Revolutions of 1848

gigatos | April 3, 2022


The Revolutions of 1848, known in some countries as the Spring of Nations, Spring of Nations, Spring of the Peoples or the Year of the Revolution, were a series of political upheavals across Europe in 1848. It remains the most widespread revolutionary wave in European history.

The revolutions were essentially democratic and liberal in nature, aiming at the abolition of the old monarchical structures and the creation of independent national states. The first revolution began in January in Sicily. The revolutions then spread across Europe after a new revolution started in France in February. Over 50 countries were affected, but without coordination or cooperation between their respective revolutionaries. According to Evans and von Stradman (2000) some of the most important factors were widespread dissatisfaction with the political leadership, demands for greater participation in government and democracy, demands for freedom of the press, other working class demands, the rise of nationalism and the realignment of entrenched governmental forces.

The uprisings were led by unstable ad hoc coalitions of reformers, the middle class and workers, which did not stay together for long. Tens of thousands of people were killed and many more were forced into exile. Among the important reforms that survived were the abolition of serfdom in Austria and Hungary, the end of absolute monarchy in Denmark and the introduction of representative democracy in the Netherlands. Revolutions were most significant in France, the Netherlands, the states of the German Confederation that later formed the German Empire in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Italy and the Austrian Empire.

The European map of 1848 presented a remarkable diversity, as on the one hand there were the old empires (within the borders of which different nationalities lived together) while on the other hand peoples with a common root, language and customs (such as the Italians and Germans) were forced to live under conditions of conquest, scattered in multiple states. The demarcation of the frontiers remained broadly unchanged from that established after the Congress of Vienna (1815), with the only exceptions being Greece and Belgium, which had gained their independence. Almost twenty years after the end of the Greek Revolution of 1821 and the recognition of the Greek Kingdom, a wave of political unrest erupted in Europe, beginning in Italy, where the reformist Pope Pius IX and his separatist leader Piedmont”s Charles Albert stirred the people to revolt in Tuscany and Palermo in January 1848. Soon, the unrest spread to France, with the so-called February Revolution or French Revolution of 1848. There, King Louis-Philippe, having abandoned his original liberal policies, causing great discontent, bourgeois and workers allied against him, succeeding in overthrowing him. Finally, this failed rebellion (16 dead in Paris) brought a new leader, Louis Napoleon Bonaparte (nephew of Napoleon the Great), who proclaimed himself Emperor, under the name of Napoleon III.

The February Revolution then sparked off a series of revolts in Austria and Hungary, in the countries of Germany, Luxembourg, Denmark, Poland, Moldavia and Italy, practically throughout central Europe, as well as in Brazil. In Germany, the Prussian king Frederick William IV, who maintained the image of a united ruler, was forced to convene a national assembly with representation of all tendencies (Frankfurt, 30 March 1848). In Austria-Hungary, where many different ethnic and linguistic groups lived, such as Germans, Magyars, Czechs, Poles, Slovaks, Serbs and even Italians, the uprisings that took place were more acute. In Vienna the Emperor was forced to issue a constitution when the unity of the empire was threatened by individual revolts in Hungary and Bohemia. The ”cataclysm” of these revolts, as the then powerful Chancellor Metternich described it, also marked his political end. Subsequently, a constituent assembly would abolish the feudal privileges (31 August 1848).

Revolutions have arisen from such a wide variety of causes that it is difficult to consider them as the result of a coherent movement or set of social phenomena. Many changes took place in European society throughout the first half of the 19th century. Both liberal reformers and radical politicians were reshaping national governments.

Technological changes have radically altered the life of the working class. The popular press expanded political consciousness and new values and ideas such as popular liberalism, nationalism and socialism began to emerge. Some historians point to the severe grain famine, particularly those of 1846, which caused deprivation among peasants and poor urban workers.

A large part of the nobility was dissatisfied with royal absolutism or near-absolutism. In 1846 there was a revolt of the Polish nobles in Austrian Galicia, which was only countered when the peasants, in turn, rose up against the nobles. In addition a revolt of republican forces against Prussia was planned but not carried out in Greater Poland.

