Revolutionary Spring: Fighting for a New World, 1848-49 
by Christopher Clark.
Allen Lane, 873 pp., £35, April, 978 0 241 34766 9
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On​ a Berlin street corner, just off Friedrichstrasse, there is a faded bronze plaque set into the wall. ‘Here on 18 March 1848, barricade fighters defended themselves against the troops of the Second Royal Regiment of Prussia who, hours later, refused orders to resume the attack.’ Then come three lines of verse: ‘Es kommt dazu trotz alledem/Dass rings der Mensch die Bruderhand/dem Menschen reicht trotz alledem.’ It’s Robert Burns. ‘It’s coming yet, for a’ that,/That Man to Man the warld o’er/Shall brothers be for a’ that.’ The poet who translated it, Ferdinand Freiligrath, was soon driven out of Germany into exile. He was one of countless thousands across Europe and beyond who believed that the uprisings of 1848 would inaugurate a new liberty throughout the world: ‘It’s coming yet for a’ that.’ The dream of a universal, international shattering of tyranny’s chains is one of the few accurately remembered fragments from the year of revolution. A second well-grounded memory is of the staggering speed with which the flame spread from country to country, in an age before phone or radio, as if the masses had only been waiting for a signal to pour into the streets and head for the palaces. Christopher Clark uses a metaphor from nuclear physics for the way the revolution accelerated:

From the beginning of March 1848, it becomes impossible to trace the revolutions as a linear sequence from one theatre of turbulence to the next. We enter the fission phase, in which almost simultaneous detonations create complex feedback loops. Reports of political upheaval from Cologne, Mannheim, Darmstadt, Nassau, Munich, Dresden, Vienna, Pest, Berlin, Milan and Venice and elsewhere fuse into an all-engulfing crisis. The narrative bursts its banks, the historian despairs and ‘meanwhile’ becomes the adverb of first resort.

Fortunately, Clark did not despair. He completed this magnificently researched, intelligent and thrilling work. It’s a massive book, nearly nine hundred pages long, but the scale of it allows Clark the room he needs to achieve two things. One is analysis; the other, which is where the magnificence comes in, is narrative. Clark takes all the space he requires in order to tell us what happened at each moment of crisis, as far as it can be reliably reconstructed. He tells it in colour and in great detail. The close-ups can be horrific: the mob lynching in Budapest of Count Lamberg, nominated by the emperor the commander of the Hungarian army, or of Count Baillet von Latour, the Habsburg minister of war, in Vienna. They can also be very funny: Count Stadion, the gentlemanly Austrian viceroy in Prague, driving a revolutionary delegation crazy by fiddling with his pince-nez and burbling on about what a pleasure it was to meet such competent chaps. Nonetheless, Clark is right to complain that ‘the narrative bursts its banks.’ The revolution was significantly different in each country it visited. This means it can’t be told as a single developing drama, but neither can it be treated by ripping individual countries and cities out of context and presenting their experiences one by one. The fearsome events unfolding in Vienna can’t be understood without taking into account the simultaneous eruptions in Hungary. The explosion in Berlin was touched off by news of the February Revolution in Paris, but took a quite different course. Clark attacks this problem by continuously revolving his narrative like a lazy Susan in a restaurant. After pages about Naples and the Bourbon kingdom come news from Austria at roughly the same point, then Hungary, followed by the situations in Wallachia and Croatia, Bohemia, Prussia, Vienna, Paris … Each will return later in the book, several times over, as the months of tumult pass and radicalism subsides towards the first signs of conservative revival and counter-revolution. This could be confusing, but Clark writes so well, and with such constant reference to simultaneous and relevant happenings elsewhere, that he makes his method work. There are very few ‘meanwhiles’.

