Age of Revolutions


During the 1820s and early 1830s rebellions broke out across Europe, with liberals calling for an end to absolute monarchy in Spain and Portugal and in the Italian peninsula. The Greeks, with the help of the French, British and Russians, drove the Ottomans from Morea. The Russians also intervened to crush rebellion in Poland in 1830, having defeated their own Decembrist Revolution in 1825. The French brought about a degree of constitutional reform following the replacement of Charles X by Louis Philippe in 1830, and Belgium achieved independence from the United Netherlands the same year.

The European revolutions of 1848, sparked off by the overthrow of King Louis Philippe in France and the seizure of the Chamber of Deputies (shown here), largely failed in their short-term socialist aims. In the long term they encouraged the liberalization and democratization of many European constitutions.

Rebellions broke out across Europe during 1848, inspired by the success of the French in abolishing their monarchy in February. The Habsburgs faced rebellions in Hungary and in the Italian cities of Milan and Venice, which were supported by Piedmont. Although the revolutions in Italy, Germany and Hungary were all defeated, the liberal constitutions, unification and independence they were seeking did eventually come about.

Following their initial victory over Napoleon in 1814, the major European powers met at the Congress of Vienna (1814-15) to decide on the future political map of Europe. The Congress was dominated by three principles: territorial compensation for the victors, the restoration and affirmation of the ruling royal dynasties, and the achievement of a balance of power between the major European states. As a result of their deliberations the German Confederation was formed, replacing the Holy Roman Empire (map 1). Elsewhere, national boundaries were redrawn, often with little regard to ethnic groupings, thus planting the seeds of nationalist tensions.

There was a shared conviction that the spread of republican and revolutionary movements must be prevented. In September 1815 Russia, Austria and Prussia formed a "Holy Alliance", agreeing to guarantee all existing boundaries and governments and to uphold the principles of Christianity throughout Europe. The alliance was subsequently joined by the other major European powers - with the exception of Britain, the Pope and, not surprisingly, the Ottoman sultan - and over the next 40 years there were several occasions when the autocratic rulers of Europe took military action to suppress uprisings in states other than their own.

In 1820 there was an explosion of revolutionary activity in Spain. Following the defeat of Napoleon, a liberal constitution had been introduced in 1812, but this had been annulled by King Ferdinand VII on his return from exile in 1815. In 1820 his authority was challenged by an army revolt, supported by riots across Spain, with the result that the liberal constitution was re-established.

Insurrections in Naples, Piedmont and Portugal in the summer of 1820 also attempted to introduce constitutional forms of government, and initially met with some success. However, Tsar Alexander I of Russia persuaded the Austrians and Prussians to support him in threatening military intervention, and in March 1821 Austria sent an army to crush the revolts in Piedmont and Naples. In December 1825 Russia faced revolutionary action on its own soil when a group of military officers tried unsuccessfully to prevent the accession to the tsardom of Nicholas I, preferring his more liberal-minded brother. The following year the continuing instability in Portugal prompted the British to intervene, in this instance with the intention of aiding the preservation of its constitutional government.

In Greece a revolution broke out in 1821 with the aim of shaking off Ottoman rule and uniting the whole of the ancient Hellenic state under a liberal constitution. The Ottomans enlisted support from the Egyptian viceroy Muhammad Ali, whose troops seized a large area of the country by 1826, when Russia, France and Britain intervened to defeat the Muslim forces. However, the London Protocol of 1830, which proclaimed Greek independence, fell far short of the aspirations of the revolutionaries in that it only established a Greek monarchy in southern Greece, under the joint protection of the European powers .

By 1830 revolutionary passions were rising in France. King Charles X dissolved an uncooperative Chamber of Deputies and called an election, but when an equally anti-royal Chamber resulted, he called fresh elections with a restricted electorate. Demonstrations in Paris during July forced him to abdicate in favour of Louis Philippe, whose right to call elections was removed. His reign, known as the "July Monarchy", saw insurrections as industrial workers and members of the lower middle class, influenced by socialist and Utopian ideas, demanded an increased share of political power, including the vote.

Nationalist resentment at decisions taken at the Congress of Vienna led to insurrection in both Belgium and Poland in the 1830s. In Belgium, which had been given to the United Netherlands in 1815, riots broke out in 1830 and independence was declared in October. In the kingdom of Poland, an area around Warsaw that had been given to the Russian tsar, a revolt by Polish nationalists resulted in a brief period of independence before the Russians crushed the movement in 1831, and subsequently attempted to destroy Polish identity in a campaign of "Russification".

Britain also experienced a degree of social unrest. A mass protest in Manchester in 1819 was crushed and 11 people were killed by troops in what became known as the "Peterloo Massacre". Inequalities in the electoral system provoked a strong movement for reform, which resulted in the Great Reform Bill of 1832. This expanded the electorate by 50 per cent and ensured representation from the newly developed industrial centres. Further calls were made by the Chartists for universal suffrage, with petitions presented to Parliament in 1838 and again in 1848.

By 1848 many of the European countries were suffering from an economic crisis; the failure of the potato and grain crops in 1845-46 was reflected in the price of food. There was political discontent at different social levels: peasants demanded total abolition of the feudal system, industrial workers sought improvements in their working conditions, and middle-class professionals wanted increased political rights. In Italy and Germany there were growing movements for unification and independence. Revolutionary agitation began in Paris in February 1848, forcing the abdication of Louis Philippe and the establishment of the Second Republic. It then spread across central Europe. The Habsburg Empire, faced with demands for a separate Hungarian government, as well as demonstrations on the streets of Vienna, initially gave in to the demands of the Hungarian nationalists and granted them a separate constitution. This, however, was annulled some months later, leading to a declaration of independence by Hungary. The Austrian response was to quell the revolt in 1849 with the help of Russian forces. Discontent in Austria spilled over into the southern states of the German Confederation, and liberals in Berlin demanded a more constitutional government. As a result, the first National Parliament of the German Confederation was summoned in May 1848.

In June 1848 struggles between the moderate and the radical republicans culminated in three days of rioting on the streets of Paris. In crushing the rioters the more conservative factions gained control, a trend that was repeated in Prussia, where royal power was reaffirmed. The second half of 1848 was marked by waves of reaction that spread from one city to another. The restoration of Austrian control over Hungary was achieved partly by playing off against each other the different ethnic groups within the empire. However, despite the suppression of the 1848 revolutionaries, most of the reforms they had proposed were carried out in the second half of the century, and at least some of the nationalist movements were successful.