The Spring of Nations: The Revolutions of 1848

The Congress of Vienna in 1815 after the defeat of Napoleon undid any social and political reforms in Europe brought about by the American, Polish and French Revolutions, and even Napoleon’s reforms such as the Napoleonic Code. The Council of Vienna cemented political and social control in the absolutist regimes of Europe in the name of stability and “Balance of Power”. It was as if the revolutions of the Enlightenment and the Napoleonic Eras had never happened.

But no matter how hard someone tries, you can’t kill an idea with centralized power. The autocracies of the Hapsburgs in Austria, the Hohenzollerns of Prussia, the Bourbons of France, and the Romanovs of Russia held iron grips on their people. But the shining examples of America which was founded on Enlightenment principles and Britain whose constitutional monarchy enacted sweeping political and social reforms caused by its early embrace of the Industrial Revolution could not be kept from increasingly literate populations of the Ancien Regimes. The world shrank with rapidly expanding communications technologies such as steam power and the telegraph. Thirty years after the Congress of Vienna, Liberalism and Nationalism, with a heavy dash of Romanticism, swept Europe.

Romanticism was a direct reaction to the Industrial Revolution, as romantics pined for long lost good old days, the glories of the past, its upswelling of emotion, and the beauty of nature’s perfect moment. Romanticism’s devotion to the emotions of the individual dovetailed nicely with the Liberalism of the Enlightenment, part of those supposedly long lost good old days. Liberalism in the 19th Century has nothing to do with contemporary or postmodern Liberalism. “Big L” Liberalism of today focuses on collectivism and Greater Good at any cost, whereas Liberalism of the 19th Century, known as “Classical Liberalism” today, concerns the expansion of individual rights and protections from the tyranny of the majority. Similarly, the concept of Nationalism evolved, though not to such an extreme as the term Liberalism. Unlike today, Enlightenment Nationalism has little to do with shared race and ethnicity, and everything to do with shared culture, though on occasion they were one and the same. Like Bushido in Japan, the word “Nationalism” in the 20th century was perverted by National Socialist Germany and Fascist Italy, and today is used to invoke Godwin’s Law without actually saying “Hitler”. But in the early and mid-19th century (and to most academics today), Nationalism was, and is, a concept linked to shared culture, history, and geography. For example in 19th cent France, Normans, Bretons, Gascons, and Burgundians were ethnically different, but culturally “French”, same as “British” with the Welsh, English and Scots of the British Isles. America was founded on that very principle: taking the best of each ethnicity and subsuming it in American culture, we just know it today as “the Melting Pot”. As nationalist feelings swept Europe in the 1830s and 1840s, it was no surprise that the first revolutions of 1848 began in Italy, then under the domination of the Austrian Hapsburgs.

But no Roman shopkeeper, Venetian sailor, Neapolitan factory worker or Sicilian farmer just woke up and said, “I am going to revolt against my Hapsburg or Bourbon overseers because of Liberalism, Nationalism, and Romanticism”. Catalysts were needed, and 1848 saw the culmination of several. In 1845, a series of catastrophic famines began across Europe, the Great Irish Potato Famine being the most famous. Also, across Europe the effects of the Industrial Revolution exacerbated the political and social issues of absolutism and autocracy. The blights and mechanization in the fields pushed the peasants to the cities to find work in the factories which replaced the guilded artisans. Populations grew, urbanization increased (Berlin’s population tripled in 30 years) and unemployment skyrocketed as societal systems attempted, and failed, to adapt to the pressures. The poor were hungry, the middle class unemployed, and the upper classes disenfranchised with the ruling elite. The nobles of the conquered territories were first to look at their situations and determine that they could do a better job than their foreign overlords, especially those that had states prior to Congress of Vienna in 1815.

The first revolution based on these ideals and conditions actually occurred in Prussian occupied Greater Poland in 1846 where the Polish population opposed the Germanification of their lands. The revolt was swiftly crushed and the trial for the ringleaders ended in December of 1847 with eight sentenced to death and over a hundred to prison. The news spread across Europe and inflamed the passions of many who saw themselves in the same predicament as the stateless Poles. The winter was cold in most of Europe, which made revolutionizing not particularly attractive, but not in the temperate Mediterranean clime of Sicily. The first actual Revolution in 1848 occurred in Palermo, then in the Bourbon controlled Kingdom of Two Sicilies.

