The Spark of Revolution (1848, #1)

Popular protest is a classic tool to bring about political change. Sometimes the protests are successful – like the revolutions against Communist rule in Eastern Europe in 1989. Sometimes they are put down (like the Prague Spring had been in 1968). Sometimes, the result is mixed – the Euromaidan protests in Kiev during the winter of 2013/14 strengthened democracy in the country by removing its autocratic president Viktor Yanukovych, but the Ukrainians paid a steep price for their freedoms as Vladimir Putin took the removal of his vassal Yanukovych unkindly and has been attempting to dismantle Ukraine since then. And sometimes, the success of revolution is still in the air – like in Iran, where large crowds have been protesting for the last months against their fundamentalist government’s meddling in private affairs.

As these examples show, success and failure are sometimes not so easy to assess. They also demonstrate that protest is often limited to a few cities or one country. Only rarely does revolution leap from one place to another. The closest Europe has ever come to a revolutionary conflagration was 175 years ago, in 1848. This post traces the roots of these revolutions to the French Revolution, takes a look at the restaurationist interlude and the mounting political pressures before 1848, and then looks at the outbreak of revolution in the Paris of February 1848. With that, the stage is set for the 1848 series of posts on this blog!

The Spark of Revolution (1848, #1)

Black-Red-Gold (1848, #2)

Fringes of an Empire (1848, #3)

The Roots of Revolution

The traditional order of Europe was shaken when its most powerful member, the absolute monarchy of France, convulsed in revolution from 1789 on. The French revolutionaries abolished feudalism. They tempered the powers of the king with a constitution. And, after war between revolutionary France and the old monarchies had broken out (and, initially, was going badly for France), the revolutionaries deposed and eventually executed the king. Subsequently, the newly formed French Republic went on a crusade through Europe to spread liberty and republicanism.

The French Republic did not survive for much longer than a decade. It came under the spell of one of its successful generals, a certain Napoleon Bonaparte, who ruled as the Republic’s First Consul from 1799 on and, five years later, crowned himself Emperor of the French. Napoleon’s empire merged the nationalism and rationalism of the French Republic with the monarchic traditions of Europe. As Napoleon’s aggressive politics eventually united the great powers of Europe against France, he was forced into exile.

The Congress of Vienna re-instituted the Bourbon dynasty as the monarchs of France and confirmed the old order in the rest of Europe. The resulting conservative union of the European powers was the masterpiece of the Austrian foreign minister Klemens von Metternich. He’d be the leading reactionary statesman in Europe until… you guessed it, 1848. We’ll read more about him in future posts! In the not-so-distant future, you’ll be able to try your hand at outdoing him in Congress of Vienna (Frank Esparrago, GMT Games), a game about the political machinations and military maneuvers during Napoleon’s last two years in power.

Artwork of the forthcoming Congress of Vienna, ©GMT Games.

The Years of Restauration

The French Revolution was defeated, but not forgotten. The middle classes and, increasingly, the urban workers pressed for reforms to re-establish some of the liberties they had come to enjoy during the years of the revolution and the Napoleonic wars – even in the conservative great powers like Prussia or Austria, which had tapped into the ideas of nationalism to motivate their soldiers in the fight against Napoleonic France. Early revolts against the conservative regimes were shattered by the united front of the great powers: For example, the liberal uprising in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies (so, Sicily and southern Italy, where the kingdom’s capital Naples was located), was quashed by Austrian troops in 1821. The new liberal government of Spain suffered the same fate at the heels of French soldiers two years later.

