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Rhineland Radicals: The Democratic Movement and the Revolution of 1848-1849.

In this superbly researched, very important book on the history of the 1848-49 revolutions in western Germany, Jonathan Sperber recalls how latter-day Jacobins sought to mobilize the masses in support of revolutionary change. Their efforts ended in failure. A few radicals who subsequently emigrated to the United States did, however, manage to achieve on a smaller scale in the new world what they could not achieve in the old: they helped to overthrow the governor of Missouri. For this Sperber, an American, feels indebted. A revolution is a good thing. It is unfair to offer "negative evaluations" (of the kind which marked the bicentenary of the French Revolution) of such an enterprise.

"Revolution of 1848" is a misnomer for the events which rocked the Rhineland at mid-century, from Cleves in the north to Speyer in the south. We had a "chain of explosions," beginning in Solingen and in the manufacturing districts of the lower Rhine in March 1848 and culminating in the Reichsverfassungskampagne (battle for the imperial constitution) in May-June 1849, principally in the Palatinate. A characteristic of all of these events was the "process of politicization," which Sperber defines as "the interaction of spontaneous popular movements with organized political radicalism" (pp. 4, 473). Popular protest in the region developed around three foci - the market, the state, the church - owing to the peculiar territorial-political arrangements in existence. After 1815 most of the Rhineland was governed by outsiders residing in the capitals of the three core states of Prussia, Hesse-Darmstadt, and Bavaria. This was a formula for trouble as there mere bound to be fundamental differences over economic policy, government, and religion between the core states and their respective Rhenish provinces. Throughout the period 1815-48 the Rhineland suffered periodic eruptions when, for example, peasants objected vehemently to policies on woodland use drafted in and administered from Berlin or Munich, Solingen craftsmen and manufacturers criticized trade practices drafted in Berlin, Mainz bourgeois objected to proposals on law reform drafted in Darmstadt, rationalist Protestants in the Palatinate took issue with ultramontanist initiatives hatched in Munich. One had here a huge reservoir of discontent into which radicals periodically tapped during the Vormarz to sustain shortlived movements of political protest. The dam, the legitimate authority of the core states, containing the reservoir was breached by the subsistence crisis of 1845-47. That brought on the revolutions and the politicization of the masses, mass democratic movements organized, inspired, and led by radical-democrats (Jacobins).

We certainly do encounter mass movements in 1848-49, especially in 1849 during the Reichsverfassungskampagne. The issue, I think, is determining whether or not we are warranted in assigning to these movements democratic intent and therefore crowning with laurels those "late Jacobins" who reputedly laboured to this end. Sperber's own evidence suggests that interpreting popular political behaviour as an attribute of democratic action is either questionable or simply inappropriate.

Revolutionary popular politics throughout the period appears to have been largely un- or decidedly anti-democratic. Neither before nor during the revolution mere journeymen artisans' societies associated with any form of leftwing politics (p. 102). The lower classes in manufacturing towns were "unusually supportive of conservative politics' in 1848-49 (p. 103). The rural population remained "almost untouched" by mass politics during the Vormarz (p. 109). Before 1848 "political organization simply did not exist in the henish countryside" (p. 135). Within cities most of the popular celebrations of 1848 were in support of order and of the status quo (p. 154). The politicization of artisans' wants was dictated by the target of their discontent (p. 166). The only revolutionary newspaper for the people by one of the people was anti-bureaucratic, anti-landlord, anti-capitalist, anti-clerical, and anti-semitic (pp. 214-15). Mass meetings in 1848-49 were "festivities, which was a large part of their attraction" (p. 220). Within villages one found democrats who were "vigorous and brutal" (p. 432). Surveying the events of 1849 in the Palatinate, Sperber offers a candid admission: "There was something sad ... about this spectacle of the revolutionary intimidation and terrorization of some of the poorest and most wretched inhabitants" (p. 444).

How does one manage to translate inchoate anger into a "democratic movement firmly anchored in the countryside?" (p. 244). The only way, of course, is to eviscerate the ideology, to extend the concept of democracy to accommodate all manner of conduct: "vigorous and brutal" coqs de village qualify as "democrats." I associate this whole phenomenon with the ambiguous legacy of Rousseau, what George Mosse has aptly described as a "new politics" - instinct camouflaged in the legitimizing garb of ideology. I fully agree with Geoff Eley's dustjacket blurb that this book is "an authoritative contribution to our understanding of [the] revolution." Unlike Sperber, I see little here worth celebrating.
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Author:Wegert, Karl
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 1993
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