Last week, we got into the real guts of the Revolutions of 1848. Not just what happened in Europe in that year, particularly central Europe, but also what the issues at stake were. Those issues were: whether or not the kingdoms of Europe would be governed by constitutional law, what the role of the monarch was in the formation of policy, how representative should the government be, the issue of nationalism and, very briefly, the concept of socialism, which we will get more into this week. We also saw what the cost of pressing for the answers to those questions were: internal bloodletting and political violence on a scale not seen in Europe since the guillotine had produced a pile of heads during the Reign of Terror of the original French Revolution. Today, we will close this mini-arc about the revolutions of 1848 by taking a look at when, how, and why, essentially all of those revolutions failed in their goals or were crushed outright.
First, let us turn to the German Confederation, where a parliament had convened in the city of Frankfurt on May 18, elected mostly on the basis of universal manhood suffrage, with the principle goal of writing a constitution for a unified German state. As with the legislative bodies we’ve seen in France, it is hard to tell for certain how many seats each “party” had in the Frankfurt Parliament, but we can estimate that slightly more than half of the participants were liberal, constitutional monarchists, who desired a federal German state with a constitutional monarch at its head. That is, these delegates did not want to completely erase the borders that made up the German Confederation, but mostly keep those borders intact, with the constituent parts no longer being fully independent countries but rather “states” of a larger, unified Germany, analogous to the states that made up the United States of America. The monarchs of those constituent states would all get to keep their positions, though any of those holding the title of “king” would be bumped down to “prince,” and those German princes would get together to elect a new Emperor of the German Empire, with everyone understanding that the imperial crown would go to the king of Prussia, as Prussia would be the largest and most powerful kingdom within this new Germany. Very few members of the parliament were true absolutist conservatives, as men of that stripe mostly boycotted this assembly which they did not recognize out of protest, but there was also a sizeable group of radical republican delegates. These were men who, broadly speaking, wanted the new unified German state to be a republic rather than a monarchy, and rather than this being a federal union of the existing German principalities, they wanted these distinctions to be completely erased, so that all the German people could truly unite as a single people.
Related to this argument – whether or not the new German state should be a federal constitutional monarch or a unitary republic – was the debate over what exactly this new Germany would include geographically. This is the famous question of Kleindeutschland vs Großdeutschland, or Lesser Germany vs. Greater Germany. The constitutional monarchists at Frankfurt tended to be supporters of Lesser Germany; that is, they wanted their new German Empire to be composed of all of the member states of the German Confederation, but to specifically exclude Austria from this union. The reasoning behind this was simple – Austria can’t be included in the new Germany because it is so large and compromises so many non-Germanic people. Either we would have to incorporate all of those non-Germanic lands into the new German Empire, defeating the nationalist purpose behind creating Germany in the first place. Or, we would have to detach the German speaking lands from the larger Austrian Empire and leave the non-Germanic lands to figure it out for themselves what to do in southeastern Europe, which would just be far too destabilizing. No, distasteful as it is, our new Germany cannot include all the German people, because there is just no good way to incorporate the Austrian Germans into this new state. The republicans at the Parliament, among them Gustav Struve whom we briefly mentioned last week, mostly favored the Greater German solution. They argued that all the German peoples, no matter what government they lived under now, ought to be united into our new German state. That’s the whole point of creating a unified Germany. So what if that means destroying the decrepit and corrupt Austrian Empire? Europe will be better for it.
We’re mostly going to skip the back and forth between the monarchists and republicans at the Frankfurt Parliament, partly because the nitty gritty details of all of this are not that important to understand, but mostly because, spoiler alert, none of the work of this Parliament is going to stick. For our purposes, we should skip to December of 1848 when the Frankfurt Parliament officially adopted the Grundrechte, or Basic Rights, which would serve as a sort of bill of rights and preamble to the new constitution they were still writing, and which we will get to in a second. Before that, I want to dwell on these Basic Rights, because they will segue us nicely into a discussion of something that we haven’t talked much about here in 1848, but which were critical to the revolutions and coming counter-revolutions, and are at the heart of the unaddressed questions by the time 1914 rolls around.
These “Basic Rights” are actually pretty remarkable in the level of personal political freedom they guarantee (or, would have guaranteed, had they ever been implemented). Among the rights in this document were freedom of the press, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, which is all stuff we mostly take for granted today, but at the time this was all pretty radical stuff, at least in the continental European context. Perhaps even more radical was the established principle of total equality before the law and the abolition of all hereditary aristocratic titles. In a society that still largely clung to the medieval idea that one’s place in society was determined entirely by your family’s status, and where not just the distinction between commoner and noble but the different ranks within the nobility were the basis of social conduct, this was pretty far out there. The Grundrechte even forbade the death penalty.
