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The year 1848 saw Europe convulsed by a wave of revolutions which shook the political and social order to its foundations. The Revolutions of 1848 hold a very significant place as they were the largest, most widespread and violent political movements in 19th century Europe. 

The revolutionary zone reached from France to the German Confederation and the Austrian  Empire into south-eastern Europe and Italy. However Britain and the Tsarist Empire did not experience the turbulence of the revolutions. 

The Revolutions of 1848 although occurring in widely differing areas aimed at similar objectives- the establishment of a constitutional democratic republic with equality before law and the end of privilege. In Italy, Germany and parts of the Austrian Empire the desire for the creation of a national state and national unification were also powerful factors.

Roger Price observes that the various revolutionary movements were to some extent interdependent and even passed through similar stages. Eric Hobsbawm points to other common features. He argues that in each state, the revolutions were successful in sweeping away the existing governments in the initial months but lost initiative quite soon. The defeat of the revolutionaries was quite comprehensive. Jonathan Sperber and Roger Price have endeavored to connect the outbreak and the course of the revolution with the social, economic, and cultural changes of the preceding decades of 1848. Thus it is seen that the revolutions in 19th century Europe were an episode within a larger historical phase- that of the transition towards industrialization and a market-oriented agriculture.


Sperber offers three major interpretations of the Revolutions of 1848 – 
  • Describes the revolution as the “romantic revolution”. Attention was focused on the heroic deeds of individual great figures, such as Garibaldi, Kossuth and Daniel Manin. 
  • The second interpretation, a darker one sees the revolution primarily as a farce, in which the revolutionaries were “incompetent dilettantes” and cowards who ran from the scene when things took a disadvantageous turn.  
  • Considered the most substantial by Sperber, this interpretation directs attention to the failure of the revolution to establish new regimes owing to the counter revolutions. It is seen that after a short period of time, the authorities who were overthrown in the beginning of said revolution had regained their power. 

Some follow a Marxist analysis and emphasize differences in class formation and class struggle, while others look to sociological modernization theory to explain the failure of the revolution, while yet others point to differing diplomatic configurations and military initiatives of insightful generals.

The new approach changed focus and moved away from the revolutionary parliaments and the capital cities to the towns to the less emphasized uprisings and civil wars of 1849 and 1851, while also looking at local activists and peasants instead of the romantic national leaders. This new interpretation inquires into the nature of political organization and agitation during the revolution, as well as discussion of the forms and symbols of a political activity, both peaceful and violent. Also in this interpretation is an attempt to connect the outbreak and course of the revolution with the social, economic and cultural changes of the preceding decades.


Scholars have unanimously agreed that the revolutions of 1848 were a culmination of a series of crisis- economic, social and political- which occurred in the late 1840s. Price suggests that it is useful to maintain a balance between the background factors—the preconditions and the actual precipitators of revolution. 

Economic Crisis – 
  • The economic crisis of the years 1845-47 which was combined the features of a pre-industrial subsistence crisis with the sort of overpopulation-under consumption crisis.
  • The impact of poor cereal harvests together with potato blight created conditions of near starvation. There was a rise in food prices in most of Europe, leading to strikes, demonstrations and ‘food riots’ in France and Germany.  
  • Employment in urban and rural industries declined as factories collapsed. There was an acute credit crisis and the poorer people were forced to borrow money and incur huge debts.                                                                                                                             
  • Population pressure on the resources of agriculture, the decline of rural industry and the competitive character of early industrialization had created widespread misery for the poorer classes. It was in this environment that the revolutions of 1848 had occurred. 

Social Tensions – 

  • The first half of the 19th century saw a growing number of civil servants, lawyers, doctors, journalists and businessmen who felt alienated from the existing political order. Economically frustrated due to the lack of job opportunities, these members of the educated bourgeoisie demanded a greater role in the decision-making process.
  • They reacted against the monopolization of power by the nobility and the restriction of the franchise to the propertied and wealthy classes.  They agitated for the end of arbitrary government, a wider share of political power through parliamentary governments along with the guarantee of individual freedom and the rule of law. 
  • One also saw the radicalization of workers as well as a lower middle class or petty bourgeoisie with democratic and socialist ideas gaining popularity. The crises of 1845-48 saw a series of strikes, demonstrations and food riots indicating the politicization and mobilization of the working class. 

