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Bad Tactics and Failed Revolutions, 1848-49

By the early 1840s a problem was created as faster transport across the Atlantic allowed mold on potatoes being transported from the Americas to survive the journey to Europe. A potato blight in Europe (including Ireland) in the mid-forties, accompanied by drought and bad harvests, caused food shortages and higher prices and distressed populations.

In February 1846, people hurt by the harder times rioted in and around the city of Krakow. Barricades went up in the city. Intellectuals declared Poland's independence. Peasants armed with scythes and flails killed or mutilated nearly 1,500 noblemen before Russian troops arrived in early March, joined by Habsburg troops from Austria. The Austrians pacified the peasantry and restored the area's feudal order. The Russians and Austrians agreed to end Krakow's status as a free city. The leader of the short-lived revolutionary government, Jan Tyssowski, escaped with 1,500 troops into Prussia where he was jailed, and he later emigrated to the United States.


In April 1847, people in Berlin, angry over the price of food, rioted for four days, plundering stores and markets and erecting barricades against attacks by the Prussian king's military.

In Paris in February, hard times brought working people and students into the streets who clashed with police and then build barricades. A demonstrator shoved a burning torch into a soldier's face and violence followed in which demonstrators were shot and around forty died. Rather than try to crush the Paris rising, King Louis-Philippe abdicated and headed for exile, in Britain. Parisians invaded the Chamber of Deputies and demanded a republic. The Deputies created a provisional government that consisted mostly of moderates but with a few radicals, and they declared what became France's Second Republic.

It took days for news of the rising in Paris to reach cities outside of France, and the news inspired copy-cat risings. Thirty-thousand peasants marched on the seat of the Duchy of Nassau, Wiesbaden, thirty miles west of Frankfurt. For some time these peasants had been upset about others having been freed from serfdom but not them. They forced Duke Adolf of Nassau to abolish serfdom.

A rising against serfdom came also in Baden and Württemberg, where ruling families had been ignoring the growing resentment of their serfs. The serfs there were violent in a way that had not been seen among Germans since the 1500s. The Grand Duke of Baden fled, and in Baden a revolutionary government was founded.

In Westphalia (Prussian territory just east of Belgium), violence erupted among free peasants and the landless. They were angry about the economy favoring the well-to-do. The violence spread to Saxony and to neighboring Thuringia and Silesia to the west and east, where more castle burnings took place. Disturbances erupted also in the cities of Hamburg, Cologne, Brunswick, Munich, and Mannheim, to name a few. There were demands for constitutional government and some admiration for the United States Constitution. There were demands for a people's army (national guard), trial by jury, freedom of assembly, freedom of worship and equitable taxation. In Bavaria, the king, Ludwig (the First), decreed freedom of the press. Tens days later, to appease his subjects, who were angry over his affair with Lola Montez, Ludwig (not quite sixty-two) abdicated in favor of his son Maximilian.

In Prussia's capital city, Berlin, soldiers and demonstrators clashed, and the emperor, William IV, withdrew his soldiers to avoid more bloodshed. A great crowd gathered at William's palace and demanded that he join them in paying respect to the 303 who lay dead at Berlin's barricades. William went, and the crowd shouted hat's off, and William removed his hat. The crowd then sang an old German hymn, "Jesus is my refuge," after which William withdrew. Pressure from the Berliners continued and William was compelled to order the release of all of the political prisoners in Berlin's jails and to greet each of those leaving the prison. One of the hopes among Germans was a united Germany as opposed to a lot of states run by dukes or petty kings, and a few days later William proclaimed himself head of the whole of the German fatherland. By the end of March, 600 Germans from various territories gathered in Frankfurt for the purpose of creating a constitution for a united Germany.

The few industrialists among the Germans at this time distrusted the passions of common people and the poor, but they had also been unhappy working under a government bureaucracy that to them seemed out of touch with modern times. They wanted reforms that worked in their favor, while some landowning aristocrats, Otto von Bismarck among them, with their traditional rural values, looked down upon the industrialists. Capitalism, complained Bismarck, was enriching individuals but creating a lot of poorly nourished proletarians. Bismarck joined other conservatives around Emperor William in urging a counter-revolution.

