The revolutions which broke out across Europe in 1848 were occasioned by the harsh economic conditions of the time, but, like the rebellions of 1830 and 1831 (W4), they also provided a further chance to overthrow the reactionary regimes on the continent. They met with limited success. In France, a rebellion in Paris quickly spread, and brought about the departure of King Louis Philippe, a constitutional monarch who, over the years, had amassed an unacceptable amount of personal authority. But the revolutionaries soon began quarrelling amongst themselves, and eventually Louis Napoleon was elected to the throne. By 1852, he had achieved supreme authority as Emperor of the French. In Italy too, where there were uprisings in Venice, Milan and Rome, and the king of Sardinia-Piedmont, Charles Albert, took on the Austrian army, all resistance to the status quo had been crushed by early 1849. In the Austrian Empire rebellion broke out in Vienna. This led to the dismissal of the reactionary Prince Metternich, but a new king, Franz Joseph, put a stop to any hope of reform. Likewise in Hungary and Bohemia, Austrian authority was quickly restored, with the help of the Russian army in the case of Hungary. Germany, too, failed to gain by the uprisings. The Frankfurt Parliament could not reach an agreement over German unity, and the assembly was dissolved by force in 1849. A modicum of reform was achieved in Prussia and Switzerland, but only Denmark made substantial gains under Frederick VII. By then, however, the country was at war with Prussia over Schleswig Holstein. It regained this territory by international agreement in 1852, but, as we shall see, it led to a further war in 1864 (Vb).



Map (Europe): licensed under Creative Commons – 1848. Paris: by the French painter Horace Vernet (1789-1863). Napoleon III: by the French artist Auguste Boulard (1825-1897) – Château de Versailles, France. Milan: date and artist unknown. Franz Joseph: detail, by the Austrian portrait painter Friedrich Schilcher (1811-1881), 1860. Berlin: 1848/50, artist unknown. Metternich: detail, after the English portrait painter Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830), 1843, - National Trust for Scotland, Hermiston Quay, Edinburgh. In retirement: engraving based on a portrait by the Austrian photographer Ludwig Angerer (1827-1879).

Click Image to EnlargexxxxxThe rapid series of revolutions which broke out across Europe in 1848 was due in large part to the harsh economic conditions prevailing at that time, made worse by a serious shortage of food following three years of crop failure. But there was, too, as in 1830 and 1831 (W4), further resistance against the reactionary regimes imposed by the Congress of Vienna at the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815. Leaders like the Austrian Prince von Metternich and the influential Russian Tsar Alexander I were anxious to turn back the political clock in order to impose order and stability throughout the continent. They were opposed to liberal ideas and self-determination, but there were middle class groups and fervent nationalists who were prepared to man the barricades to bring about political and social change. This new outburst of revolution began in France, but quickly stirred up reaction against repressive governments in Italy, the Austrian Empire, Germany, and a string of minor states.

xxxxxIn France, as we have seen, the last of the Bourbons, in the person of Charles X, was toppled from power in 1830 (W4), and replaced by the more liberal-minded Louis Philippe, the so-called “citizen king”. Initially, by steering a middle course between republicans and monarchists, he gained a measure of success, but he ended up by pleasing neither side. Furthermore, by choosing his ministers carefully, dabbling in political intrigue, and granting royal favours, he soon accumulated a large measure of personal power. This, together with corruption in home affairs, a weak foreign policy, and an ever deepening economic crisis, brought about his downfall. InxFebruary 1848 a small rebellion in Paris quickly developed into a widespread insurrection - here illustrated by the French artist Horace Vernet - and he was driven from his throne and forced to take refuge in England.

xxxxxHis departure brought about a provisional government determined to give power to the people - led by politician and poet Alphonse de Lamartine -, and the setting up of so-called “national workshops” to ease unemployment. However, the election of a French national assembly dominated by the middle class did not prove radical enough for the workers of Paris and, when the assembly decided to scrap the “workshops” they rose in revolt. However, lacking sound leadership and a ready-made policy, the uprising was ruthlessly crushed by the use of artillery in what came to be known as the “June Days”. In December a new government - a single chamber elected by universal manhood suffrage - established the Second Republic, and the same suffrage elected Louis Napoleon (Napoleon Bonaparte’s nephew) as the President, a man who had twice attempted to overthrow Louis Philippe. But with a name like Napoleon, being president was not enough. As we shall see, in 1852, following a military coup, Napoleon (illustrated) was to proclaim himself Emperor of the French, and rule his country with a firm hand for the next eighteen years - the Second Empire.

xxxxxInxItaly, the Risorgimento, the “revival movement” aimed at overthrowing Austrian control and bringing about Italian unity, had long been at work, led by the Carbonari and a nationalist group known as Young Italy (Gionvane Italia), founded by the revolutionary leader Giuseppe Mazzini (1805-1872). The first signs of rebellion began in Palermo, and in March a republic was proclaimed in Venice, and an uprising broke out in Milan. Charles Albert, the king of Sardinia-Piedmont, came out in support of Milan and, seeing himself as the liberator of Italy, went so far as to declare war against Austria. In the meantime, further south, Sicily had declared itself independent from Naples.

xxxxxBut whilst local rulers were prepared to go along with the tide, the Austrians were determined to regain lost ground. Come the summer, they went on the offensive, eventually crushing the infant republics set up in Venice, Milan and Tuscany. CharleszAlbert gained some early victories over the Austrians, but he was roundly defeated at the Battles of Custoza and Milan in July 1848. Hexagreed to an armistice the following month, but then went on the offensive again and was routed at the Battle of Novara in March 1849. He was then forced to abdicate in favour of his son Victor Emmanuel II, and take himself off to Portugal. By this time, however, a democratic republic had been established in Rome, defended by the revolutionary leader Giuseppe Mazzini. Thexpope, Pius IX, having already fled to Gaeta in the kingdom of Naples, appealed for help, and the French sent an army to restore the papacy. It struggled against the forces led by the Italian patriot Giuseppe Garibaldi, and was well defeated at the Battle of Velletri in May, but it eventually captured Rome, and the Pope was able to return to his capital city in April 1850. Meanwhile, Garibaldi escaped to fight another day.