This book, like other recent work on the period, does some heavy-lifting revision on popular versions of 1848. It’s true enough that the revolutions called for universal emancipation and spread across Europe with uncanny speed. But the ‘Springtime of Nations’ cliché, the notion that the driving force of the revolutions was the hunger of suppressed nationalities for independence and statehood, no longer stands. Clark shows that nationalism was at times lethal to the revolutions, especially in the Habsburg Empire and Eastern Europe. If the first surge of demands for political and then social reform was frustrated by an imperial overlord, it could morph into a mass movement for self-determination or even sovereign independence – which could in turn precipitate full-scale war, as Great Power armies intervened with overwhelming strength and firepower. Another cliché, still common on the left, is that Marx and Engels dismissed 1848 in France in class terms as a ‘bourgeois revolution’ whose inevitable failure at least lit the road towards a final proletarian conquest of power. Marx was dismissive, but not because middle-class politicians and intellectuals had given the revolution in France its political lift-off in February 1848. That much was obvious. And the liberal elite would never have succeeded in overthrowing the monarchy without the courage of thousands of artisans and wage-labourers at the barricades. What Marx saw was that the ‘unity of the revolution’ was a delusion: the liberals and republicans who had gained power would turn violently against the workers as soon as they tried to force radical demands for reform. The murderous civil war of the June Days in Paris ‘had shown that the myth of February … could only sustain itself by bracketing out the social demands that had helped to bring the revolution about’, Clark writes. ‘The potency of the myth did not ultimately rest upon the beauty of the idea at its heart, but upon the threat of naked violence. The triumph of liberty, property and order was the triumph of one force over another.’

A wider and equally shaky rear-view mirror opinion is that the revolutions were a failure. It certainly felt like one to their participants, as counter-revolution prevailed. Social and political reaction submerged their Europe under a flood of executions, imprisonments and exilings, while the new ‘liberal’ constitutions were replaced by neo-absolutism or populist dictatorship, with the return of the censor and the secret police. The Russian socialist exile Alexander Herzen, who witnessed the revolution and counter-revolution in Paris, was heartbroken. He recognised that 1848 had left Europe’s ancient order of blindly deferential monarchy in ruins. But what would replace it? In unforgettable words, Herzen described what frightened him: ‘that the departing world leaves behind it not an heir but a pregnant widow. Between the death of one and the birth of the other much water will flow by, a long night of chaos and desolation will pass.’

Herzen underestimated the sheer energy of his times. A few Soviet mystics claimed that he foresaw the birth of the Russian Revolution, nearly seventy years into the future. But even if he did, the widow’s long pregnancy – the second half of Europe’s 19th century – was anything but a ‘desolation’. France, under a tinpot emperor, dazzled the world with new technologies, with its literature, visual arts and style. Germany, united at last, invented the chemical industry and the internal combustion engine, and made advances in theoretical and applied biology. But Clark also shows that a new political generation, formed by the events of 1848, came to power in their aftermath. The terms liberal, conservative and socialist, once tentative, became hard and permanent, and began to define political parties. Liberals and some radicals learned to plan and work constructively under reactionary regimes. Socialism found its feet: ‘The highly diverse pre-1848 chorus of speculations on the meaning of a good life and the many paths to human flourishing made way for more inclusive and pragmatic platforms focused on amelioration and welfare.’

Clark’s account of the revolution’s prelude – that ‘highly diverse chorus’ and its context of Europe in the 1830s and 1840s – is the most fascinating part of his book. The trauma left by the French Revolution – the Terror and the Napoleonic conquests – was wearing off. In July 1830 Paris rose, expelling the Bourbon dynasty. Revolution became terrifyingly contagious: Belgium rebelled and won its independence; violent protest broke out in parts of Italy and Switzerland, and in November the Poles launched a huge but vain insurrection against the partitioning powers. A conservative Prussian historian, Karl Wilhelm von Lancizolle, wrote that ‘the bloody sun of the [Paris] July Days had reinvigorated and fertilised the filth of political chatter and writing.’

