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The European Revolutions of 1848, known in some countries as the Spring of Nations, Springtime of the Peoples or the Year of Revolution, were a series of political upheavals throughout the European continent. Described by some historians as a revolutionary wave, the period of unrest began in France and then, further propelled by the French Revolution of 1848, soon spread to the rest of Europe.

Although most of the revolutions were quickly put down, there was a significant amount of violence in many areas, with tens of thousands of people tortured and killed. While the immediate political effects of the revolutions were largely reversed, the long-term reverberations of the events were far-reaching.

Alexis de Tocqueville remarked in his Recollections of the period that "society was cut in two: those who had nothing united in common envy, and those who had anything united in common terror."


Great Britainmarker, the Kingdom of the Netherlands, the Russian Empiremarker (including Congress Polandmarker) and the Ottoman Empire were the only major European states to go without a national revolution over this period. The Scandinavian countries were little affected. The Principality of Serbia, though formally unaffected by the revolt, actively supported the Serbian revolution in the Habsburg Empire.

Russia's relative stability was attributed to the revolutionary groups' inability to communicate with each other. In the Kingdom of Polandmarker and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, uprisings took place in 1830-31 (the November Uprising) and 1846 (the Kraków Uprising). A final revolt took place again in 1863-65 (the January Uprising), but none occurred in 1848. While there were no major political upheavals in the Ottoman Empire as such, political unrest did occur in some of its vassal states.
Chartist meeting on Kennington Common in 1848.
In Great Britain, the middle classes had been pacified by general enfranchisement in the Reform Act 1832, with consequent agitations, violence, and petitions of the Chartist movement that came to a head with the petition to Parliament of 1848. The repeal of the protectionist agricultural tariffs - called the "Corn Laws" - in 1846, had defused some proletarian fervor. Meanwhile, although the population of British-ruled Irelandmarker had been decimated by the Great Famine, the Young Irelanders attempted a revolution against British rule but this was suppressed.

Switzerlandmarker was also spared in 1848, though it had gone through a civil war the previous year. The introduction of the Swiss Federal Constitution in 1848 was a revolution of sorts, laying the foundation of Swiss society as it is today.


These revolutions arose from such a wide variety of causes that it is difficult to view them as resulting from a coherent movement or social phenomenon. Numerous changes had been taking place in European society throughout the first half of the 19th century. Both liberal reformer and radical politician were reshaping national governments. Technological change was revolutionizing the life of the working classes. A popular press extended political awareness, and new values and ideas such as popular liberalism, nationalism and socialism began to spring up. A series of economic downturns and crop failures, particularly those in the year 1846, produced starvation among peasants and the working urban poor.

Large swathes of the nobility were discontented with royal absolutism or near-absolutism. In 1846 there had been an uprising of Polishmarker nobility in Austrian Galicia, which was only countered when peasants, in turn, rose up against the nobles. Additionally, an uprising by democratic forces against Prussia occurred in Greater Poland.

Next the middle classes began to agitate. Despite the aspirations Karl Marx and his followers may have had as laid out in The Communist Manifesto (published in German February 1, 1848), the workers had little solidarity and practically no organization.

Both the lower middle classes and the working classes wanted liberal reform. The revolutions of 1848 were an expression of this sentiment. While much of the impetus came from the middle classes, much of the cannon fodder came from the lower. The revolts first erupted in the cities.

Urban poor

The population in French rural areas had rapidly risen, causing many peasants to seek a living in the cities. Many in the bourgeoisie feared and distanced themselves from the working poor, who had shown their muscle in 1789. The uneducated, teeming masses seemed a fertile breeding ground of vice. Urban industrial workers toiled from 13 to 15 hours per day, living in squalid, disease-ridden slums. Traditional artisans felt the pressure of industrialization, having lost their guilds. Social critics such as Marx became popular, and secret societies sprang up. At the time of the Revolution, there was widespread unemployment as a result of an economic crisis that began in 1846, and workers agitated for the right to vote and for state subsidies to the major trades.

The situation in the German states was similar. Prussia had quickly industrialized. Worker living standards had dropped; alcohol consumption had gone up in the 1840s. During the decade of the 1840s, mechanized production in the textile industry brought about inexpensive clothing that undercut the handmade products of German tailors. Reforms ameliorated the most unpopular traditions of feudalism, but industrial workers saw little immediate gain from the emerging socio-economic system of capitalism and the accompanying social changes.

Rural areas

An 1849 depiction of Irish peasant Bridget O'Donnell and her children

Rural population growth had led to food shortages, land pressure, and migration, both within Europe and out from Europe (for example, to the United Statesmarker). Population concentration led to disease, especially cholera, which contemporary scientists had not yet connected with contaminated water supplies. In the years 1845 and 1846, a potato blight, originating in Belgiummarker, caused a subsistence crisis in Northern Europe. The effects of the blight were most severely manifested in the Great Irish Famine (where it was combined with rack-rents and concurrent export of cash crops), but also caused famine-like conditions in the Scottish Highlands and throughout Continental Europe.

