USM Open Source History Text: The World at War: World History 1914-1945

The Revolutions of 1848

In 1848, after thirty years of relative peace in Europe following the defeat of Napoleon, nearly every single European state or polity (with the notable exception of England) experienced a revolutionary movement designed to topple its conservative, monarchical government. The cause of these revolutions was, for simplicity’s sake, threefold. First, marginalized peoples of the major European empires – or groups that felt like they were “national peoples” – rebelled against centralized imperial authority to win the right of increased national self-determination. Hungarians, Serbs, Italians, Czechs, Poles, and Romanians, for example, wanted increased rights within or liberation from the Austrian Habsburg Empire. Second, people within the major centers of power revolted in order to win liberal rights. These liberal rights reflected the promise of the earlier revolutionary phase (French Revolution, American Revolution) and consisted of economic, political, and personal freedoms. These reformers wanted to end the social structure of conservative European society, in which hereditary classes and military elites maintained disproportional political rights and economic privileges.
Third, in the years leading up to 1848 dissent directed against the imperial or conservative state authorities swelled in the European countryside. People in the countryside were largely acting against the encroachment of the 19th century state into traditional land-use rights: the right to graze livestock on “common” land, the right to collect wood and fruits in commonly held forests. Increasingly, during the first half of the 19th century, such “rights of the commons” were scaled back to benefit large landowners and the state, part of a general push to consolidate agricultural production.

Without exception, every revolutionary effort in 1848 failed. Why? Two reasons predominate. First, the revolutionaries in 1848 were fighting for a mix of different goals. When people fight together but for different outcomes, moments arise when their interests diverge and they come into conflict with each other. Such was the case in 1848. The more conservative or moderate elements within the revolutionary movements, most notably the liberal revolutionaries in the towns and cities or peasants, in the case of France, eventually allied with the conservative establishment in fear of the type of Jacobinism witnessed during the French Revolution or in the from of rural unrest. Second, the preponderance of violence was on the state side. During and after the Napoleonic Wars, the modern European state became heavily militarized. This meant that Prussia, Austria, and Russia could field huge armies to suppress revolts. In France, universal elections in the spring of 1848 brought to power a conservative government led by Louis Napoleon, the nephew of the great dictator. Napoleon III owed his broad electoral victory largely to the votes of the rural population. Such an electoral outcome surprised the liberals and radicals in Paris and set the stage for the crushing of the June insurrection by Napoleon III’s army a few months later.

The revolutions of 1848 failed to topple the old regime European states, but they exposed key tensions and weaknesses that would define the European political landscape for the next seventy years. The revolutions also signaled the opening of a new era marked by the rise of industrialization, imperialism, colonialism, and nationalism. These forces will give the world around 1914 its shape.

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