The better-off longed for constitutions and republics. The poor struggled to survive the impact of the early industrial revolution and of hunger brought on by crop failures (Ireland, in the famine years of the 1840s, suffered what the historian Joel Mokyr describes as ‘the greatest natural demographic disaster of modern European history’). The silk weavers of Lyon fought a series of bloody battles against the army, which began as resistance to wage cuts, but in 1834 culminated in political calls for a republic. Textile workers fought soldiers in Brno and Prague; a long and desperate struggle by Silesian linen and cotton weavers inspired German radicals and reformers. Here Clark provides the best account in English of a deeply ominous tragedy: the Galician massacres of 1846. The Polish landowning aristocracy – the ‘szlachta’ – considered themselves the natural leaders of the nation; they had launched and commanded the November Rising of 1830 against Russia and had suffered widespread martyrdom. Now a fresh conspiracy was planned against the Austrian occupiers. The Galician peasantry, the poorest in the Polish lands, were crushed by hunger, and it was assumed they would do as they were told. But when the Polish squires lined up their tenantry and invited them to join another glorious war for a free Poland, the peasants said no. The landlords and their feudal oppressions, they said, were worse than the Austrians. ‘We are not Poles,’ they told their masters. ‘We are imperial peasants.’ Then they turned on the szlachta with sharpened scythes and flails, chased them to their manor houses and began the massacre of thousands of landowners, their families and their stewards.

In Western Europe, it was an age of reports and inquiries into poverty and social structure. Clark quotes a survey of Nantes from 1836 which defined eight distinct social classes. In Berlin, Bettina von Arnim commissioned a close study of a slum; in Manchester, Friedrich Engels composed his Condition of the Working Class in England. With the studies came, mostly from Paris, brilliant and sometimes wildly eccentric gospels for future human communities. Saint-Simon, Fourier and Cabet inspired models of collective harmony. The emaciated revolutionary veteran Filippo Buonarotti founded clandestine conspiracy networks devoted to the proto-communist vision of ‘Gracchus’ Babeuf, guillotined in 1797. One of Buonarotti’s admirers in Germany was the young poet Georg Büchner: ‘Peace to the cottages! War on the palaces!’ he wrote in his pamphlet The Hessian Courier (1834). Clark has a special fascination with the rebel priest Félicité de Lamennais, whose astonishing Paroles d’un croyant (1833) ‘crashed through the safety barriers of official Catholicism’ into ‘dark premonitions of revolution: “I see the people rise in tumult; I see kings grow pale beneath their diadems.”’

All​ over Europe, the police made the mistake of assuming that the next revolutionary outbreak would be the work of a handful of trained conspirators. The explosion of almost spontaneous mass uprisings by ‘the people’ – the pattern of 1848 – took governments, liberal reformers and even Count Metternich, the supreme architect of Europe’s post-1815 order, by surprise. It began not in Paris but in Palermo. ‘Early in January 1848, printed notices appeared on walls across Palermo announcing that a revolution would take place on 12 January.’ Crowds of interested citizens turned up, and when there didn’t seem to be a revolution, they made one. Street fighting broke out. Soon it spread to Naples, forcing Ferdinand, the Bourbon king of the Two Sicilies, to grant a constitution. All Italy seethed. But did the news from Palermo somehow touch off the explosion in Paris that February? Clark doesn’t do domino theories. Instead, he writes of ‘a plurality of cumulative instabilities evolving … in many locations’. He has already described that ‘plurality’, so it’s easier to understand the sequence of events.

The banning of a protest banquet (large street banquets with speeches had become a political fashion in France) brought the Parisian masses onto the streets on 21 February. Barricades went up; looting and wrecking led to street fighting; the prime minister, François Guizot, resigned; three days later, ‘Louis Philippe, king of the French, abdicated and fled from Paris.’ A few days after that, a letter reached Habsburg Prague in the middle of a fancy-dress ball: ‘Paris has risen! … The Guizot ministry has fallen.’ And in a postscript: ‘No more Bourbons! A republican government has been formed.’ ‘I felt as if the hand of a demon had hoisted me up and turned me around in the air,’ the guest who opened the letter recalled. Prague rose days later. In Prussian Berlin, where King Friedrich Wilhelm IV was bullying a sullen Diet to raise taxes, the news from Paris broke on the last day of February. A student remembered going for a frosty walk to ‘slow down the beating of my heart which … felt as if it were about to blow a hole in my chest’. The streets filled with demonstrators; fighting began as the army moved in, and by 18 March that barricade near Friedrichstrasse now marked by the bronze plaque was all blood and gun smoke. Milan rose in its Five Days of rebellion against its Austrian occupiers. So did Budapest, also in the Habsburg Empire, with the young and soon to be martyred poet Sándor Petőfi standing before ecstatic crowds to recite his ‘National Song’: ‘Arise Magyar! Your country calls … Shall we be slaves? Shall we be free?’

