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  • James Houser

September 30 - The Revolutions of 1848, Part 2

Updated: Jun 14, 2021

SEPTEMBER 30 - Summer 1848. To the oppressed classes of Europe, everything seems possible. The French have overthrown their last King, the Prussians and Austrians have forced their monarchs to accept constitutional rule, and the Italians, Germans and Hungarians are on the cusp of national liberation. Could the European Spring truly be upon us? That is the question: will they be slaves or men set free?


Today is Part 2 of a double post about the Revolutions of 1848, the turning point that did not turn. If you need a refresher, Part 1 is here: (POST LINK)


When we last left off, the Revolutions of 1848 had spread across Europe like an electric shock. After three decades of autocratic role by absolute monarchies and the noble elites, a sudden wave of uprisings shook the very foundations of the European Old Order. All over the continent, cities broke into open revolt, forcing their rulers to either flee or make promises of reform at the point of a sword. In the regions of Italy and Germany, forces had come together from the various independent states to discuss unification, and in Hungary, revolutionary armies had started their fight for independence. Europe seemed to be on the cusp of massive revolutionary change.


Unfortunately, though the Revolutionaries of 1848 did not know it, this was their high point. This was due to two reasons. The first was that the triumphant revolutionaries were already starting to factionalize and fight amongst themselves. The main divide was between liberals, who pursued the “political question” of civil rights, freedom of speech, representative democracy, and reform within the current system, and the socialists, who championed workers’ rights and labor laws, land reform, social equality, and the abolition of the current system. These two groups had cooperated to overthrow the Old Order, but once their victory was in sight, they started to fight amongst themselves about what that victory would look like.


This brings us to the second reason why the Revolutions of 1848 were doomed: the Old Order was not yet defeated. They had been stunned by the sudden Revolution, but the conservatives, reactionaries, and crowned heads of Europe were still out there – and their armies were still, for the most part, loyal. They made whatever promises they needed to make, said the words, waved the flags. All this time, though, they were stewing. No man exemplified this more than King Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia, who could go out on his balcony and wave the red-black-gold tricolor of a united Germany to cheering crowds. Once out of sight, though, he was furious with rage at this humiliation, bitter about how “we had to crawl on our stomachs” before these upstart commoners. So while the Revolutionaries began to fight amongst themselves, the Old Order grabbed a bowl of popcorn and watched – and waited.


In June 1848, the newly founded Second French Republic was the first to see the Revolutionary divide come to blows. For the first time in French history, there was a free and open election in April 1848 to elect the new Assembly, a democratic organ for a new Republic. The newly elected Assembly, however, was far more moderate-to-conservative than the radical leftists in Paris. The leftists had drastically overestimated their popularity outside the capital, and soon the socialists under Louis Blanc were agitating for a change in the government. From June 22 to 26, 1848, the radical left launched an uprising in Paris. In what became known as the “June Days,” the National Guard violently suppressed the left, killing about 3,000 men and deporting many others. This act marked a major break between the liberals and the socialists in France, which would have grave consequences when the forces of Order came back by the end of the year.


In Italy, meanwhile, the dreams of Italian nationalists were about to be thwarted by similar divides. Many of the Italian nationalists and liberals had rallied around King Charles Albert I of Piedmont, the strongest independent ruler in Italy and widely believed to be the only hope for Italian unification. Their main foe, of course, were the Austrians, who ruled much of northern Italy and virtually dominated the rest of the Peninsula. Revolutions in Milan and Venice had forced the Austrian army of Marshal Josef Radetzky to withdraw to the fortress of the Quadrilateral, and invited Charles Albert to take the moment and declare Italian unification. Charles Albert, reluctant and fully aware that the Revolutionaries would overthrow him if he DIDN’T do what they wanted, soon declared war on Austria and took his army into Milan. The First War of Italian Independence had begun.


