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“We have been beaten and humiliated...scattered, imprisoned, disarmed and gagged. The fate of European democracy has slipped from our hands.” (Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, a French politician)
The year 1815 marked the beginning of a time of repression in Europe. Napoleon Bonaparte had been defeated at Waterloo and sent to the remote South Atlantic island of Saint Helena, the torrent of blood unleashed by the French Revolution had finally run dry, and the dispossessed princes were returning to their thrones. Bourbon King Louis XVIII returned to Paris, King Ferdinand VII was restored in Madrid, and the numerous petty princes of Germany and Italy took back power in their localities. In Vienna, the victorious powers - Austria, Prussia, Russia, and the United Kingdom - re-established the old order on the principle of the divine right of kings, and with that, the ancient regime had been restored.
Nonetheless, the French Revolution had changed the situation permanently, and the lid could not be put back on the box. The revolution and Napoleon’s rise had abolished feudalism across Western Europe, inspired nationalism, empowered the middle classes, and enshrined religious liberty and freedom of speech in theory, if not always in fact. The codification of law known as the Napoleonic Code - widely adopted into the law of European countries and still in force in France today - sanctified the principle of the rule of law as opposed to the will of the sovereign. The restored absolutist order could not undo this, nor could it make certain classes in Europe forget the freedoms they had enjoyed despite the bloody price paid for them under the French emperor.
As a result, even in the wake of Napoleon’s departure from the scene, the continental powers had to work to repress secularism and liberalism in Europe. They quashed liberal movements in Italy, Poland, and Spain but could not prevent a revolution in France in 1830, which replaced authoritarian Charles X with the more liberal Louis-Philippe d’Orleans, nor could the European powers prevent the independence of Belgium as a constitutional monarchy. Underneath the surface, revolutionary movements formed among the bourgeois classes, while urban and agricultural workers remained concerned about the cost of food, living conditions, and the burdens imposed by the remnants of feudalism.
When the French underwent another revolution in 1830, the absolutist order was reduced to Russia, Prussia, Austria, and elsewhere, and the liberal middle classes were chafing under repression. In the United Kingdom, where the middle classes already dominated society, the rulers looked fearfully to the Chartists, who were growing in number. In Italy and Germany, there were growing movements toward national unity, and nationalists also pined for sovereignty in Hungary and other parts of the Austrian Empire and Ottoman Empire. Looking on were the churches, often sympathetic to the plight of the poor and wary of absolutism but fearful of disorder and the diminution of their power. Europe was a tinder box waiting to be ignited, and 1848 would be the year the match struck.
The Revolutions of 1848: The History and Legacy of the Massive Social Uprisings Across Europe examines the chain of events that produced the most widespread social unrest in Europe’s history.