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Springtime of their discontent.

[1848: Year of Revolution, Mike Rapport, Basic Books, 496 pages]

IN EUROPE, we are living in stirring times. The long-drawn rumbles of discontent against the European Union suddenly seem more menacing as the effects of the worldwide recession begin to bite. This ever more insistent beat of opposition to the EU finds powerful echoes in Mike Rapport's lucid analysis of the background to the European upheavals of 1848. Writing before the disaster of the credit crunch, however, he did not always hear these reverberations.

Other historians have maintained that the failure of the liberal constitutionalists and radical republicans to sustain a united front against the absolutist monarchies of Europe in 1848 planted the seed that led to the militaristic unifications of Italy and Germany. In this view, the collapse of liberalism in 1848 meant that the effective opposition to the power of the Austrian empire lay solely in the hands of the Prussian and Piedmontese monarchies. So although two new nations, Germany and Italy, may have germinated in the "Springtime of Peoples" of 1848, their democracies proved to be weak flowers that were easily subverted by the Fascist and Nazi revolutions of the early 20th century.

Rapport, by contrast, believes that the authoritarian regimes of the last century were a hiccup in a much more hopeful process. For him, 1848 represents the first bloom of a truly European consciousness. The revolutionaries, he points out, made very similar demands in every country throughout Europe, calling for political representation, social justice, and the self-determination of peoples. The Frankfurt parliament even went so far as to advertise itself in three European languages (English, German, and French), which Rapport regards as the first awakening of the European community. Similarly, while the "velvet Revolutionaries" of Eastern Europe in 1986 may have wished to separate themselves from all previous revolutionary traditions, Rapport maintains that they were following on from the bloodless liberal uprisings in the March days of 1848.

He observes two concrete improvements gained through the agency of the failed revolutions of 1848: the end of serfdom throughout Europe and the end of the belief in the divine right of kings. Though the first was a demand of the liberal parliaments in Europe, its concession by the monarchies had the effect of transforming the peasantry into valuable allies against the radicals and the urban proletariat when revolutionary activity turned more violent in the summer and autumn of 1848. As for the divine right of kings, after 1848 all the ruling princes of Europe, save the tsars, understood that they could not rule without some form of popular consent.

Despite being charmed by Rapport's transparent optimism, I suspect that the reader of 2009 will be more intrigued by the gloomier aspects of his book, of which there are plenty because his descriptions are so complete. In his introduction, Rapport expresses his intention of allowing the reader to draw "her or his own conclusions and connections from the evidence," albeit with the aid of "what I hope will be a helpful nudge."

Today, these nudges might feel a bit like a small child tugging at a parent's sleeve to draw his attention to a wonderful ice cream stall, while, unfortunately, the parent's attention is concentrated on some impending catastrophe. At the same time Rapport does remain true to his aim of presenting the facts in a nonjudgmental way. This is a very complete book with an enormous bibliography of primary and secondary texts.

Such erudition does not prevent the story from being gripping. Rapport enlivens his account with well-chosen and entertaining quotations from contemporaries such as Tocqueville and Marx. For example, Marx observed that, if ever German revolutionaries were to storm a railway station, they would first buy a platform ticket.

Although the subject is vast, Rapport is a riveting narrator who remains in masterful control. While campaign maps, a glossary, and a dramatis personae might have been a help for the uninitiated, the book offers a breathtaking array of concise and witty pen portraits that endow it with the quality of popular history.

In Rome, we see Pius IX dithering between being a republican pope and a reactionary--reaction won. There, too, is Mazzini, who in March 1849 turned the city into a Utopian republic where nobles and workers loved each other, and where even Catholics and Jews practiced religious tolerance. In Venice, the reader discovers the plucky Manin desperately trying to preserve the newly founded republic from Austrian onslaught. Garibaldi, meanwhile, marches all over Italy with his wife and his hundred Argentinians. Poles and Hungarians, Saxons and Frenchmen, Serbs and Prussians also find a place in the cast, all finely depicted.

Then there are the reactionaries: the generals Windischgratz and Radetzsky; Bismarck and Louis Napoleon, the latter half clown, half brilliant political opportunist; and a whole gallery of kings, emperors, and grand dukes of the Austrian Empire. Rapport not only makes space for excellent character portraits, he also covers the social and military history of the urban upheavals and the military campaigns that were fought in Italy and Hungary in 1848 and 1849.