But here’s the thing: all of these ideas enshrined in this document – freedom of speech and of the press, equality before the law, the abolition of the death penalty, all of it – dealt only with the individual political rights of the people. What it did not address, what nothing in this document addressed, was the economic plight of the mass of European (or, in this case, German) people, most of whom were just barely recovering now from the death and hardship of the hungry forties. This is where we transition away from the narrative for a minute, and move on to a discussion of an idea that while it won’t really catch on in 1848, nor will it have had a huge impact on the countries of Europe by 1914, but that is absolutely crucial to the story of the First World War. That idea is socialism.
Socialism is a tricky concept to define, as it means different things in different places and at different times and among different people. The word “socialism” was first coined by the French Writer Pierre Leroux, in an essay written in 1834 entitled “Individualism and Socialism.” When he wrote this essay and coined this word, he did not imbue it with any kind of sophisticated or detailed economic and political program. Rather, all that Leroux meant when he contrasted “Individualism” with “Socialism” was that the former caused people to think only for themselves and their immediate self-interest, but that society should be based on mutual support and love for one another. Or, in his own words, “We are all responsible to one another. We are united by an invisible link, it is true, but that link is more clear and more evident to the intelligence than matter is to the eyes of the body. From which it follows that mutual charity is a duty. From which it follows that the intervention of man for man is a duty. From which follows finally a condemnation of individualism.” However, Leroux also made clear that, as he put it, “absolute socialism,” which he never quite defines but implies is based on having no concern for the individual but only society itself, is just as evil as absolute individualism. Regardless, Leroux did not really lay out a detailed political or economic definition of these two ideas; in short, Leroux was a moralist, not a politician nor economist.
A more specific and detailed political program centered around this general idea was proposed by the writer Louis Blanc, whom we briefly met last week as he was elevated into the French provisional government. Blanc was a fiery and passionate writer, who conveyed his – for the time – incredibly radical ideas in blunt, simple language, and he was one of the first socialists whose ideas were read and absorbed by members of the working class. His theories of how to reorganize society were based on two simple principles, which he laid out in his best-selling essay “The Organization of Labor.” “1. Competition is for the people a system of extermination. 2. That competition is an ever-present cause of impoverishment and decline of the bourgeoisie.” Now later we will discuss in more detail what words like “bourgeoisie” and “proletariat” mean in socialist ideology, but for now we will say that the bourgeoisie are the wealthy ruling elite under the new capitalist economic system then taking root in Europe, and the proletariat are the once independent farmers and workers who must work and are exploited by the bourgeoisie.
Blanc’s thesis was that economic capitalism, a word which he helped coin by the way, was based on competition not just between one factory owner and another, but among all the people who had to compete with each other for ever lower wages won with ever more hours of hard, dirty, demoralizing work. Blanc believed that this was not only unjust, but inefficient, and that economic cooperation must be the basis for the new economic system which he wanted to help build. As he wrote in The Organization of Labor, “The question should be put thus: Is competition a means of ASSURING work to the poor? To put a question of this kind, means to solve it. What does competition mean to workingmen? It is the distribution of work to the highest bidder. A contractor needs a laborer: three apply. ‘How much do you ask for your work?" "Three francs, I have a wife and children.’ ‘Good, and you?’ ‘Two and a half francs, I have no children, but a wife.’ ‘So much the better, and you?’ ‘Two francs will do for me; I am single.’ ‘You shall have the work.’ With this the affair is settled, the bargain is closed. What will become now of the other two proletarians? They will starve, it is to be hoped. But what if they become thieves? Never mind, why have we our police? Or murderers? Well, for them we have the gallows. And the fortunate one of the three; even his victory is only temporary. Let a fourth laborer appear, strong enough to fast one out of every two days; the desire to cut down the wages will be exerted to its fullest extent.”
I realize that was a pretty long quote, but I wanted to give you an idea not just of what Blanc’s ideas were, but how they were conveyed in a provocative way that allowed him to make some inroads with the working class on whose behalf he and other early socialists were writing. Blanc’s main policy initiative, which he pushed for both during the days of the July Monarchy and when he was elevated into the provisional government after Louis Philippe’s fall, was a guaranteed “right to work.” Now, of course, this is not the same “right to work” that those of us in the United States would recognize, that is a piece of legislation meant to discourage people from joining a labor union. Rather, Louis Blanc meant this literally; that if we must live in a society where you must work in order to survive, then one’s access to a job must be guaranteed, and if necessary provided, by the state. The point of all this, was that these early socialists did not believe that advocating for mere political representation and equality before the law was enough to fix the problems of society. That these measures alone would still leave most people in Europe in squalor and poverty. And that only by addressing the economic and social problems of the day could true freedom be achieved.
