Europe's 1848 Revolutions: Causes and Failures

In 1848, through a combination of long and short term causes, revolutions broke out across Europe, namely in France, Italy and Germany. The failure of the revolutions in Italy and Germany can be contrasted against the success of the revolution in France, where the existing Orleanist monarchy’s reluctance to assert it’s dominance against insurgents led to its downfall and republican success. In both Italy and Germany it can be argued that the respective leaders’ ability to affirm supremacy was never undermined and therefore the attempted revolutions were easily quashed and, for the most part, the old system of government reinstated.

The revolutions in Germany, Italy and France were not directly linked as far as short-term causes are concerned. However, there are, to a certain extent, links in their long term causes. Europe endured hard times during much of the 1840s. A series of bad harvests culminating in the potato blight of 1845-46 brought widespread misery and some starvation. An economic depression added to the hardship, spreading discontent among the poor and the middle class alike.

The view that the 1848 revolts were the result of not just one crisis but a combination of several is particularly supported by the French historian Ernest Labrousse1. These disasters brought about the need for constitutional change in line with the evolving social transformations of the time. The British had recognised and responded to this need for change much earlier because the industrial revolution was occurring much quicker in Britain than on the European mainland, save Belgium.

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The economic and social changes – namely the rise in the educated middle classes necessitated some sort of amendment in legislation. This problem was never addressed in France and led to the rise in proposed alternative systems of government. In both Italy and Germany, uprisings were brought about by liberals demanding more freedom. In Germany, nationalists were inspired by the success of republicans in France. In Italy, liberals were stirred by the liberal concessions of the new pope, Pius IX and nationalists were roused by his seemingly sympathetic views to the anti-Austrian views in northern Italy.

In order for a revolution to be successful, existing regimes need to be delegitimised, the existing regimes ability to use force needs to be subverted, a legitimacy for the new regime needs to be generated and a way of protecting this new legitimacy needs to be established. Existing regimes were successfully delegitimised in Germany (where it was argued that the existing order was not national or representative enough), Italy (where the common desire was to get rid of repressive Bourbon and foreign rule) and France (where republicans, legitimists and Bonapartists campaigned against Louis Philippe’s government).

However, in both Italy and Germany, the existing administration’s ability to use force was never undermined and this meant that the insurrections were able to be crushed. This can be contrasted with France where Louis Philippe suffered from lack of support from his national guard in critical moments. When it came to generating legitimacy for the new regime, the Italians and Germans were at a loss. Conflicting ideas and the fact that Piedmont was too weak to lead Italy in 1848 undermined Italian insurgents ability to create a legitimacy.

In Germany, revolutionaries were unable to construct any accepted government or physical authority. Louis Philippe though faced problems in France since the Orleanist monarchy, in itself, was not a legitimate one2. In both Germany and Italy, revolutionaries were unable to defend themselves against the existing establishments and so were easily crushed. In France, revolutionaries were lucky that Louis Philippe decided to resign – he could have, if he had truly desired, crushed the insurrections with force. It remains a mystery why he didn’t.

It is clear that the fact that Italian and German revolutionaries were too divided and disorganised, and that rulers in Italy and Germany too powerful to be overthrown ultimately led to the failure of both revolutions. In France, though, the existing regime was easily delegitimised and the lack of determination of the Orleanist monarchy to stay in power led to the success of the French revolution. The reasons why Revolution broke out in Italy are threefold and go back as far as 1846 with the election of the new pope, Pius IX. Within a month of being elected, Pius began to introduce reforms.

He allowed political prisoners to return from exile, taxes were reduced and press censorship relaxed. These reforms made Pius seem, as Metternich put it, to be “a liberal pope”3 and sympathetic to the anti-Austrian cause in northern Italy. He became a national hero and was urged by Mazzini to lead the campaign for Italian rights. He then subtly attacked Austria by proposing a customs league modelled on the Prussian Zollverein, which would exclude Austrian held states, threatening an end to Austrian dominance of the Italian economy.

These reforms prompted the leaders of Tuscany and Piedmont to follow suite. Charles Albert introduced a host of liberal ideas which prompted Sardinia to want to join Piedmont. This was a move to Italian unity which roused the hopes of nationalists, who now looked to completely eradicate Austrian rule. The second reason for revolution breaking out encouraged these nationalists even further. Civil war had broken it in Switzerland in 1847. By 1848, Switzerland had a new liberal constitution with guaranteed civil rights, popular democracy, and a say in economic, foreign and military affairs.

The Italian nationalists looked on this as a lesson, since the Swiss had managed to throw off Austrian control and were now enjoying the fruits of their freedom. Thirdly, it was clear by 1848 that Austria was weak. Her ruler, Ferdinand I was partially insane and his government was becoming increasingly effective. Austria’s concerns were focused on central and Eastern Europe and she looked on her two pieces of territory in Italy, Lombardy and Venetia, for taxes alone and therefore wasn’t terribly keen on going out of her way to defend them4.

These three factors encouraged nationalists that they could throw out Austrian rule and the tobacco boycott in Milan began, rather craftily, the revolutions. However, these revolutions were a failure for a number of inter-related reasons. Firstly, the opportunity presented by Austrian weakness which the nationalists pounced upon was only temporary and misleading. The resignation of Metternich left the Austrians only temporarily immobilised, and the restoration of royal power in Naples by Ferdinand II began on 17 May.

Secondly the revolutionaries were hopelessly divided amongst themselves and failed to act together in order to protect the advances they had made. All had different ideas as to the future of Italy and their divisions made it easy for power to be reasserted. Thirdly, the Italians received no help, but active opposition from key European powers, namely France, who were itching to get a foothold in Italy and capitalised on the pope’s weakness and inability to control revolutionaries in the Papal States.