German intellectuals were attacking capitalism, complaining that machines should be freeing men from animal servitude rather than fashioning workers "to a terrible bondage." They advocated government enforced reductions in work hours, the banning of child labor, subsidizing decent housing for workers, sickness and disability programs and public education.

It was in early 1848 that a pamphlet titled The Communist Manifesto was published, Written by two German intellectuals from well-to-do families, Karl Marx age 30, and Friedrich Engels, 27, son of a wealthy German cotton textile manufacturer.

Uprising in Vienna — center of Habsburg rule

In the city of Vienna in Austria, on March 12, a crowd of recently laid-off factory workers and students were fired upon, and this unleashed a popular rising. Barricades went up, and the municipal guard went over to the side of the rebellion. Austria had been ruled largely by a State Council consisting of Metternich and four others. It was against Metternich, the State Council and the police that the rising voiced its wrath – not the Habsburg-Lorraine king, Ferdinand I. A terrified and scornful Metternich, not quite seventy-five, went into exile in England. Ferdinand accommodated his rebellious subjects in Austria with a proclamation that read:

We, Ferdinand the First, by the grace of God, Emperor of Austria, King of Hungary and Bohemia ... have adopted such measures as we have recognized as necessary to fulfill the wishes of our loyal people.

Ferdinand promised to provide his subjects with a constitution, and people spoke of the coming constitution with joy. People were delighted by the thought of an end to police intimidation and censorship. Professors were enthusiastic about an end to restrictions and police spying. For a few days, people danced, sang and paraded through the streets. It was as if the Viennese were one happy family, including the city's Jews.

Some who disliked the mass actions felt abandoned by Ferdinand. As they saw it, the masses were wanton and exercising a lack of discipline. One of these conservatives, Princess Sophia (who had prayed for the divine destruction of revolutionary Paris back in 1830), was outraged at the weakness of her father-in-law King Ferdinand, and she was outraged at what she called the "liberal stupidities" of King William in Berlin.

A week after the rising in Vienna the city calmed down. Ferdinand abolished serfdom and promised more reforms. With the economy damaged, word passed through the city that for the sake of everybody it was necessary to get back to work.

Hungarians, Italians, Poles, Romanians

Meanwhile, the rising in Vienna had encouraged the Hungarians. They had autonomy but were ruled by Emperor Ferdinand. The peasants of Hungary were still largely serfs — almost slaves. And Hungary had a small middle-class. It had intellectuals from families of the nobility and from families of men in the civil service and the professions. Affected by travel and reading, they were interested in liberalism, in human rights and emancipations, including nationhood similar to that possessed by the French and the United States. The sons of these intellectuals were students in the city of Budapest. They had rioted in February — before the rising in Vienna. They wanted more liberty and freedom from Habsburg imperialism.

People in Budapest rallied on March 15, after people had gone into the streets in Vienna. In Budapest, the poet Sandor Petofi addressed the crowd, calling out: "Arise Hungarians, the Fatherland is calling. The time is here, now or never." The crowd responded. The Hungarians and their leaders were inspired to a new fervor for independence. On March 17 the stunned and overwhelmed monarchy in Vienna granted Hungary's demand for independence, offering it a completely voluntary association within the Habsburg empire and their own constitution. In Hungary, freedom of the press was proclaimed, and a move to abolish serfdom was begun by the Diet.

The rebellion in Vienna also inspired risings in the Austrian-ruled Italian cities of Venice and Milan. Fighting in Milan raged for five days (from March 18 to 23). On March 22, Venice declared independence. Austria's troops felt forced to withdraw from Milan, and Milan called upon the liberal king of nearby Piedmont-Savoy (and Sardinia), Charles Albert, to put Milan under his protection. And Charles Albert did so by declaring war on Austria.

Polish nationalists in Posen also rose in opposition to foreign rule — in their case, rule from Berlin. They were encouraged by the rising in Berlin, and they declared home rule. And following the rising in Vienna, riots occurred again in the Krakow (under Habsburg rule since 1846). In the Polish areas of Galicia, people demanded civil liberties, use of the Polish language in schools, freedom of the press and amnesty for political prisoners. In the Austrian-ruled city of Lemberg (Lviv) a people's army was created, and Ukrainians there demanded a Ukrainian nation that extended into eastern Galicia.

