Revolutionary Spring: fighting for a new world 1848-1849


As Regius Professor of History at the University of Cambridge, Sir Christopher Clark has an established reputation for the crafting of insightful historical narratives that explore complex periods of change and turbulence across the European continent. Most notably, these include The Sleepwalkers, published in 2012, which tracks the factors that compelled the major European powers over the precipice into war in 1914, through an analysis of the political currents of the previous decade. His latest work, Revolutionary Spring: fighting for a new world 1848-1849, harnesses a similar approach in analysing historical events and political trends within individual nations as part of a broader European framework.

The subject of Clark’s study is the series of apparently interconnected revolutions that convulsed Europe in 1848. The chronology of these revolutionary events across a broad geographic area proves challenging to unravel, particularly as they are often intrinsically linked to political and intellectual trends within individual nations. Localised revolutionary activities cascaded across the broader European landmass, permeating national boundaries and imperial frontiers. In this sense, the events of 1848 differ markedly from more well-known revolutions, including those in France and Russia, which failed to trigger similar revolutionary initiatives in other nations. As Clark highlights, the impact of the revolutionary movements of 1848 was felt beyond the shores of Europe, stimulating radical intellectual thought in Australia, Latin America, and the French Caribbean, demonstrating the transmission of 19th-century political knowledge across the globe.

Clark recognises that the foundations of the 1848 revolutionary movements were laid by a range of interconnecting intellectual trends that congregated around an urgent demand for change, including the role of women in work, politics, and society; religious freedom; and emancipation of the oppressed. While the revolutionary movements that came to the fore in 1848 had a long intellectual gestation as republican sentiments against monarchical rule, the immediate catalyst for action was a localised insurrection in Sicily, which sought to reject Bourbon rule.

In turn, the outbreak of political unrest in Sicily contributed to the ‘February Revolution’ in France and a series of other revolutionary outbreaks, accompanied by varying degrees of violence, across Germany, Italy, and the Austrian Empire, with particularly notable concentrations of activity in the great capitals of Berlin, Paris, and Vienna. The impact in the United Kingdom was distinctly muted and limited to a Chartist demonstration, while Republican rebellion in Ireland, linked to the Great Famine, was crushed following a climactic gun battle in South Tipperary. Despite the revolutionary fervour exhibited by the movements that erupted in 1848, they were ultimately fated to end in failure as governments mobilised effective counter-revolutionary forces to retake control and enforce law and order.

The neat concentration in time and space of the revolutionary outbreaks of 1848 demands consideration of the extent to which the movements were interconnected, particularly given the unusual cascade of outbreaks of political unrest across multiple nations. A simplistic analysis would suggest the likelihood that the outbreaks were triggered in sequence through the coordinated activities of a revolutionary network embedded across Europe.

Revolutionary barricades in Vienna, 1848.  Activity was notable in the great cities of Europe, and intrinsically linked to public squares, such as the Landhaus courtyard. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Yet, as Clark argues, the tempo of the ‘revolutionary wave’ suggests less coherence in organisation and more focus on the seizure of opportunity by radical thinkers immersed in similar intellectual worldviews. Organic and dynamic reactions to fast-moving events, underpinned by converging trends of radical political thought, drove the wave of revolution across Europe.

Marked similarities

While recognising that the revolutionary wave of 1848 has not been repeated since in Europe, Clark notes a marked similarity with the events of the Arab Spring from 2010 onwards, when the suicide of Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia catalysed a series of anti-government uprisings and demonstrations across the Middle East.

The Arab Spring resulted in significant political change, including the fall from power of leaders in Egypt, Syria, and Yemen. In both instances, deep wells of radical political thought were translated into public outpourings of popular anger and demand for governmental change, assisted by emerging mechanisms for the transfer of news and information across and within communities.

The role of the public square as an enabler and focal point for revolutionary movements is a particularly thought-provoking aspect of Clark’s analysis. Revolutionary outbreaks within major cities in 1848 were intrinsically linked to public squares and other popular spaces, including the Landhaus courtyard in Vienna and the Piazza del Quirinale in Rome. A similar association of revolutionary activity with particular public sites is also notable in more recent revolutionary outbreaks, including Tiananmen Square in China in 1989 and Tahrir Square in Egypt in 2011. Such geographic locations for political unrest facilitate a sense of community and safety in numbers for protestors, while maximising the effectiveness of communication and the rapid transfer of information.

Inevitably, Clark’s analysis focuses on the social and political movements that contributed to the revolutionary outbreaks. Military forces played a role in these events, too, particularly in a counter-revolutionary capacity to quell resistance and enforce the authority of the government and monarch. The role of the military in disrupting outbreaks proved challenging in facing opponents who were not dissimilar to the general population and, indeed, claimed many veterans within their own ranks.

As a result, the ability of military forces to retake control was impeded by the ability of protestors to anticipate their likely manoeuvres. In Berlin, for example, protestors deliberately provoked soldiers to repeatedly trigger their agreed defensive manoeuvres, leading to fatigue and irritation on the part of the troops and explaining, in part, the viciousness of their reprisals.

In their scale, complexity, and reach, the events of 1848 defy easy explanation. Clark’s study provides a comprehensive overview of how the political trends of the early 19th century contributed to the revolutionary outbreaks of 1848 and subsequent counter-revolutionary responses.

Yet it is also an intrinsically human story, of individuals caught up in far-reaching political turbulence beyond their individual control. As the radical politician Robert Blum was led to his execution, he shed a single tear and noted: ‘This tear is not the tear of the parliamentary deputy of the Germanic nation Robert Blum. This is the tear of the father and husband’.

Christopher Clark
Allen Lane, hbk (£35)
ISBN 978-0241347669