But the divisions between the Revolutionaries reared their ugly head once again. King Charles Albert was, well, a King, and was not on board with this silly “republic” and “representation” stuff. Soon there was a serious divide between the pragmatic nationalists who just wanted a united Italy, and the more radical republicans and socialists who wanted to restore something like the old Roman Republic. Most of the republicans were slow to support Charles Albert, and many did not support him at all. This would prove fatal, since only a united mass movement could stand against the Austrians. On July 24, 1848, Marshal Radetzky inflicted a crippling defeat on Charles Albert at Custoza, and soon the Austrians were back on the upswing everywhere. Even though the Romans had declared their own Republic, and Venice still held out under siege, any opportunity the Italians had of coming together was gone. The liberals, nationalists, and socialists were too busy squabbling with each other to accomplish anything in Italy either.


In Germany, too, it seemed like things were going well at first. The German states had all sent representatives to Frankfurt, where they coalesced into the Frankfurt Parliament on May 18, 1848 . Their job was to draw up a constitution for a united Germany. While this was a magnificent and radical gesture, the Frankfurt Parliament soon devolved into farce. Dubbed the “Parliament of Professors” by its critics, the assembly was many composed of intellectuals, academics and lawyers without a working-class voice to be heard. Their leader, Heinrich von Gagern, was a center-right liberal who insisted that the Parliament needed support from the German monarchs to achieve unification.


This was in opposition to the radicals, who wanted a German Republic which could guarantee rights to all its people. Soon street fighting broke out throughout Frankfurt, since even before they had actually secured their new country the revolutionaries could not figure out what kind of country it was.


Gagern was convinced that only a German monarchy would work in the long term, and sought the support of King Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia. The King of Prussia was easily the strongest and most prestigious of the German rulers, and the only person who could conceivably rule a united Germany. Friedrich Wilhelm had no intention of dealing with these namby-pamby professors in Frankfurt. He was busy reasserting royal authority. He had been forced for fear of his life to accept a new Prussian Assembly that took its seats in Berlin on May 22, 1848.


Already, though, Friedrich Wilhelm was organizing a conservative backlash. Assisted by the conservative peasant class and the Army’s officer corps, Friedrich built up his support. The other German states looked to Prussia for leadership, since they were all dealing with their own Revolutions. Friedrich Wilhelm waited until the moment was right.


In the Austrian Empire, not only had the various nationalities of the Empire (the Czechs, the Hungarians) tried to gain independence, but Vienna itself was in revolutionary turmoil. Once again, though, conflicts between revolutionaries broke out – this time between nationalities. The revolutionaries who wanted a united Germany expected that the Czech lands would be part of this new Germany – but the Czechs, of course, did not agree with this at all. As Prague fell into arguing and infighting, the Austrian General Prince Windisch-Gratz snuffed out the Revolution in Prague. This may have been fueled by the fact that his wife was killed by a stray bullet during the uprising. Windisch-Gratz had crushed the Prague Revolution by June 1848, then marched his army south to Vienna.


The Hungarians had finally found the opportunity to throw off Austrian rule on September 29, 1848, and of any country trying to gain its independence they had the most success. Hungarian armies soon had the Austrians on the run and controlled most of their country. What eventually brought them down, though, was the very nationalism they were trying to realize. The new Hungarian leader Lajos Kossuth imposed the Hungarian language and culture on the whole Kingdom of Hungary, which greatly angered the Serbs, Croats, Transylvanians and Slovaks who still lived within Hungarian borders.


These minorities went from seeing the Austrian Habsburgs as their oppressors to seeing them as the only force that protected them from Hungarian domination. The Croats especially came out in support of the Austrians against the Hungarian Revolution. The Hungarians also lost support, again, when the moderate liberals broke away from radical republicans to run back into the arms of the Empire after seeing the ethnic tension the Hungarian Revolution had unleashed.


