The “Secret” Revolutionary Year of 1848

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Perhaps other people had better teachers than me (maybe that’s why you’re all so darn smart!), but I had to stumble upon the importance of the year 1848 all by myself.  No teacher ever emphasized that year to me as an especially important one.

Over the years, however, as I perused snatches of history and biography here and there, 1848 kept popping up.  And from time to time an author I was reading would say something in passing about the “turmoil of 1848,” or even the “revolutions of 1848.”

Turns out, 1848 was a year that violently shook the foundations of the European state-system.  Who knew?

I’ve just finished reading a book written a few years ago by Mike Rapport called succinctly, 1848: Year Of Revolution.  It sounded like just the book I had been waiting for.  It’s not a bad book, and yet… it didn’t provide the explanation and cohesive, driving narrative I was craving.  Rapport does not go as far behind the scenes or as deep into the hearts and minds of the main characters of the drama as I was hoping he would.

To tell the truth, the relating of events was not much more than I had gotten from dry history books along the way.  I came away after reading 1848 with little better feeling for the titanic personalities of  people like Garibaldi or Mazzani or Napoleon III than I had before.  I learned very little about Italy’s underground revolutionary group the Carbonari.  Hardly any space was given to the swelling undercurrent of Socialism beneath much of the revolutionary excitement.  And I would have loved to have gotten a better sense of the feeling of national identity and shared history felt by the different ethnicities chaffing beneath the yokes of various kingdoms and empires.

Here’s what I gather about 1848 after reading Rapport’s book:

First, setting the stage…

We would do well to remember that the American and French revolutions were still thundering memories to the people of the 1840s.  Equally important were the Napoleonic Wars, during which the French military leader and later Emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte, conquered much of Europe– not just with arms but with ideas, using the ideals of the French Revolution (Liberty, Equality, Brotherhood) as propaganda to split the opposition and secure his gains with promises of better government and more freedom to come in the wake of his “liberating” armies.  In 1848, common people all over Europe are very much still enamored with this new idea, a written constitution, and the word will be shouted from one side of Europe to the other during the revolutions.

In 1815 the triumphant European powers had finally defeated Napoleon (they had to do it twice!), and they implemented a conservative old-as-new world order in Europe.  This new political ordering of Europe was crafted and dominated by Klemens von Metternich, the Austrian statesman who said, Rapport tells us, that “the first and greatest of matters… is the fixity of the laws, their uninterrupted working, and never changing them.”

Nevertheless, beneath the totalitarian states established by Metternich and the victors of the Napoleonic Wars, the ideas of the American and French revolutions never completely went away.  They seethed in undercurrent beneath the courts and palaces of the established or re-established monarchies.

The post-Napoleonic world had to be held in place by a foot to the throat of much of Europe.  Many groups fought against the new system, with varying degrees of success.

In 1830, France had tossed the Bourbons off the throne (again) during its July Revolution.  The Bourbons, however, were simply replaced by their rivals, the Orleans, and Louis-Phillipe ruled a France which continued as a monarchy– not the one Metternich had in mind, mind you, but close enough to keep his continent-wide system intact.

That same year, Belgium managed to throw-off the Dutch yoke (established by the Metternich-system in 1815), and it became an independent nation.

Less successively in 1830, the Poles –who no longer even had a country of their own during this time– revolted against their Russian conquerors.  After suffering a horrible defeat, 80,000 Poles were sent to Siberia for their crimes against Step-Mother Russia.

And the Ukranianians had it even worse believe it or not– many of them lived in a condition of near slavery beneath their tyrannical Polish landlords so bad that, according to Rapport, in 1846 (two years before the great revolutionary year), when the Polish nobles began to push back against their Austrian overlords– instead of joining their Polish masters, the Ukranian peasants came to the defense of the Austrians (and more specifically, the ruler of the Austrian-led empire, the Hapsburg Emperor, who the peasants felt had their back), rising up and killing over one thousand Polish nobles!  And they probably felt good doing it.

In Italy, the different regions had been agitating against domination by that same, sprawling Hapsburg Empire (hmm… Metternich’s power just happened to be based there… coincidence?)…  The major underground group of Italian freedom fighters were known as the Carbonari, perhaps most notably present in Naples, where they dedicated themselves to the overthrow of the ruling Austrians and the establishment of a liberal order in Italy.

Also around to stoke the flames of revolution were a new class of people:  the professional revolutionaries.  After the revolutions of America and France –and also importantly, after Greece’s successful war for Independence from the Turks in the 1820s– the thirst for freedom in Europe did not abate, and the fight was carried-on in the shadows of the totalitarian regimes by people such people as Giuseppe Mazzani (a Carbonari member and supporter of democracy and republicanism for a united Italy) and Giuseppe Garibaldi (Italian general and patriot and all-around freedom fighter– including a stint fighting in South America a century before Senor Che).

Not helping matters much, as far as the established order was concerned, was the dire economic situation of the mid-1840s.  On top of a cyclical, European-wide trade slump, there were not one but two major crop failures during the period:  the grain harvest and the potato harvest.  This was the time of the great Potato Famine in Ireland, when a fungus known popularly as the blight caused potatoes to turn to rot.

Meanwhile, working conditions were also growing more unbearable for the urban worker.  The new gas lighting meant that factory employees could stay longer at their machines (oh yay), the workday no longer regulated by the amount of daylight hours available.

In a more macro- vein, the Hapsburg Empire ruling over much of these troubled lands was not exactly having an easy economic time of it either.  According to Rapport, military expense plus interest-on-state-debt together sucked-up over two-thirds of the Empire’s budget.

On top of all this was the outbreak of Cholera, which begin infecting Western European urban areas in the early 1830s.

Aware of all these troubles, tribulations, and dissatisfactions across his native France (and, indeed, all across Europe), author Alexis de Tocqueville felt compelled to warn the French Chamber Of Deputies in January of 1848 that he felt the “wind of revolution” blowing.  “I believe that right now we are sleeping on a volcano,” he prophetically warned.

Once the revolutions against the oppressive regimes covering Europe began –in Italy with the “risorgimento,” or “resurgence” (of Italian power and prestige), the new technology of the day made for an extremely fast transfer of the news.  There were now railways, steamboats— and fastest of all, the telegraph.  Aided by this new hi-tech gadgetry to spread the revolutionary fever, it was in rapid succession during the first months of 1848 that demonstrations, riots, and outright revolutions broke out first in Italy, and then over the entire continent.

I’ll talk briefly about the ensuing revolutions and the bloody, depressing fruit they bore (at least immediately) in my next post.


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