War and Peace in Europe from Napoleon to the Kaiser: War and Revolution in 1848

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The international settlement reached at the Congress of Vienna in 1815 was built on the suppression of liberal, nationalist and popular revolutionary movements in an attempt to prevent the re-emergence of the kind of political upheavals and conflicts that had caused so much destruction between 1789 and 1815.  This lecture describes how and why the settlement came unstuck and outlines the consequences of 1848 for the international order.


This is part of the series of lectures, War and Peace in Europe from Napoleon to the Kaiser, which looks at the conflicts that tore Europe apart at various times during the 19th century.  It examines the origins, course and impact of six wars, or international conflicts, looking not just at their military aspects but also at how soldiers and civilians experienced them, the ideological influences that underlay them, and the social and cultural changes to which they gave rise.


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War and Revolution in 1848

Richard J. Evans FBA


In the second lecture in this series I want to start by taking a broad look at war and European society in the nineteenth century and ask why it was that this period was relatively free of major wars, and why those wars that did take place were relatively limited in their impact. Part of the reason had to do with the political settlement reached at the end of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, at the Congress of Vienna in 1815, and the main focus of this lecture will be on how and why this settlement came unstuck at the mid-point of the century, during and immediately after the revolutions of 1848.

Warfare had been a way of life in Europe for centuries by the time the Napoleonic Wars came to an end in 1815. At times it was truly devastating in its impact. The Thirty Years' War, from 1618 to 1648, is estimated directly or indirectly to have caused the death of anything up to a third the entire population of Germany, for example, and in some areas such as Württemberg the proportion was even higher. The eighteenth century saw repeated and often prolonged wars ranging from the war of the Spanish Succession (1701-14) through the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-48) and the Seven Years' War (1756-63) to the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars which lasted from 1792 to 1815, involving virtually every European state at one time or another.

By contrast, the century between the Congress of Vienna, which met in 1814, and the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, witnessed only a small number of wars in Europe, and these were relatively limited in impact and duration and did not involve more than a handful of European states; most of them indeed were bilateral conflicts: the Crimean War in 1854-56 between Britain, France, Turkey and Russia, the Wars of Italian Unification in involving France, Austria and Piedmont-Sardinia, and the Wars of German Unification in 1864 between Austria, Prussia and Denmark, 1866 between Prussia and Austria, and 1870-71 between the German states and France. There were brief conflicts between Russia and the Ottoman Empire in 1828-29 and 1877-78, but these contrasted with the seven wars between the two states that took place in the 18th century and up to 1815,lasting nearly a quarter of a century between them. Altogether, the death rate of men in battle from 1815 to 1914 was seven times less that of the previous century.

How can we explain this startling contrast? Famously, the historian Paul W. Schroeder, in his magnificent survey The Transformation of European Politics 1763-1848, published in 1994 as part of the Oxford History of Modern Europe, argued that it could largely be explained by the abandonment on the part of the European states of the traditional emphasis on the Balance of Power, the doctrine according to which no single state should be allowed to become so strong that it dominated all the rest, and its replacement by a network of collaborative institutions, summed up in the idea of the 'Concert of Europe', whose main purpose was the maintenance of peace, based on the settlement arrived at the Congress of Vienna in 1815.

There is much to be said for this view. European states, including after a brief hiatus, crucially, France, became used to meeting on a frequent basis to thrash out their differences, and managed to take common action on a number of occasions, despite their opposing interests - for example, over the issue of Greek independence in the 1820s, which reached a generally agreed settlement in the face of strong mutual suspicions between Britain and Russia. What lay behind this powerful desire for co-operation was, of course, fear of revolution and upheaval, which, on the evidence of the 1790s and 1800s, could, it was believed, very easily cause international instability and conflict. When the Great Powers collaborated, therefore, from the 1820s to the 1840s, it was as often as not in order to put down liberal revolutions of one kind or another.

