Revolutionary Spring: Fighting for a new world, 1848–1849
Allen Lane, $75 hb, 900 pp
There are two powerful images evoked by the waves of revolutions that broke across Europe in 1848. The first is of ‘the springtime of the peoples’, when scores of popular insurrections overturned the conservative Metternich system of a balance of power between monarchical regimes that had ruled the continent since the overthrow of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1815. In France the core demand was popular democracy. Elsewhere, demands for self-determination were linked to dreams of national unity in Germany and Italy, and further to the east to the desire for independence from the Austrian and Russian empires.
An insurrection in Palermo against Spanish Bourbon rule in January 1848 unleashed upheavals from France to Moldavia and from Norway to the Ionian Islands in the Adriatic, then a British Protectorate. The uprisings were spectacular and exhilarating. In Christopher Clark’s opening words, ‘this was the only truly European revolution that there has ever been’. Even in England, the 150,000 Chartists who gathered on Kennington Common in April 1848 caused momentary concern to the monarchy.
When the Berlin feminist Fanny Lewald arrived in Paris in March, she was astonished by the constant singing, the zest for high rhetoric. Across the continent, democrats and socialists organised and debated and were mocked for their utopianism by conservatives, as they were later in novels by Gustave Flaubert and the Hungarian Mór Jókai. Demands for civic equality were expressed by activist women, and in places by Jews and Roma. In France and the German states, hopes were raised for a resolution to ‘the social question’ created by the excesses of early industrialisation and posed by Marx and Engels among many others.