Then the middle class began to be in turmoil. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, working in Brussels, had written the Manifesto of the Communist Party (published in German in London on 21 February 1848) at the request of the Communist League (an organisation consisting mainly of German workers). After the March uprising in Berlin, unrest began in Germany. They issued the “Demands of the Communist Party in Germany” from Paris in March. The pamphlet advocated the unification of Germany, universal suffrage, the abolition of feudal institutions and aims similar to those of the middle class.

The middle and working classes thus shared the desire for reform and agreed on many of the specific objectives. Their participation in the revolutions, however, differed. While much of the impetus came from the middle class, much of the cannon fodder came from the lower classes. The revolts broke out first in the cities.

The workers of the cities

The population of the French countryside had grown rapidly, forcing many peasants to seek a living in the cities. Many in the bourgeoisie became fearful and distanced themselves from the poor workers. Many unskilled workers worked 12 to 15 hours a day when they had jobs, living in squalid, diseased slums. Traditional artisans were feeling the pressure of industrialization, having lost their guilds. Revolutionaries like Karl Marx followed.

The situation in the German states was similar. Parts of Prussia began to industrialise. In the 1840s mechanized production in the textile industry provided cheap clothing, cheaper than the handmade products of German tailors. The reforms improved the most popular features of rural feudalism, but workers in the industry remained dissatisfied and pressed for greater change.

Urban workers had no choice but to spend half their income on food, which was mainly bread and potatoes. Because of the grain rationing, food prices rose and the demand for manufactured goods fell, causing unemployment to rise. During the revolution, workshops for men interested in construction work were organized to address the problem of unemployment. Officials also set up workshops for women when they felt excluded. Artisans and unemployed workers destroyed industrial machines when they threatened to give employers more power over themselves.

Aristocratic wealth (and the corresponding power) was synonymous with the ownership of agricultural land and effective control of the peasants. Peasant protests exploded in the revolutionary year of 1848, but were often disconnected from bourgeois revolutionary movements: Sandor Petofi”s popular rhetoric of revolutionary nationalism in Budapest did not translate into any success for the Hungarian peasants, while the Viennese democrat Hans Kudlich reported that his efforts to galvanize the Austrian peasants had “disappeared in the great sea of indifference and phlegm.”

The role of ideas

Despite the intense and often violent efforts of the established and reactionary forces to suppress them, democratic ideas won popular acceptance: democracy, liberalism, nationalism and socialism. They demanded a constitution, freedom of the press, freedom of expression and other democratic rights, the creation of a political militia, the emancipation of the peasants, the liberalisation of the economy, the abolition of tariff barriers and the abolition of monarchical power structures in favour of the establishment of democratic states, or at least the limitation of the power of the monarch in the form of constitutional monarchies.

In the language of the 1840s, “democracy” meant universal suffrage for men. “Liberalism” essentially meant the consent of the governed and the limitation of church and state power, democratic government, freedom of the press and the individual. By the 1840s a number of radical liberal publications had appeared, including Rheinische Zeitung (1842), Le National and La Réforme (1843) in France, Grenzboten by Ignac Kuranta (1842) in Austria, Pesti Hírlap (1841) by Lajos Kosut in Hungary, and the increasing popularity of the older Morgenbladet in Norway and Aftonbladet in Sweden.

“Nationalism” believed in the union of people connected by (some mixture of) common language, culture, religion, history and of course immediate geography. There were also irredentist movements. Nationalism had developed a wider appeal in the period before 1848, as seen in Franzyck Palatsky”s 1836 History of the Czech Nation, which highlighted a series of ethnic conflicts with the Germans, or in the popular patriotic Liederkranz (song circles) throughout Germany: patriotic and warlike songs about Schleswig had dominated the national song festival in Würzburg in 1845. Today”s Germany and Italy were divided into small independent states.

“Socialism” in the 1840s was a term with no commonly accepted definition, meaning different things to different people, but usually used in a context of greater power for workers in a system based on workers” ownership of the means of production.

