By comparison with the ‘great’ revolutions such as those of 1789 or 1917, the revolutions of 1848 exhibit at least four peculiar features. First, the revolutionary outbreak was not preceded by political crisis triggered by conflict within the ruling order (1789) or failure in war (1917). Europe was at peace - there was no major war between 1815 and 1854. The ruling order did not appear to be badly split. There were tensions and disputes but nothing like political crisis.
Second, revolution spread rapidly across Europe. Revolution extended beyond France in the 1790s and Russia after 1917 but principally promoted by the original revolutionary regime. In 1848 there was no national centre; virtually every part of Europe between Britain and Russia experienced revolution ‘from within’.
Third, the revolutionary situation lasted for a comparatively short time. By the summer of 1849 counter-revolution had triumphed. The ‘great’ revolutions lasted, in terms of regime instability and civil war, at least until 1795 in France and 1921 in the USSR. Finally, in the judgement of many contemporaries and historians, the 1848 revolutions ‘failed’. Although the revolutions of 1789 and 1917 did not realise their proclaimed ideals, few would deny that they transformed both society and state and that the post-revolutionary world is unimaginable without them. It is more difficult to argue that case for 1848.
These four distinguishing features provide keys to understanding the revolutions of 1848. First, I outline and analyse the initial revolutionary outbreak and ask why so many governments collapsed so quickly. Second, I characterise the new revolutionary situation and ask how this could lead on to further political conflict. Third, I consider three broad political strands - radicalism, liberalism and conservatism - and how these combined to enable rapid counter-revolution. Finally, I link these arguments to broader comparative historical treatments of the revolutions and suggest how one should evaluate their significance.