Read 1848 Online

Authors: Mike Rapport


Table of Contents
For Helen, of course,
and for Michael H. Rapport (1917-2007)
and John Bell (1964-2008):
de mémoire glorieuse et éternelle
In 1848 a violent storm of revolutions tore through Europe. With an astounding rapidity, crowds of working-class radicals and middle-class liberals in Paris, Milan, Venice, Naples, Palermo, Vienna, Prague, Budapest, Kraków and Berlin toppled the old regimes and began the task of forging a new, liberal order. Political events so dramatic had not been seen in Europe since the French Revolution of 1789 - and would not be witnessed again until the revolutions of Eastern and Central Europe in 1989, or perhaps the less far-reaching Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. The torrent severely battered the conservative order that had kept peace on the continent since the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, but which in many countries also suppressed dreams of national freedom and constitutional government. The brick-built authoritarian edifice that had imposed itself on Europeans for almost two generations folded under the weight of the insurrections.
The story of 1848 has been retold many times.
It is a complicated one and telling it poses some interesting challenges. One historian has described it as a problem of ‘historical synchronisation',
but Italians have a much more colourful phrase: ‘
un vero quarantotto
' - ‘a real 48' - which means ‘a right royal mess'.
While the main purpose is therefore to tell the story and to do so in a way that will hopefully be enjoyed, the book is also driven by the belief that the revolutions of 1848-9 are worth revisiting because they have such contemporary resonance. In general I let the reader draw her or his own conclusions and connections from the evidence and narrative presented here, but every so often I give what I hope will be a helpful nudge. In 1848 the revolutionaries were faced with the problem of constructing liberal, constitutional regimes, while facing issues that are strikingly modern. For the Germans, Italians, Hungarians, Romanians, Poles, Czechs, Croats and Serbs, the year was to be the ‘Springtime of Peoples', a chance to assert their own sense of national identity and to gain political recognition. In the cases of the Germans and the Italians, it was an opportunity for national unification under a liberal or even democratic order. Nationalism, therefore, was one issue that came frothing to the surface of European politics in 1848. While rooted in constitutionalism and civil rights, it was a nationalism that, ominously, made little allowance for the legitimacy of claims of other national groups. In many places such narrowness of vision led to bitter ethnic conflict, which in the end helped to destroy the revolutionary regimes of Central and Eastern Europe.
Another problem was the question of constitutions and democracy. The revolutions were scarred almost everywhere by a bitter, often violent, political polarisation. Moderates wanted parliamentary government - but not necessarily to enfranchise everyone - and they were challenged by radicals who wanted democracy - frequently combined with dramatic social reform - without delay. This split between liberals and democrats divided the revolutionary alliance that had so easily toppled the conservative order; and the resulting political polarisation had tragic consequences, not just in 1848, but for the future of liberal government and democracy in many parts of Europe deep into the twentieth century.
A third issue that came boiling to the surface in 1848 and never left the European political agenda was the ‘social question'. The abject misery of both urban and rural people had loomed menacingly in the thirty or so years since the Napoleonic Wars. The poverty was caused by a burgeoning population, which was not yet offset by a corresponding growth in the economy. Governments, however, did little to address the social distress, which was taken up as a cause by a relatively new political current - socialism - in 1848. The revolutions therefore thrust the ‘social question' firmly and irrevocably into politics. Any subsequent regime, no matter how conservative or authoritarian, ignored it at its peril. In 1848, however, the question of what to do about poverty would prove to be one of the great nemeses of the liberal, revolutionary regimes.
The revolutions were also genuinely European, in the sense that they arose across the continent. Even countries such as Britain and Russia that were not directly affected by insurrections were touched by the impact. This European dimension raises the interesting issue of how far Europe, in its historical development, is merely the sum of its different national parts, or how far those parts are linked by common experience, shared problems and similarities in ideals and aspirations. This question, too, has an important contemporary significance.
