America's Gateway to the British Isles since 1996


History Directories
British Monarchs
Sources & Texts
Church History
Europe In Retrospect

by Raymond F. Betts

International Order & Domestic Strife

The Age of Revolution
"When France sneezes, Europe catches cold," Mettemich once remarked. His homely metaphor summed up the dominant characteristic of the years 1815-1848, when revolution frequently occurred along lines originally drawn by France. In 1819 there was a brief, liberal revolution in Spain; another occurred in Italy in 1820. Then there was the Greek revolution for independence from Turkey in 1821, an activity that inspired the English poet Lord Byron to participate. Russia endured a short and confused revolt in 1825 when liberal, aristocratic factions attempted to influence the succession to the throne. And then in July 1830, France underwent another revolution, this one joined in the same year by a revolution in Holland. Finally, in 1848, a series of revolutions erupted throughout all of Western Europe with the notable exception of Great Britain.

The Revolutions of 1848
France underwent two revolutions in 1848. The first, in February, was led by the bourgeoisie who desired governmental reform. Middle classes and workers cooperated in Paris, but, for the first time, the Socialists made clear demands. Workers wanted the "right to work," and this was duly inscribed on the program of the Provisional Government. To placate workers' and Socialists' demands, the government established the Luxemburg Commission (so-called because it met in the Luxemburg Palace in Paris), headed by the Socialist Louis Blanc and charged with the task of reviewing the labor problem in France. The government also established the National Workshops by which unemployed workers would be paid to engage in public works projects. The tenuous alliance between bourgeoisie and proletariat was threatened in the spring of 1848, but the provisional government's abolition of the workshops in June 1848 was a signal for the revolt of the Parisian workers.

The second revolution of that year, described as the "Bloody June Days," saw the bourgeois pitted against the workers who had raised the red flag on the barricades and who were giving evidence of class conflict. With the aid of the military, the workers' revolt was pitilessly put down. The Constitution of the Second Republic, created by the Provisional Government, afforded France the first opportunity to elect a president directly and by universal manhood suffrage. Among the candidates, one easily carried the field in the December election, Louis-Napoleon, the nephew of Napoleon I, who blandly stated that his name was his program.

Throughout Germany, revolutionary agitation followed in the wake of the news from Paris, and liberal ministries were installed in many German states. Riots occurred in Berlin on March 15, and the king, Frederick William IV, vacillated about what to do. On March 18, the Berliners were told of the king's intention to grant Prussia a constitution and to use his influence in the constitutional revision of Germany as a whole. On March 21 the king issued another statement announcing his leadership of the German people and his willingness to merge Prussia into Germany. German liberal nationalists assumed the initiative in German politics by establishing a Vorparlament (preliminary parliament) which was to prepare for the election of an all-German constituent assembly. This latter body, known as the Frankfurt National Assembly, was composed of elected representatives from the German states and proceeded to provide Germany with a liberal, federal constitution. Excluding Austria, the Assembly offered the newly created imperial crown to Frederick William in 1849. That monarch, again master in his own house thanks to the Prussian troops, was reported to have said that he would not accept a crown from the gutter. The king's refusal caused the Assembly to be split by factionalism and its efforts to be dissipated. By 1849, with little visible success, the revolutionary movement had died in Germany.

The Austrian Empire
Throughout the Austrian Empire, in Vienna, Budapest, Milan, and Venice, revolts broke out, both liberal and national in nature. News of the Parisian revolt inspired agitation by students, supported by workers in Vienna. On March 13, as a result of these demonstrations, the Emperor Ferdinand forced Metternich to resign, and that gentleman followed Louis-Philippe to London. The emperor promised to summon the Diet (Assembly) with the purpose of discussing constitutional reforms. In Hungary, Louis Kossuth demanded national autonomy, which the Austrian government had to momentarily grant. In Italy, the ruthless military policies of General Radetsky checked the revolutionary agitation. In fact, the Austrian military leadership was largely responsible for squashing the revolutions.

Metternich's medical metaphor may therefore seem quite appropriate, but he also used another one more in keeping with subsequent analysis. He described the revolutions as "earthquakes," a term suggesting that revolutions are natural occurrences, meteorological phenomena like floods-or to use Tocqueville's choice- volcanoes.

Viewed at a historical distance, this revolutionary activity did seem to surge forth, often without direction or control and as if irresistible in origin. There was a decided element of spontaneity in much of it. Immediate causes included the painful ones of unemployment, poverty, and starvation--as well as the political ones of extended suffrage and more responsible government. No revolution occurred in a political vacuum or simply emerged out of deeply felt idealism. Nor did any revolution break out solely for reasons of economic strain. If there was a general cause, it was the government's unwillingness or inability to respond to the new conditions of a changing economy and an altering social situation. The increase in the number of wage earners and the resettlement of the population in cities were strikingly evident in the early century. And yet government continued almost as if only the middle classes required some accommodation. "Do you hear them [the working classes] repeating incessantly that all who are above them are incapable and unworthy of governing them?" asked Tocqueville in 1847.