But there was more to it than that. A number of other factors were responsible too, some given prominence by Schroeder, others not. To begin with, the balance of power still in fact counted for a good deal. Ever since the time of Louis XIV, the main contender for European domination had been France, in wealth and population and military organization by far the greatest of the European powers. But the prospect of French hegemony was destroyed for ever by the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars. The other European states remained deeply apprehensive about French ambitions for decades to come, but in fact the defeat of Napoleon was decisive. France's population growth was beginning to stagnate, and was unable to make good the loss of nearly a million and a half men on the battlefield. France's share of the European population became steadily smaller. For the rest of the nineteenth century, there was more or less an equilibrium of power between the major European states.

Moreover, the British command of the seas established at the latest by the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 effectively destroyed French overseas trade. Before 1789, the French economy had been industrializing at a pace not dissimilar to the British, and economic development continued behind the tariff walls erected by the Continental System; but after 1815, when the French economy was exposed to British competition once again, it became clear it had fallen behind. Continual warfare allied to world trading links and ruthless competition between entrepreneurs had given the British economy a boost that put it far ahead of any European competitors.

This made Britain the world superpower, a factor that had enormous influence in shaping Europe's destiny and its place in the world. By and large, European states had little option but to acquiesce in British dominance of world trade and shipping, and British control of the high seas for the rest of the century. The British did not try to exclude other nations from trading, as had been the custom in the age of mercantilism up to the late eighteenth century, but promoted free international trade, in a competition that their economic and industrial advantage would ensure for the ensuing decades that they would almost always win.

British global hegemony had another consequence too. It meant that wars over the colonies, so common in the eighteenth century, when Britain and France clashed repeatedly over India and North America, no longer had the potential to ignite conflict in Europe itself. The French had lost their overseas empire, and when they began to build another one, it had to be with the acquiescence of the British. And it was the British, along with the United States of America, whose tacit support ensured that Spain and Portugal lost their American colonies in the 1820s, thus removing another potential cause of conflict. By carefully bracketing colonial and overseas issues out of the peace settlement, the Congress of Vienna ensured that European and colonial rivalries were fought out in separate spheres; by instituting the Concert of Europe, they made it easy for these rivalries to be settled by international agreement, as they were, most famously, in the Berlin Congress that laid down the ground rules for the 'Scramble for Africa' in 1884.

Some historians have claimed that it was the ancien régime that ultimately triumphed over Napoleon in 1814-15. But in fact, the French Revolution had among other things fundamentally changed the nature of sovereignty in Europe. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a major, perhaps the major cause of European wars had been dynastic disputes arising on the death of a sovereign - the War of the Spanish Succession, for example, or the War of the Austrian Succession. This was no longer the case after 1815. For all the insistence of monarchs like Louis XVIII or Alexander I on their Divine Right to rule, the basis of sovereignty had shifted perceptibly from individuals and families to nations and states.

Before 1815, all international treaties were considered to have been rendered invalid on the death of a sovereign, and had to be immediately renewed with the signature of the new sovereign if they were not to lapse. After 1815, this rule no longer applied. Treaties like those of 1814-15 were concluded between states, not between individual monarchs, and retained their validity unless and until one or other party to them deliberately abrogated them. The prince or ruler became, in effect, the executor of national or state sovereignty guaranteed by international agreement with the virtual force of law. Of course, there were to be succession disputes in the nineteenth century too, notably over Spain and Schleswig-Holstein, but they gained their potency largely from their exploitation by state governments for national purposes, and had no real impact of their own.

Along with the diminished importance of dynastic politics came the virtual disappearance of dynastic marriages as a real factor in international relations. The Habsburgs, who had acquired many new territories over the previous centuries through a mixture of luck and calculation in their policy of marrying into other European dynasties, were no longer able to do so in the nineteenth century. Dynastic marriages dwindled to mere symbols of amity between nations, alongside state visits. Similarly, armies now owed their allegiance to states rather than to individual sovereigns; the old eighteenth-century system of mercenary armies and soldiers disappeared, to be replaced by armies owing their allegiance to a nation-state.

