For a generation after the defeat of Napoleon, there were no significant frontier changes in western Europe. The map remained the same as it had been established at the Congress of Vienna in 1815.
Even before 1848 there were danger signs. France had overthrown its reactionary monarch in a revolution in 1830, and replaced him with a more liberal successor. In 1846 there was a new Pope, Pius IX, who appeared to have liberal leanings. The words "socialism" and even "communism" were becoming current, and in 1847 a short-lived body called the Communist League commissioned two young radicals, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, to write a policy statement which was published next year as the "Communist Manifesto". The 1840s were a time of bad harvests and high food prices; always likely to lead to disturbances. What followed in 1848 bore a striking similarity to the "Arab Spring" in our own times: riots spreading from country to country, governments collapsing before them; but then in almost every case the hopes of the radicals failing.
Trying to follow the events of 1848 by strict chronology only leads to confusion: it is better to look at events country by country. Some can be dismissed straight away: there was little or no trouble in Spain, the Netherlands or Russia, Britain saw only an unsuccessful demonstration by the Chartist movement, and in Ireland, prostrated by the potato famine, there was only a feeble attempt at armed revolt which was easily suppressed with a minimum of force. The big events of 1848 were concentrated in France, Italy and Germany.
Although the first revolt was in Sicily (as will be described later) the central country for what followed was France. Despite the defeat of Napoleon, France remained the strongest power and the dominant cultural leader of Europe. Events in France in 1848 set the trend for other countries, since they appeared to be sudden, spontaneous, and unplanned by any particular leaders.
Since the 1830 revolution, France had been ruled by King Louis-Philippe, the "Citizen King",with a conservative Prime Minister, Guizot. In February 1848 the government attempted to ban an anti-government "banquet", and Paris crowds erected barricades on the streets. The King dismissed Guizot but trouble continued, troops shot and killed demonstrators, the middle-class National Guard turned against the government, and on February 24th Louis-Philippe abdicated and sought refuge in England. Suddenly and without warning, France was left without a government.
Into this gap stepped an entirely self-appointed provisional government of liberals and socialists, none of whom had the slightest administrative experience, headed by the romantic poet Lamartine. They committed themselves to elections for a Constituent Assembly, and in the interim enacted various pieces of social legislation, including a 10-hour maximum working day and "national Workshops" for the poor and unemployed.
All men over the age of 21 were to have the right to vote for the Constituent Assembly, which would result in an electorate of 9 million, the overwhelming majority of whom had never voted before. This caused disquiet on the Left, for most of the new voters would be peasant farmers, many of them illiterate, and it was feared that they would vote as their priests and nobles told them. When the votes were counted, it was found that these fears were more than justified: the 100 or so socialists from revolutionary Paris were swamped by a huge majority of monarchists and conservatives from the countryside. There was immediate confrontation: on May 15th Paris mobs invaded the Assembly, but the National Guard drove them out. The socialist leaders fled or were arrested.
On June 21st the National workshops were closed, and Paris immediately rose in revolt. This seems to have been an entirely spontaneous rising, since the most prominent socialists were no longer on the scene. The army under General Cavaignac crushed to rising over the next few days, with great slaughter and many summary executions. About 1,500 people were killed and 12,000 arrested, of whom 5,000 were deported to the colonies.
Elections were now held for an executive President. One of the candidates was a certain Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, the nephew of the great man. His previous career had been limited to two entirely unsuccessful attempts to stage coups d'etat, and he had not even been in France earlier in the year. I have always had this vision of a French peasant in some remote rural area puzzling over a ballot paper containing a list of names of whom he has never heard, until he comes across the name "Napoleon", when a dawning light of recognition creeps across his features. Louis Napoleon duly secured two thirds of the votes cast. The British media treated him as no more than a joke figure. The political Right was now securely in power in France, and the attempt to create Parliamentary liberalism had clearly failed.
It is hard to avoid the assumption that the events that followed in Germany had a copycat element to them. The crowds on the streets might not have been aware of what was happening in Paris, but the middle-class liberals certainly did, and so did their rulers. In mid-March there were big demonstrations in Vienna, and then in Berlin, and in each case the government tamely caved in. King Frederick William I of Prussia accepted a liberal government and an elected Constituent Assembly, as did the Emperor Ferdinand of Austria, following the resignation of Chancellor Metternich. In Budapest the Hungarians demanded home rule, which was quickly granted. At the end of March an assembly claiming to represent the whole of Germany met in Frankfurt, and arranged for pan-German elections. In May the Austrian government withdrew to Innsbruck, and in July assemblies were elected in Vienna and Budapest. The Austrian Empire was further weakened by revolts in its Italian territories, which will be covered later.
