Episode 4:

Springtime of the Peoples

         Last week we took a quick look at the agricultural and economic crisis that rocked most of Europe in the mid-1840s, known as “the hungry forties,” as well as the opening stages of the Revolutions of 1848 in Paris. Today, we will move on to cover not just how this shocking turn of events in France affected the rest of Europe, and as a matter of fact we are not done with revolutionary action in France by a long shot, but what exactly were the issues at the heart of this political turmoil. There is a reason why so many revolutions broke out in so many different places at basically the same time in 1848, and hopefully by the end of today’s episode you’ll be able to see why. And, not to give away anything in this or any future episodes, but there is also a reason why so many of the issues addressed in 1848 were still unresolved by the time the First World War came about.

So, recall that last week the people of Paris unceremoniously killed off the 18-year-old July Monarchy by deposing King Louis Philippe I and proclaiming France to be a Republic once again. This Second French Republic, which is not going to last very long so please try not to get too attached to it, actually had a fairly promising first few months, as new democratic governments go. But we’re going to leave France behind for a little bit so we can move east to take a look at the first waves of insurrection in the true centers of the Revolution: the German Confederation and the Austrian Empire.

 With such modern wonders as the telegraph and the railroad, news of the fall of the July Monarchy spread quickly throughout the rest of Europe. By February 27, just three days after King Louis Philippe I had abdicated the French Throne, a petition written by a republican lawyer named Gustav Struve in the German city of Mannheim was circulating calling for, among other things, freedom of the press, trial by jury, a citizens militia, and the convening of a pan-German assembly to write a new constitution for a unified German state. Just two days later the ruler of Mannheim, the Grand Duke of Baden, agreed to all demands. During the following month this petition, known as the “March Demands,” was thrust in the face of practically every ruler in the German Confederation with most readily agreeing. Huge protests in practically every major city (including all of the political capitals) scared the hell out of the German rulers, who for the most part decided that just about anything was better than provoking a confrontation with these mobs and sparking a violent overthrow of their regimes. As an American diplomat stationed in Vienna wrote at the time, news of the revolution in Paris, “fell like a bomb amid the states and kingdoms of the Continent; and, like reluctant debtors threatened with legal terrors, the various monarchs hastened to pay their subjects the constitutions which they owed them.”

Speaking of Vienna, how did the Habsburgs, the greatest absolutist monarchy of all, react to this news? Well, first of all, it is worth noting that technically, the news of the Revolution in France was not the first news of a popular revolution to hit Austria in early 1848. Back in January, near simultaneous revolts in the Austrian controlled city of Milan and the Sicilian city of Palermo, resulted in waves of popular revolution spreading up and down the Italian peninsula. At the time, the northeast of Italy was a component part of the larger Austrian Empire, known as the “Kingdom of Lombardy-Venetia,” dominated by two of the largest Italian cities, Milan and Venice. The rest of the Italian peninsula, while not technically owned by Austria, was acknowledged by secret agreements among the other great powers to be effectively client kingdoms of the Austrian Empire. Very few people in Italy were happy about this state of affairs, as the idea of Italian nationalism had started to take root in the last few decades. Within weeks of the revolts in Milan and Palermo basically every ruler on the Italian peninsula had been forced to accept liberal, constitutional governments by mobs of their subjects, in a trend very similar to what was about to happen in the German Confederation.

So Vienna was already in a pretty tense state when word of the fall of the July Monarchy hit them in late February. Prince Metternich, who as foreign minister and the effective ruler of the Empire had early access to information of this kind, found out about the revolution in France a few hours before news hit the rest of the Imperial capital. I can only imagine him reading this report with a look of abject terror on his face. Metternich must have known that there would be no way to hide this news and that when it hit the streets, the already riled up people of Vienna would be out for blood and ready to put his head on a stick. Perhaps literally.

