Year of Revolution

by Mike Rapport

Basic Books, 496 pp., $29.95

Unless you're a Whig still excited by your last winning ticket (Zachary Taylor and Millard Fillmore), the year 1848 doesn't have much resonance in American history. But during that spring, revolutions swept Paris, Berlin, Vienna, Rome, Milan, Budapest, and other European cities. Seemingly impregnable authoritarian regimes suddenly collapsed, leaving behind liberated nations and millions of individuals surprised to find themselves with freedom and rights. By the following winter it had all come apart. Counter-revolutionary forces bloodily prevailed, and despite a few reforms that survived the carnage, the year became, as A.J.P. Taylor suggested, a turning point that failed to turn.

It's to the credit of Mike Rapport, a lecturer at the University of Stirling, that he doesn't flatly say why. He just brings in a few suspects for questioning, the usual ones: new but already uncompromising and irreconcilable nationalist passions, militarism, and a radical left extremism that sabotaged liberal democratic gains, all of which would be heard from again in the 20th century.

Rapport is acutely aware that the story of simultaneous revolutions in over a dozen different places, each with local twists and turns, is bound not only to resist generalizations but to be impressively confusing. In fact, he tells us right off that the Italians adopted the year as proverbial shorthand for any major hell of a mess--un vero quarantotto, "a real forty-eight." His narrative method is to crosscut from one tumultuous revolutionary scene to another and back again, like a movie director with 14 subplots, and it isn't really his fault that he occasionally loses the reader in the crowd. You can read every word and still be unsure about what really happened in Tuscany and Transylvania (but then, so were the Tuscans and the Transylvanians).

The events of 1848, coming at the end of the Romantic period, have a theatrical, operatic aura. Soulful long-haired students and poets leave their garrets to join priests and prostitutes and paupers and renegade nobles at the barricades in the narrow cobblestone streets. Women defiantly face the line of advancing soldiers with bared breasts, inviting them to shoot (they do). Italy is awakened from a long slumber by two stern and honorable revolutionaries, Mazzini and Garibaldi, Hungary by the equally formidable Kossuth. A young composer named Wagner climbs a bell tower amid gunfire in Dresden to sound a revolutionary tocsin, and a pope makes his escape from suddenly riotous and republican Rome disguised as an ordinary priest. Cloaks and daggers abound.

Rapport deftly gives us the drama and its scheming or heroic or vacillating characters but doesn't have much time to evoke their settings--teeming streets in Paris or Palermo, picturesque German principalities, vast Hungarian plains. There's too much going on, and the author, like the revolutionaries themselves, is in a hurry. The revolutions started and finished fast because they came both too late and too early.

Too late because continental Europe's state and social system had been frozen in time since Waterloo in 1815, thanks in large part to Prince Klemens von Metternich. As foreign minister and chancellor of Austria, he had formed an alliance of reactionary monarchies devoted, like the newly restored Bourbons in France, to learning nothing and forgetting nothing--especially the year 1789, which was not going to be permitted to happen again. He failed to notice the start of another revolution, the industrial one, and with it the emergence of a new middle class with liberal ideals but without political power or expression, plus a new, increasingly desperate urban working class. (Marx's Communist Manifesto came out at the beginning of the year.)

Too early because the liberalism of the middle classes hadn't reached the peasants, still the vast majority of the population and often the X factor in the year's revolutionary equations. And because the liberal revolutionists hadn't grasped that the genie of nationalism, once out of the bottle, would serve any master and divide as much as unite, a point Rapport repeatedly illustrates. Romanian peasants seething under Hungarian landlords in Austrian-ruled Transylvania violently resisted incorporation into an independent Hungary. Czechs were horrified that German liberals wanted Bohemia and its German minority as part of a united Germany.

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 Schurz, the future Republican senator, and hundreds of thousands of his freedom-seeking compatriots to America, the Austrians shelled Venice, briefly a free republic again (luckily they didn't do much damage) and dispersed Garibaldi's volunteers in central Italy. In Hungary, where the largest battles took place, Kossuth's government was eventually crushed by Russian as well as Austrian troops. Meanwhile, back in France, the new Second Republic, weakened by a "red summer" of socialist agitation and working-class rioting, fell into the hands of Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, Napoleon's nephew who, after being elected president, replaced it with the pompous Second Empire.

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.

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