Parallel to the revolts of the poor, unemployed, and starving peasants and workers in many European countries in the year 1848, a revolution led by the educated middle classes was underway. Events of February 1848 in France had brought about the abdication of the monarch and a republic based on universal male suffrage had been proclaimed. Learn more about the revolution of liberals.
In other parts of Europe where independent nation-states did not yet exist – such as Germany, Italy, Poland, the Austro-Hungarian Empire – men and women of the liberal middle classes combined their demands for constitutionalism with national unification. They took advantage of the growing popular unrest to push their demands for the creation of a nation-state on parliamentary principles – a constitution, freedom of the press, and freedom of association.
In the German regions, a large number of political associations whose members were middle-class professionals, businessmen, and prosperous artisans came together in the city of Frankfurt and decided to vote for an all-German National Assembly. On 18 May 1848, 831 elected representatives marched in a festive procession to take their places in the Frankfurt parliament convened in the Church of St Paul. They drafted a constitution for the German nation to be headed by a monarchy subject to a parliament.
When the deputies offered the crown on these terms to Friedrich Wilhelm IV, King of Prussia, he rejected it and joined other monarchs to oppose the elected assembly. While the opposition of the aristocracy and military became stronger, the social basis of parliament eroded. The parliament was dominated by the middle classes who resisted the demands of workers and artisans and consequently lost their support. In the end, troops were called in and the assembly was forced to disband.
The issue of extending political rights to women was a controversial one within the revolution of liberals, in which large numbers of women had participated actively over the years. Women had formed their own political associations, founded newspapers, and taken part in political meetings and demonstrations. Despite this, they were denied suffrage rights during the election of the Assembly. When the Frankfurt parliament convened in the Church of St Paul, women were admitted only as observers to stand in the visitors’ gallery. Though conservative forces were able to suppress the revolution of liberals in 1848, they could not restore the old order.
Monarchs were beginning to realize that the cycles of revolution and repression could only be ended by granting concessions to the liberal-nationalist revolutionaries. Hence, in the years after 1848, the autocratic monarchies of Central and Eastern Europe began to introduce the changes that had already taken place in Western Europe before 1815. Thus serfdom and bonded labor were abolished both in the Habsburg dominions and in Russia. The Habsburg rulers granted more autonomy to the Hungarians in 1867.