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The European Revolutions of 1848
Some historical background

Some historical background to
The European Revolutions of 1848

Map of Europe after the Congress of Vienna of 1815


The structure of the states of Europe within and between which the dramatic events of 1848-1849 were played out was very different from that of today. European political life was then based upon a number of dynastic states that had been established over many centuries albeit with some significant modifications as a result of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars of 1789-1815. At the close of these wars dynastic rulers had been restored to most of the historic thrones of Europe and dynastic rulers once again sought to exercise sovereign power whilst (in theory at least) resuming the role traditionally expected of "God's Annointed" sovereign princes - i.e. that of offering justice and protection to their subjects.

In 1820, Metternich, a principal Minister in the service of Francis II Emperor of Austria, wrote a Memorandum to Tsar Alexander I of Russia whose forces had recently, (1812-1815), contributed fully to the defeat of Napoleon.
Kings have to calculate the chances of their very existence in the immediate future; passions are let loose, and league together to overthrow everything which society respects as the basis of its existence; religion, public morality, laws, customs, rights, and duties, all are attacked, confounded, called into question. The great mass of the people are tranquil spectators of these attacks and revolutions, and of the absolute want of all means of defence. A few are carried off by the torrent, but the wishes of the immense majority are to maintain a repose which exists no longer, and of which even the first elements seem to be lost …
… It is principlly the middle classes of society which the moral gangrene has affected, and it is only among them that the real heads of the party are to be found …
… There is besides scarcely any epoch which does not offer a rallying cry to some particular faction, this cry, since 1815, has been Constitution
… We are convinced that society can no longer be saved without strong and vigourous resolutions on the part of the Governments still free in their opinions and actions. We are also convinced that this may yet be, if the Governments face the truth, if they free themselves from all illusion, if they join their ranks and take their stand on a line of correct, unambiguous, and frankly announced principles.
By this course the monarchs will fulfil the duties imposed on them by Him (i.e. God), who, by entrusting them with power, has charged them to watch over the maintenance of justice, and the rights of all …
In 1821 the Austrian emperor Francis II spoke thus to the professors of prominent second-level academy in Laibach:-
"Hold to the old, for it is good, and our ancestors found it to be good, so why should not we? There are now new ideas going about, which I never can nor will approve. Avoid these, and keep to what is positive. For I need no savants, but worthy citizens. To form the youth into such citizens is your task. He who serves me must teach what I order. He who cannot do so, or who comes with new ideas, can go, or I shall remove him."
After the fall of Napoleon Metternich continued to be a powerful supporter of the censorship of newspapers and journals, of the taking of information from a socially diverse range of informants about any "dangerously radical" activities, or even converstions, of Austrian citizens which might be investigated, and of the banning of "questionable" books from circulating in the Austrian Empire.

Despite this ban many newspapers, journals, and books, did circulate clandestinely within the Empire where many of their readers seemed to consider that something was not worth reading unless it was officially prohibited.

Several prominent European Kingdoms and Empires leagued together in the aftermath of the widespread disruptions of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars in defence of traditional monarchical governance and of its principles. This arrangement known as the "Congress System" or as the "Congress of Europe" held congress in several European towns and cities where arising crises were discussed with a view to arriving at agreed plans of action to contain disruption.

In November, 1815, Austria, Britain, Prussia and Russia formed the original Quadruple Alliance in support of such a "Concert of Europe".

Article II of a Treaty of Alliance and Friendship concuded between these powers includes the following:-
... And as the same Revolutionary Principles which upheld the last criminal usurpation might again, under other forms, convulse France, and thereby endanger the repose of other states; under these circumstances, the High Contracting Parties solemnly admitting it to be their duty to redouble their watchfulness for the tranquility and interests of their people, engage, in case so unfortunate an event should again occur, to concert amongst themselves ... the measures which they may judge necessary to be pursued for the safety of their respective States, and for the general Tranquility of Europe …
In these times the "Austrian" Netherlands (broadly speaking today's Belgium) were joined with the Kingdom of Holland (as a buffer state against future French expansion), the Austrian Empire was left with effective sway over the German Confederation and across the Italian peninsula, and it was agreed that the Russian Tsar could constitute a Polish Kingdom on the extensive Polish territories which lay under his sovereignty.

At a "Congress of Aix-la-Chapelle" in 1818, France, (to which the Bourbon dynasty had been restored after the defeat of Napoleon), was admitted to the, now, Quintuple Alliance.

Subsequent congess were held at Troppau, (1820). in response to revolts in Spain, Portugal, Piedmont and Naples. At Laibach, (1821), where Austria and Russia indicted their readiness to send soldiers to suppress the Italian revolts but Britain opposed intervention. At Verona, (1822), and at St Petersburg (1825).

An inability to reach full agreement as to their joint actions had seen Britain effectively withdraw from this Congress System in 1822, at Verona. The remaining members of this Concert of Europe arangement continued to fall short of full agreement on joint policies.

