the european riots of 1848 -- 10/20/15

Today's selection -- from 1848: Year of Revolution by Mike Rapport. In the early to mid-1800s in Europe, there was a stark contrast between the spectacular economic successes of the Industrial Revolution and the appalling working conditions of the masses. This was exacerbated by limited or non-existent voting rights across the Continent. In 1848, this culminated in an unprecedented epidemic of riots across Europe, including in Italy, Switzerland, Prussia, Austria, Hungary, Poland, Ukraine, Romania, and France. In Paris, as almost everywhere else, the protesters were defeated, but their actions helped lead to greatly expanded rights over the next several decades:

"Early in the morning of 23 June, some seven to eight thousand workers marched unopposed on to the Place de la Bastille, where Pujol, seizing on the symbolism of the location, called on the workers to bare their heads and kneel 'at the tomb of the first martyrs of liberty'. His stern voice carried across the respectful silence: 'The revolution is to begin anew,' he told the sea of bowed heads. 'Friends, our cause is that of our fathers. They carried on their banners these words: Liberty or Death. -- Friends! Liberty or Death! The crowd arose and thundered back: 'Liberty or death!' Pujol solemnly led the crowd to begin its work of building barricades. 'I can still see the gloomy faces of the men dragging stones; women and children were helping them,' wrote Herzen later. He passed by some workers joining a student in singing 'The Marseillaise': 'the chorus of the great song, resounding from behind the stones of the barricades, gripped one's soul', but, ominously, the Russian socialist could also hear the clatter of artillery being moved across the river. He saw General Bedeau scanning the 'enemy' positions with his field-glasses.

Painting of Battle at Soufflot barricades at Rue Soufflot Street on 24 June 1848 (with the Panthéon behind)

"By the end of the day, almost all of eastern Paris was held by the insurgents, whose numbers have been estimated at somewhere between 40,000 and 50,000, as against 25,000 regular troops and the 15,000 -- strong Mobile Guard. Many of the members of this latter militia were pitifully green -- some no more than sixteen years old. As it was recruited from among the same unemployed workers as the insurgents themselves. Few people believed that it would be reliable. The National Guard, democratised under the Second Republic, had been swollen to an impressive 237,000, but the thoroughly frightened rank and file proved less than courageous in their response to the call to arms. Maxime du Camp was one of the few who joined his battalion: many of his comrades, he charitably put it years later, 'pushed prudence to excess'. In fact, the more middle-class units (which tended to be based in the westernmost districts of the city) were the most likely to see their members respond to the drum beat. The units from the central districts, with their substantial population of master-craftsmen and shopkeepers, were severely thinned by an 'excess of prudence'. Their reluctance to fight did not indicate cowardice but rather reflected their social position: this lower middle class had been severely affected by the economic crisis and, while having a stake in law and order, it had no desire to get enmeshed in a struggle against people who were often their customers, employees and neighbours. Of 64,000 National Guards from the central arrondissements, only 4,000 turned out. Meanwhile, thousands of men from the legions of the working-class eastern districts actually defected to the insurgents. Of the 7,000 National Guards in Belleville, 3,000 joined the uprising. The balance, therefore, was not necessarily tipped in the government's favour.

"There were last-ditch efforts at mediation. Francois Arago stood before the barricade on the rue Soufflot near the Panthéon, trying to persuade the insurgents to stand down. The bitter reply showed that the barricade was not just a military fortification but could symbolise the great social division within the republican movement: 'Monsieur Arago, we are full of respect for you, but you have no right to reproach us. You have never been hungry. You don't know what poverty is.' Arago sadly withdrew, convinced that 'force must decide'.

"The first deaths came at noon on 23 June, when the barricade at the Porte Saint-Denis was attacked by National Guards. It is said that two beautiful prostitutes hoisted up their skirts and, taunting the troops with obscenities, dared them to fire. They were immediately cut down in a hail of bullets. The National Guards managed to overcome the defences, but only after losing thirty men in some bitter fighting.

"In the end the government prevailed over the insurrection because it had superior firepower. Lamartine, who joined the fighting at twilight, saw the cannon sent by Cavaignac levelling the fortifications in the north-eastern Faubourg du Temple. He counted 'four hundred brave men, killed or mutilated, [who] strewed the faubourg'. It was carnage."


Mike Rapport


1848: Year of Revolution


Basic Books


Copyright 2008 by Mike Rapport


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