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Revolutions of 1848

Revolutions of 1848

The Revolutions of 1848 were a flurry of rebellions and political rebellions in many places in Europe. Although they ultimately failed to produce meaningful immediate change, they were still influential and revealed deep resentments. Learn about the causes of the Revolutions of 1848, what transpired in some major countries of Europe, and their consequences here.

Revolutions of 1848 Causes

There were many interrelated causes of the revolutions of 1848 in Europe.

Long-Term Causes of the Revolutions of 1848

The Revolutions of 1848 grew, in part, out of earlier events.

French Revolution of 1848 StudySmarterFig. 1: French Revolution of 1848.

US Independence and the French Revolution

In many ways, the Revolutions of 1848 can be traced to forces unleashed during the Independence of the United States and the French Revolution. In both of these revolutions, people overthrew their king and established a republican government. They were both inspired by Enlightenment ideologies and shattered the old social order of feudalism.

While the United States created a moderate liberal representative government and democracy, the French Revolution took a more radical path before inspiring a conservative reaction and the empire of Napoleon. Still, the message had been sent that people could try to remake the world and their governments with revolution.

The Congress of Vienna and Post 1815 Europe

The Congress of Vienna attempted to create stability in Europe after the Napoleonic Wars. While it accepted some liberal reforms, it largely reestablished a conservative order of monarchies ruling Europe and attempted to stifle the forces of republicanism and democracy the French Revolution had unleashed.

Furthermore, it repressed nationalism in many places. In its attempt to create a balance of power between the states of Europe, many areas were denied self-determination and made part of larger empires.

Economic Causes of the Revolutions of 1848

There were two connected economic causes of the Revolutions of 1848.

Agrarian Crisis and Urbanization

In 1839, many areas in Europe suffered from failed crops of staples like barley, wheat, and potatoes. These crop failures not only prompted food shortages, but they also forced many peasants to move to the cities to find work in early industrial jobs to make ends meet. More crop failures in 1845 and 1846 only made matters worse.

With more workers competing for jobs, wages fell even while food prices went up, creating an explosive situation. Communist and socialist movements among urban workers had begun to gain some support in the years leading up to 1848–the year Karl Marx published his famous Communist Manifesto.

Keep in mind that all of this is occurring as the Industrial Revolution is underway. Think about how these trends and processes are interconnected and changed European societies from agrarian ones to urban ones.

Credit Crisis

The 1840s had seen the expansion of early industrial capitalism. Land that might have previously been used for food production was set aside for railroad and factory construction, and less money was invested in agriculture.

A financial crisis in the mid to late 1840s contributed to this lack of investment in agriculture, worsening the food crisis. It also meant less trade and profit, leading to discontent among the emerging bourgeoisie middle class, who wanted liberal reforms.

Revolutions of 1848 Germany StudySmarterFig. 2: Berlin during the Revolutions of 1848.

Political Causes of the Revolutions of 1848

There were several overlapping political factors among the Revolutions of 1848's causes.


The Revolutions of 1848 began in Naples, Italy, where a key grievance was foreign rule.

The Congress of Vienna divided Italy into kingdoms, some with foreign monarchs. Germany also remained divided into smaller states. Much of Eastern Europe was ruled by large empires like Russia, the Habsburg, and the Ottoman Empire.

A desire for self-determination and, in Italy and Germany, unification, played an important role in the outbreak of the Revolutions of 1848.

The Germanic States Before Unification

The area of modern-day Germany had once been the Holy Roman Empire. Princes from the different city-states elected the emperor. Napoleon abolished the Holy Roman Empire and replaced it with a confederation. Resistance to French rule had inspired the first stirrings of German nationalism and calls for unification to create a larger, stronger nation-state that could not be so easily conquered.

However, the Congress of Vienna had created a similar German Confederation. It was only a loose association, with the member states having full independence. Austria was seen as the main leader and protector of the smaller states. However, Prussia would grow in importance and influence, and debate over a Germany headed by Prussia or a Greater Germany that included Austria would be a significant part of the movement. Unification occurred in 1871 under Prussian leadership.

Revolutions of 1848 Map of Europe StudySmarterFig. 3: Map of Europe in 1848 showing the divsion of Germany and Italy. Red dots mark where rebellions happened.

