“The year 1848 witnessed the most widespread occurrence of revolutionary activity on the European continent in modern History”. 1848 witnessed a wave of revolutions in Europe which is known as the ‘springtime of nations’. These revolts began in Sicily which then spread to France, Germany, Italy and the Austrian empire. ‘Causation’ in History has been a debated topic over the years; ultimately it is a key factor of historical methodology and a crucial way to be able to effectively demonstrate why events happened the way they did. This essay will be able to answer the question, ‘what caused the revolutions of 1848?
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In this essay, I will argue that discontent in Europe was the ultimate reason that caused the revolutions in 1848 throughout Europe. ‘Discontent’ in Europe was driven by harsh economic conditions and heterodox ideologies which ultimately led to a series of revolutions in 1848. First, I will argue, and be able to effectively portray the poor economic conditions that faced Europe prior to the revolution and demonstrate how this acted as a catalyst to ‘discontent’ in Europe. Secondly this essay, will be able to reveal the large tide of ‘liberalism’ that swept throughout Europe at that time which will then link to another political ideology which exploited itself, known as ‘nationalism’. On the other hand, I will successfully highlight how other historians may disagree with my argument and believe that ‘discontent’ in Europe was not the ultimate reason for revolution.
Economic hardships can most certainly bring a country down to its knees. This was highly evident throughout Europe in 1846; many historians blame the 1848 revolutions on the ‘crop failure’. Although, this is a short-term cause of the 1848 revolutions it certainly holds a great amount of significance. The European Potato failure was a food crisis that struck Europe in the mid-1840s and it definitely had a huge impact. This created immense suffering for those living in Europe as it led to a great number of deaths. It is estimated that roughly 40,000-50,000 died in Belgium and Prussia due to a great famine outbreak. A further 10,000 people also died in France. As a result of these crop failures, prices began to rise significantly; many people’s income were spent on high priced food which ultimately led to unemployment, creating an atmosphere of severe discontent in Europe. France was going through a rough phase as populations began to increase in rural areas, forcing people to live in the main cities, which was not easy as inflation was very high. Historian Jonathan Sperber proclaims, ‘in the mid-1840s, the high-prices, followed by indebtedness, poor business conditions and wide spread-unemployment reflected the poor economic conditions in Europe’. Fundamentally, the fact that Europe faced such harsh conditions during the mid-1840s is able to provide a fair reflection to why the revolutions took place in 1848. Discontent among peasants during the 1840s was high since they lost their communal lands. Furthermore, the fact that the aristocracy had such a solid control over their lands led to protests’ in 1848. Thus, highlighting the fact that economic conditions led to widespread discontent which essentially caused the 1848 revolutions.
Heterodox ideologies began to emerge before the revolutions of 1848. Societies demanded democratic rights such as a representative body, freedom of expression and the liberation of peasants. The first of these ideologies was ‘liberalism’ which began to develop during the 1840s due to the social structure of Europe at that time. Prior to 1848, over the years Europe consisted of a society of orders. The nobility and the aristocracy ruled above the law. Liberalism was an ideology that believed no one should be above the law and the people demanded their democratic rights in order to have an influence in law making. Communities in Europe demanded a constitution which will allow people to act according and give everyone an equal treatment under the law. Jonathan Sperber outlines that “Certainly the single most important political idea and political movement during the nineteenth century was Liberalism”. It could be argued, liberalism was the cause of the 1848 revolutions as political structures were being overturned. Classical liberalism started in the 1820s from Spain and France and it spread throughout Europe. Klemens von Metternich portrayed liberalism as a weak ideology that will ultimately threaten and ruin the power of the aristocracy. Other higher authorities just like the Austrian chancellor believed it will allow middle class workers to have a say in law making. Middle class and working class aimed for an elected parliament rather than giving the consent for an ultimate power figure to make decisions. Through the idea of the aristocracy believing that liberalism is a threatening ideology it makes it apparent that there was a clear conflict at that time between ideologies. Due to this, it strengthens the argument that emerging ideologies were the cause of the revolutions of 1848 which ultimately led to discontent within Europe. Denmark was governed by an absolute monarchy, who faced radical demonstrations led by the National Liberals. These Liberalists demanded a constitution after the death of King Christian the 8th. Through these demonstrations the new king installed a new cabinet which consisted members of the National Liberal Party. Therefore, this makes it certain that due to this ideology authorities faced difficulties which essentially enabled them to make peace with liberalists in order to put an end to uprisings. This evidently shows that liberalism was the cause of the 1848 revolutions as the situation in Denmark depicts this the most.
