The death of a dream: why Europe’s great year of revolution in 1848 failed

The French Revolution of 1789 ushered in over half a century of civil insurrection in Europe and around the world, culminating in a second great year of revolutions in 1848. Here, Mike Rapport discusses how the aims of the 1848 revolutions – to secure constitutional liberty, individual rights, and unity for nations across Europe – were ultimately throttled at birth

Paris rejects the red flag on 25 February 1848. Found in the Collection of Musée Carnavalet, Paris. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

1848 was Europe’s great year of revolution. In the uprisings that swept the continent over half a century after the storming of the Bastille, cities from Paris to Palermo, Budapest to Berlin were littered with barricades, built from paving stones and heaped up with furniture, overturned carriages and even pianos.

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Street-fighters – bourgeoisie in their top hats, workers in their smocks, students, militiamen – stood on these defences, bristling with an array of rifles, swords and machine tools, and confronted the forces of the old order. They were supported by women, who loaded weapons, tended the wounded and brought them food, while children carried messages from barricade to barricade. Their efforts – born of hope and despair – brought about the collapse of the conservative order, which had been established after the downfall of Napoleon in 1815.

That these people took to the streets under their national banners – the French and Italian tricolours, the German black-red-gold, the Polish red and white and the Romanian blue-yellow-red – showed that the inspiration behind the revolutions was freedom, but within the framework of the nation-state. It was an inspiration which, by the end of the year in most places, would also contribute to the revolutions’ tragic failure.

For the liberals who led the uprisings and then took power, ‘freedom’ meant civil rights, constitutions and parliaments (sometimes, but not always, democratically-elected), but above all it meant national independence and unity. Liberalism and nationalism stood together in 1848, but that year proved that the exclusive tendencies in the latter could too often fatally undermine the emancipating promises of the former.

An explosive legacy

How and why this European revolution came about in the first place, however, is partly explicable, on the one hand, by the way in which conservative governments after the Napoleonic Wars sought to contain, control and suppress the explosive legacy of the French Revolution and, on the other hand, by how liberals tried to realise their ideas of freedom in the unpromising atmosphere of the postwar order. By 1815, the emancipating promise of the French Revolution had turned almost entirely to ashes in the conflagration that had engulfed Europe.

In the years immediately after the carnage, Europeans had good cause to tremble at the thought of a new continental war. Policy-makers had a further reason: the French Wars of 1792–1815 had been visited on Europe by a revolutionary state which had wielded power of an awe-inspiring magnitude, driven (it seemed) by the revolutionary fervour of its citizens.

Concepts such as ‘democracy’, ‘republicanism’ and even ‘the rights of man’ evoked the shadow of the guillotine

Moreover, the ferocity of the Terror of 1793–4, in which the republican regime survived its darkest crisis only by coercing its own citizens with the threat of denunciation, arrest and death, had captured the fearful imaginations of Europeans and would play on their minds for decades to come. For most, concepts such as ‘democracy’, ‘republicanism’ and even ‘the rights of man’ evoked the shadow of the guillotine.

The genteel, mainly aristocratic, diplomats who gathered at the glittering Congress of Vienna in 1815, assembling the representatives of all the European powers to reconstruct a new order from the wreckage of the Napoleonic empire, were largely successful in creating a peaceful international system. There would be plenty of localised conflicts in the 19th century, but (without downplaying the horrors of the Crimean War of 1854–6) there would be nothing on the scale of the Napoleonic cataclysm for another hundred years.

Yet the relative stability in international relations came at a price, for it was based on the assumption that not only a general European war, but also the threat of revolution, should be avoided at almost any cost. For the Austrian foreign minister Klemens von Metternich, this meant that nationalism and liberalism (what he called the ‘mania for constitutions’) had to be suppressed.

It was no accident that Metternich should have been the chief architect of the post-Napoleonic order: from 1821, he was chancellor of the Austrian Empire, which was a polyglot patchwork of some 11 different nationalities. Should these different groups develop their own demands for constitutions and autonomy, then the empire would shatter.

Metternich wanted to maintain the integrity of this vast central European monarchy not only for the sake of his imperial masters, the Habsburg dynasty, but also because he believed that the empire was a European necessity whose role was to keep the potentially warring nationalities of Central and Eastern Europe in check. The entire postwar continent was also to be ordered so as to discourage the emergence of nation-states which might threaten the delicate political balance allegedly struck by the ‘legitimate’ ruling dynasties of Europe.

