Saxon and Prussian troops attacking the barricades at Dresden’s Neumarkt

Martin Würker/Deutsche Fotothek/Dresden City Museum

Saxon and Prussian troops attacking the barricades at Dresden’s Neumarkt, May 1849; painting by an unknown artist

In 1848 revolutions began exploding across Europe like strings of firecrackers. From Paris to Bucharest and from Palermo to Copenhagen, people marched on the citadels of authority and demanded a greater say in their government. Crowds confronted soldiers, violence often ensued, rulers wavered, and in the unbridled enthusiasm of the moment, some were emboldened to demand much more. The king of the French, Louis Philippe, fled to England as a republic was declared in Paris. The Austrian chancellor, Clemens von Metternich, who had overseen the restoration of monarchical powers after the defeat of Napoleon in 1815 and put down countless revolts across Europe in the 1820s and 1830s, also absconded to England, which became the refuge for ex-rulers and ex-revolutionaries alike. Germans demanded national unification in addition to constitutions, northern Italians threw off the Austrian yoke, Romans scared off the pope, and Hungarians fought for liberation from the Austrian Empire.

It all came to naught quite quickly, as the jubilation of the early months of 1848 gave way to divisions over the pace and direction of change. Czechs wanted no part of a new German nation, so they convened a Slavic Congress and invited Slovaks, Poles, Ukrainians, Croats, Serbs, and Slovenians, most of them ruled from Vienna by the emperor of Austria. But the Serbs, Croats, and Slovaks were more worried about the Hungarians, who dominated the Kingdom of Hungary, also part of the Austrian Empire. Hungarians made up only 41.4 percent of the kingdom’s population, which also included large numbers of Romanians, Slovaks, Germans, and others. The Croats ended up fighting against the Hungarian revolutionaries. Even where ethnic differences did not cause outsize tensions, conflicts pitted radicals who wanted to address social inequities against moderates who wanted to focus on constitutional reform. In France, these struggles culminated in shocking fashion when the forces of the new republican government killed some three thousand insurgents in street fighting in June 1848, only four months after the king had abdicated.

Counterrevolution followed upon these divisions. In much of Europe, rulers regained their confidence, reneged on their promises of reform, and called on their armies to quash rebellion. Authorities in Vienna used the army to recapture control of the city and then convinced the incompetent Austrian emperor, Ferdinand I, who was also king of Hungary, Croatia, and Bohemia and had promised to grant a constitution, to abdicate in favor of his eighteen-year-old nephew, Franz Joseph, who had pledged nothing to the people. Austrian armies marched back into northern Italy and Hungary, though subduing the latter required the intervention of Russia. The Prussian king, Frederick William IV, declared martial law in Berlin, dispersed the newly elected Prussian national assembly, and disdainfully refused to accept the crown of a united Germany offered by a German parliament in Frankfurt. The French counterrevolution took an unexpected but decidedly French form. Conflicts within the republican camp cleared a path for Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, a nephew of Napoleon, who was elected president in late 1848. In 1851 he staged a military coup to remain in power and a year later proclaimed himself Emperor Napoleon III.

This chaotic and ultimately disappointing story has made 1848 the orphan among revolutions. No one wants to claim paternity, much less an inheritance. Karl Marx put it most derisively when he compared the French revolution of 1848 with its predecessor in 1789: the first had the grandeur of tragedy, whereas the second smacked of farce. In his mordant view, the great figures of 1789—Georges Danton, Maximilien Robespierre, even Napoleon—had been followed in 1848 by self-deluded wannabes who succeeded only in paving the way to power of the odious adventurer Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte: “Men and events appear as reversed ‘Schlemihls,’ as shadows, the bodies of which have been lost.”

