France had led the way in revolution, and then in counterrevolution, in 1848, and had ended the year with a strongly conservative and Catholic assembly and Louis Napoleon Bonaparte elected President by an enormous majority. He now worked hard to establish his credentials with the political Right, helped by the fact that the monarchists in France were hopelessly divided. His foreign policy we shall investigate shortly. His Presidency was supposed to last four years, but in December 1851 he staged a well-organised coup, in which he was made President for life, and supported this with a successful referendum. Next year he proclaimed himself Emperor, with the title of "Napoleon III". To guard against any trouble, martial law was proclaimed and around 27,000 potential opponents were arrested. Historians have debated ever since whether he should be considered an old-fashioned monarch or the first of the modern dictators, basing his power on the manipulation of public opinion.
The government of the Austrian Empire was meanwhile regaining the initiative. In March 1849 the new Prime Minister, Schwarzenberg, overthrew the newly-installed constitution and dissolved the Austrian Reichstag. Any opposition was brutally suppressed forces under General Haynau. The only permanent result of the failed Austrian revolution had been the abolition of serfdom throughout the Empire, (including the compulsory labour service which gave the world the word "robot"). The Austrian army was forced to withdraw from Budapest, where the Hungarian Parliament declared the Habsbug Emperor deposed, and their own leader Kossuth the Governor of an independent Hungary. But Kossuth faced opposition from the racial minorities within Hungary: Slovaks, Romanians and Germans; who feared Magyar domination more than they feared the Habsburgs. Furthermore the Tsar Nicholas I of Russia was alarmed that the spirit of revolt should spread to his own empire, particularly to the perennially discontented Poles. He sent a Russian army to invade Hungary, and in August the Hungarians were forced to surrender, and Kossuth fled to England. On the face of it, Habsburg rule had been restored throughout the Empire. Meanwhile Prussian troops put down disturbances in Baden, Bavarian and Saxony; and as a last desperate bid for German unity, the Frankfurt Parliament offered the imperial crown of Germany to King Frederick William of Prussia. The offer was contemptuously rejected. Germany remained disunited.
The most dramatic events occurred in Italy. At the end of 1848 the situation was still fluid. In the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies in the south, King Ferdinand had regained the initiative when he sacked his liberal government, crushed any resistance on the mainland and prepared to invade Sicily. He accomplished this with the aid of shelling from his artillery, which earned him the nickname of "King Bomba". Palermo finally surrendered in May 1849, but bitter resentment continued to simmer throughout the island. In 1851 Ferdinand arrested the men who had recently been his liberal ministers.
In the north of Italy King Charles Albert of Piedmont-Sardinia had been badly defeated by the Austrian general Radetzky, but in March 1849 he decided to have another go. This time his war lasted no more than a week before Radetzky crushed the Piedmontese army at Novara. Charles Albert, defeated and humiliated, abdicated his throne and retired to Portugal, where he soon died. His son Victor Emmanuel took over. The young monarch could do nothing as Radetzky put down resistance in Milan and prepared to move against Venice, but, greatly to his credit, he resisted heavy hints from the Austrians that he should cancel the liberal Parliamentary constitution which his father had granted the year before. He bided his time and hoped for further opportunities.
Rome was the focus of everyone's attention. Following the flight of the Pope in autumn 1848, to place himself under the protection of King Ferdinand, a Roman Republic was proclaimed in February, with an elected Constituent Assembly. The dominant personalities were the republican nationalist propagandist Mazzini, and Guiseppe Garibaldi, fresh back from South America where he had learnt the art of guerrilla warfare. Louis Napoleon had been sympathetic with the Italian cause in his younger days, but he knew that he relied on the conservative Catholic element in France for his support, so he now joined with the monarchs of Austria, Spain and the Two Sicilies in working together to restore the Pope. The campaign that followed has been brilliantly described by G. M. Trevelyan. Garibaldi and his volunteers beat off the first French attack on Rome on April 30th, and then moved south to defeat and drive away forces advancing from Naples. The Austrians meanwhile occupied Bologna and compelled the Florentines to admit back the Grand Duke of Tuscany, who had fled the city a few weeks earlier.