Romanians rose up demanding autonomy within the Habsburg Empire, and they set up a local "national guard." They called for Romanian nationhood, ancient rights, an end to serfdom and for the avoidance of violence in achieving their goals. A Romanian nationalist movement had been founded, and it had become more militant as it moved from a religious to a more secular and liberal orientation. The younger generation in Walachia's major city, Bucharest, was interested in liberalism, and, on June 9, 1848, the city erupted. There were calls for civil liberties, social and economic reforms, including the emancipation of Jews, a call for a constituent assembly and for the independence of Walachia from foreign rule.

Mistakes in Austria

Meanwhile, revolutionaries in Vienna were losing the alliance with moderates that had made their success possible. Disturbing many were the rise of vitriolic newspapers resorting to sensationalism, attacking bureaucrats, priests, aristocrats and others, which the commerce class (the Bourgeoisie) saw as stirring up lawlessness. There were disturbances such as assaults on monasteries and Church properties. People were demonstrating with mock serenades at night against priests, shopkeepers they considered to be overcharging customers, tavern keepers not sufficiently generous in dispensing free drinks, employers and landlords — with landlords the most frequent target. Many in Vienna decided that they wanted an end to the disorder. In late May 1848, the revolutionaries rebelled against a government move to disband their armed units. The revolutionaries built barricades. They scared the emperor and his family into fleeing to their palace at Innsbruck (in Austria's alpine west). The political left in Austria needed to partner with moderates for the sake of change. Instead, the revolutionaries tried to govern without majority support, and this threw support instead to the forces of reaction.

At the end of October 1848, the Habsburg army returned from Hungary and reached the outskirts of Vienna. They shelled positions held by the small and amateurish army formed by the revolutionaries. Approximately 2,000 revolutionaries were killed in the fighting, and executions of revolutionaries followed. Now there was more reason for the revolutionaries to see their political struggle as binary: as simply good versus evil. The army's commander, Windischgraetz, exercised power in behalf of the emperor and replaced Austria's liberal head of government (the Prime Minister) with his brother-in-law, Prince Felix Schwarzenberg, who favored a return of monarchical absolutism.

Isolation for the Political-Left in France

While revolutionaries in Austria were heading for a loss, Parisian radicals were on a similar path. France's central government was divided between those supporting the aspirations of the commerce class and those who favored programs for the working poor, including reduced working hours and the total abolition of unemployment. To meet the need for more money to pay for public works, the government raised taxes, which upset small farmers – the majority of France's taxpayers. Universal manhood suffrage proved other than helpful for those of the political far left. In late April 1848, the small farmers had success in elections to the National Constituent Assembly. Of its 880 seats, about 500 went to moderate republicans, about 300 went to constitutional monarchists and only 80 went to the radicals representing the interests of urban workers.

Leftist Parisians responded to this setback and to France's continuing depressed economy with protests against the new Constituent Assembly's lack of enthusiasm for reform. In mid-May a mob invaded the assembly and proclaimed another revolution – a defiance of the will of the majority expressed in the recent elections. On May 31, 15,000 jobless French rioted. Of course, the government called out the National Guard. Business people and the wealthy evacuated Paris. Trade in luxury goods declined, and there were xenophobic complaints about Belgian workers in the north.

In June, the Constituent Assembly moved to disband what it considered an uneconomical public works program. Workers and their student supporters built barricades again. The government prepared to do what Louis-Philippe had chosen not to do: to send the army against the barricades. Those supporting the people at the barricades saw the government as having turned against workers. That the government had the support of an overwhelming majority of the French nation did not matter to them. The people at the barricades were trying to make revolution against the will of the nation as a whole – not a formula for success. An army man who had sympathies for those at the barricades, General Bréa, went to persuade people at the barricades that they were making a mistake. He and his chief of staff were invited inside the barricades and assassinated. That same day, the Archbishop of Paris, Monsignor Affre, went to the barricades and he too was murdered. The people at the barricades were uninterested in discussion. They had rejected the politics of patience, persuasion, tolerance and reform. They wanted to fight. In Paris was Karl Marx, and he viewed the June rising as an "insurrection growing into the greatest revolution that has ever taken place," a revolution of the proletariat (working class) 'against the bourgeoisie.'

