Thoughts on the Revolutions of 1848

(Photo: Barricade Rue Soufflot by Horace Vernet)

Revolutions and Economics

Revolutions are caused and driven by economics, and the Revolutions of 1848 are no exception. The Agricultural Revolution, the French Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, the Dot Com Revolution: nearly all revolutions are economic. In the case of 1848, it was the economic factors that caused the social and political upheaval that we now call the Revolutions of 1848.

One of the economic factors were increased agricultural productivity combined, ironically, with poor harvests. Technological improvements in farming meant less manpower was needed on the farm. Specifically, from the 1830s and 1840s, Prussia, Saxony, and other German states reorganized agriculture, introducing sugar beets, turnips, and potatoes, yielding a higher level of food production that enabled a surplus rural population to move to industrial areas. Later, however, a series of poor harvests that drove hungry farmers to join the surplus farming populations to seek food and employment in the urban areas of Europe. The infamous potato light of Ireland actually affected many places in northern Europe as well as the Czech region of Central Europe. The Rhineland had drastic shortages of rye and, these combined shortages then also increased the prices for food in Europe according to the economic principles of supply and demand.

The increased urbanization also served the needs of increasing industrialization in Europe as well. Urban workers labored long hours with little or no days off in order to eke out a basic living. Child labor in the mills and factories, earning a fraction of their adult counterparts’ wages. Extremely unsafe working conditions, with insufficient access to fresh air, sanitary facilities, and breaks.

While historians usually avoid using the term Industrial Revolution in France because of the slow development, there was significant growth in railroads and banking (Banque de France). France became a luxury location, fueling perceptions of class inequality. Belgium was the second most industrializing state next to the United Kingdom, and the German states had truck line linking all major cities even in the absence of a central government.

In the German states, the industrial revolution in the textile and railroad industries created an economic boom for the nascent middle class of managers and engineers. The rising middle class had rising economic and political expectations that blossomed further with the Zollverein starting in 1834. Thus, the political expectations versus the political realities contributed to the Revolutions of 1848 in the German states.

These agricultural and industrial economic factors thus bred dissatisfaction with the political leadership in Europe and demands for more participation in government and democracy. The governments of Europe affected were authoritarian monarchies, Sicily, France, Austro-Hungary, the various Germanies, etc. It is worth noting that the United Kingdom, the most democratic government in Europe, did not have a Revolution in 1848; the other non-revolution that stands out is Russia. As has been said, Russia did have a Revolution of 1948, but it happened in 1905.

Theoretical Models of Revolution

There are many theories of how and why revolutions happen. One of the most read theories is “Anatomy of Revolution” by Crane Brinton. In 1938, Brinton outlining the uniformities of political revolutions: the fall of the Old Regime, the rise of revolutionaries, moderates share power with radicals, radicals achieve total power and the corresponding reign of terror, then the convalescence stage. This model has also been described as the fever model: incubation, symptomatic, crisis, and convalescence. Antelope Yunglang has a very pro-revolutionary model called the Four Stages of the Revolution that identify the Insurrection Stage, Maintenance Stage, Development Stage, and the Final Period.

In addition to Brinton, Fever Model, and Yunglang, there is also the four-stage Common Process Model.  The “common process” holds that revolutions begin with (1) mobilization of liberals and nationalists, (2) these people win success and political concessions initially, (3) tensions within ranks lead to splits between moderates and radicals, (4) making a counterrevolution possible.

Both the Revolutions of 1848 in France and the German states fit the common process model well, though it perhaps is most fitting to the French experiences of 1848:

In France, liberals and nationalists rose up in February, created a provisional government, began to disagree, and then the conservatives and moderates won the national election in December. The election of Louis Napoleon effectively ended the Revolution of 1848 in France.

