Why is no one in Europe celebrating the 150th anniversary of the 1848 revolutions, "the springtime of the peoples"? Robert Taylor says it is because the failures of 1848 cast forward a dark shadowby Robert Taylor / March 20, 1998 / Leave a comment
This ought to be a time for celebration across Europe. In less than six months, most of the western part of the continent will begin the move towards economic and monetary union, in what will be a defining moment in European history. This spring also marks the 150th anniversary of the revolutions of 1848-a reminder that Europeans share a common liberal democratic heritage. But the anniversary is passing largely unnoticed. Perhaps this is evidence of the lack of a “European” consciousness, but it also reflects the ambiguity of the events themselves.
During the early months of 1848 much of Europe experienced the “springtime of the peoples.” From the streets of Paris in late February through to those of Berlin, Munich, Vienna, Frankfurt, Milan, Buda-pest and Prague came a social and political upheaval which does not deserve to vanish from the common memory of European history. What happened briefly appeared to threaten the reactionary aristocratic order, restored by the 1815 Treaty of Vienna following the military defeat of revolutionary France.
In France, the July monarchy of Louis-Philippe was blown away by the bloody events of 22nd-24th February as barricades reappeared on the streets of Paris. A provisional government was hastily formed and a republic declared. The revolutionary mood soon crossed the Rhine to southwest Germany. On 11th March, uprisings in Vienna, Prague and Budapest paralysed the Habsburg monarchy and forced Emperor Ferdinand I to promise constitutional change and grant the Hungarians quasi independence. Four days later trouble erupted in Berlin and King Frederick William IV of Prussia agreed to introduce a new constitution. In Milan and Venice the Austrian occupiers were confronted by nationalist uprisings, while Piedmont declared war on the Habsburgs. Disturbances spread across Galicia, Dalmatia and Transylvania.
In the spring of 1848 it looked as if the “people” had driven political reaction from power with scarcely a whiff of cannon fire. Such euphoria, however, proved short-lived. In June the discredited old order began to recover its self-confidence. The Czech revolution was the first to be crushed. More important were the infamous June days in Paris, where the revolution devoured its own children-foreshadowing the later divergence of liberalism and socialism. Closure of the national workshops for the jobless provoked a workers’ uprising which was brutally suppressed by the national guard. In July the Piedmontese and other Italian forces who sought national self-determination were defeated at the hands of the Austrian army and Habsburg power was restored to Lombardy. It is true that the Hungarians succeeded in holding on to their independence through the summer, but Vienna was recaptured by the Habsburgs in October. On 2nd December 1848 Emperor Ferdinand I abdicated, replaced by Francis Joseph I, who was to rule over the Habsburg lands until his death in 1916. Eighteen days later Louis-Napol?on Bonaparte was elected president of the new French republic, heralding a victory for the forces of populist conservatism-the triumph of rural France over Paris.
In March 1849 the all-German assembly in Frankfurt produced a constitution for a liberal Germany, but its respectable bourgeois delegates offered the crown of the envisaged new unified country to the Prussian king. When he refused to accept it, the parliament collapsed in mutual recrimination. In the summer of 1849 Venice and Rome were crushed by the Habsburgs. In October they joined forces with the Russian Tsar Nicholas I to strangle the Hungarian revolution. Just over two years later came the humiliating denouement to 1848: Louis-Napol?on staged a coup d’?tat and imposed autocratic rule in a return of Bonapartism.
Collapse of the democratic forces of 1848 is one understandable reason why today’s Europeans are reluctant to celebrate what happened 150 years ago. Moreover, even the historians are divided over whether 1848 had any positive or lasting significance for European history. The English liberal historian George Macaulay Trevelyan-an enthusiast for Italy’s Risorgimento-famously described 1848 as “the turning point at which modern history failed to turn.” He believed that the spread of the industrial revolution, technological innovation and the rise of urban society had prepared the ground for a transition from aristocratic autocracy to poli-tical freedom. The events of 1848 should have been the moment of this change-but they were not.
Other historians were less charitable. Lewis Namier dismissed 1848 as the “revolution of the intellectuals”-he did not mean this as a compliment. In the view of Eric Hobsbawm, 1848 was “both the most widespread and the least successful of revolutions.”