And of course, in this entire discussion of socialism, which I brought up in the context of the Frankfurt Parliament, I have not mentioned the most famous socialist adherent of this era, who in point of fact was living in the German city of Cologne at this time. By pure coincidence, in late February of 1848, just as the July Monarchy was being toppled by the people of Paris, an obscure German writer named Karl Marx published The Manifesto of the Communist Party, better known to us as The Communist Manifesto. The thing is, while Marx was an active participant in revolutionary action in Cologne at this time, and while the pamphlet he and his comrade Friedrich Engels published in that year would come to have a profound impact on the final chapters of the First World War and ultimately the course of world history, basically nobody in 1848 had ever read the Communist Manifesto or heard of this thing called Communism. So we shall save a discussion of Marx’s particular scientific socialism for a future episode. For now, let us return to the men of the Frankfurt Parliament as they put the finishing touches on their constitution.
On March 27, 1849, The Constitution of The German Reich (or more simply, the Frankfurt Constitution) was officially adopted by the Frankfurt Parliament as the constitution for a unified German state, and the next day they elected King Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia as Emperor of the German Empire. The lesser German formulation would be adopted (that is, including all the German lands except for Austria) and the new Germany would be a federal, constitutional monarchy.
Except…it soon became clear that this momentous declaration had exactly zero impact on the political situation in the German Confederation. Within days some 28 of the 38 members of the German Confederation officially recognized the Constitution. But there was a major problem: over the last few months, after crawling on his stomach and granting liberal reforms to his people, including calling for elections for a kingdom wide assembly based on universal manhood suffrage, King Friedrich Wilhelm of Prussia had reclaimed basically all of his absolutist power. I don’t want to get too deep into the weeds here, but basically the king decided to use the power of elections to re-entrench his conservative absolutist rule by reaching out to his kingdom’s peasants, who made up the bulk of the population, to rally to the king. This strategy, not rejecting the principal of popular government but utilizing a kind of jiu-jitsu strategy of turning it on its head by appealing to conservative peasant voters, was mostly the work of a new aristocratic advisor to the king. A young man, known more as being a brash bully than a great statesmen, but who adroitly understood that the liberals of Berlin did not really represent the conservative worldview of the peasants, and used that understanding to call in a huge bloc of conservative voters, will play a big role in the next few episodes. That brash young noble was named Otto von Bismarck. We are not going to do any more than introduce the young Bismarck in this episode, but don’t you worry kids – we will have much more to say about this brash young noble next week.
So, enabled by a conservative government mostly voted into office by his peasants, King Friedrich Wilhelm IV had mostly abolished the liberal reforms he had agreed to following the March uprising in Berlin. And when he was presented with this “Imperial” Crown of a “German Empire, he categorically rejected it, and in point of fact refused to recognize any such unified German state. He did not believe in any such unified German state, and in fact referred to this imperial “crown” offered to him by men whom he believed had no right to offer any such thing to anyone as, “a crown from the gutter.” He had been ordained by god as King of Prussia, not Emperor of Germany, and so he would remain the King of Prussia.
This was a sobering moment, not just for the men of the Frankfurt Parliament but for liberals of all stripes in Germany. The men of the Frankfurt Parliament had just sort of assumed that everyone would go along with whatever they decided to do regarding the constitution they were writing for a unified Germany. But now that Prussia, the linchpin of their project, had rejected their proposal and refused to recognize their authority, it dawned on them that they had no real way to compel the German states to comply with this constitution they had so solemnly written and declared. They had no formal military organization under their command, and what popular support they did have was scattered across all the German states and divided amongst each other. Really, this was just a couple of hundred guys in a room, and nothing more.
Over the next few months, many of the states that had previously accepted the Frankfurt Constitution withdrew their support. Then they started to withdraw their delegates, until by May 30 after these withdrawals and the private resignations of individual members, there were only 104 delegates remaining out of an original 585. Having lost the support of the government of Frankfurt, what was left of the Parliament relocated to nearby Stuttgart in the Kingdom of Württemberg, but the King of Württemberg (under threat of invasion from a newly absolutist Prussia) also withdrew his support. By this point pretty much everyone had realized that the Frankfurt Parliament and its shiny new constitution was done for. As one delegate wrote to a friend, “we cannot conceal from ourselves the fact that, with the apathy into which a large part of Germany has fallen, the prospect of success…is only slight, but we believe we are obliged for the honor of the nation…to make this last effort.” Finally, on June 18, Prussia followed through on its threat, marched an army into the city of Stuttgart, and forcibly dissolved the Frankfurt Parliament, symbolically destroying the black, red, and gold tricolor flags of German nationalism that the parliament had taken as its colors. The cause of German unification was dead. At least for now.
