Conclusions of the Revolutions of 1848

From Academic Kids

The Revolutions
of 1848
Revolution in France
Revolution in Habsburg areas
Revolution in Germany
Revolution in Italy
Revolution in Poland
. . . We have been beaten and humiliated . . . scattered, imprisoned, disarmed and gagged. The fate of European democracy has slipped from our hands.
Pierre Joseph Proudhon, after the failures of 1848, quoted in The Age of Revolution and Reaction, (references), by Charles Breunig.

Ten years after the Revolutions of 1848, little had visibly changed, and many historians consider the revolutions a bloody failure. There are countless arguments, and we do not here attempt to analyze all sides.

On the other hand, both Germany and Italy were unified in somewhat over 20 years, and there were a few immediate successes for some revolutionary movements, notably in the Habsburg lands. Austria and Prussia eliminated feudalism by 1850, improving the lot of the peasants. European middle classes made political and economic gains over the next twenty years; France kept its universal manhood suffrage. Even oppressive Russia later freed the serfs on February 19, 1861. The Hapburgs finally had to give the Hungarians more self-determination in the Ausgleich of 1867, although this in itself resulted only in the rule of autocratic Magyars in Hungary instead of autocratic Germans.

Most of what the revolutionaries wanted they eventually got. After the middle classes had much of what they desired, they sometimes confounded the Marxists by giving more power to the lower classes.

But in 1848, the revolutionaries were idealistic and divided by the multiplicity of aims for which they fought -- social, economic, liberal, and national. Conservative forces exploited these divisions, and revolutionaries suffered from mediocre leadership. Middle-class revolutionists feared the lower classes, evidencing different ideas; counter-revolutionists exploited the gaps. As some reforms were enacted and the economy improved, some revolutionaries lost heart. When the Hapsburgs lightened the burden of feudalism, many peasants lost heart; similar failures occurred elsewhere. International support likewise lacked.

Britain couldn't support the Revolutions, as her own subordinate peoples (like the Irish next door, starving in part because of Britain's repressive corn laws) would clamor for independence. Autocratic Russia of course did not support the Revolutions, actively helping Austria in her war with a restive Hungarian splinter group. Both Britain and Russia opposed Prussia's plans on Schleswig-Holstein, tarnishing their view among Germany's liberal nationalists.

And why did nothing happen in Britain and Russia? Russia was still feudal and oppressive, but Britain was mostly industrialized. Freedom of speech and the electoral reform of 1832 in Britain are telling differences with the rest of Europe, who of course pointed out how horribly the Irish were treated. The starving peasants of Ireland never rebelled, kept down by Britain's iron hand. Others were no luckier.

The net result in the German states and France was more autocratic systems, despite reforms such as universal male suffrage in France, and strong social class systems remained in both. What reforms were enacted seemed like sops thrown to quell dissent, while privilege remained untouched. Nationalistic dreams also failed in 1848.

The Italian and German movements did provide an important impetus. Germany was unified under the iron hand of Bismarck in 1871 after her 1870 war with France; Italy was unified in 1861 as the United States was split into two nations and exploding into internecine civil war.

Some disaffected German bourgeois liberals (the Forty-Eighters, many atheists and freethinkers) migrated to the United States after 1848, taking their money, brains, and skills out of Germany and siding with the Union in the American Civil War, as they found slavery (and by implication, the Confederacy) distasteful with their image of America, then two nations. Over 177,000 German Americans served the Union cause. Like 1861 for the United States, 1848 was a watershed year for Europe, after which things were never again the same.


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