(16) History of Europe

Revolutions of 1848

Carte Revolutions 1848


In France, with two revolutions in as many generations, the principle of popular sovereignty was increasingly affirmed and consolidated, at least in rough form. So, when new hardships and renewed repression confronted the French in the 1840s, revolution was once again an option. A major economic recession and food shortages in 1846–1847 fueled popular unrest.

The economic problems affected every country in Europe, not just France, and were caused in part by a devastating failure of the potato crop. The potato blight hit especially hard in Ireland, causing widespread famine, a million deaths, and the emigration of another million from the country. The economic depression was accompanied in France by a new round of political repression in the 1840s. The Chamber of Deputies did provide a certain check on the power of the monarch, Louis Philippe, but with only one man in thirty eligible to vote, the chamber was increasingly irrelevant and ineffectual. The king resolutely opposed a popular campaign for broader voting rights and other reforms. Peaceful protest demonstrations in Paris, in February 1848, prompted police action, which led once again to street barricades and revolution. Louis Philippe, like Charles X eighteen years earlier, abdicated and fled to England. For a second time, a Paris revolution unseated a monarch in three days.

This time, however, the ouster of the monarch was not enough. By the 1840s, France, and especially Paris, was in the throes of the Industrial Revolution, with the consequent emergence of a new and vocal urban working class. Many workers insisted on a social revolution as well as a political one, and the ideas of socialism were gaining currency in the cities of France and other countries. In January 1848, Marx and Engels published their call for socialist revolution in The Communist Manifesto.

In Paris, a provisional government had established national workshops to provide jobs for the unemployed, and these now became a source of demands from workers for improved working conditions. In April, elections produced a new National Assembly, based on universal male suffrage, but it was overwhelmingly conservative. In June, the assembly resolved to close the workshops, and workers took to the streets in protest. They stormed the assembly, declared it dissolved, established their own provisional government, and called for a social revolution to supplement the purely political one. The army and the police sided with the government, however, and restored the Constituent Assembly, which promptly declared martial law. Paris was convulsed with a raging class war in which armed workers confronted soldiers across barricades all over the city.

In the Bloody June Days of June 24 to 26, several thousand people were killed and eleven thousand insurgents were imprisoned or deported. The specter of socialist revolution had been suppressed, but the events of June sent a shudder through all the governments of Europe.

As with the revolutions of both 1789 and 1830, the gains of the 1848 revolution in France were short-lived and soon reversed. In the aftermath of the June days, the Constituent Assembly began drafting a constitution for a new republic and called for the popular election of a president. One of the candidates was Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, the nephew of the great Napoleon. He claimed to be a friend of the common people and also promised to restore order, an attractive combination after the traumatic events of the summer. He was elected by a landslide in December of 1848. But, in the tradition of his uncle, he soon undermined the democracy that brought him to power. In 1851, he seized absolute control in a coup d’état and dissolved the assembly; the next year, he declared himself emperor and took the name Napoleon III. Once again, the French political pendulum had swung back to reaction.

Adam Mickiewicz: Romantic Poet and Revolutionary

The Polish national poet Adam Mickiewicz (1798–1855) symbolizes the close association between romanticism, nationalism, and revolution. He first gained attention with his Balady i romance (Ballads and Romances, 1822), which opened the romantic era in Polish literature. His epic poetic masterpiece Pan Tadeusz is a nostalgic panorama of gentry society in its last days and the forces pulling it apart. In his fantasy drama Dziady (Forefathers Eve), Mickiewicz sees Poland as fulfilling a messianic role among European nations by embodying Christian themes of suffering and redemption. In this work and others, he glorifies resistance and rebellion. These romantic notions, and his image of Poland as “The Christ of Nations,” became rallying calls for Polish nationalists all the way up through 1989.

Mickiewicz was a political activist as well as a brilliant writer. As a young man, he was enamored of Voltaire and other Enlightenment philosophers. He witnessed (and admired) the Napoleonic army when it entered his hometown on its expedition to Russia in 1812. His participation in patriotic literary clubs got him arrested and expelled from Poland, and he eventually ended up in Paris. He tried unsuccessfully to return to Poland in 1830, to support the doomed national insurrection against the Russians. During the Peoples’ Spring of 1848, he set off for Italy to organize a Polish legion there to fight for the liberation of Italians from Austria. He issued a set of principles for the legion that echoed those of the Enlightenment:

Everybody in the nation is a citizen. All citizens are equal before the law. . . .

To the Jew, our elder brother, esteem and help on his way to eternal good and welfare, and in all matters equal rights. . . .

To every family, a plot of land under the care of the community. To every community, common land under the care of the nation.

The 1848 revolutions failed, and Mickiewicz returned to Paris. He joined another heroic lost cause in 1855, traveling to Constantinople to join a Polish legion in the Crimean War to fight against Russia. He contracted cholera and died there. His body was returned to France, but in 1890 his remains were transported to Poland and buried with Polish kings in Wawel Cathedral in Kraków.



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