1848: The Year of Revolutions – Europeans Demand Democracy

Painting of Battle at Soufflot barricades at Rue Soufflot on 24 June 1848

In 1848, several revolutions broke out in Europe as despotic rulers were confronted with popular demands for liberal constitutions and more democratic government.

The French, who had already rebelled against royal rule in 1789 and 1830, set the pace once again, with a popular uprising in February of 1848. This time, it was King Louis Philippe who paid the price. He refused to allow his subjects universal suffrage and was forcibly removed from his throne. A republic was set up in his place and Louis Napoleon, nephew of the famous Napoleon Bonaparte, was elected president.

The King of Prussia Plays for Time

Within a month, revolutionary ideas had spread to Germany, which was then a collection of small, independent states. The most prominent state was Prussia where rioters in Berlin, the capital, followed the French example and demanded more democracy. At first, the Prussian king, Frederick William IV, seemed willing to co operate.

He agreed to summon the Frankfurt Assembly, a parliament of German states. The Assembly met in May 1848. It seemed promising that the Assembly was dominated by liberal-minded delegates, but it soon became evident that Frederick William was playing for time. waiting until the moment arrived to reinforce his absolute rule.

His opportunity arrived after liberals in Austria were suppressed by their own despotic government. At that, King Frederick William lost no time dissolving the Frankfurt Assembly and re-imposing his authority.

Suppressing Revolutionaries in Austria

Events in Austria had followed much the same pattern as in Germany, although a great deal more bloodshed was involved. There had been riots in Vienna, the Austrian capital, in March and the dictatorial chancellor and foreign minister, Prince Klemens Metternich had been forced to resign.

The Austrian Emperor, Ferdinand I, summoned an assembly, so encouraging the Czechs and Hungarians who were under Austrian rule to demand their independence. Instead, they were savagely suppressed. Prague, the Czech capital was bombarded with artillery by the Austrian military commander, Prince Windishgraetz. Windishgraetz went on to put down more liberal unrest in Vienna in the same fashion and by December, 1848, imperial authority was once more supreme.

Revolution in Italy

This, though, was by no means the end of Austria’s problems. Ferdinand was also faced with demands for an end to Austrian rule in italy. There, as elsewhere, there was liberal agitation for more democratic government. The Italian state of Piedmont led the struggle and on March 23, the Piedmontese declared war on Austria.

Piedmont was one of four Italian states where the rulers were forced by revolts to grant liberal constitutions. Not only that, Piedmont prepared to fight for independence by declaring war on Austria. Austria, however, was a great military power and inevitably, the Piedmontese lost the war.

Revolutionary Success in Piedmont

All the same, Piedmont retained its new constitution. It also had a liberal-minded King, Victor Emmanuel II and Prime minister, Count Camillo Cavour. Cavour’s great ambition was to unify the disparate states of Italy and throw the Austrians out. Eventually, in 1861, Cavour achieved his aim, when Victor Emmanuele became King of all Italy.

This outcome,though, was the only permanent success scored by the revolutions of 1848. Elsewhere, the rebels failed to establish the more democratic society they sought. In addition to Prussia and Austria, uprisings in Rome, Naples, Poland and Wallachia (Romania) also came to nothing. In France, Louis Napoleon performed an astonishing about-turn. By1852, he had made himself Emperor, as Napoleon III, and assumed dictatorial powers.

But although despotic government survived in Europe and absolute monarchs were back in power, they never felt totally secure ever again. Instead, they smothered themselves in security and so became even more distanced from their subjects than before.


  1. Rapport, Mike, 1848: Year of Revolution (New York, NY, Basic Books 2009) ISBN-10: 0465014364/ ISBN-13: 978-0465014361
  2. Chase, William S. 1848 a Year of Revolution: With an Appendix Containing the Revolutionary Events of 1849. Together With a Brief Survey of the Causes of the Third French Revolution. (Ann Arbor, Michigan, Uni versity of Michigan Library, 2009) ASIN: B002KW455W