Saturday, February 28, 2009

Revolutions of 1848 by Priscilla Robertson

subtitle: A Social History
(book review)

I never even heard of the Revolutions of the Revolutions of 1848 until I was a third year college student. And I was a European History major at that.

In school, European history had always seemed to quietly fade away shortly after the Renaissance. Once America was discovered, the focus of our history textbooks shifted across the Atlantic, and Europe was never heard from again until the 2 world wars.

My ignorance could be an exceptional case, but in talking with other Americans my impression is that very few of my compatriots have heard of the 1848 Revolutions or know much about 19th Century Europe.

So, for my fellow Americans, here is a quick recap:
The first French Revolution, for all its fame (for all the stories by Dickens and movies about Marie Antoinette) ended in failure. The early republican ideals turned into Napoleon's military dictatorship, and then after Waterloo the monarchy was restored. From 1815 onwards, all of Europe was once again ruled by monarchies.

But then suddenly, in 1848, Revolutions took place in almost every major European city in the same year.
It's a fascinating subject to consider (and I've jotted down some thoughts on this blog in the past). Countries as varied as France, Italy, Austria, Hungry, Germany, Switzerland, Ireland, Poland, Denmark, et cetera, with vastly different history, culture, intellectual legacies, and political systems all were simultaneous caught up in the same wave of Revolution. What was it that caused the revolutionary wave to cross all these national boarders?

The same question can be asked about the 1960s, in which student protests were occurring all across the globe, in Europe, in America, in Mexico, in Asia, in Oceania; in the West and also in the Soviet bloc; in the 1st world, the 2nd world and in the 3rd world. What was it that caused the same feelings of revolt to strike all these diverse areas at the same time?

Comparisons are often made between 1848 and 1968, and in fact one of the books I was assigned at Calvin explored the comparisons between 1848, 1968 and 1989 (A).

But although 1968 is more vivid in modern memory, although it was captured on film and has a great soundtrack to go with it, 1848 was by far the more eventful of the two years. 1848 was not simply students marching around with placards, but instead barricades went up, governments collapsed and all over Europe, kings, emperors, heads of state, and even the Pope himself had to flee from their former domains.

Unfortunately, these proved to be very fragile victories, and by 1851 all the new republican governments had once again been wiped out, and the kings, emperors and the Pope were back in control. Europe would have to undergo many more revolutions, wars, and bloodshed before it achieved stable republican governments.

All of this I mention as simply an introduction to the subject material, before I get to around Priscilla Robertson's book itself.

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 which experienced different revolutions. And so 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 build a lot of suspense in the narrative. The reader is constantly turning the page to find out what happens next. 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 characters 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. (This is one reason why this book sat on my shelf for years before I finally sat down and read it cover to cover.)

However, with a little bit of self discipline, I did find that I would gradually get immersed into each separate story if I just stuck with the book. And because Robertson's prose works so hard to recreate the feelings and atmosphere of 1848, 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 the plans and dreams for various utopian republics. "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.


Because the action in this book spans across a whole continent, it takes in its scope almost all 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.
But besides the names listed above, 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.


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 was back visiting America I saw it was still on the shelves at new bookstores.
A version of this review was also sent to Media Mouse.

Link of the Day
Afghanistan War Protesters were Right: The War has Failed

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