So, the cause of liberal reform and national unification had failed in Germany, but what about in the constituent realms of the Austrian Empire, which had seen revolts from as far away as Hungary and as near to home as the Imperial capital of Vienna? Well, the short answer is that all of the attempts to institute popular, constitutional government based on national self-determination would all be crushed by the end of summer, 1849. Let’s go see how all of that played out.
On April 25, 1848, after revolutionary uprisings in Vienna had forced the ouster of Metternich and in Hungary resulted in home rule for the Kingdom of Hungary, Emperor Ferdinand I officially promulgated a constitution for the Austrian Empire. I can only imagine Metternich, at this point in exile in Great Britain, bashing his head against the wall in impotent frustration. This constitution contained nearly all of the liberal principles that had been demanded by the Viennese, Hungarians, and other revolutionary groups throughout the empire. It instituted an elected parliament that would write all laws, granted the right of trial by jury and eliminated all rights of noble landlords to hold private legal courts, and stated that, “all nationalities are guaranteed the inviolability of their nationalities and languages.” This last point would actually cause some friction in the newly autonomous Kingdom of Hungary, but we will worry about that later.
The “liberals” in Vienna were mostly satisfied with this constitution, guaranteeing as it did basically everything they had fought for. More radical elements, however, especially among students and lower class organizers, were outraged that this constitution maintained many of the powers of the emperor, including a veto on any legislation and absolute power over war and peace. The constitution also stated that the rights affirmed within it had been granted by the Emperor, which as we saw in France was insulting to those who believed that the rights of the people were inherent to them, and could not be granted by the monarch. Further, their was nothing in this document about addressing the economic inequality which the radicals saw as having caused the famine of the last few years.
Over the course of May multiple demonstrations, bordering on riots, in Vienna caused the Imperial government to first try and reassert their will – by for example forbidding members of the Civic Guard and Academic Legion from joining political clubs – and then usually caving to demands for more radical reform, with the most important concession being eliminating property requirements for the vote and instituting universal manhood suffrage. But none of these concessions, offered by an increasingly distraught court and exhausted emperor, were given willingly, and it’s pretty clear that the Imperial government was just biding their time until they could reinstate the absolutist rule of the Emperor. Who, and I hate to keep reminding you of this, but recall that Emperor Ferdinand I was a mentally disabled epileptic who was just totally incapable of dealing with issues of this complexity and stress of this level. While I personally have no sympathy for the absolutist rule of an emperor, I must say that I do feel really sorry for this poor guy as he had no business being in a situation like this.
Anyway, on May 17 Vienna awoke to find a notice plastered across the city stating that the Emperor had fled from his capital to set up court in the city of Innsbruck some 250 miles west. The radicals of Vienna were outraged by their emperor apparently abandoning his people, but more liberal and conservative people started to feel like maybe this had all gone too far. That they were on the brink of descending into a republic like, gag, the French. When elections were held for a new parliament under the constitution of April 25, the voters elected a majority of moderate liberals and outright conservatives to this new assembly, which held its first session on July 22. This parliament was riddled with indecisiveness about how they wanted to structure the new imperial government, how much power the emperor should have versus their own assembly, or indeed whether or not to entirely rewrite the constitution promulgated in April.
On August 12, the Emperor Ferdinand was convinced to return to Vienna, after being assured that the radicals had been suppressed by the more conservative parliament now meeting in the capital. He was greeted with joyous crowds, women scattering flower petals in front of his carriage, that sort of thing. Among the people at the capital ready to officially welcome the emperor home was an eighteen-year-old nephew of the emperor’s in full dress military uniform named Franz Joseph. The young man cut a striking figure, and perhaps some in the crowd wondered if this young noble officer might make a better emperor than the ailing Ferdinand in these troubled times, *cough* foreshadow *cough*.
Now, in all of this I have skipped a lot of important revolutionary action that occurred throughout the Austrian Empire, and indeed in other parts of the wider German Confederation. That’s because I want to in this episode set up the political and military legacy of 1848 that will be relevant to our discussions on the First World War. But I do want to mention a few quick things before we kill off this nascent Austrian Parliament.
First, those of you with a lot of background on British political history may have noticed that I have entirely neglected a famous working-class movement which rose, crested, and crashed in 1848. This was the famous “Chartist” movement, named after a document called “The People’s Charter” written back in 1838. This was a demand for six basic rights which I will quickly list here:
Universal Manhood Suffrage.
Equal representation in Parliament based entirely off of population (that is, the elimination of all remaining “rotten boroughs”).
