5/22/09 - 1848

In today's excerpt - 1848, the year of revolution—perhaps the most pivotal year in the violent transformation of the countries of Europe from monarchies to democracies. By 1848, the industrial revolution was powerfully transforming Europe, creating a population explosion and a large middle class. This middle class began to form an irrepressible counterbalance to absolute monarchy and ultimately would not be denied the right to participate in government—and thus the industrial revolution itself spawned the democracies of the West. But the industrial revolution also created a new class of laborers, subject to the hard and unending demands of the new manufacturing era, and these political revolutions were also replete with ethnic conflict:

"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, Krakow 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 brick-built authoritarian edifice that had imposed itself on Europeans for almost two generations folded under the weight of the insurrections. ...

"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. ...

"The revolutions were scarred almost everywhere by a bitter, often violent political polarization. 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. ...

"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."


Mike Rapport


1848: Year of Revolution


Basic Books, a member of the Perseus Books Group


Copyright 2008 by Mike Rapport


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