France saw the Bourbon monarchy restored, albeit with a constitution and a parliament: Louis  XVIII – brother of the guillotined Louis XVI – returned to Paris, his detractors grumbled, “in the allies’ baggage train”. Germany was divided into 39 different states, bound together by a loose, conservative confederation. Italy was also split into nine separate kingdoms and principalities: there was no federal structure and the peninsula was dominated by Austrian power. Long-suffering Poland was partitioned between Austria, Prussia and Russia.

The French Revolution had, however, not only visited the horrors of political terror, war and military occupation on Europe: it had also trumpeted its promises of political liberty and civil rights for the individual and of freedom and independence for those peoples subjugated by foreign rulers. Napoleon himself, in his mid-Atlantic exile on Saint Helena, began to concoct the legend that his real intentions had been to emancipate all the peoples of Europe.

There were, moreover, plenty of embittered intellectuals, over-worked but low-ranking officials, struggling military officers on half pay and idealistic students, who believed that there were fairer and freer ways to organise the postwar order than the new conservative system. These people – educated, articulate, but denied a political voice – offered a receptive ear to the arguments of liberals.

The strength of unity

In this era, liberalism and nationalism went hand-in-glove, since most liberals believed that their ideals of individual liberty would find their fullest expression within free nation-states. Liberation from foreign rule and national unification were seen as essential conditions to secure the individual rights and dignity of citizens. So when one of the greatest 19th‑century visionaries of national liberation and international brotherhood, the Italian revolutionary Giuseppe Mazzini, established his organisation Young Italy in 1831, he declared that its aims were both “republican and unitarian”, because republican government would ensure freedom for all, while unity was necessary since “without unity there is no true nation; because, without unity there is no real strength”.


Listen: Stephen Clarke argues that our views of the events of 1789 and beyond need to be completely revised


Mazzini grew out of the same soil from which, in the first decade after the Napoleonic Wars, some of the disaffected and the idealistic had sprung to try to overthrow the conservative order through conspiracy and insurrection. The two generations after Waterloo experienced a tortuous and often subterranean struggle between, on the one hand, liberal opposition in the shape of revolutionary secret societies, attempts at military coups and popular uprisings, radical journalism, intellectual and cultural criticism, mass petitions, demonstrations and (where they existed) electoral politics, and, on the other hand, government repression in the form of censorship, arrests, surveillance and military intervention.

Europe in the 1820s saw liberal uprisings in Spain, Portugal, Italy and Russia, none of them successful. More encouraging was the wave of revolutions which swept the continent in the 1830s, with liberals emerging victorious in much of Western Europe, including France (where the Bourbon Charles X was toppled and replaced by the more liberal Louis-Philippe, Duke of Orléans), some German states, Belgium, Portugal and (eventually) Spain. In Poland and central Italy, however, the revolutionary outbreaks were ruthlessly crushed and, after its initial flourish, liberal activity in Germany was repressed. The conservative order had buckled, but it did not collapse.

It was a different story in the greatest revolutionary maelstrom between the French Revolution of 1789 and the Russian Revolution of 1917 (or perhaps even the collapse of Communism in 1989): the revolutions of 1848. The mid-1840s witnessed the worst economic crisis of the 19th century (these were the years of the catastrophic Irish potato famine), which popularised the liberal opposition. Meanwhile, the conservative order seemed to be impotent in the face of the distress as unemployment spiralled upwards and as hunger knotted the stomachs of the poor. At the same time, liberals across Europe pressed their demands for political reform, probing for weaknesses in the conservative edifice.

Despite – or perhaps because of – Metternich’s best efforts to dig in his heels and to yield not an inch to the opposition, the pressure was such that when the collapse came, it was sudden and dramatic. Almost every major European state – and most of the smaller ones – was wracked by insurrectionary violence in that breathtaking year. The first stirrings occurred in Italy at the beginning of the year, but it was the shock waves from the revolution in France which rocked the conservative order to its core. The monarchy was overthrown in France on 24  February and the Second Republic proclaimed.