Desire for Reform

It was not only nationalism that led to revolution in 1848. Even in countries not under foreign rule, political discontent was high. There were several political movements that played a role in the Revolutions of 1848 causes.

Liberals argued for reforms that implemented more of the ideas of the Enlightenment. They generally favored constitutional monarchies with limited democracy, where the vote would be restricted to land owning men.

Radicals favored revolution that would end the monarchies and establish full representative democracies with universal male suffrage.

Finally, socialists emerged as a significant, if small and relatively new, force during this period. These ideas had been adopted by students and some members of the growing urban working class.

Exam Tip

Revolutions usually occur due to a combination of factors. Consider the different causes of the Revolutions of 1848 above. Which two do you think are the most important? Construct historical arguments for why they led to revolution in 1848.

Events of the Revolutions of 1848: Europe

Nearly all of continental Europe except for Spain and Russia saw upheaval during the Revolutions of 1848. However, in Italy, France, Germany, and Austria, events were especially significant.

The Revolution Begins: Italy

The Revolutions of 1848 began in Italy, specifically in the Kingdoms of Naples and Sicily, in January.

There, people rose against the absolute monarchy of a French Bourbon king. Rebellions followed in northern Italy, which was under the control of the Austrian Habsburg Empire. Nationalists called for the unification of Italy.

At first, Pope Pius IX, who ruled the Papal States of central Italy joined the revolutionaries against Austria before withdrawing, prompting a temporary revolutionary takeover of Rome and declaration of a Roman Republic.

The French Revolution of 1848

The Revolutions of 1848 in Europe spread to France next in events sometimes called the February Revolution. Crowds gathered in the streets of Paris on February 22, protesting a ban on political gatherings and what they considered the poor leadership of King Louis Philippe.

By the evening, the crowds had grown, and they began to build barricades in the streets. The following night, clashes ensued. More clashes continued on February 24, and the situation had gotten out of control.

With armed protestors marching on the palace, the King decided to abdicate and fled Paris. His abdication led to the declaration of the Second French Republic, a new constitution, and the election of Louis Napoleon as president.

French Revolution of 1848 StudySmarterFig. 4: Rebels in the Tuileries Palace in Paris.

Revolutions of 1848: Germany and Austria

The Revolutions of 1848 in Europe had spread to Germany and Austria by March. Also known as the March Revolution, the Revolutions of 1848 in Germany pushed for unification and reform.

Events in Vienna

Austria was the leading German state, and revolution began there. Students protested in the streets of Vienna on March 13, 1848, demanding a new constitution and universal male suffrage.

Emperor Ferdinand I dismissed the conservative chief minister Metternich, the architect of the Congress of Vienna, and appointed some liberal ministers. He proposed a new constitution. However, it did not include universal male suffrage, and protests began again in May and continued throughout the year.

Protests and rebellions soon broke out in other areas of the Austrian Habsburg Empire, notably in Hungary and the Balkans. By the end of 1848, Ferdinand had chosen to abdicate in favor of his nephew Franz Joseph as the new emperor.

Revolutions of 1848 Germany StudySmarterFig. 5. Barricades in Vienna.

The Frankfurt Assembly

There were other Revolutions of 1848 in Germany's smaller states, including in the rising power of Prussia. King Frederick William IV responded by declaring he would institute elections and a new constitution. He also announced he would support the unification of Germany.

In May, representatives of the different German states met at Frankfurt. They drafted a constitution that would unite them into a German Empire and offered the crown to Frederick William in April 1849.

Impact of the Revolutions of 1848 in Europe

The Revolutions of 1848 failed to create many immediate changes. In practically every country, conservative forces eventually repressed the rebellions.

Rollback of the 1848 Revolutions

Within a year, the Revolutions of 1848 had been stopped.

In Italy, French troops reinstalled the Pope in Rome, and Austrian forces defeated the rest of the nationalist forces by mid-1849.

In Prussia and much of the rest of the German states, the conservative ruling establishments had retaken control by mid-1849. Reforms were rolled back. Frederick William rejected the crown offered to him by the Frankfurt Assembly. German unification would be stalled for another 22 years.

In Austria, the army reestablished control in Vienna and Czech territories, as well as northern Italy. It faced a more difficult situation in Hungary, but help from Russia proved crucial in maintaining the empire's control there.

Events in France led to the most lasting impacts. France remained a republic until 1852. The constitution adopted in 1848 was quite liberal.