A renewed French attack on Rome by 30,000 troops (including heavy siege guns which shelled the city, doing considerable damage) was held at bay for the whole of June, but at the end of the month the city was forced to surrender. Mazzini fled, and the British and U.S. governments granted passports to a number of rebels, enabling them to escape. A purely clerical government was restored, with no trace of the 1848 liberal constitution; and Pope Pius IX, for the remainder of his very long pontificate, was now the most reactionary of pontiffs.
But this was only the start of the Garibaldi legend. He retreated from Rome with some 4,000 followers, fooled the French as to his intentions, and then marched north into Austrian-held territory. He kept excellent discipline amongst his men, forbidding looting even when short of food. Any stragglers who fell into Austrian hands were shot out of hand or savagely flogged, which only intensified the contempt he felt both for the Austrians and the Papacy. Only 1,500 were left when they found sanctuary in San Marino, the only surviving independent mediaeval city republic left in Italy (as it still is,of course). But the tiny state could not long withstand Austrian threats, so Garibaldi disbanded his army and they scattered, He himself with a couple of hundred followers retreated northwards towards Venice, where Daniele Manin was still holding out. But Venice had been under siege and bombardment from June, and Manin surrendered to the Austrians in August, to save his city from further destruction. Garibaldi's beloved wife Anita died in the marshes near Ravenna on August 4th, but after more adventures he finally escaped from Italy, vowing to return and fight again.
British opinion changed considerably during these events. At first the press treated Garibaldi and his supporters as mere terrorists, but as British tourists in Rome (who included Elizabeth Barrett Browning) reported that there was nothing to fear from the republicans, and as France, always of course the national enemy, entered the fray, British press coverage became much more sympathetic.
In 1851 King Ferdinand arrested his former liberal ministers. They were convicted in a ludicrous trial and sentenced to 24 years' imprisonment, chained up in dungeons. William Gladstone, then a rising young cabinet minister, was on holiday in Naples at the time. After witnessing the trials and visiting the prisons, he wrote an open letter to the Prime Minister, Lord Aberdeen, denouncing the proceedings as "A negation of God erected into a system of government". It is impossible to imagine any of our current leaders using such stirring language.
Kossuth and Garibaldi were both hailed as heroes when they visited England. By contrast, the Austrian general Haynau was attacked by a group of draymen when he visited a London brewery. Queen Victoria was horrified, but Lord Palmerston, then Prime Minister, made only the most perfunctory of apologies and took no further action. The humorous magazine "Punch" was entirely on the side of the draymen. All this helps to explain later British policy towards Italy.
Why had the revolutions of 1848 all failed so dismally? Marx analysed the events in two of his most brilliant pamphlets, "The Class Struggle in France" and "The 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon", and historians have debated the question ever since. Bismarck, who had observed the pointless debates of the Frankfurt Parliament with contempt, drew the conclusion that Germany would only be unified by "blood and iron". It did seem clear that the middle-class liberals represented on-one except themselves, and shrank from the use of force. The urban working classes could revolt, but lacked any direction or leadership. The peasants of the countryside, who made up a large majority of the population in all the states involved, were extremely conservative, and above all loyal to the Catholic church. The armies, whose rank and file consisted of peasant conscripts, followed orders and had no empathy with the urban poor. All these factors enabled the monarchies to survive - except in France, where a new monarchy replaced the old one.
By the end of 1849, therefore,it appeared that nothing had changed. Old governments had been restored and the map of Europe was exactly as it had been. But in fact the next 30 years were to see the biggest political changes for many centuries. The Crimean War saw Britain and France unexpectedly allied against Russia. The Turkish Empire receded in the Balkans and new states emerged: Romania and Serbia, later Bulgaria. The Russians, with their ambitions in the region thwarted, turned instead to the conquest of Moslem Central Asia: particularly Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Napoleon III inexplicably changed sides and sent his armies to drive the Austrians out of northern Italy, leading to the unification of the country. Austria, under pressure,conceded home rule to the Hungarian half of her empire. Finally and most importantly, Bismarck organized the unification of Germany under William I of Prussia and comprehensively defeated the French. From 1871 the new German Empire was clearly the dominant power in Europe, reversing almost three centuries of French predominance. The events of 1848 can therefore be seen as sparking off a generation of major changes; though hardly the ones that Marx envisaged.At the start of my essay on the revolutions of 1848, I suggested certain resemblances to the "Arab Spring" of our own time. We can but wait and see whether the next few decades witness a comparable turnaround.