Political change in Europe was limited to some degree by the Concert of Europe but between 1815 and 1845 Greece sought independence from the centuries-long control it had experienced under the Ottoman Empire, a Belgian kingdom broke away from the kingdom of Holland into which it had been incorporated in 1815 in association with the Congress of Vienna's resolve to provide France with a powerful neighbour to its north that might better resist French expansion, and in France itself the legitimist Bourbons, who had proved to be very reactionary, were replaced in a constitutional coup d'etat by their cousins of the House of Orleans.

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In 1848 the Italian peninsula was politically organised into a number of sovereign dynastic and ecclesiastical states. This decentralisation had come about largely due to Papal diplomacy preferring that no large states should exist in the peninsula as a potential rival to Papal diplomatic power and influence. This policy had facilitated the formation of a number of city states north of Rome and south of the Alps that had played a very notable role in European commerce during the Middle Ages. These same wealthy city states had later become centres of the European Renaissance. Later still they tended to form the nucleus of emergent Duchies and Grand Duchies.

Similarly in 1848 it was more appropriate to refer to what we now know as Germany as "The Germanies" or as the "German Confederation". There were a large number of politically sovereign dynastic states together with a few "Free Imperial" cities. This decentralisation had come about largely due to the policies of several Holy Roman Emperors who, either to ensure support during their disputes with the Papacy, or to secure their position in relation to lands over which they were themselves more immediately sovereign, or to secure the acceptance of their heirs to the Imperial succession, tended to concede full sovereignty to greater and lesser German princes, to greater and lesser churchmen, to so-called Free Imperial Cities and even, in cases, to so-called Free Imperial Knights.

There was a significant "Thirty Years War" between 1617-1648 largely contested in "The Germanies". The French kingdom became involved in order to frustrate the political and diplomatic power of the Habsburgs of Austria and Spain. The French input into the settlements to this war was in large part directed towards the firm establishment of a continued decentralisation of political power in The Germanies.

In 1803, Napoleon, as the conqueror of much of western Europe, had instituted a re-organisation of the historic Germanies reducing the number of German states from over three hundred to thirty nine by redistributing the ecclesiastical states and the Free Cities among the secular princes. These remaining thirty nine states were grouped by him into a Confederation of the Rhine.

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The Habsburgs of Austria were sovereign over immense territories in central and eastern Europe and had for several centuries, until the abeyance of that title in 1806 due to the activities of Napoleon Bonaparte, been Holy Roman Emperors. The immense territories ruled by the Habsburgs had been gathered together largely as a result of dynastic marriages.
One such marriage being that with a princess of the Jagellon dynasty, when her brother, Louis, perished in battle against the then expansionary Ottoman Empire in 1526 the Hungarian and Bohemian Estates, in search of protection against further Ottoman encroachment, ratified an Habsburg succession to sovereignty.

Ferdinand of Austria. who succeeded his brother (Charles V) as Holy Roman Emperor accepted the Hungarian thrones whilst undertaking to respect Hungarian / Magyar traditions and also undertaking to try to win back the rich lands recently lost to the Ottomans.

After the critical Battle of Mohacs of 1526 much of Hungary was subject to Ottoman control up until 1699 when Ottoman sway over Hungary was substantially undone by a resurgence of Austrian power. Although successors to the joint Habsburg-Jagellon dynastic line were crowned as Kings of Hungary amongst their other titles there had been several instances of Hungarian restiveness over political and confessional issues.

Bohemia and Hungary (with Croatia) experienced a tradition of germanic linguistic and cultural exposure as the patterns of trade (and culture) then emerging in central and eastern europe, and the Baltic region, were largely under the influence of predominantly germanic trading networks including that of the Hanseatic League. The prevalence of these networks was greatly enhanced by local rulers often inviting the establishment, by skilled ethnic Germans, of largely self-regulating trading and farming settlements that were intended by such sponsoring rulers to enhance the overall prosperity of their realms. Another of the many outcomes of the "Thirty Years War" was the displacement, by the victorious Habsburg dynasty, of the indigenous Czech aristocracy in Bohemia by other, often Germanised, nobles after the Battle of the White Mountain of 1620.
It seems also that both ethnic Germans and Slavs had a long history of being present as ebbing and flowing communities in Bohemia.

Over time the Hapsburg realms had come to experience some degree of political represention principally through an assembly or Diet intermittently held at the Habsburg's principal city of Vienna, and another political assembly or Diet intermittently held just over the border of the Hungarian kingdom in a city the Habsburgs would have known of as Pressburg, (but which is today's Slovak capital - Bratislava).

The Pressburg Diet was not far from Vienna and had originally become established when the Ottomans still controlled large tracts of formerly Hungarian lands. The Hungarian kings had gained control over the Croat kingdom in the twelfth century and a Croat assembly had met in the ancient Croat capital of Agram, (today's Zagreb), and had sought to maintain communications under conditions of "personal union" where the sovereign King of Croatia was also King of Hungary.

Peoples of the Habsburg Empire
(N.B. Lombardy and Venetia in the north of the Italian peninsula were also under Habsburg sovereignty).
Map showing how the Habsburg Empire was peopled.


