FC108: Revolution and Reaction in Europe (1815-1848)

FC108
After me, the Revolution---or, rather, the ideas which formed it---will resume their course. It will be like a book from which the marker is removed, and one starts to read again at the page where one left off. Napoleon Bonaparte

The Congress of Vienna

Despite his defeat, Napoleon had several important effects on Europe.  For one thing, he had spread the idea of liberalism, especially in Western and Central Europe.  By the same token, he had also spread the idea of nationalism in East and Central Europe.  Finally, his defeat prompted the victors to meet at the Congress of Vienna with the goal of turning back the clock to restore the Europe that had existed before the French Revolution.  This was especially the goal of the brilliant Austrian minister, Metternich who led much of the deliberations at Vienna.

The most pressing issue was what to do about France: punish it for causing all this trouble, or restore it to its former position as one of the great powers. Realizing that breaking up France would upset the balance of power, destabilize Europe, and lead to more revolutions, the allies restored it to its old position, punishing it with only a mild indemnity and short military occupation. However, the new king, Louis XVIII, was a constitutional, not an absolute monarch.  Even in defeat, the French Revolution had made progress. 

There were other changes in the political map of Europe and the world.  Britain took South Africa from the Dutch to secure its sea route to India.  In compensation, the Dutch got the Austrian Netherlands from Austria, which in turn received control of Northern Italy.  The Grand Duchy of Warsaw formed by Napoleon, continued to exist as the Kingdom of Poland, although its king also happened to be the Czar of Russia.  And Germany, thanks largely to Napoleon's administrative work, was consolidated into 38 states.  These last three changes would all contribute to nationalist revolts in succeeding years. 

For the time being, the Congress of Vienna did restore the old order and a period of relative international peace known as the Concert of Europe, since it saw the major powers working largely together for several years to guard the common peace and old order.  However, the ideas born in the French Revolution and spread by Napoleon had not been eliminated.  The seeds of revolution had taken root and were spreading rapidly across the face of Europe.  Like it or not, the age of kings was in its twilight and a new age of democratic and nationalistic reforms and upheavals was dawning.

The pattern of revolts

The period 1815-48 saw periods of apparent tranquility broken by recurring waves of revolution.  In two of three cases (1830 and 1848), these revolutionary movements started in France and inspired similar outbreaks all over Europe.  Generally, revolutions in Western Europe focused on liberal reforms, since, with the exception of Belgium, nation states with a strong middle class were already established there.  Eastern Europe, with its multi-national empires, saw more nationalist uprisings as various ethnic groups wanted independence from the Hapsburg, Ottoman, and Russian empires.  Germany and Italy, in the middle of Europe, were especially turbulent since they were striving for both national unification and liberal civil rights. 

A basic pattern of events emerged during this period.  Authorities would think they had crushed the ideas of liberalism and nationalism.  However, they had merely driven these ideas underground where they would continue to spread and revolutions would flare up again.  While most of them would be suppressed, one or two would succeed and might prompt more liberal reforms in countries where the uprisings had been put down.  Rulers would again think they had suppressed the revolutionary ideas, and the cycle would repeat.  There were three major waves of revolutions: in the 1820's, 1830's, and 1848. 

In 1820 the revolutions started in Spain and spread to Greece, South America, and Germany.  Most of these were put down, but Greece and the South American colonies did win their independence, with a constitutional monarchy established in Greece and republics in South America.  The next wave of revolutions would start in France in 1830 and spread to Poland, Belgium, Italy, and Germany.  While the uprisings in Germany, Italy, and Poland were crushed, France won a slightly more liberal constitutional monarchy, Belgium won its freedom, and more liberal reforms were peacefully passed in Britain. 

The final, and biggest, wave of revolutions occurred in 1848, with some fifty uprisings taking place across Europe.  The French this time established a republic, only to have it taken over by a dictator, Napoleon III, and turned into the Second Empire.  Elsewhere, other revolutions collapsed, but they did lead to some reforms.  Serfdom was abolished in the Hapsburg Empire while a weak constitutional monarchy was established in Prussia.  Despite apparent failure, nationalist reformers would learn from their mistakes and set more realistic goals and strategies toward attaining national unity in Germany and Italy by 1871.