As we can see, the divisions among the revolutionaries killed them at their moments of triumph. I’m glossing over a lot of complications here (1848 is HUGE, and it’s happening all at once everywhere) but I’m hitting the key points. Divisions over constitutional monarchy versus republic, liberalism versus leftism, an ethnic state or a pluralist state – all of these disputes crippled the Revolutions just when they were at their peak. And this disunity allowed the Old Order to regain its footing and begin to roll back the progress of the Revolution.


In October 1848, the Austrian Empire was sending troops out to fight the Hungarians when a popular uprising erupted in the city. A crowd sympathetic to the Hungarian cause tried to prevent the troops from leaving, and soon everything escalated into violent street battles as the army was forced to evacuate Vienna. Soon, though, Windisch-Gratz’s army arrived from Prague and placed the city under siege. As the Austrian fist squeezed the revolution in Vienna, the revolutionaries sent messages out to the Hungarian forces pleading for help. The Hungarians, though, were at first unwilling to help the Austrians out, seeing them as foreigners. Their own nationalism crippled them. Even when the Hungarians finally did send a relief expedition, though, it was already too late. The Austrians crushed the Viennese revolution on October 31 and executed all its leaders. Once again, the failure to unify hurt both revolutions, since now the full Austrian army could turn on the Hungarians, with the Croats now rising up to join them.


King Friedrich Wilhelm in Prussia waited happily for the new Prussian Assembly in Berlin to fall apart. After a few months of tension, he had come to realize that the Frankfurt Parliament (which was trying to unify Germany) had no power or ability to do anything on its own. The old bearded men in their spectacles could pass whatever they wanted, but it didn’t matter. When the time was finally right in December 1848, the King of Prussia ordered his army back into the streets of Berlin to put the upstarts down for good. He imposed his own – much more conservative – constitution on the Kingdom of Prussia at the point of the bayonet. The victory was virtually bloodless, since the Prussian Assembly had devolved into infighting long ago.


In France, the situation had only gotten worse. With the old conservatives never reconciled to the recent revolution, and the socialists actively hostile ever since the June Days, the liberal reform class at the center of the Second Republic found its support thin and growing thinner. To try and restore order, they decided to have a nationwide election for a strong central executive: a President of France. The winning candidate, though, would be the death of the Second Republic. Louis Napoleon, the nephew of the old Emperor Napoleon of Waterloo fame, had returned to France in glory and run a campaign for President. Slightly absurd and seemingly harmless, with a reputation as a reformer, he had won both the conservative vote and the socialist vote.


Unfortunately, Louis Napoleon showed his true colors in December 1848 after he took office. He immediately used his executive powers to assume control of the state and had himself named “Prince-President” of France. He reimposed the police state, killed the power of the assembly, rigged the elections, and rolled back the clock. By 1852, Louis-Napoleon finally played his last card and had himself declared Emperor Napoleon III. Once again, a French Republic had given way to a French Empire. The Revolution had been betrayed, killed by division from within.


Germany had been in chaos for a long time, with many of the smaller states undergoing dramas of their own while the Frankfurt Parliament worked out its constitution. Finally, on April 2, 1849, they had finished their work: a constitutional monarchy with two houses, led by an “Emperor of the Germans.” The Constitution was recognized by several small German states – but notably none of the big ones. Immensely pleased with themselves, a delegation from the Frankfurt Parliament met with King Friedrich Wilhelm of Prussia and offered him the crown of “Emperor of Germany.”


To their immediate horror, the King of Prussia angrily rejected them. He wasn’t honored; he was insulted. He was a sovereign monarch: his rule came from God, not from the unwashed masses! No, he would not accept the “crown from the gutter, disgraced by the stink of revolution, defiled with dirt and mud.” King Friedrich Wilhelm not only tossed the “crown from the gutter” back in the faces of the aghast professors of the Frankfurt Parliament, he made a proclamation: any German state who sought military assistance against their revolutions could have it, no questions asked.