In the nearly two decades extending from the French revolution of July 1830 to the European-wide revolutions of 1848, economic conditions gravely affected political decisions. Skilled workers in Paris were more numerous than the bourgeois elements in the July Revolution that ushered in the "Bourgeois Monarchy." Textile workers in Lyons, France, in 1831, and in Silesia, in 1844, complained of the decreases in wages, resulting from a decline in thepurchase price of the goods they sold to merchants. These workers then rose in revolt. Later, in 1846 and 1847, bad harvests and the dreadful potato famine--the latter brought on by a blight that turned the potatoes black--led to economic stress that strained European society. Finally, economic depression in the industrial sector increased unemployment and intensified the discontent of the urban poor.

These were the underlying conditions that made Europe so susceptible to revolution. For working classes as well as for middle classes the governments of the day were not effectively responsive. When the first of the two revolutions that France endured in 1848 broke out in late February, the workers were demanding, in their slogan, "the right to work." The bourgeoisie also were making demands, but principally for more liberal government.

The revolutions of the first half of the nineteenth century were political, with two objectives: first and most universal, the establishment of liberal, parliamentary government; second, and most evident in countries north and east of France, the creation of a nation-state.

The liberal objective was an extension of what the English considered as their historic rights, and what the French proclaimed were the rights of man: personal freedom. This freedom was most easily defined as the right to vote, to decide one's political destiny at the ballot box. But in the early century, heavy property requirements restricted the suffrage to rather small numbers. In the Restoration Monarchy of France that followed Napoleon and spanned the years 1815-1830, only about 100,000 out of a population of some 25 million had the privilege of voting. And in England similarly low participation was gradually corrected by a series of "reform bills," the first of which was passed in 1832, and the last, all but granting universal manhood suffrage, was introduced in 1884. It has often been said that what the English reluctantly legislated, the continental governments were forced to concede in the streets. With the Revolutions of 1848, the French were the first to get universal manhood suffrage in Europe.

For many liberal thinkers the most promising means by which to achieve constitutional, therefore responsible, government was within a national framework. Once the nation as a social and political community was established, harmony, not dissension, would prevail. The great mid-century liberal thinker John Stuart Mill, in his Representative Government (1861), defined the sentiment of nationalism as follows: "A portion of mankind may be said to constitute a nation if they are united among themselves by common sympathies which do not exist between them and others." It was this union of "common sympathies" that suggested nationalism would lead to domestic peace and mutual understanding. Beyond England and France, which did exist as nation-states, the sentiment enjoyed wide favor.

In seeking a national community, many theorists developed a line of thought that has subsequently been called "romantic nationalism." Mill was not the only person who argued that historical experience was the most powerful basis for a sense of common purpose and destiny. The romantic nationalists often combined the myth of past communal happiness with the promise of meaningful future political unity. This was a historic exercise in which a disunited people were often told to seek their purpose and collective identity in another age, some heroic moment when life was simpler or more glorious or more dramatic. Thus looking backward, the disunited people might also look forward to a new age in which they would form a cultural and political community. For the first time scholars rummaged around the past to find the blocks that would form the foundations of contemporary national unification.

In Italy, still divided into several kingdoms and also containing provinces ruled by Austria, reflection on former Roman greatness led to hope for a "New Rome," once the land was unified.

In Germany, a number of scholars went to the common people, the Volk, to find there, among the folkways and customs, a "pure" Germany, untainted by foreign influence. The fairy tales associated with the Grimm brothers were gathered as these two linguists sought to find the roots of the German language and those enduring qualities that existed in the customs of the peasantry.

Such romantic nationalism complemented liberal thought, also concerned with self-identification. Both the individual and the community were to determine their own destinies according to their own lights: reason and history. Constitutionalism was therefore easily equated with nationalism.

At no time did the possibility of European political reorganization along national and liberal lines seem so imminently possible as in the revolutionary year of 1848. Between February and June of that year, Paris, Vienna, Berlin, Prague, Budapest, Rome, and Milan were the settings of revolutionary upheavals that toppled governments or urged them to introduce hastily contrived reform. Bourgeois and worker fought on the same barricades, where they were joined by university students, making their first significant appearance as a group of radical reformers.

Most of these revolutions were as ill-directed as they were poorly met by the established forces. For a brief moment, however, it did appear that the old order was about to collapse. But governmental promises to introduce constitutional rule, the lack of coordinated revolutionary leadership, the growing bourgeois concern that the revolutions would go too far, and the reorganization of the established military forces, all were elements that combined in each country to bring 1848 to a relatively quiet and unsuccessful close. The year 1848 was the turning point when European history did not turn, according to the English historian J. M. Trevelyan.

Liberal nationalism did not triumph. Rather, the monarchs of Prussia and Austria readjusted their crowns, while in France the new president was the nephew of Napoleon. By 1852 this "prince-president," who had said that his political program was his name, upheld his questionable inheritance by a coup d'etat. France was then governed by Napoleon III under the Second Empire (1852-1870).

