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A History of Europe


1815 to 1914

This chapter is divided into two parts, which cover the following topics:

Part I

The Congress of Vienna
Cracks in the Metternich System
The July Revolution and the Birth of Belgium
The Rothschilds: Financial Royalty
The German Confederation
Demographics, 1815-1848
Britain Goes Industrial
The Year of Unsuccessful Revolutions
Two Steps Forward, One Step Back
The First World's Fair
The Unification of Italy
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Part II

The Iron Chancellor's Bag of Tricks
The Franco-Prussian War
The Paris Commune
Demographics, 1848-1871
Bismarck's Peace
The Age of Imperialism
Demographics, 1871-1914
A New Century Begins
How NOT to Win Friends and Influence People
The Powder Keg of Europe

The Congress of Vienna

The French Revolution had all of Europe burning for twenty-five years. States and institutions that people had lived with for centuries, like the Republic of Venice, the Holy Roman Empire and the French monarchy, suddenly vanished. After Napoleon Bonaparte became the emperor of France, the political picture changed with every battle. What next year's alliances would be, what next year's map would look like, were questions no one could answer.

Peace finally came in 1815. Napoleon went into exile on St. Helena, and representatives of the nations of Europe, led by the four powers that had defeated Napoleon (the United Kingdom, Russia, Prussia and Austria) returned to the Congress of Vienna to draw up a map of Europe with frontiers that were meant to last. Now that they had become the target of revolutionaries, the rulers of Europe were beginning to see that the needs of their countries (and of mankind as a whole) might outweigh their own needs and desires. What they created was in effect a trade union of kings, a nineteenth century forerunner to the League of Nations and the United Nations. The participants had three goals in mind:

1. Keep France from becoming a threat to world peace again.
2. Draw the political boundaries of Europe in a way that will put an end to wars of conquest.
3. Prevent ideas favoring liberty and "popular governments" from ever running unchecked in the future. For that reason the next generation became a time when ultraconservative politics reigned.

Four individuals dominated the meetings: Prince Klemens Wenzel Nepomuk Lothar von Metternich, the Austrian foreign minister and official host; French foreign minister Charles Maurice de Talleyrand; Tsar Alexander I of Russia; and Viscount Robert Stewart Castlereagh, the British foreign secretary. Alexander was a badly confused mixture of liberalism, religious mysticism, and personal ambition, whose influence was balanced by the more sensible Castlereagh. Talleyrand was a thoroughly unscrupulous ex-clergyman who had a remarkable talent for succeeding and getting ahead whether the rulers were Bourbons, Jacobins, or Bonapartes; he did it so many times that his motto was, "Regimes may fall and fail, but I do not." At Vienna he became the life of the party, charming so many delegates that they treated him as a partner rather than as the representative of a defeated enemy. It was Metternich, however, who got his way most often; his combination of conservatism and hardheaded realism, known as realpolitik, dominated the meetings, and he guarded the agreements of the Congress for the rest of his career. His stamp on the final result is so obvious that the period from 1815 to 1848 is often called "the Age of Metternich."

From our point of view the congress was a big ten-month-long party. Austria, as the host, sponsored a series of shows, hunts, balls, and concerts (Beethoven introduced his Seventh Symphony here) which took up more time than the meetings themselves. Kings, princes, and diplomats chased each other's ladies, and when they were caught at it, they claimed they were gathering information on their rivals (of course). In this sport Talleyrand took both a mother and her daughter as mistresses, while the mistresses of Metternich -- Wilhelmina, Duchess of Sagan, and Princess Catherine Bagration -- kept themselves so busy that they were given the title of grandes horizontales, meaning they were two of the nineteenth century's most famous courtesans.

All this debauchery doesn't seem too bad, however, because the statesmen attending the Congress usually found it easier to reach agreements away from the pressure of the conference table. "At a ball, kingdoms were enlarged or sliced up--at a dinner an indemnity granted--a constitution sketched while hunting; occasionally a bon mot, or a witty idea, brought an agreement where conferences and notes failed."(1)

Since the participants were kings, emperors, and foreign ministers, the general consensus heavily favored principle and hereditary rights; they also agreed that the major powers should get major rewards. And Russia, the biggest of all, got the most. However, since three of Russia's four western neighbors were allies (Sweden, Prussia and Austria; the nonparticipant was the Ottoman Empire), Russia's gains would come at their expense and they would have to be compensated elsewhere. The end result of the Congress of Vienna was therefore a westward shift of boundaries. Russia returned Tarnopol to Austria but kept Finland and Bessarabia; the Tsar also increased his share of Poland to 3/4 of the pre-1772 state (the only areas he didn't hold at this point were West Prussia and Galicia). Norway was transferred from Denmark to Sweden. Prussia obtained a third of Saxony, the last piece of Swedish Pomerania, and a large "Rhine province." The latter made Prussia the predominant power in western as well as northern Germany.(2)

Austria's reward lay in Italy. By putting Milan, Mantua and the whole former Republic of Venice under Austrian rule the Hapsburgs got a useful block of territory, which embraced two thirds of the Po valley. Since three other Italian states also had Hapsburg rulers, all of Italy was now in Austria's "sphere of influence."(3)

One victor, Britain, had no continental ambitions, and took nothing in Europe except some offshore islands to serve as bases for the Royal Navy: Heligoland in the North Sea, Malta and seven Ionian islands in the Mediterranean. She was amply rewarded overseas, though, because of France's total preoccupation with Europe, an attitude reinforced by the British blockade. Because of the blockade, the colonial empires of both Napoleon and the French satellites (Portugal, Spain, and the Netherlands) crumbled away, leaving Britain clearly ahead of everyone else when it came to holding real estate overseas. England took Trinidad from Spain, Mauritius from France, and nearly all of the Dutch colonial empire: South Africa, Sri Lanka, Java and the western half of Guyana. Java was returned to the Dutch and they were paid $600 million in compensation for the rest, but the Malay peninsula now moved out of the Dutch sphere of influence, particularly after the British founded Singapore in 1819.(4) Back in Europe, France shrank back to her 1792 frontiers, minus a few border fortresses that were taken away as punishment for Napoleon's last campaign ("the Hundred Days").

To a generation exhausted by revolutionary change the conservatism and hardheaded realism of Metternich had considerable appeal; after all, if everyone accepted the idea that frontiers should never be changed, there would be no more wars. But the leaders of Europe did not care much for what their subjects wanted, and drew the map in a pattern they could live with. Since only Britain and the United States had governments at this point whose authority came from the people (rather than from divine right), this made for a very stable situation, but it also created a map that seemed designed to frustrate nationalism at every opportunity. German nationalists left the Congress of Vienna unsatisfied; the arrangements made for Germany will be explained in another section. The Polish nationalists wanted a country of their own but didn't get it; the "Kingdom of Poland" set up at Vienna was ruled by the Russian Tsar's brother and was officially returned to its previous status as a Russian province after an unsuccessful uprising in 1830-31.(5) Italian nationalists were ignored completely; the part of Italy not directly ruled by Austria was divided into six states, all of which were to some degree Austrian satellites.(6)

Within a few years secret societies sprang up, full of idealistic students and intellectuals, and there they plotted to create a Europe more suitable to nationalists. The following statement, issued by one such group in London, was a typical nationalist manifesto:

"Everywhere, royalty denies national life . . . Revolution alone can resolve the vital question of the nationalities, which superficial intelligences continue to misunderstand, but which we know to be the organization of Europe. It alone can give the baptism of humanity to those races who claim to be associated in the common work and to whom the sign or their nationality is denied; it alone can regenerate Italy to a third life, and say to Hungary and Poland 'Exist!' It alone can unite Spain and Portugal into an Iberian Republic; create a young Scandinavia; give a material existence to Illyria; organize Greece; extend Switzerland to the dimensions of an Alpine Confederacy, and group in a free fraternity and make an Oriental Switzerland of Servia, Roumania, Bulgaria and Bosnia."

By its own standards the Congress of Vienna was a success. It was most successful in making France a respectable power. The map they drew also prevented a major war on the Napoleonic scale for 99 years; none of the European conflicts described in this chapter lasted more than a year, and all were local in nature. Ultimately the biggest failure came because it resisted change, rather than harnessing or accommodating it. Although many liked Metternich's goals, industrial and societal progress meant that every year there were fewer who believed them to be possible.