Italian States

Although little attention was paid at the time, the first major outbreak took place in Sicily, starting in January 1848. Several revolts against Bourbon rule had preceded it. This one caused the creation of an independent state that survived only 16 months before the Bourbons returned. During those months, the constitution was quite advanced for its time with liberal democratic provisions, such as the proposal of an Italian confederation of states. The failure of the rebellion was undone twelve years later when the Bourbon Kingdom of the Two Sicilies collapsed in 1860-61 with the Risorgimento.


The “February Revolution” in France was triggered by the repression of the campaign of politicians. This revolution came from the nationalist and democratic ideals of the French public, who believed that the people should rule. It put an end to the constitutional monarchy of Louis Philippe and led to the establishment of the Second French Republic. At the head of this government was Louis Napoleon, who, after only four years, founded the Second French Empire in 1852.

Alexis de Tocqueville observed in his Memoirs of this period that “society was cut into two: those who had nothing united by common envy and those who had everything united by common terror.”

German states

The “March Revolution” in the German states took place in the south and west of Germany, with large popular assemblies and mass demonstrations. Led by educated students and intellectuals, they demanded German national unity, freedom of the press and freedom of assembly. The uprisings were not well coordinated, but they had in common the rejection of the traditional and authoritarian political structures in the 39 independent states of the German Confederation. The middle and working classes involved in the revolution were divided and, in the end, the conservative aristocracy defeated it, forcing many liberals into exile.


Denmark has been ruled by a system of absolute monarchy since the 17th century. King Christian VIII of Denmark, a moderate reformer, but nevertheless an autocrat, died in January 1848, at a time of rising opposition from peasants and liberals. Demands for a constitutional monarchy, under the leadership of the National Liberals, ended with a popular march to the (Palace of) Christiansborg on 21 March. The new king, Frederick VII, accepted the demands of the Liberals and appointed a new cabinet that included prominent leaders of the National Liberal Party.

The national-liberal movement wanted to abolish absolutism, but to maintain a strongly centralised state. The king accepted a new constitution, agreeing to share power with a two-chamber parliament called the Rigsdagen. It is said that the Danish king”s first words after signing away his absolute power were “well done, now I can sleep in the mornings”. Although the army officers were unhappy, they accepted the new arrangement, which, unlike the rest of Europe, was not overturned by reactionaries. The liberal constitution was not extended to Schleswig, leaving the Schleswig-Holstein question unresolved.

Schleswig, a region that included both Danes and Germans, was part of the Danish monarchy, but remained a separate duchy from the Kingdom of Denmark. The Germans of Schleswig, driven by pan-Germanic sentiment, took up arms to protest the new policy announced by the Danish National Liberal Government, which fully incorporated the duchy into Denmark.

The German population of Schleswig-Holstein revolted, incited by the Protestant clergy. The German states sent troops, but Danish victories in 1849 led to the Treaty of Berlin (1850) and the London Protocol (1852). These reasserted the sovereignty of the King of Denmark, prohibiting union with Denmark. Violation of the latter provision led to a new war in 1863 and a Prussian victory in 1864.

Habsburg Empire

From March 1848 to July 1849 the Austrian Habsburg Empire was threatened by revolutionary movements, often of a nationalist nature. The empire, ruled from Vienna, included Austrians, Hungarians, Hungarians, Slovenes, Poles, Czechs, Croats, Slovaks, Slovaks, Ukrainians

It was the Hungarian Revolution of 1848 that lasted the longest and was suppressed in August 1849 by the Austrian and Russian armies. Nevertheless, it had an important result in the liberation of the serfs. It began on March 15, 1848, when Hungarian patriots organized mass demonstrations in Pest and Buda (now Budapest), which forced the imperial governor to accept the 12 demands, which included freedom of the press, an independent Hungarian ministry based in Buda-Mission and accountable to a popularly elected parliament, creation of a National Guard, full political and religious equality, trials by a sworn court, a national bank, a Hungarian army, withdrawal of foreign (Austrian) troops from Hungary, release of political prisoners and union with Transylvania. That morning the demands were read aloud along with the poetry of Sándor Petofi in the simple words “We swear by the Hungarian God, we swear that we will no longer be slaves”. Lajos Cosut and a few other liberal nobles who made up the Diet appealed to the Habsburg court with demands for representative government and civil liberties. These events caused the resignation of the Austrian prince and foreign minister Clemens von Metternich. The Diet”s demands were accepted on 18 March by Emperor Ferdinand. Although Hungary would remain part of the Empire through a personal union with the Emperor, a constitutional government would be established. Diet then passed laws in April that established equality before the law, a legislature, a hereditary constitutional monarchy, and an end to land transfer and land use restrictions.