The dissipation of liberal hopes did not result in the end of national unification movements, however.

The National Unification of Italy and Germany
Perhaps the key to what subsequently happened is found in the now famous words expressed by Otto von Bismarck, the Prussian minister, in a speech he made before the budget commission of the Prussian Chamber of Deputies in 1862. "The great questions of the day," he sternly stated, "will not be decided by speeches or by majority decisions . . . but by blood and iron." The national unification of Germany and Italy occurred in a manner quite different from what the romantic nationalists had in mind. Not the will of the people, but the strength of the armies and the cunning of diplomacy turned the trick.

The series of events by which Italy and Germany were unified have long allowed for historical comparison. One state was the principal agent of unification: Piedmont in Italy, Prussia in Germany. One man was the guiding genius: Camillo Cavour (1810- 1861) in Italy, Otto von Bismarck (1815-1898) in Germany. In both instances, several minor wars were the major catalysts leading to unification. And finally, the pivotal war in the process of unification was directed against Austria, because Austria intruded into both Italian and German territory as a foreign dominator. In 1859, with the support of France, Piedmont engaged Austria in war. Although the French suddenly pulled out of the war, Piedmont did gain Lombardy, the large northern province, as a result. In 1866 Prussia defeated Austria and thereupon formed the North German Confederation (1867), a loose political system that assured its dominance of Germany. In sum, then, the multinational Hapsburg Empire was an obstacle to and a cause of Italian and German unification. Austria was forced to relinquish its territorial hold and political dominance in these countries, an action which coincided with the rise of Piedmont and Prussia as the major unifying power in each.

One further point should be emphasized. Italian and German unification was made at the expense of France, as well as of Austria. It was in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 that Bismarck manipulated the remaining German states into a military alliance with his North German Confederation. The successful outcome of that war was followed by the creation of the German Empire. In the Hall of Mirrors at the palace of Versailles, the king of Bavaria proclaimed the king of Prussia to be the emperor of Germany on January 18, 1871. While the French and Germans were fighting, Piedmontese troops occupied Rome, heretofore papal territory under the protection of France, and the final step in Italian unification was made: Rome became the capital of the Kingdom of Italy.

As historians are generally concerned with the unusual and the irregular-the "fact"-the variations in details by which the unification of Germany and Italy took place are very important to a close understanding of diplomatic and political developments of the time. What is significant in a historical review of a broad sort, however, is this: the unification of both countries was neither achieved by liberal politics nor by liberal philosophy. While Cavour was a liberal who supported the idea of a written constitution, both he and Bismarck were believers in strong state authority and endorsed the monarchical system of the day. They placed national unity above constitutionalism, which they actually abused.

Even this last statement is open to historical contention, for what both men consciously assured was the dominant position of their own state in the newly unified Germany and Italy. Hence, some historians have argued that what was achieved was the Prussianization of Germany and the Piedmontization of Italy. The two new nations resulted from imposed national unification, not from a spirit of popular nationalism. And it was therefore Prussia and Piedmontese policies and institutions which dominated in the new nations. The result was a constitutional form that did not respect or respond to liberal desires.

In particular, the unification of Germany changed many conditions in continental political life. First, it meant a shift from a French-centered to a German-centered Europe. The largest, most populous, most industrially efficient state of Western Europe, Germany was paramount before the century was out. Moreover, its social and political structures were not of the liberal sort that the ideals of the French Revolution had proposed. An effective alliance existed between German big business, the aristocracy, and the military. As there was no room for real democracy in Bismarck's "blood and iron" theory, so there was none in the new German Empire. Finally, even in Bismarck's time, but primarily during the reign of Emperor Wilhelm II (1888-1918), many influential Germans sought for Germany a new role in the world. The idea of Weltpolitik, of world politics, was appealing. Along with this new attitude came a militant mood.

The better part of the nineteenth century was given to the working out of the political and social problems left by the French Revolution. Until the defeat of Napoleon in 1815, European political and military affairs were directed against his vast imperial system. Thereafter, certainly to 1848, the fear of liberal revolution occupied the minds of conservative European statesmen. And from 1848 to 1871 the last major problems concerning national unification were solved by "blood and iron." By 1871, therefore, a European nation-state system had been elaborated, fixed until the shattering effects of the First World War.

Within the confines of the nation-state, whether it was newly-formed Imperial Germany or long-established monarchical England, the social issues generated in the early nineteenth century continued to intensify.

If, for a brief period, the international scene had an unusually serene appearance about it, the social order was still in a state of turbulence. The major states of Europe were either formed or reformed politically, and nationalism seemed to have triumphed--although not in the form expected by the liberals of an earlier era.

Political revolution had abated, but the Industrial Revolution was generating a new social order.

NEXT:  Chapter Four: The Age of Power

Copyright ©2015, LLC   Questions? Comments!