This book will explore these issues through a narrative of the events of 1848-9, which will draw on eyewitness accounts, memoirs and a wide range of secondary sources. This is a period of European history that is little explored outside academic texts, yet it is replete with its own drama: many of the images of European revolution - workers and students on barricades, red flags, tricolours - were present in 1848. The insurrections and their repression brought to centre-stage an impressive cast of characters, including: Metternich, the architect of the old conservative order; Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte (later Napoleon III), who became the French Second Republic's nemesis by trading on his famous uncle's name; Garibaldi, the red-shirted hero of the struggle for Italian unification; Mazzini, the near-religious inspiration behind Italian democratic republicanism; Bismarck, the Machiavellian dark horse of German history; and Radetzky, the wily, octogenarian Austrian field marshal who might legitimately have claimed to have been the main saviour of the Habsburg Empire. There are others who are perhaps not household names in the English-speaking world, but are no less the stuff of drama: the Croatian commander Jelačić; the fiery Hungarian revolutionary Kossuth; the bespectacled, inspiring Venetian republican Manin; the French historian and poet Lamartine, who had a flair for the dramatic. The 1848 revolutions present a complex and fascinating story, which combines the high politics of diplomacy, state-building and constitution-making with the human tragedy of revolution, war and social misery. Yet, at the same time, they had their truly uplifting and inspiring moments: 1848 was a revolution of hope as well as despair.
nderneath a darkening January sky, a convoy of horse-drawn sledges cut trails across a glowing, snow-covered plain. The procession halted at a barrier, the passengers' passports were inspected by a sergeant and a grizzled old soldier huddling under an oilskin, his rifle slung heavily over his shoulder, raised the barrier: it was the Russian frontier with Prussia. The sledges crunched once again through the snow. Turning his head, the lead passenger, a man named Alexander Herzen, heard a Cossack wish him a happy journey, the soldier holding the bridle of his own hardy mount, its shaggy coat hanging with icicles.
Herzen did not know it then, but he would not see Russia again. It was January 1847 and he was embarking on a European journey, accompanied by his wife Natalie, their three children, his mother, and two nannies. He was a member of the Russian gentry but also a socialist, escaping the stifling environment of life under Tsar Nicholas I and eager to learn more about ‘the West', to make comparisons with Russia and, he hoped in vain, to return with the fruits of his learning.
The Europe through which the Herzens were about to journey was a continent on the edge of an uncertain future. Politically, it was dominated by a conservative order. Of the five great powers - Austria, Prussia, Russia, France and Britain - only the last two had parliaments to temper royal power, but they were far from democratic. A parliamentary system had been evolving in Britain - albeit with bloodshed and political opposition - for generations. In 1832 had come the first great modern reform of the system, whereby urban property-owners were given the right to vote, while the cities - many of them hitherto absent or poorly represented at Westminster - were allowed to elect Members of Parliament. This was not democracy, for only one in five adult males (women were excluded as a matter of course) was enfranchised in England and Wales (and only one in eight in Scotland) and the composition of Parliament, which consisted of gentry and aristocratic landowners, remained virtually unchanged.
France had become a constitutional monarchy in 1814, when Napoleon was packed off to his genteel exile on Elba, and then again in 1815, after which the incorrigible Emperor was held under stricter conditions on the remote island of Saint Helena until his death in 1821. The Bourbon monarchy was restored, represented first by the portly Louis XVIII, younger brother of the guillotined King Louis XVI, and then, on his death in 1824, by their younger brother, the slender and ultra-conservative Charles X. The French constitution, the Charter of 1814, provided a parliament whose lower house, the Chamber of Deputies, was elected by the wealthiest 110,000 taxpayers. In 1830 Charles's royal intransigence in the face of repeated liberal electoral victories provoked the final overthrow of the Bourbon dynasty. It is said that Charles had once declared that he would rather be a hewer of wood than rule like a British monarch. It was therefore a sublime irony that, as he made his way towards exile (he would live in Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh), at one staging-post Charles's courtiers had to cut a table down to size so that everyone in the royal retinue could be accommodated in the small dining room. Back in Paris the Charter was retained by the new regime. This was the ‘July Monarchy', named for the month when the Revolution occurred, under King Louis-Philippe, the scion of the rival Orléans dynasty. The Charter was slightly modified, so that the electorate swelled to include only 170,000 of France's richest men: this was a mere 0.5 per cent of the French population, a sixth of those who enjoyed the vote in Britain after 1832.
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