Judgments of the multiple eruptions of 1848 have not strayed all that far from Marx’s fuming disillusionment. In 1922 the British historian G.M. Trevelyan rendered the verdict that is still cited: “The year 1848 was the turning-point at which modern history failed to turn.” The “military despotisms” of Central Europe survived the challenge, he concluded, thereby laying the groundwork for the “misfortunes of European civilisation in our own day.”* In other words, the ultimate defeat of the Central European revolts of 1848 made it possible for Germany and Austria to follow the disastrous policies that led to the carnage of World War I.

In his new book, Revolutionary Spring, Christopher Clark, the Regius Professor of History at Cambridge, wants to counter these negative views by emphasizing the many beneficial outcomes of the insurrections, but like others who have tried to put a more positive spin on the events of those years, he faces a daunting task. His likening of 1848 to the Arab Spring of 2010–2011 suggests the difficulty, since these recent uprisings largely failed to produce lasting democratic reforms. If anything, the Arab Spring seems to have reinforced the lesson taught by 1848 that divisions within revolutionary and democratic coalitions offer an opening to autocratic leaders, whether those already in power or those waiting in the wings for their opportunity.


The first challenge in rehabilitating 1848 is the kaleidoscopic confusion created by the sheer number of outbreaks, their geographic dispersion, and the conflicting demands expressed. Clark remembers his first encounter with the revolutions of 1848 in school: “Their complexity was a futile, antiquarian scrawl, unsusceptible to the kind of narrative that replenishes modern people.” He aims to offer that revitalizing narrative, and he largely succeeds despite stretching too far in search of present-day parallels. Antivaccination protests, the gilets jaunes, Occupy Wall Street, and the storming of the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, do not recall the tumults of 1848, as Clark argues they do, if only because none of these recent episodes forced out those in power. In 1848 governments caved in, and for what seemed at the time an endless moment of suspension, everything appeared up for grabs. If the French could kick their king down the road, what might other people do? Romanian students, for example, raced home from Paris and helped inspire the Proclamation of Islaz in Wallachia (a Romanian territory under Russian protectorate and Ottoman suzerainty), which evolved into a constitution that called for equal rights for all, including Jews and Roma, and the emancipation of the peasants from their feudal obligations. Invasion by the Ottomans and the establishment of a full-fledged Russian occupation ended such hopes for a generation.

Clark’s account works, ironically, because he remains purposefully focused on the details. The devilish specifics that have made past versions often indigestible come to life in his writing, which is simultaneously absorbing and propulsive, not unlike a novel by Charles Dickens or Victor Hugo. Clark gives each separate upheaval its due while weaving them together and underlining their interconnectedness. The events of 1848 deserve this kind of laser vision, since they had the effect of mobilizing not only enormous crowds of ordinary protesters but also some of the most charismatic and significant individuals of the century—indeed, of modern times.

Some of them are still well known, but not usually for their participation in the tumults of 1848. Marx agitated in Brussels, Paris, and Cologne that year before seeking refuge in London in 1849, and he published The Communist Manifesto with Friedrich Engels the week that revolution broke out in Paris. Giuseppe Mazzini, the indefatigable firebrand of Italian unity, rushed from London to Paris in early 1848 and from there tried to fan the flames of revolution in Milan and Rome. Giuseppe Garibaldi left his escapades in Brazil and Uruguay to join Mazzini in 1848, and when those Italian revolts failed he moved to New York until he could return to Italy to fight again for unification in the 1850s, this time successfully. George Sand actively supported the new French republic, and Hugo and Alexis de Tocqueville were both elected to the French National Assembly in 1848. Richard Wagner, already the composer of The Flying Dutchman and Tannhäuser, sang the praises of violent revolution in Dresden in 1849 and then spent years in Swiss exile, where he developed his antisemitic views.

Clark does not paint such figures with a broad brush. When recounting the collaboration of Mazzini and Garibaldi in Rome in 1849, he contrasts the “ethereal, priestly grace” of the apostle of Italian unity with

the Dolce & Gabbana extravagance of Garibaldi, who entered Rome atop a white horse wearing a red jacket with a short tail and a small black felt hat, his chestnut hair falling in tousled tresses to his broad shoulders.