Abolition of all property qualifications for Members of Parliament
Annual election of a new Parliament, so that the will of the people would be consulted as often as possible.
All voting done by secret ballot.
That all Members of Parliament should receive a salary, so that working-class people could afford to sit in Parliament.
On April 10, 1848, a huge crowd in London gathered outside of the House of Commons. But rather than simply storm the Parliament as such crowds had often done in the rest of Europe, instead a small delegation was allowed in to present their petition. When it was roundly rejected by the British Parliament, the crowd outside, amazingly, meekly dispersed and all went home.
The reason I did not cover this movement before, and in fact kind of dismissively said that the British did not participate in the revolutions of 1848 at all, was because the Chartist Movement A) was not really sparked by the same social and political forces as the rest of the continent, and had been building for years beforehand, and B) because the movement was so quickly squashed due to the fact that no middle class Britons took part in it. Middle class support for the revolutions of 1848 was critical to them gaining any concessions at all, and since the middle class in Britain was already fully incorporated into the political structure, they had no reason to support the Chartist movement. Anyway, apologies to any British listeners for not giving the Chartist movement its due consideration, it really is a fascinating and extremely relevant piece of history.
Next, I need to cover the Czech participation in the revolutions of 1848. In the early part of June, 1848 a huge revolt had broken out in the city of Prague, which was then the capital of the Austrian state of Bohemia, but which today is the capital of the independent country of Czechia (also known as the Czech Republic). This revolt, partly organized by liberals who simply wanted more autonomy and partly by radicals who wanted full Bohemian independence, was ruthlessly crushed by the Austrian General Alfred Windisch-Grätz when he shelled the city with artillery. This brutal suppression prevented the establishment of an independent Bohemia, but it also deepened Czech nationalist anger against their “foreign” Austro-German oppressors. Meanwhile slightly north in the Prussian province known as the Grand Duchy of Posen, which is today the region surrounding the Polish city of Poznań (for the record, Posen is just the German word for Poznań), a similar revolt of ethnic Poles led by the revolutionary general Ludwik Mierosławski was crushed by the Prussians in April and May. This forced Mierosławski to flee first to the western German state of Baden, where he led another popular revolt this time of German republicans, but was once again crushed by a Prussian army, causing him to flee yet again this time to Sicily of all places, where he led a revolutionary army there which was crushed by an army from Naples sent by the King of the Two Sicilies (which was an absolutist kingdom that controlled the southern half of Italy and a now reconquered island of Sicily) I really wish I had more time to get into Ludwik Mierosławski, he’s a fascinating guy who led a pretty crazy life and definitely deserves his own biography in English, wink wink, nudge nudge.
Speaking of the Italians, they have been engaged in revolutionary activity since before the February Revolution in France swept aside the July Monarchy of Louis Philippe I. Specifically, a coalition of Italian kingdoms, led by the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia in northwestern Italy under King Carlo Alberto I, had been engaged in a war of independence against the Austrian army based out of the cities of Milan and Venice. Well, formerly based out of there, since revolutionary mobs had kicked out those Austrian garrisons back in February and March. But this coalition was crippled by, first, the fact that basically all of the kings of these kingdoms were pretty much being held hostage at this point by their people and had no interest in fighting the Austrians, and second, because none of them wanted to see their kingdoms swallowed up by Carlo Alberto and allow him to crown himself King of all Italy.
The war at first went well for the Italian coalition; on March 25, 1848 a Piedmontese army of 23,000 soldiers under King Carlo Alberto I crossed into the Austrian held territory surrounding Milan, and within a few days had marched into the city to massive crowds roaring in support of their liberators. Then on April 8, the Piedmontese army met an Austrian army in battle at the town of Goito and decisively routed the Austrians. This victory was followed up by the Piedmont seizure of several key Austrian fortresses in northeastern Italy during the rest of April. But following these reverses, the highly capable Austrian General Radetzky sent a force south which decisively defeated and routed an army of southern Italian states marching north to join in the fight, effectively knocking them out of the war and turning it into a one-on-one fight between Austria and Piedmont-Sardinia. And despite early Piedmontese successes, the disparity in size, population, and resources between the two sides made a Piedmont victory for Italian liberation and unification doubtful. But we will return to their struggle later. For now, let us turn to the most important revolutionary theater of the Austrian Empire, at least as it relates to the First World War: the Kingdom of Hungary.