Another ideology that began to emerge during the 1840s was nationalism. Nationalism is an extreme form of patriotism which makes a person feel as if their country is superior to another country. During the 1840s the Austrian empire was certainly the most effected by nationalism. The empire consisted of many nationalities such as, Russians, Austrians, Hungarians, Poles and so on; due to this, it created a terrible atmosphere throughout Europe. Many nationalities aimed to have hegemony over other nationalities. It could be argued, because of nationalism, the revolutions seem to appear as wars of independence from the Austrian empire rather than revolutions of reform. Nationalism was extremely popular in Germany during the 1840s; it could be argued this was due to the Rhine-crisis. The Rhine-crisis of 1840 was a threat from France of a likely invasion to take over the rhine land. After the congress of Vienna in 1815 the Rhine was given back to the Prussian military to control. However, after a diplomatic defeat France were adamant to take back control over the Rhine as their natural border. This created huge popularity between France and Germany which led to a widespread ideology of nationalism emerging within both countries. James M. Brophy argues in his book ‘The Journal of Modern History’, the Rhine-crisis unleashed the “breakthrough of modern German nationalism as a phenomenon”. German nationalism was the idea to unite all German speaking nations under the influence of a sole German nation. During 1848, German nationalism was on an all-time high. It could also be argued, nationalism was driven by liberalism which makes the argument, the 1848 revolutions were caused by heterodox ideologies. In Germany, nationalists split into two groups which were the liberal nationalists who were headed by scientists, doctors, physicians and then you had the radicals. Therefore, this illustrates the idea that ideologies were the cause of the 1848 revolutions as they opposed each other and authorities. This discontent within each other is the ultimate reason why the revolutions in Europe broke out. The Prussian King Frederick William feared all German states would unite and he would lose power and influence. The fear of ‘authoritative figures’ creates a poor relationship between the authority and its people as it could act as a catalyst towards corruption in order to break the feeling of ‘fear’. The fact the aristocracy feared nationalism signifies the idea that it was such a prominent ideology which had a profound impact. Some would argue that most German borders like Cologne were close to France; who were experiencing immense discontent which might have been the cause of Germany’s discontent due to its geographical importance. However, this argument seems very weak as not all borders were close to France and were still experiencing discontent. Germany was not the only nation experiencing the emergence of nationalism. Italy were also experiencing discontent due to nationalism during the mid-1800s. Young Italy was a political movement which merged in 1831 founded by Giuseppe Mazzini. It encouraged many Italian states to fight for independence and become unified which is what nationalism stood for. Young Italy aimed to educate people regarding politics in order to make them realise that a unified Italy was the best thing for their people. Mazzini aimed for the liberation of Italy from the Austrian empire and was effectively able to influence many people in thinking the same way. This therefore highlights the fact that nationalism wasn’t just evolving in Germany. Nationalism was seen as a threat to many nations rather than one; due to this it could be argued that emerging ideologies such as nationalism caused discontent within Europe which caused the revolutions of 1848.
On the other hand, it could be argued; discontent within Europe was not the main cause for the revolutions of 1848. Many Marxists would argue that liberals, middle class, workers and nationalists all experienced a class struggle which was ultimately the cause of the 1848 revolutions. Although this is a strong argument, it isn’t as strong as the arguments listed before. Ultimately, there is no evidence that class is a cause and not an effect. Marxists believe that it was the classes which went through struggle which ultimately determines the cause of the revolutions. However, this isn’t always the cause most revolutions like the 1848 revolutions experience social, political and economical issues that lead to revolution whereas the class being the actual cause. Fundamentally, this emphasises the fact that class wasn’t the main cause of the revolutions in 1848 but rather it was discontent within Europe through economic factors and heterodox ideologies. Eric Hobsbawm, who was an Marxist historian in his book ‘The age of Revolution’ in which he draws links between different revolutions such as the industrial revolution and the French revolution being driven by the same events and process. He believes the process was the rise of the bourgeoise class. However, Hobsbawm neglects the fact Europe faced many more difficulties rather than the rise of a bourgeoise class. In conclusion, it could be argued that this argument is weak, and a class struggle was not the cause of the 1848 revolutions.
Discontent was the ultimate reason that caused the revolutions of 1848 within Europe. Discontent was driven by long lasting economic issues within Europe which led to unrest within Europe urging them to revolt. Economic issues weren’t the only reason that led to discontent in Europe. Opposing ideologies were also a very significant reason to why the revolutions took place in 1848. The nobility and aristocracy deeply opposed these emerging ideologies as they felt it was a threat to their power. Nevertheless, people wanted change therefore liberalism and nationalism began to become immensely popular and created discontent within nations between the state and its people. In conclusion, discontent within Europe was the sole cause for the revolutions of 1848.
- Brophy, M, 2013. The Journal of Modern History. The Rhine Crisis of 1840 and German Nationalism: Chauvinism, Skepticism, and Regional Reception, Vol. 85, No.1.
- Claus Moller Jorgensen: ‘Transurban interconnectivities: an essay on the interpretations of the revolutions of 1848’, European review of history, 19/2 (2012), pp, 201-227’.
- ‘Jonathan Sperber: ‘The European Revolutions, 1848-1851’, (Cambridge University Press, 2005)
 Jonathan Sperber: ‘The European Revolutions, 1848-1851’, (Cambridge University Press, 2005), pp. 64-65
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