Saturday, February 5, 2011

Revolution! "Whose last word is the dagger"

In 1848 a wave of revolutions uprooted Europe's monarchies, established constitutions, destroyed serfdom and nearly smashed Europe's old empires.

Nearly. 1848 was a bad year for European economies. The potato blight that had Ireland in the height of a disastrous famine caused a food shortage elsewhere, exacerbated by tough weather conditions. Unemployment soared in the cities. The continued growth of industrialisation rendered traditional skilled artisians obsolete and angry. The kings kept control at swordpoint, silencing rebellious mutterings of liberals and radicals with strict censorship, yet anti-monarchist ideologies were recruiting supporters among the literate classes.

The 1848 revolutions were decentralised and disorganised, bursting out spontaneously in one city when news arrived of a rebellion in another. Rebellions spread from place to place.

The monarchs were initially staggered by the events, and terrified. Many remembered the butchery of the French Revolution, and the disorder and violence of nationalist France under Napoleon, and this caused them to fight the rebels with caution. Some used soldiers as police, scattered throughout the city, yet these struggled to control violent rebels throwing up barricades. Most monarchs ended up surrendering some power to parliaments, aggreeing to constitutions and freedom of speech and religion - power shifted to the new middle class liberals.

Yet the rebels were doomed because of two competing ideologies that threatened triumphant liberalism. The first came from early socialists, often disorganised and lacking any central doctrine, driven by the fierce poverty of the unemployed. The liberals were so petrified by the threat of "anarchy" caused by looting peasants and proletariats that they united with their old conservative enemies to crush the new rebels. This time the monarchists were confident and resurgent, meeting opposition with brutal force. In Vienna the army withdrew and bombarded their own city, executing the rebel leaders once they had reestablished control.

The other danger came from a central premise of the liberal worldview: ethnic nationalism. German intellectualls spoke of the V├Âlkerfr├╝hling - Springtime of Peoples - a dream of Europe's ethnic groups divided into discrete nation states, coexisting in peaceful harmony. Much of Europe at that time belonged to great empires of Austrian Habsburg, Russia and Ottoman, sprawling multiethnic empires that contained irritated nationalists of Serb, Croat, Hungarian, Romanian, Pole and so on. Some of these minority groups demanded independence and the foundation of smaller ethnic nations. In other regions the opposite trend was emerging: Italy and German's small city states began looking at unification into greater nations.

Nationalists had to redraw the old borders, cutting through the old empires and clusters of city states, and they immediately clashed. Denmark defeated an alliance of German states in Schleswig. Hungarians demanding liberty from the Habsburg Austrians were attacked by Romanian, Slovak, Serbian and Croatian nationalists who feared Hungarian supremacy. Russians and Ottomans were drawn in to the east, and the Habsburgs played off the Poles and Ukrainians against one another.

The end result was a revival of conservative powers, the swift destruction of much of the liberal reform, the survival of the old empires and the rise of violent nationalist spirit. By postponing the foundation of nation states in east Europe, the counterrevolutions sowed the seeds for the chaos of World War I.

Well, that was 1848 and this is 2011, with almost all European countries now liberal democracies coexisting peacefully with little serious threat to the political systems in place.

To our south, however, a new wave of uprisings have been kick-started by an economic crisis. In Egypt, just as in 1848 Europe, the anti-government forces are a mixture of contradictory ideologies. Then it was liberal nationalists and socialist radicals, now it is democrats and Islamists.

Pondering this, I emailed Dr Mike Rapport, author of 1848: Year of Revolution, and asked him if he thought the similarities between the Arab uprisings and 1848 were superficial or if there was value in comparing them.

My thoughts exactly! So much depends upon what Mubarak - or, more accurately, the military - now does. If they stand aside, then there could be a situation akin to Petrograd in February 1917. If they stand firm and people are killed, then we could be looking at Paris or Berlin in 1848. Either way, I don't think the president can survive this one: his position, I think, is similar to Metternich's in 1848. Although, unlike Metternich, he is actually talking about concessions, it does seem that, like the Austrian Chancellor in 1848, any concessions which he does make without stepping down from power will be too little, too late. As you say, we've already seen one uprising (Tunisia), sparking others (Egypt, Yemen), so, to press the 1848 parallel further, has Tunisia played the part of, say, Sicily and Naples - the first thunderclap in 1848 - leaving Egypt to take the role of France - from where the revolutionary storm will be unleashed on other parts of the Arab world? If so, what role will Israel or the US take on? Non-committal, but seeking international stability above all else - like Britain in 1848 - or 'counter-revolutionary' - like Russia in 1849?

Metternich here is Klemens von Metternich, Chancellor of the Habsburg Empire until the 1848 revolutions. The European revolutions would sputter out, and this led the way to the Great War trenches. Back then, though, democracy was still weak and limited to a few countries; Metternich himself mocked the idealism of rebellion in Naples:

"A people who can neither read nor write, whose last word is the dagger - fine material for constitutional principles!... The English constitution is the work of centuries... There is no universal recipe for constitutions."

Today there are multiple democratic templates for Egyptians to choose from and young Egyptians are increasingly literate. Yet today's Egypt, like 19th century Naples, lacks a history of stable democracy.

Either way I wish them the best! Let's hope there is a peaceful solution to the troubles of Egypt and the other Arab states, and more functional forms of government emerge from the disorder.


  1. Nice analogy, Shane. I liked it. For what is the comment of a history drop out student worth, you would have been a good historian. Cognrats!

    It seems that Mubarak's plan is staying in power until September. Once the things settle down he can try reasserting his power and play the "The nation says my presidency is necessary for peace and order. Well... if you insist... I reluctantly accept" card. Unfortunately for him, many Egyptians didn't take this bait so far. We will see.

  2. Thanks Umut, I haven't studied history since I was 15 so I probably dropped out before you!

    This Metternich character is an interesting one. He talked a lot about "order", which reminds me of the modern Chinese government. Both may have a point, in that the disorder of transitions can be highly destructive. Yet central Europe did turn towards democracy eventually without collapsing. I don't know how much of his faith in order was genuine and how much was a self-serving desire for domination.


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