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Europe Between 1788 and 1848: Change and Continuity

In the period between 1788 and 1848, Europe was torn between the two conflicting forces: those of change and of continuity. After the French Revolution, the monarchy in many European countries witnessed a crisis that gave rise to revolutionary movements all across the continent. Political and economic liberalism strived to establish itself as the ideology that represented the interests of the bourgeoisie as opposed to the conservative monarchist order and the revolutionary ideas of the lower classes. In England, France, and Germany, the conflict was solved in different ways, but each of the countries adopted liberal reforms that changed their political landscape.

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The French Revolution of 1789 and the subsequent Napoleonic wars marked the start of a new period in European history. In France, the changes had the greatest impact, with the political and social life of the country radically transformed under the influence of the revolutionary ideas of equality and liberty. In 1789, the French National Constituent Assembly issued The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, which defined the individual and collective rights of the citizens. It claimed that “the ignorance, neglect, or contempt of the rights of man are the sole cause of public calamities and of the corruption of governments” (Declaration of the Rights of Man—1789).

Among liberals, most of whom were members of the bourgeoisie, “there was a general belief in the need for written constitutions and representative institutions, but democracy was feared as much as an absolute monarchy” (Merriman 2009, 607). Characterized by radical social and political upheaval, the period between 1788 and 1848 resulted in the adoption of fundamental liberal policies that influenced the politics of all counties throughout Europe.

In England, this period saw continuous warfare and was marked by the loss of the 13 American colonies, which was regarded as a national disaster. It was thought to be the end of Britain as a great power, but the victories in European wars together with the successes in trade brought back triumphalism and political reaction. The popular demands for reforms increased at the beginning of the 19th century, and the elite enacted reforms to defuse social tension.

According to Merriman (2009, 114), “even if many Tories believed that electoral reform would be a dangerous precedent, the fear of popular protest and perhaps even revolution led them to compromise” The reforms contributed to the emergence of a liberal consensus in Britain, and the period of social discontent, political uncertainty, and economic depression ended in the strengthening of the empire.

In Germany, the reaction to the French Revolution was mixed. Initially, German intellectuals celebrated the outbreak but, after witnessing its impact, started to believe that the solution was to have faith in the ability of Germans to reform the country in a peaceful fashion. The Napoleonic wars reorganized Germany, which resulted in the emergence of the nationalist movement (Fichte 1997). It was closely connected with the reverence for a strong state as the embodiment of national sovereignty (Merriman 2009, 605). The German Confederation, formed in 1815, failed to satisfy most nationalists, the need for a unified German state became more and more obvious, and in 1848, a revolution broke out.

Overall, the forces of change did more to transform Europe between 1788 and 1848 than the forces of continuity. The French Revolution had a profound impact on all European countries, forcing them to make liberal changes in the political system (Metternich 1997). In France, the reforms were the most radical; in Britain, the changes were mild and based on compromise, and in Germany, they were shaped by the nationalist movement, which emerged as a reaction to the French Revolution.

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Fichte, Johann Gottlieb. 1997. To the German Nation, 1806. Internet History Sourcebooks. Web.

Declaration of the Rights of Man—1789. Web.

Merriman, John. 2009. A History of Modern Europe. Volume Two: From the French Revolution to the Present. 3rd ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Metternich, Prince Klemens. 1997. “Political Confession of Faith, 1820.” Internet History Sourcebooks. Web.

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