To conservatives, crushing the uprisings was fundamental to the future stability of Europe. It seemed to make the continent safe for capitalism. But this did not mean a return of pure reaction. Indeed, 1848 guaranteed the new strategic alliance between the continent’s ruling aristocratic elites, industrialists and financiers in what Hobsbawm has called the age of capital.
It was to London that many of the continental leaders fled after the failure of the revolution, highlighting a striking parallel with the present: the sense of Britain’s detachment from the flow of European events. (Britain was hardly affected by what was happening in mainland Europe, and the Chartist demonstration on London’s Kennington Common turned out to be the last gasp of a movement which had once impressed Karl Marx.)
But there was another important dimension to the events of 1848 which may explain the current lack of enthusiasm. It was the first serious eruption of the labour question in European politics. The uprisings were stimulated in part by the desperate social conditions of the time: the failed potato and wheat harvests, the rapid migration of peasants into the cities and a downturn in the business cycle. The resulting urban discontent terrified not only the traditional ruling classes but also the respectable liberal bourgeoisie, which may have wanted its political rights but also saw the necessity for order. In his recollections, de Tocqueville relates an anecdote he was told by a friend whose manservant had exclaimed after the events of February in Paris: “Next Sunday we shall be eating the wing of the chicken.” His maid had added: “Next Sunday we shall be wearing the fine clothes.” De Tocqueville believed that socialism was the “most essential feature of the February revolution and the one that left the most frightening memory.” Yet industrial workers, still an insignificant minority in 1848 Europe, were conspicuous by their absence. The participants in the uprisings were the “mob,” made up of assertive pre-industrial artisans and the “lumpenproletariat”-the forerunners of today’s welfare dependent, politically quiescent, underclass.
Marx and Engels were proved wrong about the inevitability of class war and the triumph of the working class as proclaimed in the Communist Manifesto (first published, in German, in February 1848). In 1848, they had looked to their native Germany to take the political lead, believing it to be on the “eve of a bourgeois revolution” that was “bound to be carried out under more advanced conditions of European civilisation and with a much more developed proletariat” than that found in 17th century England and 18th century France. In their opinion, 1848 was the “prelude to an immediately following proletarian revolution.”
In fact, 1848 in Germany proved to be the beginning of a long, tragic journey of early hope and ultimate failure that was to haunt the modern history of the European labour movement. Marx’s revolutionary ideas-hardened later into dogma by Engels-trapped German social democracy into an inability to act or even to think strategically. Of course the straightness of the historical road from the suppression of liberalism in Germany in 1849 to the failure of the 1918 German revolution and the triumph of Nazism 15 years later should not be exaggerated. But the severance of liberalism from nationalism after the collapse of the Frankfurt assembly is one of the aspects of 19th century German history which helps to explain grim events later. The middle classes chose unification under the increasingly reactionary Bismarck; he in turn defused Germany’s labour problem in the 1880s by introducing a welfare state based on national insurance. These were the lessons he had learned from 1848. They spelt the end of any prospect of a liberal, democratic Germany.
Perhaps this-the German question-is really why few Europeans today are keen to celebrate the events of 1848. Their lasting significance lay in the emergence of a destructive nationalism which led to the horrors of the first world war. It was the yearning for national rights, as much as universal liberal rights, that motivated many of those-not just in Germany-who took part in the unfolding dramas which convulsed Europe in 1848. To Czechs, Hungarians, Poles, Serbs, Bulgars or those whom Engels arrogantly dismissed as the “unhistoric lesser peoples” of Europe, the downfall of the old dynasties gave a brief glimpse of their possible future as distinctive, self-governing nations. Again, it would be wrong to suggest that the suppression of their aspirations inexorably led to ethnic cleansing, to Nazi death camps, Soviet gulags and, more recently, Srebrenica. But the chauvinistic folly of the Frankfurt assembly in its declaration of war against Denmark over Schleswig-Holstein, and the insensitive attitude of France’s provisional government towards the Czechs and Poles, showed the darker side of the trans-European significance of 1848.
And yet 1848 does not leave an entirely destructive legacy. Some nostalgia is justified. It was, after all-despite the brutal way in which the uprisings were crushed-a time of optimism, “of beards, flowing cravats and broad-rimmed hats” (Hobsbawm), a time when “mankind went in search of happiness” (Baudelaire). In the anxious countdown to Emu, some of that optimism would be welcome.