In early April, following the concession from the Austrian Imperial government essentially giving Hungary autonomous home rule, the Hungarian Diet promulgated the so-called “April Laws,” which for all intents and purposes made Hungary an independent political entity. Though scrupulously maintaining their professed loyalty to the Empire and the Emperor (though they referred to Ferdinand not as Emperor of Austria but King of Hungary, which was the title to which they would exclusively refer to from here on out), the April Laws severed any ability of the central Austrian government to dictate terms to the Hungarians. The April Laws were really just a formal codification of an earlier document written by a radical Hungarian agitator named Sándor Petőfi, called the 12 Points. Just to give you a sense of not just what the Hungarians were fighting for in 1848, but what in essence the status of Hungary in the Austro-Hungarian Empire will be based on, here are those 12 Points, which I’m paraphrasing for the record:
Freedom of the press.
An independent Hungarian government in Budapest (the Hungarian capital)
An annual national assembly in Budapest
Civil and religious equality before the law.
A national army made up only of Hungarians
Universal and equal taxation (including the aristocracy)
The abolition of the Aviticum (which was a law that said that only nobles could own land)
Trial by Jury
A national bank
The Hungarian army must swear an oath to the (yet to be written) Hungarian constitution, with all Hungarian soldiers returned to Hungary and all “foreign” soldiers removed
Amnesty for all political prisoners
Union with Transylvania (a territory which had once been part of the old Kingdom of Hungary but which the Austrians had since administered separately).
These demands reflected the nationalist desire for an independent, Magyar dominated, government based on liberal principles of equality before the law and individual liberty. And these demands were pretty much all met by the so-called April Laws. Yet within the April Laws was one big measure that would wind up killing, at least for now, the dream of an autonomous Hungary. Recall that on April 25, Emperor Ferdinand had promulgated a constitution which guaranteed, “all nationalities are guaranteed the inviolability of their nationalities and languages.” As far as the ethnic Magyars were concerned, this meant that the Kingdom of Hungary would elevate and entrench the supremacy of the Magyar culture and language. Except that the old Kingdom of Hungary contained large populations of ethnic minorities, including Slovaks, Romanians, Serbs, Croats, and Jews. The Jews in particular would be hardest hit by the April Laws, as they were specifically denied suffrage and political rights in the Kingdom of Hungary, but they made up a very small percentage of the population and, to be frank, nobody else much cared about the plight of the Jews. Yet all of the other ethnic minorities had serious grievances with the April Laws, which elevated the Magyar language as the sole language of administration and politics, which meant in practice that ethnic Magyars would dominate politics in the Kingdom of Hungary disproportionate even to their larger population. Lajos Kossuth, the Magyar liberal nationalist par excellence, responded to a delegation of Serbs asking for their own language and culture to be supreme within Serb-majority lands inside of Hungary by saying, “the true meaning of freedom is that it recognizes the inhabitants of the fatherland only as a whole, and not as castes or privileged groups, and that it extends the blessings of collective liberty to all; without distinction of language or religion.” If I can translate for Kossuth here, “home rule for me, not for thee.”
Thus, the government based under the April Laws was rife with internal dissent among the kingdom’s ethnic minorities. Of particular note were the Croatians, who had long been a part of the Kingdom of Hungary and had long held grievances with the Magyar elite. By September of 1848, the now returned Emperor Ferdinand saw in this an opportunity to reestablish imperial control over the wayward Hungarians, so on September 4 he appointed as military governor of Croatia General Josip Jelačić, a fierce Croatian nationalist and skilled and aggressive commander. With this appointment came vague instructions to maintain peace and tranquility in Croatia and, more broadly speaking, within Hungary. Jelačić needed no greater of a hint, and on September 11 he led an army of fifty thousand men across the Drava river into Hungary proper to teach the impertinent Magyars a lesson.
The ensuing war, which is usually described as an imperial attempt to quash a Hungarian rebellion but at this stage was basically a full on war between Hungary and Croatia, did not go well for Hungary. The Hungarian Parliament, newly elected on the basis of the April Laws, was outraged at this betrayal not just of the Imperial government, but by what they perceived as a rebellion of their Croatian subjects. In response they called for the raising of a National Guard of their own, which they referred to as the Honvéd battalions which translates roughly to “defenders of the homeland.” These Honvéd battalions soon swelled with thousands of new recruits eager to protect their country from this invasion, and while they fought bravely, and even managed to defeat and capture an imperial army on October 7, but the Hungarian soldiers were just too inexperienced and too low in numbers to stop this veteran Croatian force. Yet the very next day, October 8, the Hungarians were given a critical respite, as word came of a radical revolt in Vienna, and Jelačić decided to withdraw his army back to Vienna to put down the uprising.
This uprising, though it would fail in making Austria a truly liberal and representative state that served the interests of the people, would have one great lasting impact. When the people of Vienna rose in rebellion on October 6 and 7, joined in insurrection by the Civic Guard, the regular Imperial Army garrison was at first overwhelmed by the street fighting, and was mostly driven from the city. But by October 23 an Imperial army of some 70,000 men had surrounded the capital, with one wing commanded by Jelačić, and the other by General Windisch-Grätz, the man who had crushed the Prague uprising back in June. Rather than try to simply storm the city, the generals simply set up their batteries of artillery in the hills around the city and began to bombard it into submission.
