Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index

Conclusions of the Revolutions of 1848

The "parent" of this page and all references are at Revolution of 1848.

. . . We have been beaten and humiliated . . . scattered, imprisoned, disarmed and gagged. The fate of European democracy has slipped from our hands.

Pierre Joseph Proudhon, after the failures of 1848, quoted in The Age of Revolution and Reaction, (references), by Charles Breunig.

Ten years after the Revolutions of 1848, little had visibly changed, and many historians consider the revolutions a bloody failure. There are countless arguments, and we do not here attempt to analyze all sides.

On the other hand, both Germany and Italy were unified in somewhat over 20 years, and there were a few immediate positive results, notably in the Hapsburg lands. The Hapburgs finally had to give the Hungarians more self-determination by 1867. Prussia eliminated feudalism by 1850, improving the lot of the peasants. European middle classes made political and economic gains over the next twenty years; France kept its universal manhood suffrage. Even oppressive Russia later freed the serfs on February 19, 1861.

Most of what the revolutionists wanted they eventually got, and society was not destroyed. After the middle classes had much of what they desired, they sometimes confounded the Marxists by giving more to the lower classes.

But in 1848, the revolutionaries were idealistic and divided by the multiplicity of aims for which they fought -- social, economic, liberal, and national. Conservative forces exploited these divisions, and revolutionaries suffered from mediocre leadership. Middle-class revolutionists feared the lower classes, evidencing different ideas; counter-revolutionists exploited the gaps. As some reforms were enacted and the economy improved, some revolutionaries lost heart. When the Hapsburg's lightened the burden of feudalism, many peasants lost heart; similar failures occurred elsewhere. International support likewise lacked.

England couldn't support the Revolutions, as her own subordinate peoples (like the Irish next door, starving in part because of England's repressive corn laws) would clamor for independence. Autocratic Russia of course did not support the Revolutions, actively helping Austria in her war with a restive Hungarian splinter group. Both England and Russia opposed Prussia's plans on Schleswig-Holstein, tarnishing her view among Germany's liberal nationalists. And in 1848 the inconsistently-liberal United States was exploding into sectional conflict over slavery and did nothing.

And why did nothing happen in England and Russia? Russia was still feudal and oppressive, but England was industrialized. Freedom of speech and the electoral reform of 1832 in England are telling differences with the rest of Europe, who of course pointed out how horribly the Irish were treated. The starving peasants of Ireland never rebelled, kept down by England's iron hand. Others were no luckier.

The net result in the German states and France was more autocratic systems, despite reforms such as universal male suffrage in France, and strong social class systems remained in both. What reforms were enacted seemed like sops thrown to quell dissent, while privilege remained untouched. Nationalistic dreams also failed in 1848.

The Italian and German movements did provide an important impetus. Germany was unified under the iron hand of Bismarck in 1871 after her 1870 war with France; Italy was unified in 1861 as the United States was split into two nations and exploding into internecine civil war.

Some disaffected German bourgeois liberals (the Forty-Eighters, many atheists and freethinkers) migrated to the United States after 1848, taking their money, brains, and skills out of Germany and siding with the Union in the American Civil War, as they found slavery (and by implication, the Confederacy) distasteful with their image of America, then two nations. Over 177,000 served the Union cause. Like 1861 for the United States, 1848 was a watershed year for Europe, after which things were never again the same.