1848: The Year of Revolution

On February 24, 1848, in the midst of the mob violence that brought the abdication of Louis-Philippe and the birth of France’s Second Republic, the famed actress Rachel appeared on the stage of Paris’s Comédie-Française, dressed in a plain tunic and carrying the tricolor flag. She recited the words of the “Marseillaise,” dropping to her knees and wrapping herself in the flag as she began the penultimate verse:

Sacred love of the Fatherland,
Lead and support our avenging arms.
Liberty, cherished liberty
Fight with your defenders.

Rachel was 28, at the height of her popularity, and her much-repeated performance revived the popularity of the “Marseillaise.” It became a rallying cry of the continent-wide insurrections of 1848, representing the brotherhood of man that, for a few short months, liberal intellectuals thought was flowering.

It had been a devastating decade in Europe, with a depression and widespread hunger brought on by failed harvests and the potato blight. In January 1847, a Prussian government minister noted that “the old year ended in scarcity, the new one opens with starvation. Misery, spiritual and physical, traverses Europe in ghastly shapes — the one without God, the other without bread. Woe if they join hands.” The population of Europe had grown steadily since 1815 and industrialization was concentrating it in cities. The political order had calcified, though, with Europe still dominated by the “Holy Alliance” of repressive autocracies: Austria, Prussia, and Russia. Discontent was widespread, and only needed a spark.

Mike Rapport’s 1848: The Year of Revolution is the first general-interest history of this seminal year in more than five decades. He’s done a fine job of threading a way through complex events in numerous countries. The “Year of Revolutions” began in Sicily with a revolt that, while little more than bandits looting, became a cause célèbre. It crossed to Naples a few weeks later, and the news set radicals hopes alight around Europe. The collapse of the seemingly stable, bourgeois monarchy of France — Louis-Philippe abdicated on the same day that Rachel gave her performance — lit the tinder. Wherever it reached, the news encouraged street revolution after street revolution, and the rising expectation that, as in 1789, France would spread the seed of liberty by arms.

The unrest even troubled more liberal nations like England, Holland, and Denmark, where, thanks to traditions of representative government, it didn’t lead to street fighting. (When the great Chartist demonstration remained peaceable despite the government marshalling 8,000 soldiers and some 85,000 special deputies, Hector Berlioz noted that the English “know how to stage a riot as well as the Italians know how to write symphonies.”) In Italy, the Habsburg lands, and the German states, though, the discontent was coupled with an unfulfilled nationalist desire. The old monarchies were simply not capable of dealing with the volatile mix. They were faced with the dilemma of granting liberal demands or calling out soldiers who were likely to fire upon demonstrators and so perpetuate the unrest. Louis-Philippe had saved his throne by concessions, but an accidental shootout between soldiers and celebrants set the barricades up all over again. (When his republican successors ordered the army to suppress radical agitation in June, Louis-Philippe quipped from exile that a “republic is fortunate, she is allowed to order troops to fire on the people.”) In state after state, constitutions and parliaments were promised. In May, an all-German parliament was convened in Frankfurt to prepare a constitution for a united Germany.

No one took better advantage of this upheaval than Lajos Kossuth, the Hungarian firebrand. When he heard of the February Days in Paris, Kossuth delivered a rousing speech calling for Hungarian independence from Habsburg domination. His words spurred riots in Vienna itself on March 13. Kossuth used the radical disturbances as a negotiating tool with the fearful Austrians, and Hungary was granted a constitution and much autonomy. Kossuth had outmaneuvered the radicals and the conservatives, yet he quickly squandered his winning hand. His Magyar-centric vision of Hungary alienated the country’s large Slavic, Romanian, and Czech populations — who also feared Kossuth’s call for a 200,000-strong Hungarian army. By summer, order was being restored in the Habsburg lands: first in Czechoslovakia, then in Italy, where Field-Marshal Radetzky smashed the Piedmontese army at Custozza (for which he was commemorated by Strauss with the immortal “Radetzky March”). Many parts of Hungary — beginning with what is today Croatia — rallied to the Habsburg cause. (Kossuth fought on and declared full Hungarian independence in 1849, but by August the revolution had fallen before Habsburg arms.)

Almost as quickly as the revolts had sprung up in 1848’s “Springtime of Peoples,” they fell away. Weak and indecisive leadership allowed the older governments to regain their confidence. The all-German parliament was typical in dithering away without even being able to decide what actually constituted Germany. Distrust also proved more powerful than any longing for “cherished liberty.” The large Italian states were more suspicious of each other than Austria. The Czechs felt threatened by German nationalism and preferred soft Austrian rule, as did most of the Slavic peoples. The Habsburg Empire survived by providing safety for smaller nations from larger. Yet, while the liberal revolutions of 1848 failed, they set the stage for the age of nation-states. In just a few short years, Germany and Italy would be united by force of arms. Hungary would achieve a happy partnership with Austria. France would become a true republic. The old order, which had managed to survive the French Revolution and Napoleon, finally passed away. The events of 1848 were the bridge between 1789 and 1914.

Rapport has told this vast story clearly, though the density of detail in 1848 isn’t much leavened by anecdote or brilliant writing. A more troubling issue is that Rapport believes the events he chronicles were a catalyst of the eventual rise of liberal democracy (and a great precursor to the events of 1989). In this he fails to grasp that the liberal ideals of the 1848 revolutionaries were already outdated and were as undone by the forces they unleashed as the autocratic governments they opposed. Men like Mazzini, Kossuth, and Herzen wished to see autocracy replaced by liberal democracy; in the years after 1848 it was instead replaced by an aggressive nationalism. Europe was not united in common cause or respect for human rights but divided into armed camps whose actions made war inevitable. And the liberal revolutionaries who fostered the 1848 revolutions were themselves replaced by socialist ones, who wished to overthrow the state, not to reform it. Out of 1848 were born the forces that would plunge Europe into darkness in the 20th century. In the end, this is a minor flaw (and only present in Rapport’s concluding chapter): If Raymond Postgate’s The Story of a Year: 1848 (1956) remains the most sprightly account of 1848 and Lewis Namier’s 1848: The Revolution of the Intellectuals (1946) the more powerful analysis, Rapport will hold the middle ground for the foreseeable future. A pity there’s no mention of Rachel in his book.