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Useful Notes / Revolutions of 1848

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The Spring of Nations

"1848 was the turning point at which modern history failed to turn."
G. M. Trevelyan.

A series of European revolutions which, funnily enough, took place in 1848. They failed.

First, rewind to 1815. The end of The Napoleonic Wars was essentially a victory for reactionary forces. They blamed Napoléon Bonaparte on the radicalism of The French Revolution, which ironically, Napoleon wanted to end. Thus, as the allies met in Vienna to decide the fate of post-war Europe, their aim was to prevent anything like the French Revolution from happening again. The traditional European order, divine-rights monarchs and suchlike, was to be restored as much as possible. The crowned heads of Europe agreed that when one of them was threatened by the next would-be French Revolution, they would act together to put it down.

Fastforward to 1848. A wave of revolutions swept across Europe as the people of various countries rebelled against the post-Napoleonic conservative order. Who were these people that rebelled? Generally, they were a mix of liberal republicans, radical socialists, and various kinds of nationalists — in other words, people who had little in common other than their shared opposition to the current order in Europe. These differences allowed reactionary forces to use a Divide and Conquer strategy, combined with their superior military force, to regain control of the situation. By the early part of 1849, the revolutions had been crushed, but they had begun to change many Europeans' way of thinking about society.

Quite a lot of stuff happened during and as a result of the Revolutions of 1848:

  • In France, King Louis Philippe was overthrown and the Second Republic was proclaimed. After some wrangling, France was declared a presidential republic. An election for president was held, which was won by Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte (the nephew of the Napoléon Bonaparte) basically by inventing right-wing populism. France managed to stay a republic until 1851, when Louis-Napoleon noticed that his term was starting to run out. He decided the solution was to follow in his uncle's footsteps and become emperor. As Napoleon III, he ruled France until his defeat and dethroning in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, ending the French monarchy for good.
  • When news of the fall of the July Monarchy hit Vienna, the great city of the Habsburg Empire went into revolt practically overnight. Before anyone knew it, the Viennese had forced the complete collapse of the Imperial ministry. They particularly sent Count Klemens Wenzel von Metternich—the arch-conservative Foreign Minister and de facto Prime Minister of the Empire—into exile, dismantling his pervasive mass surveillance and intrusive Police State in the process. For a moment in the late spring-early summer of 1848, it looked like Vienna was on the verge of transforming the Empire into a democratic constitutional monarchy. However, that moment didn't last very long, and by the winter had been silenced by the guns of Marshal Windisch-Grätz.
  • Encouraged by the fall of Metternich, nationalist revolts threatened to tear apart the multiethnic Austrian Empire. Austria's largest and most powerful ethnic minority, the Hungarians, rebelled in the hopes of forming their own separate country. They managed to hold on until early 1849... but weirdly foreshadowing 1956, the Russians invaded to put down the Hungarian Revolution. With Habsburg rule over Hungary restored, the Austrian Empire had been saved from fracturing... for now.
  • At the same time, the Austrian Empire was also threatened by Italian nationalists. Though Austria's Italian possessions were relatively small potatoes compared to the Austrian German and Hungarian ones, the Kingdom of Lombardy-Venetia (which is what Austria called its chunk of Italy) was extremely rich, providing one-third of the Empire's tax revenue despite only having one-sixth of the Empire's population. When the two major centers of Austrian Italy (Milan and Venice) revolted and successfully drove out their imperial garrisons, the Kingdom of Sardinia invaded to support them, beginning the First Italian War of Independence. The Papal States initially supported the Sardinians, but later The Pope decided that Catholic countries going to war with each other was a no-no. Outraged, the nationalists ousted the Pope and proclaimed a new Roman Republic. In the end, the Austrians regained control of their Italian possessions and the Papal States were restored.
  • All the Little Germanies attempted to unite into one country through liberal reform. This so-called "liberal nationalism" failed, paving the way for Otto von Bismarck's more warlike approach (which would succeed beyond expectations).
  • Not every European country had a revolution in 1848. Russia, Portugal, Spain, and the Ottoman Empire, being on the peripheries and thus slightly out of sync with the rest of Europe, were among the most notable European countries to be left out of the party. The Netherlands, Denmark, and Sweden-Norway also didn't have a revolution, but the monarchs of those countries prudently adopted constitutional reforms to avoid unrest. These states were essentially fully parliamentary monarchies with more-or-less strictly ceremonial monarchs (i.e. the British model) from this point forward.
  • In the United Kingdom, Britain managed to avoid full-fledged revolution, as middle-class demands for political reform had been largely sated by the Reform Act 1832, but did see massive working-class demonstrations under the Chartists. Ireland, meanwhile, had just experienced the worst year of the Irish Potato Famine, so insurrections were small and localised. Ireland's only contribution to the 1848 Revolutions was the Young Irelanders' Rebellion, also known as "the Battle of the Widow McCormack's Cabbage Field", which gives you a clue as to how big it was. More notably, the Irish Tricolour was also flown for the first time, a gift from French '48ers.
  • Although the Revolutions of 1848 are regarded as a European phenomenon, related revolutions took place as far afield as Brazil.
  • Speaking of The Americas, the United States was indirectly affected — not so much by the revolutions themselves as by their aftermath. After the revolutions failed, many European radicals, seeing the US as a model for the sort of countries that they wanted to build, fled there, where a number of them became involved in the American anti-slavery and labor movements. Germans made up an especially notable cohort of such "Forty-Eighter" immigrants, settling primarily in the Midwest (providing the source of the large German populations and influence of German culture in places like Cleveland, Cincinnati, Milwaukee,note  and St. Louis) and the Texas Hill Country. They overwhelmingly supported the Union side in The American Civil War, and several figures from radical democratic Left of 1848 Germany became significant figures in the Union Army (most notably Friedrich Hecker and Gustav Struve, who led armed rebellions in 1848 for a centralist republican Germany).note  (In Texas, this brought violent retaliation from the secessionist government.) In turn, the influx of immigrants fueled the rise of nativism and anti-Catholicism, with the "Know Nothing" movement emerging in response. Also of note, a good number of disillusioned "Forty-Eighters" went to San Francisco and became Forty-Niners during the California Gold Rush.
  • Forty-Eighters also went to Australia in sizable numbers, playing a key role in that nation's wine industry in particular (which has a strong German/Central European stamp to this day).
  • It's a coincidence that Karl Marx (then living in Brussels) and Friedrich Engels wrote The Communist Manifesto in 1848, but it nevertheless discussed the factions involved in the revolutions. That "Guizot" guy mentioned as chasing the specter of communism was one of the first forced out of office by the 1848 revolutions basically days after the book was published.note  Similar things applied for Metternich. Unsurprisingly taking the side of the socialists, Marx and Engels argued that the bourgeoisie, i.e. the liberal republicans, would eventually have to be overthrown by the proletariat, i.e. the working classes.
  • And finally, liberal constitutional regimes actually were established in Denmark and Switzerland without violence, only protests.

