by Mike Rapport

Start Free Trial


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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...

(This entire section contains 1830 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

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 unified government. In Vienna, students and other supporters of Austrian political reform took inspiration from France, Kossuth’s speech, and the German assembly to call for political change at home.

Public unrest in Vienna, according to Rapport, led to the second great crisis of the year, after the declaration of the French republic. Austrian chancellor Klemens von Metternich was one of the great figures of the Congress of Vienna, which constructed the European order following the Napoleonic Wars. An advocate of absolute monarchy as the basis of domestic and international social order, Metternich was unquestionably the most powerful individual in Austria and was probably the most powerful individual in Europe. On March 13, the demonstrations in Vienna forced Metternich to resign, and he then fled to England. Metternich was the symbol of the old monarchical regimes, and his fall seemed to herald a new future.

In Prussia, March saw a popular insurgency demanding a constitution. After some efforts at putting the insurgency down, King Frederick William gave in and announced that he would grant the constitution. Bringing Prussia into the German movement for change also created complications, however. If a unified Germany were to be established, would it include both Prussia and Austria? If Austria were included, what would happen to the non-German lands of the empire?

In northern Italy, news of Metternich’s political end stoked unrest in Milan and Venice, which were chafing under Austrian rule. The northern Italians were split between republicans and advocates of monarchy. The monarchists most often regarded King Charles Albert of Piedmont, Genoa, and Sardinia as the most plausible ruler of a unified Italian state. Such Italian nationalism was also demonstrated to varying degrees by the advocates of change in Austria-ruled Italy. Some Italians thought of Pope Pius IX, initially regarded as something of a progressive, as a potentially foundational figure for national unity.

Reaction quickly followed the revolutions almost everywhere. As conservative forces sought to regain control of Vienna, tensions between Austria and Hungary led to war between these two parts of the empire. The Austrians were able to enlist the support of minority groups within Hungary or threatened by Hungary in order to put down the Hungarians. At the same time, the powerful Austrian army fought to regain control over northern Italy, defeating the Piedmontese troops of Charles Albert, as well as the nationalist forces of legendary Italian professional revolutionaries Giuseppe Mazzini and Giuseppe Garibaldi. Pius IX, who shrank from supporting the northern cause against Catholic Austria, fled from a republican coup to southern Italy, where King Ferdinand II was successfully putting down a rebellion against his rule in Sicily. This coup helped make the pope into the extreme conservative he would become in the later nineteenth century.

In Paris, the political pivot of Europe, the forces of reaction began to assert themselves when the urban poor began to demand economic changes, including employment support from the government. When the new republican government put down urban uprisings in July, former political liberals began to make common cause with supporters of social order, including those who wanted to reinstate the dynasty of the Bourbons or that of Orleans, the other wing of the French royal family. In this polarized atmosphere, Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, the nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, managed to capitalize on his absence from France and his consequent lack of existing political commitments to lead all sides into believing that they had his support.

In October of 1848, Louis-Napoleon announced his candidacy for president of the republic. Ironically, the expanded democracy of the republic helped undermine it, since Louis-Napoleon was able to appeal to the memory of his uncle’s name among the peasantry to ride to a surprise landslide victory. Rather than accept the constitutional limit to a single term, Louis-Napoleon would stage a coup in 1852 and have himself crowned Napoleon III, ruling autocratically until 1871. Before that, though, Louis-Napoleon intervened in Italy. Following the rise of the republic in Rome, France, which many had proclaimed as the model for republican revolution throughout Europe, sent troops to take control of the seat of Catholicism and to make possible the return of the pope.

Throughout the rest of the continent, the constitutions the kings had granted were taken back. Under the young Emperor Franz Joseph, who replaced the old Emperor Ferdinand, the Austrian monarchy not only reasserted its control over Austria itself but also defeated the forces of Hungary and shot Hungarian officers as rebels. For more than a decade, Franz Joseph would be the absolute ruler of the empire, giving way to reforms only in 1860.

Rapport has provided an excellent guide to the complicated events that took place during and immediately after 1848. Moving from one part of the troubled continent to another, he manages to weave the rapidly paced histories of these lands into a single narrative. Even more important, he offers clear explanations of why the radicals and reformers of 1848 failed to achieve their goals. Essentially, they had too many goals, and these were often mutually inconsistent. The long period of political repression that followed the Napoleonic Wars brought many different movements for change together. The bourgeoisie sought more representative political systems but also wanted secure guarantees of property rights. The urban working classes and the poor wanted social reforms that often threatened those property rights. The peasants wanted freedom from exploitation by landlords but also often had sentimental attachments to monarchs, whom they could be encouraged to see as their protectors. The nationalists wanted unity and autonomy for their own ethnic groups but opposed the autonomy of minorities inside their national boundaries.

Rapport cautions against regarding the revolutionary year as an utter failure. It did give many ordinary Europeans their first taste of politics and therefore could be seen as laying the groundwork for the republican governments that would eventually follow in many places. Some of the revolutionaries’ goals were later achieved. For example, following Austria’s defeat by Prussia in 1866, a key event in German unification, the Habsburg Empire was redesigned as the dual Kingdom of Austria and Hungary, joined together by the rule of Franz Joseph.

The contradictions in the coalitions of interests during 1848 also demonstrated the inconsistent and unpredictable nature of political goals. National unification, seen as a liberal goal in Germany and Italy, was hardly liberal when it has finally achieved, and in the twentieth century nationalism in both countries became a basis for extreme authoritarian governments. Balancing ethnic minority interests with those of national self-determination would also become a central problem for European governments. While Rapport avoids reading history backward and interpreting 1848 in terms of events that came long after, he does a good job of presenting this year as the “seed plot” of modern Europe, when the great historical growths of the modern era took root.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

American Conservative 8, no. 9 (May 4, 2009): 29-30.

Booklist 105, no. 11 (February 1, 2009): 12.

Kirkus Reviews 76, no. 24 (Debember 15, 2008): 1297.

Library Journal 134, no. 1 (January 1, 2009): 107.

New Criterion 27, no. 10 (June, 2009): 73-76.

The New York TimesBook Review, March 15, 2009, p. 15.

The Times Literary Supplement, December 5, 2008, p. 13.

The Wall Street Journal, March 13, 2009, p. A9.

Weekly Standard 15, no. 11 (November 30, 2009): 33-35.