Until the very end of the century, however, national sovereignty was not followed by popular participation in politics. Electoral systems limited the right to vote everywhere, just as constitutions limited the right of legislatures to influence policymaking, above all in matters of war and peace. Bellicose popular movements did not emerge to put pressure on governments to take a tough stance in foreign affairs until the very end of the century, nor did governments, except to a degree in the United Kingdom, feel much need to take account of public opinion when it came to deciding what line to take in international conflicts.

Indeed, a central part of the Vienna Settlement was the creation of a 'Holy Alliance' between Austria, Prussia and Russia, with the silent though sometimes qualified backing of Britain, to suppress revolution wherever it occurred in Europe. The idea of popular sovereignty that had spread across Europe in the wake of the French Revolution was rejected by these powers in favour of traditional notions of Divine Right. Nowhere was this more obvious than in France, where the monarch replaced the tricolor with the royal fleur de lys as the official flag of France, refused to recognize the Legion of Honour instituted by Napoleon, and counted 1814 as the nineteenth year of his reign. When a courtier told him in 1814 of Napoleon's abdication: 'Sire, you are King of France', he replied: 'Have I ever ceased to be?' The court rituals, titles and ceremonies of the ancien régime came back. Louis XVIII rejected the Constitution voted through by Napoleon's last Senate after it had formally deposed the Emperor, because he did not accept that his royal authority derived from an implicit contract between king and people. It came, he declared, from Divine Right, and in the Declaration of Ouen, which served as the basis for the French constitution under the restored monarchy, he made it clear that he was granting the French people their rights of his own free will, as 'Louis, by the Grace of God King of France and Navarre'. Louis was in practice forced to compromise with the legacy of the Revolution, granting a legislative assembly with a very limited franchise, and barring the return of confiscated and redistributed landed property, but there were those in his court, and especially around his brother and successor Charles X, who wished to repudiate this concession too.

A new German Confederation, containing 39 states in place of the thousand or more that had made up the Holy Roman Empire, restored the power of the princes, while in Spain the monarch Ferdinand VII actually did restore confiscated aristocratic land and reintroduced the Inquisition, while one of his ministers signaled his allegiance to the ancien régime by wearing an 18th-century wig. In Italy the King of Piedmont, who also wore an 18th-century wig, restored the pre-Napoleonic legal system and allowed the feudal system to continue on the island of Sardinia. The Pope, restored to his rule over central Italy, abolished street lighting as an objectionable modern innovation and reintroduced the ghetto in Rome, where the Jews of the city were forced to live. In Russia Tsar Alexander I became increasingly conservative; it was his idea to form the 'Holy Alliance', and Russia's willingness to act as 'the gendarme of Europe' began under him, rather than under his notoriously reactionary successor Nicholas I.

To many young army officers who had fought against the despotism of Napoleon, and to a whole generation of young educated men who had begun their careers working for the reforming administrations installed under Napoleon's influence, the restoration of the ancien régime in 1815, however, limited and compromised it might have been, seemed like a betrayal of everything they stood for. By the early 1820s these men had formed secret societies and conspiracies in many parts of Europe. In Italy the more radical of them were known as the carbonari, or charcoal-burners, a movement that spread to France as well. Everywhere, the demobilization of troops and the drastic reduction in the size of armies, as well as a deterioration in the pay and conditions of soldiers after 1815, created widespread discontent amongst serving and retired troops and officers. Poor harvests in 1816 and 1817 and a crisis in production caused by the new influx of British industrial goods to the Continent led to widespread hunger, poverty and even in some parts of Europe starvation.

This discontent fuelled a widespread series of uprisings in the aftermath of the war. Everywhere these were led by young officers, and in many parts they amounted to little more than attempted military putsches. In Piedmont the King was ousted and a liberal government took over; in Naples and Sicily there were popular uprisings; in Spain the King, whose unpopularity had reached unprecedented heights after the loss of the South American colonies, was deposed and a liberal government was installed here too; in Germany radical students staged a demonstration in which they burned reactionary political texts, while one of their number, Karl Sand, acting on his own initiative, shot dead the popular playwright August von Kotzebue, whose pro-Russian stance he considered unpatriotic. In Russia, young intellectual army officers subsequently known as the Decembrists attempted a military uprising on the death of Alexander I in 1825.

