The year the old order was shaken and stirred.
Nov 30, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 11 • By LAWRENCE KLEPP
It all began in February with a workers' protest march in Paris that turned violent when students joined in and a few thrown stones were met with an accidental, but fatal, fusillade from guardsmen. Barricades went up. Soldiers abandoned their units and joined the insurrection. In two days Louis-Philippe, the modest, dull "bourgeois king" installed by the revolution of 1830 to replace the intransigent Bourbon Charles X, was abdicating and fleeing with his wife to England under the alias "Mr. and Mrs. Smith." The news from France, as an American diplomat in Vienna put it, "fell like a bomb amid the states and kingdoms of the Continent; and, like reluctant debtors threatened with legal terrors, the various monarchs hastened to pay their subjects the constitutions which they owed them." Token constitutions often weren't enough, and soon the monarchs were sacking ministers (including Metternich) and packing bags.
Germany, still divided into 39 independent states, and Italy, which hadn't been under a single government since the Roman Empire, had the problem of arriving at a formula for national unity as well as constitutional government. The Germans quickly convened a parliament in Frankfurt, which established free speech and other basic rights for a united Germany that couldn't agree to exist, dissolving into boundary and dynasty disputes. (Both the Prussian king and the Austrian emperor refused the offered constitutional crown.)
Some of the bloodiest street fighting in Europe took place in Berlin, and the Habsburgs had to besiege Vienna, killing 2,000 citizens, to take it back. But the Prussian and Austrian monarchies survived through shrewd concessions and tough military tactics and proceeded to make short work of the remaining liberal movements. While Prussian troops dismantled the Frankfurt parliament and chased off Carl
Rapport's account, though sympathetic with the revolutionaries, is shaded with ambiguities. He points out that the old regimes, for all their repressive faults, weren't nearly as bad as modern totalitarian regimes. They had honest bureaucracies and more respect for traditional Central European crazy-quilt social and ethnic complexity than the liberal nationalists who sought to replace them ("the liberals generally preferred to deny to other peoples the very rights and freedoms they claimed for themselves," he comments). The monarchies quickly abolished the remnants of serfdom in their realms during the earliest revolutionary unrest. That's why peasants and ethnic minorities sometimes rallied to their side, as did, a little later, portions of the middle class suddenly haunted by Marx's "specter of communism." Liberalism found itself entangled with a nationalism that had antiliberal implications, and 1848 became just another turn in the European labyrinth from which there was no easy way out.
Lawrence Klepp is a writer in New York.