out of town. The “Five Days of Milan” from March 18-22 forced the Austrian army to evacuate the city, leaving it in the hands of the citizens. A dockworkers’ strike in Venice soon proclaimed a new republic, and they too expelled the Austrians. Even the Pope himself was forced by Roman revolutionaries to proclaim a Constitution. The insurgent citizens of Milan invited the King of Piedmont, widely seen as a force for Italian unification, to declare war on Austria and bring Italy together under his crown. Although King Charles Albert of Piedmont really didn’t want to start a war, he was so terrified of the revolutionaries in HIS OWN country that he really had no choice. Charles Albert thus launched the First War of Italian Independence on March 23 as the whole of Italy erupted in chaos.

With Italy going to shit, the Austrian Empire’s army was tied down just as revolt was erupting in Vienna. In Budapest, the Hungarians decided it was finally their time to shine. Under the leadership of the romantic nationalist Lajos Kossuth, Hungary began to assert its ancient laws and rights as a sovereign portion of the Habsburg Empire. On March 15, Kossuth made the proclamation that bears his name:

“On your feet now, Hungary calls you!

Now is the moment, nothing stalls you,

Shall we be slaves or men set free

That is the question, answer me!”

The Austrians couldn’t afford to antagonize the Hungarians – most of the troops they had in Italy were Hungarian – and the Hungarian Revolution pushed at this weakness. Soon the Hungarians were joined by armed uprisings of Czechs, Croats, and Transylvanians, all trying to regain their rights and national sovereignty. After months of attempted negotiations, with the Austrians failing to satisfy their demands for autonomy and sovereignty, the Hungarians decided to break away entirely and reforge the ancient Kingdom of Hungary. On September 29, 1848, the Hungarians beat the Austrian army at the Battle of Pakozd, which sent Budapest into paroxysms of cheering and celebration. Hungary would be free! If Hungary could reemerge from the old dead hand of Austria, so could Italy, or Poland, or Croatia, or the Czechs and Slovaks!

In Germany, a massive revolt in Prussia on March 13 erupted on the news of Metternich’s resignation. This resulted in literal urban warfare – the Battle of Berlin - with over 600 dead before King Frederick William IV of Prussia finally agreed to proclaim a Constitution for his people. Frederick William even made an announcement that shocked all of Germany: that he would sponsor a debate to consider the unification of Germany. While these concessions were viewed as a triumph by the Germans and the Prussians, behind closed doors the prospect filled the King with humiliation, as he believed his right to rule came from God, not the masses. Frederick William remarked bitterly that “we crawled on our stomachs” before the revolutionary masses.

Despite his private humiliation, though, the German nationalists were jubilant. In May 1848, for the first time in European history, a nationally elected Parliament of the German Nation convened in Frankfurt. All the German-speaking lands of Europe sent representatives, even German-speaking Austria. Soon the Frankfurt Parliament was meeting to decide how to unify Germany.

And this all happened within weeks of Metternich’s resignation. All across Europe, regimes were rocked, and no one was safe. Like some sort of fast-moving flu, the strain of Revolution rocketed across the continent as city after city broke out into open revolt. The liberals wanted freedom, the nationalists wanted independence and unity, and the socialists wanted land and bread. It looked like they were on the verge of getting it, too. All across Europe the forces of revolution were on the march, and kings and emperors were backing down everywhere you looked. It was truly the European Spring, the “Year of the Peoples,” the year when everything seemed possible. Germany could be unified as a democracy. Italy could emerge as a nation for the first time since the days of Rome. Freedom for the Hungarians, the Czechs, the Poles. A French republic built on liberal principles. All these things seemed within grasp.

But for the revolutions, problems were on the horizon. First, their own disunity: the liberals, socialists, and nationalists all began to fight amongst themselves over what kind of nation they would forge now that the Old Order was gone. Already by June 1848, the liberals of the French Second Republic and the socialists of Louis Blanc were battling in the streets of Paris. Soon the forces of revolution would be at war amongst themselves all across Europe, as the light of hope faded into the reality of conflict. Second, the Old Order was not dead. It had taken a beating, it was dormant, but it was looking for its chance. As the crowned heads, nobles, and generals of Europe saw the revolutions begin to tear apart from the inside, they waited – and planned.

The Revolutions of 1848 made everything seem possible, if only for a moment. But they were all doomed. See you tomorrow.

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