History Thread: Mini-Review of Christopher Clark’s Revolutionary Spring

The History Thread is back! I did not have a chance to write a full review of Revolutionary Spring, Christopher Clark’s new book on the Revolutions of 1848, but hopefully a short write-up (originally posted on Goodreads) will suffice as a header/starting point for discussion. Suffice to say, I really enjoyed this book.

Christopher Clark’s Revolutionary Spring offers a staggering chronicle of 1848, the year in which Europe exploded into a massive, simultaneous upheaval against the established order. Clark provides a deep dive into the conditions which generated such epochal unrest, from the nationalist movements of Italy and Germany, the tottering “July Monarchy” of France and the complicated interplay of nationalisms in the Austrian and Russian Empires. All manner of freedom struggles seized the moment: liberal and radical Frenchmen sought to redeem the lost Republic from Louis Philippe, while German nationalists viewed unification as a goal not only to strengthen their state but to ensure greater liberty against the landed classes. Independence groups, particularly Italians, Poles and Hungarians, worked to further their causes, though uniting peoples often proved easier than done; Balkan nationalists clashed with pan-Slavic movements, loyalty to the Church and peasant disdain for the landowners who often led these movements. As Clark shows, the revolution wasn’t even a strictly European phenomenon; France’s Republican government was forced to emancipate their slaves in the West Indies, England instituted economic reforms to forestall an uprising, and ripples of the “Spirit of ’48” made their way to the United States and Australia. Not since the French Revolution of 1789 had an eruption of the social order been so widespread and profound; and though their success was mixed at best, the forces it unleashed could not be rebottled.

Clark’s book is a hefty 758 pages of text in its hardback edition, much of it devoted to setting the stage with political and cultural background. While casual readers might find these earlier passages daunting, they’re worth the effort so that when Clark’s narrative finally arrives at the Revolution, it’s easy to keep all the names and peoples straight. Clark is a witty and authoritative writer, finding telling details and amusing anecdotes such as the Czech nationalist who crashes a fancy dress ball dressed in rotting wolfskins, or dueling French and German nationalist ballads about the taste of Rhine wines! The narrative is peopled with a who’s-who of 19th Century notables, from statesmen like Otto von Bismarck (who appropriated the liberal aspirations of the Frankfurt parliament to his expansion of Prussian power) and Napoleon III (shrewdly subverting France’s republican movement for his own benefit) to Hungary’s romantic nationalist Louis Kossuth, Italy’s doomed revolutionary Giuseppe Manzini, French feminist and novelist Marie d’Agoult (known to posterity as Franz Liszt’s romantic partner, a disservice to her intellect and accomplishments), Karl Marx, whose resentment at the revolution’s failure shaped his development of communism and American journalist Margaret Fuller, who died fleeing Italy with her lover.

Clark shows that this heady moment collapsed through the rebels’ general disorganization, allowing their enemies to outmaneuver or crush them. France’s Napoleon III won an election as a republican only to assert himself as dictator, then Emperor; this Bonaparte skillfully played the revolutionary sentiments of his people against their fond memories of his uncle. The Roman Republic’s espousal of religious tolerance (which spilled into anticlericalism) eroded much of its support, allowing Pope Pius IX (initially driven into exile) to invite a French invasion to restore his power. In Northern Italy and Eastern Europe, Austria, Russia and other powers simply crushed the risings with brute force. Few of the regimes established in 1848 survived the next two years, but the causes – liberal nationalism that would unify Germany and Italy, while conversely destroying Austria; ideas both for democratic reform and radical change which animated future revolutionaries; class consciousness in face of industrial development and reactionary violence; universal brotherhood and freedom from slavery and gender oppression – would dominate European (and world) politics for the next century. Perhaps Clark errs in drawing direct parallels with more recent upheavals in Europe and the United States; but it’s hard not for readers to reach the same conclusions, that the issues of 1848 remain as alive and contested as ever.