Interestingly, it was not news of the revolution in France per se that would spark the people of Vienna, but a speech given by a Hungarian politician about a week later. This politician was named, and wish me luck on this pronunciation, Lajos Kossuth. To understand not just this speech but also the huge role that the Hungarians would play in the future makeup of the Habsburg monarchy during the First World War, we must take a brief look at the organization of Hungary and its unique relationship with Austria. Short version though: there is a reason why the country that will go to war in July and August of 1914 will be called the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Of all the territories that the Habsburgs had taken control of by means of their preferred method of dynastic marriage, the Kingdom of Hungary was easily the largest and most powerful. Hungary is an ancient country with roots going back as far as the 9th century a.d., and for hundreds of years had been a giant wedge dividing western and central Europe from the Slavs to the south and east and, eventually, the rising Ottoman Empire. For the record, the word “Hungarian” is actually an anglicized bastardization of what the Hungarians call themselves, their country, and their language: Magyar. I am mostly going to refer to it as “Hungary” throughout the entirety of this show, but I will on occasion have to make a distinction between the ethnic Magyars that made up the bulk of the Kingdom’s population and the various minority nationalities living within it.

Anyway, Hungary’s ruling dynasty had by the 1500s married into the larger Habsburg family of Austria, but was still ruled by independent non-Habsburg kings. That all changed in 1526 at the disastrous battle of Mohács, at which the Hungarian army under King Lajos II (in English, we would render this name as “Louis”) was annihilated by the invading Ottoman army under Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. The Hungarians not only lost almost their entire army and a huge chunk of their territory as a result of this battle, but also their last native king, as Lajos II was killed at the age of twenty with no heir. And so, due to the late king’s dynastic connection to the Habsburgs, the Hungarian throne passed to the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand (obviously, not the same Ferdinand as the guy ruling Austria in 1848).

But due to the unique political traditions of Hungary – specifically that its nobility had the right to elect diets that had to ratify all laws and formally elect the King of Hungary – Ferdinand had to make a number of promises to the Hungarian nobles before they would formally recognize him as their king. Thus, in order to secure his claim to the immensely large and powerful (if much reduced by the Ottomans) Hungarian Kingdom, Ferdinand promised that he would respect the traditional rights of the Hungarian nobility to elect regular diets and participate in the government of Hungary.

Though this agreement remained in place during the entirety of the next 300-odd years, by 1848 the Hungarian political class (which is pretty much synonymous with the nobility at this point, though it won’t be for too much longer) had grown increasingly frustrated with their Habsburg rulers. Though all new laws and taxes in Hungary legally had to be ratified by the Hungarian Diet in order to take effect, Many of the later Habsburg rulers avoided as much as possible calling for those Diets, and ruled by arbitrary fiat as much as they could get away with. For example from 1812 to 1825 not a single Hungarian Diet was called for despite the fact that numerous new laws and taxes were imposed on Hungary by the Emperor. Now, critical point to understand about all of this: though since 1526 these two positions were held by the same person, the office of Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary were two distinct offices, controlling different countries with different laws and traditions. This is just one of the reasons why acquiring territory by dynastic marriage can get so complicated. Anyway, more and more noise was starting to be made from Hungarian nobles about these affronts to their dignity. And as it just so happens, while the Austrian rulers in general avoided calling for the Hungarian Diet as much as possible, such a Diet was in session in February and March of 1848, held in the city of Preßburg (the modern city of Bratislava in Slovakia).

So as anger was rising throughout the Austrian Empire generally, and tension was growing between the Imperial government and Hungary specifically, up to the proverbial podium stepped the aforementioned Lajos Kossuth. Kossuth was a fiery speaker and passionate devotee of liberal politics. While he did not necessarily want Hungary to become a fully independent state, he did want for Hungary to essentially be granted home rule, that is, to be internally autonomous and share with the Austrian Empire nothing more than a common ruler. And as for that autonomous Hungarian government, Kossuth desired for it to be based on enlightened liberal principles such as equality before the law, individual civil rights, and the consent of the governed. In the context of Hungarian politics at the time, this meant that he wanted to abolish the tax exemptions of the nobility (which is somewhat remarkable as Kossuth himself was a noble, if a minor one), to have freedom of speech and the press and all other such rights enjoyed by all people in Hungary, and regular Diets to be called whether or not the Emperor wished it, and for these Diets to be elected not just by the nobility but all property owning Hungarians. I should also mention that in addition to all of this Kossuth was also a fierce Magyar nationalist, despite the fact that Hungary itself was almost as multi-ethnic as the larger Austrian Empire.