In the German states, the March Days led to the creation of the Frankfurt Assembly in May of 1848. This a primary distinction between the two revolutions. In France, the Provisional Government was, well, the government. Louis Philippe had abdicated and gone into exile. In the German states, the revolutionaries never took control of the Prussian, Austrian, or other German governments. While the revolutionaries won success and political concessions initially, the inability of delegates to become the legitimate government ended the revolution at that point. The Stage Three of the Common Process (tensions between moderates and radicals) was meaningless because the moderates and radicals never achieved the power of the purse or the power over the army in the German states. Thus, there was no need for a counterrevolution because the revolution stalled after Stage Two. The withdrawal of the Austrian delegates from the Frankfurt Assembly, the October Declaration by Kaiser King Frederick William IV of Prussia, and the arrest of the remaining members of the assembly in Stuttgart by Imperial soldiers effectively ended the German Revolution of 1848.

Success or Failure?

While historians have stated that over 50 countries were affected by the Revolutions of 1848 which began in Sicily in January, then spread across Europe after the more significant February revolution in France. However, the major revolutions only occurred in France, the German states, and the Austrian Empire. Major revolutions in 3 out of 50 countries is hardly a spectacular success. A monarchy in France under King Louis Philippe was ultimately replaced with an Empire under Louis Napoleon. Hungarian rebellions in the Austrian Empire achieved a name-change; The Austrian Empire became the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The proposed new Germany was rejected by the Junkers and ultimately by Prussian Kaiser Frederick William as well.

The Frankfurt Assembly of German states failed over the Greater or Lesser Germany question as well as the delegates of money, land, or army (John Merriman, 1996; Mike Rapport, 2008). Revolutions need armies and money, as well as ideas. The revolutionaries of 1848 failed to control the ‘power of the purse’ in both German and Austria. In France, the rural populations ended the revolution by their conservative votes in the election of December 1848, returning the power of the purse and the army to the monarchists and counter-revolutionary members of the government.

A spectacular failure indeed.

The Effect of the Metternich System

While the Metternich System may have ended the Revolutions of 1848, the Metternich System was also responsible for creating the Revolutions of 1848 as well. The reactionary governments installed at the Congress of Vienna became the lid on the boiling pot of liberalism and nationalism that exploded in 1848. The reduction in the number of German states at the Congress of Vienna, however, strengthened the position of Prussia. The stronger Prussia, therefore, was in a more entrenched position to resist the revolutionaries from the March Days and subsequent demands by the Frankfurt Assembly. Metternich’s reestablishment of Austria dominance in the Italian peninsula after the defeat of Murat’s Naples also indirectly limited the success of Italian revolutions in Sicily and Sardinia.

The Congress System created the very international communication and coordinance that was absent from the Revolutions of 1848. While the Revolutions of 1848 were short-lived, not all the revolutions ended with the original or similarly repressive governments in power.

In the Netherlands, King William II preemptively and proactively altered the Dutch constitution to reform elections and effectively end the absolute monarchy. In Ireland, the German states, and Italy, the Revolutions of 1848 fueled nationalism that ultimately led to independence and unification respectively. In France, while the December elections led to the conservative Second Empire, the universal suffrage achieved in the Revolution of 1848 was never taken away.

It is interesting that the United Kingdom, perhaps the most democratic government in Europe, supported the Metternich System while even the monarchist Duke of Wellington pushed democratic reforms and Catholic Emancipation in Ireland. In the years between the Battle of Waterloo and the 1848 Revolutions, the anti-absolutist Whig Party led the British government for nearly 12 years. In fact, the Whig Party controlled the British government during the Revolutions of 1848.

Why did the democratically inclined and anti-absolutist Prime Minister John Russell not do more to support the Revolutions of 1848? Perhaps the success of the Metternich System was to discourage British interference in Continental Europe, not the establishment of reactionary regimes on the Continent.

Metternich and the Metternich System may have been important in the relative failure of the 1848 Revolutions, but the absence of British agitation for increased democratization in Europe is probably as influential as the role of the Metternich System.