Revolutions of 1848: A Social History

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Many books on 1848 tend to be heavily analytical. They focus on the connecting factors and underlying causes of the Revolutions, and thus tend to lose the narrative. Priscilla Robertson, however, fortunately takes the opposite approach. She focuses on a few of the major upheavals during 1848, and retells each of them as a single contained story.

Of course, it would be impossible to cover every single 1848 Revolution in one book. (“No one has ever numbered the revolutions which broke out in Europe in 1848” Robertson writes in the introduction. “…[But] there must have been over 50”.) Robertson therefore narrows her focus to France, Germany, the Austrian Empire (including a subsection on Hungary), Italy, and a short afterward on Britain and Ireland.

Even within these major countries, there were several different cities that experienced different revolutions. Therefore, in the section on Italy, for example, Robertson breaks it up by devoting separate chapters to Milan, to Rome, and to Venice.

There are advantages and disadvantages to this approach. Robertson is an excellent story teller, and she’s able to not only make the history come alive, but also to create a lot of suspense in the narrative. On the whole, it makes for enthralling reading.

The disadvantage, however is that every 75 pages or so you get pulled out of one story and have to work at getting yourself immersed into another. If you’re reading the whole thing straight through, it’s a bit jolting to go through the trouble of acquainting yourself with all the circumstances and actors in one revolution, only to find yourself yanked out and transported across the map into another set of circumstances and characters. The stories of the rise and fall of each different revolutionary government can start to feel repetitive after a while.

However, with a little bit of self-discipline, if you stick with the book I did find that I would gradually get immersed into each separate story. And because Robertson works so hard to recreate the feeling of those days, I had the pleasure of feeling like I was transported to several exotic cities in 19th century Europe. The reader of this book gets to spend time in revolutionary Paris, the student government in Vienna, Milan, Rome, Venice, Frankfurt, Dresden, various cities in Hungary, et cetera. (For someone like me who has never been to Europe, it was a great way to visit all of these cities vicariously).

There were a lot of emotions in the 1848 Revolutions, and Robertson does a good job of guiding us through them all. At the outbreak of the revolutions, we can feel the romanticism at each the dream of a utopian republic. “All schools of romantic thought had their day in 1848,” Robertson writes (p. 367).

Once the new governments begin to crumble, this early optimistic feeling all too quickly leads to despair, which Robertson also captures. Of the various people she quotes, perhaps the Russian socialist Herzen describes it most eloquently. “Half of our hopes, half of our beliefs were slain, ideas of skepticism and despair haunted the brain and took route in it. One could never have supposed that, after passing through so many trials, after being schooled by contemporary skepticism, we had so much left in our souls to be destroyed” (p. 96).

As often happens in history, the old order reasserted itself with astonishing brutality, and Robertson records several civilian massacres when the revolution fell.

1848 stands at the crossroads of history in more than one-way, and Robertson explores many of these. For one thing, 1848 represented the split between republicans and socialists. Under the old system, capitalists and workers alike felt themselves constrained by feudalism, causing the industrial class to often be at the forefront of the revolution. “1848 was the last time that business could seem radical” Robertson writes of the Vienna Revolution (p. 206).

Before 1848, most European republicans dreamed of a utopian fusion of the classes under a liberal republican government. “Only after the liberals won power did they discover that they were afraid of the workers; when the workers found this out, they turned to Marxian gospel” (p. 6).

1848 also saw the emergence of nationalism as a popular force. The desire for the various German and Italian states to unite as one country, as well as the desire for the independence among the various ethnic groups in the Austria-Hungarian Empire. As Robertson points out, the failure to resolve these matters in 1848 has been the cause of much of the bloodshed in the 20th century in the former Austria-Hungarian lands.

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Because the action in this book spans across a whole continent, it takes in its scope most of the prominent names of the time: Garibaldi, Mazzini, Bakunin, George Sand, Marx and Engels, Jacob Grimm, Metternich, Richard Wagner, Herzen, and Proudhon all figure prominently in this book (to list some of the bigger names). But there are many, many more names to keep track of. In each country we visit, we are introduced to the figures of the old regime, the moderates, the republicans, and the radicals. It’s a bit daunting keeping track of everyone, and it required a lot of going back to the index for me. Fortunately, the index in this book is excellent. So, if you don’t mind having to flip back and forth occasionally, it’s not a huge problem.

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A lot of popular history books recently are often advertised as having parallels to our current situation, or are recommended for leaders in Washington. But if I was controlling the reading list of Washington, I’d make sure to add this book. It shows the difficulties of creating republics in countries that are not used to democratic traditions, and how fragile those new republican governments can be.

(Of course, it has yet to be seen whether the United States is serious about creating democratic institutions in Iraq and Afghanistan, or simply establishing client states. But assuming the neo-cons are serious about building new republican governments, I think this book can help illuminate the mine-field they’re getting into.)

Interestingly enough though, this is not a recent book. It was first published in 1952. I’m not sure if any new scholarship on the subject makes it outdated now, but when I last in a major bookstore I saw it was still up on the shelves.

Priscilla Robertson, Revolutions of 1848: A Social History, (Princeton University Press, 1971).

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