2023 marks 175 years since the ‘Year of Revolutions’ in 1848. The political and social upheavals and revolutionary movements that erupted across Europe – particularly in France, Germany, Poland, Italy, Denmark, and the Austrian Empire – were the most widespread revolutionary wave Europe has ever seen.
Over 50 countries were affected, yet this revolutionary wave occurred without any kind of central international coordination. No single cause or theory can explain why they transpired; the sentiments that fuelled this year of tumultuous change were instead sparked by a confluence of various social, economic, and political factors, including widespread dissatisfaction with autocratic regimes, economic hardships, demands for political reforms, and desires for national unification and independence.
However, although widespread, many of these revolutions fizzled out or collapsed within a year. What triggered them, was anything achieved, and why did many of the revolutions end relatively swiftly?
Political repression and autocratic rule
Many European countries were governed by autocratic monarchies or regimes that limited civil liberties and political participation. Citizens had grown increasingly frustrated by their lack of representation, and of oppressive governance and censorship, leading to a widespread demand for democracy over monarchy.
A series of poor harvests since 1839, economic recessions, and industrialisation-related changes had meant decreased investment in agriculture, leading to widespread poverty, unemployment, rising food prices and shortages.
The working class and urban populations faced dire living conditions, contributing to social unrest and anger at how neglectful their country’s monarch could be.
Ideas of liberalism, nationalism, and socialism were gaining traction across Europe. Calls for individual rights, constitutional reforms, national identity, and social equality spread through intellectual circles, influencing people to demand political change and other liberties such as freedom of the press.
Desire for national unification and independence
Many regions within Europe were fragmented politically, comprising several states or having provinces under foreign rule. Indeed France’s Napoleon Bonaparte made his brother King of Spain. Movements aimed at national unification, independence, or autonomy grew stronger, especially in Italy, Germany, Hungary, and Poland, fostering a strong sense of nationalism.
Inspiration from previous revolutions
The success of previous revolutions, notably the French Revolution of 1830, inspired people to believe in the possibility of effecting change through collective action.
When the February Revolution broke out in France in 1848, resulting in the overthrow of King Louis-Philippe and the establishment of the French Second Republic, it acted as a catalyst, sending a powerful message across Europe, from the Italian and German states to the Habsburg Empire and other regions. People in other countries saw this as an opportunity to demand similar reforms and challenge existing authoritarian regimes, sparking uprisings across the continent.
Social inequality and class struggles
Social disparities between the aristocracy and the lower classes fuelled discontent.
Urban populations had risen sharply, and the long working hours and inability to buy food or pay rent for the slums the working-class and urban poor lived in prompted them to seek better working conditions, fair wages, and representation in the face of industrialisation’s impact on labour.
Meanwhile the middle-classes feared the new urban arrivals, concerned that the cheaper, mass-produced goods facilitated by industrialisation now replaced traditional skilled artisan products. Indeed many of the revolutions’ leaders were middle-class workers, who felt misunderstood and disconnected from their rulers and their comparatively lavish lives.
The revolutions of 1848 were diverse in nature, with each country facing its unique set of grievances and aspirations. Although the uprisings didn’t result in lasting and widespread changes at the time, they did plant the seeds for future movements advocating for democracy, national unity, and social reforms in Europe. Outcomes varied region to region and many of the revolutions were considered failures, but there were a few notably significant events.
The February Revolution in France led to the establishment of the French Second Republic, and Denmark also experienced an end to its 200 year old monarchy.
In Italy, 1848 marked a series of uprisings against Austrian and other foreign rule, as well as efforts for national unification under figures like Giuseppe Garibaldi and Giuseppe Mazzini. Similarly, the German states witnessed widespread protests, demands for constitutional reforms, and aspirations for a unified Germany, culminating in the Frankfurt Parliament’s attempts to create a German national assembly.
The Habsburg Empire faced intense unrest, particularly in Hungary, where demands for autonomy and reforms led to clashes with the Austrian monarchy. The Hungarian Revolution, led by figures like Lajos Kossuth, sought political freedoms and autonomy within the empire. However, serfdom was put to an end in Austria and Hungary.
Elsewhere in Europe, similar movements for liberal reforms and national independence emerged. In Poland, an uprising against Russian rule aimed at regaining independence, although it was eventually suppressed. Revolts and demands for change also occurred in regions like the Czech lands, Romania, and the Balkans.
Despite the initial enthusiasm and hopes for change, many of these revolutions faced significant challenges. Internal divisions among revolutionary factions, conflicting interests, and the reluctance of conservative forces to relinquish power led to the suppression of several uprisings. By the end of 1848 and into 1849, many of the revolutions had been quelled, and conservative forces regained control across Europe. Thousands of people also lost their lives in these conflicts.
Nonetheless, the events of 1848 had a lasting impact, serving as catalysts for future movements advocating for liberal reforms, national unification, and democratic governance. 1848 marked a significant turning point in European history, highlighting aspirations for change and setting the stage for subsequent revolutions and political transformations in the years to come.