All these revolts were small in scale and except in Southern Italy enjoyed very little mass support. Only in Greece, where middle-class civilian and military liberals secured the support of bandits and pirates to overthrow Turkish rule, backed ultimately by the French and British fleets in the Mediterranean, did an uprising succeed, and even here, the chaos and violence that ensued was dealt with by the Great Powers through the installation of a German prince who took over as King Otto of Greece. Everywhere else, the Holy Alliance combined in restoring the old regime: in Italy, Austrian armies marched in to defeat the rebels, while a French army of 100,000 men invaded Spain and restored Ferdinand VII, who had been amusing himself on the ramparts of the castle where he was imprisoned by throwing paper darts at the rebel troops below. Everywhere the defeat of the rebels was followed by the imposition of a glacial reaction, most notably in Germany, where the Karlsbad Decrees imposed strict censorship and allowed the leading states, Austria and Prussia, to intervene in the politics of other member states of the Confederation should they become too liberal. A kind of hysteria about revolution gripped the chancelleries of Europe; at successive conferences held after Vienna under the so-called Congress System, concerted action was urged, and in some cases as we've seen, agreed against revolution and reform. Measures like the Karlsbad Decrees, which had parallels in other countries, were justified by the leading Austrian and European statesman Prince Metternich by painting a drastic, and extremely exaggerated picture of a European order threatened by secret societies derived from, or inspired by, Freemasonry. They certainly caused a huge amount of alarm in Europe's chancelleries. Metternich called the carbonariand other similar groups 'a real power, all the more dangerous as it works in the dark, undermining all parts of the social body, and depositing everywhere the seeds of a moral gangrene which is not slow to develop and increase'. The Habsburg government required all civil servants to swear an oath that they did not belong to any secret society. In 1814 the Emperor Francis I asked for a report on tiepins he had seen men wearing during his visit to Florence, fearing they were some kind of secret sign of Freemasonry. His agents tried to collect information from all over Europe, and built up a picture of a vast international network of subversives. Police forces, especially in Russia and Austria, put their agents everywhere, looking for evidence of subversion and revolution.

Such measures had little success in holding down the rising tide of liberalism. a generation of political figures inspired by ideals of liberty and national sovereignty took the lead in movements of national liberation and liberal reform, refusing to accept the conservative and restorationist aspects of the 1815 settlement. They managed to win enough support to shake the edifice constricted at the Congress of Vienna to its very foundations in almost every part of Europe. On the other hand, it was clear that they represented only a minority of the educated classes, without widespread popular support. Their belief in a rational, centralized state administration sometimes sat uneasily with their campaign for representative government. And the nervousness their activities caused in the chancelleries of Europe was a significant factor in keeping the Concert of Europe together, for all the rivalries and differences between its leading powers. By the end of the 1820s,, the settlement reached in Vienna in 1815 had been dented in a number of places, but fundamentally it was still intact.

The first really serious crack in the European edifice constructed at Vienna occurred in 1830, when the reactionary regime of King Charles X in France crumbled virtually overnight. Alarmed by growing liberal support in the National Assembly, despite the fact that only the rich could vote, Charles summoned the deputies and declared that if they opposed him, he would take the steps necessary to maintain public order.  So agitated was he that in waving his arms about to lend emphasis to his words, he accidentally knocked off his hat, which rolled across the floor and ended at the feet of his cousin Louis-Philippe, Duke of Orleans, who over the years had acquired a reputation as a liberal, following in the footsteps of his father, whose sympathy with the Revolution in 1789 had earned him the sobriquet of 'Philippe-Égalité'. The symbolism was not lost on those present. When Charles dismissed the Assembly, imposed strict censorship, restricted voting rights still further, and called fresh elections, liberal deputies called for resistance; crowds, alienated by three years of poor harvests and high food prices, appeared on the streets and set up barricades, the troops sent to disperse them mutinied, and the King was forced to flee, to be replaced indeed by Louis-Philippe as constitutional monarch.