The patriot leader Lajos Kossuth called for Hungarian devolution and democratic reform for the empire, an appeal that ignited revolution as soon as it reached the imperial capital of Vienna, already simmering with discontent. Workers attacked machinery and mobs looted; protesters broke into the parliament to demand Kossuth’s reforms, while armed students, known as the Academic Legion, took over the city. Metternich, old and deaf, fled to Rotterdam and then London: ‘Everybody says we must do something. Well, of course, but what?’ Emperor Ferdinand, ‘a clueless and incompetent ruler’ who like several other European monarchs somehow still kept the respect and affection of many subjects, retreated to Moravia. As early as March 1848, Europe was already sweeping into Clark’s ‘fission phase’, and nobody, certainly not Metternich, doubted that this was a pan-European event, affecting every life on the continent. As Clark says, it was the most ‘garrulous’ of revolutions, and those who spoke and acted in it showed a striking ‘intensity of historical awareness … 1789 had been a total surprise, whereas contemporaries of the mid-century revolutions read them against the template of the great original. And they did so in a world in which the concept of history had acquired tremendous semantic weight. For them, much more than for the men and women of 1789, history was happening in the present.’ That thought could lead to the reconstruction of mythical golden ages, but it could also imply that ‘the historical awareness made possible by the first revolution had accumulated, deepened and propagated itself more widely, saturating the events of 1848 with meaning.’

The contradiction between political and social revolution, obscured in the first delirious days of fraternity as strangers embraced one another and rejoiced as one ‘people’, soon broke the surface. In Paris, artisans and labourers demanded ‘the right to work’, and the first provisional government set up National Workshops to provide the unemployed with a job and a wage. But fear and distrust soon set the workers and their socialist leaders against the liberal republicans now precariously in office. On 15 May, an immense demonstration flowed across Paris. Originally called to support the Polish insurrection against Prussian rule in Posen (Poznań), the procession stormed the National Assembly and then, marching on to the Hôtel de Ville, chased out the government and installed its own ministers. They were promptly thrown out, but the moderate republicans – now terrified of ‘communism’ – soon struck back at the left, closing the National Workshops. There followed the tragedy of the June Days, a huge, leaderless and planless rebellion of working-class Paris which lasted four days and nights, and ended in the slaughter of thousands as the army fought its way through the barricades.

By now new parliaments were springing up everywhere. But in France, Prussia and Naples, the first ‘free’ elections under wider franchises returned moderates and liberals, and even veterans from the pre-revolution elites, rather than radicals. The left, once triumphant, grew divided and dismayed as ‘the social question’ receded from the agenda. Nothing was more significant, for that historical moment and for the terrible European future of the 20th century, than the hesitancies of the Frankfurt Parliament ‘convened to oversee a political union of the German states’. It was ‘the hesitancy of men who did not believe in their own power’, who couldn’t even agree on the parliament’s purpose. At first it was to build a ‘Grossdeutsch’ confederation including the ‘German’ lands of the Habsburg Empire and Bohemia, but the emperor would hear nothing of it and František Palacký, pilot of the nascent Czech national movement, refused to associate with ‘German’ Frankfurt. Rebuffed, the Frankfurt assembly proposed a ‘kleindeutsch’ North German state to be ruled by the king of Prussia, but he rejected ‘this invented crown of dirt and clay’.

Clark describes the ‘emotionally intense and contagious’ internationalist-nationalism of the first months, represented especially by militant Polish exiles with their slogan ‘For Our Freedom – and Yours’. But that unity rapidly dispersed into national movements, which demoralised the Frankfurt Parliament. In April 1848 Prussia invaded the Danish province of Schleswig, but was forced to withdraw in the face of international pressure. At Frankfurt, German nationalists frenziedly defended Prussia but then hastily changed their minds, only to be attacked as traitors by the city crowds. Prussian troops moved in with artillery; there was street fighting and lynchings. The left-wing deputy Robert Blum – a young man of high intelligence and courage, rightly one of Clark’s favourite characters – failed to get his own followers to back a resolution for restoring Polish independence. Instead, the deputy Wilhelm Jordan anticipated Nazi language as he demanded ‘healthy folk egoism’, defended ‘the right of the stronger’ and dismissed the Polish cause as ‘idiotic sentimentality’.