So on March 3, 1848, with news of the fall of the July Monarchy just days if not hours old, Kossuth rose on the floor of the Hungarian Diet and declared, “From the charnel house of the Viennese system a polluted air is blowing over us, paralyzing our nerves and stifling our spirit. … It is my firm conviction that the future of the dynasty is bound up with brotherhood between the different peoples of the Monarchy, and that this brotherhood, taking into account the existing nationalities, can only be brought about with the cement of constitutionality that arouses similar feelings everywhere.”

Now this speech was obviously meant to appeal to the liberal members of the Hungarian Diet, and for the most part dealt with issues specific to Hungary. But this statement here – calling the Imperial government a “charnel house” and calling for the general principle of constitutional government – was an incredibly electrifying statement not just to the Hungarians, but to all the people of the Austrian Empire. Stuff like this would have gotten Kossuth arrested just weeks earlier.

On March 13, during a demonstration made up mostly of students from the University of Vienna, someone in the crowd who had gotten ahold of Kossuth’s speech from ten days before got up on top of a fountain and began reading the speech aloud. The crowd roared its support of the fiery Hungarian’s words, and soon thousands were chanting, “no half measures!” and “no delays!” and, finally “constitution! Constitution!”

By the end of the day this student demonstration had erupted into a general popular revolt, as regular Viennese people armed with stones and bricks attacked the regular soldiers whom had been called in to quell the unrest. At around 5pm a truce was called, the terms of which stipulated that the until then ceremonial Civic Guard, analogous to the French National Guard, would be allowed to maintain order in the city, be given access to the city arsenal in order to arm the students, that those students would be allowed to form an “Academic Legion” (which yes, I agree, is kind of a silly name but that’s what they went with), and that the regular soldiers would withdraw from Vienna. Finally the people of Vienna had one more demand: that old Prince Metternich must resign from office, and he must do so by 9pm that night.

Now Metternich, who was then hiding in the Hofburg Palace in the city center, of course had no intention of resigning, though he was by this time almost 75 years old. But he was eventually persuaded, either by assurances that this forced retirement would be temporary or, more likely, by fears that the mob outside would literally rip him to pieces, and just minutes before the deadline expired Metternich submitted his resignation and slipped out of Vienna. While he would eventually return to Vienna, his days as effective ruler of the Austrian Empire were done.

Word of the fall of Metternich reached the Hungarian Diet in Preßburg the next day on March 14. News of this stunning and totally unexpected development caused some confusion among the Hungarian Diet, but soon Lajos Kossuth proposed that he and a few other delegates should travel to Vienna to formally demand home rule from the Austrians. So he and several other important Hungarian leaders, in particular the great magnate Lajos Batthyáni and the liberal reformer István Széchenyi, traveled up the Danube River to the Imperial Capital, where they were greeted as heroes by the Viennese. On March 16 as Kossuth and his entourage made their way to the Hofburg Palace, where the emperor and what remained of his council were trying to figure out what in the hell they were supposed to do now, Kossuth was literally carried up to the palace on the shoulders of the people of Vienna. When he arrived the Emperor Ferdinand I, who I must remind you was profoundly disabled and was a severe epileptic, was so exhausted from the last few days turmoil that he could not even keep his head up. So exhausted was he in fact that he verbally granted permission to the Hungarian delegation to form their own government, agreeing that all the Hungarians and Austrians would share was Ferdinand himself as their common monarch.

This turn of events left Vienna, and the broader Austrian Empire, in a very uncertain position. The protesters/rioters in Vienna had gotten what they wanted – an independent citizens militia and the expulsion of the hated Metternich – but where did that leave the Imperial government? Were they just going to accept this insurrection or would they try to reverse it? And would those insurrectionaries be satisfied with the gains they had already won, or would they press for even more concessions? And that was just within the Imperial capital. What about the Hungarians? Would the home rule they had just won for themselves be maintained, and if so what kind of government would they form? And then there were the Italians, both those living within and without the Austrian Empire. They were still mostly in open revolt, and the king of the most powerful Italian Kingdom, King Carlo Alberto I of Piedmont-Sardinia (which for the record was a kingdom comprising the northwestern part of modern Italy as well as the island of Sardinia) was being counseled to champion the cause of Italian nationalism, go to war with Austria, and unite all the Italian peoples into a single Kingdom of Italy. We will return to these questions next week, as now we should take a look back at the German Confederation, and in particular the Kingdom of Prussia.

