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Revolutions of 1848

The year 1848 was marked by almost universal revolt. In January, Palermo broke into insurrection, and won a new Neapolitan constitution. The people of Schleswig-Holstein revolted against absorption into Denmark. In February, Louis Philippe had to flee before the mob of Paris. In March, North Italy, Hungary, and Bohemia revolted against Austrian rule, and even Vienna rose in insurrection, and compelled Metternich to retire from office. Germany began to stir in earnest, and the National Parliament met in May.

From this time, however, the forces of reaction began to increase in power, and princes recovered from their first dismay. The King triumphed in Naples; Croat and Serb began to organise themselves against Magyar-German ascendency. Jealousies arose among the Italians, and Sardinia was left almost alone to fight the national battles in North Italy; she was defeated at Custozza in July by Radetzky, who captured Milan in August.

Then, while Jellacic was fighting the battles of the Emperor in Croatia, and Windischgratz took Prague in June, and Vienna in October, the Magyars were running riot under the guidance of Kossuth, and stirring the enmity of neighbouring nationalities. Croatia declared war on them in September, and Transylvania revolted in October. Their pride only rose with opposition, and in 1849 they proclaimed their independence; but, after a long struggle, they were finally crushed by Austria, with the help of Russia. Meanwhile, the German Parliament had led Prussia into a false position in the Schleswig-Holstein question, and its members had wasted months in academic discussions as to the Constitution of the Germany which they fondly imagined they had called into existence. They ingloriously disappeared in 1849. But the end was not yet.

Prince Metternich, chancellor of the Austrian Empire, dominated the stage of European history for a generation, as he strove against fate and labored to breathe life into a dead past. The years 1830-48 were years of unreality, of apparent stagnation and of actual preparation. In these years, mutterings of the coming storm are heard; men, without quite knowing why, anticipate the approaching 'deluge'; there is a vague sense of foreboding, a vague understanding of the hollowness of the existing peace. But diplomatists continued to intrigue and court labored to outwit court; rulers and their ministers fondly trusted that treaties will endure for ever, that peoples will be for ever restrained by conventions between governments. And all the while, beneath the surface, the volcanic flames of revolution burn daily more fiercely, gathering that strength which is to enable them to consume the poor marionettes who dance above them to the slow music of Prince Metternich's Austrian pipe. And as when a crater has for centuries been closed the eventual eruption is all the more violent, so the very success which appeared to wait upon the repressive policy of European rulers made the cataclysm, when it came, all the more terrible and all the more complete.

Men, who might otherwise have been mere Liberals and reformers, became extreme radicals and revolutionaries. To express an opinion even mildly uncomplimentary to government was dangerous; to increase the violence of the opinion did not greatly increase the danger and was in itself attractive, because it roused more interest and had a more dramatic flavor. And as those who had much to lose feared to take a risk, declining to barter the certainty of present good for the doubtful prospect of future gain, the agitation against the existing order fell largely into the hands of men, desperate because despairing, extreme in opinion because moderate in intellect. They did not think of reconstruction; to such enthusiastic minds, half-measures were anathema. They would overthrow, root out; and they were the more eager, not counting the cost, since in no case could it fall on them to pay the price.

In 1848 the gathering discontent and the demand for reform suddenly showed their full strength and extent; as if obeying a preconcerted signal, the liberal parties in France, Italy, Germany, and Austria, during the early months of 1848, gained control of the government and proceeded to carry out their program of reform in the same thoroughgoing way in which the National Assembly in France had done its work in 1789. The general movement affected almost every state in Europe, but the course of events in France, and in that part of central Europe which had so long been dominated by Metternich and Austria, merits especial attention. The events of the year 1848 moved so rapidly that one is likely to be at first confused by them. It must be remembered that the revolutionary movements in the separate countries of Germany, such as Austria, Prussia, Baden, etc., were quite different from the attempt to reform the whole confederation.