However, President Louis Napoleon conducted a coup in 1851 and declared himself Emperor Napoleon III in 1852. The monarchy would never be restored, although Napoleon III's imperial rule was marked by a mix of authoritarianism and liberal reform.

Revolutions of 1848 in Europe Hungarian Surrender StudySmarterFig. 6: Hungarian surrender.

Limited Lasting Changes

There were some lasting results of the Revolutions of 1848. A few of the significant changes that remained in place even after the restoration of conservative rule were:

  • In France, universal male suffrage remained.
  • An elected assembly remained in place in Prussia, although common people had less representation than temporarily established in 1848.
  • Feudalism was abolished in Austria and the German states.

The Revolutions of 1848 also marked the emergence of a mass form of politics, and the emergence of the urban working class as a significant political force. Workers movements and political parties would go on to gain more power in coming decades, and universal male suffrage was gradually extended in most of Europe by 1900. Conservative rule was reestablished, but it was clear that they could no longer simply ignore the desires of their populations at large.

The Revolutions of 1848 also catalyzed unification movements in Italy and Germany. Both countries would be unified into nation states by 1871. Nationalism also continued to grow in the multiethnic Habsburg Empire.

Why Did the Revolutions of 1848 Fail?

Historians have offered several explanations for why the Revolutions of 1848 failed to produce more radical changes, such as the ending of monarchies and creation of representative democracies with universal suffrage across Europe. While each country had different conditions, it's generally agreed that the revolutionaries failed to create unified coalitions with clear goals.

The moderate liberals failed to reconcile their goals with the radicals. Meanwhile, the Revolutions of 1848 were largely an urban movement and failed to incorporate much support among the peasantry. Likewise, more moderate and conservative elements of the middle class preferred the conservative order over the potential for revolution led by the working classes. Therefore, the revolutionary forces failed to create a unified movement that could withstand the conservative counterrevolution.

Revolutions of 1848 - Key takeaways

  • The Revolutions of 1848 were a series of rebellions that took place across Europe.
  • The Revolutions of 1848's causes were economic and political.
  • The 1848 Revolutions produced limited immediate changes, put down by conservative forces due to the lack of unity among different revolutionary factions. However, some reforms did last, and they helped pave the way for expansion of voting and unification of Germany and Italy.


  1. Fig 3 - 1848 Map of Europe (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Europe_1848_map_en.png) by Alexander Altenhof (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:KaterBegemot) licensed under CC-BY-SA-4.0 (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:CC-BY-SA-4.0)

Frequently Asked Questions about Revolutions of 1848

The revolutions taking place elsewhere in Paris and Vienna inspired the Hungarian Revolution of 1848 against Habsburg absolutist rule.

The revolution in 1848 forced King Louis Philippe to abdicate. Louis Napoleon saw it as his chance to run for the National Assembly and acquire power.

The revolutions of 1848 were caused by unrest due to poor economic conditions because of bad harvests and high debt as well as political factors such as desires for self-determination and liberal reforms and greater representative government.

The Revolutions of 1848 failed mostly because different political groups failed to unite behind common causes, leading to fragmentation and eventual restoration of order.

The Revolutions of 1848 in Europe were caused by poor economic conditions because of bad harvests and an earlier credit crisis. Also, people under foreign rule wanted self-determination and movements for liberal reforms as well as more radical reforms and greater representative government emerged in various countries.

Final Revolutions of 1848 Quiz


What previous agreement had created the mostly conservative order of Europe before 1848?

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The Congress of Vienna

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What was the status of Germany and Italy in 1848?

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They were divided into separate kingdoms.

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What economic problems contributed to the Revolutions of 1848?

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Crop failures and food shortages and a financial credit crisis.

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What political issues contributed to the Revolutions of 1848?

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Opposition to the absolutist monarchies and, in some places, nationalism.

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Where did the Revolutions of 1848 begin?

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In Naples, Italy

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What happened during the February Revolution in France?

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Protestors and revolutionaries took over the streets and forced the King to abdicate.

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Who took control in the French Second Republic?

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Louis Napoleon, who later declared himself Emperor Napoleon III.

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What assembly attempted to unite Germany?

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The Frankfurt Assembly

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What area nearly succeeded in gaining independence from Austria?

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What is the main reason the Revolutions failed according to most historians?

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The different revolutionary groups failed to unite around common goals.

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