State Aggravation – 
  • According to Sperber, the first half of the 19th century witnessed an escalation in the demands of the state in terms of taxes, recruitment in the army etc. The attempts of the state to pump more resources from a population whose living standards were already declining only aggravated political discontent.
  •  A combination of escalating demands, a lack of adequate means of coercion and a decline in popular legitimacy brought about the Revolutions of 1848.

Demands for National Unification – 

In the late 18th century, nationalistic sentiments had grown as a more widespread movement against political domination. In Germany, the threat of French domination helped to stimulate a national consciousness as moderate liberals petitioned the rulers of the German principalities to create a larger pan-German union. The demand for a political order that recognized and promoted their national identity fused with the campaign for greater representation and deriving its momentum from the radicalized lower classes, there was a general upsurge against the old order in 1848.


There were many large revolutions throughout Europe, of which almost all of them failed. The revolutions began in capital cities and urban centers-the hub of economic growth and political change and subsequently moved on to other towns and rural areas.

France –The revolutions first started in France where the people wanted universal suffrage. When Guizot, the premier banned a national campaign for electoral reform to be held on 22nd February in Paris, the radicals called for a protest demonstration and sporadic violence occurred. The next day the National Guard refused to disperse the demonstrators by force and thus made their support for reform clear. The King, Louis-Phillipe dismissed Guizot and that evening among continuing protests, troops fired on the crowd. This enraged popular opinion leading to a mass insurrection. The king abdicated and the revolution established the second republic. Thus the regime lost confidence and a Provisional Government was set up. The February revolution in France gave ideas to other countries in Europe which in turn started other revolutions. 

Germany- Discontent was widespread and the February revolution in France spread rapidly into the German states. In Berlin, demonstrators agitated for liberal political demands and in favour of German nationalism. After the spread of protests the King, Frederick IV introduced a more liberal cabinet and agreed to the establishment of a constitutional monarchy.  However as in Paris, the shooting of civilians by troops drove the situation out of control. The revolution in the German states had not only shaken Berlin and other capital cities but had reached the countryside as well.

Austria- A crisis built up within the Austrian empire as there was increased Nationalism among the Czechs, Hungarians, and other groups. Encouraged by the liberal reforms which had taken place in France, the Austrians wanted to replace the Emperor’s present counselors and restore confidence between the monarch and his people. They wanted constitutional reform, the complete emancipation of the peasantry, greater efficiency in the administration and to establish a United Diet in which both peasants and middle classes would be represented.  On 13th March a large crowd in the Imperial Habsburg capital of Vienna began demonstrating and demanded reforms. After days of disorder, the king felt obliged to accept the resignation of Metternich, the symbol of the Old Order and to promise a liberal constitution. Soon after Emperor Ferdinand I left Vienna fearing an attack from the revolutionary workers and students.

Italy- The revolutions of the Italian states brought insurrections against Austrian rule in Lombardy and Venetia and against conservative regimes in the other states, notably the Papal States. 18th March, a revolt against Austrian rule began in Milan and a crowd of 10000 people presented a petition calling for liberal reforms and five days of bitter street fighting followed.  The pporly armed people drove away the army of the Austrian commander Joseph Radatzky who withdrew his troops and retreated to a fortified belt. These revolts forced the leaders to establish the constitutions of the revolutionaries.

  • In ‘The Age of Capital’, Hobsbawm refers to the events of 1848 as the ‘springtime of the peoples’. 
  • According to Roger Price, by 1848 the material for an explosion across central and Western Europe was ready – the slightest event could have triggered the fall of any of the governments of the ‘revolutionary zone’. The triggering event, as it happened, was the repression in Paris in February 1848 to demand greater political representation. 
  • The following months were a time of great hope and optimistic confusion. While the revolutions were largely concentrated in the cities, the most remarkable thing was the extent of popular participation. 

Despite his Marxist inclinations, Hobsbawm rightly describes the events of 1848 as the creation of the workers, petty bourgeoisie and the labouring poor. Despite popular support (or perhaps because of it) the revolutions of 1848 were remarkably short-lived and were defeated everywhere by September 1848. The revolutions were all too brief and failed to achieve much. 
Thus the initial victories of the 1848 revolution were very short lived. To say that these revolutions were the ‘spring times of the people’ would therefore not be an entirely valid point. The revolutionaries were unsuccessful in creating new regimes; and the old authorities returned to power within a year or two. European states had become even stronger after the Revolutions of 1848. 


