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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.
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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 Napoleon 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.

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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 French Republic was proclaimed. An election was held, which was won by Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, the nephew of the Napoleon Bonaparte. 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 in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870.
  • Nationalist revolts threatened to tear apart the multiethnic Austrian Empire. Austria's dominant ethnic minority, the Hungarians, rebelled in the hopes of forming their own separate country. 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.
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  • At the same time, the Austrian Empire was also threatened by Italian nationalists. Hoping to begin the process of creating a united Italy and taking advantage of Austria being destabilized by revolution, the Kingdom of Sardinia invaded Austria's Italian possessions, 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. Incidentally, this revolution is the first time that a black, red, and gold tricolor was used as the German flag.
  • 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; Great Britain managed to avoid full-fledged revolution but did see massive demonstrations under the Chartists. The Netherlands also didn't have a revolution, but constitutional reforms were made there as a means of avoiding unrest.
  • 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 and the Texas Hill Country and overwhelmingly supporting the Union side in The American Civil War. (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. Forty-Eighters also went to Australia in sizable numbers, playing a key role in that nation's wine industry in particular.
  • It's a coincidence that Karl Marx 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. 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

  • Freedom and Necessity takes place shortly after these revolutions.
  • The French short film 1848 is about the French Revolution of 1848. In 1950, it received an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Short.
  • The first episode of Fall of Eagles opens with the Revolutions of 1848 being crushed.
  • Mike Duncan's podcast Revolutions: Season 7 (began airing July 2017) is about the Revolutions of 1848. As with the French Revolution, Duncan has announced that the Season will take as long as it takes.
  • 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 Princess Feodora to move into Buckingham Palace and become a regular for the duration of Series 3.
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