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Cracks in the Metternich System

The quadruple alliance of Austria, Britain, Prussia and Russia agreed to have regular follow-up meetings to solve mutual problems. The first took place in 1818 at Aix-la-Chapelle, Charlemagne's ancient capital; there the military occupation of France was ended, two years earlier than originally planned, and France was admitted into the club, making it a quintuple alliance. Alexander I wanted to call this alliance "The Holy Alliance," with its policies based on "justice, Christian charity, and peace," but nobody else knew what he was talking about. The principle of military intervention by mutual consent was approved as well.

Two years later popular uprisings in Spain and Italy put the intervention resolution to the test. They began with a mutiny in the Spanish army against Spain's king, Ferdinand VII. Ferdinand was a cruel, ruthless reactionary who even restored the Inquisition; one observer described him as "having the heart of a tiger and the head of a mule." Civilian rebels quickly joined the movement, and Ferdinand agreed to their demand that the liberal constitution of 1812 be restored. A parliament convened, and the king became a virtual prisoner.

The news of this revolution encouraged more like it. Uprisings in Naples and Portugal forced kings to grant liberal constitutions patterned after the one in Spain. In Piedmont the rebels went one step further, forcing the abdication of their king. Not long after that came news that Greece had begun a war of independence from the Turks.

All this dominated the minds of the statesmen who went to the second follow-up meeting at Troppau, in Moravia (1820). By this time the British were having second thoughts about belonging to a bloc of nations dedicated to suppressing the will of the people wherever it might break out. They were overruled by the conservative majority, who declared that states undergoing a change in government because of revolution were no longer part of the European alliance, thereby justifying intervention on behalf of the former rulers. Britain decided to go its own way, perhaps with the French on their side, and afterwards only sent observers to the Metternich congresses.

In 1821 the alliance, now a quadruple one again, gathered at Laibach in Slovenia, invited the king of Naples to visit, and gave him an Austrian army to scatter all opposition and put him back on his throne. This worked so well that they met in the northern Italian city of Verona one year later, to plan a similar action for Spain; here the conservative influence overpowered the relatively moderate Louis XVIII of France, and he found himself supplying the army used to crush the Spanish rebellion. Once this was complete, the conservative kings planned a cooperative effort to bring the rebellious Latin American colonies back under Spanish rule. But here they met their first defeat; the British navy refused to cooperate or get out of the way, and the United States declared in no uncertain terms that it would regard any invasion of the New World as an unfriendly act (the Monroe Doctrine, 1823).

The final post-congress meeting took place in St. Petersburg in 1825. The main issue here was the Greek war of independence, and the meeting disbanded without reaching any sort of agreement. Each major power now did what it pleased: Prussia and Austria sat out the conflict because a Greek victory would change the 1815 frontiers; Britain and France, overcome by sentiments for the birthplace of democracy and Western civilization, got involved on the side of Greeks; Russia intervened because the Greeks were Orthodox Christians like themselves, and from their point of view, anything that hurt the Turks couldn't be all bad. After this the system of cooperation so carefully worked out at Vienna no longer existed; the British prime minister summed it up by saying that from now on it was "Every nation for itself, and God for us all."

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The July Revolution and the Birth of Belgium

British, French and Russian intervention in the Greek war was a complete success; by 1829 Greece was free. The first Greek head of state, Count Kapodistrias, was assassinated before long, and Otto I, the second son of Bavaria's King Ludwig I, was chosen to become king. This may not have been the best choice, for the Wittelsbach family had a reputation for producing mad builders (see Ludwig II in footnote #16). Sure enough, the young Otto quickly drained the national treasury by turning Athens into a building site. He did give the Greeks a constitution in 1844, but otherwise abused his subjects so badly that after thirty years of misrule, they rose up and threw him out (1862). Otto and Queen Amelia returned to Bavaria, and the kings who ruled Greece after that came from the royal family of Denmark.

The expansion of Greece.
Greece, showing the core territory it started with in 1832 (dark blue), and how it grew over the next 115 years.

While Metternich and his neighbors conspired to stop time and progress on the Continent, France and Britain put aside their age-old rivalry and began to work together. This cooperation came about because of a common-sense attitude in both governments. As in the 17th and 18th centuries, Britain continued to lead the way in political reform. One out of every eight Englishmen had the right to vote as the century began, a proportion that the Reform Bill of 1832 raised to one in five.(7) To many outsiders it seemed that there was some connection between Britain's liberal system of government and its exceptional economic performance, leading reformers on the Continent to argue that political reform would allow their countries to become economic/military powerhouses as well.

This movement was especially strong in France. Louis XVIII had spent his ten-year reign steering a careful middle course between the French royalists ("Ultras") and radical reformers; his aim was to "heal the wounds of the Revolution." Upon his death in 1824, however, he was succeeded by his brother Charles X, whose attitude was altogether different. Charles wanted to restore the ancien regime in all its absolutism and glory, and put the clock back ridiculously far in the process. The liberties of the press and universities were the first freedoms to go; reparations to the tune of a billion francs were approved to compensate the nobility for the chateau-burnings and other unpleasantries of 1789. By the time Charles was done only one Frenchman in 300 could vote, and that was for a National Assembly that had hardly any powers at all. But while the king wanted to rule like a divine-right monarch, he was a man of mediocre mind, meaning he did not have the ability to do so. In July 1830 he decided he didn't like the results of the latest elections, nullified them, and dissolved the Assembly. His timing could not be called Napoleonic; he provoked a revolution while most of his army was busy conquering Algeria. The French refused to put up with Charles any longer; first they elected a new Assembly that was even more liberal than the one the king had rejected; then they chased him out of the country and crowned his cousin Louis-Philippe, the "Citizen King." Louis-Philippe approved a tenfold increase in the number of voters and promised to rule like a British constitutional monarch.

The success of France's revolution helped to touch off the Belgian uprising four weeks later. The Low Countries had proved a problem for the Congress of Vienna. Divided by the Protestant Reformation into an independent, Calvinist north (Holland) and a Hapsburg-controlled, Catholic south, they could hardly be expected to survive a future French revival if allowed to remain in pieces. But the Austrians had learned the hard way that isolated territories brought more trouble than revenue, and didn't want the southern half back. The solution was to make a Dutch noble, William VI of the House of Orange, King William I over the whole thing. Unfortunately, the population of the south was 50% French-speaking, 100% Catholic, and King William, surrounded by a clique of Dutch advisors, couldn't resist the temptation to promote both the Dutch language and Protestantism in the south. This caused discontent, which grew into rebellion. King William's officers were ejected from Brussels, his first attempt to reinstate them failed, and the rebels proclaimed the whole south independent. Now they needed to give the new country a name, so they resurrected the name the Romans had given it, after a Celtic tribe called the Belgae: Belgium. Britain and France supported them, while the other powers stayed out of the conflict, so by the end of the year the Belgians had a kingdom of their own.(8)

Persuading King William to give up half of his kingdom wasn't easy. Still determined to have it all, he invaded Belgium in 1831; it took a French army to stop him and a Franco-British blockade of the coast to make him agree to an armistice. However, he refused to sign a peace treaty until 1838. His obstinacy allowed him to keep two areas which had been occupied by the Belgians: the eastern half of Luxembourg (the western half is a largely German-speaking province in modern Belgium), and Limburg, the tract of land shaped like an upside-down "L" that marks the southeast corner of modern Holland.

Though the Belgians now had a king, they didn't want anyone ruling them as autocratically as King William had, so they set up a constitutional monarchy with a British-style parliament elected on a one-in-fifteen franchise. The friendly British attitude toward Louis-Philippe and the new Belgian state came from the way both copied British institutions; their imitation promoted peace (democracies don't start wars against other democracies), and was a very acceptable form of flattery.

While the British, French and Belgians experimented with limited government, reaction continued to reign elsewhere. Most of the kings on the Continent were conservative to the extreme: they wanted no changes of any sort anywhere. Prussia and Austria favored reinstating Charles X, the "King of the Ultras," but considerable liberal unrest in the minor German and Italian states persuaded them to keep their armies at home; afterwards they justified their lack of action by saying it was unnecessary, since France was still a monarchy. In the case of Belgium they reluctantly accepted the new situation because both Holland and Belgium were declared Swiss-style neutral states, but they made no secret of the fact that they would have preferred intervening on King William's side. They only held back because they knew that Britain wouldn't stand for it.

