Densely written account of a turning point in European history.
Scottish academic Rapport (History/Univ. of Stirling; The Shape of the World: Britain, France, and the Struggle for Empire, 2006, etc.) argues that the import of this revolutionary year is misunderstood when compared with more famous flashpoints such as the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. Although the serial revolutions of 1848 failed, “the brick-built authoritarian edifice that had imposed itself on Europeans for almost two generations folded under the weight of the insurrections,” he writes. They rippled across the continent, starting fires in various cities within Germany, Italy, France and central Europe. Rapport captures their breadth in a narrative of equally staggering scope, tracking a score of factions and provocateurs across numerous countries and cascading periods of violence and fitful reconciliation. He shrewdly divides the text into digestible sections. “The Forest of Bayonets” shows old-line statesmen like Metternich, credited with holding together the Habsburg regime, failing to anticipate the resentment of diverse groups of peasants and artisans against calcified political systems. “The Springtime of Peoples” depicts fast-spreading popular liberalism being checked by the Prussian military. “The Red Summer” and “The Counter-Revolutionary Autumn,” portray the peak of urban street violence and the rural populations’ emergence in support of the established order, which effectively terminated the revolutionary arc. Yet Rapport argues that the effects of 1848 were long-lasting. Serfdom was abolished, and “no country was wholly unaffected by the upheavals, even if they did not directly experience an uprising.” These “broad similarities in the revolutionary experience were all the more remarkable,” he continues, given the various nations’ ethnic rivalries and distinct differences in political orientation. His conclusion, which links the revolutions of 1848 with the seismic changes of 1989, suggests convincingly that the 19th-century upheavals fueled both a greater tolerance of European liberalism and the sense of grievance that would eventually produce two world wars.
Authoritative, but detailed to the point of being somewhat unwieldy.