Also in Rome, trying desperately to defend the fledgling Roman republic against 20,000 French soldiers sent by Louis-Napoleon to restore the pope, were Cristina di Belgioioso, known for her philanthropy, Italian patriotism, “striking appearance,” and “amorous friendships,” and the American transcendentalist and women’s rights advocate Margaret Fuller, whom Belgioioso put in charge of a hospital, perhaps on the advice of Mazzini, to prepare for the doomed defense of the city. They all survived, though Fuller died in a shipwreck off Fire Island, New York, when returning to the United States in 1850. Many others were killed in the fighting or executed afterward.

Clark yanks the reader right into the midst of the action without ever losing sight of such individual destinies. He repeatedly returns, for example, to Robert Blum, a Catholic radical born in Cologne, an industrial city in the Rhineland, then part of Protestant and largely agricultural Prussia. Blum drifted through a variety of minor positions until he established himself as a theater administrator and moved to Leipzig, an intellectual hub in the Kingdom of Saxony in eastern Germany. There he threw himself into local politics and became so well known as an orator and publicist that he was elected to the new German parliament meeting in Frankfurt. As an independent city-state, Frankfurt seemed an ideal place to seek the union of what were then thirty-nine different German principalities.


When Blum tired of the endless in-fighting that quickly paralyzed the work of the German parliament, he raced to Vienna as it prepared to defend itself in October 1848 against the Austrian army. Enchanted by a city he had never visited and convinced that Vienna was the last hope of the German revolution, he stayed until the bitter end of the battle, assuming that he had parliamentary immunity. He was nonetheless arrested as “the most influential chief of the German anarchists” and executed by firing squad. His tender farewell letter to his wife soon circulated as a sacred political relic in underground radical networks.

Given Clark’s attention to individual lives within the breathtaking unfolding of the many separate but intersecting rebellions, it is perhaps not surprising that overarching analysis is not his prime concern. He is most insightful about the legacy of the tumults: the increase in political participation, the appearance of more organized left-wing movements, the acceptance by conservatives that states would have to have constitutions, and the triumph of a more realist or pragmatic understanding of politics—that is, that goals such as national unification could only be achieved through power, especially military might. Clark does not quote the Prussian prime minister Otto von Bismarck’s famous lines in an address of 1862, but they are still resonant: “Not by speeches and resolutions of majorities are the great questions of the time decided—that was the mistake of 1848 and 1849—but by iron and blood.”

The counterrevolutionaries of 1848–1849 definitely had the most guns and soldiers and they shed much blood; although the overall number of casualties in the countless pitched battles is unknown, Clark estimates that some 40,000 to 50,000 died in the Hungarian Independence War alone. Hundreds of thousands fled into exile, whether in Paris or London, the Ottoman Empire or the United States, or even Australia, bringing with them firsthand accounts of the uprisings already known through newspaper coverage. Back home pragmatic politics now meant that the more enterprising conservatives worked with the more conservative moderates to undertake improvements such as building railways, telegraphs, and sewers. Rather than relying on prepublication censorship, governments developed their own public relations efforts. Sometimes great questions are not decided all at once by force of arms but gradually over time through compromise and small steps.

Clark is less convincing on the question of causes. He follows standard accounts in describing the social discontentment of the 1840s that preceded the outbreaks, but some 250 pages of background description seems excessive, especially since he rightly resists concluding that price increases, unemployment, the Irish potato famine, or the wretchedness of life in the new factory towns served as an igniter. Revolution rarely follows from abject misery; as Clark affirms, “Impoverishment and the loss of remunerative labour were more likely to render people ‘speechless’ and inactive than to drive them to concerted action.”