The 1830 revolutions also brought organization to the unification movement in Italy. 1831 saw anti-government unrest/uprisings in Piedmont, Venice, Parma, Modena and Romagna. These were easily suppressed by Austria, and one of the Italian ringleaders, a romantic named Giuseppe Mazzini (1805-72), was imprisoned for six months by Piedmont, after which he lived in exile in Marseilles. There he founded a secret society called Giovane Italia (Young Italy). Appealing mainly to students and intellectuals, Mazzini urged them on with the battle cry of "Italia fara da se" (Italy will do it herself). He worked toward three goals: the waking of the Italian masses from centuries of political and intellectual inertia, the creation of a united and free Italy that could stand proudly among the other great nations of Europe, and the cooperation of all nations in a league that promoted both democracy and peace.

The most important Italian revolutionary was Giuseppe Garibaldi (1807-82), an ex-sailor whose entire life was full of extraordinary good luck. In 1833 he joined Young Italy, and one year later was ordered to seize a warship, but the plot was discovered by the police. Caught and condemned to death, he escaped to France and boarded a ship bound for Brazil. Across the Atlantic, he joined some other exiles, known as the Italian League, and they got involved in Uruguay's civil war. In the besieged capital of Montevideo, the League and a group of newly freed slaves were vastly outnumbered, but they defeated the combined forces of the dictator of Argentina and the former Uruguayan president. Garibaldi ended up spending twelve years in South America, honing his skills in guerrilla warfare, and supporting Brazil's southernmost state, Rio Grande do Sul, in an unsuccessful bid for independence. Back in Europe, the Italian nationalist movement became known as the Risorgimento (Resurgence), after the name of the Piedmontese newspaper that promoted it; we will be hearing a lot from the editor of that paper, Count Camilo di Cavour, later in this chapter.

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The Rothschilds: Financial Royalty

The Industrial Revolution created unheard-of wealth for the nations that took part in it, especially Britain; those nations which did not industrialize (e.g., Spain, Austria, the Ottoman Empire, China) fell to the status of second or third-rate powers. Most of the riches, however, were concentrated in the hands of a few people. In one extraordinary case this raised a family from the Jewish ghetto of Frankfurt, Germany, to the point where it became a dynasty based on wealth--the Rothschilds.

Not since the time of the Medicis and the Fuggers (see Chapters 9 and 10) had a family of commoners acted as international brokers of money and power. They began their climb upward with Mayer Amschel Rothschild (1743-1812), who first studied to be a rabbi, but instead was apprenticed to a banking firm after the death of his parents. Later he established his own banking house in Frankfurt, and was so successful that he became the financial advisor to a local ruler, William IX, landgrave of Hesse-Kassel. He also served as a financial agent to the British government during the French Revolution.

Mayer Amschel had five sons, and when they took over they spread across Europe, turning the firm into an international organization. The eldest, Amschel Mayer Rothschild, stayed with his father in Frankfurt, while Salomon Rothschild went to Vienna, Nathan Mayer Rothschild went to London, Karl Rothschild went to Naples, and James Rothschild went to Paris. Soon there were few major enterprises in Europe that did not involve a member of this team. They enjoyed lifestyles more lavish than most of their clients, complete with palaces and a corps of private couriers whose blue and yellow caps were a familiar trademark.

James, the youngest of the Rothschild brothers (1792-1868), singlehandedly made France an industrial nation. In the 1830s he built the first French railroads, ignoring the public outcry that trains would stampede cattle and set the countryside on fire. He started by persuading the government to let him build an eleven-mile-long track from Paris to Saint-Germain; then he built a track from Paris to Versailles. Both of these were successful, so he planned a far more ambitious railway, the Chemin de Fer du Nord, to connect Paris with the towns and factories to the north. To pay for it he floated a stock issue worth 150 million francs, and calmly gave five percent of the shares to the politicians and journalists opposing his project. This clever bit of generosity gained so much support for the project that other Frenchmen rushed to buy shares. However, a decade later James refused to underwrite the stocks for an even more lucrative project, the Suez Canal, because Ferdinand de Lesseps, the canal's builder, refused to pay his five percent commission for arranging the deal.

The Rothschild clout was so formidable that it allowed them to treat monarchs as equals. In 1862, James entertained the French Emperor Napoleon III at his spectacular chateau outside Paris. The royal guest admired paintings by Rubens, Van Dyck, and Velasquez, dined from plates of Sevres porcelain, and enjoyed a composition by Rossini written especially for the occasion. The final amusement was an afternoon hunt on the vast estate grounds, where more than 1,000 wild animals were shot. In other words, it was the visit of one emperor to another. Eight years later, King Wilhelm I of Prussia used the chateau as a temporary headquarters during the Franco-Prussian War, and he was stunned by the opulence. "Folks like us can't rise to this," Wilhelm gasped. "Only a Rothschild can achieve it!"

The London branch of the Rothschild house raised funds for relief during the Irish Potato Famine, and floated a bond issue worth sixteen million pounds to finance the Crimean War. In 1875 the British prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli, decided to buy a controlling interest in the Suez Canal, and he went to Lionel Rothschild for the money he needed, because no other banker could get it overnight. After that the family fortunes declined, but two branches of the banking firm, those in London and Paris, are still in business today.

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The German Confederation

The Congress of Vienna tidied up the map of Germany, reducing the number of German states from 234 (the 1803 total) to thirty-eight; only the center of Germany remained in its traditional patchwork. It also recognized the great upsurge of pan-German patriotism that had occurred after Napoleon conquered Germany by creating a German confederation, into which all thirty-eight were enrolled. Excluded were the Germans who lived in the Danish Duchy of Schleswig, those in the French provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, and Switzerland; otherwise, the Confederation covered all German-speaking territories.

Germany in 1815
The German Confederation.

The Confederation's boundaries followed those of the old Holy Roman Empire more often than those drawn by common sense; consequently the Confederation's two largest states, Austria and Prussia, held much land outside of the official Confederation.(9) In the west the Confederation included Luxembourg because it was a German-speaking duchy, though it was actually ruled by the Dutch. At home the Confederation suffered from the same handicap as the Empire in that the princes who ran it had no intention of making it work; "better to be a small prince than somebody else's subject" was their point of view. For that reason the Confederation got nothing done. However, the impulse to unity had not been completely stifled, and it surfaced in the Zollervein, the German Customs Union. Everyone could see that thirty-eight different currencies, tariffs, and sets of laws regarding commerce were bad for trade and, once the princes were persuaded that economic unity did not necessarily mean a loss of sovereignty, the movement to create a German common market was rapid. By 1848 the Zollervein included the whole Confederation except for Austria and four states in the northwest (Hanover, Oldenburg, Hamburg and Bremen).

The Zollervein was hardly enough to satisfy the nationalists, though; they constantly lamented the fragmentation of the Fatherland, comparing its plight with that of Italy. But whereas the Italians had the Austrian Empire to blame for their misfortunes, the Germans faced a very small foreign tyrant. In the extreme north the king of Denmark had ruled over two German duchies since 1460: Schleswig and Holstein. Both territories still had a mostly German population, especially Holstein, and together they were the richest, most developed portion of the Danish kingdom, so Denmark's King Christian VIII had no intention of letting them go. The Pan-German patriots didn't want this situation to continue any longer, and in the example of Hanover they saw a solution. The ancient German laws of inheritance stated that women may not inherit or pass on titles of nobility from men; you may remember from Chapter 11 how this made life complicated for Maria Theresa, the eighteenth-century Austrian empress. Thus, when the British crowned Queen Victoria in 1837, the Hanoverians could not accept her, so they chose her uncle to rule in Hanover, breaking the dynastic link between Hanover and Britain. In this case nobody opposed the split; on the contrary, both sides welcomed it with relief, since more than a century of unity had caused a lot of confusion regarding foreign and domestic policies, including some questions as simple as what the union should be called.

Now let's look at how this applied to Schleswig-Holstein. In the late 1840s it was clear that Christian VIII didn't have long to live; his only son Frederick had no children, was forty years old, and twice divorced. The next candidate to the throne after Frederick, also named Christian, was an in-law, married to Christian VIII's niece. The female link between Christian VIII & IX meant that the link between Denmark and Schleswig-Holstein would be broken on the day of Frederick's death, and all the nationalists had to do was hope that the Danes would accept the divorce with the same good humor that the British had accepted theirs.

Unfortunately, the Danes saw this coming, and they drew up a new constitution for the duchies that said--to no one's surprise--that female inheritance was perfectly all right. The Germans in the duchies announced that they would secede if any attempt was made to apply the constitution, so a confrontation of some sort became inevitable.