xxxxxBut Italy was not the only testing ground for the troubled Austrian Empire. In Vienna itself, popular demonstrations for reform - inspired by news coming out of Paris - brought about the dismissal of the arch-reactionary Prince von Metternich in March 1848 - a move which took much of the heat out of the rebellion. An assembly was convened to draft a new constitution for the empire, but its work was cut short in the October by internal dissension, and the opportunity for at least some measure of reform was lost. At the end of that month the army reoccupied the capital, and two months later Emperor Ferdinand I was succeeded by his nephew, Franz Joseph (illustrated). His harsh rule quickly restored the authority of the crown.     

xxxxxIn the meantime, however, two other nationalities within the Austrian empire, taking advantage of the situation, rebelled against their masters. Hungary declared its independence in April, and in June a Pan-Slav Congress was held in Prague, Bohemia, aimed at uniting all Slavic peoples. But neither succeeded. Austrian troops quickly suppressed the Czech uprising, and the Austrian prime minister, Felix Schwarzenberg, dealt with Hungary by calling on the services of the Russian army. In August 1849 the Hungarians were forced to surrender. There followed sporadic outbursts of defiance, but by 1851 the Habsburgs were once again in full control of their empire.

xxxxxGermany was also caught up in this violent movement for change, but there it was centred around the desire for national unity as well as national independence. Afterxan uprising in Berlin (illustrated), King Fredrick William agreed to a constitutional assembly, and delegates representing all the states met in Frankfurt in May 1848 to hammer out the making of a united Germany. This so-called Frankfurt Parliament also discussed the part that might be played by Austria and Prussia in this new alignment, but, in the end, could reach no agreement over German unity itself. The meeting was dissolved by force in June 1849, and the old order was restored.

xxxxxElsewhere, however, some reform was achieved. In Prussia, a move towards parliamentary government was made, and in Switzerland a federal union was formed - though rigorously controlled from the centre. And in June 1849 the new king Frederick VII of Denmark, clearly influenced by the violent upheavals across Europe, abolished the absolute powers of the monarchy and established a constitutional government elected by popular vote. By then, however, the country was in conflict with Prussia and Germany over the ownership of Schleswig-Holstein - the First Schleswig War (1848-1851). Denmark retained the territory by international agreement in 1852 - the London Protocol - but, as we shall see, it was to lead to a further war (the Second Schleswig War) in 1864 (Vb).

xxxxxNone of the revolutions proved wholly successful, and most of them had been crushed by the early months of 1849. Nevertheless, a number brought about significant changes. In France, for example, the overthrow of Louis Philippe eventually brought to power Napoleon III, bent on military grandeur, whilst in Austria, Prince von Metternich was replaced as the opponent of reform by the new monarch, Franz Joseph. An event of particular importance was the suppression of the Hungarian revolution. This was achieved with the assistance of the Russian army but, as we shall see, in the Crimean War which broke out in 1853, the Austrians threatened to enter the war against their former ally. This put an end to the long understanding between the two reactionary powers, and weakened Austria’s standing in the struggle for Italian unification which broke out again in 1859.

xxxxA casualty of the revolution in Austria was the powerful politician Prince von Metternich (1773-1859), a man who, as foreign minister from 1809, played a major part in supporting reactionary regimes and suppressing liberalism throughout Europe in the interest of international stability. He came to the fore as a statesman at the Congress of Vienna in 1815. Along with the Tsar of Russia, Alexander I, he was the instigator of the Concert of Europe, a means by which the authority of Europe’s monarchs could be maintained by diplomacy or - where required - the use of force.  

xxxxxMetternich was born into an aristocratic family, and studied at the universities of Strasbourg and Mainz. As a member of the diplomatic corps, he served the Habsburgs as ambassador to Saxony, Prussia and then to Napoleonic France in 1806, the year after his country’s humiliating defeat at the Battles of Ulm and Austerlitz. Three years later he was appointed minister of foreign affairs, and during his first year in office he astutely arranged the marriage between Marie Louise, the Austrian arch-duchess, and Emperor Napoleon, a marriage which helped Austria to maintain its independence and regain some of its prestige. However, when the tide turned against Napoleon, he played a prominent role in forming the European coalition which defeated the French at the Battle of the Nations in 1814.

xxxxxAt the Congress of Vienna which followed the final defeat of Napoleon in 1815, he attempted to establish a balance of power between the major countries. He failed to bring Britain and, later, France, into an alliance aimed at maintaining the old order in Europe, but with the support of both these countries he held in check Prussian and Russian demands for territory. And, at the same time, he obtained the support of both these east European powers in maintaining the status quo across much of the continent. By means of the Holy Alliance, a series of congresses - including Troppau of 1820 and Verona 1822 -, and his ruthless crushing of the German uprising in 1831 (W4), he helped to give Europe a long albeit troubled period of peace, but in so doing he became a hated symbol of repression. When rebellion flared up in Vienna in 1848, his dismissal was used to take the heat out of the uprising. He went into exile, first in England and then in Belgium, but was allowed to return to Vienna in 1851. He died eight years later, still believing in the need for a strict social order and decisive government, run by the monarch with the support of the upper classes.

Including: France, Italy, Sardinia-Piedmont,

The Austrian Empire, Hungary, Bohemia,

Germany, Prussia, Switzerland, Denmark

and Prince von Metternich