With winter foodstocks nearly depleted and the harvest a long ways off, on 12 January 1848 the people of Palermo overthrew the Bourbons, revived the Constitution of 1812 and established the Republic of Sicily, conquering the entire island except the town of Messina. Revolution quickly spread throughout Italy, most notably to Milan, Rome and Venice, and the news electrified the continent. And as the weather warmed, the Italian revolutions against the Hapsburgs and Bourbons spread to the center of the 19th century European universe – Paris.

France’s King Louis Phillipe outlawed the right to peacefully assemble, so as usual the people of Paris just figured out another way. In this case, the Parisians held “banquets” when they wanted to discuss politics. These banquets were just hours’ long assemblies where food was served, many involving hundreds of people. Speeches were given during the meal, and if you were important, between courses. On 22 February 1848, the banquets were outlawed. The barricades went up the next day. French soldiers accidentally, then intentionally, fired on protesters and revolution quickly spread throughout France. King Louis Phillipe abdicated on the 24th and France’s reformers created the Second French Republic.

Austria’s chancellor, Prince Klemens von Metternich, once said, “When France sneezes, all of Europe gets a cold.” Metternich was Europe’s arch diplomat, the architect of the Council of Vienna and the personification of the neo-Ancien Regimes of the early 19th century. And so it was with the Revolutions of 1848, soon to be known as the “Spring of Nations”. News of France and Italy’s revolutions spread like wildfire along Europe’s roads, rails, and telegraph lines. By March, Belgium, the Netherlands, the German states, Prussia, Austria, Hungary, Denmark, Serbia, Sweden, Poland, Switzerland, Moldavia, Wallachia, and Ireland were all in the midst of their own revolutions. Only Britain, whose previous reforms hamstrung support for revolution, and Russia which had no middle class to speak of, were spared.

However, by the end of the year, every revolution had failed.

The Springtime of Nations was not meant to be in 1848. One of the many rights people in 1848 were fighting for was the right to bear arms and form citizen militias to oppose the national armies of the ruling elite. The ruling authorities of each country had a monopoly on force and used their armies and police to bloodily put down each revolt. Furthermore, the regimes controlled the press, and the ability to assemble. Thus the revolts were neither organized nor coordinated, even among themselves. The revolutionaries were fighting for different things and they soon descended into class warfare. No faction could unite with another and the regimes took advantage. They soon divided the lower classes from the middle classes, the workers from the peasants, and isolated and suppressed each in turn. Millions fled the violence and famine, particularly to the Americas. By early next year, the Spring of Nations was over.

But like I mentioned before, it’s easy to kill a person, it is much harder to kill an idea. The people of Europe got a taste of freedom and they could no longer be ignored. The rulers of Europe noted that they couldn’t effectively govern without some consent of the people. The public and private spheres were inextricably linked. Many reforms were put into place in 1848 that would lead to great changes in the coming years. Austria and Prussia banned feudalism. Serfdom and slavery were banned across Europe, leaving Russia and the United States as the only countries with official systems of slavery. In many cases, absolute monarchy was replaced with constitutional monarchy. The petty states of central and southern Europe would gain a new national consciousness of shared sacrifice, and would lack only a unifying leader. Just a decade or so later Italy would get its leader in Giuseppe Garibaldi, and in Germany Otto von Bismarck.

In France, the Second French Republic elected Louis Napoleon the first President of France in December of 1848. Louis Napoleon was the nephew of Emperor Napoleon I, and dreamt of following in his namesake’s grandiose footsteps. In 1851, Louis Napoleon castigated the new constitution and proclaimed himself Emperor Napoleon III. His ascension to the throne of the Second French Empire would lead directly to the Crimean War, the reunification of Italy, the reunification of Germany, and the First World War.

“A cold” indeed.

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