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Demographics, 1815-1848

The five major powers of mid nineteenth-century Europe all had, as you might expect, big populations: Russia (70 million), France and Austria (36 million each), the United Kingdom (27.5 million) and Prussia (16.5 million). But numbers don't count for everything and in military/economic strength they didn't rank in that order. Prussia's military strength put it ahead of Austria, and Britain's wealth and industry put the United Kingdom ahead of everyone. Conversely Spain (15 million) had nearly as many people as Prussia and the Ottoman Empire (25 million) had nearly as many as Britain, but neither rated at all; they had fallen so far behind economically that neither could make its manpower effective.

Of the big five, four were modern nation-states. A nation-state is easy to define; it is a country where most of the people share the same language and religion. At least 90% of all Frenchmen spoke French as their first language and the same percentage belonged to the Catholic Church. More than eight out of every ten Prussians were German (the rest were mostly Poles), and of the Germans 70% were Protestant. The Tsar had some big minorities among his subjects (Poles, Finns, Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians, Jews, Caucasians, various Turkic groups and Siberians), but that still left some fifty million who were Orthodox Eastern Slavs. And the inhabitants of the British Isles were 90% English-speaking and 70% Protestant; only on Ireland were there enough of another persuasion to cause unrest. Countries like these are easy to hold together; once united they tend to stay that way. Austria's subjects were 80% Catholic, but that is where Austrian unity ended. What the Austrian emperor really ruled was an ethnic mishmash that must have made him groan every time he thought about it. He and eight million of his subjects were German, but twice as many were Slavs from seven ethnic groups (Czechs, Slovaks, Poles, Ukrainians, Slovenes, Croats and Serbs), topped off with five million Hungarians, five million Italians and two million Romanians. What sort of nation did that make?

The answer is none at all. The Austrian Empire was an accident of history, a portfolio of real estate whose individual pieces the Hapsburg family had inherited, conquered or annexed over the centuries. The Congress of Vienna had tidied it up so that it formed a single block of land with no separate pieces like Belgium, but nobody could do anything about the lack of ethnic unity. Demands for autonomy or independence were already being voiced by the Italians and Hungarians; one day most of the Slavs would do the same. This led to a scene where the advisors of Emperor Francis I recommended that he appoint one of his subjects as a minister. When the emperor asked why, they answered, "Because he is a patriot," and the emperor said irritably, "Yes, but is he a patriot for me?"

One ethnic group gave the emperor the loyalty he wanted, the Germans of his Austrian homeland. In return he cherished them; they manned the bureaucracy, ran the army and generally reaped the benefits of the empire. Maybe it was an old-fashioned way to run things, but every year that the system stayed in business was a good year for the Germans. Consequently, Emperor Ferdinand II's motto was "Reign and change nothing"; maybe other people would benefit from change, but the Hapsburgs could only lose.

Behind a static political front Europe was experiencing revolutionary changes. The simplest of these changes to follow was population growth. In the first half of the century the average nation grew at a rate of 50% (Britain and Russia led the race by notching up 75%, while France, ravaged by revolution and war at the beginning of the century, only added 25%). And with more people than ever surviving the diseases of childhood, the rate of increase was, if anything, accelerating.

Educated opinion no longer regarded this as a good thing. Thomas Malthus was the recognized expert on demographics and he taught that, because population grows geometrically while agricultural output goes up at an arithmetic rate, more people means less food per person until there is no longer enough to go around. He couldn't have picked a better case to prove his point than Ireland. More than two centuries of growth had boosted Ireland's population to eight million, and turned a mildly prosperous agricultural island into an unhappy place where a quarter of the people went hungry every winter. Worse than that was their dependence on the potato; in two western counties, Mayo and Galway, 90% of the people had nothing else to eat. The danger of this was shown in 1817 and 1844, when an agricultural blight struck the staple of the poor. In 1845 it hit especially hard; overnight it turned promising potato crops and their vines into a foul-smelling black mush. And then the same thing happened the next year. Those who could leave fled to England, Canada or the United States. The ships used were so filthy and crowded that many passengers did not survive the voyage, and thus were known as "coffin ships." Even so, those who got aboard were the lucky ones; back home, nearly a million died. Today Ireland's population is still well below the level it reached when the Potato Famine began, and because of the Potato Famine, more people of Irish descent live abroad than on the Emerald Isle itself.

The British government was completely unprepared for this disaster. Many in London were reluctant to give much assistance; both the Malthusian theory and laissez-faire economics dictated that it would be better to let nature take its course. Eventually, however, the size of the calamity convinced everyone of the need to set up soup kitchens and other methods of food distribution, without requiring the poor to give anything in return. Because the British response was so little and so late, many Irish have accused England of attemping to let the famine exterminate the Irish people, further poisoning Anglo-Irish relations.

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Britain Goes Industrial

Europe's population was not only growing, it was also becoming more urban. In the first half of the nineteenth century the number of cities with more than 100,000 people increased from 28 to 45, while London grew to an unheard-of size (from one to three million). Moreover, the industrial revolution had created a new type of city. These grim concentrations of factories and overcrowded apartment buildings--led by London, Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool, Glasgow and Leeds--show how far Britain had moved from the farming village, county town and capital city hierarchy that still characterized everyday life on the Continent.

Though still a collection of islands with most of its territory on other continents, the United Kingdom now dominated the European economy. It produced more than three quarters of Europe's coal and well over half the iron. In the last years of the previous chapter British engineers had harnessed the new power of steam with the locomotive and the steamship; now their factories were building the best and most of both. The capacity of the British textile industry was now twice that of continental Europe's. Of course, things like that couldn't go on forever, and Benjamin Disraeli, then a young member of Parliament, warned of this: "The Continent will not suffer England to be the workshop of the world." But for now it would have to.

The advantages of industrialization are obvious to us, but it's no fun to live in a country while an industrial revolution is taking place. Every country that tried it, including the United States, has seen major upheavals, including attempted revolutions by the new labor force, when its society changes from an agricultural one to an industrial one. In the case of Britain, the wealth of the factories was distributed so unequally that by the mid-nineteenth century, the rich and poor were--to use another phrase of Disraeli's--becoming Two Nations. Cities grew without planning, and those who came for the new jobs created by industry found overcrowded, filthy apartments and appalling working conditions; they worked like slaves, lived like pigs and died like flies. Writers like Thomas Hood thought it was a bad joke to call this progress: "Oh God! That bread should be so dear, and flesh and blood so cheap!" The difference in the classes is graphically shown by the life expectancy at the time: whereas a child born to an upper-class family in Leeds, Manchester or Liverpool could expect to reach the age of 38, children born to poor families in the same cities were not likely to live past the age of 17.

The old feudal system of lords and serfs was not perfect, but it gave the peasant a small amount of protection; whether his expertise was farming or crafts, he had job security, and he could call on his lord for help in hard times. Now the workers found that they had no rights at all. Malnutrition was commonplace, and epidemics of tuberculosis, cholera, typhoid and typhus were worse than ever, prompting a handful of humanitarians to do something about it. In 1842 a lawyer named Edwin Chadwick published a report on the problem, entitled Sanitary Conditions of the Laboring Population of Great Britain. This launched a movement whose members called themselves the "sanitarians," and after a cholera epidemic (London, 1848) showed everyone that disease is no respecter of social class, they persuaded the government to create a General Board of Health. Over the next few years Munich, Paris, Berlin and New York followed London's example, making pure water and a decent sewer system an important part of urban development. Back then nobody knew for sure what caused disease; Louis Pasteur's experiments were still a few years in the future. The sanitarians figured that disease had something to do with filth, so cleaning up the cities was the best solution they could try. Once Pasteur and the first pathologists discovered that germs were the culprit, the sanitarians could add immunization to their arsenal of anti-epidemic weapons. That, combined with cleaner homes and workplaces, eliminated epidemics as the leading cause of death in only a few decades. In 1871 the death rate from typhoid was 332 per million cases; in 1911 it was just 35 per million. For the first time in millennia, the average person's lifespan increased.

Creating health departments was only a single step toward improving the lives of the urban poor. Much more needed to be done, but whereas liberal politicians thought it would all be taken care of after universal male suffrage was granted, radicals demanded much more. Some of them proposed a "socialist" solution, which to them meant guaranteeing everyone a job, an education and a minimum standard of living. Unfortunately for them, this was an age when many countries locked up liberals, so there was almost no chance of any government adopting the socialist agenda--unless somebody launched an armed revolution. The most extreme socialists, the "Communist" group headed by German writers Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, recognized this and were unashamed revolutionaries. Marx said that a socialist state wasn't going to be born in a utopian upsurge of brotherly love, but only after a bitter "class struggle" between the haves and have-nots. And by the have-nots Marx specifically meant the workers, whom he called the "urban proletariat." While most thinkers with a sense of history noted how the city-dwelling middle class took power from the upper class, Marx looked beyond to the day when the working class, the fastest-growing class in Europe, would take over from the middle class.