Aristocratic wealth (and corresponding power) was synonymous with the ownership of land. Owning land at this time was practically synonymous with having peasants under one's control, often duty-bound to labor for their masters. In a problem mirroring that of slaveholders in the United States, a principal aristocratic problem was controlling one's laborers. Peasant grievances exploded during the revolutionary year of 1848.

Early rumblings

Until 1789, with the advent of the French Revolution, there had been no significant challenges to the rule of kings in continental Europe (although there had been at least two such challenges offshore, one in England and one in North America , in which the United States declared independence from Great Britain). In 1815, after Napoleon, a close semblance of the Ancien Régime was restored at the Congress of Vienna. This was no sooner established when the monarchies, the church, and the aristocracy were again threatened. There were revolutions or civil wars in France , Ireland , as well as Mexico, which split from Spain between 1810 and 1821. A revolution against the Austrian Netherlands produced the seceding country of Belgiummarker in 1830, a year that also saw another revolution in France. Unrest was in the air.

Despite forceful and often violent efforts of established powers to keep them down, disruptive ideas gained popularity: democracy, liberalism, nationalism, and socialism.

In short, democracy meant universal male suffrage. Liberalism fundamentally meant consent of the governed and the restriction of church and state power, republican government, freedom of the press and the individual. Nationalism believed in uniting people bound by (some mix of) common languages, culture, religion, shared history, and of course immediate geography; there were also irredentist movements. At this time, what are now Germanymarker and Italymarker were collections of small states. Socialism in the 1840s was a term without a consensus definition, meaning different things to different people, but was typically used within a context of more power for workers in a collectivist system.


Italian states


The "February Revolution" in France was sparked by the suppression of the campagne des banquets. This revolution was driven by nationalist and republican ideals among the French general public, who believed that the people should rule themselves. It ended the constitutional monarchy of Louis-Philippe, and led to the creation of the French Second Republic. Thus it was the only 1848 revolution that immediately and permanently achieved its goal.

German states

Cheering revolutionaries after fighting in March 1848
The "March Revolution" in the German states took place in the south and the west of Germany, with large popular assemblies and mass demonstrations. They primarily demanded German national unity, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, arming of the people and a national German parliament.


In Denmark the clamour for constitutional monarchy led by the National liberals, ended with a popular march to Christiansborg, where the absolute monarch Frederick VII accepted the proposal for a change of constitution. This led to the democratic Constitution of Denmark of 1849.


Schleswig, a region containing both Danes and Germans, was a part of the Danishmarker monarchy but remained a duchy separate from the Kingdom of Denmark. The Germans of Schleswig took up arms to protest a new policy announced by Denmark's National Liberal government, which would have fully integrated the duchy into Denmark. Prussia intervened in the revolt, causing the ensuing war to last for three years. The result was a Danish victory and a return to the status quo.

Habsburg Empire

From March 1848 through July 1849, the Habsburg Austrian Empire was threatened by revolutionary movements, which often had a nationalist character. The empire, ruled from Vienna, included Austrian Germans, Hungarians, Slovenes, Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Ukrainians/Ruthenians, Romanians, Serbs, Italians, and Croats, all of whom attempted in the course of the revolution to either achieve autonomy, independence, or even hegemony over other nationalities. The nationalist picture was further complicated by the simultaneous events in the German states, which moved toward greater German national unity.


March 15, 1848, was a very important day for Hungary. It was the day that a group of Magyar nationalists rioted in Pest-Buda (today Budapest) demanding for the political autonomy for Hungary from Austria. This resulted in Klemens von Metternich, the Austrian prince, resigning. In turn, Emperor Ferdinand promised Hungary a constitution, an elected parliament, and the end of censorship. The new government, led by ministers Szechenyi and Kossuth, imposed the Magyar language on all the other nationalities in Hungary. This angered many people, and uprisings followed. Austria soon took back Hungary when Tsar Nicholas I marched into Hungary with over 300,000 troops. Hungary was thus placed under brutal martial law, with the Austrian government restored to its original position.


Switzerland, already an alliance of republics, also saw major internal struggle. The creation of the Sonderbund led to a short Swiss civil war in November 1847. In 1848, a new constitution ended the almost-complete independence of the cantons and transformed Switzerland into a federal state.

Greater Poland

Polish people mounted a military insurrection in the Grand Duchy of Poznańmarker (or the Greater Poland region) against the occupying Prussian forces.


A Romanian liberal and Romantic nationalist uprising began in June in the principality of Wallachia. Closely connected with the 1848 unsuccessful revolution in Moldavia, it sought to overturn the administration imposed by Imperial Russianmarker authorities under the Regulamentul Organic regime, and, through many of its leaders, demanded the abolition of boyar privilege. Led by a group of young intellectuals and officers in the Wallachian military forces, the movement succeeded in toppling the ruling Prince Gheorghe Bibescu, whom it replaced with a Provisional Government and a Regency, and in passing a series of major progressive reforms, first announced in the Proclamation of Islaz.


