The Sunday Telegraph - Sunday
A year of bloody revolutions that echoes across Europe today
REVOLUTIONARY SPRING: FIGHTING FOR A NEW WORLD, 1848-1849
896pp, Penguin, £30 (0844 871 1514), RRP £35, ebook £14.99
At the end of this massive, authoritative and deeply researched book about the continental-wide upheavals of 175 years ago, Christopher Clark observes that, “I was struck by the feeling that the people of 1848 could see themselves in us.”
He refers to the instability in recent years in what we had, since the Second World War, taken to be the settled and stable polities of the West. He illustrates his contention in Revolutionary Spring with reference to the gilets jaunes in France, who in some cases consciously imitated the actors of 1848 in Paris, and whose protests have in recent weeks developed into what some fear is near-anarchy. Before that, there were the Canadian truckers’ protests of 2022 against their government’s Covid restrictions, and the ugly phenomenon of Donald Trump, culminating – or has it actually culminated? – in the events in Washington DC on January 6 2021. One wonders why Clark does not mention Brexit: if ever there were a popular uprising that changed the European political landscape, that was it.
Yet perhaps the parallel is not exact, because the revolutionaries of the mid-19th century were rapidly confronted by counterrevolution, something that has yet to happen in the context of Britain’s own liberation from external control. The revolutionaries of 1848, tens of thousands of whom died in confrontations in France, the Italian and German states, Austria-Hungary and on the fringes of the Ottoman empire, played for much higher stakes: their lives.
Clark depicts two distinct brands of revolutionary, the bourgeois and the radical: both were determined to wrest political power from a distant ruling elite, but the former had less seismic aims. When the counterrevolutions came, with varying degrees of violence and retribution, the attempts to achieve change by force were squashed, but it wasn’t long before the bourgeois quietly re-emerged as what we would now call the technocratic class, which across Europe made accommodations with and thereby re-calibrated those counter-revolutionary forces.
As Clark makes clear, the political movement that unleashed itself in the early weeks of 1848 soon differentiated itself by nation. Indeed, the pursuit of nationhood and the idea of self-determination that comes with it were paramount for the various bands of revolutionaries. Some collections of states, notably what after 1871 we called Germany and after 1860 what we called Italy, were looking to end more local, feudal rule – or in the case of parts of Italy, rule by
the Austrians – and to create nations united by language, culture and history.
Clark’s story is one of three parts. As with his magnificent 2013 book, The Sleepwalkers, which remains probably the best written in English about the causes of the Great War, he gives ample context for the events by way of a backstory, starting in France in the 1830s. Then, in the middle third, he moves thematically from arena to arena, describing in detail how revolutionaries and insurgents took on the continent’s old ruling class. Leading up to his conclusion
about the relevance of these events to today, he looks at the aftermath of 1848-9, a section of the book he does not call “The Triumph of the Bourgeoisie”, but might as well.
It was, after all, they who in a remarkable vote in France installed a Bonaparte, Napoleon III, as their ruler by an overwhelming majority in 1849, and who turned scarcely a hair when he established the Second Empire in 1852. They also manifested in their tens of thousands in Berlin in 1856 at the funeral of the city’s police chief, Karl Ludwig von Hinckeldey, whom an arrogant young aristocrat had shot in a duel.
Hinckeldey had sought to modernise the capital of Prussia in the same way that, in the postrevolutionary world, the prefect Haussmann was about to modernise Paris. The message of the book is one of evolution and not revolution, something the regrettable and bloody reputations of Europe’s two greatest examples of the latter – in France in 1789 and Russia in 1917 – seems to have guaranteed. The latter would give Karl Marx, so disappointed by the events of 1848, his day in the sun, with grievous effects that are still being experienced today.
Our own country has a walk-on part. There were disturbances here in 1848, notably the Chartist gathering in Kennington that April, where what England did not call the bourgeoisie again rallied – thousands of them as special constables – ensuring it came to nothing. That Britain escaped lightly is explicable: a period of riotous unrest in the late 1830s and early 1840s had forced the government to address what became known as “the condition of England question”. Feudalism and a peasantry were things of the distant past, though class was still an issue; yet Gladstone’s insight in pressing Peel to begin the process of repealing the Corn Laws in 1844-6 had made food cheaper for the masses, and launched a new era of national prosperity. It was yet another way in which Britain’s differences from Europe go back centuries – differences that, in their latest iteration, came to a head in the referendum of 2016. It is also another reason that we should read more history, especially in supreme works of scholarship such as this.
England has a walk-on part in this story – when the Chartists gathered at Kennington Common