Revolutions in the 1820's 

It took only five years before a new wave of revolutions threatened the old order recently reestablished by Metternich and the Congress of Vienna.  Ironically, it was one of the more backward countries of Western Europe, Spain, that led the way.  A number of liberal army officers, apparently influenced by the ideas of the French Revolution, rebelled against the corrupt and repressive rule of the Bourbon king, Ferdinand VII.  As if on cue, riots and revolts broke out all over: in Italy, Germany, Russia (1825), the Spanish American colonies, and Romania and Greece in the Ottoman Empire.  In most cases these revolts were put down.  Austria suppressed the revolts in Italy and unrest in Germany.  France, despite some protests from Britain, put down the revolution in Spain.  The new czar, Nicholas I, had no trouble crushing the Decembrist Revolution led by liberal army officers (many of whom thought that their battle cry, "Constantine and Constitution", referred to their liberal candidate for the throne, Constantine, and his wife.  Likewise, the Ottoman Turks put down the Romanian uprising. 

However, in two cases on the fringes of European power, Greece and the Spanish American colonies, revolutions succeeded for reasons peculiar to each situation.  In the case of the Greek revolt, it was largely a romantic sentiment for ancient Greece, home of democracy and Western Civilization that sparked popular support for the Greeks.  The fact that the Greek rebels were descendants of Slavic invaders of the early middle ages, not the Greeks from the time of Pericles and Socrates, made little impact on the European public.  In fact, many of them, including the Romantic poet, Byron, went there as freedom fighters.  In the end, the European powers, having little regard for the non-Christian Turks and fearing Russian aggression that might threaten the balance of power in southeastern Europe, pressured the Ottomans to grant Greece its freedom.  In the style of the day, the Greeks established a constitutional, not absolute, monarchy in 1832.  It was the first major break in the old order since the Congress of Vienna.

Latin America

 

The Spanish American colonies had taken advantage of the revolution in Spain to throw off the yoke of Spanish rule.  Much of their inspiration came from the newly formed republic to the north, the United States.  It was the United States that also stood up to protect the Americas from foreign intervention in the famous Monroe Doctrine in 1823.  More important than the fledgling American republic's stand was Britain, which supported the revolutions so it could break Spain's mercantilist monopoly on trade and open new markets for British merchants to exploit.  Spain could ignore the Monroe Doctrine, but it could not ignore the power of the British navy, so its American colonies went free. 

However, independence brought two sources of instability to Latin America (covered in FC.108A).  For one thing, most Spanish bureaucrats fled back to Spain, leaving few trained bureaucrats to handle government business.  As a result, the armies that won the revolutions were often the only means of keeping matters under control.  Second, with Latin American markets now open for free trade, Britain and other European countries encouraged the production of one type of commodity in each nation, such as beef in Argentina or copper in Chile.  This made each new nation too dependent on international markets for its one product.  Therefore, if the market for their product fell, their economy would have nothing else to fall back upon.  This happened to El Salvador in the late 1800's when cheaper industrially produced dyes destroyed the need for its indigo dye, thus wrecking its economy.  Together, these factors led to unstable economic and political structures in Latin America encouraging rule by military dictatorships.  Misrule and poor economic conditions would lead to more military coups and revolutions, that would further destabilize the economy and the new government, leading to more revolutions and so on.

Revolutionary fever spreads: the 1830's

By the mid 1820's, most of Europe was pacified once again.  However, the ideas of nationalism and liberalism, still simmering under the surface, broke loose again in 1830.  Once again, the trouble started in France.  The government of the restored king, Louis XVIII (1815-24), was a conservative constitutional monarchy with a legislature elected by a narrow electorate of 100,000 property owners.  Louis realized that, after a quarter century of revolution, he had to treat the French people with care.  His brother and successor, Charles X (1824-30) was not so wise.  He censored the press, restored the clergy's position in the schools and politics, tried to bring back feudalism, gave pensions to nobles who had lost lands and rights from the Revolution, and dissolved the legislature. 