In Rapport's analysis, 1848 is a very hopeful year. He claims that it reignited hopes sown in the French Revolution of universal suffrage, social justice, and women's liberation. The evidence he offers for the last is scant, however: a Neapolitan princess who travels up and down the coast of Italy looking for anti-Austrian action; a few women clambering onto barricades; and, of course, Garibaldi's wife, who goes everywhere at his side looking every bit the romantic revolutionary.

After the revolutions had been thoroughly mopped up and the revolutionaries sent packing (mainly to England, then as now a refuge for subversives from other countries), Alexander Herzen, the Russian radical, produced an essay addressed to his son called "From The Other Shore," in which he wrote:
   Modern man only builds a bridge. It
   will be for the unknown man of the
   future to pass over it. You may be
   there to see him but do not I beg
   remain on this shore.... Better to
   perish with the revolution than seek
   refuge in the almshouse of reaction.

One senses that Rapport is right behind Herzen, cheering him on, confident that he is right. The world is a better place than it was. We are richer, we are more democratic, we have fairer legal systems that guarantee citizens' rights. The countries of Eastern Europe have finally achieved their revolutions and become independent members of the European movement.

But the reader of 2009 might not agree. He will look apprehensively at the precipice, which we now seem to be approaching, and compare the circumstances described by Rapport with those pertaining today. Was not the settlement at the Congress of Vienna in 1815, like the reconstruction and division of Europe after the Second World War, an attempt to freeze Europe against any future disruption? Metternich tried to hold back the tide of French republicanism with a ring of absolutist monarchies bound together by the Austrian Empire. Though the EU may be seen as the final flowering of a European consciousness, it can equally be regarded as an attempt to contain and control the terrible power of middle European nationalism. Nationalism remains as much a threat to the European Community as it was to the Austrian Empire.

In the years after the Napoleonic wars, there were massive changes in the economic structure of Europe. The spread of new technology had enabled mass production to supplant the artisan workshops of the past. A whole new proletarian class had been created from peasants attracted to the towns by greater job opportunities, while another class, that of skilled workers, was put under threat. In the 1840s, throughout Europe, the population was growing and food was becoming scarcer. Crop failures of potatoes and wheat reduced large sections of the population to starvation levels, and a revolutionary situation was born.

At the start of the 21st century, we, too, have witnessed a massive change in the economic structure of the world. Rapid communication via the internet and mobile-phone technology has had a threefold effect on the way that the world works. Firstly, skills and technical knowledge can now be relocated swiftly from one place to another, allowing industrial production to move from country to country with the greatest of ease. Secondly, the availability of knowledge has greatly increased both the movement of peoples and the friction between them. Lastly, technology and globalization have encouraged what was already the virtual world of banking to become lost in a fantasy of limitless wealth.

Just as Metternich's postbellum attempt to create a world in stasis was undermined by giant economic shifts, so now the stable world that was created after the Second World War has begun to dissolve. The pace of change seems to have outstripped society's ability to harness change. A few years of recession engendered by the financial chaos that we find ourselves in may well lead to a revolutionary situation, as occurred in Europe in 1848. This time, however, it will not be libertarian democrats protesting against absolutists but authoritarian and nationalist movements expressing disillusion with democracy and civil rights.

This book is full of quirky and interesting incidents. But the tone is set by the cruel waste of human life in the wake of these revolutions by both sides. In the autumn of 1848, there sprang up a terrible fashion for lynching moderate conservative politicians. It spread from Budapest in September 1848, when Ferenc Lamberg was battered to death by a crowd, to Vienna in October and the sadistic destruction of Latour, and thence, in November, to the fatal stabbing of poor Count Rossi in the entrance to the Roman Chamber of Deputies.

Equally, the crowds mown down by grapeshot in street fighting and the mass executions of the officer corps of the rebel armies make one feel that the most positive thing about the 1848 revolutions was that they only lasted for a year and a half. If today's democratic rulers have a chance to read this book, they might try to glean some information about how the absolutists of 1848 managed to survive the storm.

Septimus Waugh is a carpenter and woodcarver living in Devon, England. His website is www.septimuswaugh.
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Title Annotation:1848: Year of Revolution
Author:Waugh, Septimus
Publication:The American Conservative
Article Type:Book review
Date:May 4, 2009
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