Blum retreated to Vienna. There, in contrast to Paris or Berlin, the revolution was escalating. An alliance of workers and students governed through a Committee of Safety. But the sprawling Habsburg Empire was still functioning in some provinces, manipulating the split now opening up between Magyar-dominated Hungary, in revolt to achieve its own independence, and the smaller nationalities (Slovak, Serb, Croatian, all of them minorities within the Kingdom of Hungary), which begged the empire to protect them against the threat of Magyar bullying. This was the start of a process in which the Hungarian campaign – soon a war – for freedom radicalised those smaller peoples into dreams of full sovereign independence, once they realised that the empire would rather seek a deal with Magyar nationalists than defend them. The Slovaks wanted an autonomy that would include Slovak becoming the official language in place of Magyar or German. Josip Jelačić, appointed as ‘ban’ (viceroy) of Croatia by Vienna, disobeyed orders and launched his own army against Budapest. Croatia’s Thirty Demands in March 1848 opened by declaring loyalty to the Habsburgs, but went on to require a free parliament in command of a Croatian army and other items of independence. Frantic Italian efforts to drive the Austrians out of Lombardy and move towards an independent and united Italy were humiliated when free Piedmont’s army invaded Lombardy and was routed in July by the Austrians at the Battle of Custoza.

Throughout, Clark marshals sharp-eyed witnesses. For the Lombardy campaign, to take one example, he consults the patriot Enrico Dandolo to convey

the courage and pathos of the volunteer brigades, marching through rain and mud poorly armed and grotesquely garbed in ‘coats of every cut and colour’, including discarded Austrian uniforms, peasant smocks and ‘velvet suits’ – the latter were fashionable in Milan at the time among patriots hoping to encourage native silk manufacturing but not at all well suited to marching through impassable terrain in wet weather. Dandolo remembers the extraordinary valour of the Polish Legionaries ‘grown grey in war’ under their commander, Colonel Kamieński.

Another example is his account of the strutting Baden revolutionary Friedrich Hecker, who modelled ‘a specific revolutionary style: riding boots into which loose trousers were tucked, a baggy blouse, a scarf (preferably red), the indispensable floppy broad-brimmed hat with a feather, worn at an angle with a tricolour cockade or sash and a large “manly” beard’. Hecker’s insurrection – his artillery consisted of two ancient cannon from the Thirty Years’ War – was easily smashed in a small battle that cost only ten lives. But he wrote a thrilling memoir about it, and remained a local hero until he emigrated to the United States, where he was badly wounded leading a Unionist regiment in the Civil War.

Blum was infuriated by Hecker’s theatrical violence. Raised working-class in the Rhineland, he became a radical leader in 1845 when he calmed furious citizenry in Leipzig after police had opened fire on a crowd, killing eight people. He had ‘rhetorical skill; a resounding voice that could be heard from a distance … the personal charisma of a “man of the people” whose short stocky figure inspired confidence’. Already a radical leader in the Frankfurt Parliament, he threw himself into the battle to defend Vienna. The city, in the hands of a worker-student coalition, had taken up arms again to block the departure of Austrian troops ordered to suppress the rebellion in Hungary. In response, Vienna was besieged by the army of the bloodthirsty Prince Windischgrätz, fresh from bombarding the Prague revolution into surrender (his wife had been killed by a Czech sniper). Clark describes the siege as a war reporter might: ‘The city walls … were dotted with little fires encircled by Academic Legionaries with their Calabrian hats. The rising of the sun brought a dawn chorus of women and boys calling the names of newspapers in the silent streets.’ But on 24 October 1848, Windischgrätz launched a full-force attack with massed artillery and a week later broke through into the inner city. Among those arrested was Blum, absurdly designated a rabble-rousing anarchist. Windischgrätz was prepared to respect his right of parliamentary immunity, but Prince Schwarzenberg, about to become the Austrian premier, insisted on making Blum an example. He was shot by firing squad on 9 November, leaving a touching farewell letter to his wife, Jenny, and a legend of courage and democratic patriotism still precious to the German left.