The immediate aftermath of the revolution entailed the problem of establishing the membership and authority of the new governments and to define constitutional settlements. In France the provincial government which had emerged was divided socially, politically and personally. The men lacked governmental experience and opposed the monarchy because they wanted to bring forth social reform measures. However they did not want to alter the existing social system significantly. The situations were similar in Austria and the German states.

While analyzing the reasons for the subsequent failure of the revolutions of 1848, historians have often posed a crucial question as to why the revolutions of 1848 had a different outcome from those of 1789 or 1917. The answer given by the historians for the failures of the revolutions of 1848 is that the revolutionaries weren’t revolutionary enough. They lacked the enthusiasm displayed by their Jacobin predecessors and Bolshevik successors.

Sometimes it is also attributed to personal failures of revolutionary leaders who made tall claims but weren’t daring enough to carry out required actions and/or bloodshed. 

In Marxist understanding, the failure of Revolutions 1848 is attributed to specific social and economic developments. The revolution led to renewed economic crisis. In each of the states affected by the revolution, there was a move towards avoidance of violence. There was political factionalism where prominent families sought to take advantage of a fluid political situation in order to secure administrative office to increase their influence. There was widespread disorder and protest by peasants and workers alike. This was even more than the chaos during the revolution. As a result, the new liberal administrations frequently were forced to employ the existing state apparatus to restore order. 
  • According to Marxists, the revolutionaries of 1848 weren’t successful in mobilizing popular support. The middle class revolutionaries were scared of the extent to which the masses might have gone. As a result, the middle class revolutionaries only made half-hearted efforts and were willing to make compromises with the pre-1848 authorities. 
  • However Sperber points out that there weren’t really great points of differences between the situations that prevailed during the revolutions of 1789 and 1848 respectively. He also argues that the rise of a working class doesn’t adequately explain the failure on the part of revolutionaries to mobilize masses. He elaborates this argument further by pointing out that in mid 19th century southern and eastern Europe there was no industrialization or labour force; even central and western Europe, it wasn’t the labour force but largely the craftsmen who had led the rebellions.
  • In comparison to the powerful and loyal military support that the rulers possessed, the revolutionaries were rendered weak by the deficiencies seen in tactical leadership. The counter revolution was thus successful in suppressing the revolutions of 1848.
  • The development of politics of nationalism in 1848 had its own implications. Sperber throws light on the fact that these revolutionary nationalism clashed with each other. And rather than radicalizing the revolution, it weakened them. 

The high hopes of the revolutionaries of 1848 were shattered because of the different aims and a split between liberals and radicals. The conservatives and Moderates stressed the need to restore social order. But the Radicals insisted that the state should intervene in the economy and that it should recognize the right to work. 
Thus there was a lack of consensus amongst the revolutionaries. This enabled the success of the counter revolution in the Habsburg monarchy, the German and the Italian States.  Less skilled workers generally lacked a strong sense of commitment and showed little interest in the democratic or socialist ideas. For them, what mattered the most was economic security. And it was the programme of radicals that appealed the most to the workers and lower middle class. But overall, it was the conservatives who garnered the support of the majority of population. The conservative propaganda presented the radicals as engaging in nothing but murder and looting and plotting to destroy the society.  The conservatives and the established elites were advocating the need for peace and social order-the prerequisites to economic recovery. This appealed to the middle class; they were frightened by the radicalist propaganda which they saw as a threat to their property.
Price suggests that it was the combination of this increase in the influence of the conservatives along with the existence of the strong military support that the counter revolutionaries had that led to their success. And this translated to the ultimate defeat of the revolutionaries.


The old social elites in Europe had soon recovered from the disasters of the Revolutions of 1848. The revolutions generated resistance almost immediately from the political and social forces. The counter-revolutions carried out by the rulers with the aid of the nobles left parliaments and assemblies with little or no effective powers. The demands that were made included universal male suffrage, freedom of press, constitutional governments and larger participation of the public in administrative affairs. Even though some of them were fulfilled, most of these concessions were withdrawn sooner or later. 

One has to bear in mind that the accomplishment of the revolutionaries in terms of setting up constitutional governments didn’t last long. While the kingdoms of Prussia and Piedmont-Savoy retained their constitutional form of government, the Two Sicilies, the Papal States and the Austrian Empire had gone back to absolutist rule. More or less, the ultimate success of the counter revolution throughout Europe was aided by the mixed aims of the revolutionaries. 