Listen: We speak to Helen Rappaport about some of the foreign nationals then living in Petrograd who witnessed the Russian Revolution


The news electrified liberal Europeans who now demonstrated, remonstrated and rose up, so that in a matter of weeks Paris, Berlin, Vienna, Prague, Budapest, Milan, Venice, Rome, Naples, Palermo, Kraków and many other places in between had become scenes of mass protests, of barricaded streets and of bitter fighting, at the end of which monarchs were forced to promise constitutions where none had existed before and to sacrifice their unpopular conservative ministers: the most impressive political scalp taken by the liberals was Metternich’s on 13 March.

In the ‘Springtime of Peoples’ which followed, hopeful liberals in Germany and Italy worked towards unification, while Polish and Romanian patriots seized the chance to try to throw off, or lighten, the yoke of foreign rule. The peoples of the Habsburg Empire, including the Czechs, the Hungarians, the northern Italians, the Poles of Galicia, the Romanians of Transylvania and the Serbs and the Croats along the empire’s southern frontier, pushed for greater autonomy or full independence.

For liberals, 1848 represented the greatest opportunity to secure national freedom with constitutional liberties and individual rights. Some permanent breakthroughs were made: France adopted universal male suffrage and has had it – almost uninterrupted – ever since. In many other countries, peasants and workers enjoyed their first taste of politics, voting in elections, joining political clubs and forming trade unions.

Although women were denied formal political rights, they participated in political societies, engaged in journalism and played important roles in supporting the revolutionaries. Serfdom was abolished where it existed in Central and Eastern Europe and slaves were freed in the French colonial empire.

Yet the nascent liberal order was throttled before it had time to develop. The main reason for its failure was the fact that it excluded too many people from the brave new world. As the liberals seized the unprecedented opportunity to realise their visions of national freedom, they did so in the interests only of their own nationality. In Central and Eastern Europe, the territorial claims of different nationalities overlapped, sowing the seeds of immediate and future conflict. Ethnic minorities within the boundaries of the putative liberal states demanded their own national rights, threatening to fracture the new order from the very start.

Consequently, the ‘Springtime of Peoples’ rapidly became a bleak winter of ethnic conflict, sometimes accompanied by the kind of atrocities with which our own age is all too familiar. Moreover, since most liberals were constitutional monarchists who wanted political reform, but denied the need for radical social change, workers and artisans struggling in the economic crisis were open to the seductions of their left-wing critics.

Because of all this, the revolutions never challenged the essential strength of the conservatives: with the exception of France, all the major states were still monarchies, where the armed forces remained under royal control – a fact that was to be essential in the survival of the Habsburg Empire and in the defeat of the liberals in Prussia.

The conservatives fight back

In the summer there were bloody confrontations between moderates and radicals on the streets of Paris, Berlin, Vienna and Frankfurt. Fear of working-class militancy and social ‘anarchy’ drove many middle-class liberals away from their original principles and into the arms of conservatives. In the countryside, after their emancipation the peasants were promised little else from the liberal order and their old habits of deference, particularly to the paternal figure of the monarch, died hard.

All this allowed the conservatives to mobilise the frightened, the disillusioned and the angry, so that they performed respectably in elections. In France, the authoritarian Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, the great emperor’s nephew, won the presidency by a landslide. By the end of the year, the monarchs had struck back, usually with armed force, and destroyed the liberal regimes almost everywhere. There was a second wave of revolutions in Germany and Italy in 1849, but these were crushed. The Hungarian liberals also held out, but they collapsed under the hammer-blows of the combined Austrian, Croatian and Russian military.

The ethnic conflicts of that year implanted visceral hatreds which would fester in Eastern and Central Europe deep into the 20th  century

The failure of the 1848 revolutions was arguably a tragedy for the long-term development of European politics. The ethnic conflicts of that year implanted visceral hatreds which would fester in Eastern and Central Europe deep into the 20th  century. Instead of Italian and German unification taking place through democratic means, they would be to a greater extent imposed by force, on terms which suited the established elites and without the same emphasis on political freedoms and civil rights.

This, some historians argue, would set Italy and Germany on the path towards authoritarianism, with disastrous consequences for Europe in the 20th century.

Mike Rapport is a Reader in modern European history at the University of Glasgow and is the author of several books, including 1848: Year of Revolution

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This article was first published in the June 2008 issue of BBC History Magazine with the headline ‘1789–1815: The world in revolt’