Elsewhere in Europe too there were major changes in 1830, especially in the Netherlands, where the southern part of the country broke away to become the new state of Belgium, in Switzerland, where several cantons gave the vote to all adult men - it was to be a very long time before they extended this to women - and in Poland, where liberal nationalists led by young officers declared independence, to be overthrown by an invading Russian army two years later, resulting in the ending of the last vestiges of the Polish self-government created in 1815. There were local revolts in Italy, Spain and some of the German states, some of which had to concede more liberal constitutions, and in Britain, popular unrest was countered by the extension of the franchise in the great Reform Bill of 1832.

The revolutions of 1830, like the military uprisings of the early 1820s, did not result in any fundamental transformation of the European scene. Here and there new, more liberal constitutions and governments had taken over; two new states, Belgium and Greece, had been created; but the basics of the Vienna Settlement had remained intact. Military conflict was confined to the suppression of revolution, except, briefly, in the late 1820s, between Russia and the Ottoman Empire, where it reflected what was now a more or less permanent Russian desire to take advantage of the growing weakness of the Turkish state to acquire territory and influence in the Balkans and gain access to the Mediterranean. At this stage, the Holy Alliance, based on a general fear of revolution, kept this ambition in check, and allowed the Great Powers to patch things up. In the second half of the century, however, this situation would change.

The reason for this has to be sought above all in the revolutions of 1848. The revolts of the early 1820s and the revolutions of 1830 failed because they lacked popular support, and because the liberals and the military officers who led them were too few in number to succeed. By 1848, however, things had changed. Industrialization had begun to take hold on the European Continent, creating the beginnings of an urban working class. The urban population of Prussia, for example, grew from 2.9 million to 4.5 million between 1816 and 1846: the population of Berlin increased by 140 per cent between 1801 and 1859, that of Vienna by 80 per cent from 1800 to 1850. Over the same period the number of small-workshop artisans in Prussia doubled from 400,000 to more than 800,000, but the number of factory workers increased by 200 per cent, from 187,000 to 554,000. The new urban masses were particularly vulnerable to economic crises. The impact of British mass produced industrial goods had grown, undercutting domestic artisan workshop producers and throwing hundreds of thousands out of work. Impoverished master artisans were increasingly forced to seek work in factories, or depend on benefits provided by the state.

To this long-term economic crisis of the urban masses came in addition a series of bad harvests and failures of the potato crop in the so-called 'hungry forties' right across Europe drove peasants into the towns in search of food, mobilized the rural population of central Europe against the remaining restrictions of serfdom, and led liberals to demand reforms to alleviate the situation, fearing outbreaks of mass violence and insurrection such as had happened in France in 1789. In Germany the price of potatoes increased by 425 per cent from July 1845 to July 1847, wheat by 250 per cent, barley by 300 per cent. In this situation, the lower classes in the towns and cities were unable to afford to buy bread, while in the countryside malnutrition and even starvation became widespread.

Most important of all, the continuing growth of business and finance, trade and industry, as industrialization spread across Europe, and the corresponding expansion of the professions - notably the law, university and school education, medicine, and the civil service - in the 1830s and 1840s had greatly increased the number of educated middle-class men and, now, to a degree, women too, who were dissatisfied with the restrictive conditions imposed on public debate and political participation by the conservative, or in the French case, liberal-conservative regimes still in power everywhere in the mid-1840s. The mass poverty of the mid-to-late 1840s began to affect business by depressing demand, and middle-class discontent was added to the discontent of the masses in a potent political brew that came to the boil in 1848. The number of university students across Europe had grown - in Germany for example it had increased from 6,000 in 1800 to 9,000 in 1816 and 16,000 by the 1830s. Many of them were unable to find jobs and joined the ranks of the discontented.