The revolution turned into a war for independence from the Austrian Empire when Josip Gelacic, the Ban of Croatia, crossed the border to restore control of the Habsburgs. The new government, under the leadership of Lajos Kosut, initially scored successes against the Habsburg forces. Although Hungary took a nationally unified stand for freedom, some minorities in the Kingdom of Hungary, including the Serbs of Vojvodina, the Romanians of Transylvania, and some Slovaks of Upper Hungary, supported the Habsburg Emperor and fought against the Hungarian Revolutionary Army. Finally, after a year and a half of fighting, the revolution was crushed when the Russian Tsar Nicholas I marched against Hungary with over 300,000 troops. Harsh martial law was imposed on Hungary, with the Austrian government restored. Leading rebels such as Cosut fled into exile or were executed. In the long term, the passive resistance that followed the revolution led to the Austro-Hungarian Compromise (1867), which marked the birth of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The centre of the Ukrainian national movement was in Galicia, now divided between Ukraine and Poland. On April 19, 1848 a group of delegates led by the Ukranian clergy sent a memorial to the Austrian Emperor. It expressed the wish that in the regions of Galicia where the Ruthenian (Ukrainian) population was in the majority, the Ukrainian language should be taught in schools and used to communicate official decrees to the peasants so that local officials could understand them, and that the Ruthenian clergy should be equal in rights with the clergy of all other denominations.

On May 2, 1848, the Supreme Ruthenian (Ukrainian) Council was established. The head of the Council (1848-1851) was the Unitarian Bishop Gregory Yakimovich and consisted of 30 permanent members. Its main objective was the administrative division of Galicia into Western (Polish) and Eastern (Ruthenian) parts.


On 18-19 March a series of riots, known as the March riots (Marsoroligheterna), took place in the Swedish capital Stockholm. Proclamations were made in the city demanding political reforms and a crowd was dispersed by the army, with 18 casualties.


Switzerland, already a union of republics, also experienced internal conflicts. The attempted secession of seven Swiss cantons to form a union known as the Sonderbund (“separate union”) in 1845 led to a brief civil conflict in November 1847, in which about 100 people were killed. The Sonderbund was eventually defeated and a new constitution in 1848 ended the almost complete independence of the cantons, turning Switzerland into a federal state.

Greater Poland

The Poles staged a military uprising against the Prussians in the Grand Duchy of Posen (or the Greater Poland Region), part of Prussia after its annexation in 1815.

Paraguayan Dominions

A Romanian liberal and national uprising began in June in the Principality of Wallachia. Closely related to the unsuccessful uprising in Moldavia in 1848, it attempted to overthrow the administration imposed by the Russian Empire authorities under the Regulamentul Organic (Organic Regulation) regime and, through several leaders, demanded the abolition of boyar privileges. Led by a group of young intellectuals and officers of the Wallachian military forces, it succeeded in overthrowing the governor, Prince Georgi Beibescu, whom it replaced with a provisional government and regency, and in passing a series of important liberal reforms, first announced in the Declaration of Islam.


Belgium did not experience major riots in 1848, although there were many small-scale conflicts. A few local riots broke out, concentrated in the Sillon industriel, the industrial area of the provinces of Liège and Ainot. The most serious threat of spreading the revolution was posed by groups of Belgian immigrants from France. Shortly after the revolution in France, Belgian migrant workers living in Paris were encouraged to return to Belgium to overthrow the monarchy and establish democracy… Karl Marx himself fled Brussels in early March, accused of using part of his inheritance to arm Belgian revolutionaries.

