Engraving showing the battle in front of Palermo Cathedral during the Sicilian revolution of independence in 1848

When nationalism was woke

After the events of 1848, Europe was never the same again


This article is taken from the April 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Revolutionary Spring: Fighting for a New World 1848-1849, Christopher Clark (Allen Lane, £35)

The “Springtime of Nations”, as historians decades later started calling that extraordinary year of revolutions, began in Palermo and Naples in January 1848, when a series of violent demonstrations forced the Bourbon ruler of The Two Sicilies from the throne. 

In Paris on 23 February the so-called “bourgeois” King Louis Philippe abdicated, the chief minister Francois Guizot fled for his life and France’s Second Republic was declared. Riots broke out in Prague, Wallachia (Ukraine), Venice and Milan — all Habsburg lands where people had struggled for national independence for decades, if not centuries. 

Pope Pius IX fled from Rome in the dead of night disguised as a lowly parish priest. There were riots in Berlin, where the Prussian king barely escaped with his life, and in a dozen other German princely states. Revolts spread from Norway and Denmark to Switzerland and the Russian part of a divided Poland. 

Revolution reached Vienna in early March. University students rioted; workers went on strike, destroyed machines and burned down factories. Demonstrators inside the city walls clashed with soldiers, leaving 46 people dead. The elder statesman Clemens von Metternich, who had been in power for more than 30 years, was driven out of office and fled to London. 

Emperor Ferdinand V was forced to make a series of concessions to a mob that demanded a constitution, a parliament with real powers, the abolition of censorship, economic reforms and an end to the reactionary politics that had marked Habsburg governments since the Napoleonic wars. In Budapest, angry mobs took over the city and demanded Hungary’s independence from the Austrian Empire.

University students rioted in Vienna

As Christopher Clark, Regius Professor of History at Cambridge, explains in this epic work on a crucial and often misunderstood period, this was the only truly European revolution there has ever been. Neither the French revolutions of 1789 or 1830, nor the Russian revolutions of 1905 or 1917, nor the fall of the Soviet regimes in 1989–91 sparked similar crises on a transcontinental scale and at such speed. This happened even in an age when the main means of transport in most of Europe was the horse-drawn carriage and information was provided by newspapers before the development of telegraph wires. Ideas can spread fast even without the internet and social media — a thought that’s difficult to comprehend in the age of 24-hour news. 

Clark’s Sleepwalkers showed in a compelling narrative how Europe blundered into war in 1914. Here he vividly captures the drama of the revolutionary moment half a century earlier, over the spring and summer of 1848 amongst insurrectionists on the streets, monarchs and officials in the chancelleries, and cloth weavers in provincial towns. 

It is a complex story, brought alive with a cast of extraordinary characters from “the Dolce and Gabbana extravagance of Giuseppe Garibaldi”, to the novelist George Sand (who composed revolutionary bulletins for the short-lived provisional government in Paris), to Alexis de Tocqueville and the Hungarian revolutionary leader Lajos Kossuth. 

Later he describes with equal brio the fightback that autumn as counter-revolutions unfolded in Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Berlin and elsewhere. People longed for “order” to be restored. Rebellions were snuffed out, parliaments were shut down, insurgents were arrested, troops returned en masse to city streets, radicals were removed from positions of influence and monarchs restored to their thrones. 

Napoleon III, who mounted a coup in France in 1849 to save the Republic but subsequently declared himself Emperor, said afterwards that order was restored “and this is the end of politics” — much as some declared that the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 was the “end of history”. Politics and history appear to have survived.

Clark fills in some gaps that might shake British complacency

One significant country avoided revolution in 1848. Here we boast how the stability of Britain’s parliamentary institutions and ability to adapt to peaceful change saved us from the European tumult. Clark fills in some gaps that might shake British complacency.

 It was a much closer-run thing than often described in most English history books. That spring and summer, large demonstrations in several English cities by early socialist Chartist groups were ruthlessly put down by the army. Hundreds of activists were transported to the colonies — which was rather harder for some continental powers to organise. 

A little-known chapter in British history records an ugly episode in the only place during 1848 and 1849 where a British Government was confronted with a revolution. It was a minor incident in a relatively unimportant area. For a short while after the Napoleonic wars, Britain was responsible for the “sovereign protection” of the Ionian Islands (Corfu, Cephalonia, Ithaca and three others). After news broke of the revolutions in Italy and France, demonstrations on the biggest island, Cephalonia, were put down with ease. 

Renewed trouble broke out the following year when a new Lord High Commissioner, Sir Henry Ward, arrived. Demonstrations by more than 1,000 people on Cephalonia in September 1849 met extreme brutality by nearly 500 troops, led personally by Ward. Around 40 people were hanged, according to a parliamentary report, and 300 were flogged in public. There were dozens of mock executions along with “the burning down of houses and the uprooting of vineyards and currant plantations carried out as punishments”.

The orthodox view amongst historians is that the 1848 revolutions were a “failure” because the old authorities were restored in so many places. Napoleon III was more autocratic than Louis Philippe had been, and the French radicals and socialists were silenced for a generation. The Hungarian revolt was ruthlessly silenced by the Austrians, who desperately sought the help of the Russians to suppress Magyar independence. Reaction returned to Prussia and most of the German states. Pius IX returned to Rome back in his white vestments, secular head of the Papal States. 

Clark argues persuasively that in many countries the revolutions were not a failure. Not all parliaments were closed down after the “restoration”; constitutional monarchies were established in places such as Denmark. Real republican democracies were instituted, as in Switzerland. Twenty years after the Hungarian revolution was crushed, a compromise was reached that gave Hungary an autonomous role in an invigorated Habsburg Empire. 

Europe was never the same again, and so much of modern history — arguments about democracy, equality of opportunity, freedom of expression and much of the language of political debate — is rooted in the events of 1848. In practical terms, the revolutions were the launchpad for the process that led to the unification of Germany and Italy as nation states and other parts of Europe, for good or ill. 

Bismarck loathed the Leftist ideas of some of the Prussian revolutionaries of 1848, but he would have thought the revolution a success because it gave him the opportunity to create a modern German state. 

In any case, as Clark asks in a powerful conclusion, what is a success or failure in a revolution? Was the French Revolution a success? The American Revolution? “We don’t say of an ocean storm, a solar flare or sixteen days of heavy downfall whether they ‘succeeded’ or ‘failed’; we simply measure their effects,” he writes.

In order to understand this book, readers must re-learn the meaning of some central language and ideas — in particular “nationalism”. Clark deals with the idea and the word as most revolutionaries saw it at the time. 

For the last few generations, “nationalism” has, in many parts of the world, been appropriated by the Right. In the mid-19th century, revolutionaries — especially liberals — saw it as a progressive force for freedom and democratic rights against archaic forms of aristocratic conservatism. Liberals who believed in liberty and free markets believed in nationalism. The trendy ideology amongst idealistic young people was nationalism. Nationalism once was woke.

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