The middle classes, and increasing numbers of artisans, provided a ready audience for the books and periodicals that poured off the presses of Europe during this period, despite the widespread existence of state censorship. Adult literacy grew from 42 per cent to 57 per cent in France between 1830 and 1850, 81 to 86 per cent in Germany, 16 to 28 per cent in Italy. In Russia it doubled - but only from 1 per cent to 2 per cent; the illiteracy of almost the entire population was a major factor in keeping Russia immune from revolution in 1848. The political ideas that people imbibed drew on the legacy of the French Revolution, to which every educated person in Europe still looked back either with nostalgia or with alarm. The most important of these was popular sovereignty, the idea of a nation governing its own destinies. In Germany and Italy in particular this meant sweeping away the rule of petty princes and tyrants and replacing them with a single unitary state ruled by an elected government and guaranteeing basic freedoms of assembly and association, religion and thought, basic rights such as trial by jury in open court and equality before the law, and a free market for producing and selling, unhindered by restrictions and regulations such as guilds or tariffs. Liberalism went hand in hand with nationalism in 1848; it was only later in the century that nationalism became a right-wing political force. If these were the ideas that inspired middle-class liberals, then the urban masses owed their allegiance above all to socialism, the idea that the state should provide work for all, regulate the price of bread, and that the economy should be regulated in the interests of society. 1848 saw the emergence onto the political scene of a variety of socialist groups, all of them small, the most important of them in the long run the tiny and ineffectual Communist League led by Karl Marx, whose Communist Manifesto, issued in 1848, boldly proclaimed: 'Workers of the world! You have nothing to lose but your chains!'

The Revolutions of 1848 were thus by far the most widespread and most radical upheavals to sweep across Europe since the days of the French Revolution sixty years before. They united mass working-class and artisan street rioting and demonstrations with middle-class liberal political political mobilization against the existing order. In France, a campaign of liberal speeches launched, in characteristic French style, at a series of banquets, helped spark street demonstrations in Paris, forcing Louis Philippe to abdicate on 24 February 1848 in favour of the second French Republic. The news spread rapidly across Europe. 'When France sneezes', as the saying went, 'the rest of Europe catches cold'. In Vienna street demonstrations led by students led to the resignation of Metternich after four decades in power. Liberal nationalists in Hungary proclaimed the country's independence. Italians rose in Milan against their Austrian rulers. In Britain the Chartists staged the largest demonstrations ever seen, in favour of universal manhood suffrage. In Bavaria, King Ludwig I was forced to abdicate after demonstrations against his mistress the dancer Lola Montez, who was thought to be exercising too strong a political influence. In Prussia King Friedrich Wilhelm IV was forced by mass demonstrations in Berlin to grant a constitution. In Sweden and Denmark the old conservative governments were replaced by new liberal ones. New, more democratic constitutions were introduced in Switzerland, Holland and Belgium.

As late as 1846 the Holy Alliance of the major conservative powers had succeeded in crushing a nationalist uprising in Poland centred on the city of Cracow. But the rapid spread of revolution in the spring of 1848 was too much for it. Feeble attempts at repression were brusquely swept aside. What stopped the revolutions from wholesale success was middle-class, liberal fear of mass violence. Everyone looked back to the French Revolution and saw the influence of the Jacobin artisans and sans-culottesleading to the Great Terror and the guillotining of thousands. Liberals did not want this to happen again. Moreover, the demands of the lower classes in 1848, for state support and state intervention in society, ran counter to all the central tenets of economic liberalism. The violence that erupted on the streets of Europe's capitals allowed the liberals to gain power, but it frightened them too, and the only force available to stop it was that of the state. The earliest feminist movements emerged in 1848 too, raising the demand for equal rights for women, and this was too radical for many liberal men to accept.