France – In France, the political crisis intensified as the provisional government faced competing demands. On 15th May, an attempt by the political clubs to dissolve the Assembly and declare a social republic of the people failed. After days of tension, the Assembly finally declared on June 23rd that the National Workshops would be closed in three days. Workers aged 17-25 were given the option of enlisting in the army, and others were promised public works in the provinces. The workers associations protested vigorously and rose up in rebellion. For three days the June Days raged in the workers’ quarters of central and eastern Paris. General Louis Cavaignac put down the uprising with brutality.  Thus the process of counter revolution began with repression of the June insurrection after which the Assembly immediately passed legislation to curb popular political movements. The new republican constitution instituted elections in November 1848. Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, nephew of the great Napoleon Bonaparte became the President of the second republic.

Germany – In the German states, liberals and radicals gradually split as conservative forces gathered momentum. The spread of democratic clubs and workers’ associations was evidence of widespread politicization and mobilization of support for the left.  Frederick Wilhelm’s refusal to recognize the Imperial Constitution prepared by the Frankfurt assembly led to widespread protests organized by popular political societies. The only chance for the constitution to survive was to convince the King of Prussia to become king of a unified Germany.  Before the Prussian parliament could approve the constitution, the king dissolved it and declared a state of emergency.  The Frankfurt parliament which embodied the hopes of German liberals and nationalists ended in abject failure.

Austria – The confusion of competing national claims and rivalries within the monarchy eased the task of counter revolution within the Austrian Empire. The aristocratic army commanders like Windischgratz, Schwarzenberg, Radetzky and Jelacic played a crucial role in the restoration of the imperial authority. When workers rose up in arms to protest against the shutting down of the national workshops (which had been established to provide work to unemployed), Ferdinand sent the bourgeois National Guard to crush the uprising. The establishment of the ‘Bach system’- a system of bureaucratic surveillance, spying and repression- helped in rooting out the political opposition.  

As far as the impact of these revolutions on the politics of Europe is concerned, as J. Merriman points out, European states had become even stronger after the Revolutions of 1848. Counter revolutions carried out by the various states had succeeded in crushing the rebellions. However, even though the state machinery of repression was kept well oiled, certain concessions were made as well. 


Although the Revolutions 1848 ultimately failed, they left crucial political legacies.
  • It has been pointed out by scholars that these revolutions inaugurated the trend of mass politics. While most of the goals of the revolutionaries were centered around the demands of the middle class or the bourgeoisie, popular demands for universal male suffrage and rights for women were made as well. 
  • This period witnessed the formation of different political groups – the moderates, radicals and the conservatives. The counter-revolution had ensured the suppression of committed republicans, nationalists and socialists. Most of them were exiled to different places. Thousands of Frenchmen were exiled to Algeria, while German and Italian political exiles emigrated to America. 
  • The revolutions of 1848 marked the first time workers put forward organized demands for political rights. 
  • There was a substantial growth in tension between the various ethnic groups inhabiting Central and Eastern Europe. There was an increased hostility towards the Austrians in Italy and greater Austro-Prussian rivalry for influence in Germany. In this context, it can be said that the revolutions of 1848 form the backdrop against which the sentiments of Nationalism had emerged. Thus, Nationalism, although far less intense during the course of the revolutions of 1848, was a development which gained growing importance in the German and Italian States. 
  • Roger Price asserts that the wars of the second half of the 19th century were themselves a legacy of 1848.
  • The most significant legacy of the revolutions of 1848 was the end of the ancien regime. The abolition of serfdom, feudal system and other seigneurial institutions relieved the peasantry from their obligations towards lords. 
  • Lastly, as an outcome of these revolutions, there was a stimulation of the political awareness of the general masses. More number of people were now beginning to see the relevance of politics to their daily lives. There was an explosion of political participation and different ways of organization- elections, petitions, demonstrations, public meetings and newspapers- all played a very significant role in the due course of the revolutions. In these respects, the diverse institutions and policies which the modern state follows in varying combinations too is a legacy left behind by the revolutions of 1848. 

In conclusion, it can be said that even though the victories of the revolutions of 1848 were short lived (since they were suppressed by the state-led counter-revolutions), they were significant accomplishments in their own right. The revolutions of 1848 opened up a new chapter in the history of modern Europe. It marked the beginning of mass politics and it was during this period that the nationalist politics that shaped the events of Europe in the subsequent years took birth.

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