Multiple German princes begged Prussia for aid, and the King gladly obliged. Prussian troops fanned out across the German states, kicking apart the defiant but weak revolutionary armies. As the Prussian Army descended on Frankfurt, the Parliament fled to Stuttgart, then dissolved. Its members fled to the corners of German just ahead of the blue-coated ranks of the King of Prussia. As Prussia and the other German states stamped out the last embers of revolution in central Europe, they rolled back all the changes. No more voting, no more “civil rights,” no more “freedom of speech.” Many of the German revolutionaries would wind up in the United States, where they would become known as the ‘48ers; many of these men would participate in the American Civil War on the Union side. A small faction even found their way into Texas, thus becoming the German Texans that still exist today.


Everywhere the Revolutions were being stamped out. The only holdouts were the Hungarian independence movement, which was being smacked around by the Austrians, and the few remaining holdouts in Italy. Marshal Radetzky was hard at work putting out the flames in Italy, but he got some unwanted help. Already looking for opportunities to revive his uncle’s military glory, Prince-President Louis Napoleon of France sent a French army to Rome to restore the Pope. This was a cynical move to build his support with the Catholics, and it worked. By July 1849, the French had overrun the short-lived Roman Republic and placed Pope Pius IX back in power. After another victory, Radetzky forced King Charles Albert of Piedmont to abdicate and flee, thus removing the epicenter of Italian nationalism; finally, on August 27, 1849, Venice surrendered to the Austrians. The Revolutions of 1848 in Italy were over.


Hungary stood alone. Lajos Kossuth and his Hungarian Independence movement fought as hard as they could, and multiple battles and campaigns managed to keep the Austrians at bay. They had been brought to this by their own stubbornness, and Kossuth soon realized it; he rescinded the decree that had tried to force Hungarian language and culture on all the Kingdom of Hungary. It was too little, too late; all these peoples had already allied with the Austrians. But what really doomed the Hungarians was when the Austrians called in outside help. At their request, an enormous Russian army stormed into the rebel lands, crushing the Hungarian independence leaders between a rock and a hard place. On August 13, 1849, the Hungarian army finally surrendered to the Russians at Vilagos.


The Hungarians paid a hard price for their months of freedom. All their traditional privileges and rights were revoked, and they lost any rights to self-representation. The Austrian army would brutally re-subjugate Hungary over the next several years, and all the revolution’s leaders fled or died. With the snuffing out of the Hungarian Revolution, the Springtime of the Peoples was finally at an end. The Old Order had won.


What came out of the Revolutions of 1848? So much. Karl Marx certainly got a bunch of ideas from it when he wrote the “Communist Manifesto” that year. Men like Victor Hugo and Richard Wagner had been on the barricades, and their ideas would greatly influence European culture in the decades to come. And it’s worth remembering that in a couple of countries, real progress was made. Denmark and the Netherlands saw lasting changes to their political systems, and serfdom had been totally abolished in Austria and Hungary. Many of the changes the Revolutionaries of 1848 fought for would be achieved by the 1870s.


But how would they be achieved? By the ruling classes. The Old Order of Europe learned a signal lesson from 1848: by giving them part of what they want, you can retain power. Germany and Italy would be unified, but they would not come together as free republics in a struggle for independence. Germany would be unified by the King of Prussia at the point of a sword, not by a popular assembly who offered a “crown from the gutter” to their chosen monarch. Italy would come into being as a power play by the French against the Austrians, not by the Italians choosing their own fates. Hungary would become independent after the disaster of World War I, not through its own hand. Even when progress was made, it was always careful, controlled, moderate and stubborn.


The European Spring had held out hope to the nations of Europe, then cruelly snatched it away. 1848 would break the liberals and socialists apart forever, and force the nationalists to turn to conservative autocrats to achieve their goals. 1848 is the root of the divide in the left to this day, the reason nationalism became conservative, the reason revolutions are hamstrung by division, the reason that Europe went forward under a cloud of militarism and violence rather than the light of liberty and the promise of reform. There was much that was lost in the glorious, but brief, European Spring.


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