October 2010: Basic Books. ISBN-10: 0465020674
Reviewed for the Highlands Forum by Paul D. Kretkowski.
Dramatic as they are, the impact of the Arab Spring revolutions is dwarfed by those of 1848 Europe, where governments fell in France, Austria, several Italian states, and across much of latter-day Poland, Hungary, Germany, Ukraine, Romania, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. Mike Rapport's excellent and timely book,
While calls for reform and sporadic uprisings had already dotted the 1840s, most observers were surprised by the multiple intense struggles that engulfed central and southern Europe shortly after New Year's 1848. After all, the giant Habsburg Empire seemed stable and regional powers Russia, Prussia and England stood ready to veto any return to the war and chaos of Napoleon's time.
But urban reformers and revolutionaries discovered increasingly receptive audiences as recession and industrialization pummeled peasants and the emerging middle class. They argued that oppressive European monarchies had failed to protect their people from economic calamity, and deserved either sharp constitutional limits or, more radically, to be replaced by republican self-governance.
The pressure of ethnic nationalism was also growing stronger throughout the 1840s. Enclaves of ethnic Hungarians, Poles, Italians, Germans and others had been scattered among different nations and empires as a result of the post-Napoleonic peace, but they increasingly demanded unified nation-states and self-rule.
These were incendiary ideas for the time-especially since most monarchies still claimed direct mandates from God. Putting them into practice would cost monarchs territory, money and power, if not their lives. Their initial responses to reformers' demands were generally repressive: shutter the printing presses, round up the usual suspects, add more restrictive laws to the books. Such measures had worked before, but now government crackdowns seemed only to inspire the revolutionaries and radicalize the reformers.
Eventually the revolutions began, and news and ideas from Paris and Vienna and Milan spread more rapidly than ever before thanks to the modern technology of steamboats and the Continent's nascent railway and telegraph systems. While some uprisings were relatively peaceful-several rulers abdicated or fled to more monarch-friendly neighbors-others featured bloodshed and streetfighting that make today's Syria seem tame.
Armies and militias used cannon to blow apart urban barricades and their defenders, while civilians responded with highly successful ambushes and assassination. Armies of peasants took the field wielding axes and hatchets, to be cut down by the musket fire of trained professional armies. Running battles raged across cities such as Milan, and thousands on all sides died.
But after a revolution comes the urgent need to govern, as Arab Spring revolutionaries are rediscovering over a century and a half later. Many factors dictated whether a European revolution would transition to successful governance, or fall into chaos that would invite the former ruler's return. Most monarchs did eventually return, but what happened in their absence varied widely from country to country.
Rapport implies that revolutionaries' level of success depended on whether they ultimately sought simple political change or combined political and social change. As psychologists have shown, people will take risks in the hope of gain but are several times less willing to risk losing what they already have. In Rapport's telling, urban peasants and middle classes tended to tap the brakes once an old ruler was deposed, preferring to resume business as usual once they'd won some new degree of freedom.
In case after case, once initial political reforms were achieved-an independent parliament, expanded voting rights, the dismissal of a despised minister such as Klemens von Metternich of Austria-the middle classes increasingly joined conservative forces against any progress toward communism. As this tended to starve urban radicals of numbers, shelter and financial support, they sometimes looked to the countryside; wouldn't the oppressed masses there-many of whom were still technically slaves of their lords-have less to lose and more to gain from upending the social system?
The answer seems to have been "no." For one thing, rural peasants may have viewed the king or emperor as their protector against the depredations of landlords and petty bureaucrats. For another, rural peasants had a nearly instinctive distrust of cities, with their unfamiliar ideas and frequently, foreign populations.
Although a conservative backlash restored most of Europe's deposed monarchs within a few years, their subjects generally realized lasting gains. In most countries, fear of uprisings had already led rulers to abolish serfdom and other peasant obligations, though sometimes under indemnities that would take freed peasants a generation to pay off. But since this also meant lords no longer policed and judged peasants, that power now fell to central governments. As Rapport writes:
"The nobles would no longer act as intermediaries between the peasants and the government, but rather the peasantry now shared the same legal and civil rights as other subjects. In the long run this paved the way for them to become fully integrated citizens of the modern state."
The major political winner in all this may have been Prussia, whose central location, intolerance for chaos and reputation for acting with overwhelming force-think of it as the 19th century's exemplar of the Powell Doctrine-influenced events simply by keeping the more radical revolutionary movements guessing as to its intentions. By the 1870s, Prussia's patience and discipline would vault it to the head of an admired, progressive and united Germany.
However, one issue that
Analogies of 1848's revolutions to the Arab Spring revolutions are inexact since every revolution occurs for its own reasons. 1840s central Europe had few role models of representative democracy, but today's revolutions are undoubtedly accelerated by people's knowledge that political freedom and its standard bearer, higher living standards, lie just across the Mediterranean or even next door in Turkey.
However, the urge to unify ethnic groups over geography is if anything even stronger today than in the 1840s, when ethnic nationalism was just coming into its own as a rival to nation-state or imperial power.
Europe's 19th-century nationalist drives have their parallel in Kurds' efforts to create a modern Kurdistan, but regional power Turkey plays the Prussian role here: It simply will not tolerate an independent Kurdistan on or near its territory, and frequently ventures into Iraqi Kurdistan to let separatist Kurds know it.
As a group, other modern nationalist efforts experience what Stephen Jay Gould might have called a punctuated equilibrium-the snail's pace of Palestines and Tibets alternating with occasional breakouts by East Timors or South Sudans-but sudden, 1848-style battles over nation-states and their borders can't be ruled out.
1848 is a sweeping and complex narrative and as in any epic and heroic tale it requires attention to myriad actors, numerous monarchs, ministers, advisors, generals, reformers and revolutionaries. Moving from broad view to intricate detail is a feat in itself; but through it all, Rapport's conclusions are sharply drawn. He reminds us that:
"The events of 1848 gave millions of Europeans their first taste of politics: workers and peasants voted in elections and even stood for and entered parliament. The civil liberties that flourished all too briefly that year also provided Europeans with the free space in which they-including women-were politicised, through participation in political clubs and workers' organisations."
And what about the potential for the kind of conservative backlash that Rapport documents as occurring in 1849? If the Arab Spring revolutions run true to historic experience, there will sooner or later be a reaction to the institutional and social changes that the Tunisian, Egyptian, Libyan, Yemeni and (potentially) Syrian revolutions have wrought. At the very least, new republics could give way to old-school dictators, and new freedoms may be pared back as populations attempt to regain some of the security dictators provided without the loss of political choice those dictators demanded.
Through this lens, the controversy in Egypt over foreign influence in the guise of democracy-promoting international NGOs may be just the tip of a conservative iceberg as the new government in Cairo attempts to stabilize and legitimize itself.
But even if there were some sort of revanche in the Arab Spring revolutions and any that follow, Rapport concludes that:
"The problems that came boiling to the surface in 1848-constitutionalism, civil rights, the social question, nationalism-did not disappear simply because the counter-revolution stifled discussion and protest about them. Instead, conservatives were forced to reckon with them more than ever, not least because of the accelerating pace of economic and social change in the second half of the nineteenth century."