1848: The Peoples’ Spring
The year 1848 in Europe is sometimes called the Peoples’ Spring because, in the course of a few months, popular revolts and revolutions occurred all over Europe. These began in France but affected virtually every country except England and Russia. Monarchies were overthrown, constitutions proclaimed, or national independence declared in France, Austria, Hungary, Bohemia, Germany, Italy, and elsewhere.
Never before in European history had there been such widespread and universal popular ferment, and since that time only the Eastern European revolutions of 1989 have shown a similar revolutionary contagion.
All of the 1848 revolutions failed, however, and within a few years their accomplishments were mostly reversed. But the 1848 revolts further propagated the seeds of democracy and nationalism that were sown by the French Revolution of 1789.
As with all revolutions, there were both long- and short-term precipitants to the 1848 events. The Enlightenment had set the stage, with its ideas of individualism, human rights, and popular sovereignty. The romantic movement in literature and the arts also stressed the individual and individualism and added the notions of heroism and heroic struggle to the mix. The Industrial Revolution set in motion enormous social and economic forces, including the increasing assertiveness of the new middle class and the proletariat, both of which had interests at odds with those of the social and economic structures of the old regime. While all of these currents of change intermingled, the social and political elites clung to tradition. As we have seen, the years after 1815 were a period of reaction as the monarchs of Europe tried to stuff the genie of revolution back into the bottle following the defeat of Napoleon. But the forces of change could not be contained. Already in the 1820s, national-independence movements were under way in Belgium (against Dutch rule) and Greece (against Turkey), and in 1830 Paris was once again convulsed by a revolution from the streets. All of these tensions were compounded by the great potato famine in the years after 1845, which contributed to a continent wide economic recession. Yet, another revolution in France in 1848 was the spark that lit the tinderbox.
EUROPE AFTER 1815: REACTION
With the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo, the European powers assembled in Vienna, in 1815, to reassemble Europe following the old (pre-1789) map, although some changes were made. A new German confederation of thirty-nine independent states was created to take the place of an earlier confederation and the Holy Roman Empire. Austria was given control of much of northern Italy. Russia’s control of Finland, Lithuania, and eastern Poland was confirmed, and a separate kingdom of Poland was created (“Congress Poland”), with the Russian tsar as king. Almost none of the independent republics created by Napoleon were allowed to survive. As Russia’s Tsar Alexander remarked at the time, “Republics are not in fashion.” As one can see from the map of Europe in this period, the Continent was a hodgepodge of nation-states, empires, principalities, and mini-states. Portugal, Spain, France, and England were more or less unified nation-states by that time, but none of the rest of Europe had assumed the configuration of nation-states that it is today. “Germany” did not yet exist, and central Europe was divided among several dozen small and middle-sized states, such as Bavaria and Prussia, with largely German populations. The Austrian Empire of the Habsburgs was a polyglot combination of German, Hungarian, and Slavic peoples. The Italians were distributed among various kingdoms, principalities, and Papal States.
The Ottoman Empire controlled southeastern Europe, and Russia was a multinational empire with dozens of major nationalities, including Finns, Poles, and Ukrainians, and hundreds of smaller ones. All the major European powers were controlled by monarchs with varying authority, from the constitutional monarchy of England to the thoroughly despotic autocracy of Russia. After the defeat of Napoleon, the victorious powers (England, Russia, Austria, and Prussia) formed a Quadruple Alliance to coordinate conservative efforts to squelch any new outbreaks of Bonapartism or revolution. After France was added to this alliance in 1818, it was referred to as the concert system. Prince Clemens von Metternich, chief minister of the Habsburg monarchy, was the conservative leader of Europe and the driving force behind the Concert of Europe. Metternich organized several congresses of the European leaders during the 1820s to discuss intervention against political unrest on the Continent, and the allies did actually intervene in both Italy and Spain in the early 1820s, to put down nationalist and liberal revolts.