Now after the Croatian army under Jelačić had withdrawn from Hungary to help crush the rebellion in Vienna, the Hungarian leader Kossuth saw an opportunity to help the Viennese, who might prove useful allies in his fight with the Croatians and the rest of the Imperial government. So he sent an army of about 25,000 to attack the Imperial army surrounding Vienna and hopefully lift the siege. But this attempt was unsuccessful; on October 30, the Hungarian army made up mostly of Honvéd volunteers marched in to attack the Imperial army surrounding Vienna, but they walked into a trap of 60 artillery pieces hidden from view, which blasted huge holes in the Hungarian ranks, sending them fleeing back to Hungary in panic. The next day, October 31, Vienna surrendered to the Imperial Army. Some 2,000 people lay dead in the streets of the capital.
While this was a success for the forces of conservative absolutism, all of this chaos and fighting made it painfully clear to everyone that Emperor Ferdinand was just not up to the job of ruling Austria. The Emperor had several relatives who were potentially in line for the throne, but most of them were either unintelligent, had no interest in taking power, or both. So, a clique of conservative leaders in Vienna, in particular Prince Felix zu Schwarzenberg and Princess Sophie of Bavaria – the sister in law of Emperor Ferdinand – persuaded Ferdinand to abdicate the throne. In his place would be crowned the young Franz Joseph, Princess Sophie’s son and nephew of the emperor.
Thanks in part to the revolutionary chaos of the previous year, and in perhaps even larger part to the ambition and political skills of his mother Sophie, the eighteen-year-old Franz Joseph was now Emperor of the Austrian Empire. And yes, for those of you reading ahead, this is the same Franz Joseph who will be ruling the Austro-Hungarian Empire when the First World War broke out in 1914; he would not die until 1916 at the age of 86, having ruled his empire for almost 68 years. We will have much more to say about Franz Joseph as the First World War approaches, I promise. But, until then, welcome to the stage, your Imperial and Royal Majesty.
Alright, this episode has already gone on for way too long, so let’s quickly finish off the Revolutions of 1848. Unfortunately for the revolutionaries, there is not much glory left to be had, only hardship. After being driven out of Austria by the imperial army in October, the Hungarian Army was forced to retreat deeper and deeper into the Hungarian countryside, losing the Hungarian capital to the Imperial army under Windisch-Grätz on January 5, 1849. Throughout this period, and indeed right up until the Hungarians completely capitulated, the mostly Honvéd battalions fought a hard, losing battle, constantly retreating and giving up more of Hungary’s territory after bitterly contested fights (though they did briefly recapture Budapest at one point). Hungary saw probably the bitterest fighting of all of 1848, and this fighting had an atrocious effect on the civilians of Hungary of all nationalities; over the course of the fighting some 40,000 civilians were killed by one side or the other and about 230 villages were burned to the ground. And for the record, this was not just Austrian armies torching Magyar villages and killing Magyar civilians, but the Magyar forces themselves committed numerous atrocities on ethnic minorities who were accused of aiding the Austrians, with probably the Serbs being the hardest hit by these reprisals.
We don’t need to go into any detail on the rest of the war, except to say that on March 5, 1849, Emperor Franz Joseph promulgated a new constitution for the empire that stripped any autonomy away from Hungary or any other part of the Empire. Everyone would be ruled directly from Vienna, and although there would be an elected Imperial Diet, all real power would be held by the Emperor. So, in response to this, on April 14 the Hungarian Parliament in exile issued a Hungarian Declaration of Independence. But this was more a protest of the inevitable than a real rallying cry for independence. Though the Hungarian forces fought doggedly on, it was very unlikely that they could win this war.
Now if you’ll recall, I said at the beginning of this saga that the Russians were going to make an appearance in the Revolutions of 1848. For while the Russian people did not join in the fun of mass popular revolution, the Russian Army would make a guest appearance. On May 21, Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria met personally with the Russian ruler Czar Nicholas I in Warsaw, and asked for his help in crushing the Hungarian rebels. The Czar, an absolutist to his core who had been horrified by all of these liberal revolts on his western border, readily agreed. By June a Russian Army of 200,000 soldiers and 600 artillery pieces had invaded Hungary, and it was all over for the Hungarian Revolution. On August 13, 1849, the last remaining members of the Hungarian Parliament formally surrendered to the Austro-Russian forces, and the rebellion was crushed. In less than a year of fighting more than 50,000 soldiers had died, on top of the 40,000 civilians we mentioned previously.