In Brazilmarker, the "Praieira revolt" was a movement in Pernambuco that lasted from November 1848 to 1852. Unresolved conflicts left over from the period of the Regency and local resistance to the consolidation of the Brazilian Empiremarker that had been proclaimed in 1822 helped to plant the seeds of the revolution.


Caricature by Ferdinand Schröder on the defeat of the revolutions of 1848/49 in Europe (published in Düsseldorfer Monatshefte, August 1849)
In the post-revolutionary decade after 1848, little had visibly changed, and some historians consider the revolutions a failure, given the seeming lack of permanent structural changes.

On the other hand, both Germany and Italy achieved political unification over the next two decades, and there were a few immediate successes for some revolutionary movements, notably in the Habsburg lands. Austriamarker and Prussia eliminated feudalism by 1850, improving the lot of the peasants. European middle classes made political and economic gains over the next twenty years; France retained universal male suffrage. Russia would later free the serfs on February 19, 1861. The Habsburgs finally had to give the Hungarians more self-determination in the Ausgleich of 1867, although this in itself resulted only in the rule of autocratic Magyars in Hungary instead of autocratic Germans.

But in 1848, the revolutionaries were idealistic and divided by the multiplicity of aims for which they fought -- social, economic, liberal, and national. Conservative forces exploited these divisions, and revolutionaries suffered from mediocre leadership. Middle-class revolutionaries feared the lower classes, evidencing different ideas; counter-revolutions exploited the gaps. As some reforms were enacted and the economy improved, some revolutionaries were mollified. When the Habsburgs lightened the burden of feudalism, many peasants were satisfied by the reforms and lost interest in further revolt; revolutions elsewhere met similar resolutions. International support likewise waned.

Autocratic Russia did not support such revolutions at home, but actively helped the Austro-Hungarian Empire in her war with a restive Hungarian splinter group. Both Britain and Russia opposed Prussia's plans on Schleswig-Holstein, tarnishing their view among Germany's liberal nationalists.

The net result in the German states and France was more autocratic systems, despite reforms such as universal male suffrage in France, and strong social class systems remained in both. What reforms were enacted seemed like sops thrown to quell dissent, while privilege remained untouched. Nationalistic dreams also failed in 1848.

The Italian and German movements did provide an important impetus. Italy was unified in 1861, while Germany in 1871 was unified under Bismarck after Germany's 1870 war with France. Some disaffected German bourgeois liberals (the Forty-Eighters, many atheists and freethinkers) migrated to the United States after 1848, taking their money, intellectual talents, and skills out of Germany.

The revolutions did inspire lasting reform in Denmarkmarker as well as the Netherlandsmarker. Denmark was governed by a system of absolute monarchy since the seventeenth century. King Christian VIII, a moderate reformer but still an absolutist, died in January 1848 during a period of rising opposition from farmers and liberals. The new king, Frederick VII, met the liberals demands and installed a new Cabinet that included prominent leaders of the National Liberal Party. He accepted a new constitution — see the Constitution of Denmark — agreeing to share power with a bicameral parliament called the Rigsdag. The liberal constitution did not extend to Schleswig, leaving the Schleswig-Holstein Question unanswered.

King William II of the Netherlands, afraid of the revolutions spreading into the Netherlands, ordered Johan Rudolf Thorbecke to revise the constitution. Thorbecke's revision resulted in the king losing most of his powers in favor of the parliament, effectively turning the Netherlands into a Constitutional Monarchy.

1848 was a watershed year for Europe, and many of the changes of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries have origins in this revolutionary period.

See also


  2. Robert Bideleux and Ian Jeffries, A History of Eastern Europe: Crisis and Change, Routledge, 1998. ISBN 0-415-1611-8. p. 295 – 296.
  3. Helen Litton, The Irish Famine: An Illustrated History, Wolfhound Press, 1994, ISBN 0 86327-912-0
  4. Edward Laxton, The Famine Ships: The Irish Exodus to America 1846-51, Bloomsbury, 1997, ISBN 0 7475 3500 0
  5. The Making of the West: Volume C, Lynn Hunt, Pages 683-684
  6. Weibull, Jörgen. "Scandinavia, History of." Encyclopædia Britannica 15th ed., Vol. 16, 324.


  • Breunig, Charles (1977), The Age of Revolution and Reaction, 1789 - 1850 (ISBN 0-393-09143-0)
  • Jones, Peter (1981), The 1848 Revolutions (Seminar Studies in History) (ISBN 0-582-06106-7)
  • Rapport, Mike (2009), 1848: Year of Revolution (ISBN 978-0465014361)
  • Robertson, Priscilla (1952), Revolutions of 1848: A Social History (ISBN 0-691-00756-X)

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