Yet France itself was not immune to liberalism, which chafed at the continued attempts of the Bourbon monarchy to rule in the absolute ways of the old order. When the prime minister attempted to dissolve parliament, limit suffrage even further, and abolish the freedom of the press in July 1830, the resentment of the middle classes and the Parisian workers erupted: Protesters took to the streets by the thousands, attacked the few military units left to keep order in the capital, and occupied government buildings. Within three days, most of Paris was in their hands. As the old order was crumbling, conservative aristocracy and revolutionary upper middle class reached a compromise based on the British model of a constitutional, somewhat liberal monarchy with a limited franchise: King Charles X abdicated. He was to be followed by his cousin Louis-Philippe, who would be named the “bourgeois king” for his non-aristocratic conduct (for example, he had his children educated at schools instead of by private tutors). Suffrage was expanded and now extended to the richest 2% of the French males. For the remainder of the population (including the revolutionary middle classes and urban workers, whose overwhelming majority was much too poor to be granted suffrage), no tangible benefits were won in 1830. Thus, the electorate in France remained much smaller than its political sphere: In Paris, there were ten times as many newspaper subscribers as there were voters.

Elsewhere on the continent, political pressures mounted as well. The ideological challenge to the old order of the Congress of Vienna was threefold, with each of the three main strands having a plethora of substrands:

  • Liberalism was popular with the middle classes all over the continent. While liberals shared a commitment to personal and economic freedoms, they held a diverse array of opinions on most other matters.
  • Nationalism aimed to replace the old order of dynastic states with one made up of nation-states – or, at least, form a state out of their own nation. Thus, the various nationalist movements had little incentive to cooperate. Sometimes, they were actively hostile to each other, as the claims of various national groups to lands and peoples overlapped.
  • Radicalism comprised a variety of democratic, republican, and socialist movements which challenged the existing order even more strongly: They advocated, respectively, for universal male suffrage, the replacement of monarchies with republics, and public ownership of at least some of the means of production like large factories or mines.
From the countersheet of 1848: Year of Revolutions. Blue: The Reactionaries. Red: The Radicals. Yellow: The Liberals. Green: The Nationalists. How many of the named leaders do you recognize? Let me know in the comments! Image ©Brian Train.

These groups form (even if they are not named that way) the three rebel factions in the oldest board game on the 1848 revolutions: 1848: Year of Revolutions (Brian Train, BTR Games). Of course, the three ideological strands were not mutually exclusive: Italian revolutionary Giuseppe Garibaldi (who is assigned to the green, nationalist, faction in the game) was also committed to liberal principles and the republic, but was willing to make compromises on these if Italian unification could thus be accelerated.

The political pressure on the old order was exacerbated by economic hardship: The beginning industrialization forced traditional artisans to either cut prices or go seek work in the new factories which combined long hours with monotonous labor. The concentration of agrarian estates ensured a steady flow of rural workers and landless peasants to the cities where they competed with the urban workers for jobs. When a series of bad harvests rocked Europe in the 1840s, their impact went far beyond the 1.5 million Europeans starved to death: The average worker spent 60 or 70 percent of their income on food and drink and was thus extremely vulnerable to the price hikes. Consequently, all non-food spending was sharply cut, which in turn exacerbated the economic crisis, put factories out of business and their employees out of work.

The year 1848 began in this climate of political and economic volatility. And it began ominously with an uprising of the Sicilian liberals and nationalists against the conservative government in Naples. Events in Sicily, an island on the geographic and cultural fringe of Europe, were unlikely to influence the rest of the continent, though. That part would fall – once more – to France.

The February Revolution

The restrictive, property-based franchise established after the July Revolution continued to be a source of discontent – at least to those who were left without political rights. When prime minister François Guizot encouraged the French to “enrich themselves” to better the nation, the unenfranchised French regarded that as bitter scorn. When the king prohibited a banquet dedicated to reforming the franchise set for February 21, 1848, protest erupted in the capital.

Parisian protesters clashed with the Municipal Guard. Stones were thrown, sabres were drawn, and barricades erected. Insurgents and royalist troops fought for two days. The king attempted to save his position by demanding Guizot’s resignation (on February 23) – to no avail. He abdicated the following day in favor of his grandson and fled to Britain. The little prince could not take over, however, as the revolutionaries already proclaimed the republic and formed a provisional government made up of radicals, liberals, and moderate conservatives by February 25. Everything had taken less than four days.