His one surprising argument is that the origins of 1848 are to be found in the Swiss intercantonal war of November 1847, but his evidence for the influence of this twenty-five-day set of skirmishes is thin. The conflict began when the Catholic government of Lucerne decided to give the Jesuits greater control over education. After the Catholic cantons formed a military alliance, the Protestant cantons took them on and defeated them. Metternich always thought that any kind of victory for liberals (in this case the Protestant cantons) would have a contagious effect, which is why he frequently arranged armed intervention, but in this case he held back.

The January 1848 revolt in Palermo should thus be considered the first in the series of detonations, and it anticipated many of those soon on display across Europe. A crowd gathered out of curiosity because placards on the walls of the city predicted a revolution on January 12, the day of celebration for the king’s birthday; in fact, no such revolution had been planned. Sicily was ruled from Naples by a Bourbon king, and faced with troops, the people of Palermo began fighting back. Naples brought in reinforcements, but they failed to gain control, and demonstrations broke out in Naples, too. The king backed down and promised a constitution, but the one he issued satisfied no one. Agitation only increased once news arrived of the revolt in Paris in February. It is one of the originalities of Clark’s account that he highlights these kinds of synergies.

The French revolt acted as an accelerant all over Europe, and often the report of an uprising in one place set alight the tinder in yet another. The French king abdicated on February 24, 1848. The news reached Berlin on February 28, and people immediately poured into the streets. Protests began, and by March 11 petitions were circulating that demanded political, legal, and constitutional reforms. On March 15 Berlin learned that Metternich had fallen in Vienna two days before. On March 19 the Prussian king was forced to remove his troops from Berlin after some three hundred protesters had been killed in fighting the night before. After the Hungarian nationalist Lajos Kossuth heard about Paris, he gave a speech to the Hungarian Diet on March 3 demanding a separate and autonomous administration for Hungary, the abolition of feudal obligations, and the extension of the franchise to the urban middle class and to landowning peasants. The speech terrified the Austrian authorities and encouraged the Viennese, who had begun agitating after learning of the French revolt on February 29. Accounts of disturbances in cities across the German states added to the tumult. Events in Vienna—the government agreed to abolish censorship and initiate constitutional reforms—further boosted radicals in Budapest and almost immediately precipitated a major uprising in Milan against Austrian rule. And so it went as news reverberated across Europe, inspiring demonstrations, riots, and pitched battles in favor of greater openness and political participation.

Although no single cause or set of causes can be cited for the revolutions of 1848–1849, Clark does provide a wealth of information about what people said they wanted. Protesters felt frustrated by the glacial pace of change and wanted to have their voices heard in the workings of government. The most commonly expressed demands were for a constitution and a broader franchise. The people fighting against royal troops did not necessarily want a republican form of government. They wanted a share in power and greater accountability. “Emancipation” was often their watchword: emancipation of the nation from foreign rule, emancipation of peasant lands from feudal obligations, and emancipation of Jews, Roma, women, and enslaved Africans.

In most cases, emancipation remained an aspiration. National unification or independence would come later, and the revolutionary governments paid too little attention to rural problems. Though slavery was abolished by the French Republic in 1848, efforts to grant Jews and Roma rights were resisted or rescinded in many places, and when women’s political rights came up, which they almost never did, they were refused.

Two places stand out in this tale of pervasive tumult: Great Britain and Russia. England may have come close to revolt in April 1848, when 150,000 demonstrators known as Chartists gathered in London with the intention of marching on Parliament to demand reforms first outlined in a People’s Charter. Faced with a massive police presence, however, they agreed to call off the procession. British authorities were sufficiently confident of their hold on power to provide refuge for agitators such as Marx and Mazzini. The Russian tsar, on the other hand, responded to news of revolution in Europe by increasing censorship, dictating content in the schools and universities, and building up his army, which he used to help the Austrians destroy the independence movement in Hungary. The result, Clark concludes, was that “the 1848 revolutions deepened the divide between western Europe and Russia.” For all their sometimes eye-popping diversity, those revolutions have lost none of their relevance.