The year 1848 saw a series of political upheavals in France, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Germany, Italy, and Poland. Even places, such as England and Russia, that did not experience political change felt the shock waves of revolutionary activity, and Russia intervened in the conflicts to its west. The distant United States experienced the effects of this year when political refugees, especially Germans, emigrated during the aftermath. Despite the continental and even global reach of the struggles of this time, most historians have tended to concentrate on the events in only one nation. Mike Rapport’s book 1848: Year of Revolution attempts to provide a portrait of the revolutions as European phenomena, to examine their underlying causes, and to evaluate their consequences.
Rapport begins his account with the departure of the Russian socialist Alexander Herzen from his own country, which was under the autocratic sway of Czar Nicholas I, to begin a journey through the European lands to the west. Herzen would never see Russia again, but he would have a long record as a political commentator. He would also be a witness to the European events of 1848. Rapport describes the lands Herzen entered as dominated by the conservative political order that had formed in reaction to the Napoleonic wars. France, under the rule of King Louis-Philippe since the uprising against Charles X in 1830, had a parliament. Even under Louis-Philippe’s comparatively liberal regime, however, only a minuscule fraction of the population could vote. The Habsburg Empire of Austria was an absolute monarchy that extended over Hungary and a large part of northern Italy, as well as a variety of lands and nationalities in eastern Europe. Prussia, the most powerful of the nations in what would become Europe, was also an absolute monarchy. Even in England, where Herzen eventually settled, only one-fifth of the population could vote, and the House of Commons’ members were all drawn from a small social and economic elite.
In Rapport’s telling, the first sign of the collapse of the apparently stable regimes of Europe came late in January in Paris, when the political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville addressed the French Chamber of Deputies and warned that, without parliamentary reforms, not only France but also the rest of the Continent would be shaken by revolution. Despite the location of this initial alarm, the first violent confrontations of the year began in Milan, in northern Italy, with scuffles between the Milanese and the resented Austrian army. The conflict between dominant and dominated nationalities would be as much a part of the revolutionary year as struggles over political democracy and social reform. These overlapping but distinct forms of the desire for change would, in Rapport’s telling, help spread the radical impulses of the year. Ultimately, though, the inconsistencies among the goals of national and ethnic liberation, social reform, and political liberalization would also stifle these impulses.
Although Milan witnessed the first harbinger of continental revolution, Paris provided the greatest spark to the explosions that would occur around the continent. In the French capital, protests against the stubbornly unmoveable administration of government leader Francois Guizot were met with military repression, causing the protests themselves to escalate into violent uprisings. King Louis-Philippe fled the city, and the rebels proclamed France a republic. The news of the revolt in Paris galvanized oppositions in the German states and in the Habsburg Empire.
The empire was multinational but dominated by German-speaking Austria. Hungary constituted much of the central part of the empire, though, and the Hungarians yearned for greater control over their land. In early March, inspired by events in Paris, the Hungarian speaker Lajos Kossuth rose in the parliament and called for his nation to become independent, retaining only the Austrian emperor, with the title king of Hungary, as the link between the two nations.
Also in early March, the news of the French republic encouraged popular support for more liberal regimes in the many small German states located between the great German-speaking powers of Prussia and Austria. Faced with demonstrations, the princes of many of these states accepted parliamentary reforms. Delegates from the German states gathered in Heidelberg to form a German national assembly, the basis for a unified nation with a...
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