Europe Ablaze

France was both the culturally leading power of Europe and the generally accepted model country for revolution. Thus, France’s spark set Europe on fire.

Of course, the revolution did not spread everywhere: The leading agent of the French revolution, the middle class, did practically not exist in Russia. In Britain, on the other hand, the middle class was overwhelmingly in favor of the government. Relatedly, the weak Irish uprising of 1848 was easily quashed by British troops as they had no revolution to contend with on their own isle. Finally, Belgium and the Netherlands had instituted liberal reforms shortly before the eruption in Paris. Thus, their peoples were satisfied with the amount of reform.

Elsewhere, however, the news from Paris encouraged liberal, nationalist, and radical men and women to clamor for reform… and to make their own revolutions. Most importantly, that included Germany (including Austria), the periphery of the Habsburg Empire, and Italy. We’ll have a look at them in the next post in this series – coming out in two weeks! Watch this space.

Games Referenced

Liberté (Martin Wallace, Valley Games)

Guillotine (Paul Peterson, Wizards of the Coast)

Congress of Vienna (Frank Esparrago, GMT Games)

1848: Year of Revolution (Brian Train, BTR Games)

Further Reading

For a good blow-by-blow account of the 1848 revolutions, see Rapport, Mike: 1848. Year of Revolution, Abacus, London 2010.

On the roots of the revolutions, see Hobsbawm, Eric: The Age of Revolution. Europe, 1789—1848, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London 1962.


7 thoughts on “The Spark of Revolution (1848, #1)

  1. brtrain

    Thank you for writing about this, and for using my 1848 game as an example.
    As you say, it is the earliest wargame on the topic, and the only one that is continental in scale.
    Actually, I designed this game in 1997 as an act of creative procrastination.
    I was writing an article on the 1848 revolutions for Strategy and Tactics magazine and got writer’s block, so I designed this game as a way of re-organizing and classifying the reading and research I had done, into a game model.
    (Also because writing is just as hard work as game designing, or harder!)

    It is also quite weird that you write about it now; this is one of my lesser known designs and I have not gone out of my way to make it available until recently (that’s why the BGG publication date is 2015; before then I made individual copies available to people who asked).
    But just the other day someone asked me a question about it on BGG, and it was the first time in 26 years anyone had asked me about that aspect of the game.

    The individuals identified as leaders in the game are just those whom history books have remembered best – others, with different ideas, could have come to prominence and there isn’t even much comparison between nationalities as they all had their own sets of problems to deal with… therefore I am not saying in the game that Louis Blanqui is ideologically identical to Gustav von Struve, but the two were the same in representing the further-out positions of opposition to the reactionary governments in power at the time. (sorry for the spoilers)
    And you know, I recall I did wobble a little bit about making Garibaldi a radical or a nationalist.
    But in the end, the Nationalists needed a second leader and I couldn’t think of one who was as strong as he.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. cliosboardgames Post author

      Thanks for reading and sharing these insights into the design process!
      I’m happy you designed the game – there is such a dearth of 1848 games. I think it’s even more surprising for such a truly European event that all other games deal with it on a national level (Hungary, Italy, Germany… I dont think there is a France game, though).
      As for leaders and ideologies: There was a reason you named your rebel faction by colors and not ideological positions, I guess 😉 Anyway, to my pattern-recognizing brain the sorting of the leaders into the three factions seemed apt, Garibaldi being just one example.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. cliosboardgames Post author

      Thanks! I find that most people who are normally into history and gaming are rather unaware/uninterested in them – maybe because they’re sandwiched in between Napoleon and the American Civil War, so all the attention drifts there. (Would not even exclude myself – this is the first time I ever write about the revolutions in five years blogging.) But yes, they are utterly fascinating!

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Pingback: Black-Red-Gold (1848, #2) | Clio's Board Games

  3. Pingback: Fringes of an Empire (1848, #3) | Clio's Board Games

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