One of Marx's predictions was that before the revolution the poor would get even poorer. This idea looked like it was coming true when a downturn in the business cycle began in 1846. As the factories closed, the numbers of people with literally nothing to lose climbed to levels that had everybody worried. In Paris for example, 120,000 people, a third of the work force, were unemployed by the end of 1847.

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The Year of Unsuccessful Revolutions

Ireland was not the only country hit by a natural disaster in the mid-1840s; in 1846-47 the Potato Famine spread to Silesia, northern France, the Low Countries, and parts of Germany and Scotland. There was a cattle plague in Hungary and a major flood along the Vistula. Cities like Salzburg, where bread flour was in such short supply that it was spiked with clover, experienced a massive influx of peasants who could no longer find a living in the countryside. In Vienna refugees from Bohemia, Croatia, and Silesia brought with them typhus, which multiplied rapidly in those overcrowded conditions. Wherever the hunger struck, there were bread riots and attacks on those accused of hoarding or profiteering. Everywhere social tensions rose and the authorities grew edgy. Adding to the discontent caused by unemployment and hunger was a startling rise in crime, and an overall sense of social decay.

As soon as New Year's Day was past, it was clear that 1848 was going to be a busy year. In January the Sicilians decided that they no longer wanted to be ruled from Naples and set up a provisional government of their own, while the death of the king of Denmark brought the Schleswig-Holstein problem to the forefront. In February there was more trouble, this time in France. Maybe Sicily and Schleswig-Holstein could be ignored because they were not very important, but France was "the mistress of Europe."

Despite his professed admiration for the British political system, Louis-Philippe never really figured out how to behave like a constitutional monarch; behind the scenes he was always wheeling and dealing to keep his friends in power. This activity was quite unnecessary, because the French mood was deeply conservative at the time, but for some reason he didn't stop and eventually he overdid it; his use of "public order" as an excuse to ban the mostly harmless meetings of the opposition party became so unfair that it provoked serious riots in Paris. On the second day of the rioting (February 23) nervous troops let go with a volley, killing twenty. Activists paraded the dead around the city in an open cart and on the next morning 100,000 angry citizens marched in the streets. People removed cobblestones to make barricades, the tricolor was raised and a new generation of Frenchmen sang the Marseillaise. Louis-Philippe decided that more bloodshed would be indecent and gracefully lowered himself into the garbage can of history. As he left the Tuileries, a mixed bag of opposition deputies, left-wing journalists and socialist thinkers appeared on the balcony of the Hotel de Ville and proclaimed the Second Republic.

Paris cheered; the rest of Europe trembled. Was a new round of revolutionary wars about to begin? Better reform than revolution, said the wise, and monarchs suddenly found virtues in the liberal politicians they had previously refused to talk to. In the single month of March, the kings of Prussia, Holland and Piedmont-Sardinia, the Austrian emperor and Pope Pius IX all agreed to grant liberal constitutions. So serious did the danger appear that although no revolution happened in England, the British royal family chose to take no chances and left London for the safety of the Isle of Wight. Most extraordinary of all, the German princes caught the nationalist fever and allowed the convening of a German national parliament, led by an Austrian archduke, which began meeting in Frankfurt at the end of the month. From France to Poland, liberalism was triumphant.

Nor was this all that happened in March. There were food riots in Ireland and anti-Turkish demonstrations in Moldavia & Wallachia. Italian patriots launched spectacular armed uprisings in Venice (March 17) and Milan (March 18-22); the Venetians proclaimed a new Venetian republic while the Milanese called upon King Charles-Albert of Piedmont-Sardinia to take them under his protection. He accepted and declared war on Austria (March 24). On the same day Schleswig and Holstein formally renounced the Danish connection, and in May Prussia's King Frederick William IV sent troops to back their bid for independence.

For the Austrian Empire the situation looked grim. In March Vienna saw the same sort of street rioting that had toppled the last king of France; Metternich fled to exile in England, the Hapsburg family retreated to the Moravian town of Olmutz, and anarchy reigned. In a matter of weeks the Hungarians met in Pressburg (modern Bratislava) to plan their secession; the Czechs called for a pan-Slav conference that could lead the same way; a Transylvanian nationalist named Avram Iancu announced that if Hungary seceded, he would create a Romanian state independent of the Hungarians; the Italians did not talk but simply revolted immediately. Ferdinand II's only consolation was the news that France, Austria's old enemy and a great one for meddling in Italian affairs, showed no sign of getting involved.

The truth was that France was too busy to attack anyone. The revolutionary government did two unprecedented things: it gave the vote to all nine million male citizens over the age of twenty-one and started making welfare payments to the unemployed. Then in May the newly elected assembly took over; to the surprise and anger of the left it proved to be a reactionary body, whose first act was to cut back on the welfare program. On June 23 the Parisians rose again, this time against the republic. The rising was crushed in four days of fighting, which cost more lives than the February revolution (1,500). To add to the bitterness, three thousand rebels were shot in cold blood after organized resistance had ended.

France was not the only place where the revolutionary tide had passed its peak. On June 17 the Austrian General Alfred Windichgratz, after a rather shaky start, managed to bring Prague under martial law, and the threat from the Slavs began to recede. Reinforcements got through to the Austrian commander in Italy, Joseph Radetzky, and he was also able to go on the offensive. On July 27 Charles-Albert declared himself king of Upper Italy, a new state uniting Piedmont-Sardinia with Parma, Modena and Milan. His announcement was less significant than the crushing defeat Radetzky inflicted on his army at Custozza just two days before. The new kingdom melted away even as it was being proclaimed.

Radetzky followed up Custozza with commendable vigor; in August he bundled the Piedmontese back into their own territory and got Charles-Albert's signature on a truce that restored the pre-1848 frontiers of northern Italy. Not bad for an eighty-three-year-old, but then Radetzky couldn't have had a better teacher; he once fought Napoleon over the same ground. News of his success put new heart into the government; the troops that had restored order in Prague were brought back to clear the streets of Vienna. They were forced to bombard the capital and take it by storm, but by the end of the year they had captured so many revolutionaries that it was safe to send most of the troops off to fight the Hungarians. To further mark the beginning of a new era, a Hapsburg family conclave forced the mentally unstable Ferdinand off the throne and crowned his eighteen-year-old nephew, Franz Joseph.

Still, Austria's troubles were not over yet. The invasion of Hungary ended in a humiliating failure and by early 1849 the whole country, except for a few fortresses, was in control of the patriot leader Lajos (Louis) Kossuth. In Italy the natural defenses of Venice kept it from being reduced, prompting Rome and Tuscany to also declare themselves republics. In Rome Mazzini's Italian nationalists now had the chance to try everything they had promised; the formerly liberal Pope Pius IX (1846-78) fled the Eternal City and became a conservative for the rest of his life.

The news from the south encouraged Charles-Albert to try his luck again. It hadn't improved; at Novara, on the Piedmontese side of the frontier, he was beaten as badly as he had been at Custozza. Taking the blame for all the failures of Italian nationalism to date, Charles-Albert abdicated in favor of his son, Victor Emmanuel II (1849-78). Still, despite this total victory, Austria's overall position was barely holding steady. Franz Joseph had to ignore the pope's appeals for help against the Roman Republic and make his own appeal, to Russia's Tsar Nicholas I. This was successful; after a summit meeting with Nicholas in Warsaw, Russian troops joined the Austrian forces on the borders of Hungary.

Help for the pope came from an unexpected source: France. In December 1848 the French held their first presidential election, and Charles Louis Napoleon Bonaparte (a son of Napoleon Bonaparte's brother Louis) beat the other candidates easily. It was name recognition, of course, that gave Louis Napoleon 75% of the vote, but he was also a clever politician in his own right; to win the support of conservatives, he dispatched an army corps to Rome. It arrived in late April 1849, where, to everyone's astonishment, the advance guard suffered a sharp defeat. Giuseppe Garibaldi had come back to Italy, and his red-shirted Italian Legion was in charge of defending the Roman Republic.

