1848: The Revolutionary Tide in Europe by Peter N. Steams

1848: The Revolutionary Tide in Europe

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The epidemic of revolutions which swept through Europe in 1848 continues to fascinate and exasperate historians. It fascinates became it was pan-European; it was, as Steams notes, the spectacular culmination -- or the last gasp -- of the age of democratic revolutions which began in the 18th century. It was the last time Europeans took to the barricades en masse. Yet, the 1848 conflagrations, viewed one by one, show few common elements. The pattern of events in Italy was markedly different from the pattern in Germany, Paris, or Hungary. The social composition of the revolutionaries varied, as did their goals. Depending on the angle of vision, 1848 was a revolt of artisans threatened by the new market economy, of lawyers and journalists excluded from political participation, of businessmen chomping at arcane economic policies, of students and intellectuals angered by censorship and spurred by nationalism, of peasants still struggling to overthrow the vestiges of feudalism. Steams justly underlines this diversity, arguing that the fatal flaw of 1848 was the absence of clear-cut class conflict. The middle class, especially, was suspicious and frightened by its lower class allies; liberalism with its mistrust of state intervention had little to offer either the peasantry or the new urban masses; and the humanistic radicalism of men like LedruRollin and Mazzini ""lacked a constituency."" Unlike Namier, Steams doesn't bemoan 1848 as a total debacle; nor does he see it as a failure of nerve. Rather, self-interest -- the self-interest of the liberal middle class -- made a hesitant, partial revolution, more rhetorical than real, inevitable. Not the last word on this controversial period, but a convincing interpretation which creates a semblance of order out of a very chaotic time.

Pub Date: March 25th, 1974
Publisher: Norton