The counter-revolution was gathering speed. Royal troops had fought their way through Naples in May and Bourbon armies were restoring absolutism in Sicily. France, traumatised and purged after the catastrophe of the June Days, was moving towards elections that gave Louis-Napoléon a landslide victory as president of the Second Republic. In Prussia, the army expelled the assembly from Berlin, declaring martial law, and dissolved it for good in December. And – Clark resurrects this forgotten scandal in ugly detail – Britain carried out a brutal counter-revolution on the Ionian Islands, a British protectorate since 1815. Faced with protests against both local landowners and British rule, the high commissioner brought in troops to deal with what he called ‘the congregated ruffianism of the community’; 44 death sentences and hundreds of public floggings followed.

Britain itself was one of the ‘dogs that didn’t bark’ in 1848. The Chartist movement peaked in a huge rally on Kennington Common, on 10 April, but no revolution followed. The House of Commons jeered at the petition the Chartists presented to Parliament. Chartism’s political demands were as bold as those of insurgent Berlin or Paris. What held them back that day was, in the first place, the enormous police and volunteer force arrayed against them and, second, the effect of Robert Peel’s economic reforms. These ‘provided the kind of carefully dosed counter-revolutionary prophylaxis that was lacking in almost all of the continental states’.

As the year ended, there was a second wave of revolution, smaller but better organised. Rome led the way. The city had persuaded itself that Pope Pius IX was enthusiastic about Italian unity, but when a papal allocution seemed to accept the Austrian occupation of Lombardy and Veneto, opinion swung against him. One November night, the pope bolted from the Vatican in disguise and took sanctuary in Bourbon Naples. Rome, now passionately radical, declared a republic in February 1849. Its constitution abolished censorship and the death penalty, broke the clerical grip on education and justice in the Papal States and ended official discrimination against Jews. Revolutionary celebrities and sympathetic observers, such as the brilliant American journalist Margaret Fuller and the glamorous military commander Cristina di Belgioioso, rushed to Rome. Mazzini arrived, from his exile in London, and so did Garibaldi, ‘atop a white horse wearing a red jacket with a short tail and a small black felt hat, his chestnut hair falling in tousled tresses to his broad shoulders’. Insurgent Rome expected support from Paris, failing to grasp how far power in France had shifted to the right, so its leaders were appalled when a French expeditionary army tried to storm the city and reinstate the pope. Rome held out for more than two grim months of bombardment; the French who conquered the city would remain in control until 1870, when Rome was recaptured and unification finally arrived.

The second wave of revolution hit Germany hard. Networks of revolutionary clubs had sprung up all over Prussia and Saxony. A spontaneous uprising for ‘German unity’ at Iserlohn, in Westphalia, was put down by Prussian forces at the cost of a hundred lives. Dresden rose and took to the barricades when the king of Saxony abolished its parliament and rejected the new constitution; here, too, the army blasted its way to a bloody victory in six days. Baden was the last surge, in May 1849. The army mutinied, many joining a rebel force of some 45,000 men. The grand duke fled, and bitter fighting went on for two months, ending with the defeat of the revolutionaries, summary trials and busy Prussian firing squads. Hungary, under Kossuth’s leadership, carried on its full-scale war against Austria, declaring formal independence in April 1849. But the new Habsburg emperor, the young Franz Joseph, appealed to the tsar for help. An immense Russian-Austrian-Croat force of 375,000 men poured into Hungary, whose army finally surrendered at Világos on 13 August 1849.