Garibaldi held Rome for a month. He couldn't win and, in truth, he didn't even direct the battle very well (he was always better at moving around than at fighting in sieges). His biggest success was that he got Italians to die for Italy; they proved that the French commander's comment--"Italians don't fight"--didn't apply to them. When the end came, he and the legion still refused to surrender. He said, "I regard Rome as having fallen," and made plans to escape to the countryside. With his small army gathered in St. Peter's Square, he delivered a speech that made him an instant hero: "This is what I have to offer those who wish to follow me: hunger, cold, the heat of the sun; no wages, no barracks, no ammunition; but continual skirmishes, forced marches and bayonet fights. Those of you who love your country and love glory, follow me." 5,000 men followed him, including Mazzini, as he broke out of the city. Their idea was to make a fighting retreat across the Apennines to Venice, but it proved impossibly far. Most of the revolutionaries gave up at San Marino, a hilltop republic which stayed neutral throughout the whole conflict; most of the rest died when the Austrians intercepted their squadron of commandeered fishing boats off the Adriatic coast. Among the casualties was Garibaldi's Brazilian-born wife, Anna Ribeiro da Silva; pregnant with their fourth child, she died of sheer exhaustion. Garibaldi was rescued by some local peasants and smuggled away, eventually to the Americas. Mazzini fled first to Switzerland, then to London, where he stayed until 1860.

The wave of revolutions that had marked 1848 ended by the summer of 1849. The Tuscan republic collapsed in April, Sicily was reconquered by the Neapolitans in May, while Hungary was recovered for Austria by the combined Austrian-Russian army in August. The Hungarian nationalists had made a public relations mistake, by forcing the ethnic minorities in Hungary (Czechs, Slovaks, Serbs and Romanians) to learn the Magyar language; one man's nationalism can be another man's oppression. Kossuth followed Garibaldi and Mazzini into exile, spending many years on the lecture circuit in the United States.

Also in August, a four-month siege of Venice ended. What made this siege interesting was that it was the first battle in which aerial bombing was tried, more than half a century before the airplane would be invented. Formidable land defenses and shallow lagoons prevented conventional bombardment of the city, so an Austrian officer, Franz von Uchatius, came up with the idea of launching hot-air balloons toward Venice, each carrying a bomb. Two such assaults were made (200 balloons were used in the second one), and for the Venetians, they were more like fireworks shows; on both occassions, most of the bombs were either blown back to the Austrians by changing winds, or exploded in midair. Two days after the second assault, the Venetian republic surrendered anyway, due to the suffering in the city from hunger and cholera.

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Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

In March 1849 the Frankfurt parliament finished drawing up a constitution and voted to make Prussia's Frederick William IV emperor of united Germany. Frederick the Great would have leaped for this opportunity; Frederick William backed away. Obsessed with the idea of legitimacy, he remarked that a crown offered by the people was "affected by the smell of the gutter." He would only accept a crown offered by the princes, and as we saw earlier, they weren't about to do such a thing. With nothing left to do and its main purpose thwarted, the parliament dissolved by the end of the year.

The same preoccupation with legitimacy allowed Frederick William to be persuaded that the king of Denmark was the rightful ruler of Schleswig and Holstein; consequently he pulled the Prussian troops out of the duchies and let the Danes reconquer them (1850-52). On top of all that, he allowed the Austrians to extort from him a promise not to set up a political organization along the lines of the Zollervein, but to recognize the do-nothing German Confederation as the only pan-German organization. Embittered Prussians referred to this agreement, signed at Olmutz in 1850, as "the humiliation of Olmutz."

Louis Napoleon, unlike Frederick William, knew how to use his opportunities. His four-year term as president of France was due to expire in 1852 and the constitution of the Second Republic did not allow a second term; he sensed, however, that the country wouldn't protest if he made himself a dictator, so he seized power in a bloodless administrative coup at the end of 1851. The next year he declared that the country was no longer a republic, but the Second French Empire, and that he would rule it as Emperor Napoleon III. To make the coup and coronation legal, he held a plebiscite; the French people, as he had guessed, endorsed both actions.

Napoleon III
How do you tell the Napoleons apart? For a start, Napoleon III didn't look anything like his famous uncle.

At first the new emperor was cold-shouldered by the royal families of Europe, who didn't want to see a Bonaparte sequel in France. The news of his coup went down very badly in London; Queen Victoria, who was not amused, called Louis Napoleon a usurper and an opportunist, while her ministers feared that the combination of the names "Napoleon" and "empire" would produce a new round of French military adventuring. Karl Marx, also living in London now (after 1848 no country on the Continent would have him), didn't take Louis seriously, deriding him as a pantomime king making a futile attempt to turn back the clock of history. But while Marx forecast a short reign, events in the Balkans gave Louis Napoleon the chance to become respectable. The Russians were moving on Constantinople and it was going to take the combined forces of Europe to stop them.(10)

The Crimean War created a new state, Romania, in 1858, as a buffer between the Russians and the Turks (see also this footnote). Just as important, the war destroyed the spirit of peaceful coexistence that had existed between the nations since 1815. For most of the previous generation the kings had been allied between themselves against their own subjects, fearing a new wave of democratic revolutions. When the revolutions came and went in 1848, only the Bourbons of France were unseated permanently, and the other monarchs grew more confident. After the Crimean War competition replaced cooperation, and the monarchs began playing the game of power politics which had occupied so much of their time before 1789. And this time technology and industry increased the resources at hand and made conflicts much more destructive; the next time a big war took place it would sweep away the old order completely.

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The First World's Fair

In the middle of this political retrenchment occurred the nineteenth century's proudest event, the Great Exhibition of 1851. The idea for the exhibition came from Queen Victoria's husband, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. This young German had considerable intelligence and education, and seems to have been shocked to find that early nineteenth-century England had little of either. England's stars of learning, Oxford and Cambridge, had stagnated for nearly a century; lessons were learned by rote, and less than four hundred students graduated from each university every year. The only other colleges that existed were two in London and one in Durham.

The show was held in London's Hyde Park, in a building that was itself an engineering marvel at the time--a huge glass and steel structure called the Crystal Palace. 300,000 panes of glass and more than 5,000 iron columns and girders went into the construction. Critics predicted the radical design would collapse or be destroyed by hailstones, ministers insisted it would be a Tower of Babel offending God Himself, and physicians warned that the crowds inside might trigger a return of the Black Death. The Prince Consort's project was also bitterly opposed by the House of Commons, which predicted that foreign rogues and revolutionaries would overrun England, corrupt the morals of the people, and destroy all faith and loyalty to the country. But Prince Albert had the last laugh--foreigners came out of the exhibition admiring England--and in 1853 he followed it up with the creation of a Science & Art Department, to recover the leadership in education Britain had lost.

From May 1 to October 15, 13,000 exhibits attracted six million visitors from around the world, and they saw the world's achievements in trade and industry. The most popular attraction was the famous Koh-I-Noor diamond, which the queen wore for the opening day ceremonies, and was kept on display in a burglarproof case afterwards. Other exhibits included the recently invented electric telegraph, and an alarm bed that threw sleepers on the floor. All nations were allowed to present exhibits, but since Britain led the world in commerce and technology, the fair became a showcase of British superiority. Queen Victoria visited the exhibition thirty times, and it gave her so much confidence that she wrote this in her diary: "We are capable of doing anything."

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The Unification of Italy

For centuries Austria had been the most important nation of central Europe; it was a medium to large-sized state, surrounded by a galaxy of smaller ones. That changed in the 1850s and 1860s, with the unification of Italy under the king of Piedmont, and the unification of non-Austrian Germany under the king of Prussia. Franz Joseph opposed these reorganizations, just as Metternich had done earlier, and lost both times. However, the men who made the nationalist dream come to life were not romantics like Mazzini, but hardheaded realists. Foremost among them were Count Camilo di Cavour (1810-61) and Otto von Bismarck (1815-98). Both of them were unscrupulous students of Machiavelli and Metternich, who didn't let intangibles like morality get in the way of their political goals. As Cavour once admitted, "If we did for ourselves what we do for Italy, we would be great rascals."

The last time we saw Cavour, he was editor of the Risorgimento; in 1852 he became prime minister of Piedmont. His involvement in the Crimean War on the side of France & Britain made no difference in the outcome, but he did it to get some gesture in favor of Italian unity. Gestures were all he got, which left the Italian nationalists no better off than before. The problem was that the Italians couldn't get the Austrians out of Italy by their own efforts, so they would have to ask someone else, most likely Napoleon III, to remove the Austrians for them. In 1858 Cavour and Napoleon met in secret and the two of them worked out a plan: Cavour would provoke the Austrians to invade Piedmont, Napoleon would hurry to the rescue, and the French army would conquer Lombardy and Venetia. In return for these provinces--and help in "liberating" Parma, Modena and Romagna--Cavour would give Napoleon Savoy and Nice, the two pieces of territory Piedmont held on the French side of the Alps.