To understand what was about to happen in the German Confederation, let us first turn to Berlin, the capital of the Kingdom of Prussia. In the leadup to the outbreak of revolution in France, the Prussian Landtag (which is basically a kind of elected assembly made up of both nobles and commoners with purely advisory powers) had been meeting to discuss political and economic reforms for the Kingdom. The King of Prussia at the time, Friedrich Wilhelm IV, was an absolutist to his bones and had no use for these kind of assemblies, but had essentially been forced to call one by his creditors as the financial state of the kingdom was grim and held together only by their loans. On March 6, upon news of the revolution in France and with calls for, gasp, constitutions, sweeping across the German Confederation, Friedrich Wilhelm dismissed the Landtag, saying that he could not afford to have his subject upset by “party quarrels,” and needed them to, “rally around your king, your best friend, like a bronze wall.” But starting on March 7, crowds in Berlin’s social center called the Zelten (which translates from German as “the tents,” which refers to the fact that this area had once been dominated by temporary tents, though permanent buildings housing restaurants and beer halls had long since replaced them) started gathering to hear speeches calling for political reform. Specifically, they demanded for freedom of the press and for the King to recall the Landtag. A petition to this effect was drawn up gathering thousands of signatures that evening alone, and when the King would not accept it when it was presented to him, the writers of the petition literally mailed it to the royal palace so that the King was sure to get it. The King did not write back.

Tensions rose throughout the next several days as protesters, by now perhaps insurrectionists, perhaps revolutionaries? Got into more and more heated confrontations with the regular Prussian soldiers who garrisoned Berlin. At this point the black, red, and gold tricolor – a symbol of pan-German nationalism that the modern German flag is based on – could be seen everywhere in the city, fluttering from flags atop almost every building or simply worn as ribbons by average Berliners. This brewing tension only got more palpable when on March 16 word of Metternich’s fall reached the city. It seemed that only a spark was needed to light the city ablaze, and that spark came on March 18, when King Friedrich Wilhelm came out onto the balcony of his palace to announce that he would lift all censorship of the press, recall the Landtag, and that he consented for Prussian representatives to join a pan-German parliament. The crowd outside the palace was overjoyed at this news, and enthusiastically applauded their enlightened king.

But one point that the Berliners had been demanding was specifically not mentioned by the King. He said nothing about withdrawing the regular soldiers from Berlin or organizing any kind of citizens militia. When the King left the balcony and it became clear that the army was to stay and garrison (really, at this point, occupy) the city, chants of “away with the military!” began to overwhelm the previous chants of support for the king. A great account of the following disaster was made by a foreign correspondent writing for The Economist, who witnessed the event and wrote, “The Castle gates opened, several shots came out, and on the other side appeared the cavalry, attacking with swords.  Everyone cried out, ‘treason!’ At three o’clock all ran to arms, and the alarm bell was heard from every tower. The battle between soldier and citizen began…women were also seen with arms in their hands, and some poured boiling water out of the windows on to the soldiers…Towards evening began the thundering of cannons…[and] the citizens broke into the arsenal of the Landwehr…this seems to have brought the king to his senses…after this everything was granted.”

After less than 24 hours of vicious street fighting, hundreds of soldiers and civilians lay dead, with perhaps thousands wounded. King Friedrich Wilhelm, who though perhaps a bit more hard-hearted than Louis Philippe of France, was nonetheless appalled by this tremendous amount of bloodshed. The next day, March 19, he issued a decree addressed to “my dear Berliners,” in which he promised that if the fighting and killing stopped, he would recall the army from the city. That day, Sunday as it happened, indeed saw no more bloodshed and in fact most of the city’s inhabitants took the opportunity to attend church service. Good to his word, the King ordered the army out of Berlin.