In the second half of 1848 and through most of 1849, therefore, European states began to recover their nerve and, as liberals turned to them for salvation, they moved to restore their authority. In the summer and autumn of 1848 Habsburg armies retook Vienna and Prague and defeated the Piedmontese army at the battle of Custozza. The Prussian army marched into Berlin on that key date in German history, November 9th. Alarmed middle-class voters in France turned to the symbol of authority, the Bonaparte family, electing Louis Napoleon President of the Republic in December; in 1851 he staged a coup d'état and proclaimed himself Emperor Napoleon III. By the late summer of 1848, French troops had restored Pope Pius IX to his position as secular ruler of Rome and the Papal States, while an Austrian army defeated the nationalist regime set up in Venice by Daniele Manin. Acting in the name of the Holy Alliance, the Russians sent an army to help the Austrians seize back control of Hungary from the nationalists. Radical revolutionaries began to be arrested and imprisoned, or fled to Britain or the United States.

By the early 1850s, therefore, it looked as if the Vienna Settlement had to all intents and purposes been restored. Yet appearances were deceptive. To begin with, the internal constitutions of most European states now looked very different from what they had been in 1815. In many parts of Europe, for example, the liberals had won key concessions which they kept as part of their compromise with the forces of order: in Prussia for instance, trial by jury in open court had been introduced, and the economy had been effectively deregulated to allow the rapid growth of capitalist enterprise. Everywhere, including Prussia, new legislative assemblies with wider, though mostly still far from democratic franchises had emerged to play an indispensable if not yet decisive part in the political process. Political legitimacy now clearly derived from popular sovereignty. Amongst liberals and socialists, middle and lower classes alike, the international order created in 1815 was too closely associated with social hierarchy, political conservatism, economic failure and restrictions on the freedom of thought and expression to be credible any more.

Two consequences of this vast and dramatic change in European politics quickly became evident. First of all, it was clear that nationalism was a force that could no longer be dismissed or constrained. In Germany the nationalists had forced the states for a while to accept the creation of a national parliament at Frankfurt, elected by popular though limited vote across the German Confederation. It had failed in the end because it had not been able to gain control of any armed force of its own, and in 1848 had been contemptuously swept aside by the incoming Prussian army. In the longer run, too, it was clear that the Czechs, whom German liberals did not regard as a legitimate nationality, would insist on their own state and refuse to join a German one despite the fact that Bohemia was part of the German Confederation. Similarly Hungarian and Italian nationalisms had been beaten back, but in the longer run it seemed clear that they would have to be accommodated somehow. 1848 opened the nationalist can of worms; it was not to be closed again for another century.

Secondly, a new generation of intelligent conservative politicians emerged to deal with this situation. Men like the Piedmontese Camillo Cavour, the Prussian Otto von Bismarck, the Frenchman Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte or the Englishman Benjamin Disraeli, recognized that the preservation of order and stability required radical measures to co-opt the masses into support for the state. Bismarck noted that the art of statesmanship was to steer a course on the stream of time: by the 1850s that stream was clearly flowing in the direction of nationalism and German and Italian unity. The art of statesmanship, as they all realized, was to use this major and increasingly powerful force for their own purposes. All of them were more than willing to use foreign policy to help achieve these ends. This introduced a new element of instability into European politics. And no statesman incorporated it more forcefully than Napoleon III, who had cleverly used the Napoleonic myth of military glory and conquest allied to domestic order and prosperity to lever himself into power. Within a short time of his achievement of power in the wake of the 1848 Revolution, the consequences of this for European peace were to become all too evident, as we shall see in the next lecture in this series.


© Richard J Evans, 5th November 2009


This event was on Thu, 05 Nov 2009

Professor Sir Richard Evans

Professor Sir Richard Evans

Professor of Rhetoric

Professor Sir Richard Evans FBA was Provost of Gresham College from 2014-2020. He is a world-renowned historian and academic, with many of his books now acknowledged as seminal works in the field of modern history. He was Regius Professor of History at the University of Cambridge from 2008 until his retirement in September 2014. 

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