The revolutions were over. A stream of refugees flowed to the Ottoman domains, to the United States, to Britain: Kossuth and Mazzini became ‘superstars’ of their respective emigrations. The extraordinary Poles, who had fought on every barricade in Europe, now carried their messianic creed of national liberation across the oceans. Józef Bem fought in the Polish uprising of 1830, in revolutionary Vienna in 1848 and as a legendary general with Kossuth and the Hungarians in 1849; he took refuge in the Ottoman Empire and died as Murad Pasha, governor of Aleppo. Ludwik Mierosławski took part in the 1830 uprising and in the abortive Galician insurrection of 1846; he was the commander of revolutionary forces in the Posen rising of 1848 and again in Palermo as Sicily resisted Bourbon reconquest; he was a leading rebel officer in the Baden war of 1849, returned to liberate Sicily with Garibaldi in 1860, and took part in the Polish rising of 1863 against Russia. ‘He was one of those transnational fighters for liberty,’ Clark writes, ‘who remind us of the persistence, despite the rise of inter-ethnic hatreds and chauvinism, of a cosmopolitan vision of the nation as an instrument of emancipation.’

Theemancipation of all oppressed groups (except women) was a dream for those who hoped for revolutionary change. But, as Clark writes, ‘the revolution did not deliver the linear transition into liberty that the word had come to promise.’ Slavery had been a popular metaphor for the condition of subjects under absolute monarchy long before news of the February Revolution in Paris released a cascade of slave rebellions and self-liberations across the French Caribbean. The French provisional government abolished slavery on 27 April 1848, but abolition was one thing, emancipation – an escape from plantation labour and its white masters – quite another. Ex-slave-owners in all the colonial empires delayed effective change for as long as they could. The last formal slaves in Europe, the forty thousand or so Roma ‘gypsy slaves’ who were still the private property of individuals, were liberated in July 1848 when the revolution reached Moldavia and Wallachia (in what would become Romania). Europe’s Jews were often targeted by pogrom mobs as order broke down in revolutionary cities, but the new reforming governments, especially in Italy, set about lifting restrictions on their civil and religious rights. Ominous for the future, as Clark points out, was the speed with which the counter-revolution was able to reverse these concessions, with Rome, for example, compelling a return to the ghetto.

Women got absolutely nothing out of 1848. ‘It is difficult to decide what is more striking – the tireless advocacy of the women activists or the immovability of the patriarchal structure they were challenging,’ Clark writes. ‘Women were not enfranchised anywhere in Europe in 1848.’ And yet they fought and died, gun in hand, on the barricades of Paris, Berlin and Milan. In the Frankfurt Parliament, ‘the discussion of votes for women elicited guffaws and hoots from the deputies … and was dismissed out of hand.’ This was to be branded a firmly male revolution, with women celebrated only for waving ribbons from windows at the marching men below. Some of the shrewdest and most detailed witness accounts of 1848 came from female observers – Marie d’Agoult and Margaret Fuller among them – and with their help, Clark’s coverage of women’s history in this period is the most sustained and exciting investigation in his book. He begins with the flame-throwing eloquence of Claire Démar in Paris in 1833: ‘There still exists a monstrous power,’ she announced, ‘a species of divine law … the power of the father.’ Everything about marriage was unequal, she said, and marital love was little more than ‘a two-fold egoism’. ‘The liberation of the proletarians, of the poorest and most numerous class, is only possible through the liberation of our sex.’ Démar and other early French feminists such as Suzanne Voilquin and Jeanne Deroin had disillusioning contact with the utopian sects of the day, usually patriarchal and too often mistaking sexual liberation for submission to the lust of some bearded guru. The journalist Eugénie Niboyet asked why the stupidest man could vote when the most intelligent woman could not; why, indeed, should women pay taxes that they had not taken part in legislating? Everywhere, from France to insurgent Hungary, women came forward to act in the revolution and were met with degrees of male mockery. The ridicule (‘mannish blue-stockings and divorceuses’) ‘infiltrated the awareness of so many women, even the most politically active ones, who struggled to reconcile their activities with “inherited notions of womanliness”’.