The 1848 Italian revolution failed because there was never a coherent alternative legitimacy once the existing regimes had been delegitimised and the revolutionaries never had the capacity to protect their advances, as shown by the defeat of Charles Albert at Custoza. Though Germany was by no means a coherent nation in 1848 and events carried on independently in separate states, there was a common theme as to the reason why revolution broke out in 1848, and this was the upsurge of liberalism and the necessity for legislation change to accommodate liberal ideas. These liberal ideas were predominantly led by the expansion of educated middle classes, ambitious in their demands for freedom of action, political participation and a stronger national identity. The long term issues of agricultural and economic slumps were more of an issue in Germany than in Italy and were more applicable to the social unrest which brought about the revolutions. The economic pressures of the nineteenth century were particularly severe between 1845 and 1847.

The acute agricultural crisis coincided with an industrial slump and Europe’s young industrial economies were unable to cope with the pressures of modernisation. There were three main factors which combined to cause the social movement against conservative governments. Firstly, social and economic hardships such as harvest failures had resulted in sudden, steep price rises. Wheat prices rose 51. 8% in Hamburg between 1841 and 1847, 70%of that rise coming after 1845. Secondly, the middle class exclusion from politics and power led to calls for liberal reforms.

Those in the financial sector sought greater freedom to invest and expand; others sought a better society with more political participation. Thirdly, there was a growth in nationalist feelings, fed by issues like the Schleswig-Holstein question. In the short term, republican success on French soil encouraged rural violence and urban barricades, panicking governments into liberal concessions, which further encouraged revolutionaries to cause insurrection since they felt that they had governments on the defensive. Despite initial successes, the 1848 German revolution was ultimately a failure.

The existing political order had been successfully de-legitimised as shown by the fall of Metternich and the granting of constitutions all over Germany, and the existing orders ability to enforce its will was successfully undermined by both the scale, and the speed at which protest happened, surprising leaders and preventing military response. However, the revolutionaries failed to establish a plausible, stable alternative legitimacy. The proposed alternative, the Frankfurt assembly never had broad and sufficient support6.

The revolutionaries also failed to establish control over any means of enforcement. They were ultimately dependant on the armies of Prussia, Austria and other German states, which never accepted their authority. The 1848 German revolution failed because it effectively began to lose support by 1849, after initial success. The failure of the Frankfurt parliament to command any sort of respect invalidated the national cause and harkened the failure of the German revolution as a whole. The French revolution was different from the other two in that it was the only one that was successful.

It was brought about more through combination of long term factors with a spark to set the actual revolution in motion, than with the amassment of short term factors. By 1848, when Louis Philippe had been forced to abdicate, his monarchy was well established. However, one might argue that its fall was inevitable – he was not a legitimate king. He had not inherited the throne, and therefore could never say that he was king by divine right, the people had never been asked to express an opinion about his accession to power and he was not a military leader or the figurehead of a strong military group.

The Orleanist monarchy was merely a useful compromise seized at by desperate property owners when they had feared for their future. 7 Thus Louis Philippe’s government was one that relied upon leadership that continued to inspire confidence in its supporters. However, it is here that Louis Philippe’s character came into play in undermining his own regime. By 1840 he had become increasingly reclusive and even stopped reviewing units of the National Guard. His public appearances became increasingly rare and became less effective in maintaining personal loyalties.

This meant that by 1848, there were a number of organised groups in France constantly questioning the legitimacy and any scandal involving the Orleanist monarchy. These groups included the republicans, legitimists and Bonapartists. The republicans were the most widely supported and consisted of the “low order” republicans who believed it would lead to the rectification of the ills of poverty, and the “high order” republicans who were involved with a romanticised view of the republic set up by revolution. The legitimists consisted of those supporters of Charles X who had not rallied to Louis Philippe.

They were not significant in terms of numbers, but rather in terms of how much damage they could cause by questioning every scandal. The Bonapartists supported the reinstatement of a Napoleonic empire and supported Louis Napoleon. Louis Philippe, therefore, was unfortunate in that there were a number of ready made alternative systems of government available. His unsuccessful foreign policy also lost the Orleanist monarchy support and many of his supporters began to look for alternatives that might do better.

The government’s reaction to the social changes going in France made unrest inevitable. Paris was growing rapidly and creating huge problems of poverty. Louis Philippe’s reaction was to claim that there was nothing he could do about it. 8 The incident which sparked off revolution was when troops fired on a fairly good-natured crowd, leaving eighty dead and wounded. This was exactly what republican leaders needed to anger and mobilise a majority in Paris.

Lack of support from the National Guard rendered the king useless and on the 24th of February, he abdicated. Louis Philippe did not need to abdicate. He could have called in the army to quash rebellion had he wanted to. As Keith Randell puts it, “the government was not overthrown, it was allowed to fall. ” The fact that revolutions were so widespread in Europe has led historians to look for common themes between the revolutions. The only common theme as to why revolution broke out in 1848 in Italy, Germany and France is the economic hardship of the 1840’s.

This economic hardship brought about problems which the existing regimes had to deal with. In France, the problems were simply ignored. In Germany and Italy, liberal concessions were made which only fuelled the desire for change in the hearts of revolutionaries. However, the lack of a common goal rendered the Italian revolution a failure, the lack of a respected alternative government rendered the German revolution a failure and the early resignation of Louis Philippe rendered the French revolution a success.

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Europe's 1848 Revolutions: Causes and Failures. (2017, Dec 26). Retrieved from

Europe's 1848 Revolutions: Causes and Failures
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