Cavour picked a fight with Austria in early 1859, by giving shelter to Italians who deserted from the Austrian army. The Austrians declared war, and Napoleon arrived to play the most difficult part of the Napoleonic legend, that of the brilliant general. He made a reasonable start. Most of the French army came by sea and landed at Genoa, putting it on the Austrians' left flank; Napoleon moved north, in front of the Austrians, and drove them out of position by hitting them on the right. The battle of Magenta wasn't a very bloody affair, but it forced the Austrians out of Lombardy and Napoleon had shown the same speed and ingenuity that his famous uncle had. When the emperor made a triumphal entry into Milan, he was the man of the hour.

Cavour was also happy. Magenta caused local patriots to stir up the inhabitants of Parma, Modena, Romagna and Tuscany; before long they expelled their dukes and were calling for union with Piedmont. That meant that if the French emperor could finish off the campaign as well as he had started it, the failures of 1848-49 would be redeemed and the kingdom of Upper Italy would be reestablished on a firm foundation.

The end of the campaign was closer than Cavour thought. The Austrians received reinforcements and recovered their confidence, and Franz Joseph arrived on the scene to take command. The first thing he did was to order an immediate counteroffensive. The result was that the French and Austrian armies blundered into each other at Solferino, just south of Lake Garda. At the end of a long and bloody day the French held the battlefield, making them the winners, but they were almost as completely fought out as the Austrians. The supply situation was even worse. Napoleon, who had already been having second thoughts about his commitment to liberate Venetia, decided to call a halt. He was genuinely horrified by the slaughter, news was coming in that Prussia was about to jump in on Austria's side, and all his political instincts told him not to get involved in a long war. Finally, he didn't want to do any more for unification if it was going to hurt his other Italian ally, the pope. Let Piedmont keep Nice and Savoy; he was going home. Two weeks after Solferino Napoleon signed a truce with Franz Joseph that gave Lombardy to Piedmont but left everything else as it had been before the war.

Cavour resigned in fury when he learned that the war was over, but there was no need for him to be upset. Austrian domination over the peninsula had been shattered and whatever might be said about legal rights, nobody was going to put the dukes of Parma, Modena and Tuscany back on their thrones or return Romagna to the pope. In early 1860 Cavour came to his senses and went back to work arranging for plebiscites to be held in these provinces. Napoleon, a great believer in plebiscites, accepted the results, which were usually 95% in favor of joining Piedmont-Sardinia. The price of his agreement, however, was the land Cavour had originally planned to trade for Venetia, Nice & Savoy.(11)

All these arrangements took until May to complete; while they were in progress, Cavour feared that a foreign power would intervene and put a stop to them. What he needed was a calm and orderly transfer of power in the northern provinces, and tranquility elsewhere. Instead he got Garibaldi sailing from Genoa to Sicily, proclaiming that he and his legion were going to bring all Italy under Piedmontese rule.

Garibaldi, still the only Italian war hero to date, had behaved erratically since his return from exile in 1854. The idea that Nice, his hometown, was going to become part of France understandably enraged him, and he had little sympathy for Cavour's cautious approach to Italian unity. But his attempt to found a political party only made him look foolish, and so did a brief marriage to a seventeen-year-old girl (he was fifty-two at the time). Since he couldn't get along with Cavour, he spent most of his time on Caprera, a tiny island next to Sardinia where he had bought a home. Cavour tried to keep him quiet by giving him a general's rank and a snappy blue uniform, but when he heard that the Sicilians had risen in revolt he donned the red shirt that had become his trademark and committed his volunteer force of 1,089 men to their cause. Cavour wished him well when he departed, but deep down thought that he had no chance of winning, and felt it wouldn't be all that bad if he got himself killed.

There was an uprising on Sicily, but it had been put down even before Garibaldi and his "thousand" left Piedmont. Thus, when their two leaky steamships landed at the western end of the island--after eluding the Sicilian squadrons sent to intercept them--they found themselves on their own, with no local support. Nevertheless, Garibaldi declared himself dictator in the name of Victor Emmanuel II, rallied his mostly seasick troops, and set out for the capital of Sicily, Palermo. Halfway there, at the village of Calatafimi, they encountered a force of 3,000 regulars equipped with rifles (Garibaldi's men had only muskets), holding a hill that commanded the road. Garibaldi knew that if they didn't win this battle there would be no second chance, so they charged the enemy head-on. The Italian Legion fought their way up the hill terrace by terrace, often repulsed by the entrenched Bourbon troops. At this point they had no more ammunition--nor, for that matter, any food or water--but their opponents didn't, either. Garibaldi found this out when he got hit by a thrown rock, and he urged his men to make one more rush. The battle ended in ferocious hand-to-hand combat, but the Thousand did it, and the victory was plain to see. Cheering Sicilians fell in behind Garibaldi's column as it resumed its march on Palermo.

Palermo had a garrison of 24,000. Garibaldi drew off a few thousand (including the governor of Palermo) by a feint from the south followed by what was apparently a retreat, then he slipped into the city by night from the east. His weakness--he still had less than 4,000 men--was concealed by the governor's decision to bombard the city before counterattacking; in the resulting confusion he won over the citizenry to his cause and had them build the barricades he needed for a successful defense. Three days later the governor asked for a truce; one week later he pulled the rest of his men out of the city and left for Naples.

The rest of Sicily fell without much fighting and by early August Garibaldi's army, now 12,000 strong, was ready to tackle the mainland. Officially he was still announcing that Italy would become a constitutional monarchy under the crown of Piedmont, but he had spent many of his formative years in the western hemisphere, so his personal sentiments and those of most of his followers were really republican. Because of this Cavour felt that it wasn't safe to let him rule the south any longer than was necessary; whoever conquered central Italy would be the one to dictate the whole peninsula's future. The time had come for Piedmont to march on Naples. The trouble was that the only way to go from Piedmont to Naples was through the Papal State, and since Napoleon was still defending the pope, this risked a war with the French. The Piedmontese would get too close for comfort if they marched through Rome, but would Napoleon let them go along the Adriatic coast? The emperor's reply came back as an ambassador's whisper: "Do it, but do it quickly."

Piedmontese armies never moved very fast and this one was still getting itself organized when Garibaldi slipped across the Straits of Messina, dodged the garrisons placed on the tip of the Italian boot to stop him, took Reggio and moved up the coast to Naples. The Bourbon monarchy in Naples was never popular; the closer Garibaldi got the faster resistance crumbled; the peasants of the countryside supported Garibaldi's advance, and the army of the kingdom shrunk daily from desertions. The last king of the Two Sicilies abandoned his capital without making any attempt to fight for it. Garibaldi arrived by train the next day, September 7.

A hundred miles to the north, the pope was reading an ultimatum by Cavour. When he rejected it, the Piedmontese invaded the Adriatic provinces of the Papal State. At the battle of Castelfidardo the Papal forces were overwhelmed and the pope lost all of his thousand-year-old domain except for the Patrimonium, a rectangular block around the city of Rome. Then the Piedmontese turned south. There still were enough Sicilian soldiers in the countryside to outnumber Garibaldi's force by 2.5 to 1, so Garibaldi chose to play it safe and wait in Naples until the Piedmontese were almost there. When Victor Emmanuel was a few miles north of the city, Garibaldi rode out to meet him, waving his hat and yelling, "I hail the first king of Italy!" The next day Garibaldi resigned his command, settling the question of whether a united Italy would be a republic or a monarchy. The last opposition to the king was broken on the banks of the Volturno River (October 26, 1860), and at the fortress of Gaeta (February 1861); once that was done, the dream of Italian poets and politicians became a reality.

Garibaldi & Victor Emmanuel
A contemporary British cartoon, entitled "Right Leg in the Boot at Last," shows Garibaldi helping Victor Emmanuel put on the Italian boot.