The government again called out the National Guard. There would be no June revolution. Using artillery (as Napoleon Bonaparte had against Parisians in 1795), and also using riflemen, the government's army of 40,000 easily crushed the rebellion. Approximately 1,500 were killed at the barricades. Twelve thousand were arrested, and the streets were cleared once again and another revolution had ended. Karl Marx in a year would be in exile in England. At some point, Marx's theory was to hold that a proper revolution was something other than a coup, that instead it had to have support that was adequately broad-based (like if you can't win at electoral politics you are not going to win in the streets).

More reaction

Viewing the upheaval in Paris, Germans were thinking that if political agitation and pretty speeches resulted in violence and disorder perhaps reforms should be slowed. In Prussia, the turn of events encouraged the emperor, Frederick William IV, to move against liberal-left disturbances. On his orders in early November, 13,000 soldiers from the nearby town of Potsdam marched into Berlin and put an end to street demonstrations and the making of noises through the night at the homes of conservatives. A conservative military commander, Count Friedrich Wilhelm von Brandenburg moved 50,000 troops to Berlin and forced retirement of the Constituent Assembly that William had agreed to months before. Gone with the Constituent Assembly were the proposals of liberals that army officers take an oath of loyalty to a constitution rather than to the emperor, and gone was the proposal that the nobility be denied its titles and privileges and that the emperor be denied "by the grace of God" from his title. In response to William's move, crowds in a few cities tried to seize government buildings, but to no avail. William's armed forces restored order.

Also in during the last months of 1848, the nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, Louis Napoleon, was elected President of France. He was France's youngest head of state, the first to hold the title of President, and the first elected by a direct popular vote. He had never held public office. Some people considered him an ass, others a cretin. Karl Marx described him as trying to appeal to everybody but no one in particular — a violation of Marx's idea that politicians had to choose which class interests to serve. An anti-socialist alliance of Roman Catholics and monarchists had adopted him as their candidate. Barred by the Constitution from running for a second term, he would organize a coup d'état in 1851 and take throne as Napoleon III, ending France's Second Republic.

From the upheavals of 1848 some liberalism remained. Absolute monarchy had ended in Denmark. However liberal, the Capetian monarchy had fallen in France, and serfdom had ended in Austria and Hungary. In the German states, the National Assembly in Frankfurt remained, and liberal constitutions remained in Saxony and Bavaria, — where liberals won election victories. Another state that remained liberal was Belgium, with lowered requirements for participating in elections.

In Austria, in June 1849, the government of a new young emperor, Franz Joseph, asked Tsar Nicholas of Russia for help against the Hungarians – in the spirit of the Holy Alliance against ungodly rebellion. Nicholas was eager to crush Hungarian nationalism to prevent it from spreading to his Polish subjects. Indeed, some Poles were fighting alongside the Hungarians. The Russian force was around 370,000 men, against Hungary's 152,000, and the Russians had the advantage in artillery. In August 1849, a five-week siege by Austrian troops against Venice ended with the surrender of Venice, Venice suffering also from cholera and starvation. And with the surrender of the Venice came Austria's reprisal executions of its leaders.

In March 1850, a decree in Prussia moved 640,000 peasants to free farming. The landlords in Prussia received compensation for freeing their serfs that landlords had received in Austria's empire. The landlords in Prussia were able to grab hundreds of thousands of acres from these newly freed serfs, who were left to fend for themselves as agricultural laborers. (Joyce Appleby, The Relentless Revolution, p 170.)

The nationalist movement among Romanians was also crushed, by Russian and Turkish forces. Most of its leaders fled to Paris, where Napoleon III, sympathised with their cause. He was embracing the "nationality principle" as a tool against rival Habsburg influence in Italy and Germany. In Europe, the conflict between nationalism and empire was to continue into the next century and be a major part of the origins of World War I.

CONTINUE READING: Industrialization, Class and Well-Being in Britain

Copyright © 2017 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.