European Revolutions From 1848-1852: Successes & Failures

Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson we will learn about the Revolutions of 1848. We'll see what led to this series of revolutions, look at some of the common threads of each one and identify the successes and failures.

The Revolutions of 1848: Overview

When you think about the word 'revolution' what comes to mind? Possibly the American Revolution or the French Revolution? Maybe even the Beatles' song 'Revolution'? Probably not the Revolutions of 1848. Unless you're very familiar with 19th century European history, you probably haven't studied this series of revolutions too in-depth. That is what this lesson is about. Let's dig in and see what happened during the Revolutions of 1848.

The Revolutions of 1848 were a series of democratic revolts against European monarchies that took place between 1848-1849. Numerous states experienced some sort of revolution or significant upheaval. The movement left tens of thousands dead. We need to understand that these revolutions were not necessarily coordinated, but instead varied considerably and stemmed from a variety of causes. Each revolution was unique.

Causes of the Revolutions

That said, the revolutions were democratic and anti-monarchical in nature. Budding nationalism and the radical new concept of socialism helped fuel the flames of these revolutions. Nationalism in particular was a driving force. Various ethnic groups began demanding independence from foreign rule and the establishment of their own nation-states.

Also, during the mid-19th century, advances in print technology made the transmission of ideas much easier. Despite government attempts at censorship, radicals were able to print and distribute cheap political pamphlets. Monarchs were basically powerless to stop the transmission of 'radical' ideas among the masses. Posters and pamphlets denouncing the actions of monarchs were plastered to walls in city centers for all to read. This was cause for hope and inspiration.

On top of all this, poor crop yields in the years leading up to the revolutions made life particularly hard on the lower classes. So in a nutshell, the middle and lower classes were fed up with the status quo. They wanted change! The aim of the revolutions was generally to remove monarchies and replace them with democratic governments. See, during this time, the masses were beginning to realize they had political power.

So, did these revolutions achieve what they set out to do? Let's take a closer look.

Italy

The origin of the Revolutions of 1848 can be traced to Italy. In January of that year a revolution broke out in Sicily. During this time Italy was not an independent state. It was one of many kingdoms under the control of the Austrian Empire. Italian nationalists were fed up with Austrian rule and revolted. Initially the nationalists were successful in setting up an independent Italy, but it only lasted 16 months before the Bourbon monarchs once again gained control of the region. Because of this, the 1848 Italian Revolution was a short-term success, but a long-term failure.

France

The events in Italy were not isolated. Revolutionary fervor soon spread like wildfire across Europe. Next was France. The February Revolution broke out in France after King Louis Philippe suspended the right to participate in political gatherings. Contempt over this policy resulted in violent demonstrations, the construction of barricades, and other forms of protest. Fearing the escalating unrest, King Louis Philippe abdicated the throne. Shortly afterwards, the Second French Republic was proclaimed, although it lasted only until 1852. Like the events in Italy, the February Revolution was a short-term success, but can be considered a long-term failure.

Republican revolutionaries clashed with French troops during the February Revolution
French

Germany

In the German states the March Revolution was fueled by a popular desire for a unified Germany. Remember, like Italy, Germany as we know it had not yet come into existence: at this time it was a confederation of kingdoms. The March Revolution consisted of middle and working class people demanding political liberalization. In particular, freedom from government censorship was a major concern. But the March Revolution failed to bring about a unified Germany because the middle class and the working class were unable to present a united front. However, the March Revolution helped pave the way for the eventual unification of Germany, which took place some 25 years later.

This image depicts German nationalists staging a demonstration
German

The Austrian Empire

Revolution also broke out in the Hapsburg Austrian Empire in March. The Austrian Empire was a vast empire extending rule over diverse ethnic groups, including Germans, Austrians, Hungarians, Poles, Czechs, Croats, Slovaks, Italians, and others. These various groups resented Hapsburg rule and sought to establish independent nation-states. The revolutions in the Austrian Empire failed because the various ethnic groups were unable to coordinate, and because they often had competing goals.

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