The causes are not far to seek. The very success with which 'stability' had been pursued undermined the foundation upon which' stability 'reposed. Europe had been given peace, or at least immunity from serious war, and having tasted the sweet cup of quietude, she had been drugged into insensibility of the danger of revolution. Moral hearts no longer trembled at the word 'Republic', at Jacobin phrases such as 'the Rights of Man'; advocacy of 'the People's Rule' was no longer reprobated by all godly men. And this calmness in the face of the spectres of the past was not due merely to a feeling of fancied security. It was the result also of growing independence of opinion, which took the lead out of the hands of those who had much and placed it in the hands of those who had little. Just as in England the Industrial Revolution and the Reform Bill transferred the balance of political power from the holders of property to the possessors of votes, making it needful to cajole and to bribe with promises an incorruptible and unintelligent electorate, so on the Continent men were less and less inclined to be silent and still in the presence of the awful majesty of constituted authority. Rather they listened greedily to the flattering phrases, the inspiring compliments of the new literary school, which, despite censorship and opposition, preached to the masses in a tongue which touched their hearts by conjuring up dazzling visions of gloriously impossible paradises.

In France there were various causes of discontent with the government of Louis Philippe. The liberals maintained that the king had too much power and demanded that every Frenchman should have the right to vote so soon as he reached maturity. As Louis Philippe grew older he not only opposed reforms himself but also did all he could to keep the parliament and the newspapers from advocating any changes which the progressive parties demanded. Nevertheless, the strength of the Republicans gradually increased. They found allies in the new group of socialistic writers who desired a fundamental reorganization of the State. On February 24, 1848, a mob invaded the Assembly, as in the time of the Reign of Terror, crying, "Down with the Bourbons, old and new! Long live the Republic!" The king abdicated, and a provisional government was established.

The news of the events at Paris set all Europe in a blaze. The long smoldering conflict between absolute and popular principles of government became open and violent. All the peoples subject to Austria - Magyar, Slavonian, and Italian - rose in revolt. The overthrow of Louis Philippe encouraged the opponents of Metternich in Germany, Austria, and Italy to attempt to make an end of his system at once and forever. In view of the important part that Austria had played in central Europe since the fall of Napoleon I, it was inevitable that she should appear the chief barrier to the attainment of national unity and liberal government in Italy and Germany. As ruler of Lombardy and Venetia she practically controlled Italy, and as presiding member of the German Confederation she had been able to keep even Prussia in line. Moreover, the territories of the Hapsburgs were inhabited by such a mixture of peoples that to grant national independence would mean complete disruption of the Empire.

The ground was therefore thoroughly prepared for the seeds of insurrection when the overthrow of Louis Philippe encouraged the opponents of Metternich in Germany, Austria, Hungary, and Italy to hope that they could destroy his system at once and forever. On March 13, 1848, a number of students in Vienna proceeded to the assembly hall where the local diet was in session, and, supported by the crowd that quickly gathered, invaded the building. Outside, the mob continued to increase, barricades were built, street fighting began, and shouts of "Down with Metternich!" penetrated the imperial palace.

The emperor was forced to yield the general demand by dismissing Prince Metternich and granting a free press, a national guard, and liberal constitutions to the several members of the empire. Metternich fled, and all his efforts, for thirty years, to suppress reform appeared to have come to naught. The aged Prince Metternich, convinced that it was no longer possible to check the rising torrent of revolution, found refuge in England, where he was heartily welcomed by his old friend the Duke of Wellington, who was himself occupied with a threatened uprising in London. After the flight of Metternich a new ministry was formed, which began to draft a constitution. Before the end of the month the helpless Austrian emperor had given his permission to the kingdoms of Hungary and Bohemia to draw up constitutions for themselves granting equality of all classes in the matter of taxation, religious freedom, and liberty of the press, and providing that each country should have a parliament of its own, which should meet annually.