Some 6,000 armed exiles of the “Belgian Legion” attempted to cross the Belgian border. The first group, travelling by train, was stopped and immediately disarmed at Quebrene on 26 March 1848. The second group crossed the border on 29 March and headed for Brussels. They confronted Belgian troops at the village of Riscón-Tou but were defeated. Several smaller groups managed to infiltrate Belgium, but the reinforced Belgian border troops were successful and the defeat at Riscón-Tou ended the revolutionary threat to Belgium. The situation in Belgium began to improve that summer after a good harvest and new elections gave the ruling party a strong majority.


The Irish Youth Rebellion was a failed Irish national uprising led by the Irish Youth Movement, part of the wider 1848 Revolutions that affected most of Europe. It took place on 29 July 1848 in the village of Baligarie, South Tipperary. After being chased by a force of Young Irishmen and their supporters, an armed Irish Police unit of about 50 men stormed a house and held its occupants hostage. An exchange of gunfire ensued for several hours, but the rebels fled when a large group of police reinforcements arrived. It is sometimes called the Famine Rebellion (because it took place during the Great Irish Famine) or the Battle of Balingarie.

As with the mass revolt of the United Irish in 1798, which attempted to emulate the American Revolution and Robert Emmett”s Rebellion of 1803, the New Irish were inspired by republicanism in the United States and (to a lesser extent) in Europe.

Other European countries

In Greece there were popular movements inspired by the European ones, such as the revolt and occupation of Kalamata by revolutionaries led by Georgios Perrotis.

The Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, the Russian Empire (including Poland and Finland) and the Ottoman Empire did not experience major national revolutions during this period. Norway was also minimally affected. Serbia, although not formally affected by the rebellion as it was part of the Ottoman state, actively supported Serbian revolutionaries in the Habsburg Empire.

The relative stability in Russia was attributed to the inability of the revolutionary groups to communicate with each other. In the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, there were revolts in 1830-31 (November Uprising) and 1846 (Kraków Uprising, notable for its suppression by the Galician counter-revolutionary massacre). A final uprising took place in 1863-65 (January Uprising), but none in 1848.

Portugal was not affected in 1848, although it had gone through civil wars (Liberal Wars) in previous years.

No major riots occurred in the Netherlands because King William II decided to change the Dutch constitution by electoral reform and drastically reduce the power of the monarchy.

While there were no major political uprisings in the Ottoman Empire as such, political unrest did occur in some of its vassal states. In Serbia, feudalism was abolished, and the power of the Serbian prince was reduced by the Turkish Constitution of Serbia in 1838.

English-speaking countries

In Britain the middle class had been quieted by general emancipation with the Reform Act of 1832. The subsequent protests, violence and demands of the Chartist movement culminated in their peaceful petition to Parliament in 1848. The abolition in 1846 of protective agricultural tariffs – called the ”Corn Laws” – had wiped out any courage the proletarians had had.

In the United States, the main impact of the revolutions and their failure was significantly increased immigration, especially from Germany. This, in turn, fueled the anti-immigrant, xenophobic “Know Nothing” movement in the years leading up to the American Civil War. Know Nothing opposed the immigration of Catholics, particularly Germans and Irish, and held Pope Pius IX responsible for the failure of the 1848 revolutions.

In 1848 Canada established governments in Nova Scotia and Upper and Lower Canada, the first such governments in the British Empire outside of Great Britain itself. John Ralston Saul has argued that this development is linked to revolutions in Europe, but he described the Canadian approach to the revolutionary year of 1848 as “taking their way … out of the system of imperial control and into a new democratic model,” a stable democratic system that has endured to the present day. The opposition of the Tories and the Canadian Order of the Orange to the established government led to riots, brought about by the “Rebellion Casualties Act” in 1849. They succeeded in burning down the Parliament Buildings in Montreal, but, unlike their counter-revolutionary counterparts in Europe, they ultimately failed.

South America

In Spanish Latin America, the Revolution of 1848 occurred in New Granada, where Colombian students, liberals and intellectuals demanded the election of General José Hilario López. He took power in 1849 and initiated important reforms, abolishing slavery and the death penalty and providing freedom of the press and religion. The resulting unrest in Colombia lasted four decades. From 1851 to 1885 the country suffered four general civil wars and 50 local revolutions.