The actual consequences of 1848 and Europe as a whole have been debated by historians. The consensus is that the Revolutions failed but were widespread enough to force governments on a path of reform, and directed many reactionaries in favor of social reforms that they would formerly have regarded as an outrage but now considered Necessarily Evil. The suppression of the revolutions also showed the greater power and authoritarianism of European and Central European nations. The biggest impact of these events in the eyes of historians is the "lessons" various participants and observers learned from it. Bismarck believed that the liberal regimes and reformers should revolutionize from above and, in effect, bribe the lower classes via The Moral Substitute. Marx and his later interpreters felt that the events failed because of a lack of cohesiveness and organization, and that later revolutions would need to be organized and coordinated. So at once it was a sign of its times and couched in the rhetoric of 19th Century republicanism, but it was a sign of things to come as well.

The Arab Spring of 2011 has often been compared to the Revolutions of 1848.

Depictions in fiction

Fan Works

Films — Live Action

  • The French short film 1848 is about the French Revolution of 1848. In 1950, it received an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Short.


  • Freedom and Necessity takes place shortly after these revolutions.
  • Sentimental Education is set during the 1848 Revolution and the Second Republic, showing the prelude, euphoria and cynical collapse from the perspective of Frederic Moreau.

Live-Action TV

  • The first episode of Fall of Eagles opens with the Revolutions of 1848 being crushed.
  • The first two episodes of Series 3 of Victoria are set against the backdrop of these revolutions, with a particular focus on the French one. The main plot is concerned with the Chartist movement and Queen Victoria's response to it. In the third episode, some of the aftermath is dealt with in a subplot about Hungarian revolutionary Lajos Kossuth's visit to Great Britain. The show also uses the revolutions as an excuse for Victoria's older half-sister Princess Feodora to move into Buckingham Palace and become a regular for the duration of Series 3.

Video Games

  • Aviary Attorney is set in 1848 Paris, with the revolution proper kicking off in the game's final act. At one point, a side character decides to escape the Austria. Whoops.

Web Original

  • Mike Duncan's podcast Revolutions: Season 7 (July 2017-March 2018) is about the Revolutions of 1848. As with the French Revolution, Duncan left it open-ended, but surprised himself by not taking as long as he expected. Still, at 32 episodes, it's the third-longest season after the French Revolution (Season 3, 53 episodes + 4 supplementals) and Russian Revolutions (Season 10, 103 episodes, with over 40 episodes before 1917).