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A lot ink has been expended discussing the revolutions of 1848 and their causes, only a small fraction of which I have read.

From my point of view, there seem to be two main schools of thought in explaining why the revolutions broke out when they did:

  • The first school of thought, of which the Wikipedia article on the revolutions seems like a good representative, is that industrialisation caused a drop the standard of living of the urban poor - to such a point that they rose up in revolt.
  • The second school of thought advances the counter-intuitive notion that revolutions tend to happen when things are getting better. Conditions for the poor leading up to 1848 were not markedly worse than before, but, the new urban bourgeoisie, on the other hand, was in a stronger position than ever; and the revolutions of 1848 are best understood as an attempt by this class to displace the old feudal aristocracy. (I'm no expert on the man, but I believe this was Marx's interpretation of events.)

Was there a drop in standards of living in France, Germany, Austria and Italy in the years leading up to 1848? And if so, was this a significant factor in bringing about the revolutions?

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    Was there a drop in standards of living is an objective question; was it a significant factor involves a much more complex model & judgement. – Mark C. Wallace Jul 9 at 15:32
  • Worth plugging Mike Duncan's Revolutions podcast. I believe this episode is most relevant. – Gort the Robot Jul 9 at 15:53
  • I believe the point of the second school of thought is that when conditions are bad, people are too focused on survival to think of inciting a revolution, but once conditions start improving -- the common people have enough to eat, they have shelter, their economic security is better -- they are able to vent their anger over the unfair treatment they experienced. It is that an improving economic environment can lead to a violent revolution. – llywrch Jul 10 at 15:10
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See the article "Economic Crises and the European Revolutions of 1848" (Berger and Sporer, 2001):

Recent historical research tends to view the 1848 revolutions in Europe as caused by a surge of radical ideas and by long-term socioeconomic problems. However, many contemporary observers interpreted much of the upheaval as a consequence of short-term economic causes, specifically the serious shortfall in food supply that had shaken large parts of the Continent in 1845–1847, and the subsequent industrial slump. Applying standard quantitative methods to a data set of 27 European countries, we show that it was mainly immediate economic misery, and the fear thereof, that triggered the European revolutions of 1848.

While this doesn't rule out multiple, contradictory dynamics going on at once, it's pretty clear evidence that precarious living standards had an important role.

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  • Thank you. I really wasn't expecting such a definite answer to a somewhat broad question, but the argument that Berger and Sporer put forth is compelling. Thank you again. – Tom Hosker Jul 9 at 15:53

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