Some historical background to
The European Revolutions of 1848
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 …
In 1821 the Austrian emperor Francis II spoke thus to the professors of prominent second-level academy in Laibach:-
… 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 …
"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.
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
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.
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
Bohemia and Hungary (with Croatia) experienced
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
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).
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
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".
- 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.
Other Popular European History pages
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.