But this would not be the end of the so-called “March Days of Berlin,” and there was still one last dramatic act to follow this carnage. With the troops now withdrawn from the city, the people realized that there was effectively no one guarding the royal palace. Rather than immediately storm the palace, as the Parisians may have done and as the king no doubt feared, the Berliners came to the palace gates carrying the bodies of hundreds of the insurgents killed in the fighting, and demanded the King come out and bear witness. “Bring him out!” they cried, “or we will throw these dead right in front of his door!” Shaken, the King and Queen walked out onto the balcony, whereupon the crowd starting singing the Lutheran hymn “Jesus, my Refuge.” At this the King removed his hat out of respect, or perhaps shame, and the Queen Elisabeth Ludovika allegedly fainted. The next day Friedrich Wilhelm gave his consent for a Bürgerwehr or Civic Guard to be formed, and met with its new leaders wearing the black, red, and gold tricolor of German nationalism. In all of this, it seemed as though the king had finally seen the error of his ways and was embracing liberal reform for Prussia specifically and German unification generally. But this was deceptive; Friedrich Wilhelm had no sympathy whatsoever for these movements, and only caved to the demands of the Berliners out of a desire to stop further bloodshed, and a fear that they might actually try to overthrow him as the Parisians had so recently overthrown their king. As he later said of the whole affair, “we crawled on our stomachs.”

Eventually, after this insurrection and similar if smaller uprisings throughout the rest of the German Confederation, an elected assembly of delegates from across the German states was convened in the German city of Frankfurt, which held its first official meeting on May 18, 1848. Though each of the states sent their own individual delegations with their own individual qualifications for suffrage, most adult German men were able to vote for this so-called “Frankfurt Parliament,” made up of about 585 delegates who came together to write a new constitution for a newly unified state that would be called Germany. And while by modern standards a parliament that could be voted on only by men, and in fact only most men, would hardly be considered representative, this was a huge change from previous German assemblies. Remember from episode one that the old Diet of the German Confederation was made up of delegates appointed by the German princes with no popular participation at all. Of course, not to spoil anything but as noble as all of this was…a unified Germany will not result from this “Frankfurt Parliament.” But we will return to all of that next week.

To close today, let us return to France, the country that basically started all of this turmoil at the beginning of the year (sort of not counting the Italian uprisings which slightly predated the Paris revolution in February). Following the declaration of the Second French Republic on February 25, a new “provisional government” (which was basically just a bunch of republican leaning politicians who had declared themselves to be in temporary power) had formed to organize elections for the new French government. We already met one of these politicians, Alphonse de Lamartine, last week, but just as important as Lamartine was the more radical Alexandre Ledru-Rollin, who leant his staunch republican reputation to the cause of the provisional government. Also included in this government was an even more radical leader, Louis Blanc, who was an adherent of a dread new ideology that would come to have a profound impact on Europe as the First World War grew closer: socialism. Trust me, we will have much, much more to say about this idea called socialism.

We don’t need to get too much into the backstabbing and petty bickering of this provisional government, it’s far too high school drama and not really important for our purposes here. The point is that the government called for elections for a new National Assembly to be held on April 24, with these elections based on the principle of universal manhood suffrage. Which may sound like a pretty quick turnaround, just two months we’re talking here, to go from a monarchy with an assembly voted on by only the richest of the rich, to a new legislature elected by universal manhood suffrage, but the provisional government was understandably anxious to pass the reins of power onto an elected body as soon as possible, to avoid charges of them running a self-declared dictatorship. Interestingly, the people in France (and especially Paris) who wanted to delay this election were not conservative monarchists who detested the idea of a republic, but radicals and socialists. They argued that holding an election so immediately would not give the French people enough time to develop the virtues necessary for an elected government or to form organized political parties, and if the election was held too soon that the people would just vote for whomever their priest or landlord told them to vote for. Which is another way of saying, monarchists.