Another notable difference between the European state structure in 1848 and that of today is the position of Poland. In 1848 an independent Poland did not exist. In earlier times it had developed traditions of elective kingship and of allowing representatives to the Polish Assembly to have powers of veto over political decisions. These traditions did much to leave Poland as a less effective participant in the rough and tumble of European diplomacy.
There were actual partitions of Poland in the later eighteenth century where the Russian Empire, the Austrian Empire, and the Kingdom of Prussia all conspired to help themselves to large chunks of the Polish kingdom to the extent that independent Poland had effectively disappeared from the political map of Europe!!! (Although the Russian Tsars consituted a Polish Kingdom - under their own personal sovereignty on Polish lands they had acquired - with the consent of the post-1815 Concert of Europe).
Polish nationalist unrest in (Austrian) Galicia, (Russian) Congress Poland and the tiny, 425 sq. mile, Free State of Cracow in 1846 was suppressed with Cracow being annexed by the Austria Empire much to the indignation of Polish Nationalists and of liberals across Europe.

It may also be difficult for our own age to appreciate the degree to which dynastic rulers in earlier times acted in accordance with the belief that their sovereign authority, which might well be exercised without much in the way of modification through processes of popular representation, was actually divinely ordained and hence of unquestionable legitimacy.
Dynastic rulers were usually supported by church authorities in this belief. The churches expected kings to exercise sovereign power upholding laws and offering justice and protection to their subjects.

It should be borne in mind, however, that in many states of Europe at that time traditions of respect for the powers of dynastic rulers and churches were not as powerful as they had been. European society was changing, populist ideas about such things as 'the sovereignty of the people', 'constitutional governance' and a 'romanticisation of cultural nationhood' had gained currency and tended to undermine acceptance of the traditions of dynastic authority and governance.
Whilst dynastic rulers had been accepted as being sovereign over their dynastic lands gathered together as they may had been through inheritance, dynastic marriages and wars of succession ideas about popular sovereignty and nationhood inevitably raised questions about the territory where would-be nations could expect to exercise sovereignty particularly where more than one "emergent nation" sought to establish itself politically on territories formerly subject to the rule of one dynastic house.

The following series of pages which considers the beginnings of the Revolution, developments in France, German developments, Italian developments, and then the recovery of political power by the traditional "throne and altar" governments may then do something towards demonstrating the workings of human nature related aspirations as contributing notably to the "Unfolding of History".

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The European Revolutions of 1848 begin
A broad outline of the background to the onset of the turmoils and a consideration of some of the early events in Paris, Berlin, Vienna, Budapest and Prague.

The French Revolution of 1848
A particular focus on France - as the influential Austrian minister Prince Metternich, who sought to encourage the re-establishment of "Order" in the wake of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic turmoils of 1789-1815, said:-"When France sneezes Europe catches a cold".

The "Italian" Revolution of 1848
A "liberal" Papacy after 1846 helps allow the embers of an "Italian" national aspiration to rekindle across the Italian Peninsula.

The Revolution of 1848 in the German Lands and central Europe
"Germany" (prior to 1848 having been a confederation of thirty-nine individually soverign Empires, Kingdoms, Electorates, Grand Duchies, Duchies, Principalities and Free Cities), had a movement for a single parliament in 1848 and many central European would-be "nations" attempted to promote a distinct existence for their "nationality".

Widespread social chaos allows the re-assertion of Dynastic / Governmental Authority
Some instances of social and political extremism allow previously pro-reform liberal elements to join conservative elements in supporting the return of traditional authority. Such nationalities living within the Habsburg Empire as the Czechs, Croats, Slovaks, Serbs and Roumanians, find it more credible to look to the Emperor, rather than to the democratised assemblies recently established in Vienna and in Budapest as a result of populist agitation, for the future protection of their nationality.
The Austrian Emperor and many Kings and Dukes regain political powers. Louis Napoleon, (who later became the Emperor Napoleon III), elected as President in France offering social stability at home but ultimately follows policies productive of dramatic change in the wider European structure of states and their sovereignty.

Some detailed historical background to the European Revolutions of 1848
Some quite detailed background information relating to the historical situation just prior to the onset of the European Revolutions of 1848 is available on this linked page.

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Other Popular European History pages
at Age-of-the-Sage

The preparation of these pages was influenced to some degree by a particular "Philosophy of History" as suggested by this quote from the famous Essay "History" by Ralph Waldo Emerson:-
There is one mind common to all individual men...
Of the works of this mind history is the record. Its genius is illustrated by the entire series of days. Man is explicable by nothing less than all his history. Without hurry, without rest, the human spirit goes forth from the beginning to embody every faculty, every thought, every emotion, which belongs to it in appropriate events. But the thought is always prior to the fact; all the facts of history preexist in the mind as laws. Each law in turn is made by circumstances predominant, and the limits of nature give power to but one at a time. A man is the whole encyclopaedia of facts. The creation of a thousand forests is in one acorn, and Egypt, Greece, Rome, Gaul, Britain, America, lie folded already in the first man. Epoch after epoch, camp, kingdom, empire, republic, democracy, are merely the application of his manifold spirit to the manifold world.