(17) History of Europe

German and Prussian Revolution of 1848



The influence of the events in Paris reached far beyond French borders. In 1848 and 1849, revolts spread to Austria, Prussia, Hungary, Bohemia, and parts of Italy. Some of these revolts contained either the liberal or socialist ingredients of the French experience, but some also reflected peasant grievances against landlords or nationalist aspirations.

The most serious and widespread revolts struck the Austrian Empire of the Habsburg monarchy, with its capital at Vienna. The Austrian Empire was the most populous state in Europe after Russia. It had three major geographic divisions, Austria, Bohemia, and Hungary, containing a dozen nationalities, including Germans, Czechs, Magyars (Hungarians), Poles, and Slovaks, so that the empire was vulnerable to both liberalism and nationalism. Soon after news of the February revolution in Paris reached Vienna, that city faced its own insurrection. Workers and soldiers invaded the imperial palace, forcing Prince Metternich, stalwart of the Concert of Europe, to flee the city in disguise and make for England. As the government in Vienna crumbled, national revolts erupted among Czechs, Hungarians, and Italians under Habsburg control. Radical nationalists in Hungary declared a constitutional separation from the empire, and a few months later, moved their capital from Pressburg, near the Austrian border, to Budapest, in the center of the country. The flustered emperor, Ferdinand, allowed a similar autonomous status to the Czechs in Bohemia. But by the fall, the revolutionary movement had spread so far and wide that he gave up, abdicated in favor of his eighteen-year-old nephew, Francis Joseph, and fled Vienna. In Italy, nationalists drove out the Austrian garrisons and seized control in Milan, Tuscany, Sardinia, and elsewhere. Venice declared itself an independent republic. In Rome, Pope Pius IX fled the Vatican as a radical Roman republic was proclaimed, with Mazzini as one of its leaders.

In Prussia, rioting in Berlin followed a few days after the insurrection in Vienna, compelling the Prussian king to promise a constitution. Finally, an assembly was called in Frankfurt, beginning in May, with the goal of uniting all the German states into a single, liberal, democratic state.


During the 1848 Peoples’ Spring, virtually all of Europe was rocked by the tempest, with exceptions being the most liberal state, Britain, and the most reactionary one, Russia. The changes during those few months were phenomenal, with revolutionaries, nationalists, and patriots demanding constitutions, representative assemblies, responsible government, extended suffrage, jury trials, the right of assembly, and freedom of the press, and with stupefied governments allowing constitutional assemblies, independent nations, and the abolition of serfdom. Within a year, however, the forces of reaction were back in control, and the revolution was over. As we have seen, in France, the revolution had run its course by the end of 1848, with the election of Louis Napoleon as president. In Austria, the Habsburg monarchy, after the initial shocks of March 1848, regained its footing and deployed the army against rebels in Bohemia, Italy, and Hungary. The Russian tsar contributed one hundred thousand Russian troops to the suppression of the revolt in Hungary.

And in Italy, an intervention by the French army helped drive Mazzini and the republicans out of Rome and restore the pope to the Vatican. The German assembly in Frankfurt was defeated by divisions from within and conservative reaction from without. Composed of elected representatives from all parts of German-speaking Europe, the assembly wrote a constitution for a united Germany. But the representatives were divided over whether Germany should include only German ethnic territory or should also include the Austrians, whose empire in eastern Europe was mostly non-German. In the end, the assembly decided to exclude the Austrians and to make the Prussian king the emperor of a newly united, all-German nation. By that time, however, the pendulum had swung back from revolution to reaction. Confident that he could contain the national movement by military force if necessary, the Prussian king declared that he would not “pick up a crown from the gutter”- a complete dismissal of the Frankfurt assembly and the popular-revolutionary-nationalist sentiment of 1848.


In the end, not one of the newly established republics survived. And, in  only a few small states were any real constitutional gains made from the events of 1848. In France, the monarchy was toppled, but Louis Napoleon soon undermined the very republican institutions that brought him to power, and within three years the country once again had an authoritarian emperor. National liberty had not been secured anywhere in Europe by the Peoples’ Spring.

Despite these defeats, important changes had occurred, and 1848 remains a watershed year in European history, both for individual countries and for the Continent as a whole. France moved one step closer to representative government, with the final abolition of the monarchy and the permanent establishment of universal manhood suffrage. Manorialism was permanently abolished in Germany and the Habsburg lands, eliminating the last traces of serfdom. Prussia got a limited parliament. The 1848 revolutions frightened the crowned heads of Europe and caused several to abdicate. Those who remained were cognizant of the threats posed by liberalism, nationalism, and socialism and some of them took steps in years afterward to allay the problems that contributed to revolutionary ferment. In Russia, a new tsar, Alexander II, began a series of liberalizing reforms including, most importantly, the emancipation of serfs in 1861. The Austrian emperor Francis Joseph also made some concessions and compromises to both liberals and nationalists, including the 1867 Ausgleich, in which the monarchy recognized the desire for Hungarian autonomy and established the dual Austro-Hungarian monarchy.

Most significantly, the ideas of revolution gained ground with the revolutions of 1848. That year showed that all the conservative monarchies of Europe were in jeopardy, not just the French king. Heretofore, revolution seemed to emerge only from that one country and had been mostly contained there. But, by the spring of 1848, revolutionary passion had infected Belgians, Italians, Hungarians, Germans, Bohemians, Dutch, and Danes. The Concert of Europe was a system, and while it had the strengths of a system-in the common determination of the conservative monarchs to stifle revolution-it also had its weaknesses, including the tendency for change in one part of Europe to affect all other parts. This was particularly true of ideas, which had spread inexorably from England and France through the rest of the Continent. The basic liberal principle of government by consent was steadily gaining influence as the middle class grew in size and influence. The ideas of nationalism and national unification were frustrated in 1848, but gained currency in that year-and within a generation, they proved victorious in Germany and Italy. And socialism, which had raised the red flag in France, Hungary, and elsewhere, was now on the political agenda.



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