At this point the bulk of the work had been done but there were still some loose ends. Because of Cavour's untimely death in 1861, it took all of the 1860s to tie them up. In 1861 plebiscites were held in central and southern Italy to make sure that the activities of Garibaldi and Cavour had been done with popular approval; meanwhile the government moved from Turin to Florence, which served as Italy's temporary capital until Rome could be annexed. Honors were heaped on Garibaldi--a full general's rank, a castle, and a private steamer--but he refused them all. Instead he wanted to stay on as governor of Naples, and when that was denied him, Garibaldi turned his attention to Rome. He organized the Society for the Emancipation of Italy and visited Sicily, where he raised a force of volunteers. However, Victor Emmanuel opposed any move on Rome while the French were there, and it was the Italian army that defeated Garibaldi at the battle of Aspromonte on August 29, 1862. Garibaldi was wounded and captured in that battle, but pardoned and released.(12) In 1867 Garibaldi raised another volunteer force with the aim of annexing the Papal State to the kingdom of Italy. After some initial engagements, he was defeated by combined papal and French forces at the Battle of Mentana on November 3, 1867. He was taken prisoner but again was held only a short time.

There was also the matter of Austrian-occupied Venetia. When war broke out again in 1866, Napoleon III told the Italians that he could get it for them for nothing, but the Italians, because it was a matter of pride, insisted on doing it the hard way.

Because it had been so long since Italy was both united and independent, some Italians dreamed that their country's unification would be the first step in the creation of a new Roman Empire. Modern realities said otherwise. Italians no longer led the rest of Europe in technology and literacy; only the northern part of the peninsula had any industry, and Italian industrialization was hindered by a lack of coal and iron ore. This, combined with the poverty of Italian peasants, meant that the new Italian state would be a second-rate power, not a first-rate power like Britain. The unification of Italy did not even upset the balance of power in Europe; what it mainly did was embarrass the Austrians, and give Napoleon III a chance to conduct war and diplomacy in the style of Napoleon I. The unification of Germany, on the other hand, was led by a country that was already considered a regional power, so that process would change the world.

This is the end of Part I. Click here to go to Part II.


1. F. C. Palm and F. E. Graham, Europe Since Napoleon, Boston, Ginn & Co., 1934, p. 38.

2. Between the Rhine province and the rest of Prussia, Hanover was enlarged and promoted to kingdom status, because of its connections with Britain.

3. The six Italian states not under direct Austrian rule were, from north to south, Piedmont-Sardinia, Parma, Modena, Tuscany, the Papal State, and the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. The three with Hapsburg rulers were Modena, Tuscany and Parma. Parma got that way because the Vienna settlement gave it to Marie Louise, the Austrian archduchess who had been Napoleon's second empress, to be her personal domain. Upon her death in 1847, it returned to the original duke of Parma, who in the interim had been ruling a mini-duchy in Tuscany called Lucca. The Kingdom of the Two Sicilies (Naples & the island of Sicily) still had a monarch from the Bourbon dynasty, the same family that ruled France and Spain.

If there had been a contest to see which European nation could be the most reactionary, the Papal State would have won the prize. Pope Leo XII (1823-29) brought back the Inquisition, took away the right of Jews to own property (forcing them into western Europe's last ghetto), and was so puritanical that he even tried to limit wine consumption and ban artistic nudes. Anyone who knows anything about Italy will realize the last two laws were impossible to enforce!

The names given to Piedmont-Sardinia are confusing and a few words will explain them here. This kingdom consisted of four parts: the Duchy of Savoy on the French side of the Alps; the Principality of Piedmont on the Italian side of the same mountains; the medieval Republic of Genoa (Napoleon's "Ligurian Republic"); and the island of Sardinia. Before the Napoleonic years Savoy, Piedmont and Sardinia had been united as the Kingdom of Savoy, already mentioned in Chapters 10-12, while Genoa was tacked on at the Congress of Vienna. The capital of this state was Turin, in the heart of Piedmont, but since the king had lived on Sardinia while Napoleon ruled the mainland, most Europeans now called the whole thing "the Kingdom of Sardinia." Similarly they called the soldiers and bureaucrats of this land Sardinians, though most of them were born on the mainland and had never seen the island. The term doesn't look right to modern readers so I will refer to the kingdom as Piedmont, but be aware of the Sardinian name when reading other history texts.

4. An even bigger gain went to a neutral power, the United States. In 1800 Napoleon bullied Spain into giving him the land between the Mississippi River and the Rocky mts. (the Louisiana territory) for nothing. Three years later he decided it was useless to him and sold it to the Americans for $15 million, doubling the size of the USA in one stroke.

5. The Poles did get an independent city-state, the Free City of Cracow. This was eliminated by Austria in 1846 after it became a breeding ground for Slavic discontent.

6. Metternich would have denied that there was such a thing as Italian nationalism. "Italy is a purely geographical expression" was one of his favorite sayings. He had no misgivings about shooting young hot-heads who raised the flag of United Italy--or of democracy--anywhere in the peninsula, and never doubted he was doing the right thing when he did; they were simply disturbers of his peace.

7. Things were not so good in the non-English parts of the United Kingdom. After the Reform Bill was passed the proportion of men who could vote in Scotland was one in eight; in Ireland it was one in twenty.

Part of England's progress was really recovery. Under the Hanoverian dynasty, the House of Lords had taken control of Parliament from the House of Commons, and the Lords ran England like a Venetian-style oligarchy. They kept it that way by restricting representation from the boroughs (districts) where the populists got their support. Since the boundaries of many boroughs had not changed since the fifteenth century, underpopulated, rural areas got more representation than they deserved, while new urban centers like Manchester had no representatives at all. The town of Old Sarum, for instance, had one non-resident voter and no population, but sent two members to Parliament. Another MP represented a town that had disappeared beneath the sea! Thus, getting rid of the "rotten boroughs" was a priority to those who passed the 1832 Reform Bill.

8. To give the Belgians a king, the great powers picked a minor prince from central Germany, Leopold I of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. His nephew Albert married England's Queen Victoria in 1840, and became known as the Prince Consort. Since Leopold was already linked to the House of Hanover by previous marriages, this meant that Victoria was his niece as well, making for a marriage between first cousins. The marriage was a happy one, and because of it the name of the ruling British dynasty changed from Hanoverian to Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. You will rarely see the new name mentioned in most texts, though; instead Queen Victoria's reign (1837-1901), the longest and most prosperous in British history, caused her name to be extended to the whole era: "the Victorian age."

Queen Victoria in 1886
Queen Victoria.

9. So did Hanover, if you count the United Kingdom.

10. This conflict is known as the Crimean War (1853-55). I'm not covering it here because I have already done so in Chapter 3 of my Russian history. I'll just say for now that the French fought quite commendably alongside the British and both taught the Russians a lesson; Austria and Piedmont-Sardinia gave moral support, with consequences that will be explained shortly. In his other ventures (Italy, Mexico, the Suez Canal, etc.), Napoleon III behaved more responsibly than Napoleon I did; the only one that threatened Great Britain's interests was his attempt to annex Belgium. Moreover, he calmed those who feared him by grandly declaring that his reign would be a time of peace and prosperity.

One of Napoleon's projects promoting peace and prosperity was the remodeling of Paris. For this he hired an architect named Georges-Eugène Haussmann (Baron Haussmann for short), and this gentleman turned Paris into a huge construction zone; the work went on all the way into the late 1870s, and eventually cost at least 2.5 billion francs. The expense was worth it. The water supply was improved with a new aqueduct, a new reservoir, and plenty of new pipes, while the streets were repaired and widened into grand boulevards. This not only made it easier for traffic to get around in the city, but also made it more difficult for revolutionaries to block the streets with barricades, which was Napoleon's real goal when he embarked on the project. Thus, Paris was ready for automobiles long before they were invented, and the new city design is probably the reason why Paris hasn't seen a revolution since 1871 (more about that here).

For those keeping track of numbers, Napoleon II was the infant son of the first Napoleon, who never ruled on his own.

11. The cession of Nice & Savoy moved the Franco-Italian frontier east to where it is today. It also put Monaco on the French side of the frontier, thereby insuring that this tiny state, a protectorate of Piedmont since the Congress of Vienna, would not become part of united Italy.

12. When the American Civil War broke out in 1861, Garibaldi, seeking a new adventure, offered his services to President Abraham Lincoln. At this stage Lincoln had a shortage of leaders--most of the good American officers had joined the Confederacy--and some units were entirely made up of immigrant soldiers, so Lincoln offered to make Garibaldi commander of the whole Union Army. Garibaldi was willing to accept on one condition: the federal government must declare that abolishing slavery was the war's main objective. Lincoln wasn't yet ready to do this; it would be another year before he issued the Emancipation Proclamation, and he felt that if he freed the slaves now, it would be a disaster to the nation's agriculture. Thus, Garibaldi did not get to become an American war hero, and command of the Union Army was eventually given to Ulysses S. Grant.

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