In Chile, the revolutions of 1848 inspired the Chilean Revolution of 1851 (Chilean liberals to overthrow the conservative government and abolish the authoritarian constitution of 1833).

In Brazil, the “Pireira Revolt”, a movement in Pernambuco, lasted from November 1848 to 1852. Unresolved conflicts left over from the Regency period and local resistance to the consolidation of the Empire of Brazil, declared in 1822, helped to germinate the seeds of the revolution.

We have been beaten and humiliated … scattered, imprisoned, disarmed and silenced. The fate of European democracy is out of our hands.

The democrats saw 1848 as a democratic revolution, securing freedom, equality and brotherhood in the long term. For nationalists, 1848 was the spring of hope, when newly emerging nationalities rejected the old multi-ethnic empires. All were bitterly disappointed in the short term.

Many governments undertook a partial reversal of the revolutionary reforms of 1848-1849, as well as increased repression and censorship. Hanoverian nobles successfully appealed to the Federal Diet in 1851 for the loss of their aristocratic privileges, while the Prussian Junkers (large landowners) regained their land police powers from 1852 to 1855. In the Austrian Empire, Franz Stadion”s constitution adopted in March 1849 and the Basic Rights Act were repealed (1851), and the number of arrests in Habsburg lands increased from 70. 000 in 1850 to one million in 1854… Nicholas I”s administration in Russia after 1848 was highly repressive and was characterized by the expansion of the secret police (Tretiye Otdelenye) and stricter censorship. The Russians working for censorship organs outnumbered the actual books published in the period immediately after 1848… In France, the works of Ledrery-Rolain, Hugo, Baudelaire and Proudhon were confiscated..

In the post-revolutionary decade after 1848, little had visibly changed and many historians considered revolutions a failure, given the apparent lack of permanent structural changes. More recently, Christopher Clarke described the post-1848 era as one dominated by a ”revolution in government”. Karl Marx expressed dismay at the bourgeois character of revolutions… Prussian Prime Minister Otto von Mandoefel declared that the state could no longer function ”like the landed property of a nobleman”. In Prussia August von Bettmann-Holvech”s newspaper Preußisches Wochenblatt (founded in 1851) served as a popular outlet for modernizing Prussian conservative politicians and journalists against the reactionary faction of the Kreuzzeitung. The revolutions of 1848 were followed by new coalitions of the centre, dominated by liberals worried by the threat of working-class socialism, as seen in the Connubio of Piedmont under Cavour.

Governments after 1848 were forced to manage public and popular problems more effectively, resulting in the increased importance of the Prussian Zentralstelle für Pressangelegenheiten (Central Press Office, founded in 1850), the Austrian Zensur-und polizeihofstelle and the French Direction Générale de la Librairie (1856).

Nevertheless, there were some immediate successes for some revolutionary movements, mainly in the Habsburg countries. Austria and Prussia abolished feudalism by 1850, improving the situation of the peasants. The middle classes of Europe reaped political and economic benefits over the next 20 years. France retained universal suffrage for men. Russia would later emancipate serfs on 19 February 1861. The Habsburgs were eventually forced to give the Hungarians more self-determination with the Ausgleich of 1867. The revolutions inspired lasting reform in Denmark, as well as in the Netherlands.

Reinhardt Rurup has described the revolutions of 1848 as a turning point in the development of modern anti-Semitism, through the conspiracy theory that portrayed Jews as agents of both the forces of social revolution (with Joseph Goldmark and Adolf Fischhoff of Vienna as typical representatives) and international capital, as shown in the 1848 report by Eduard von Müller-Tellerig, Marx”s Viennese correspondent for the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, who reported: “tyranny comes from money and money belongs to the Jews”.

In Chile, the revolutions of 1848 inspired the Chilean Revolution of 1851.

Texas Hill Country was settled by German intellectuals who fled there because of the reactionary purges. More broadly, many disillusioned and persecuted revolutionaries, particularly (though not exclusively) from Germany and the Austrian Empire, fled their homelands and exiled themselves to the New World or to the more liberal European states: these immigrants were known as the “centenarians”.


  1. Επαναστάσεις του 1848
  2. Revolutions of 1848
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