But the desire of the Provisional Government to hand power off to an elected body as soon as possible (even if as individuals they had no interest in giving up power and all ran for seats in the National Assembly) outweighed these concerns, and the elections were held on the planned date of April 24. As with the old Chamber of Deputies of the July Monarchy, there were no formal political parties that we can use to quickly see which “party” won the most seats, but out of an Assembly made up of 900 delegates, only about 150 could be considered radical. A small majority of about 500 seats were made up of “moderate” republicans, while another 250 or so were openly monarchist, either advocating for the return of Louis Philippe or the return of the House of Bourbon and true absolutist government.

Unsurprisingly, the radicals and socialists (which were basically synonymous with the lower-class people of Paris, or at least that’s how the primary sources mostly portray them) were deeply grieved by this result. Next week I want to talk a bit about what this thing called “socialism” was (at least in the 19th and early 20th centuries). Suffice it to say that any hope of these radical socialists that the new Second Republic would be based on their beliefs were dashed. Probably it would just be a capitalist government with a veneer of popular participation that would in reality be run by the bankers, landlords, and industrialists just like the old July Monarchy had been. Very possibly it might even devolve back into a monarchy, and so what would have been the point of tossing out Louis Philippe?

And so we come to the famous “June Days Uprising,” an event of which Karl Marx later wrote, “all classes and parties had united in the party of Order against the proletarian class.” On June 23, thousands of radical Parisians marched down the Place de la Bastille, site of perhaps the most famous event of the original French Revolution – the storming of the Bastille fortress, to voice their displeasure. One of their unofficial leaders, the socialist Louis Pujol, addressed the crowd saying, “The revolution is to begin anew. Friends, our cause is that of our fathers. They carried on their banners these words: Liberty or Death. Friends! Liberty or Death!” By the end of the day perhaps as many as 40-50,000 insurrectionaries had seized most of the eastern half of Paris and had constructed defensive barricades along most of the major streets. At this moment, no shots had been fired, and no blood spilled. But this was merely the calm before one of the worst storms that would ever hit Paris in its history.

The stalemate ended that day at the Porte Saint-Denis, a great arch in Paris’ 10th arrondissement dating from the 14th century. There a barricade had been constructed that was approached by a column of the National Guard. The Guard, you’ll recall, had been instrumental in toppling King Louis Philippe back in February when it sided with the people against the government. But despite their taste for revolutionary action, as a body they had no love for radical socialism. When, according to legend, two prostitutes hoisted up their skirts at the Guardsmen and dared them to fire, they were cut down by a mass volley, followed by a bayonet charge of the barricade that cost the guard thirty dead and god knows how many Parisian civilians. Now the bloodletting would really begin in earnest.

Fatally discredited by this inability to control the capital, and terrified themselves that this insurrection might succeed and institute a radical socialist government, the leaders of the National Assembly – among them Lamartine and Ledru-Rollin – resigned from their ministerial posts and made general Louis-Eugène Cavaignac dictator not just of Paris, but all of France. Invested with absolute power, and with some 50,000 soldiers and National Guardsmen under his command, Cavaignac proceeded to utterly smash this insurrection. Displaying a bloody conviction and decisiveness that was decidedly lacking in Louis Philippe back in February, Cavaignac ordered his army to launch attack after bloody attack on the Parisian barricades, resulting in heated firefights which would eventually devolve into brutal hand to hand fighting between the soldiers and the insurrectionaries. By June 26, it was all over. The uprising had been crushed, and in its wake perhaps as many as three thousand people lay dead in the streets of Paris. Whatever else the Second Republic was going to be, it would never stand for radical socialism. The iron fist of General Cavaignac had seen to that.

We are going to leave things there for this week. Next week, we will close our mini saga on the Revolutions of 1848 and watch as the promising beginnings of the famous Springtime of the Peoples are crushed one by one.





  • Marx, Karl. The Eighteenth Brumaire of Napoleon Bonaparte. London: 1869. Translated by Saul K. Padover.

  • Molnár, Miklós. A Concise History of Hungary. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Translated by Anna Magyar.

  • Rapport, Michael. 1848: Year of Revolution. New York: Basic Books, 2010.

  • Winkler, Anita. Citizens Take Heart! The First Public Speeches. Habsburger.net. https://www.habsburger.net/en/chapter/citizens-take-heart-first-public-speeches