Things went little better in Italy, where back in March 1849 the Piedmontese had been decisively defeated by an Austrian Army, and while numerous revolts continued in many major Italian cities, they were all crushed by the end of the year. The last Italian holdouts surrendered in the city of Venice in August of 1849, which was reclaimed by Austria. King Carlo Alberto I of Piedmont-Sardinia, after being defeated back in March, decided to spare his country invasion by the Austrians by abdicating in favor of his son, Vittorio Emanuele II. This is interesting to us because though the dream of Italian liberation and unification had been crushed in 1849, this new king Vittorio Emanuele would eventually fulfil the dream, becoming the first king of a fully unified kingdom of Italy in the 1860s. But we will leave that for later.
And so, the Revolutions of 1848 have all ended. The legacy of these revolutions was not national independence or liberal constitutional government, but broken promises, crushed dreams, and piles of corpses. But that is…not entirely the case, now is it? The revolutions of 1848, with hindsight, were a crucial step in the political developments of the countries that would fight in the First World War. The dream of German unification was dashed, but German nationalism is not going anywhere, and within a generation the dream will be fulfilled. This is the same for Italy, which will also unify within a few decades of 1848. The Hungarian attempt at home rule failed, but by 1867 Emperor Franz Joseph will sign an agreement with his Hungarian subjects granting them what they had fought for in 1848. This would institute the so-called Austro-Hungarian Empire, which was less a unified state so much as two independent countries sharing a single ruler, just as the Hungarians had always wanted.
Yet in these soon to be realized dreams, dark seeds had also been planted. As the historian Mike Rapport, whose book has formed the backbone of these last few episodes, wrote, “The revolutions provided European liberals with the unprecedented opportunity to realize ideals of national independence or unity, but their fulfilment often conflicted with those of neighboring peoples, or there were national minorities within the presumptive boundaries of the emerging liberal states.” The dream of nationalism, for all of its various adherents, was to create unified nation-states where their nationality could rule themselves, be the masters of their own fates. But all of the regions that were only mostly made up of a single nationality, and all had ethnic or religious minorities. As we’ve seen, the issue of Jewish membership in these countries will be a recurrent problem all the way up to, well, you know. But beyond that, the future Germany would have significant populations of Poles and Czechs, Hungary was filled to the brim with national minorities of all stripes, and the issue of where to draw for example the borders of Italy, and who counted as “Italian” would be at the heart of Italy’s decision to join the Entente in 1915. These are the darker sides of nationalism, not in collective belonging, but in seeing who does not belong. And the fact that these dreams of national unification were not ultimately achieved by liberal politicians but by war would be an especially dark legacy, especially for the Germans.
Finally, you’ll notice that there’s one area of the revolutions that I’ve not mentioned in this little summary. You may be wondering to yourself, “where are the French in all this?” Well, I’ll tell you. In December of 1848, six months after the brutal suppression of the socialist Parisian uprising in June, France held its first ever Presidential election. The rules for election were simple: all adult Frenchmen were allowed to cast a single ballot for a single candidate, and the one with the most votes would be declared the winner. When the ballots were counted, a stunning result was revealed. The radical republican leader Alexandre Ledru-Rollin won 400,000 votes (with his once popular colleague Alphonse de Lamartine winning a hilariously abysmal 8,000 of his own). Louis-Eugène Cavaignac, the general who had crushed the June uprising in Paris, won 1.4 million votes. But in a shocking turn of events, Charles Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, nephew of the famous emperor, won the presidency in a landslide of 5.4 million votes. Next week, we will see how the rest of Europe responds now that a Bonaparte is once again in charge of France.
Rapport, Michael. 1848: Year of Revolution. New York: Basic Books, 2010.
Schjerve, Rosita Rindler. Diglossia and Power: Language Policies and Practice in the 19th Century Habsburg Empire. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 2003.
A 12 pont, avagy „Mit kíván a magyar nemzet. https://marcius15.kormany.hu/a-12-pont-tortenete-2012
Leroux, Pierre. Individualism and Socialism. https://www.libertarian-labyrinth.org/working-translations/pierre-leroux-individualism-and-socialism-part-1/
People’s Charter of 1838. https://www.marxists.org/history/england/chartists/peoples-charter.htm
Sophie of Bavaria: The Only Man at Court. https://www.historyofroyalwomen.com/sophie-of-bavaria/sophie-of-bavaria-the-only-man-at-court/
Verfassung des Deutsches Reiches oder Frankfurter Reichsverfassung (Constitution of the German Reich or the Frankfurt Reich Constitution). 1849. http://www.documentarchiv.de/nzjh/verfdr1848.htm