However, as in Paris, these events proved to be the high water mark, and from this point revolution steadily ebbed away. This was seen most clearly in Frankfurt, where the elected "parliament" had no executive power and was little more than a middle-class talking-shop. What is more, it quickly ran into intractable nationalist problems. Where exactly should the frontiers of "Germany" be drawn. Was Prussia in or out? Was the Austrian Empire in or out? What about the racial minorities within these states? The Czechs quickly decided they did not want to be ruled by Frankfurt, and in April called a "Slav Congress" in Prague, attended by Slovaks, Serbs, Croats and Poles as well as the Czechs. Many Germans considered the Slavs to be too racially inferior to merit any attention, a view endorsed by Marx and Engels. There were similar conflicts in the Hungarian part of the Austrian Empire, where the assembly elected in Budapest faced revolts from Serbs and Croats.
The armies were still loyal to their governments. A revolt in Prague was violently crushed in July, and in September a new Austrian Prime Minister, Schwarzenberg, put down risings in Vienna and engineered the abdication of the inept Emperor Ferdinand, replacing him with his 18-year-old nephew, Franz Josef, who was to rule the empire through to the First World War. As a final indignity for the parliamentary liberals, there was a rising in Frankfurt itself,against the assembly there, which had to be put down by Prussian and Austrian troops.
The credit for being first off the mark in the year of revolutions goes to Palermo in Sicily. For more than a century it had been joined with Naples and southern Italy in the "Kingdom of the Two Sicilies". Sicily was one of the poorest regions of Europe, and its people had been living under what was effectively foreign occupation for centuries. During the Napoleonic Wars the royal family had fled from Naples to Sicily, where they were protected by the British navy,and under British pressure had enacted a fairly liberal constitution for the island. Napoleon had redrawn the map of mainland Italy, but after his fall the old states were restored, with the exception of the two ancient Republics of Genoa and Venice; the former being given to the kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia; the latter to the Austrian Empire. The Austrians now ruled the north of Italy, centred on Milan, and dominated the little duchies further south. Only Piedmont-Sardinia was free of Austrian influence.
In 1820 there had been a revolt throughout the Two Sicilies, and the King was forced to grant a constitution. But it did not last long: quarrels broke out between Sicily and Naples, and in 1821 an Austrian army marched south and crushed all resistance.
The King from 1830 to 1859 was Ferdinand II. His wife was Austrian, and he ruled a corrupt, tyrannical and economically primitive state. The vast majority of his subjects were poverty-stricken peasants, and even at the end of his reign there was not a single mile of railways in his kingdom.
On January 12th Palermo rose in revolt. In a few days the whole of Sicily had been liberated, and King Ferdinand was declared deposed. When the revolt spread to Naples, Ferdinand quickly promulgated a liberal constitution for his kingdom, with a free press and guarantees of individual liberty. This example was was soon followed in Rome, Tuscany and Piedmont. In March, Milan rose in revolt, and after five days of street fighting the Austrian general Radetzky retreated from the city. At the same time, Daniele Manin proclaimed the restoration of the Venetian Republic. King Charles Albert of Piedmont appeared genuinely sympathetic to the new movement, and led his armies to Milan against the Austrians. Even in Rome Pope Pius IX conceded an elected assembly in the "Fundamental Statute". Hopes were high for a liberal, united Italy, free of Austrian domination.
But from here, as elsewhere, it was downhill all the way for liberal hopes. Men from Tuscany, Naples and the papal States had joined the Piedmontese in the war against the Austrians, but at the end of April Pius XI denounced the war in a document called the "Allocution". In mid-May King Ferdinand regained control of Naples, immediately suspended the new constitution, sacked his short-lived liberal ministry and prepared for the reconquest of Sicily. Then in July Charles Albert of Piedmont was decisively defeated by Radetzky at Custozza and was forced to sign an armistice with the Austrians. In Rome, however, things appeared to be moving in the opposite direction: following the assassination of the moderate reformer Rossi in mid-November, the Pope fled to Gaeta and the protection of King Ferdinand. Rome was left under the control of the radicals: the republican Mazzini and the guerrilla warrior Garibaldi, who had just arrived from South America.
So by the end of 1848 the revolution was in full retreat everywhere, with the exception of parts of Italy and in Hungary, where the nationalist leader Kossuth was now dominant. What followed will be covered in my next essay.