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This lesson will examine the Revolutions of 1848 that swept across Europe.

We will look at the causes of these revolutions and highlight the key themes and events surrounding the ‘Spring of Nations.’

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What Were the Revolutions of 1848?

We hear a lot about revolutions: the American Revolution; the French Revolution; there’s even a Beatles song called ‘Revolution.’ Many people, however, are not too familiar with the Revolutions of 1848. So, what were they?The Revolutions of 1848 were a series of democratic revolts against the monarchies of Europe. This was a very unique phenomenon because the revolutions stemmed from a wide variety of causes, and they were not necessarily coordinated. We should understand from the very outset that events proceeded differently in different countries. Events in Italy did not proceed in exactly the same way as they did in France or Germany.

So, we can see that the Revolutions of 1848 were, in many ways, very ambiguous. It is believed over 50 countries experienced revolution, with a few notable exceptions, namely, Great Britain, Russia, Spain, and some of the Scandinavian states. Although some minor reforms were achieved in certain cases, the revolutions were generally not a success. In most cases, the revolutions were suppressed and the monarchs of Europe were able to hang on to power. The Revolutions of 1848 were definitely violent – tens of thousands of people were killed.

Timeline of Events

The Revolutions of 1848 began in Sicily, Italy, in January 1848. Italy during this time was not an independent nation like it is now; then, it was broken up into smaller states controlled by the Austrian Empire. This revolution was started by Italian nationalists who wanted independence from Austrian rule. The nationalists were initially successful in establishing an independent republic. It lasted only 16 months, however, before the Bourbon rulers regained control. At the time of the revolution, most Europeans thought it was an isolated event.

Little did they know revolution would spread to the whole continent.The February Revolution is another name for the 1848 revolution in France. This revolution began after King Louis Philippe’s ‘July Monarchy’ government suspended the people’s right to participate in political banquets. Anger over the policy peaked around February 22-23 as Parisians put on demonstrations, erected barricades, and fought against royal authorities.

Fearful of the growing unrest, King Louis Philippe abdicated the throne. A few days later, the Second French Republic was proclaimed.The spirit of revolution in France soon spread to its neighbor, Germany. Like Italy, Germany at this time was not a unified nation-state, but consisted of 39 separate states under the German Confederation. The March Revolution, as it is called, stemmed from a desire for a unified Germany. In this revolution, middle and working class people revolted against the structure of the German Confederation and demanded greater political liberalization, especially freedom from censorship.

The March Revolution failed to unify Germany, in part because of a split between the working class and the middle class. It would take another 25 years or so before Germany was unified.In the Habsburg Austrian Empire, revolutions broke out in March. Of course, the Austrian Empire was a vast empire extending over a host of diverse people groups, including Germans, Austrians, Hungarians, Poles, Czechs, Croats, Slovaks, Italians, and more. Like some of the revolutions in other countries, the revolutions throughout the Austrian Empire had a nationalist character.

Many various ethnic and regional groups sought to overthrow their Habsburg rulers and establish independent states. The revolutions in the Austrian Empire ultimately failed because the diverse people groups lacked coordination and often had competing goals.So far we’ve mentioned revolutions in Italy, France, Germany, and the Austrian Empire. Revolutions also took place in a number of other states, such as Denmark, Belgium, Ukraine, and elsewhere. We’re not going to go into the specifics of the revolutions in these states because in the big picture these are usually not considered as important. Just know that anti-monarchical, democratic revolutions took place all throughout the continent of Europe in 1848.

Causes of the 1848 Revolutions

So, what caused all these revolutions? The answer is multi-faceted.

There was not one single cause. And, of course, there are many different views among historians as to what the leading causes were. That said, let’s highlight a few of the most commonly accepted causes.The first cause worth mentioning is political liberalization.

Throughout the 19th century, political systems were in the process of becoming increasingly liberalized, or in other words, increasingly democratic. The middle and working class, and in some cases even the lower classes, were beginning to realize they had power.Nationalism and socialism were also major factors. Remember, this was the time when modern socialism was beginning to attract followers.

From the perspective of the European monarchs, democracy, socialism, and nationalism were dangerous ideas. Once these ‘radical’ ideas took root among the masses, they led to widespread dissatisfaction with monarchical governments, and manifested themselves in revolution.Advances in print technology allowed for greater transmission of ideas. Despite government attempts at censorship, radicals found it increasingly easy to print cheap pamphlets. The distribution of this type of material fueled liberal movements. Poor crop output in the years prior to 1848 made life difficult for the peasants and lower classes.

Some historians also cite this as a contributing factor to the 1848 revolutions.

Impact of the Revolutions of 1848

In the short-term, the Revolutions of 1848 were generally unsuccessful. In most cases, revolutions were squashed and conservative governments were able to hold on to power. This was often because the revolutionary masses lacked organization and unity. In the long-term, however, the Revolutions of 1848 were very important because they set the stage for the birth of a number of European countries.

In fact, the term ‘Spring of Nations’ is often used to describe the Revolutions of 1848 because they paved the way for the birth of many modern states, most notably Italy and Germany. Even though most of the revolutions were unsuccessful, it was obvious that nationalism was beginning to ‘bud,’ and would soon be in full bloom.

Lesson Summary

The Revolutions of 1848 were a wave of violent, democratic revolutions that swept Europe in 1848. These were generally anti-monarchical and arose from a wide variety of causes, including budding nationalism and socialism. Advances in print technology and hardships for the lower classes are also believed to be contributing causes.The revolutions began in Italy and spread throughout the entire continent.

In France, the February Revolution resulted in the overthrow of King Louis Philippe and the establishment of the Second French Republic. In Germany, the March Revolution was aimed at establishing a unified German state. This revolution failed, although German unification was achieved about 25 years later.The Revolutions of 1848 are often called the ‘Spring of Nations’ because these revolutions set the foundation for the birth of many modern states. In the short-term, most of the revolutions resulted in failure, although their long-term impact proved to be enormous.

Learning Outcomes

After completing this lesson, you should be able to:

  • Identify the countries that dealt with revolution in 1848
  • Describe the major revolutions in France, Italy Germany, and the Austrian Empire
  • Rationalize how the revolutions were failures and yet set up the future for the creation of modern states
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