The revolutions of 1848 were ‘the fruit of an era of spectacular intellectual biodiversity’. But they were unplanned; there was no ‘grand design or central nervous system’ connecting them, and as Clark insists, it was the revolution that made revolutionaries, not the other way round. Those who first challenged established authority in the streets – the people – gained little: ‘The post-revolutionary synthesis … was founded on the continuing political exclusion of the popular classes whose courage and violence had made the revolutions possible and on the marginalisation of the democratic politics that spoke in their name.’ In the decades after 1848, its fluid ‘biodiversity’ gave way to a time of hardening. Tightly disciplined parties emerged; socialist revolution became a programme for huge political movements like the Social Democrats in Germany. The ‘social question’ became a matter for administration rather than mass protest; censorship was gentrified into the pseudoscience of public relations. Nationalism, above all, solidified. Primordialist national ideology had largely relied on real or invented history and culture: ‘Our ancestors, who lived and died free, cannot find peace in a slave land,’ Petőfi wrote. After the experiences of 1848, nationalisms turned to proclaiming the necessity of independent nation-states. A contrast – already visible at Frankfurt – began to emerge between an inclusive and emancipatory nationalism and the essentially ethnic and racist variant – ‘folk egoism’ – preached by some German deputies.

Clark catches some of those blinding moments of revolutionary ecstasy when impenetrable barriers turn out to be cardboard stage sets, when all humanity is revealed as brothers and sisters, when faces on the street are transfigured. ‘How briskly people walked about,’ one German wrote of those first hours, ‘necks straight, glances radiant and how loudly they laughed!’ But Clark draws little comfort as he looks about Britain now and sees a similar ‘polycrisis’ of failures, anxieties, churn and change. ‘If a revolution is coming … it may look something like 1848: poorly planned, dispersed, patchy and bristling with contradictions. Historians are supposed to resist the temptation to see themselves in the people of the past, but as I wrote this book, I was struck by the feeling that the people of 1848 could see themselves in us.’

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Vol. 45 No. 13 · 29 June 2023

Neal Ascherson notes Józef Bem’s contributions to freedom fighting in Poland and Hungary (LRB, 1 June). The Polish poet Cyprian Norwid (1821-83) wrote an elegy in his memory. The opening stanza, in my translation, has Bem’s body in armour carried on a horse to his grave, according to Roman practice.

Why ride away, Shadow, hands broken on the mail,
Torch sparks playing about your knees? –
Green with laurels, the sword spattered with candle tears,
The falcon strains, your horse stamps its foot like a dancer.
– Banners in the wind blow and lash against each other
Like moving tents of nomad armies in the sky.
Long trumpets shudder in sobbing and pennants
Bow their wings which droop from above
Like spear-pierced dragons, lizards and birds …
Like the many ideas you sought with your spear …

Poles couldn’t support the Hungarians publicly. So the poem appeared on the front page of the leading communist weekly Nowa Kultura. The message was clear to its readers, but evidently not to the censors.

Adam Czerniawski

Vol. 45 No. 14 · 13 July 2023

Neal Ascherson writes that the ‘last formal slaves in Europe, the forty thousand or so Roma “gypsy slaves” who were still the private property of individuals, were liberated in July 1848 when the revolution reached Moldavia and Wallachia’ (LRB, 1 June). But it was only in Wallachia that a revolutionary government took power and attempted to emancipate enslaved Roma. There were considerable difficulties. Each liberated Roma had to appear before a commission to receive a billet of freedom, and former slaveowners had to present themselves to the same panel to collect financial compensation for their loss of ‘property’. With only one three-man commission operating from Bucharest (a second was later established in Craiova), implementation was slow, and officials were uncertain about when the Roma became formally ‘free’: was it with the Islaz Proclamation, which announced their manumission; was it when they received their billet of freedom; or was it when their former owner received compensation?

State employees expressed anxieties about the effects of emancipation, fearing that liberated Roma would ‘wander’ across the principality and destabilise the social order, while many slaveowners attempted to undermine the process, filing police complaints accusing the liberated Roma of theft. When police investigated these accusations, they found that the supposedly stolen items consisted of the clothes on the Roma’s backs and other personal effects.

The revolutionary attempt at emancipation proved temporary. Roma slavery was reintroduced after the joint Ottoman-Russian occupation of the principality at the end of September 1848, and it was only in February 1856 that Wallachia finally abolished slavery, a few months after Moldavia in December 1855. In both principalities, as in the British Empire after 1837, former slaveowners, not the enslaved, received financial compensation.

James Morris
University College London

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