In 1830, the Parisians revolted and barricaded Paris' narrow streets.  The army refused to fire on the crowd, and Charles fled to England (a common habit for deposed kings back then).  Now the question was: what type of government to set up.  Students, intellectuals, and the Parisians wanted a republic.  However, the middle class, probably with the backing of the more conservative peasantry, prevailed in its desire for a constitutional monarchy.  The new king, Louis Philippe, known as the "Citizen King", was a man with little to commend him except that he was both a Bourbon and a former revolutionary, thus a compromise candidtate who satisfied no one.  Admittedly, his constitution was a bit more liberal than the previous one, with 200,000 property owners given the right to elect the legislature.  Things did settle down in France for a few years, but not before revolutionary turmoil flared up all over Europe.

Word of events in France triggered revolts in Belgium, Italy, Germany, and Poland, plus giving further impetus to a reform movement in Britain.  Austria put down the uprisings in Germany and Italy, while Czar Nicholas I easily crushed the Polish rebellion against Russia.  The one successful revolution was in Belgium where religious and linguistic differences with the ruling Dutch caused deep resentment that erupted into open rebellion in 1830. Austria and Prussia wanted to put this revolt down, but France and Britain supported the Belgian cause, largely to keep the other two powers from meddling so close to their shores.  Since Austria and Prussia were also preoccupied with the Polish revolt, France and Britain could pressure Holland to recognize Belgian freedom in 1831.  As was becoming the norm, a constitutional monarchy was established.

Although Britain did not experience revolution, it did see a strong reform movement that liberalized the criminal code and culminated in the Reform Bill of 1832.  Electoral representation was redistributed to reflect the shift in population to the rapidly industrializing northern counties.  The vote was extended to about 20% of British men (twice of what it was before).  The Reform Bill of 1832 also opened the door for more liberal reforms as the century progressed: extending the vote to urban workers (1867) and miners (1884) and also instituting the secret ballot.  Finally, after a long struggle, even women would get the vote in 1917.  Although Britain remained technically a constitutional monarchy, by the early part of this century it was essentially a modern democracy.

The Revolutions of 1848

The success of revolutionary and reform movements in Western, Europe and frustration at the failure of other similar movements in Central and Eastern Europe led to the spread of liberal and nationalist ideas in the 1830's and 1840's.  Economic forces also played a role in spreading discontent.  A series of bad harvests in the 1840's caused starvation (with one million people dying in Ireland from a severe potato famine), which led in turn to higher food prices, bankruptcies, unemployment and urban unrest.  Once again, events in France sparked a new wave of revolutions.

The government of the "Citizen King", Louis Philippe, had proven to be conservative, corrupt and unpopular, and in 1848 revolution broke out in Paris.  Just like in 1830, the barricades went up in Paris' narrow streets, many soldiers refused to fire on the crowd, and the king fled to Britain.  And just like before, revolutionary fever spread all over Europe, with close to 50 revolutions erupting in the German states, Italian states, and Hapsburg Empire. 

The suddenness and scale of the uprisings caught rulers completely by surprise.  In Germany, they agreed to more liberal constitutions, while a convention was held at Frankfurt to establish a national parliament for all of Germany.  In Italy, the Austrians were driven out of Milan and Venice, while rulers in Naples, Tuscany, and Piedmont agreed to liberal reforms.  In the Hapsburg Empire, a Hungarian revolt triggered similar revolts by Czechs, Croats, Galicians, and Transylvanians living under Hapsburg rule.  Metternich, the conservative prime minister and architect of the Congress of Vienna, was forced to resign, and the emperor fled to Innsbruck.  It seemed like the old regime was about to collapse all over Europe.  But just as events in France had set off these revolutions, events there led the way in suppressing them.

This time, the French established a republic where all Frenchmen could vote for delegates to a convention to draw up a new constitution.  However, it reflected the more conservative views of French peasants and middle class, which touched off riots by the urban masses suffering from lack of food and shelter in the recent economic troubles.  The army met the crowd's cry of "Bread or Lead" with a hail of lead from artillery fire, killing 10,000 demonstrators.  This was a turning point in suppressing radicals both in France and across Europe.
 