Italy naturally took this favorable opportunity to revolt against the hated "Germans." Immediately on the news of Metternich's fall the Milanese expelled the Austrian troops from their city, and soon Austria was forced to evacuate a great part of Lombardy. The Venetians followed the lead of Milan and set up the republic of St. Mark. By this time a great part of Italy was in revolt. Constitutions were granted to Naples, Rome, Tuscany, and Piedmont by their rulers. Charles Albert, the king of Sardinia, was forced by public opinion to assume the leadership in the attempt to expel Austria from Italy.

Similar insurrections in Prussia, Hanover, Saxony, Wirtemberg and several smaller states were met by similar concessions. King Louis of Bavaria, who in many ways had forfeited the confidence of his subjects, resigned the crown to his son Maximilian II. A party in Baden and other states, aided by "free bands" in Switzerland, desired a Republic. Switzerland herself had lately passed through a crisis of opposition between the Jesuit or reactionary party and the Liberals. Seven Catholic cantons formed a separate League and appealed to arms, but they were defeated by a Federal force under General Dufour; and ultimately the Jesuits were expelled, the convents broken up and the "Sonderbund" dissolved. Warned by this peril, the Swiss increased the strength of their federal government by adopting a new constitution, modeled, with slight variations, upon that of the United States.

By the end of March, 1848, the prospects of reform seemed bright indeed. Hungary and Bohemia had been granted the rights which they had so long desired; a committee in Vienna was busy drawing up a constitution for the Austrian provinces; Lombardy and Venetia had declared their independence; four other Italian states had obtained their longed-for constitutions; a Prussian convention to reform the government had been promised; and, lastly, a great national assembly was about to be convened at Frankfort to prepare a constitution for Germany.

The reformers who had gained these seeming victories had, however, only just reached the most difficult part of their task. For, as in France, so also in the other countries, the revolutionists were divided among themselves, and this division enabled the reactionary rulers and their supporters to recover from the extraordinary humiliations which they had suffered during the various uprisings in March.

The king of Prussia determined to take the lead in Germany. He agreed to summon an assembly to draw up a constitution for Prussia. Moreover, a great National Assembly was convoked at Frankfort to draft a constitution for Germany at large. The new constitution provided that there should be a hereditary emperor at the head of the government, and that exalted office was tendered to the king of Prussia. Frederick William IV hated revolution and doubted whether the National Assembly had any right to confer the imperial title on him. He also felt that a war with Austria, which was likely to ensue if he accepted the crown, would be dangerous to Prussia, and so refused the honor. This decision rendered the year's work of the National Assembly fruitless, and its members gradually dispersed.

The timid and vacillating Ferdinand I resigned the imperial crown in favor of his nephew, Francis Joseph. The first care of the new emperor was the reduction of Hungary, which he committed to Prince Windischgriitz, the captor of Vienna. Many Poles threw themselves with zeal into the Hungarian cause, and the Czar Nicholas offered his aid to Francis Joseph, fearing lest the success of the rebels should lead to a similar effort in his own lately subjugated province. A vigorous campaign was begun against Hungary, which, under the influence of the patriotic Kossuth, had deposed its Hapsburg king and declared itself an independent republic under the presidency of Kossuth. The Tsar placed his forces at the disposal of Francis Joseph, and with the aid of an army of one hundred and fifty thousand Russians, who marched in from the east, the Hungarians were compelled to surrender. Austria took terrible vengeance upon the rebels. Tens of housands were hanged, shot, and imprisoned, and many, including Kossuth, fled to the United States or elsewhere. But within a few years Hungary won its independence by peaceful measures and became the equal of Austria in the dual federation, which from that time was officially known as Austria-Hungary.

Within two years the reformers were beaten everywhere, although not all their reforms were swept away. While the revolutions of 1848 seem futile enough when viewed from the standpoint of the hopes of March, they left some important indications of progress. The king of Prussia had granted his country a constitution, which, with some modifications, served Prussia down to the end of the World War. Piedmont also had obtained a constitution. The internal reforms, moreover, which these countries speedily introduced prepared them to lead once more, and this time with success, in a movement for national unity.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 03:29:21 ZULU