In France, the establishment of the Second Republic led to the election of Napoleon Bonaparte's nephew, Napoleon III, who, like his uncle, used a military coup to extend his presidency and then make himself emperor of the Second Empire (1852-70).  Victor Hugo, in his The History of a Crime, described this coup in grim terms that probably would apply to such events at any time:

"Suddenly, at a given signal, a...shower of bullets poured upon the crowd....Eleven pieces of cannon wrecked the Sallandrouze carpet warehouse.  The shot tore completely through twenty-eight houses.  The baths of Jouvence were riddled.  There was a massacre at Tortoni's [cafe].  A whole quarter of Paris was filled with an immense flying mass, and with a terrible cry....

"Adde, a bookseller of 17, Boulevard Possonniere, is standing before his door; they kill him.  At the same moment, for the field of murder is vast, at a considerable distance from there, at 5, Rue de Lancry, M. Thirion de Montauban, owner of the house, is at his door; they kill him.  In the Rue Tiquetonne, a child of seven years, named Boursier, is passing by; they kill him.  Mlle. Soulac, 196, Rue du Temple, opens her window; they kill her...

"New Year's Day was not far off, some shops were full of New Years' gifts.  In the Passage du Saumon, a child of thirteen, flying before the platoon firing, hid himself in one of these shops, beneath a heap of toys.  He was captured and killed.  Those who killed him laughingly widened his wounds with their swords.  A woman told me, 'The cries of the poor little fellow could be heard all through the passage.'  Four men were shot before the same shop....

"At the corner of the Rue du Sentier an officer of Spahis, with his sword raised, cried out, '...Fire on the women.'  A woman was fleeing, she was with child, she falls, they deliver her by the means of the butt-ends of their muskets.  Another, perfectly distracted, was turning the corner of a street.  She was carrying a child.  Two soldiers aimed at her.  One said, 'At the woman!'  And he brought down the woman.  The child rolled on the pavement.  The other soldier said, 'At the child!'  And he killed the child....

"In the Rue Mandar, there was, stated an eyewitness, 'a rosary of corpses,' reaching as far as the Rue Neuve Sainte-Eustache.  Before the house of Odier twenty-six corpses, thirty before the Hotel Montmorency.  Fifty-two before the Varietes, of whom eleven were women. In the Rue Grange-Bateliere there were three naked corpses.  No. 19, Fauborg Montmartre, was full of dead and wounded.  A woman, flying and maddened with dishevelled hair and her arms raised aloft, ran along the Rue Poissoniere, crying, 'They kill! they kill! they kill! they kill! they kill!'"

Despite its violent beginning, Napoleon III's rule was much more peaceful than that of his uncle.  France's prosperity rapidly grew as he promoted the building of industries and a centralized railroad network.  He also put Paris through an extensive urban renewal project, providing the city with wide boulevards that critics were quick to point out could not be barricaded so easily in the event of revolution.  Napoleon's reign would come to an end in 1870 after a disastrous war against Prussia in its final stage of unifying Germany.  In his wake came the Third Republic of France.  With the exception of Nazi rule in the 1940's, democracy has prevailed in France ever since.

Meanwhile, in the rest of Europe, the defeat of the more radical elements in France gave heart to other kings and princes reeling from the current wave of revolutions. Uprisings in Italy, Germany, and the Hapsburg Empire, were crushed as quickly as they had erupted and nearly overthrown established governments.  By the end of 1848, the old regimes were back on top, and nothing seemed to have been gained. 

Even in failure, the revolutions of 1848 did have positive results.  For one thing, several reforms, such as the abolition of serfdom in the Hapsburg Empire and the granting of at least nominal constitutions in the German states signaled some progress.  The spirit of reform extended even further east to Russia where serfdom was abolished in 1861.  Second, despite their failure, the revolutions spread the popularity of liberal and nationalist causes.  Failure also taught reformers to be more realistic in trying to attain more liberal reforms or national unification.  Two such men in particular, Camillo Cavour in Italy and Otto von Bismarck in Germany, clearly recognized these lessons and skillfully put them to work in building nations forged, as Bismarck would put it, from "blood and iron".